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April 6, 2009 (512) 463-0300

SENATE PASSES BILLS TO CLARIFY TOLL PROJECT AUTHORITY

Sen. Nichols
Sen. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville answers reporters' questions about his bill to clarify the process used to build toll projects in Texas.

(AUSTIN) — The Senate approved two measures Monday aimed at codifying the way the state funds and develops toll roads. When comprehensive development agreements (CDA) were approved by the Legislature in 2003, the law was unclear about who had authority to enter into a public-private partnership to build and manage a toll road. Many different regional mobility and toll authorities sprung up around the state, some with overlapping jurisdictions and authorities. According to Jacksonville Senator Robert Nichols, it was only a matter of time until this led to serious confusion and disagreements. "Truly there have been so many types of toll entities put together over a relatively short period of time…how they interact with each other, who has first right, what terms should be in [agreements], none of that has ever been established," he said. "Eventually those entities were going to collide."

Nichols said this led to a moratorium on public-private partnership toll projects for two years. His bill, SB 17, intends to make a fair, clear process to govern the CDA process in Texas.

SB 17 would give a regional toll authority first right of refusal to decide whether or not to develop a toll road as a public project. If the regional authority passes, then the Texas Department of Transportation could decide whether to develop the road as a public project. If neither body opts for the public route, then the regional toll authority gets first right to decide whether to develop the road as a private project. If they pass, then again TxDOT can decide to develop the road as a private project.

The bill also includes safeguards to ensure the public's right of ownership over the project. A private entity developing a toll road must determine what the buy-back rate of the project up front; they cannot wait until the state or governmental entity wants to buy it back and then set the rate. It also restricts non-compete clauses, which could prevent the state from building roads near the private toll project, to 30 years and the non-compete zone only extends four miles from the toll road.

Sen. Carona, Sen. Nichols
Sen. John Carona of Dallas won passage for his bill to extend the use of public-private partnerships as one way to build toll roads.

The Senate also approved a bill that would extend the ability of entities to enter into a CDA. The original enabling legislation set a sunset date on new public-private partnerships to September of 2009. SB 404, by Dallas Senator John Carona, would extend this deadline six more years, until September 1, 2015.

Restaurants in Texas would have to turn to healthier cooking fats and oils under a bill filed by El Paso Senator Eliot Shapleigh. Trans-fats are artificially produced fats that are believed to increase the risk of heart disease even at low levels of consumption. With obesity-related health care costs continuing to mount, Shapleigh said the state needs to do something about this public health issue. "Across Texas, a silent epidemic of obesity is shortening lives, raising health care costs and putting more and more Texans at risk," he said. "With Senate Bill 204…we can make sure that more Texans live strong and healthy lives."

His bill would prohibit restaurants and other food service businesses from using trans-fats to package, store, prepare or serve food. Violators would be subject to a $25 to $200 fine. Shapleigh said that because 15 cities and California have passed similar laws, a market for healthy alternatives to trans-fats already exists. He also doesn't buy the arguments that this is an issue of personal responsibility. " I think we heard, word for word, those same arguments for smoking, about 25 years ago, when you got on an airplane," he said. "What this will do is push healthier choices in restaurants, and make sure that those choices are available in Texas." Shapleigh was joined at the press conference by Glen Garey, the general council for the Texas Restaurant Association, which supports the bill.

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, April 7 at 11 a.m.

Session video and all other webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's audio and video archive pages.

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