Saturday, July 30, 2005

Toll road interests win big in Federal Transportation Bill

Basin's cut in $286.4 billion highway bill?

$11.6 million, counting Cotton Flat overpass

July 30, 2002

Congress' two-year stalemate on a new transportation reauthorization bill ended Friday with House and Senate passage of a $286.4 billion plan, including $11.6 million for six Permian Basin highway projects.

Both bodies were decisive with a 412-8 margin in the House and 74-26 in the Senate, giving La Entrada al Pacifico its long coveted national high priority corridor designation and enhancing its federal funding eligibility.

"We didn't get all the funding requested, but we came pretty close," said Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland. "Getting La Entrada al Pacifico designated a high priority trade corridor was very important to me and I'm glad we got that accomplished."

He said it was also gratifying to up Texas' return rate from 89 to 92 percent on the gasoline tax dollars its motorists pay and sweeten its annual highway funding from $2.1 billion to $2.9 billion. "This is a 42 percent increase over guaranteed funding in the last transportation reauthorization bill," said Conaway.

"It will pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the state's economy."

Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance President James Beauchamp said U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and Conaway were influential. "DeLay headed the conference committee and was the shepherd for all Texas issues," Beauchamp said.

"We've been lucky to have our own congressman for the Midland-Odessa area, who was there and available to represent our interests in Washington."

Beauchamp said the gas tax return rate will reach 92 percent by 2008 and will be raised by an as yet unknown amount in 2006.

Trimmed by 20 percent to help meet President Bush's spending guidelines, Basin funding includes $1.2 million for an Interstate 20-Cotton Flat Road overpass west of Midland that will give better access to Midland Memorial Hospital. The project had already been appropriated $3 million.

A 16-mile La Entrada-related Highway 349 reliever route from Highway 191 to the Lamesa Highway north of Midland was allotted $2 million, bringing its local, state and federal backing to $20 million. Construction will begin in the spring or summer next year, said Texas Department of Transportation engineer A.J. Shakyaver of Odessa Friday.

Other Basin jewels in the highway treasure chest include $1.6 million to widen 349 to four lanes over 60 miles from Midland to Lamesa; $1.6 million toward making U.S. 385 a four-lane road over 30 miles from Crane to McCamey; and $2 million to complete $20 million in funding for JBS Parkway traffic interchanges over Business 20 and I-20 at Odessa.

"The JBS Parkway project is important in Odessa to provide a better connection to its industrial park and all the people who work out there," said Beauchamp. "The state only has money to fund a third of its projects, so anything we can do to leverage funding helps meet our mobility needs."

TxDOT spokesman Glen Larum of Odessa said the six-year bill "is a major win for Texas transportation" with $669 million for 220 projects.

It creates a $15 billion Private Activity Bond program for intermodal facilities, encouraging private sector investments and partnerships and advancing Trans Texas Corridor plans.

It'll add options for new federal highways to be toll roads and for local communities to use Transportation Development Credits to meet federal road and transit match requirements.

Larum said Texas will now be one of five pilot states to assume Federal Highway Administration responsibilities and oversee compliance to the National Environmental Policy Act.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta will give states broader authority to experiment with design-build project delivery methods, he said.

© 2005:


Plunder from Down Under: Transurban Group from Australia wants Texas toll roads

Transurban looks down US equity road

By Rod Myer
Infrastructure Reporter

The Age [Australia]
Copyright 2005

Transurban Group is likely to launch a listed investment vehicle in the US to provide capital for its ambitious expansion plans there.

The toll road operator is bidding on three road projects in the state of Virginia and considering a bid on a fourth. It is also looking at investment possibilities in Texas.

Managing director Kim Edwards told the Securities Institute yesterday that developing a significant US business would make a US equity raising vital. "If we're successful in the US, it is inevitable that we will raise funds in the US," Mr Edwards said.

Launching a US-listed vehicle would differentiate Transurban from Australia's largest listed toll-road investor, the Macquarie Infrastructure Group. MIG has bought into $8.6 billion worth of toll roads on three continents without launching an offshore-listed vehicle.

Mr Edwards did not say how much Transurban would aim to raise in the US and said the move might be three years away. Such a fund raising would only be one of a suite of actions Transurban would use to finance its offshore ambitions.

These included taking overseas projects onto its Australian balance sheet in the form of debt "but there's a limit to that", Mr Edwards said.

Existing shareholders could be asked to contribute more capital. A third option is for Transurban to align itself with North American investment funds that could provide most of the equity for particular projects. Transurban would provide its tolling systems and "have a small stake and become the manager", Mr Edwards said. "There are big funds in Canada and the US keen to work alongside us," he said.

Analyst Clinton Wood of Deutsche Bank said he thought Transurban could raise adequate funds in Australia. "They could do it from here." Raising offshore money might not be easy for Transurban because it was not yet well known in the US market, Mr Wood said.

Another analyst said Transurban could not expect to grow without "getting existing shareholders to put their hands in their pockets".

Mr Edwards said the US market was the main focus of Transurban's current expansion plans. It has gained exclusive rights to bid on the Pocahontas Parkway in Richmond, Virginia. The 15-kilometre roadway has an enterprise value (including debt) of about $US500 million ($A658 million) and was a good project for the company "to stick its toe in the water" in the US, Mr Edwards said.

It has also signed an exclusive agreement with Virginia's Department of Transport to bid for the addition of four high-occupancy lanes to 22 kilometres of the Capital Beltway, which circles Washington, DC. If the project gets the go-ahead, Transurban will contribute $US135 million and gain a 15 per cent equity stake.

The third project being bid on is a lane addition to a road that runs into the Capital Beltway.

The company is also considering bidding in the privatisation of Washington's Dulles tollway, which is expected to sell for at least $US1 billion. Mr Edwards said the company would only bid for Dulles "if we saw we had a real competitive advantage". The reporter has Transurban shares.

The Age:


Porcine Transportation Bill expands toll pilot projects for new roads.

Congress approves massive highway bill

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress on Friday passed sweeping highway and mass transit legislation that will send nearly $300 billion to the states to build and fix roads, create thousands of new jobs and — lawmakers hope — save lives and cut hours wasted in traffic jams.

The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense says the new highway bill includes 6,361 specific projects requested by individual members.

The bill "will affect every American in some way," said Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt. "The impact of this bill will be felt for decades to come."

The 91-4 vote in the Senate came hours after the House approved the measure, 412-8.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., speaking shortly before the House passed the six-year, $286.4 billion transportation bill, said that after passage maybe fathers would have to answer the question "Daddy, when are we going to get there?" three or four fewer times in their lives.

Afterward, lawmakers streamed out of the Capitol, heading home for their summer break carrying promises of new highway and bridge projects, rail and bus facilities, and bike paths and recreational trails they had secured for their states and districts.

Under the legislation, each state would receive a share of federal highway funding depending on their contributions — through the federal gas tax — to the Highway Trust Fund. The bill, running more than 1,000 pages, also specifies thousands of projects requested by individual members.

The projects range from two bridges in Alaska, one named for House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, funded at more than $450 million, to $72,000 for a bus in Cornwall, N.Y.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, which lists 6,361 of these projects valued at $23 billion, and other watchdog groups say such projects are wasteful, handed out as political rewards.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cited dozens of what he suggested were questionable projects in a highway bill, including $3 million to fund production of a documentary about infrastructure advancements in Alaska.

The bill, he said, is "terrifying in its fiscal consequences and disappointing for the lack of fiscal discipline."

But other lawmakers say the projects are determined on merit and see them as essential to their states and communities.

They say money for infrastructure is well spent when congestion costs American drivers 3.6 billion hours of delay and 5.7 billion gallons of wasted fuel every year. Substandard road conditions and roadside hazards are a factor in nearly one-third of the 42,000 traffic fatalities annually, officials say, and every $1 billion in highway construction creates 47,500 jobs.

"I don't think there is anything this Congress could do more definitively to put people back to work, to stimulate our economy to increase our efficiency, our competitiveness, both nationally and internationally," said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, a top Democrat on the Transportation Committee.

The bill allots more than $50 billion for transit programs and $6 billion for transportation safety.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, said she was pleased that the legislation would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to create stability standards by 2009 to prevent vehicle rollovers.

It contains a $15 billion highway bond plan, pushed by Sens. Jim Talent, R-Mo., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, that will promote road and bridge construction through public-private partnerships.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee, pushed for a five-year, $612 million Safe Routes to School program to encourage kids to walk and ride bikes to school.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving praised the inclusion of $29 million a year to implement high-visibility law enforcement efforts to deter drunken driving and grant funds to states that pass a primary seat belt law — allowing police to stop vehicles for seat belt violations — or achieve a belt usage rate of 85%.

The bill expands toll pilot projects for new roads as a way to ease congestion, and it gives states authority to set rules for access to car pool lanes by single-occupancy hybrid vehicles.

The legislation covers 2004-2009 and comes nearly two years after the 1998-2003 act expired. Congress on Friday had to approve the 12th temporary extension of the old act to keep money flowing to the states while it tried to come up with a new, more generous bill.

A main cause for the delay was a rift between Congress, demanding a maximum amount of spending on the infrastructure, and the White House, which threatened to veto any bill that added to the federal deficit.

There was also the problem of satisfying the complaints of "donor" states that pay more into the Highway Trust Fund than they get back in federal grants. The final bill guarantees that by 2008 every state will get at least a 92% rate of return, up from the current minimum of 90.5%.

The House had planned to vote on the legislation Thursday, but debate was halted when several lawmakers objected strongly to Senate-inserted language in the compromise that would have reopened a runway on an air base in Montana.

House members contended that was an attempt to reverse the process under which military base facilities are closed. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who promoted the proposal, insisted that the base-closing process was not applicable to the runway at Malmstrom Air Force Base, but he agreed to withdraw the proposal so the bill could move forward.

The Associated Press.

The Associated Press.

New Transportation bill gives Texas an $800 million average annual increase

Transit bill would boost area's plans

Congress OKs $286 billion measure; Texas stands to get millions more annually

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2005

Congress on Friday approved an oft-delayed transportation bill that promises to bring an average of $800 million annually in additional funding to Texas and funnels $669 million statewide to high-profile projects such as the Trinity River signature bridges near downtown Dallas.

The $286 billion bill would boost North Texas transportation financing by millions of dollars. The increase comes from growth in the amount spent on roads and a requirement to return a greater percentage of the gas tax Texans pay to Washington.

The bill also provides new options to charge tolls on new federal roadways, and it lays a strong foundation for Dallas Area Rapid Transit's coming request for $700 million for rail lines to Fair Park, Pleasant Grove and northwest Dallas.

The bill, which now goes to President Bush for his signature, drew overwhelming support in both houses.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn was one of only four senators to vote against the bill. He argued that the state deserves a larger share of money than it would receive in the new bill.

"This bill simply continues the pervasive and longstanding funding inequity, and I cannot support that," he said, adding that the bill was "cut up in special-interest projects and pork-barrel spending."

Texas will eventually get back 92 percent of all federal gas taxes it sends to Washington, an increase from the current 90.5 percent level. Texas officials have argued that other factors reduced its share to 88 percent in the current bill.

Mr. Cornyn's Texas colleague, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, said the state would receive $800 million because of an improvement in federal financing formulas.
"That is a significant funding increase to be put to use for Texas roadways, railways, bridges and other transportation improvements across the state," she said. "While this reimbursement rate is still not good enough, the bill provides important funding for Texas transit projects."

Trinity Project a winner

One of the biggest local winners appeared to be the city of Dallas and the Trinity River area around downtown, which received almost $78 million to help complete the new signature bridge on Interstate 30 and provide seed money for a signature bridge on Interstate 35E.

The last federal transportation bill expired in 2003, but officials in Dallas and elsewhere were forced to endure 22 months of political delays before they learned how much money their priority projects would receive.

"I'm terribly grateful to the whole Dallas delegation for getting the money for the Trinity River bridges, but I'm especially thankful to Congressman [Pete] Sessions, Congresswoman [Eddie Bernice] Johnson and Senator Hutchison, who have always been the biggest cheerleaders for this Trinity River Project, and without them, we wouldn't have a project," Dallas Mayor Laura Miller said.

A large portion of the bridges' funding, $17 million, came from some late negotiating across the aisle between Ms. Johnson, the ranking Texas Democrat on the House transportation and infrastructure committee, and Ms. Hutchison, the state's senior senator.

The Senate version of the bill lopped 20 percent from all requests for projects specifically named in the bill, so Ms. Johnson appealed to Ms. Hutchison late last week to dedicate money from the Senate toward the Trinity River bridges.
"I had great cooperation with Kay Bailey Hutchison," said Ms. Johnson, who quickly realized she couldn't restore full financing for all her designated projects. "I decided to try and make up the money for the bridges, and that would be enough."
Other members of the local congressional delegation, including House Republicans Mr. Sessions and Jeb Hensarling, both of Dallas, and Rep. Kenny Marchant of Coppell, also played important roles in financing the Trinity River bridges.

DART fares well

Dallas Area Rapid Transit also came out ahead in the bill, which will devote $286 billion to highway, transit and other transportation projects through 2009. Mass transit will receive more than $50 billion, a rate roughly equivalent to transit funding in the previous transportation bill.

DART will receive a minimum of $260 million in federal funding for its southeast and northwest rail lines. The agency will file a formal request for $700 million in September, and the $260 million guaranteed by the bill gives DART a reason to be optimistic that Congress will provide the full amount, said Gary Thomas, DART's president and executive director.

"We now have a strong feeling about our $700 million request, and maybe a stronger feeling than in the past," he said. "We're in good shape. It's good to have a long-term bill. It's also good for our projects."

If all goes as planned, the Federal Transit Administration will rule on DART's request in the spring. Local residents could see the first work on the rail extensions in June, and the first extension to Fair Park could open in mid-2009. An early project to straighten out the rail line east of the Plaza of the Americas building in downtown could begin in January.

"The timing here should work out perfectly," Mr. Thomas said. "Everything is falling into place."

The transit agency also will receive $10.7 million for bus shelters and other bus amenities and $2.6 million for a Carrollton rail study in the Belt Line Road area, thanks to requests from Ms. Johnson and Mr. Marchant.

"Our delegation did a phenomenal job," said Mr. Thomas, who also praised the support of Ms. Hutchison and Mr. Sessions.

As the bill wound its way through Congress at higher dollar amounts – which triggered delays and threats of presidential vetoes – supporters often argued that the bill's purposes were part infrastructure, part safety and part economic stimulus.
Supporters said the money spent in the bill would create millions of jobs. They also argued that money for infrastructure is well spent because congestion costs American drivers 3.6 billion hours of delay and 5.7 billion gallons of wasted fuel every year. Substandard road conditions and roadside hazards are a factor in nearly one-third of the 42,000 traffic fatalities annually.

Much of the credit for Texas getting more money goes to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who fought for Texas and other "donor states" to get a higher share, Ms. Johnson said.

The exact impact on North Texas, though positive, remains uncertain.
"How this will benefit the North Texas region, we don't know yet," said Mark Ball, spokesman for the Dallas office of the Texas Department of Transportation.
The bill may also signal a subtle shift in the way highways are funded. An amendment introduced by Sam Johnson, R-Plano, allows for up to $15 billion to be used nationwide to help finance road construction with private money. The private activity bonds will allow state and local governments to issue tax-exempt bonds that will be repaid by a private entity.

In addition, an amendment sponsored by Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound, will allow Texas to receive more financial credits from the federal government for building toll roads with state and local money.

"There are some great things in this legislation," said Coby Chase, legislative affairs director for the state Transportation Department. "A lot of people are focused on the dollar amount. There's a lot in there we're really happy about."

Staff writer Katie Menzer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Funding for projects close to home:

$77.8 million Trinity River bridges

$8.2 million Intermodal project, Belt Line Road, Carrollton

$3.6 million I-635/I-35E interchange

Major victories for Texas transportation include (all figures are estimates and subject to final confirmation):

Texas receives an average of $2.1 billion a year from gas taxes it sends to Washington; HR 3 raises that to $2.9 billion a year (excluding earmarks), a 37.4 percent increase.

220 project earmarks totaling $669 million for highway and transit projects throughout Texas.

Authorization of a new $15 billion Private Activity Bond program for transportation facilities that would encourage private sector investments and partnerships, especially involving the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Additional options to impose tolls on new federal roadways to relieve congestion and deliver projects faster.

A minimum $260 million in federal funding for Dallas Area Rapid Transit's rail line construction in Fair Park, Pleasant Grove and Northwest Dallas. That amount is viewed by DART as a good first step for the agency's attempt to get $700 million from the federal government.

SOURCE: Texas Department of Transportation

Dallas Morning News:


Friday, July 29, 2005

"Toll fees would be an unbridled tax that locally elected officials couldn't cap or eradicate."

Planning board hears toll foes


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

The Metropolitan Planning Organization, not much more than a ghost to many motorists, has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight thanks to the looming shadow of toll roads.

The planning board, which oversees local transportation projects, last year slipped about 60 miles of toll roads into its 25-year plan with nary a peep of public protest. The first 47 miles are eyed for the northern half of Loop 1604 and on U.S. 281 from the loop to Comal County.

Board Chairman Lyle Larson was the lone dissenter of the day, and at the time regurgitated his familiar speech about how state officials are shifting costs of state highways to local communities — words that he says have alienated him from state leaders such as Gov. Rick Perry.

But now that the Texas Department of Transportation in recent months has held public meetings for proposed toll lanes on U.S. 281, more motorists are taking notice.

A half dozen newly organized toll opponents in Bexar and Comal counties showed up at a planning organization meeting Tuesday, and said toll fees would be an unbridled tax that locally elected officials couldn't cap or eradicate.

"This is taxation without representation, which started the Boston Tea Party and now the Texas Toll Party," said Terri Hall, a resident of Spring Branch north of San Antonio.

Various speakers in the group listed a litany of concerns to the planning board, including relying on tolls to float bonds when gas prices are skyrocketing and, according to April figures from the Federal Highway Administration, driving is declining on major roads in Texas cities.

"We are financing something that is not going to be profitable," said Helen Rodgers, who lives on the North Side.

Larson, a Bexar County commissioner who represents the North Side, suggested that concerned residents contact the governor and state representatives.

"For whatever reason, it doesn't resonate with them that people are upset," he said. "Get them to fund these in a different way — otherwise toll roads are here to stay."

Other planning board members reflected on the need for better public outreach. Tommy Adkisson, also a county commissioner, said technical jargon at meetings could be recast for easier digestion.

"Frankly, I find a lot of these presentations boring," he said. "Government has to be more exciting."

The first 22 miles of toll roads could open within eight years with the mileage doubling sometime in the next decade, according to plans. Fees would be 15 cents or more a mile.

More toll lanes might follow on Interstate 35 from downtown to North Loop 1604, on Bandera Road between loops 410 and 1604 and on Texas 151 from Loop 1604 to Medina County.

San Antonio Express-News:


Project finance lawyer advises private toll road operators

Oklahoma Watches As Texas Experiments With the Concept of Private Toll Roads

Journal Record - Oklahoma City
Copyright 2005

The demand for more interstates and highways is pushing Texas to explore a concept that's quickly gaining momentum in America and ultimately may drag Oklahoma along as well: private toll roads.

We're just going to wait and see for now, said Oklahoma Transportation Authority Director Phil Tomlinson. What's being proposed and is getting pretty far down the road in Texas. - So we're watching that closely, and have had numerous meetings with them, because whatever they do on that ultimately will affect us.

Imagine paying toll to a company instead of the state government to drive from one city to the next. The idea might seem to go against the tradition of elaborate highway systems built on a wide tax base, but it's been a common practice in Europe for years, Tomlinson pointed out. And the $286 billion federal highway spending bill, House Resolution 3, which cleared a conference committee Wednesday after nearly two years of delays, includes a limited incentive to privatize by allowing companies to raise up to $15 billion for highway projects with tax-exempt bonds.

The Texas Transportation Commission has already taken steps in that direction by accepting a deal by a consortium fronted by toll road developer Cintra in Madrid to invest $6 billion in the first stages of a massive Trans Texas Corridor stretching from Mexico to Oklahoma. In exchange for developing the 400-mile toll road, the group would be given rights to operate the Dallas-San Antonio portion.

And if the project works out as well as Texas officials hope, it would empty a pipeline of traffic at Oklahoma's borders, Tomlinson said.

It's a little dreamy of an idea, but they are on their way with it and they're at least going to try to construct new sections of turnpikes to fit into that long-range plan. He said the authority and the Oklahoma Transportation Department are working with Texas people to see if it's something that will become realistic enough to affect us, and if it will be appropriate at some point for us.

At least 19 states have enacted some form of public-private partnership program for transportation, said Ned Neaher, a project finance lawyer with White & Case law firm in New York. Neaher has advised on several toll road projects in Latin America and Europe, and White & Case has played a part in the AKA M5 Motorway in Hungary, Mexico's Autopista de Nuevo Leon toll road, and Chile's Costanera Norte toll road financing.

Neaher cited California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, who recently unveiled legislation to allow private construction of toll roads. Colorado's Legislature has considered privatized tolls to offset its $100 billion transportation deficit. And New Jersey's Gov. Richard Codey said the state was considering leasing one or more toll roads, including the 148-mile New Jersey Turnpike.

Neaher also pointed to the Chicago Skyway toll road project, in which the city of Chicago granted a 99-year lease to Cintra and Macquarie Infrastructure Group to rehabilitate, operate and maintain the road. The development brought about $1.8 billion to the city's coffers.

States and municipalities are taking a look at many of the structuring and financing techniques and newer tolling technologies employed by overseas transportation projects to see if such techniques can be applied to U.S. projects, Neaher said. Public- private partnerships are now viewed - as an attractive method to obtain budgetary support while ensuring first-class transportation infrastructure.

Michael Pagano, director of the graduate public administration program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said fuel taxes that are supposed to provide funding for roadwork have been insufficient for years. He believes the public would rather accept user-specific fees such as tolls over more general tax raises.

We have become accustomed to thinking that when we go to the gas pump to fill it up, we're paying for the roads we use, but that's not true. We use up more of the road than we're paying, he said. Pagano is also a member of the Transportation Research Board's committee studying fuel tax financing.

Tomlinson said Oklahoma is in pretty good financial shape, but we're still basically spending everything we take in.

State Transportation Authority Finance Director Wendy Smith said the authority is projecting collections of about $192 million in toll revenues for this year, 3.5 percent greater than collections the year before, which in turn were 3.6 percent greater than the previous year.

Those tolls are used to pay for new construction and maintenance of the existing road system. Overall, the authority has about $1.2 billion in debt scheduled to be retired in 2028.

Transportation agencies in the United States are more likely to first develop limited private-toll capacities alongside general use roads, Pagano said - single toll lanes, for example, or segregated trucking lanes.

Tomlinson said Oklahoma's own plans include expanding capacity on existing roads before even looking at more arteries. Plans are already in the works for the Creek, Kilpatrick and Turner turnpikes, for example. Work is planned to begin between 2013 and 2015 on the Creek in Tulsa and Kilpatrick in Oklahoma City. Private roads will come much later, if at all.

The thing about the private toll road is that in order to attract private investors, they're going to have to take what you might call the cream of the crop of the sections, Tomlinson said. The San Antonio-to-Dallas run, fueled by traffic from the North America Free Trade Agreement, likely would be very profitable.

In Oklahoma, the strong traffic corridors prop up the weak, he said, and help the development of additional roads. Tomlinson said private interests would want to take as much traffic - and profit - as possible, likely at the expense of other roads.

We don't have a prejudice; we don't feel like we have anything to protect. We're really looking at it open-mindedly, he said. It will depend on what happens to the south.

Journal Record:


Thursday, July 28, 2005

Plano stands up to TxDOT and private highwaymen.

Plano prefers local control of SH 121 tolls

By: Amy Morenz and Lynnette Phillips, Staff writers
Plano Star Courier
Copyright 2005

Collin County's desire to keep State Highway 121 toll revenue close to home could be realized in the coming weeks.

Faced with an Aug. 15 Texas Department of Transportation deadline to develop a countywide consensus, Plano City Council members on Monday said they prefer local control. They voiced strong support to create a new local entity responsible for constructing and building SH 121's main lanes and interchanges at Dallas North Tollway and Central.

The project could be delayed one year if a decision is not reached by Aug. 15, they said. There's not enough gas tax to fund the projects for an unspecified number of years, TxDOT officials have told county leaders.

The Plano council won't make an official decision until Aug. 8, but expressed a strong preference for the "Plano version" of a resolution calling for local toll control. The resolution could place leaders from Plano, Collin County, Allen, Frisco and McKinney in charge of decisions about building the main lanes.

County leaders, city council representatives and city engineers have been working behind the scenes to draft the resolution everyone can approve, Plano Councilman Scott Johnson said. The Regional Transportation Council has the final power to adopt tolls, but prefers the county and cities agree first.

"The county judge has agreed to place the full faith and credit of the county behind the bonds," said Johnson, who participated in the negotiations. "Our collective meetings agreed we don't want overfunding and don't want it linked to other projects."

Building the main lanes and interchanges to the east and west could cost $345 million, according to earlier TxDOT estimates. Adding tolls could generate $707.9 million extra if the entire section from U.S. 75 to the Dallas North Tollway is tolled; $505.7 million if only the section between U.S. 75 and Hillcrest is tolled. Gas-tax funding for the section between the tollway and Hillcrest is already secured.

Of course, those estimates may have changed.

Collin County commissioners want to make sure there are no surprises on cost estimates before they make their decision about tolls on SH 121.

Commissioners, during their meeting on Tuesday in McKinney, directed county engineer Ruben Delgado to contact PBS&J, the company that provided cost estimates in the SH 121 feasibility study, to make sure the $345 million will cover the construction of the Tollway-U.S. 75 stretch.

