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TURF releases Report Card for 82nd Legislative Session

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Rick Perry, Dewhurst, Straus get failing grade, Phillips gets dishonorable mention

(Monday, Sept.12, 2011) Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom released its Report Card for the 82nd Session of the Texas Legislature today. The Report Card reflects what TURF Founder and Director, Terri Hall calls “the worst legislative session since the dawn of the Trans Texas Corridor and Rick Perry’s version of toll roads in 2003.”

According to TURF, the 82nd regular session contained some of the most anti-taxpayer transportation and infrastructure-related bills ever conceived, including SB 1048 which spreads public private partnerships to every kind of public infrastructure beyond roads and SB 19 which grants toll entities that exercise their development rights, ownership of our state and federal highways in perpetuity (which gives them the ability to keep tolls in place in perpetuity). 

The passage of SB 1048 and SB 1420 means eminent domain for private gain will continue. SB 18, that lawmakers call a property rights bill, specifically allows eminent domain for private gain, for economic development, and for blight, despite the opposition of a coalition of property rights groups, as long as the project is in the name of a listed “public use,” like a road. TURF contends the bad far outweighs the good from bills like the repeal of the Trans Texas Corridor, HB 1201, by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst.

All the bills used in the Report Card became law (listed in detail under “Methodology” on the Report Card). Larry Phillips gets a special dishonorable mention for authoring the bill, HB 3789, that would have resurrected the Trans Texas Corridor without limitations, public protections, or expiration (Phillips pulled it down thanks to the grassroots backlash). He also authored some of the most damaging, anti-taxpayer, pro-industry, pro-big government bills and amendments of the session.

Phillips led the charge to tack on the amendment that makes fourteen Texas roads eligible for public private partnerships (PPPs) that sell- off Texas sovereign land/public roads to private, even foreign, entities in 50 year monopolies. PPPs use taxpayer subsidies including gas taxes, contain non-compete clauses that penalize or prohibit the expansion of surrounding free routes, and put the power to tax in the hands of private corporations, that have resulted in toll rates as high as 75 cents per mile (like adding $15 to every gallon of gas you buy). 

SB 1048, written by a British firm, Balfour Beatty, will also allow all public buildings, nursing homes, hospitals, schools, ports, mass transit projects, ports, telecommunications, etc. to be sold-off to corporations in deals without a time limit (could be 100 years or more), where the entity can charge “user fees” to gain access to public facilities or charge “lease payments” as a means of compensation, where the taxpayers secure the private entity’s debt, where the entity gets access to loans of taxpayer money through the State Infrastructure Bank, and where the private company gets to profit off the land taken through eminent domain that surrounds the public facility in a virtual government-sanctioned monopoly over critical public infrastructure.

Tolling existing freeways legal or not?

“Texans deserve protection from the DOUBLE TAXATION of converting freeways into tollways. Perry is dead wrong to imply Texans are protected in state law. They’re not, and the legislature once again failed to act,” Hall emphasized. “Add to that, fourteen Texas road projects are currently eligible to be become foreign-owned toll roads through the public private partnership amendment added to the TxDOT sunset bill, SB 1420 (Amendment #90 by Phillips & Perry signed the bill). When toll rates for such projects are as high as 75 cents PER MILE, Perry’s claim that he’s against selling America to foreign creditors and that he’s kept taxes low is a FARCE!”

Questions still loom about whether or not it is legal to convert free highway lanes into toll lanes in the state of Texas, despite Governor Rick Perry’s claim that it is illegal during the January 29, 2010 Republican gubernatorial debate. 

Hall notes, “Not only are they planning to toll existing lanes, they're misleading the public about what they’re doing. The feds are not only aware of the plans to toll existing highway lanes on US 281 in San Antonio in particular, they had already granted clearance until we sued to stop them.” 

Perry's insists that the Texas legislature passed a bill in 2005 prohibiting the conversion of free lanes to toll lanes. However, the bill, HB 2702, tells precisely how TxDOT can LEGALLY convert existing highway lanes into toll lanes through 6 exceptions, one that TxDOT claims allows a conversion of free lanes by simply downgrading the free lanes to access roads adjacent to the tollway. 

Though the language doesn’t specifically use the term “access roads” to refer to the relocating of free lanes adjacent to the tollway, TxDOT has consistently interpreted the law to mean it has the authority to downgrade freeway lanes to access roads without triggering a public vote based on HB 2702. See the two-part discussion of this law before the Sunset Commission in 2008 here and here. Part-two shows former TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz stating TxDOT’s interpretation of HB 2702 allows highway lanes to be downgraded to access roads.

The bill also contains a gaping grandfather clause that exempts virtually all the toll projects currently on the table (because they were designated as toll roads in MPO plans prior to September of 2005), so no public vote would be triggered for the dozens of grandfathered toll projects.

“Perry's elitist ‘you can eat cake’ attitude is this: if you can't afford the toll lanes, you can sit in congestion on the stop-light ridden access roads. He thinks replacing free highway lanes with access roads is acceptable and his highway department is doing it all over Texas,” says Hall.

The citizens’ fight to stop the conversion of existing FREEway lanes into toll lanes on US 281 and Loop 1604 in San Antonio and 290 West in Austin, has languished precisely because of the loopholes in HB 2702.

TURF worked in the last session to fix these loopholes. Sen. Robert Nichols has introduced a bill to eliminate some of those loopholes every session during his tenure in office. TURF wants all of the loopholes nixed and believes Nichols’ version adds a new one. Nichols’ bill, SB 730, passed the Senate and Rep. George Lavender carried it in the House, but the bill didn’t make it out of Calendars Committee. It was clear in the House Transportation Committee that members felt frontage roads were NOT an acceptable replacement for highway lanes.

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Nelson Propane

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