DALLAS - A bill to authorize a $2 billion bond issue for the Texas Department of Transportation is already in the hopper, awaiting debate at today's special session of the Legislature. But the contentious issue of toll roads could extend the session beyond Gov. Rick Perry's goal of three days, lawmakers say.
In calling the session to handle unfinished business last week, Perry listed three items for consideration: reauthorizing TxDOT and four other agencies under the state Sunset Law; approving the $2 billion of Proposition 12 transportation bonds already approved by voters; and reinstating the authority of TxDOT and regional toll agencies to approve private concession agreements on toll projects.
Private toll roads nearly stymied transportation legislation in the 2007 regular session and fell by the wayside completely in this year's regular session.
A more than 300-page transportation bill carried by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, failed to win final approval. That measure included the TxDOT reauthorization and a local-option sales tax that was stripped from the final bill.
Carona, who has long advocated raising fuel taxes to fund transportation in the state, was the chief sponsor of the local option tax for local governments in the Dallas area.
The tax was seen as a way to fund regional rail and highway projects without tackling the politically charged state-fuel tax that has not been raised since 1991.
As chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, Carona is widely regarded as the key lawmaker on transportation issues. His SB 792 redefined how Texas allocates toll projects in 2007 and included a two-year moratorium on private toll roads, excluding those already underway.
Carona last week authored and submitted SB 1 for the special session authorizing the TxDOT bonds. That bill is expected to pass easily.
Along with other transportation measures, the bond authority got stuck in traffic in the regular session as Democrats used parliamentary maneuvers to slow voting on routine matters in order to prevent passage of a Republican voter-identification law.
In the special session, conflict could arise over two related provisions on toll projects that were contained in the regular session's transportation bill.
One bill by Carona would have extended legal authority for private toll road concessions beyond the Sept. 1 expiration date. A separate bill by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would have imposed limits on those contracts.
Nichols' SB 17 addressed so-called "noncompete" clauses in private toll concessions that typically run for 50 years. Noncompete clauses limit a government's ability to build a free road that would compete with the private toll road.
SB 17 would have limited the noncompete area to four miles on either side of a private tollway.
The question facing lawmakers today is whether the restrictions of SB 17 go beyond Perry's call in the special session and would face a veto. Without the restrictions, Carona's bill is likely to face stiff opposition, Nichols indicated. That could prolong the session.
Perry, who said he expects the session to wrap up before the Saturday July 4th holiday on Saturday, has not commented on the issue.