Friday, August 24, 2001

Propositions 2 and 15 are "big deals."

These constitutional amendments are big deals

August 24, 2001

Mike Norman, Staff Writer
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Copyright 2001

Rick Perry is a passionate advocate for at least two of the 19 proposed constitutional amendments facing Texas voters in a Nov. 6 election.

It's good that the governor can get worked up about this type of thing. Generally, Texans don't pay much attention to constitutional amendments, which show up every couple of years, right after the Legislature meets.

Last week, Perry was pushing hard for Proposition 2, which would allow issuance of up to $175 million in state general obligation bonds to build roads in the dirt-poor colonias along the Texas-Mexico border, and Proposition 15 , which for the first time would change Texas' "pay-as-you-go" policy for highway construction.

The governor attended the Texas Transportation Summit in Irving, an annual group hug and strategy session for officials from across the state. It was not a tough audience for Perry's message.

The pitch was simple: Get your supporters organized, and get them to the polls to pass these two amendments.

That'll work, especially if people who might oppose them don't bother to show up.

Two years ago, 8.38 percent of the state's registered voters cast ballots in a mundane constitutional amendment election. The turnout was 10.6 percent in 1997, and voters granted themselves the ability to take out home equity loans. The past decade's greatest amendment awareness came in 1991, when 26.25 percent went to the polls and overwhelmingly approved a state lottery.

Propositions 2 and 15 are big deals.

The former is a heart-grabbing attempt to help people whose living conditions are probably the worst in the state. The latter is a tough-as-nails, long-planned effort by transportation advocates to (in Perry's words) "change culturally the way we build infrastructure in the state of Texas."

Perry says that Proposition 2 and the living conditions in the colonias are important for all Texans, not just those who live along the border. A report issued last week by the House Research Organization, an arm of the Texas House of Representatives, said that since the 1950s, more than 1,400 colonias housing more than 400,000 people have been built along the border from Brownsville to El Paso.

State agencies have spent more than $500 million in federal and state tax money during the past 12 years to address water, sewer, utility and other problems in the colonias, but many are served only by dirt roads and are not accessible by school buses. Proposition 2 would authorize enough bond money to build about 2,000 miles of roads - "a start" in meeting the colonias' needs, advocates say.

Proposition 15 has two parts. Besides creating a pool of state dollars - the Texas Mobility Fund - to finance long-term bonds for highways and other transportation projects, it would also allow the state to contribute money toward the construction of local toll roads. Currently, when Texas puts money in toll projects, it has to be paid back; not so if the amendment passes.

But the sea change of Proposition 15 is the idea of paying for transportation projects over time. As things are now, Texas doesn't break ground on a highway project until there is money in the bank to pay for it.

Perry and other Proposition 15 proponents point out that the current system means that less than 40 percent of the needed projects get built. Bond financing would bring more projects on line faster.

If voters agree to create the Texas Mobility Fund, legislators would still have to find the money for it. The dollars couldn't come from sources that are already dedicated to highway construction - motor vehicle registration fees and taxes on motor fuels and lubricants.

Texas Transportation Commissioner Robert Nichols has his eyes on driver license fees, about $100 million a year currently collected by the Department of Public Safety. He says that money could finance $1 billion in bonds for highways.

Each of the other 17 proposed amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot, from providing tax exemptions for raw cocoa and green coffee at the Houston port to allowing cities to donate used firefighting equipment to foreign countries, has its own constituency. Propositions 2and 15 are probably the highlights.

Mike Norman is the Star-Telegram/Northeast editorial director. (817) 685-3870

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Sunday, August 19, 2001

Fourth Texas Transportation Summit is Held

Spending money to get money

Consultant helps city get road funds

August 19, 2001
Lee Powell Staff Writer
The Dallas Morning News Copyright 2001

They came from Arlington, Houston and Temple to hear about megaports, HOV lanes and intelligent transportation systems.

Members of Congress, hordes of state legislators and mayors all were there. The governor and the secretary of transportation made an appearance.

What brought all these folks together to talk about transportation ? And in Irving, no less?

On the surface, credit goes to last week's Texas Transportation Summit, now in its fourth year. But the three-day event represents perhaps the most public part of an intense campaign the city of Irving is waging for its share of transportation dollars.

It's a campaign that has involved lobbyists, thick reports and multiple trips to Austin and Washington, D.C., all at a cost to Irving taxpayers nearing $2 million. City officials and some Irving City Council members say the expense - nearly all generated by consultant David Dean's now $30,000-a-month fee - will be recouped many times over when $4 billion in projects get done and get done quicker.

"I believe David Dean earns every penny we pay him," said council member Linda Harper-Brown. "I believe his value is immeasurable. While we pay him a substantial amount of money, he has brought back to the city of Irving more money than we would have ever gained without his assistance."

Said City Manager Steve McCullough: "They have opened a lot of doors for us that we would not have thought to open or not been able to open."

Mayor Joe Putnam isn't so sure.

"I'm not sure what all is being done with that money," he said. "There are a lot of trips, meetings and a lot of events. I have not observed any real productive work."

Mr. Dean, a former Texas secretary of state who now heads up Dean International Inc., a Dallas-based public policy outfit, said Irving wouldn't be where it is in the transportation realm without his help.

When he started working for the city in early 1998, three studies of roadways and transportation corridors were under way to determine the city's eligibility for federal funds.

"That's impressive and unheard of," he said. "[The city] didn't have the staff or focus at the time to properly manage those three projects alone. All of a sudden here were three things that happened and they happened at the same time. But we have a high degree of expertise in the administrative and regulatory process."

Since the three major investment studies - looking at Airport Freeway, State Highway 114 and Loop 12 - Mr. Dean's scope has widened to include a host of initiatives, including State Highway 161, working with a residents advisory council and organizing the transportation summit.

Profitable contract

By the time the city's contract with Dean International expires in September, Irving will have paid the group $1.56 million for its services the last three years.

Close to $90,000 more has been paid so far to cover expenses ranging from airline tickets to copies and ribbon cuttings - including $978.30 for dignitary gifts at one event, according to invoices submitted to the city.

The City Council reduced Mr. Dean's latest contract by $120,000 but voted to give him a percentage of the revenue generated by the transportation summit.

The city did shell out $224,053 to the Omni Mandalay Hotel in Las Colinas for food and conference services and lent the help of staff members.

More than 500 people attended the summit, which was actually the brainchild of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, whose district includes much of Irving.

Still, Mr. Putnam said he's in favor of revamping how the city tackles its mobility needs, starting with fewer meetings and summits.

"We need to identify specific goals and targets instead of a shot-gun approach to transportation issues and instead of meetings and things like transportation summits that do little more than stroke egos but provide little return to the city of Irving," he said.

Recognition for city

Mr. McCullough, the city manager, said the summit brings recognition to Irving and gives city officials a chance to interact with those from state and federal agencies.

It was at the summit several years ago that Irving officials first learned about a program streamlining the approval process for projects. The project to rebuild Loop 12 was later earmarked for this designation, joining only 10 such projects around the country.

"These are things that impact people's daily lives in Irving and economic development and future development," he said. " Transportation is a key piece of Irving's future. We're blessed and we're cursed with the freeways we have. Access is good but it needs to be better."

Mr. Dean estimates the price tag for all the transportation -related projects planned for Irving to be about $4 billion.

He said Irving's focus on improving ways for the 1 million motorists passing daily through the city to get from here to there and drawing other cities into its plans is right.

"Their strategy has kind of been enlightened self-interest," Mr. Dean said. "They're in a better position to help themselves by helping others in the region solve our collective transportation needs."

Helping the region

North Richland Hills Mayor Charles Scoma said Irving's willingness to take the lead on transportation planning by providing financial resources has helped the region.

"The fact they've been willing to take on the vision of it with the rest of us and take on the financial responsibility to get it moving should be something they're commended for," he said.

Ms. Harper-Brown, who also co-chairs TEX-21, a statewide transportation advocacy group, said Mr. Dean and his group have produced results.

She points to the fast-tracking of Loop 12, the coming DART light-rail line through Las Colinas and potential federal funding to bring commuter rail up the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad corridor as examples.

"There aren't many other consultants you can hire that return dollars to the city," she said.

Mr. Putnam said he sees the lists of projects and talk of landing funds as little more than justifications for Mr. Dean's fees.

"He's a good salesman for himself and he'd have to justify it. How could you not?" the mayor said. "His best job has been selling to the council the need for his services at that rate."

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