5/30/2008Texas Backs Off From Toll Road Agenda
Texas Transportation Commission appears to bow to public pressure by restricting its toll road effort.
Responding to an increasing number of protests and other displays of public opposition, the Texas Transportation Commission agreed to scale back the most unpopular elements of its toll road agenda. The commission yesterday adopted a "minute order" setting forth guidelines governing all future tolling contracts. The commission may modify the order at any time.
"The Texas Transportation Commission, in recognition of public comments expressing concerns with he proposed development of toll projects and the Trans-Texas Corridor, desires to place special emphasis on the process and procedures to be used by the Texas Department of Transportation in the development, construction, and operation of such projects," the order stated. "In the development, construction and operation of these projects, state transportation planners will follow these guiding principles."
According to the order, all state highways will remain "completely owned" by the state of Texas. These roads could still be leased, as in Illinois where a Spanish-Australian consortium leased the Chicago Skyway for 99 years. For such deals in Texas, the state will reserve the right to pay the private developer a large sum of money to buy back full control of the road. Private companies will only be allowed to set toll rates based upon a methodology approved in a public transportation commission meeting.
Most significantly, the commission admitted defeat in its attempts to toll existing highways and otherwise reduce capacity on existing road networks. TheNewspaper was first to report last October that the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) signed a contract that created a situation where the agency had a financial interest in lowering the speed limit on Interstate 35 to boost traffic on the State Highway 130 toll road (view contract excerpt). Conversely, the agency would have to pay "compensation" if it added capacity or otherwise acted to reduce congestion on any surrounding roads.
"No contract entered into by the department will include any limitations or prohibitions on improvements needed to existing or future highways," yesterday's order stated. "The department or another governmental entity may construct, reconstruct, expand, rehabilitate, or maintain any highway or other transportation project, regardless of any nearby or adjacent toll project or TTC project."
Finally, the agency promised to address the concerns of farmers who did not want their land cut in half by the Trans Texas Corridor by relying on existing right-of-way and designing the road to minimize harm to property owners.
"These principles will help guide TxDOT as we work to improve our state's traffic congestion and air quality problems," commission Chairman Deirdre Delisi said in a statement. "The Texas legislature shares our commitment to improving highway safety and creating economic opportunity, and they expect us to meet these goals in keeping with our state's tradition of protecting the rights of property owners."
One of the most vocal toll road opposition groups, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), insisted the reforms did not amount to a significant change in policy and were primarily intended to help newly appointed Delisi with her upcoming Senate confirmation battle.
"Don't believe the hype," TURF founder Terri Hall said. "It's all posturing... Until the legislature takes the power of decision-making of this type away from an unelected, unaccountable agency run amok and gives it back to the people and their representatives, this whole exercise is a non-starter."
Hall points out that there is no clear prohibition for using non-competes as part of bond agreements because the minute order only covers certain forms of contract. Also, because the order can be changed to suit any upcoming deal, it "lacks teeth."