This was another bad day for Tx-DOT. A meeting between agency officials, including Highway Commission chairman Ric Williamson and new commissioner Ned Holmes, and the sponsors of legislation to help protect local toll authorities from Tx-DOT predation did not go well and ended–how shall I put it?–abruptly. The bill(s), HB 1744 by Wayne Smith and SB 792 by Tommy Williams, neither of which have had a hearing in either house, would require Tx-DOT, before contracting for a toll road in the territory of a local toll authority, to obtain the consent of the commissioners court and of the governing body of the toll authority. (Fat chance.) The meeting was particularly timely because Tx-DOT recently bullied the North Texas Tollway Authority into turning over control and revenue of the lucrative Texas 121 project to the agency, which plans to privatize the route. The bill also requires Tx-DOT to assist local toll authorities by facilitating access to the state highway system and by allowing the use of state-0wned right of way. Finally, any revenue sharing agreement between Tx-DOT and the toll authority would limit Tx-DOT’s share to 15% of toll revenue.
Williamson’s reaction to the bill was quoted to me by a participant (several county commissioners as well as Tx-DOT and legislative staffers were in attendance) as, “Maybe what we need to do is pull out of Harris County altogether so that Tx-DOT can refocus its resources elsewhere, where they’re needed.” Williams responded, “Maybe we’ll just wind up in special session” and used the Z-word: “Zero.” As in funding. At that point, he stood up and left the room. Williams says it just happened to be time for him to go to the Senate floor. Williamson followed and was heard to say, “I didn’t mean we’d take the money out.” A Tx-DOT staffer told a Williams staffer, in what seemed to be a menacing tone, “We know why you filed this bill.”
Is Williams just posturing, trying to send a message to Tx-DOT to come to the bargaining table? Posturing comes as naturally to senators as breathing, but in this case, if Williams is posturing, it’s with a purpose. That purpose is to bring Tx-DOT under legislative control. Steve Ogden, the chairman of Finance, and John Carona, the chairman of Transportation have the same purpose. The governor, Williamson, and Tx-DOT don’t seem to realize just how serious the Senate is. Earlier in the session, Steve Ogden said in my presence that he is considering zeroing Tx-DOT out. Williams makes two. John Carona, the chairman of Transportation, would do it in a heartbeat. As is often the case in politics, the problem is as much personalities as substance, and the personality is Williamson. He has become a liability to his own baby, the Trans-Texas Corridor project, and the time has probably come for him to step aside and let Perry appoint
Holmes, who is, as the saying went in blessed days of yore, “a uniter, not a divider.”
Here is the text of the significant language from the bill. This excerpt is from the House version. The Senate version is different and deals more with right-of-way issues.
TOLL PROJECTS IN TERRITORY OF LOCAL OR
REGIONAL TOLL AUTHORITY.
(a) Before the department may enter into a
contract for the construction or operation of a toll project any
part of which is located in the territory of a local or regional
toll authority, the department must obtain the consent of:
(1) the commissioners court of each county in which
the toll project or proposed toll project is located; and
(2) the governing body of each local or regional toll
authority in which the toll project or proposed toll project is
(b) A local or regional toll authority is the entity
primarily responsible for the construction and operation of a toll
project in the territory of the authority. To the extent authorized
or required by this title, the department shall assist a local or
regional toll authority in constructing and operating toll projects
in the territory of the authority, including by allowing
connections with the state highway system and access to state
right-of-way. This subsection does not limit the department’s
authority to participate in the cost of acquisition, construction,
maintenance, or operation of a toll project of a local or regional
toll authority under Section 222.103.
(c) A toll revenue sharing agreement between the department
and a local or regional toll authority in connection with a toll
project constructed or operated by the authority that is on or
directly connected to the state highway system may not require the
authority to pay the department more than 15 percent of the net toll
revenue from the toll project.