County Judge Ron Harris said he has heard the same dollar amounts spouted for a long time and does not want to approve the toll project, on old or dated information. Delgado said the current cost estimates are based on a feasibility study that was completed in March.

"Seems like the $100 million for the ramps have been there for a long time," Harris said.

He said a good valid cost estimate could be well more than $400 million. Commissioners added that right-of-way acquisition along the corridor would increase the cost estimate.

The state's control over the right-of-way is still a question facing Collin County and its four major cities, Plano city engineer Alan Upchurch said on Monday.

"We will still have to assume the highway commission gives us the right-of-way at no cost," he said. "That's a big question moving forward."

Congress is considering a proposal to encourage private ownership of new toll roads. A pending highway spending bill would allow private companies to raise up to $15 billion for highway projects using bonds exempt from federal income taxes.

Cintra-Zachry has bid for a share of the Trans-Texas Corridor construction, Johnson said. The private company wants to build the $1 billion, 42-mile State Highway 130 extension from Austin to Seguin.

"This outside entity wants to do the construction, set tolls and pay the state," Johnson said. "We may not have a decision to make at all. We could make a pitch to the state that they don't have to invest anymore and to let us have control."

The state's right-of-way ownership is a big asset, said Plano City Manager Tom Muehlenbeck.

When San Antonio tried creating its own authority, the state took over, said Randy Jennings, who leads the toll opposition.

"The concern should be if the state will supercede," he said. Jennings wants the section of SH 121 to be free between the Dallas North Tollway and Hillcrest because they are currently funded by gas tax.

"Can you honestly say you personally have looked at every viable option?" he asked Plano's council.

County Commissioner Jack Hatchell said on Tuesday he would also like to know what it would take to add a cash lane, because all that has been talked about is allowing only electronic tolls. That would mean everyone that travels on the SH 121 toll road would have to have a Tolltag. Hatchell, was concerned about those traveling from out of state and those without a Tolltag getting stuck on the toll road with nowhere to go.

Delgado said that by adding a cash lane they county would undoubtedly have to acquire more right-of-way, which will add to the cost of the project.

Plano city leaders want any new local authority would operate according to North Texas Tollway Authority standards and contract with the NTTA to handle operations and maintenance. Tolls would be set to repay debt and fund maintenance and operation, with the new authority charged with determining how extra revenues would be used.

Plano differs from Frisco on the question of who decides how to disperse extra toll revenues.

The majority of Plano's council wants a future authority make those decisions. Councilman Shep Stahel, though, wanted more details on the revenue sharing plan. Right-of-way contributions from Plano and JC Penney should be considered, he said.

Frisco City Manager George Purefoy recommended that excess revenue be shared equally by the four cities and Collin County after the bonds are repaid or the tolls set to maintain and operate the project. Purefoy's plan also sets a maximum toll rate based on the Dallas North Tollway's rate.

Plano's council wants more flexibility on making revenue distribution decisions.

"Tolls and maintenance are not an exact science," said Councilwoman Loretta Ellerbe. "I'd like to be free to pay off the bonds early. Tying us down could create a problem."

Collin County likes Plano's approach if a toll road is approved, Hatchell told Plano council members on Monday.

Contact staff writer Amy Morenz at 972-398-4263 or

©Star Community Newspapers 2005:


House Ag Committee to hold hearings on eminent domain

House Committee on Agriculture to hold hearings on eminent domain

Jul 28, 2005

© Copyright 2002-2005 by North Texas e-News, llc

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Today Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture joined Representatives Henry Bonilla (R-TX) and Stephanie Herseth (D-SD) in introducing the Strengthening the Ownership of Private Property (STOPP) Act. This bipartisan legislation was introduced in response to the narrow 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. City of New London, giving local governments broad eminent domain power to seize private property from one party and give it to another. Chairman Goodlatte was pleased to announce that the Committee on Agriculture has been granted primary jurisdiction of this legislation and pledged to hold hearings on the issue in early September.

"This appalling decision strikes a serious blow to the core values of our Nation, and has far reaching implications," said Chairman Goodlatte. "In defining "public use" so expansively, the Court essentially erased any protection of private property as understood by the Founders of our Nation. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, "A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take away everything you have.""

The Supreme Court's recent ruling gives local governments broad power to seize property to generate tax revenue. State and local governments can now use eminent domain to take away the property of any individual for nearly any reason, including taking property for the benefit of another individual or corporation. Cities can now bulldoze private citizens' homes or seize family farmland to make way for shopping malls or other development, essentially ensuring that no citizen's property is safe.

The STOPP Act will prevent governments from taking property from one private party and giving it to another private party. When abuses occur, the STOPP Act will prevent localities and states from receiving federal economic assistance on all economic development projects, not just those upon which abuses occur. The legislation will also make state and local governments subject to the Uniform Relocation Act, which provides fair market value and moving expenses for citizens relocated by abuses.

"I am pleased to join my colleagues in introducing the Strengthening the Ownership of Private Property Act," continued Chairman Goodlatte. "I am committed to the principles of private property and limited government. I believe this legislation is necessary to ensure that our homes, farms, businesses, churches, and other private property will not be bulldozed in abusive land grabs that only benefit private individuals."

North Texas e-News:


Legislation would force state and local governments to "think twice" before abusing eminent domain.

Bonilla moves to curb the taking of property


Gary Martin
San Antonio Express-News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — In response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that expanded eminent domain powers, Republican and Democrats on Capitol Hill filed a bill Wednesday that would penalize state and local governments for takings.

The bill is aimed at restricting the reach of governments under the June ruling, which was denounced by conservative and liberal leaders as a threat to private property owners.

"The Supreme Court's eminent domain ruling places the American Dream in jeopardy," said Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, author of the legislation, titled Strengthening the Ownership of Private Property Act.

Bonilla was joined by 19 Republican and Democrat co-sponsors in the latest effort on Capitol Hill to blunt the controversial Kelo vs. New London, Conn., ruling.

The high court found that municipalities, like New London, could seize private property, including homes, for the "greater public good," in this case a private development project.

But the court also said in its ruling that states could limit the scope of eminent domain. Several, including Texas, have moved to curtail the power of local governments in seizing private property.

Federal lawmakers also have filed legislation designed to nullify or curb the court ruling.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, filed a bipartisan bill that would limit the use of federal funds for any state or local project that resulted from a private taking.

A companion bill is sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

Bonilla said his legislation would force state and local governments to "think twice before abusing eminent domain."

Under the legislation, a local or state government would be prevented from using federal funds on any economic development project, not just those in which eminent domain powers were used.

"By subjecting all projects to penalties, we are removing a loophole that localities can exploit by playing a funding 'shell game' with projects," Bonilla said.

Other Texans who co-sponsored the legislation include Reps. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio; John Carter, R-Houston; Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock; and Mac Thornberry, R-Amarillo.

San Antonio Express-News:


Wednesday, July 27, 2005

"Fulshear would cease to exist."

Loss of property major concern at corridor meeting

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Herald Coaster Copyright 2005

The potential loss of huge swaths of rural land was a major concern of attendees at a public hearing on the proposed Trans Texas Corridor.

The Trans Texas Corridor, as envisioned by Gov. Rick Perry, would run across Texas connecting major areas with a corridor that would include regular vehicular traffic, trail and utilities. The line intended to cut through this area would be starting at either Laredo or Brownsville and ending at the Arkansas border. A very large study area has been defined for the project, and a public meeting was held Tuesday night to let Fort Bend County residents examine the plan and provide input before the project advances.

While many specifics remain to be determined, the plan generally calls for highways with dedicated truck lanes, rail lines and even utility corridors running side-by-side throughout the state. The plan is being designed in conjunction with the proposed federal I-69 corridor, which will run from south Texas to Port Huron, Mich.

Transportation officials say the plan could address population growth and mitigate congestion as trade with Mexico and throughout Texas increases.

There are some, however, who say the benefits of the plan, if any, would come at a great cost.

Fulshear-area resident Sharon Moore described herself as no less than "appalled" that Fulshear lies in the study area. She said the presence of semi-trucks and a massive highway could ruin the country atmosphere of the town, which contains some of the county's highest valued property.

"Fulshear would cease to exist," she said.

Richmond resident Jeanette Hasse chose the term "atrocity," saying the potentially 1,200-foot wide project would ruin much of the state's rural areas.

"It's too much too soon," she said. "The rural areas have no traffic, so why are we putting all this concrete there?"

Also of concern to Hasse is what she calls "the fact that they're taking private land and giving it to a private company."

Federal and state funding has paid for many of the ongoing studies, but Perry has proposed that a private company construct the infrastructure at its own expense and recoup the costs with tolls.

Doug Booher, environmental manager for TxDOT, said the land would be acquired by TxDOT and remain in the ownership of the state of Texas.

Currently, the TTC lies in the first of a two-tiered environmental study. This first phase examines a swath of land between one-half and four miles wide. The study area will be narrowed further following the study.

Along with public input, TxDOT will be considering a wide range of factors such as population density, economics of communities, the presence of wetlands and endangered species, oil and gas wells and several other factors, said Booher.

The ongoing study will include an examination of the effects of taking no action, and how that may compare to the impact of building the TTC or other transportation improvements.

Not building a TTC would not necessarily mean no impact, said Booher, as a projected increase of traffic could lead to greater congestion and decreased safety.

"We see the changes coming, and we want to be proactive, not reactive," said Booher.

It is difficult to say the impact of the project on Fort Bend County, said Booher, but the project would "certainly" support the economy and reduce congestion.

Last year, the study area for the corridor and for I-69 was increased in size to allow the entire project to swing around Houston, and possibly, Fort Bend County.

The current tier of environmental studies will not be completed until 2006 or 2007, said Booher. Upon completion, tier one of the study will be submitted to the Federal Highway Administration.

If the FHA approves the plan, TxDOT will begin studying the project more closely for tier two, said Booher. This could mean examining, for instance, how the TTC could affect a particular school or neighborhood.

Booher concedes the project is a long way coming.

"It's a 50-year vision," he said.

The Herald-Coaster:


Strayhorn: "It's a land grab being crammed down our throats."

Strayhorn campaigns in San Juan

July 27,2005

Victoria Hirschberg
The Monitor
Copyright 2005

SAN JUAN — Ramona Gonzalez’s limited English didn’t allow her to fully understand what Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn — a 2006 Republican candidate for Governor — was saying at a campaign rally Tuesday, but she believed every word of it.
"I think she spoke well," Gonzalez of San Juan said. "She appeared strong."

Strayhorn rallied support at San Juan fire station No. 2 with about 50 residents, outlining her agenda: no toll roads and come March, after the Republican primary election, no Gov. Rick Perry.

Campaigners passed out Strayhorn for Governor bumper stickers and pledge cards, while many audience members held anti-toll road signs and cheered at Strayhorn’s opposition.

"It’s a land grab being crammed down our throats," Strayhorn said of a possible nine-mile toll road slicing through San Juan from Military Highway to U.S. Expressway 83. "Mayor (San Juanita Sanchez of San Juan), you just give me a holla’ and I’ll come lay down in front of a bulldozer with you and stop toll roads."

Many San Juan residents are outraged over a potential toll road because it will eat away at the small city’s land and hurt its tax base.

"It’s taking away 300 acres of property and we’re going to lose all those taxes," said San Juan resident Adriana Salazar.

The Texas Department of Transportation designed the toll road, saying the region’s growth is fueling heavy traffic. However, TxDOT has not finalized any project plans yet.

If TxDOT approves Hidalgo County’s petition to form a Regional Mobility Authority, toll roads could become a reality. The RMA, which TxDOT expects to approve in upcoming months, is a seven-member board that can generate revenue from road projects and assist in infrastructure planning. Many San Juan residents equate the RMA with the toll road, but Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said while he is against toll roads, he supports the RMA.

"(A toll road) is another form of taxation," said Garcia, the only county official present at Tuesday’s meeting. "I will advocate against toll roads in Hidalgo County."

Strayhorn, who calls herself "One Tough Grandma," has criticized the Central Regional Mobility Authority that operates in Travis and Williamson counties. She said this RMA practices double taxation without accountability and with lax expenditure controls. She said voters and residents need to hold TxDOT accountable for any new RMA’s that are created and that all involved parties must do business publicly.

"Everything TxDOT does they keep secret. They don’t disclose in the sunshine what they’re doing."

If elected, she promises to change that, referring to toll roads as highway robbery rather than democracy. She encouraged San Juan residents to continue to "speak up and speak out" at "so-called" public hearings.

"You can’t tell a Texan to give up their land and tell them to pay to go across it," she said.

TxDOT officials were not present at the meeting, but earlier in the day a spokesman said no toll road plans have been made final.

Focusing on her campaign for Governor, Strayhorn pledged to work for support in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the few strongholds for Democrats in the State of Texas.

"I’m not trying to make Republicans out of everyone," said Strayhorn, though she invited everyone to vote in the Republican March 7 primary. Texas has open primaries, meaning voters can participate in either party’s primary.

San Juan resident and democrat Arnoldo Cantu said Strayhorn could win over the always-Democrat friendly Valley.

"If she can come along and offer something new," said Cantu, she might win. "The Democrats are standing still."
Victoria Hirschberg covers Hidalgo County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4466.

© 2005 The Monitor:


Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Previously funded freeway lanes now morph into tolled express lanes in San Antonio

Toll foes want a review of plans


Patrick Driscoll Staff Writer
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

A growing number of motorists critical of proposed toll roads in San Antonio asked Monday for an independent review of plans for the roads at a meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

It was the second consecutive month that members of a new chapter of had converged on the monthly meeting. But this time there were six to seven times more people, about 40, and half addressed the board.

"We have every indication that a horrible fraud, including abuse of power and gross malfeasance at every level of government, is taking place through the toll road system now being implemented in Bexar County," said Spring Branch resident Terri Hall.

The planning organization, which approves local transportation projects that use federal money, last year put about 60 miles of toll roads into its 25-year plan. The first 47 miles are eyed for the northern half of Loop 1604 and for North U.S. 281 from 1604 to Comal County.

Officials with the Texas Department of Transportation, which has two seats on the 19-member board, asked that toll roads be permitted. In-house traffic and financial projections showed highway lanes could be built years sooner with tolls, and they promised that existing free lanes would remain free.

But members aren't buying it.

They said current U.S. 281 lanes would become frontage roads for express toll lanes, which isn't the same. Plans call for posted speeds of 65 mph to be lowered to 45 mph. And opponents expect that more traffic signals and stop signs would be added and there would be more cross traffic.

"You have to be a moron to sit there and say you still have your (free) road," said Brad Holt of Spring Branch.

Toll opponents also said state documents from a public meeting in 2001 show that proposed freeway lanes on 281 from 1604 to Stone Oak Parkway had already been funded with gas taxes and that construction was supposed to have started by this year.

And as plans for those freeway lanes morphed into tolled express lanes, the cost ballooned from $48.1 million to $78.6 million, they pointed out.

"Who dreamed this up to begin with?" Mike Wikam, a resident of the Woods of Shavano, asked the planning board. "I've had it. I want my public servant to do what I want them to do, not what he wants to do."

In December 2003, the Texas Transportation Commission ordered that tolls be considered for all new state highway lanes. Last summer, the Metropolitan Planning Organization added toll roads to its long-range plan, with then-Chairman Lyle Larson, a county commissioner, casting the only dissenting vote.

New planning board Chairman Richard Perez, a city councilman, said Monday that he doesn't know whether he's for or against toll roads.

"There's no rubber stamp going on here," he assured toll road opponents. "The issue's being discussed." members said they'll try to get their request for an independent review placed on the planning board's agenda next month.

"Let's work together," area resident Ed Taylor told the board. "Let's have an honest public debate."

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News:


Monday, July 25, 2005

When push came to shove, Legislature let Texas down

State needs real protection from eminent domain abuse

July 25, 2005


The U.S. Supreme Court just put a big "Up for Grabs" sign on everyone's front lawn, and it's a shame that Texas legislators can't bring themselves to take it down.

On June 23, the Supreme Court held that it is perfectly fine, under the U.S. Constitution, to take homes from their rightful owners in Connecticut and transfer the property to a private developer. What was the justification for this action? Office buildings produce more taxes than homes, and the project would lead to "economic development." The decision touched off a fire-storm around the country, including in Texas.

Texans have reason to worry. Hurst, Texas, took eight homes for a shopping mall parking lot, forcing the owners to move out while the spouses of two residents were dying in the hospital. Of the people whose homes were taken, three died and four others had heart attacks during the litigation. Then, within hours of the Supreme Court's decision, Freeport filed condemnation proceedings against two family seafood businesses to make way for a larger, more expensive private marina.

Texans, like most other Americans, were horrified by the Supreme Court's decision. Politicians agreed that something must be done. Eminent domain was added to the special legislative session in Texas. And then ... the effort collapsed.

Legislators agreed in general that they wanted to stop this pernicious practice, but when push came to shove, they just couldn't bring themselves to do it. Not surprisingly, lobbyists from cities and developers have been prowling the halls of the Capitol. So legislators took good legislation and added so many exceptions that the bill won't actually accomplish a thing.

By far the worst exception is to continue to allow condemnations where the justification is that the property is "blighted." That might be OK, if Texas had a definition of blight that actually involved something being wrong with the area. Instead, an area can be called blighted if it has houses on a dead-end street or there's not enough parking ("faulty street layout") and if it is an "economic liability" in the opinion of the local government. Local governments can still throw people out of their homes because they're an economic liability when a shopping mall wants to move in.

In the end, the supposed prohibition on the use of eminent domain for "economic development" will be meaningless, because local governments can just proceed under the blight law and call the area an economic liability. And Texans will still end up with no protection at all.

There is a proposed constitutional amendment that would actually forbid takings for the primary purpose of economic development. Most important, it tells the courts to make their own judgments, not to just rubber stamp whatever the government claims. Right now, courts presume that everything the government says is right and leaves it up to the homeowner to prove otherwise. The constitutional amendment would provide meaningful protection, but the legislators and the lobbyists are working hard to prevent the issue from getting to a public vote — likely because they know it will pass.

Texas needs real reform. And Texans should be telling their representatives that they want actual protection from eminent domain abuse, not a cosmetic statute that looks like an improvement but does nothing at all.

Berliner is a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice ( www.i or www. ) and represents the homeowners in the Supreme Court eminent domain abuse case. She is also the author of "Public Power, Private Gain," the first and only nationwide study of eminent domain abuse.

Houston Chronicle:


"A Senate committee is scheduled to take up eminent domain bills Wednesday."

Limits on eminent domain?

Mon, Jul. 25, 2005
By O.K. Carter, Staff Writer
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Copyright 2005

Unless some attitude changes take place in the Legislature, there may be very few projects like Arlington's involvement in the Dallas Cowboys stadium project in the future.

State lawmakers have been unusually strident in their reaction to last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanding eminent domain powers. At this juncture, more than half the states -- Texas included -- have various measures in the works that would limit cities' ability to condemn private property for development.

And, yes, the high court did specifically say that it was certainly OK if states choose to limit the parameters of eminent domain.

In Texas and California, voters might be asked to weigh in on state constitutional amendments to that effect, although there's a snag in Texas: Until lawmakers get through the public education funding dilemma, there's very little chance that anything else will get done.

That was demonstrated this month when Rick Perry added the eminent domain issue to the list of matters that the Legislature could consider during the special session that wrapped up Wednesday.

To that end, the Senate approved a bill to limit governments' ability to take private property to spur economic development. And the House approved putting a proposed constitutional amendment before voters.

But all that basically went away when the session ended. The new special session called Thursday -- as the saying goes -- is a whole new ball game. It could well be that lawmakers become so weary of hanging out in Austin and wrestling with the education formula that they'll skip out on other issues, including eminent domain. By the time the next regular legislative get-together takes place two years hence, eminent domain may well slip way back on the priority list.

Or maybe not. An Associated Press article just Friday reported that the House Land and Resource Management Committee has approved a constitutional amendment sponsored by state Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, that would severely limit eminent domain seizures like those approved by the Supreme Court. A Senate committee is scheduled to take up eminent domain bills Wednesday.

But when push comes to shove, what's all that mean to Arlington? Or, for that matter, to Texas?

Answer: Not much for Arlington. The stadium is basically a voter-approved done deal.

Further, when it comes to special sessions, the governor strictly establishes which legislative topics can be considered. And this time around, he's been smart enough to limit that list to one item -- public education.

He could, of course, add to the list if the funding issue gets worked out, since his major rival, Republican Comptroller and gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn, is making an issue out of the topic.

And here's another eminent domain concern for future consideration: If Arlington is selected as the site for President Bush's presidential library, it'll need at least 40 or 50 acres, most assuredly in the vicinity of the existing Entertainment District.

If property were taken under eminent domain, would it count as a public taking for a private development? As part of a university system? A city or national park? A quasi-commercial endeavor? A nonprofit?

And yes, I know -- we're sort of counting our golden eggs before the goose shows up. But just remember that you read it here first.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram:


Krusee sees no contradiction in allowing commercial development on land seized by the state.

Of pigs, pythons, doughnuts and eminent domain

Monday, July 25, 2005

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman Copyright 2005

As you might have heard, in June the U.S. Supreme Court boosted the government's right to forcibly buy your property, expanding the definition of "public purpose" to include economic development projects.

This increase in what is called eminent domain power raised both Democratic and Republican hackles. But it seemed to generate the greatest passion among the Libertarian-leaning subset of the Republican Party.

Here in Texas, where you can buy a "Come and Take It" T-shirt for your toddler at the Capitol gift shop, it took less than a day for legislators to decide that state law needed to say no way to this new license.

Senate Bill 62, the legislation to do this, ended up sawdust, like everything else lawmakers attempted in their first special session of 2005. They're back at it for another 30 days, though, so the eminent domain legislation probably will make a comeback.

What's interesting about it, at least for this column, is language inserted by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, that would prohibit the Texas Department of Transportation from condemning land to build anything in the median of a toll road other than a convenience store or service station.

If this language survives in a future eminent domain measure — and both houses said yes to it in SB 62 — it would cancel to some degree law that the Legislature just passed in May.

Way back then, two months ago, lawmakers said in House Bill 2702 that it would be OK for the Transportation Department to acquire land, either with a willing seller or through condemnation, for an "ancillary facility" on a tollway, including "a gas station, garage, store, hotel, restaurant, or other commercial facility."

Commercial facility, of course, brings in just about anything an entrepreneurial mind can conjure up.

That provision, however, did not apply to the Trans-Texas Corridor, Gov. Rick Perry's proposed 4,000 miles of intrastate toll roads, railroads and utility lines. Rural folks had raised enough of a stink about the idea of losing farm acreage for a Hilton Hotel or a doughnut factory on state land that the corridor was slapped with the gas station/convenience store limitation.

Not so the rest of the state's roads (with or without tolls), mostly because the sponsor of HB 2702, state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, wanted it that way.

Krusee's template for this sort of setup is U.S. 183-A, the tollway under construction in Cedar Park and Leander.

Leander leaders would like to sink the road 20 feet as it passes through town, then put shops on an overpass and maybe a hotel and other businesses on the land at ground level. Leasing land to the developers would help pay for the extra cost of building the road in a trough and maybe bring in some more cash on the side for other purposes.

Krusee, asked about this last week, sees no contradiction in allowing such development on state land on tollways and at the same time dialing back on the Supreme Court ruling.

He points to other transportation facilities, such as airport terminals, where government might condemn land for the airport property and then put bookstores and restaurants in the concourse or a hotel on surrounding land.

And in the case of U.S. 183-A, those overpass shops would be in the same footprint as the road, just at a higher elevation.

In other words, the land had to be acquired to build the road anyway, and the shops —along with the revenue they would bring in for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, builder of the road — are just gravy.

The concern on the Trans-Texas Corridor was not about shops on overpasses but rather about the state acquiring extra land alongside the road and at key intersections with other state highways, then leasing that land to private developers.

It's this sort of pig-in-the-python footprint, potentially created through government fiat, that raises concerns.

If Shapleigh's language for SB 62 becomes law, then Krusee and the mobility authority could still carry out their Leander plan.

The state could even craft some of those pig-in-the-python developments alongside roads. But only from a willing seller.

No condemnation, in other words, for anything other than facilities directly related to travel.

No "come and take it," just "pretty please." And a fistful of dollars.

Austin American-Statesman:


Sunday, July 24, 2005

"Reminds me of the argument that the lotto would go toward paying for schools."

Letters to the Editor

Tolls a license to extort


San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

Toll roads, either state or private, are little more than a license to extort money from the public.

My first experience with toll roads was in the '70s when I was assigned to a major joint command in Washington and had to travel to Bayonne, N.J. All non-toll routes to Bayonne were cut or diverted, leaving the only practical route a toll road. Imagine my indignation when the military refused to reimburse my toll road expense.

That was then. Recently I returned from a road trip to Washington, then to Chicago and back to San Antonio. Memories of "free road travel" from D.C. to Chicago were destroyed as captivating toll roads slowly invaded and sucked dry my wallet.

Forget the exorbitant toll fees. Private gas and food shops along those toll roads have somehow gained exclusive rights to your pocket and are not shy about taking advantage of your "needs" with their price markups. Sure, gas is high, but plan on spending 10 to 20 cents a gallon more on a toll road, and for the price of a bad hamburger, you could buy a steak in Texas.

And the argument of toll fees going to keep up the roads? Reminds me of the argument that the lotto would go toward paying for schools. Forget it!

Over the years, I have found the old-fashioned adage of keeping the government out of your pocket a good policy that requires old-fashioned common sense, which, as time travels on, tends to be harder to find.

— J.V. Cowan

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News: