Saturday, November 26, 2005

"Spanish firms are on a conquest of Texas."

Spain moves into Texas

Businesses make purchases, expand into U.S. market

Nov. 26, 2005

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2005

Spanish firms are on a conquest of Texas, buying up everything from banks to food makers in the Lone Star state.

In the past two years, a handful of multinational Spanish companies have expanded their empires into Texas with food company Grupo SOS Cuetara purchasing American Rice, BBVA Bancomer acquiring Laredo National Bank and rice giant Grupo Ebro Puleva snatching up counterpart Houston-based Riviana Foods.

The most recent Spanish acquisition was of Houston construction company Webber Group by Madrid-based Ferrovial in September.

The $220 million investment is Ferrovial's second foray into the state after its subsidiary, Cintra, began to partner with the Texas Department of Transportation in March to design the Trans-Texas Corridor, linking the state's borders with Mexico and Oklahoma.

Trade ties between Texas and Spain also have been on the rise in recent years, totaling $1.2 billion last year, up from $847.5 million in 2003. Most of that business was conducted by Houston companies.

Spanish-owned businesses still number far fewer than those owned by other Hispanics in Houston, but they generate lots of cash. The 661 Spanish-owned firms in Houston, for example, had $5.2 billion in sales in 1997, according to the latest census data available.

In comparison, the greatest number of Hispanic-owned firms are run by Mexicans, who own 25,407 businesses but make just $3.9 billion in sales.

The bond between Texas and Spain has grown so rapidly that earlier this month the Spanish government hosted a trade conference here, and next week the Spanish ambassador will visit the Bayou City to boost business between the two regions.

Spanish companies like international banking giant BBVA are attracted to the U.S. market and the Texas market in particular because of the growing Hispanic population, especially the large Mexican market, which often wires money to Mexico.

Hoping to target that market, BBVA acquired the Laredo-based bank in September last year and operates 44 branches, including locations in largely Hispanic areas such as along Harrisburg Boulevard, Bellaire Boulevard and Long Point.

"The United States is a great market for growth because of the growth of the Hispanic market," said Sebastian Royo, a Spaniard and associate professor of government at Suffolk University in Boston.

However, he warned that Spanish companies shouldn't view the U.S. Hispanic market as homogenous: they should consider cultural differences when marketing to Hispanics.

A vast territory

Some consumer goods companies like SOS Cuetara and Ebro Puleva aren't concentrating on the Hispanic market but the entire U.S. market, a vast territory for them.

For rice company Ebro Puleva, 2004 was an appropriate time to enter the U.S. market as the Atkins diet craze was winding down and consumption of Riviana rice brands Success and Mahatma increased, Jaime Carbó, managing director at Ebro Puleva, said. Now, the company is starting to sell a microwaveable brand of rice to the rushed American consumer.

And SOS Cuetara, the makers of Spanish rice, olive oil and cookies, bought American Rice in December 2003 as olive oil was becoming a healthy cooking option in U.S. households.

"It's the ideal moment to enter," said Eugenio Gisbert, media manager for Madrid-based SOS Cuetara. "The United States is absolutely strategic for us in that market."

Other Spanish companies are choosing to enter the Texas market not by acquisition but by expansion. Almeria-based Cosentino teamed up with Houston partner Roberto Contreras to open the company's U.S. headquarters in Stafford in 1999. From its Stafford offices, the maker of Silestone, which is used for kitchen and bathroom countertops, works with its North American network of distributors, fabricators and installers.

Intimidating market

Entering the U.S. market was fundamental for the Silestone maker because builders and homeowners spend $11 billion a year on kitchen countertops, said Isabel Martinez, vice president of Cosentino North America.

Although Spaniards have long made quality products such as olive oils and marble, few Spanish companies have penetrated the U.S. market until recently, she said.

"In Spain, there's a lot of fear about entering the U.S. market because it's so large," said Martinez, whose company uses quartz to make 54 colors of countertops.

But as Spanish companies have grown and prospered domestically, she expects more firms will expand into the U.S.

"You need to know how to do things first at home," she said.

There was a boom of Latin American countries expanding into the 1990s, said Royo, with Spanish firms buying banks, telecommunications businesses and utilities in South America and Mexico.

"Latin America converted into a new frontier for European countries," Royo said.

But then economic and political crises hit Latin America, especially Argentina, and there was a "disenchantment" with the region and even a backlash by South Americans. Now many Spanish firms are diversifying into the U. S. but holding on to their Latin American investments for the long term, he said.

© 2005 Houston Chronicle:


Thursday, November 24, 2005

TxDOT: "Dollars for transportation could come from tolls, bonds, increased taxes and fees on water, electricity or cable bills."

TxDOT commissioner says I-69 is dead


Kilgore News herald
Copyright 2005

WESLACO, Texas (AP) Texas must find money to pay for an interstate highway linking the Rio Grande Valley to commercial centers in Mexico and Canada and other road projects without relying on federal funds, state officials say.

Neither the federal government nor Texas have the amount needed to complete Interstate 69, a 1,600-mile highway connecting the three North American Free Trade Agreement countries, Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton told South Texas officials and business leaders on Tuesday.

“I-69 is dead in the state of Texas,” Houghton said. “The road fairy has been shot.”

But several Texas lawmakers disagreed, pointing out that some road widening under way in Texas is part of the project. Congress also has approved $50 million for studies to determine the interstate's route.

“The project's not dead,” Ciaran Clayton, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, said in a story in Wednesday's editions of The Monitor. “It's going a lot slower than we'd like.”

I-69 would extend from South Texas to eastern Michigan. In Texas, the highway could enter near Texarkana, proceed south through Marshall and arrive at the Texas border with Mexico. The Texas Department of Transportation could begin exploring routes for the highway and conducting environmental impact studies, Houghton said.

Texas isn't receiving enough federal funding to maintain the systems it currently has. That makes it unlikely for Washington to spend up to $7 billion for the I-69 system inside the state, said Robert Black, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry.

However, lawmakers point to a highway bill that increases Texas' rate of return on gas tax dollars to 92 percent by 2008. That will increase the state's share of highway funding to $2.89 billion.

“At this point the state needs to decide whether I-69 is a top priority,” said Chris Paulitz, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. Texas' Rio Grande Valley is the only metropolitan area in the state without direct access to an Interstate highway.

“For decades, TxDOT has shortchanged the Valley,” U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said in a statement. “The resources that should have gone to construct an expressway connecting us to the rest of the state went instead to Dallas, Houston and elsewhere. Since TxDOT will receive a significant increase in federal funding from the new transportation bill, the question for I-69 should be not where's the funeral but when is the ribbon cutting.”

One option would be a TransTexas Corridor that's separate from the Interstate system. Building costs be paid for by the private sector and tolls.

Dollars for other state transportation projects could come from several sources, including tolls, bonds, increased taxes and additional fees on water, electricity or cable bills, Houghton said.

© 2005 The Associated Press:


Trans Texas Corridor expected to generate business in crushed stone

Vulcan Materials Turns Stone to Profit

24 November, 2005

Herald News-Daily
Copyright 3005

NEW YORK - While oil and gold prices have dominated market talk, a less flashy commodity has also rewarded investors this year: stone.

The company‘s prospects are still good — it stands to benefit from even higher prices, highway spending, construction in the Gulf region and tight supplies. In the first nine months of 2005, prices of crushed stone and sand, or construction aggregates, rose 7 percent per ton.

The stock slipped 74 cents, or 1.1 percent, to close at $67.14 Wednesday on the New York Stock Exchange . On a 52-week basis, the low of $51.05 was last Nov. 23, with a high of $76.31 reached on Oct. 4.

"People freaked out over that," said RS Investments portfolio manager John Wallace, who has about $2 million of his $206 million RS MidCap Opportunities fund in Vulcan stock. Wallace stayed with Vulcan because he believes that the economy is strong and that the outlook for construction and state infrastructure spending is bright.

Vulcan had 2004 earnings from continuing operations of $2.52 a share.

Goldman Sachs & Co. analyst Jack Kelly, who doesn‘t own any Vulcan shares, said crushed-stone prices have risen steadily this year, partly because of the difficulty of opening new plants to meet increased demand, "given environmental concerns and the pushback from homeowners," particularly in coastal areas such as Florida.

"If there‘s a shortage of stone in North Carolina and a surplus in Illinois, you could certainly ship it, but it‘s going to be very expensive stone when it gets there," said Kelly.

One area where Vulcan has to ship stone is Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, where quarries are hard to find.

So Vulcan sends barges of rock downriver to the area from a Kentucky site and ships it up from a site in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Goldman Sachs‘ Kelly, who rates the shares at in line because of valuation concerns, expects a significant increase in demand from the Gulf Coast, where he estimates about 5 percent of the company‘s overall annual crushed-stone sales originate.

Among the highway projects that James expects to generate business: the "Trans Texas Corridor," a highway-and-railroad channel proposed to stretch from the Mexico border to the northern reaches of Texas. State and federal budgets are also coinciding to bring a hefty increase in highway spending in California.

While it‘s the largest crushed-stone company in the nation, Vulcan still represents only about 10 percent of the market, leaving plenty of room for growth through consolidation.

© 2005 The Associated Press:


Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Transcore Toll Tags coming in 2006

Toll tag makeover

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

By Jason Whitely / 11 News
KHOU-TV (Houston)
Copyright 2005

HOUSTON -- More than a million and a half EZ Tag users who drive on Harris County toll roads may not recognize the timesaving device after its makeover.

The tag is supposed to last the life of your car.

Beginning next spring, the EZ Tag will get a new look; no longer a bulky piece of plastic, but rather a paper thin sticker, which is smaller than your registration sticker.

"Not only is it a better looking tag but it performs better," said Fred Philipson, with the Harris County Toll Road Authority. "It's going to help customers because it's going to be cheaper. And the battery doesn't go out in it."

The existing tags have tiny batteries, which last about three years before having to be replaced. HCTRA said that is a costly expense the new sticker tag would eliminate.

The new thin tag, which doesn't need a battery, is supposed to last the life of your car while costing consumers about a third of what the old one did.

Philipson has one of the new sticker tags in his Chevrolet Tahoe. It's among twenty or so HCTRA is testing right now at tollbooths in Harris County.

Unlike the existing plastic ones, the new EZ Tags can't be moved from car to car. Its manufacturer, Transcore, said the sticker tags only work when stuck to the windshield. They're designed to use the glass as part of their "antenna." Plus, Transcore said, the sticker tag is easily destroyed if you try to peel it off.

Philipson said sticker tags will also be able to buzz you through a lot more toll booths, not just on Texas toll roads but on turnpikes all over the south from Kansas to Florida. Toll operators in a handful of other southern states also use Transcore equipment meaning you can use your EZ Tag on express lanes in other states and get them on your HCTRA bill.

"With the price of concrete and oil and steel going up everyday, the authority is really turning to technology to try and help keep their operating costs lower," Tracy Marks, Transcore Vice President, said.

Harris County was forced to make the change because, after 17 years, the existing plastic tags are no longer made.

The Toll Road Authority tells us it'll phase in the sticker tags in the second quarter of 2006, gradually replacing a million and a half of the existing plastic tags as their batteries begin to die.

© Copyright 2005, KHOU-TV


"We have 100 executives in the US looking for infrastructure opportunities."

MIG travelling well, investors assured

November 22, 2005

By Anneli Knight
The Sydney Morning Herald
Copyright 2005

Macquarie Infrastructure Group yesterday confirmed its strong, positive outlook and defended concerns over its profitability at its annual meeting.

The Macquarie Bank specialist fund reaffirmed its distribution guidance of 21c per stapled security for this financial year. It also forecast a 23c a security distribution for 2006-07, based on solid performance by the group's toll-road investments and an outlook for continued growth.

The group owns 14 toll roads in six countries - with an estimated 1.3 million road users worldwide on an average workday - and chief executive Stephen Allen said it was in talks over new toll roads in France and the US states of Virginia, Oregon, Indiana and Texas. The US market accounts for 47 per cent of the infrastructure group's value.

"We think long term the US will be the biggest market for us," Mr Allen told investors at the meeting yesterday. "We have 100 executives in the US looking for infrastructure opportunities."

Mr Allen reassured investors that rising interest rates and petrol prices would have minimal impact on the business's profitability, although the share price has fallen significantly in recent months.

"There has been talk about interest rates going up and concern for infrastructure companies in general, and MIG in particular," Mr Allen said. These concerns would not significantly affect MIG because the group had fixed 86 per cent of its debt over the next two years and had a natural hedge in the longer term.

"As long as inflation and interest rates continue to move together we are quite well hedged," he said, referring to contracts which specify toll-road fares will rise in line with inflation.

Mr Allen said consumers were reluctant to reduce travel despite spikes in the fuel price.

"All the research I have ever seen on the topic says you need a very significant rise in the petrol price before you see a diminution in travel," Mr Allen said. "What I remind people of is that reduction of travel by people in cars is a lifestyle decision … In the current urban planning model the need for personal mode of transport is built in.

"But if the whole economy slows that is a problem because there is a correlation between growth in the economy and travel by car."

He also rejected concerns over the viability of public private partnerships. "If you look at Sydney there are many examples of successful toll-toad PPP projects," he said. "Ultimately governments can build these roads but PPPs have brought them forward and made them happen faster."

MIG's share price rose 2c yesterday to close at $3.67.

Copyright © 2005. The Sydney Morning Herald.


"Some investors question whether refinancing really adds value."

MIG shoots down toll road critics, defends public-private deals

November 22, 2005

Robert Clow
The Australian
Copyright 2005

MACQUARIE Infrastructure Group chief executive Stephen Allen defended public-private partnerships yesterday after Sydney's troubled Cross City Tunnel mired the toll-road sector in controversy.

Mr Allen said that MIG had commissioned an independent body to look at the social benefits of toll roads in terms of reduced congestion, fewer accidents and reduced emissions.

"There are many examples of successful PPP projects," Mr Allen said. "Westlink M7 will be a huge boon for Western Sydney."

He did not say when the report was expected.

Much of MIG's anticipated growth appeared likely to be fuelled by acquisitions. Mr Allen reiterated MIG's interest in tollroads in the US states of Indiana, Oregon, Texas and Virginia as well as France's SANEF and APRR roads.

He said that 47 per cent of MIG's portfolio by value was in the US, and 40 per cent of its investors now came from outside Australia - mostly from the US. "You will see more growth and more investment opportunities in the US," Mr Allen said.

Some of the company's growth was also expected to come from refinancing.

"We are financing our distributions in part by borrowing money against our assets," he said. "We believe this is a prudent thing to do."

Some investors question whether refinancing really adds value, but MIG takes the view that bringing forward revenues is a value-added activity.

Mr Allen also argued that commentators had overplayed interest-rate fears. "We fix our interest rates over the short term," he said.

Eighty-six per cent of MIG's short-term interest rate exposure was fixed.

"All of our toll roads have at least inflation-based tolls," he said.

Nor did he accept that toll roads were particularly vulnerable to increased petrol prices. Initial traffic decreases on MIG's roads in September caused by higher bowser prices were largely reversed in October, he said.

"Reduction in travel by car is a lifestyle decision," said Mr Allen. "If you are going to drive less and you live in the suburbs, it is a big decision."

MIG signalled a steady approach to its business despite some investors' doubts over toll roads and other highly specialised funds.

"The solid performance of our toll-road assets enables MIG to confirm its distribution guidance for 2006 of 21c and to provide preliminary distribution guidance of 23c for 2007, based on the assumptions of continued growth across the operating businesses," Mr Allen said.

MIG's securities rose 2c after the meeting, advancing to $3.67.

© 2005 The Australian


Monday, November 21, 2005

Macquarie Infrastructure Group (MIG) is pursuing toll road acquisitions around Houston, Texas.

INTERVIEW: Macquarie Infrastructure Pursues US PPP's

By Bill Lindsay
Dow Jones Newswires
Copyright 2005

SYDNEY (Dow Jones)--Australian tollroad investor Macquarie Infrastructure Group (MIG.AU) plans to aggressively pursue expansion of its offshore portfolio of roads, aided by an increase in public private partnership (PPP) projects, particularly in the U.S.

"We're coming back into another phase where there are a large number of opportunities available for us around the world," Chief Executive Stephen Allen said Monday at the company's annual meeting in Sydney.

"The U.S. is a really exciting market where a lot will happen but it's also kind of at the stage where there's lots of noise too," he told Dow Jones Newswires.

"Almost half of our roads are in North America and I think long term, the U.S. will be the biggest market for us," said Allen, noting the company is currently seeking investments in Virginia, Oregon, Indiana, and Texas.

MIG is part of a consortium bidding for the Dulles Toll Road project in Virginia, has been named preferred bidder to construct three tollroads around Portland, Oregon, and is pursuing potential toll road acquisitions around Houston, Texas.

Allen told shareholders that MIG's strategy was to participate in as many bidding processes as it could and, "as they develop we can make a final decision about whether to go ahead with the project or not."

He told Dow Jones Newswires that the planned privatization of the Indiana East-West toll road, which links with MIG's 45%-owned Skyway elevated roadway just outside Chicago is also being considered by the company.

"The governor has announced the process is underway and we're having a look at it," he said noting the state government planned to obtain bids from interested parties before deciding if they would enact legislation to enable the privatization of the 251 kilometer road.

One of the noisiest issues is the proposed sale of the iconic New Jersey Turnpike after the election earlier this month of Democrat John Corzine as state governor.

Corzine has stated his support for selling the turnpike and the Garden State Parkway, which have been estimated to be worth around US$22.5 billion and could help the state replenish depleted coffers.

"Every week someone sends me an article saying it's going ahead, it's not going ahead," said Allen, "Corzine said he'd look at it, so who knows what that means."

Allen noted that with Macquarie Bank (MBL.AU) providing a network of around 100 infrastructure executives across North America, MIG remained conscious of opportunities that may present themselves in other high population growth states.

"In Florida there's no legislative impediment, they've got a huge tollroad network but they've gone down the statutory body route, and they keep talking about doing a PPP style deal so Florida's certainly a market we follow."

French Bids
Allen told Dow Jones Newswires that MIG would remain disciplined in its pursuit of the French government's majority stakes in tollroad operators Autoroutes Paris-Rhin-Rhone (APRR) and SANEF, after lodging bids in partnership with French construction group Eiffage in early November.

"We took the view we'd participate but if someone starts bidding too aggressively for it then we'll say it's not for us," said Allen.

"We think they're attractive businesses in their own right, they are a little bit different but one thing is you're getting a whole network, it's not just a single road you're acquiring, with APRR you've got basically the whole network between Paris, Dijon and Lyon."

While noting that the established French road networks were a departure from MIG's usual greenfield investments, Allen said they remained attractive to MIG.

"They're definitely more mature, but they're in good shape, they generate a lot of cash flow, they're significantly under-geared and under-structured and we also think there's also scope to work with the manager to enhance the performance of the business," he said.

Allen also tried to hose down concerns that MIG, like other typically highly geared infrastructure and utility companies, would be financially troubled should interest rates continue to rise.

"Over the next two years 86% of our debt is fixed," said Allen, with that figure falling to 39% in seven years time, "so in the short term we can take prudential measures to lock in our interest rate."

"In the longer term if interest rates rise, our cost of capital becomes more expensive and that is poor for our business," he said.

However he noted that increases in long term interest rates are normally accompanied by rises in inflation, "and all of our tollroads have at least inflation indexed tolls."

"So as long as interest rates and inflation are rising together we are quite well hedged."

The company confirmed it will increase distributions by 20% for the year ending June 30, 2006, to 21 cents per stapled security, and gave preliminary guidance for the following fiscal year of 23 cents a unit.

Payments for both years will be made in two installments and Allen said continuing earnings growth should allow MIG to continue to grow distributions in future years.

MIG securities finished two cents firmer at A$3.67, down from June's record A$4.31.

-By Bill Lindsay, Dow Jones Newswires;
-Edited by Paul Dekkers

© Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company Inc.


"I don't listen to his words as much as I look at his actions."

The chairman of Amtrak: Savior or undertaker?

November 21, 2005

By Robert Cohen
Star- Ledger Washington Bureau
Copyright 2005

WASHINGTON -- As chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission under then-Gov. George W. Bush in the late 1990s, David Laney was credited with significantly increasing highway funding and boosting development of toll roads.

Along the way, friends say, he developed a thick skin, absorbing criticism from those who didn't get the millions of dollars in highway and bridge money they wanted and from those who opposed his construction plans.

Now as chairman of the board of Amtrak, Laney has come under a withering attack from members of Congress who accuse him of leading a Bush administration effort to dismantle the national passenger railroad and turn it over to private interests.

Laney insists he's not out to ruin Amtrak, but to save it: "We want to fix Amtrak's problems, and make it better."

But after the board of directors moved secretly to separate the valuable Northeast Corridor from the rest of the rail system, then fired popular Amtrak President David Gunn, angry lawmakers called Laney to a congressional hearing and told him to his face that they don't trust him.

Some drew comparisons to Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who was fired after FEMA's botched response to Hurricane Katrina.

"Amtrak is now being run by a board made up of members who have virtually no experience in passenger rail," Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said during the contentious hearing. "In short, Mr. Gunn was fired because he would not agree with FEMA-tizing Amtrak."

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in an interview described Laney as a "smooth talker" who is serving as Amtrak's "undertaker." And Rep. Robert Menendez (D-13th Dist.) accused Laney of "failing to be an honest broker," telling Congress one thing while secretly planning to carry out White House anti-Amtrak plans.

In a telephone interview last week, Laney strongly denied he has any plans to destroy, dismantle or privatize the national rail line, and insisted he is independent of the White House.

"Nobody is sitting around giving me any kind of orders or direction," Laney said. "President Bush trusts my judgment on organizational and transportation issues, and I hope I am living up to that." Laney added he intermittently "gives the White House reports on what is going on with Amtrak if they ask," and works closely with the Department of Transportation.

Asked about the harsh criticism, Laney laughed and suggested it is just a combination of Capitol Hill politics and a misunderstanding of his intentions.

"People have their own agendas," said Laney. "I am very comfortable with my qualifications. If people want to challenge me or cast aspersions, so be it. They have the microphone. But if people want to look carefully, they will turn up substance."

The Amtrak board chairman said some of his decisions have been difficult and others, such as firing Gunn, have been unpopular, "I wasn't put in this position to pass on decisions because they are unpopular," he said.

The 56-year-old Texas native is a corporate lawyer in Dallas and a major political fundraiser. Friends and colleagues describe him as a competent and thoughtful pragmatist who is battling entrenched interests to place the money-losing Amtrak on sound financial footing.

Bush appointed Laney to the Texas Highway Commission in 1995. When Bush initially ran for president in 2000, Laney quickly raised about $100,000 for the campaign, mainly by soliciting funds from partners in Jenkens & Gilchrist, the big Dallas law firm he managed and where he focused on corporate and business law.

Laney hoped to become the nation's transportation secretary when Bush was elected president, but was passed over. Bush called on Laney in April 2002 to fill a vacancy on the Amtrak board; the board elected him chairman in September 2003.

Meanwhile, the Dallas law firm Laney headed for more than a decade experienced significant growth, and expanded to other cities including Chicago, where partners engaged in a lucrative tax practice that proved controversial.

Laney left Jenkens & Gilchrist in January 2002 to join another Dallas firm, Jackson Walker. Earlier this year, his former partners at Jenkens & Gilchrist agreed to pay $81.6 million to settle lawsuits filed by more than 1,100 wealthy clients who claimed the firm designed tax shelters between 1999 and 2003 that were ruled illegal by the Internal Revenue Service.

Laney said he believed his old firm had good oversight during his time in charge, handled the internal situation involving the tax practice properly, and unfortunately got caught up in changing IRS rules.

Those who know and worked with Laney, a graduate of Stanford University and Southern Methodist University Law School, say he is a fiscally conservative Republican but not a political ideologue.

Steve Wolens, a former Democratic Texas legislator and long-time friend, said Laney is "very practical" and "a problem solver," willing to do what he thinks is right even in the face of criticism.

He said Laney in the past year headed a charter review commission that examined whether Dallas should move from a city manager form of government to a strong mayor system, an issue that aroused heated emotions. Laney favored the strong mayor system, and was "pummeled" by his opponents, Wolens said.

"He took a lot of grief at all those hearings. He is a masochist for civic duty. He seems to be a glutton for punishment," said Wolens, whose wife, Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, appointed Laney to the charter commission.

Tom Till, a former head of the Amtrak Reform Council and now a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, said Laney is trying to make long-overdue improvements in the operations and finances of the national railroad.

"Laney is not breaking up Amtrak," said Till, who supports a drastic overhaul of the system. "This is a management reorganization, not a bunch of political toads trying to carry out nefarious schemes by their friends in the administration."

Others find that hard to believe.

Thomas Downs, a former president of Amtrak, said the Bush administration appears intent on cutting off federal subsidies and dismantling the railroad, and Laney seems to be its man.

"If you are appointed by the president of the United States, your loyalty is to the person who brought you," said Downs. "You don't pick people who are going to do something you don't want them to do."

Menendez said Laney fired Gunn, who had made great strides in improving operations at the railroad; held a secret board meeting to offer a plan to break off the Northeast Corridor from Amtrak operations; and has held private meetings with people interested in buying Northeast Corridor assets -- all without consultation with Congress, behind closed doors and contrary to past public statements.

"I don't trust him," said Menendez.

"Laney can make all the claims he wants," added Lautenberg. "I don't listen to his words as much as I look at his actions."

© 2005 The Star-Ledger.


"Many West Texans are disinterested in the ambitious Trans Texas Corridor plan."

MOTRAN announces highway projects near Crane, Fort Stockton


Bob Campbell

Midland Reporter-Telegram
Copyright 2005

Two major highway projects were announced at Thursday's annual meeting of the Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance.

MOTRAN President James Beauchamp said the Texas Department of Transportation has been given $44 million to widen a 20-mile section of Highway 385 from Crane to McCamey and build an 18-mile reliever route around the west side of McCamey.

He said the cost had been projected to be $42 million and, with another $2 million from the Federal Highway Administration, widening 385 to a four-lane divided highway is now fully funded.

Area TxDOT Engineer Lauren Garduño of Odessa said the project's planning phase has been authorized and he will await TxDOT's go-ahead to advertise for bids.

Garduño said work is slated in 2006 to widen a 15-mile stretch of Highway 67 south of Interstate 10 from Fort Stockton to a "super two-lane" road that will actually be three lanes wide.

Attended by 30 people, the afternoon meeting at the Permian Basin Regional Planning Commission near Midland International Airport also featured an address by state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who has become involved in a dispute between MOTRAN and TxDOT.

When asked if he is helping advance right of way purchases for Highway 349 reliever route construction northwest and north of Midland, Seliger said it is the kind of situation elected officials should facilitate. "That conversation is continuing," he said.

New MOTRAN Chairman Drew Crutcher conceded his group is "impatient" but said the entities are working together more harmoniously than Beauchamp's criticism of TxDOT at a Midland Development Corp. board meeting last month might have indicated. "I don't think there is as much friction as one might imply," Crutcher said.

Seliger said many West Texans are disinterested in the ambitious Trans Texas Corridor plan because I-35 is too far away. He said MOTRAN's La Entrada al Pacifio trade corridor and intermodal facilities like the loading dock La Entrada's Rural Rail District plans on Union Pacific tracks south of the airport should be more important than "pouring concrete" for more truck traffic.

Beauchamp said he and Garduño have sometimes disagreed, but TxDOT's Odessa District could solve most of its problems if it had more money to work with.

Beauchamp said Midland-Odessa have more trucks go down I-20 each day than San Antonio-I-35 -- about 7,900 to 7,100. He said San Antonio-I-35 see a total of 33,000 vehicles per day while Midland-Odessa-I-20 have 17,300.

Outgoing MOTRAN Chairman Robin Donnelly said his organization has had to work hard to get the Basin's "fair share" of TxDOT and FHA funding because, when MOTRAN was founded 14 years ago, most of the money was dedicated to I-20 maintenance.

Rail District Co-Chairman John Cunningham said the district still doesn't have a contract with Iowa Pacific Holdings of Chicago to manage the loading dock but hopes to by the end of this year. He said Iowa Pacific executives want to meet first with officials of the Family Dollar Texas Distribution Center at Odessa, one of the facility's major prospective clients.

© 2005


"It's only money."

The case of the missing flyovers

November 21, 2005

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2005

It didn't take but a few days for the e-mails to start coming in after the long-awaited interchange at Interstate 35 and Ben White Boulevard opened up early this year.

Why, people asked and still ask occasionally, are there just four flyover bridges, or "direct connects" as they're called in the road-building industry?

The answer, as it often is, was lack of money. And if you have enough for only four bridges now, well, officials said, of course you do the ones that serve downtown.

With that in mind, I wonder how many e-mails I'll get in a year or so when the Texas 45 North tollway and its intersection with I-35 opens up in Round Rock.

That interchange (the construction of which has been causing the weekend shutdowns of I-35 this fall) also will have just four flyovers initially, with one key difference: The four bridges will be not on the Austin side, as with Ben White, but on the Round Rock and Georgetown side to the north.

The "why" part gets a little more interesting here.

Pondering it, I realized that having those north-side bridges will encourage people coming south on I-35 from north Round Rock or Georgetown to take a flyover to the east or west onto Texas 45 North and from there potentially head south on MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) or Texas 130 — both of which, by gum, will be toll roads and will have connections to Texas 45 North fully and helpfully equipped with flyover bridges.

In the case of MoPac, the toll road part will be only the first three miles or so, with a likely toll of about $2. But there will be a toll for Texas 45 North, too. And all of Texas 130 will be a toll road, so if your destination is the airport, for instance, and you take Texas 130, it will cost you $5 or more.

A southbound driver on I-35, of course, could choose to stay on I-35, pay nothing and deal with whatever traffic awaits to the south in Austin. But the bridges will increase the enticement factor for the toll option.

Fine so far. But the real question is, why didn't they go ahead and build the four other bridges connecting on the Austin side of the 45/35 interchange as well? After all, the Texas Department of Transportation was borrowing $2.2 billion to build the three toll roads we've been discussing here and likely could have raised with little trouble the $60 million for the other four bridges.

Could it be they didn't want those bridges to be there, at least for awhile, because they would discourage use of the toll roads? I'm envisioning, for instance, a person who lives in northeast Round Rock and works in downtown Austin.

That person might take Texas 45 North and then I-35, and the reverse in the afternoon. But without the flyovers, that transition from Texas 45 North to I-35 would involve exiting to a frontage road and going through three traffic lights. What the heck, my imaginary commuter might think, I'll just go on another mile to MoPac, eat the $2, and avoid the stoplights.

So, no bridges, more tolls, right?

Bob Daigh, the Transportation Department's district engineer for Austin and a high-ranking official with the agency's turnpike division before that, calls that "a very serious charge." He also considers it a bogus charge.

"You're choking a dragon that isn't there," Daigh said. "That never crossed my mind. We would love to build those direct connects now. It's only money."

Actually, Daigh said, it's more than that.

Back in the late '90s, when the decision about the interchange design was being made, Daigh said the Austin district was engaged in a comprehensive study of I-35 traffic in Austin. The district, he said, wanted to handle the cumbersome environmental clearance process for the south bridges while the statewide turnpike division dealt with the rest.

That clearance by the Austin district, which Daigh has run for the past two years while work on the toll roads tooled along, never occurred. Until it does, and until the department comes up with that $60 million, the southerly flyovers will remain unbuilt.

Which, whether this was anyone's intention or not, will direct at least some extra slice of drivers onto the toll roads rather than I-35. Which should lighten traffic on I-35 in Austin, which is a good thing.

And bring in more toll revenue for the Transportation Department. From the department's point of view, at least, that will also be a good thing.

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