Saturday, May 07, 2005

Cintra plans to build San Antonio toll roads

Funding confusion clogs toll road talks

May 7, 2005

Patrick Driscoll , Staff Writer
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

Local leaders seeking to maintain a grip on a proposed toll-road network -- which a Spanish company wants to take over -- got a response Friday from the state but they're not sure if it's what they wanted to hear.

Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said in a letter that state officials will work with local agencies to evaluate an offer from a private consortium to build toll roads in San Antonio, and won't sign a contract unless all agree.

Williamson also said the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority could assume ownership of the project, and consider the private consortium's proposal, but he made no mention of whether $450 million in gas-tax and other public funds that the state had earmarked for construction is still on the table.

''It's pretty confusing,'' said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. ''Staff is going to have to take a good close analysis in view of the previous commitments of $450 million.''

For a year, the Texas Department of Transportation has planned to build toll lanes on Loop 1604 between Interstate 35 and Interstate 10 and also on U.S. 281 north of the outer loop, then hand them over to the Mobility Authority as a financial engine to develop other tollways.

Spain-based Cintra and locally owned Zachry American Infrastructure submitted a proposal to the state last week that calls for private money to build those toll lanes and to extend them west to Texas 151 and east to I-10. Company officials also say they can do it faster.

But the companies would collect the toll fees for up to 50 years, and that's money the Mobility Authority would otherwise use to expand the tollway system.

Wolff, along with Mayor Ed Garza and Mobility Authority Chairman Bill Thornton, fired off a letter last week to the state to ask that the Mobility Authority have final approval over how toll roads are built and operated in San Antonio.

Wolff and Thornton said Friday they don't know if they got the answer they wanted. The Mobility Authority board will scrutinize options outlined in Williamson's letter, dated May 4 and received Friday, when it meets Wednesday.

''I want to compare what this immediate offer is to the original offer we had,'' Thornton said. ''Quite frankly, (over the past year) we were skipping down the road holding hands.''

Meanwhile, the two companies will wait until local and state officials work it out.

If the proposal from the companies is considered, a call for other bids will have to be made.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News:


Friday, May 06, 2005

Senate tries to "clean up" concerns about the Corridor

Trans-Texas Corridor plan generates both reform and revolt

by James A. Bernsen

The Lone Star Report
Volume 3, Issue 36
Copyright 2005

Two years ago, lawmakers completely rewrote state transportation law with passage of HB 3588. With controversy over toll roads boiling over, the issue is again moving to the forefront of the legislative agenda.

This week, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn threw some more diesel fuel on the fire with a rally against the Trans-Texas Corridor, toll roads, and Gov. Rick Perry .

And while a bill to freeze the corridor languishes in the House, legislation is moving forward in the Senate to clean up some of the concerns with the corridor project itself.

Strayhorn, in getting aboard the anti-toll road bandwagon, has found an issue that unites rural farmers and ranchers with Austin anti-toll activists and environmentalists. Speaking to a rally of about 300 sign-waving toll opponents, Strayhorn called the corridor “the largest land grab in Texas history.”

Strayhorn passionately outlined her opposition to the plan, citing concerns about toll conversion, property rights, and contracting by foreign companies.

“Say no to replacing freeways with tollways and say no to the European, foreign-run toll roads that will turn TxDOT into EuroDOT,” she said, to enthusiastic applause. “Gov. Perry and his Department of Transportation want to cram toll roads down Texans’ throats. He calls it Trans-Texas Corridor, we call it Trans-Texas catastrophe.”

Joining Strayhorn was Senator Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria). While he and subsequent speakers gave toned-down speeches without anti-Perry comments, they continued on the theme of the Trans-Texas Corridor’s cutting up rural Texas and hurting property rights. Armbrister said local governments would also suffer, as 200 acres per mile of the corridor would be taken off the tax rolls.

Joining Strayhorn, Armbrister and several local officials were Reps Robby Cook (D-Eagle Lake), Lois Kohlkhorst (R-Brenham), Harvey Hildebran (R-Kerrville) and Glen Hegar (R-Katy).

The representatives called on the crowd to urge support of HB 3363 by Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), which would put a two-year moratorium on the corridor. The bill is currently in the House Transportation Committee, would also stop the corridor, put a moratorium on tolls by TxDOT and establish a “Select Committee on Highway Financing.”

The bill was referred to the Transportation committee in March, but has not yet had a hearing.

Perry/Strayhorn spat

Perry’s response was to cite what his office said was Strayhorn’s previous support of toll roads. Pointing to her January, 2001 report, “Paving the Way,” Perry said that the Comptroller recommended tolling existing roads, speeding up construction time with toll financing, and using taxpayer dollars to fund construction of toll roads.

Perry spokesman Robert Black said Strayhorn was sending mixed messages.

“Who knew Comptroller Strayhorn could run away so fast from her own recommendations?” he said. “The fact is the Comptroller can’t talk fast enough to cover up her hypocrisy in this case. It is a mystery why she wants the Legislature to restore her authority to do performance reviews when she attacks legislators for implementing her recommendations...”

Strayhorn called the Perry statement a “distortion,” saying that her report only stated what was being done in other states to raise money, and was not a recommendation that Texas do the same.

One of Perry’s criticisms was that Strayhorn supported revenue bonds for toll roads, but Strayhorn said such bonds were not necessarily tied to toll projects.

Mike Cox , a spokesman for TxDOT, said other bond projects besides toll roads could include commuter rail projects, where a portion of the fare collected could be used for leverage, or a bus line or direct monetary contribution from a local government, or any other transportation project that needed money up front and could leverage future cash to pay off the bonds.

The Comptroller pushed through Thursday a motion before the Texas Bond Review Board to clarify that toll roads would not be a prerequisite to receive revenue from a $4 billion Texas Mobility Fund bond issue.

Senate omnibus transportation bill

SB 1706 by Sen. Todd Staples (R-Palestine) is a comprehensive package of transportation ideas, many of which have nothing to do with highways, toll roads, or the Trans-Texas Corridor. The bill includes rail and aviation provisions. But its central portion concerns the corridor.

The Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee voted the bill out on May 4.

“This is a cleanup from HB 3588 from last session that we spent a considerable amount of time on in order to address property owners’ concerns and address a more functional transportation system,” Staples explained in laying out the bill. He later told LSR that concerns about toll conversion were also a large factor behind the bill.

“We are going to tighten up the toll conversion process,” he said. “Only allow existing roads to be converted after a vote of the people. We think that is a great hurdle to get the citizens back in control of that process...We’re [also] going to ensure that water rights are not abused through the condemnation process.”

Some issues in the bill dealing with toll roads:

* One of the biggest concerns with the corridor project has been raised over water rights: Who decides whether water from the corridor footprint can be pumped out of the area and sold? SB 1706 prohibits any ground water pumping except for use in the construction of the project or maintenance of a facility (such as a gas station) built in conjunction with the project.

* The original corridor legislation allowed for the construction of ancillary facilities as part of the project, with little definition or constraints. SB 1706 clarifies this language, restricting such facilities to gas stations, convenience stores and similar types of facilities, and preventing the construction of hotels, restaurants or theme parks on corridor land.

“There was a wide variety of commercial facilities, and there was grave concern about competition with the private market and for people’s land to be condemned for such purposes,” Staples said.

The bill, as amended in the committee, stipulates that such facilities cannot be located closer than five miles from any existing facility or a cross road where such a facility could be built. Such ancillary facilities would be built in the highway median and not in additional land purchased for that purpose.

The bill further states that land leased for those purposes would be subject to local property tax.

* SB 1706 also adds an annual audit for any tolled project in the state. O

The Lone Star Report:


Thursday, May 05, 2005

Public hearing for a tollway in San Antonio.

Concerns aired on toll lanes

May 5, 2005

Patrick Driscoll Staff Writer
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

Talk of toll roads in other parts of Texas has led to rallies and drives to oust elected officials, but on Wednesday just 10 people spoke at the state's first public hearing for a tollway in San Antonio.

Opinions varied, though most voiced concerns, on adding toll lanes to U.S. 281 from Loop 1604 to Marshall Road and on building toll ramps to directly connect U.S. 281 and Loop 1604.

When Ray Knox complained that it's discriminatory to toll the new lanes and then use the revenues to build roads in other parts of the city, there was applause.

When Walter Mika said toll roads will help move traffic and thanked the Texas Department of Transportation for its efforts, there was applause.

Plans call for six toll lanes on U.S. 281, with construction starting next year and finishing in 2008, said David Casteel, the transportation department's head engineer in San Antonio. Work on the interchange ramps would also start next year but open in 2010.

Gas taxes and other public money would fund the $228 million project. The toll revenues would be used to back bonds to build other toll lanes, most of them in a connected network across the North Side.

Officials expect that it could cost 15 cents a mile to drive on toll lanes and 50 cents to use a ramp.

For Ernestine Owings, tolls would be another expense, along with increased sales taxes and rising gas prices, to shrink her fixed income.

''My income keeps getting eaten away,'' she said at the hearing. ''My main concern is that this is just a historical trend.''

Vic Boyer, director of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group, took the microphone next to say there aren't better alternatives to tolls.

''This is a way to provide additional lanes in time to address congestion,'' he said.

Other speakers listed concerns such as impacts to other roads because of drivers avoiding toll lanes, the perpetuity of toll fees and the addition of another layer of government to operate the toll system.

''We already pay enough for government,'' Andy Cobb said.

More than 280 people attended the hearing at Reagan High School.

The transportation department has intended to build the U.S. 281 toll lanes and four other toll lanes on Loop 1604 between Interstate 10 and I-35, then hand them over to the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority as a financial engine to develop other tollways.

But those plans were thrown into doubt last week when Spain-based Cintra and locally owned Zachry American Infrastructure submitted a proposal to the state to build toll lanes on Loop 1604 and on U.S. 281.

If state officials consider the offer, they'll have to call for other bids. Meanwhile, they'll push forward with current plans.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News:


Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Corridor foes take on Texas capital

Toll road foes take on capital

May 4, 2005

Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

AUSTIN -- They were scared and angry Tuesday, gathering on the front steps of the Capitol to demand that Gov. Rick Perry and lawmakers slow down state toll road plans.

Hundreds of protesters showed up, most wearing yellow T-shirts to symbolize caution. Many of the shirts were emblazoned with a stop sign and a message to stop the Trans Texas Corridor.

The corridor is a 4,000-mile network of toll roads, rail lines and utility lines that Perry proposed three years ago as a cure for the state's ailing highway system. Private companies would fund most of the estimated $184 billion in construction, building it over 50 years.

Opponents fear the state will give away too much authority to private interests and that the corridor 's full impact on farmers, wildlife, towns and urban areas hasn't been scrutinized. They're urging a two-year moratorium to take a closer look.

''It's scary,'' said David Stall of Inc. ''We need a legislative change.''

Many also want to boot Perry out of office as well as legislators who they feel are marching to orders of the road-construction industry and forcing toll roads down Texans' throats.

''People need to know how evil, evil has crept into our country,'' said Betty Meischem, 57, of Bellville, her voice rising to a high pitch as she repeated the word evil.

Moments later, she whispered that this was the first time she had attended a protest.

''I feel that strongly about the issue,'' she said.

Meischem and others had to shout their one-line messages above the din. Chants sporadically broke out. Signs waved like a phalanx of spears.

And that was the warm-up for the rally, which was organized by Citizens Against the Trans Texas Corridor .

Soon, a string of speakers, led by state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and several state legislators, keyed up the crowd.

Strayhorn, a frequent critic of Perry and a potential challenger in next year's governor's race, called the Trans Texas Corridor the largest land grab in Texas history and a form of highway robbery of motorists.

People should vote on whether to build toll roads, she told the crowd, which roared with delight.

''We call it Trans Texas Catastrophe,'' Strayhorn said. ''You can't tell Texans to give up their land and then pay to drive their tractor across it.''

The amplified speeches and howls of protesters echoed along Congress Avenue as pedestrians casually went about routines.

Perry, reportedly in the Governor's Mansion a block away, probably was out of earshot. But governor's spokesman Robert Black responded, saying Strayhorn did an about-face on her 2001 review of the Texas Department of Transportation, in which she recommended more toll roads be built.

''This is a good example of the difference between fast talk and straight talk,'' Black said in a prepared statement.

Strayhorn's office issued a rebuttal that says Perry's staff distorted the truth about her 2001 report. That report stated facts about toll roads such as the ability to build some highways faster and cheaper, but it made no recommendations on toll roads, a statement said.

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News:


"We are going to dump the representatives who failed to represent us."

Put brakes on transportation corridor, protesters say

Landowners, others do not want state to build toll road network


Gardner Selby
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2005

More than 200 people rallied Tuesday outside the Capitol to oppose tollways that Gov. Rick Perry and others say will relieve traffic congestion, starting with an alternative to Interstate 35 from south of San Antonio to north of Dallas that some fear would cut through their property.

Crowd members, wearing yellow shirts emblazoned with "Stop Trans -Texas Corridor ," cheered Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and legislators including Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, and Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, who said, "They're trying to take our property rights away from us."

Sal Costello of the Austin Toll Party, which opposes making existing highways toll roads, invoked the Boston Tea Party, saying: "It is time we throw the snakes in our building out into the harbor. . . . We are going to dump the representatives who failed to represent us."

John Ricke of Bastrop, hollering, "Remember the Alamo," said he sees the corridor plan as a state "land grab."

"What would you do if you owned land?" asked Eddie Barta, a Fayette County rancher. "Would you give it to them?"

Perry spokesman Robert Black called rally attendees "good salt-of-the-earth folks who may have, frankly, some bad information."

He said critics of toll roads have an obligation to come forward with alternative solutions.

Protesters called for the passage of House Bill 3363, filed by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, which would impose a moratorium on the Trans -Texas Corridor plan. The bill has not been heard by the House Transportation Committee.

Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, the panel's chairman, noted that moratorium language was rejected 90-51 in House debate on the state budget.

Krusee said rally organizers failed to get foes to a morning hearing on transportation issues, adding: "Leaders want their picture in the paper. They're not interested in results."; 445-3644

Copyright (c) 2005 Austin American-Statesman:


Strayhorn: "I say to Governor Perry and his highway henchmen: Hogwash."

Strayhorn sides with angry landowners

Rally against toll roads calls for Perry's removal

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2005

AUSTIN - Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn got farmers, ranchers and small-business owners whipped into a frenzy at a Capitol rally Tuesday as they called for Gov. Rick Perry's impeachment over the land-condemnation provisions of his Trans -Texas Corridor plan.

"Perry and his hand-picked highway henchmen say we have a choice: no roads, slow roads or toll roads," Strayhorn said. "I say to Governor Perry and his highway henchmen: Hogwash. Vote our way today for freeways."

Strayhorn, a potential challenger to Perry in next year's GOP primary, never personally called for the governor's impeachment or election defeat. But she fanned the flames of a crowd that mostly came from Wharton, El Campo and Fayetteville and obviously was already against Perry.

The yellow-shirted people at the rally were Republicans and Democrats, members of the Texas Farm Bureau and the Texas Farmers Union and average people afraid they will lose their land.

"No more Perry!" the crowd shouted, "Impeach Perry!"

The crowd chanted "Clean house, clean house!" in a taunt for the Legislature.

Farm in the path

"I'll give my life so my son gets my farm and not Governor Perry!" shouted John Ricke, 66, a retired Houston firefighter who lives on his family farm in Bastrop.

Ricke said his 68-acre farm is in the potential path of a toll road being built from Dallas to San Antonio for the state by the Spanish firm Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte SA (Cintra for short). The company has the power to condemn land under state law.

Others in the crowd of about 300 feared potential condemnation for a proposed Interstate 69 project, the so-called NAFTA highway that would have a spur along U.S. 59 to the Port of Houston. Becca Socha, president of the El Campo Chamber of Commerce, said such a highway bypass would hurt small-town businesses.

"The Trans -Texas Corridor would be devastating to our community," Socha said.

The toll-road issue has the potential to take support away from Perry in rural areas. The rural vote was the cornerstone of Perry's base when he began his statewide political career as agriculture commissioner and campaigned for landowner property rights against government environmental regulations.

"It's not a critters, birds, bees, foxes, jaguars issue," Perry told a landowners rally near Austin in 1994. "It's about land control. You've got it, and the (federal government) wants to control it."

Toll roads promoted

Now, as governor, Perry is promoting a series of toll roads across Texas to relieve highway congestion, remove hazardous cargo from urban areas and promote Texas as a route of international trade.

"The critics of the plan have an obligation if they don't like it to offer an alternative for addressing not only the existing transportation needs but also the needs we're going to face in the future," Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said.

She said the alternatives to having private contractors finance and build toll roads are to raise taxes to buy up "some of the most expensive real estate" in the state to expand existing interstate highways. Walt said rural opposition to highway expansion is nothing new.

"If you go back to the '50s, there was similar opposition to the Interstate highways and the farm-to-market highway system," Walt said.

Strayhorn called Perry's toll-road plan the "largest land grab in Texas history."

She said he wants to turn the Texas Department of Transportation into "Euro-DOT." She also referred to his plan as the " Trans -Texas Catastrophe."

At one point, Perry press aide Robert Black handed out fliers to reporters showing past support by Strayhorn for toll roads. Strayhorn said the flier distorted her position. She said she is not flatly against toll roads. She said she opposes Perry's condemnation process and plans to put tolls on existing freeways.

When rally organizers asked Black to speak to the rally, he scurried back into the Capitol.

The focus of the rally was a bill by Democratic Reps. Garnett Coleman, of Houston, and Robby Cook, of Eagle Lake, to put a moratorium on toll-road construction for a two-year study. The bill likely is dead because it has not had a hearing in the House Transportation Committee.

Though the rally opposed toll-road construction, the Texas Association of Business put out a news release in support of the program.

"The Trans -Texas Corridor is the most realistic proposal on the table to quickly and efficiently move people and products through Texas ," said TAB President Bill Hammond.

Houston Chronicle:


Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Cintra-Zachry Muscles in on Alamo Regional Mobility Authority

Tollway hearing arrives amid uncertainties

May 3, 2005

Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

State officials will hold their first public hearing for proposed San Antonio toll roads Wednesday, though they don't know whether they or a private consortium will build them.
Plans call for six toll lanes on U.S. 281 from Loop 1604 to Marshall Road and eight toll ramps that directly link U.S. 281 and Loop 1604. Construction is set to start later this year and finish in 2009.

The Texas Department of Transportation will hold the hearing at 7 p.m. at Reagan High School.

TxDOT has intended to build the U.S. 281 toll lanes and four others on Loop 1604 between Interstates 10 and 35, then hand them over to the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority as a financial engine to develop other tollways.

But that scenario was put in doubt last week after Spain-based Cintra and locally owned Zachry American Infrastructure submitted a proposal to the state to build toll lanes on Loop 1604 across the North Side and on U.S. 281 north of the loop.

If state officials consider the offer, they'll have to call for other bids. Meanwhile, they'll push forward on current plans.

''We really don't know what's going to happen,'' said Ximena Copa-Wiggins, a TxDOT spokeswoman in San Antonio. ''We need to keep going until a decision is made.''

The Cintra-Zachry consortium signed a contract in March to develop plans for a 600-mile tollway segment of the Trans Texas Corridor that eventually will run east of I-35 from Mexico to Oklahoma.

Officials with the companies say they can construct the toll system in San Antonio faster and without $450 million in public funds earmarked for toll lanes on Loop 1604 and U.S. 281.

But the companies would collect the toll fees for up to 50 years, and that's money the Regional Mobility Authority would otherwise use to expand the tollway network.

Motorists are left wondering who will set toll fees and how high they will be allowed to go.

''It's an interesting question,'' said David Martinez, a Northeast Side resident who says he'll probably use the toll lanes when he needs to.

State officials have predicted that it could cost 15 cents a mile to drive on toll lanes and 50 cents to use a ramp.

Some motorists will avoid paying tolls as much as possible.

"I wouldn't feel partial to paying a toll," said North Side resident Ivan Estes

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News: