Saturday, November 13, 2004

Opposition to Trans-Texas Corridor Builds

Opposition builds to toll, corridor plans

Cities, groups meet to discuss fighting state transportation projects

November 12, 2004

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2004

While state leaders have pinned their hopes on toll roads to keep Texas road construction moving, a small but growing number of groups and cities – including Dallas – are questioning the plans.

Today, about a dozen groups – some opposing tolls or the Trans-Texas Corridor and environmental groups – will meet for the first time in Austin to discuss how to fight the state's transportation plans.

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"We have seen each of these groups combating this issue as if it were a local issue," said Fayetteville resident David Stall, co-founder of Corridor Watch. "We can be effective in having our concerns addressed if we work together."

Last year, state leaders passed the largest transportation bill in state history. It calls for converting planned or expanded highways to toll roads, like State Highway 121 in Denton County. The bill also provides initial funding for Gov. Rick Perry's highway and adjacent high-speed passenger and freight rail concept that stands as big as the state itself: the $175 billion Trans-Texas Corridor.

The proposals may not be popular with everyone, but they show the importance the governor places on transportation, said RicWilliamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission and a Perry appointee.

"This governor is not going to let urban Texas rot while doing nothing," Mr. Williamson said.

Parallel to I-35

Dallas, Hillsboro and Laredo have questioned plans to build the 800-mile Trans-Texas Corridor highway to parallel Interstate 35. Opposition also is coming from other areas. Property rights concerns have led the Republican Party of Texas' latest platform to urge the repeal of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Mr. Stall's effort "started out as a not-in-my-back-yard issue," he said. "But we became concerned about the government's growing role."

Public meeting schedule

The Texas Department of Transportation will conduct public meetings in North Texas next week to collect input on plans to build the Trans-Texas Corridor. The route will parallel Interstate 35 from the Red River to Brownsville. All meetings will be from 5 to 8 p.m.

Monday: Grauwyler Community Center, 7780 Harry Hines Blvd., Dallas; and Cleburne High School, 1501 Harlin Drive, Cleburne.

Tuesday: Texas Woman's University, Hubbard Hall, 304 Administration Drive, Denton.

Wednesday: Holiday Inn Ballroom, 1300 N. Central Expressway, McKinney.

Thursday: Terrell High School cafeteria, 400 Poetry Road, Terrell.

Dallas City Council members emphasize that they do not oppose all of the state's plans to build the Trans-Texas Corridor. Dallas officials will not attend today's meeting.

"We are not pro-toll or anti-toll. We have not taken a position against the Trans-Texas Corridor," said Dallas City Council member Sandy Greyson, chairwoman of the council's transportation committee. "We believe the new route will harm all the communities along the I-35 corridor. Our council is very supportive of keeping the traditional route."

Cities including Dallas are pushing the state to study the economic impact of building a parallel road that could take away traffic and tourism from cities along one of the state's busiest highways.

Plans are moving forward. The Texas Department of Transportation could soon choose one of three bids it received from private groups that want to develop the corridor. In addition, the state could soon narrow its study areas to several 10-mile-wide corridors. A single study area could come by the end of 2005. No construction dates have been established.

Recent corridor draft plans showing possible routes near I-35 cities have eased some concerns from Dallas and other city leaders.

"We're not saying you couldn't build a corridor three to five miles outside of town. That would not discourage people from stopping in Hillsboro. But if you go too far, it will," said Hillsboro Mayor Will Lowrance.

With all the attention on the corridor, cities don't want the state to lose sight of other needs. Laredo has more than 100 railroad crossings that need improvement, said Rene Gonzalez of the Laredo Development Foundation and a legislative liaison to Laredo Mayor Elizabeth "Betty" Flores.

"They need to worry about yesterday's projects before they worry about tomorrow's projects," he said, adding that the corridor could bring a new highway to Brownsville and away from Laredo, whose ports still have expansion room.

I-35 will continue to be widened to as many as four lanes in each direction throughout Texas, Mr. Williamson said. But he and other state leaders are looking at the state's needs beyond I-35's peak traffic loads.

"The things that will save urban Texas are the very things we are doing," he said, adding that the cost of fuel will push more freight to rail lines, increasing the need for projects like the Trans-Texas Corridor. "A lot of the corridor is going to get pretty close to existing communities."

Toll battles begin

When the Legislature passed the bill last year, it also included provisions for a major expansion of toll roads in Texas. The first salvos in the toll battle have been fired in Austin, Houston and North Texas.

Opponents of the new toll roads hope to get the attention of lawmakers during the legislative session that begins in January.

"We think we've got a lot of people unhappy with the law that there are going to be some changes," said Randy Jennings, founder of the Web site and a co-sponsor of today's meeting. "We all have commonality. We need to leverage that."

In reality, changing a major transportation bill may be difficult, said state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving.

"We are always open and receptive to looking at changes that would enhance what's been done," said Ms. Harper-Brown, a House transportation committee member during the last session. "I don't know if you really want us to change a lot of the creative ideas that allow us to do transportation projects more creatively and efficiently."


© 2004 The Dallas Morning News Co


Friday, November 12, 2004

"The only thing missing is the gun and the mask."

Public gets testy at toll hearing

Chance for people to comment on rules quickly becomes a critique of tollways' very existence

November 11, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

Trying to set guidelines for an Austin public hearing can be like enforcing rules for a knife fight. As the fictionalized Butch Cassidy once reminded us, it can't be done, especially when the subject is toll roads.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board, taking public comment Wednesday on its proposed toll road policies, nonetheless tried to confine people's remarks to those policies. But there's a fine and faint line between toll road policies and the policy of having toll roads at all, and most of the two dozen or so people who spoke Wednesday had no trouble skipping over it.

The hearing was sometimes nasty, occasionally brutish and certainly short by Austin standards, just an hour, but it must have seemed like an unregulated lifetime to the six appointed members of the authority board listening.

"Congratulations for coming around and lending a deaf ear to our pleas," Larry Garrett told the board. Christine Shaw called the authority's toll road plan "a means of control and a means of oppression." P.D. Leonard compared the plan to theft, saying that "the only thing missing is the gun and the mask." And singer-songwriter Janet Patrice hauled out her guitar and favored the board with an original tune trashing toll roads.

And at times, it threatened to get worse.

Sal Costello, a Circle C Ranch resident who has orchestrated a recall effort against three Austin City Council members for their July vote for toll roads on another local transportation board, took advantage of the convocation for a news conference in the lobby about his petition drive for the recall. He produced a large box of folders that he said contained the signatures of 21,000 Austinites.

Austin has 452,593 registered voters, and under city law, petition signatures must amount to 10 percent of that count to force a recall election. But Travis County officials will "purge" a still-undetermined number of longtime inactive and inaccessible voters in December, and Costello doesn't plan to turn in his signatures until February. So the drive is probably about halfway to its goal.

Costello unearthed a corruption theme familiar from his earlier visits to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the board of mostly elected officials who voted this summer to authorize the mobility authority's multiroad toll plan.

Costello asked board Chair- man Robert Tesch, a Cedar Park businessman, whether he stood to gain off property he owns in Williamson County in the vicinity of the authority's proposed U.S. 183-A toll road.

Tesch, citing the rules, said the board was there to listen, not answer questions. Costello, more than once, said he would spend the remainder of his three-minute comment period waiting for an answer. Catcalls rained down. Tesch finally gave in.

"I own property in Williamson County, none along any toll road," Tesch said. "Do you?"

A few people did address the proposed toll policies, set for final approval by the authority board Dec. 8. Among other things, the policies would offer a 10 percent discount for those with an electronic toll tag, require people to maintain a minimum balance in their toll account, lay out enforcement procedures for toll scofflaws and allow an introductory period of free rides and reduced tolls lasting up to six months for toll tag users.

Recent events, however, mean the authority won't be using those policies for at least a couple of years. The board has reached a deal to refrain from tolls on MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) at William Cannon Drive, a project where toll charges could have begun as soon as March. Now it is unlikely any toll road will open in Austin before late 2006.

Authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein said the agency nonetheless needs to pass policies in December. It will sell about $200 million in bonds in February, and investors will want to know what those policies are, he said.

© 2004 Austin American-Statesman:


Thursday, November 11, 2004

"I am greatly concerned about our private property rights.”

Landowners Encouraged To Learn About New Superhighway Project


By Colleen Schreiber
Livestock Weekly
Copyright 2004

OKLAHOMA CITY — Private property owners should educate themselves about the Trans Texas Corridor Project.

That was the gist of the message delivered by Jack Hunt, president and chief executive officer of the King Ranch, during the recent natural resources and environment committee meeting at the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Assn. fall meeting.

Trans Texas Corridor, the vision of Governor Rick Perry, was passed during the 78th legislative session.

House Bill 3588 gave the Transportation Commission the authority to create the corridor, an all-Texas superhighway whose plan is to encompass all modes of transportation from tollways for passenger vehicles and trucks, passenger bullet trains, to commuter trains and high-speed freight trains. The plan also includes the development of pipelines of all types, and electrical transmission towers as well as gas stations, garages, restaurants, hotels, stores, billboards, warehouses, freight interchange, intermodal transfer areas, passenger train stations, bus stations, parking facilities, dispatch control centers, maintenance facilities, pipeline pumping stations, and toll booths.

The Trans Texas Corridor is the largest engineering project ever proposed for Texas, with a statewide network of corridors stretching 4000 miles and measuring up to a quarter-mile wide. Four routes have been identified as priority segments. These corridors parallel Interstate 35, I-37 and I-69 (proposed) from Denison to the Rio Grande Valley, I-69 (proposed) from Texarkana to Houston to Laredo, I-45 from Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston, and I-10 from El Paso to Orange.

The legislation, Hunt opined, passed easily because it was promoted on a “feel-good basis, that it would do good things for the state.

“This legislation moved very quickly,” Hunt continued. “I’m not aware of any groups other than one landowner group that even raised questions about it at the time.

“It’s a very complex set of bills, hard to understand, but again, because it sounded good, most people voted for it.”

The purpose of these corridors, he told listeners, is to improve the Texas economy by facilitating the movement of goods throughout the state and avoid congestion in urban areas.

“As such, that means most of these corridors are going to go through rural areas, and that means a lot of very serious implications for rural landowners and ranchers and farmers throughout the state. I am greatly concerned about our private property rights,” he said.

These quarter-mile wide corridors, Hunt explained, will be administered by public entities with broad rights and powers.

“They will be able to condemn land and then release that land on very long-term leases for private use. They will be able to condemn land for these routes without having a specific plan in place. They will be able to condemn land for environmental mitigation without having a specific plan in place, and they also have quick-take powers of condemnation, which basically means they can take your property and you argue about it in court afterwards,” he told listeners.

Hunt said he is most concerned about the role these public entities will play.

“It’s not clear to me what the role of these public entities will be, how they will be managed and controlled, how conflicts of interest among governance groups will be avoided. Their broad powers could have enormous impact on land values. There are a lot of potential conflicts of interest that could affect how these entities do their business,” he said.

“The condemnation powers that the legislation gives these entities are very broad and almost unprecedented,” he opined.

“For example, if there is a corridor that is to go through your property, they can condemn the land and the landowner is penalized by that condemnation. Yet the public entity can turn around and lease that same land to commercial entities that in turn have a chance to profit.”

The plan, Hunt said, talks about a royalty structure for the landowner as an inducement to sell.

“If you read the fine print, it’s so subordinate. There will be a lot of debt associated with these deals, and I don’t think the royalty paid to the landowner will be enough enticement.”

Hunt noted that there is a case before U.S. Supreme Court questioning the ability of public entities to condemn land and then resell it for private use. That case, he noted, could impact whether this legislation can even work.

Another concern Hunt has with the plan is the design of the corridor itself, particularly the part about it being a quarter of a mile wide. He said that would detrimentally impact the value of a landowner’s property.

“If your property is divided by the corridor, you will essentially lose access to the other side of your property. There won’t be a way for you to move back and forth. It’s not like an interstate, where you can have tunnels or underpasses,” he pointed out.

Finally, Hunt told listeners that he’s concerned about the impact these corridors could have on the environment. Hunt spent time on then Governor George Bush’s task force on conservation. One of the big issues was fragmentation.

“Most understand that in order to have good, strong wildlife populations and strong property and resource values, we must find ways to avoid fragmentation. The Trans Texas Corridor plan goes directly against that philosophy.”

Hunt concluded by encouraging all landowners to become educated on the issue. He suggested the website as one educational resource. Another is the Texas Department of Transportation website.

“I urge everyone to look into this, and as you meet with your legislators, find out how they voted and see if they really understood what they were voting for.

“This is something that will affect our children and grandchildren, so I think it’s our job to get in front of this issue now, because in 10 or 20 years we could regret it.”

© 2004 Livestock Weekly:

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Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Dukes demands more.

Texas 71, U.S. 183 tolls may be put off

Dukes argues that if west side gets a break, east side should, too

November 9, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

Tolls would be delayed at least two years on the two major routes to the airport under the terms of a deal cut in recent days by leading Central Texas transportation policy-makers.

A section of U.S. 183 north of Springdale Road and Texas 71 from Interstate 35 to Riverside Drive, stretches of roads under construction with tax dollars, would have been subject to toll charges when they are completed in 2006. But leaders on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board, looking to defuse anger over a $2.2 billion toll road plan they approved in July, have agreed to delay tolls on those sections until improvements to the entire U.S. 183/Texas 71 project are completed.

According to estimates from the Texas Department of Transportation, the last segment of that project would be completed in 2008 at the earliest. Like most of the roads in the toll road plan, tolls would be charged on only the expressway lanes. Drivers could travel the same routes for free on continuous frontage roads.

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, who voted for the turnpike plan in July, negotiated the East Austin toll delay in exchange for dropping toll charges on MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) from U.S. 290 West to south of William Cannon Drive. The proposed tolls on that 1 1/2-mile stretch of MoPac had set off a civic earthquake last summer still reverberating through the e-mail in-boxes of Central Texas politicians.

The lost revenue from dropping tolls at William Cannon will be made up, eventually, by imposing tolls on added lanes to MoPac from Town Lake to north of Parmer Lane. Putting tolls on those so-called managed lanes had long been a part of the expected policy mix.

Dukes, able to bring several votes on the CAMPO board with her, demanded more.

"A major concern in eastern Travis County has been social equity," Dukes said after a meeting of the board Monday evening. "In order to be fair to all, when one's making a compromise over here (in West Austin), the least one can do is make a concession on the east side as well."

None of this is official.

In fact, all the CAMPO board did on the subject Monday was call a public hearing for December on the MoPac/William Cannon and managed-lane changes to its long-range plan, as well as another amendment dropping light rail from the plan and replacing it with the commuter rail line voters approved last week.

A final CAMPO vote likely won't occur until January.

But the telltale moment came when Dukes took the floor and said that the east-side toll delay would be a good idea, and that she planned to send a letter to the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board asking it to incorporate such a delay in its toll road policies.

The board of the authority, which eventually will operate all seven roads in the July plan as well as another road, plans to approve its toll road policies in December. A public hearing on those policies is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Northcross Mall on Anderson Lane.

No one from the authority was at the CAMPO meeting Monday when Dukes spoke.

But state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, chairman of the House Transportation Committee and the moving force behind most of what is occurring in Central Texas transportation, immediately spoke up in support of Dukes' proposal and asked that his name be added to her letter.

Board members said afterward that the mobility authority is on board with the toll delay.

When the toll road plan was pending early last summer, its supporters had said it was essentially a package deal, that removing one piece would make it fall apart financially. The vote July 12 was 16-7 on the CAMPO board. Several of those seven dissidents, joined later by Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken, who had voted for it, had called for making changes or overturning the plan.

The Texas Transportation Commission has signaled that it will support the proposed changes, filling in whatever financial holes they create.

Originally, toll charges were to begin on MoPac at William Cannon as early as March. And the delay on the east-side highways will mean two years or more of lost toll revenue on 4.5 miles of road.; 445-3698

© 2004 Austin American-Statesman:


Monday, November 08, 2004

"By placing a toll booth on a road we've paid the construction of . . . it's a double tax."

Toll on MoPac stretch may be axed

Transit board will hear proposal to remove William Cannon segment from area toll plan

November 7, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

The de-tollification of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) at William Cannon Drive will begin Monday.

That evening, the board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization will consider calling a December hearing, to be followed by a January vote, to remove those proposed toll charges from the short stretch of MoPac from U.S. 290 to just south of William Cannon. And the involvement in this latest change by influential members of the board indicates that passage is likely in January.

The amendment would also change the status of proposed fourth lanes for each side of MoPac between Town Lake and Parmer Lane in far North Austin from "high-occupancy vehicle lanes" to "managed lanes." State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, the board's chairman and one of 16 CAMPO board members who voted in July to impose a toll on MoPac and on six other roads, put the item on the agenda that went out late Friday. And state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, the tremendously influential chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said Saturday that he, Barrientos and Austin Mayor Will Wynn had been discussing the change and that there is "a good likelihood" it will pass.

"And I will be working for that," Krusee said.

Barrientos, instrumental with Krusee in putting together the 16 votes for the toll plan, could not be reached for comment Saturday. Wynn, who had favored waiting until CAMPO approves its next long-range plan in the spring to make the change, said Saturday that he supports at least having a hearing on it now.

The change north of Town Lake is crucial to removing the tolls at William Cannon. Managed lanes can carry a variety of traffic, from buses only to tolls only, or a combination of buses, cars with multiple occupants driving for free and solo drivers paying a toll. The revenue from the managed lanes would essentially replace that lost from William Cannon and pay for sound walls along MoPac.

The new lanes would be added without widening MoPac's "footprint" and taking out existing homes, initially by restriping the road and taking most of the shoulders away, and later by expanding the road inward toward the Union Pacific rail line. That second step would be possible only after an agreement with the railroad for the state to control the right-of-way.

"I never say 'adding managed lanes' without saying 'adding sound walls,' " Krusee said. "That's important politically. But it's also important as a policy. If we're adding lanes, we're adding noise. And the sound walls give comfort to people that, yes, this is the established footprint."

Bob Daigh, the Austin district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, recently began the process of designing and constructing those sound walls, which would be installed at intervals along MoPac from Town Lake to U.S. 183, the section where many homes' back yards are adjacent to the highway. Daigh and Wynn indicated at the time that funding for the walls was secure.

The July toll road vote by the CAMPO board set off a political fireball, including a recall effort against Wynn and Austin City Council Members Danny Thomas and Brewster McCracken. Monday's action, and the January vote to follow, would have no effect on the other six proposed toll roads in the plan approved in July: U.S. 290 West and Texas 71 in Oak Hill; Texas 71 from Interstate 35 to the airport; Ed Bluestein Boulevard; U.S. 290 East from Ed Bluestein to the new Texas 130; Loop 360; and Texas 45 Southwest.

Sal Costello, a Circle C Ranch marketing consultant who initiated the recall campaign, said removing the key irritant to Southwest Austinites will not change his plans.

"It makes no effect on the recall because half the roads in this plan are 100 percent paid for with our gas tax dollars," Costello said. "Some of them they've started construction on, and one they haven't. By placing a toll booth on a road we've paid the construction of . . . it's a double tax."

Wynn, Barrientos and the Texas Transportation Commission, which is providing most of the money and the expertise for the multiple toll road plan, had sent strong signals in late October that such a plan was in the works. Wynn and Barrientos appeared at the commission's October meeting and asked for help. The commissioners, without getting specific, said they were ready to be partners.

Krusee said they've been more specific off-stage.

"I've had private conversations with commissioners where they have agreed" with the changed approach on MoPac, Krusee said. "You can take that for what it's worth."; 445-3698

© 2004 Austin American-Statesman: