News Release from Senator Robert Nichols

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 2, 2009
Contact: Alicia Pierce
(512) 463-0103

Nichols files bill to help protect Texans from risks of private toll roads

Austin — Today, state Senator Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) filed Senate Bill 17 to reform the way private toll road contracts are issued.

"Last session the Legislature realized there was an urgent need to fix the way private toll road projects were built, and we imposed a two year moratorium on them to create a better system," said Nichols. "This bill reflects the efforts of stakeholders who worked together to create a process to build new roads and protect the taxpayer."

The bill gives local tolling authorities and the Texas Department of Transportation the option to develop the toll project before a private company can. SB 17 prevents private companies from selecting only the best and most profitable projects and leaving the rest for public entities.

"It is important to establish a process for building new roads, but private financing for transportation projects should only be used as a last resort," said Nichols. "State and local entities will build and operate a road in the public's interest, not the shareholder's."

The bill also addresses concerns about private equity contracts, including setting a purchase price if the state ever needs to terminate the contract early and buy the project back from the private investor. Currently, private equity contracts call for the state to pay "fair market value" but do not specify how this value is determined. This could put the state on the hook for billions of dollars and a long legal fight.

Nichols' bill requires private companies to include a competitively priced pay schedule in their initial proposal specifying what the state would have the option to pay if it ended the contract early.

"Most people don't sign a cell phone contract without asking themselves what it would cost to end it early. It is just as important for the state to carefully consider its long-term contracts," said Nichols.

The bill also reigns in non-compete clauses, which require the state to compensate the private company for lost toll revenue if a competing public or private road is built nearby. Under Nichols' bill, the state could expand any interstate or build any pre-planned project without penalty. SB 17 also limits the non-compete clause to last no longer than 30 years after a road is completed, unlike the usual term of 50 years.

"Toll roads should ease congestion for drivers, not provide a disincentive to build more roads," said Nichols.

Last session Nichols, a former Texas transportation commissioner, authored a two-year moratorium on private toll roads. During the last two years, he worked with fellow legislators, the Texas Department of Transportation, regional tolling authorities and other stake holders to develop this legislation.

Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas), the chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security is a joint author of SB 17. Other joint authors include: Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flowermound), Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano).

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