Saturday, December 04, 2004

Will Texans Pay-as-they-drive?

Pay-as-you-drive may be the key to Texas' future

December 4, 2004

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2004

If more attention isn't paid to the nation's aging transportation system, the United States will have a challenge in keeping pace with global economy, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said Thursday.

"The future of this nation is transportation," said U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who spoke at a North Texas transportation conference sponsored by a House colleague, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound. "If we don't do anything at all, I guarantee you're going to suffer."

Much of the morning's discussion centered not on what projects to build but how to pay for them.

What that means for motorists is the potential for even more toll roads or toll lanes. In Texas, planning for more toll roads already is occurring. State leaders have pushed for new toll roads and the creation of the Trans-Texas Corridor, a mixture of new rail lines, truck toll lanes and toll roads that span the state. And in North Texas, planned highways including State Highway 121 in Denton County and State Highway 161 in Grand Prairie have been converted to toll roads before or during their construction.

"Texas has done the best job of all 50 states" in finding ways to raise money, Mr. Young told the group of about 100 transportation officials.

What's next for Texas and the nation?

Try pay-by-the-mile motorist fees.

Mr. Young said he is interested in the concept of charging motorists for every mile driven, possibly with the help of electronic odometers. Locally, transportation experts also have predicted that motorists would eventually have to pay by the mile.

"There is a ticking time bomb in regards to out-year transportation needs," said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, who has said pay-by-the-mile fees could become reality.

The region has $31 billion in unbudgeted highway projects in the next 20 years, and that money must be found from new sources, Mr. Morris said.

While spelling out the challenges, Mr. Young also brought a measure of good news to Texas leaders. Congress and the White House are still battling over a transportation bill, but consensus is growing for a $299 billion measure. That would bring hundreds of millions or even billions in new transportation dollars to Texas over a six-year period.

In addition, the bill that Mr. Young hopes to send to the White House would guarantee that all states receive 95 percent of the gas taxes they send to the federal government. Texas currently gets 86 to 88 percent.

The big picture, Mr. Young said, is that the country has, for about 40 years, failed to spend enough on transportation. That inattention is catching up with us, and the highway trust fund could go broke within a decade, the Alaska congressman said.

Until now, regions and states have been told to find their own ways to fix transportation problems, the congressman said. His goal: get national leaders focused on transportation again for the first time since construction of the interstate highway system began in the mid-1950s.

"We ought to address the issue of raising more dollars," said Mr. Young, who unsuccessfully fought to raise the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax. "What a terrible thing to leave behind if we don't.

Dallas Morning News:


Thursday, December 02, 2004

"The controversy over toll roads is far from over."

Senate transportation report supports tolls


by William Lutz

The Lone Star Report
Volume 9, Issue 16
Copyright 2004

To toll or not to toll. How to fund Texas highways is rapidly becoming one of the most controversial questions in Texas politics – one that divides many Republicans.

The House Transportation Committee – not surprisingly – endorsed the existing provisions of HB 3588, including the tolling provisions, in its interim report which was released on Nov. 17.

In 2003, the House leadership supported Gov. Rick Perry ’s vision to finance much of Texas’ transportation infrastructure through expanded tolling (though many rank-and-file House members probably were not aware of the degree to which tolling would dominate road plans).

The Senate was a wholly different story. The chamber eventually passed HB 3588 but looked at it much more carefully and had to be coaxed into accepting some of its provisions.

In many ways, that fact increases the significance attached to the Senate Infrastructure Development and Security Committee’s report released Dec. 1. For Perry, the good news is that the committee basically endorses HB 3588 and the tolling contained therein. And it did so unanimously. It even proposed raising the cap on toll equity – the amount of tax dollars used to help pay for toll roads.

“Secure, viable road and communications systems are vital to the safety and security of Texas citizens and visitors,” said new chairman Todd Staples (R-Palestine). “Our committee has studied these issues in depth and now offers recommendations to improve our roadways and homeland security measures. Our economic prosperity is contingent on our ability to reduce congestion and enhance the safe and efficient movement of people and goods.”

The bad news is the controversy over toll roads is far from over. Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale (R-Houston) has filed a bill prohibiting the conversion of SH 249 in the Houston area, and several other legislators have expressed concerns to the press about how tolling is being applied in their districts.

The Senate report supports the concept of tolling but does call for clarifying the process of toll conversion – where a free highway becomes a toll road. Specifically, the committee proposes clarifying what constitutes an acceptable free alternative to a toll road. It also suggests ensuring that all revenue from a converted project go to benefit users of that facility.

The committee also tackles another potentially controversial topic – the diversion of gas tax money to the Available School Fund. It recommends trying to find an alternative source of revenue to fund schools so that all of the gas tax money can go toward roads. It also suggests a separate interim committee to look at the gas tax and the possibility that revenues could decline with more fuel-efficient cars. The committee would explore alternatives for financing transportation.

The report endorses the Trans-Texas corridor program and encourages Congress to pass legislation that increases the gas tax equity, i.e. the percentage of gas tax paid by Texans used on Texas roads.

The committee recommends expanding the use of rail in the Texas transportation system. It also recommends examining the diversion of transportation-related taxes into non-transportation uses and trying to put some of that money either into the Texas Mobility Fund or the State Highway Fund.

The committee opposes changing the identification required to obtain a Texas Drivers License. Some legislators, primarily Democrats, want to give the Matricula Consular , a Mexican document often issued to illegal immigrants, the same status as a U.S. Passport or military ID card.

The report quotes Steve McGraw , former assistant director of the Office of Intelligence for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as saying, “The ability of foreign nationals to use the matricula consular card to create a well-documented, but fictitious, identity in the United States provides an opportunity for terrorists to move freely within the United States without name-based watch lists that are disseminated to local police officers. It also allows them to board planes without revealing their true identities.”

Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) disagreed with the committee’s recommendation on this issue and requested his comments be included in the report. “In essence, I strongly believe that acceptance of the Matricula would enhance security, public safety, and the economy,” he wrote. “The fact is , I know of no Mexican national who has been legally indicted for any terrorist ties since 9/11.” O

The Lone Star Report:


Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Proposed TTC triggers dispute between two regions of the state.

Texas regions clash over truck route


Associated Press
Copyright 2005

SAN ANTONIO - A Trans -Texas Corridor route that will carry billions of dollars in merchandise for trade with Mexico has triggered a dispute between two regions of the state.

The fear is that thousands of trucks will stop rolling through Laredo, Cotulla and Pearsall, instead taking an alternate path proposed by the state from Oklahoma to the Rio Grande Valley. The route was included by state transportation officials in their proposals for the new Trans -Texas Corridor .

Pearsall officials have passed resolutions in support of the River of Trade Corridor Coalition's effort to keep the Trans -Texas Corridor as close to the existing Interstate 35 as possible, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

The River of Trade Coalition was formed to defend the traditional NAFTA route, which is tied to Laredo and stretches north to Texarkana via Dallas.

"We don't want our money going to Hidalgo or Brownsville," Pearsall City Manager Albert Uresti said.

Michael Behrens, the Texas Department of Transportation's executive director, criticized the coalition's tactics.

The Associated Press:


Monday, November 29, 2004

Corridor Feud

Corridor route sparking fight

Trans-Texas plans pit I-35 cities against the Valley.

November 29, 2004

Jeorge Zarazua
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2004

Two regions of South Texas are preparing to feud over a Trans -Texas Corridor route that will carry billions of dollars in merchandise for trade with Mexico.

Cities and counties along southern Interstate 35 are pledging to fight any efforts from the Rio Grande Valley that would divert traffic away from them as part of the Trans -Texas Corridor , Gov. Rick Perry's 50-year plan to build 4,000 miles of toll roads and rail lines.

Officials in cities such as Laredo, Cotulla and Pearsall fear that thousands of trucks - and the dollars they bring - will stop rolling through their communities and instead take an alternate path the state is proposing from Oklahoma to the Valley. State transportation officials included it in their proposals for the new Trans -Texas Corridor route known as TTC-35.

To ensure traffic isn't lured away, a River of Trade Corridor Coalition was formed to defend the traditional NAFTA Trade Corridor - a route firmly tied to Laredo and stretching north to Texarkana via Dallas.

"We don't want our money going to Hidalgo or Brownsville," Pearsall City Manager Albert Uresti said at a recent council meeting. "We want to keep it here."

Pearsall is one of the growing number of cities that have passed resolutions in support of the River of Trade Coalition's effort to keep the new Trans -Texas Corridor as close to existing Interstate 35 as possible. They're also calling on state lawmakers to halt the Trans -Texas Corridor proposal altogether.

Dallas City Council member Sandy Greyson, who serves as chairwoman of the coalition, said the plans should be delayed until more studies can be done on its economic effect.

"Laredo would like to see the existing route kept," she said.

Greyson argues if the corridor is built far from the interstate, cities and towns that dot I-35 would be economically crippled.

"If they would build it three or four miles away from the existing interstate, then it would still be close enough where the economies of these communities can benefit," she said.

The formation of the River of Trade coalition surprised Valley officials, who for years have been asking state and federal officials for a major interstate linking the region to the nation's interior.

The Valley has supported an Interstate 69 corridor , but McAllen City Manager Mike R. Perez admits the region would like to see the Trans -Texas Corridor built there if it means it would finally get a major highway.

Perez said fears that cities along Interstate 35 would suffer irreparable harm if the corridor bypasses them are baseless.

The executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation also has weighed in, criticizing the coalition's tactics for building support against the TTC-35 proposal.

"They are wrong," Executive Director Michael Behrens wrote in a letter to communities along the NAFTA route. "Their position ignores reliable population growth projections and seeks to protect existing commerce at the expense of future economic opportunities."

TxDOT has labeled the corridor a high-priority project, needed to meet the state's future transportation needs. It estimates the four largest metropolitan areas along Interstate 35, including San Antonio, would need a minimum of 16 lanes to meet demands in 2025.

The direction the corridor will take has not been decided. Next month, transportation officials will choose one of three bids from private contractors that would help them draw the blueprints for the 800-mile corridor . An additional study expected soon will narrow the routes the corridor could take, with a final decision made by the end of next year.

But David Stall, co-founder of Corridor Watch and an opponent of the Trans -Texas Corridor plans, said the state favors building the Oklahoma-to-Mexico path through the Rio Grande Valley instead of Laredo, which is now the nation's busiest inland port.

Corridor Watch opposes using transportation projects to make state revenue, turning highways into toll roads and giving businesses control of public land or infrastructure.

Stall agrees with the coalition's effort to sway state lawmakers to intervene during the coming legislative session.

"The only hope that anybody has to get anything changed is legislatively," he said.

© 2004 San Antonio Express-News:


Sunday, November 28, 2004

Sal Costello stirs up the animals

A Driving Ambition

Sal Costello is determined to defeat toll roads

November 28, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

Political activists in Austin tend to come in three flavors, roughly speaking.

The zanies, prone to incoherent orations at public meetings, mostly give public officials time for a bathroom break or quick check of their e-mail. The gadflies can be entertaining or even edifying, a source of new information and fresh perspectives, but they typically have little or no influence on policy. The players, meanwhile, usually have expertise, experience, organizational and political skills and some money behind them, and actually influence events.

Then there's Sal Costello.

Costello, who runs an advertising business and, since the spring, a mostly electronic guerrilla war against toll roads out of his Circle C Ranch home's front room, defies those neat categories. He has the unpredictability of a zany, the research zeal and sometimes casual regard for facts of the gadflies, and at least some of the strategic knowhow of those players.

What he also has, though his growing list of enemies would deny it, is a head-shaking list of policy skins on his belt. Costello's efforts against tolls, along with those of elected officials such as state Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, and other neighborhood opponents, have eliminated one key toll road from a multiroad plan approved by local transportation leaders last year, delayed tolls on another, put yet another one semi-permanently on the shelf, helped put in jeopardy the political careers of Austin's mayor and two City Council members, and perhaps guaranteed that toll roads will be a central issue in most local and state elections for the next two or three years.

Not bad for a nobody.

As recently as April, Costello was unknown around here except to his family and friends and those who live in Circle C Ranch, where last year he engineered a mini-coup d'etat of the neighborhood association. Austinites in general may still be unaware of Costello, a New York native who with his wife, Stephanie, moved from Greensboro, N.C. to Austin in 1999.

But elected officials and the entire Texas transportation world certainly know who he is, or at least who they think he is. For certain, they know what he has done since transportation officials unveiled a massive Central Texas toll road plan April 12, and how he has gone about doing it. And they don't like it.

Costello may have set a new speed record, in fact, for going from ignored to bete noire for the Central Texas establishment.

"I have absolutely no respect for the way Sal does business," says Tim Taylor, a real estate lawyer and former president of the Real Estate Council of Austin. "It's personal. It's nasty."

Taylor and others have formed a political action committee to help defend Austin Mayor Will Wynn against the recall petition campaign Costello launched last summer targeting the mayor and Austin City Council Members Brewster McCracken and Danny Thomas for their support of toll roads.

Costello, however, is fighting a multifront war, using a variety of tactics to -- he hopes -- end the political careers of all the local elected officials who joined a 16-7 vote in July that cleared a critical procedural hurdle for the seven-tollway plan.

Costello, for instance, posted on his anti-toll Web site the unflattering jail booking photo from the drunken driving arrest earlier this year of Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, a Democrat who was among those 16 yes-voters on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board. He has accused a long list of toll-friendly Central Texans of lying and of having various conflicts of interest, implying or stating flat-out that their enthusiasm for toll roads is tied directly to their bank accounts.

And he has peppered Travis County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner's inbox with often insulting e-mails, including one that speculated the Democrat and former television reporter would be unable to return to broadcasting after he gets her defeated because she is "not presentable anymore."

Costello, Sonleitner says, "runs an electronic slambook. If he thinks he is swaying people, he is not."

Costello, 40, would beg to disagree, except it is impossible to imagine him begging. He pretty much says what's on his mind.

"There's a reason I do what I do: It works," says Costello, a registered Democrat when he lived in North Carolina. "So far, everything I've done works. I kind of go with what feels right. Sometimes I know something's harsh, but I feel it's appropriate and that it will work to what I'm trying to get at."

What Costello is trying to get at, who he is and how he could afford for months to devote so many of his waking hours to toll road muckraking has been a matter of considerable speculation among his targets. Costello, who says he and his team of petitioners (some of them paid for the task) had gathered the signatures, addresses and phone numbers of 21,000 recall proponents by mid-November, is just compiling a political list, some charge. He wants to run for local office, they say, or put up a slate of anti-business candidates in the May Austin City Council election.

He must be a trust fund baby, they say. Retired oil business lobbyist Ken Rigsbee, whom Costello and lawyer Bill Gammon helped force off the neighborhood association board, even speculated in a letter to Circle C residents early this year that Costello might be a Mafia scion sent south for his own protection. Somehow, that accusation didn't end up sparking a lawsuit.

Costello, when he's not standing at a microphone in a public meeting staring down his betters with startling confidence and venom, can be surprisingly mild and charming. In an interview at his Spanish-style home on a cul-de-sac, he laughs all this off, including that charge related to his Italian name.

"I think he was trying to be funny," says Costello, whose homemaker mom Anna and mill-working father Ron still live in his boyhood home in a small upstate New York town. "It's ignorance and bad humor."

No, he's not trying to compile a political list with the recall, Costello says. Rather, he's trying to get about 40,000 legitimate signatures and put on the May ballot, along with three other council seats, the future of Wynn, Thomas and McCracken (who now opposes the toll plan but couldn't be pulled off the petitions mid-stream. In a weird twist, that means Costello would oppose his recall). Costello says he has no designs on holding political office, and no slate of council candidates in his hip pocket. All he wants to do, Costello says, is eradicate that toll plan by retiring the people who voted for it and replacing them with people who'll rescind that vote. And his family, which includes a toddler daughter with brilliant blue eyes, is not living off some stash of cash from rich relatives.

"I wish I had a trust fund, trust me," Costello says. "The last five months have put some squeeze on us financially."

He says he was never an activist before. A search of the Greensboro News/Record, in the town where the Costellos lived from 1993 until the Austin move, turned up just three references to him. In only one, a letter to the editor where he complained about noisy helicopters conducting a military training exercise over their house at night, was there evidence of the testy Costello that Austin has come to know.

So, why has he turned into the Patrick Henry of toll roads? Basically, Costello says, it just really made him mad when he found out that someone wanted to put tolls on a road built with gasoline tax dollars, not borrowed money. Then he found out that most Austin highways would have tolls, albeit with free frontage roads alongside. And then he found out that other roads built with tax dollars also would have toll charges.

And, aside from Keel and Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty holding a press conference in early May condemning the toll road plan, Costello said he didn't see anyone mounting an effective counteroffensive as the plan moved toward a July vote. Costello, with his marketing expertise, figured he might as well step up. Of course, had Costello never moved here, toll roads no doubt still would have rankled a good portion of the populace, especially those in Southwest Austin. Through his efforts, however, Costello helped coalesce and amplify that discontent.

He formed People for Efficient Transportation, raised at least $14,000 to run some ads -- which included some shaky facts and questionable extrapolations of facts-- and created a Web site. Costello, who legally can keep the identities of his donors a secret, declines to say who gave him what. After the July vote threw him into a brief tailspin, he decided that a recall was the only way to keep the issue alive.

"It's really a step-by-step thing," Costello says. "It's not something that happens overnight, or something I was looking for."

Still, most people, confronted by a civic decision they don't like just grumble at the newspaper or television, complain to their friends and move on. Costello instead created a commotion. He says his single-mindedness goes back to a "life-changing event" when he was 23. On the way home from a night shift in a New York cable mill, Costello fell asleep at the wheel. As he puts it, the road curved and the car didn't, and it ended up suspended 10 feet in the air, wrapped around a telephone pole like a horseshoe. Costello, with a crushed pelvis and head injuries, almost died.

"That gave me a different perspective on life," he says. "From then on, everything I did I did with gusto, with passion."

He went back to college, eventually getting a design and advertising degree at the Kansas City Art Institute. He formed Costello and Company in North Carolina, then moved operations here. Having jettisoned his employees, he now works out of his home office and uses contract workers.

Costello, schooled in communications but still relatively new to the political sphere, has made some noticeable strategic missteps along the way. In July, he inaccurately charged that Stacy Rhone, sister of state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, had been hired by a toll advocacy group as a ploy to influence Dukes' vote on the toll plan. After a letter from Dukes' lawyer threatening legal action, Costello pulled the item off his Web site.

And Costello, after first including only Wynn and McCracken in his recall campaign, decided to add Thomas to the recall after an American-Statesman column questioned why he was picking some targets and overlooking Thomas, who had likewise voted for the toll plan. Adding Thomas had the probable effect of alienating Central Austin liberals and black voters -- Thomas is the only African American on the council -- who otherwise might have signed the petitions. Including Thomas seemed politically naive to political consultants asked about it then and later.

"I think it was naive not having Danny Thomas at the front end," Costello counters. "It was only fair to have him on there."

Costello, asked about tactics such as the personal attacks on people's ethics or a county commissioner's looks, first tries to defend them as a way to get in opponents' heads and distract them. Then he admits that sometimes lesser angels take over the keyboard.

"Sometimes it just feels good," Costello says. "Sometimes it's meant as, hey, I'm (hacked) off because of what they've been doing to me for five months. This should not be my job; this is their job. And if they're ignoring me, ignoring the mass of people, who are they listening to?

"I get a little frustrated," says Costello, who says one of his clients in the road-building industry has refused to pay him and that he has drawn down a large chunk of his savings. "Why the hell am I doing this? Why aren't I spending more time with my baby?"

Don Martin, a developer and public affairs consultant, represented Citizens for Mobility, the private entity formed to support the toll road plan.

"It's a whole lot easier to attract attention if you don't have to deal with the facts or solve the problem," Martin says. Costello, who actually supports building toll roads as new loops or cross-town routes such as Texas 130 and Texas 45 North, has a solution: raise the gasoline tax instead, something the Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry say they won't do.

"I know that Sal thinks he's made a major change in all this. He's a legend in his own mind," Martin says, referring to a recent behind-the-scenes deal to refrain from charging tolls on a short stretch of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) near William Cannon Drive that was in the toll plan approved in July. Tolls on two other roads, Ed Bluestein Boulevard and Texas 71, will be delayed by two years under the same agreement, likely to be ratified by the CAMPO board in January. And tolls on Loop 360, which would need a second CAMPO vote to occur, won't happen for many years, if ever.

Daugherty, though he agrees with Costello on the toll road plan and voted against it on CAMPO, refused to get involved with the recall. He has mixed feelings about the Costello approach to advocacy.

"I applaud Sal for his tenacity at keeping this situation elevated to the point where it needed to stay elevated," Daugherty says. "I do not agree with the personal manner that Sal has gone through."

Wynn, for his part, has only brief remarks about his nemesis.

"Any citizen has the right to do any of this," says Wynn. "Hearing some of the things he says is ridiculous. And it's certainly not having an effect on me and my positions."

Costello and Gammon, a plaintiff's attorney and Circle C Ranch resident, don't buy that. Absent the recall and the tens of thousands of e-mails to elected officials generated by Costello and his Web site, they doubt the plan would have changed.

"If it were not for Sal Costello making a stink, people would still have their eyes on their day-to-day commute and not know that toll roads were in TxDOT's future plans and the extent of it," says Gammon, who has been advising Costello on transportation law. "I think everyone on the government side, from Gov. Perry on down, is just astonished that this much of a firestorm has been raised by just one man."

Local political pros say Costello, whatever you think about his maneuvers, has certainly been effective. But they also say that with the hated MoPac section out of the plan, tolls delayed for two years on the two other roads, and Central Texas officials from dogcatcher to Gov. Rick Perry sensitized to the political peril of supporting toll roads, Costello is in danger of writing political checks he can't cash. He should declare victory and withdraw from the field, they say.

Don't count on it.

"I don't see that as a win yet," Costello says. "William Cannon/MoPac is a little baby-step of a win. But the two-year postponement is kind of like the difference between me taking your wallet right now, or me telling you, 'I'm not going to take your wallet now, but two years from now I'm going to come take your wallet.' "

If he keeps at this much longer, Costello's wallet might end up a lot lighter. But he'll still fight you for it.; 445-3698

© 2004 Austin American-Statesman: