Saturday, December 24, 2005

The latest plunder from Down Under

Drivers fined for avoiding tollways

December 24, 2005

Steven Wardill
The Courier Mail(Australia)
Copyright 2005

QUEENSLAND motorists are being charged a secret tax of up to $40 a year for failing to use the state's network of toll roads.

Thousands of motorists who have adopted the cashless e-toll technology will be hit with a $10 fine if they fail to use the tollways for three months.

The quarterly fee, equivalent of almost four Gateway Bridge car tolls, follows a Government's decision last February to dump the $40 deposit for using e-toll.

That led to a 40 per cent increase in the numbers using e-toll.

The technology is now fitted to 171,772 vehicles.

Queensland Motorways says in its annual report that the loss in transponder revenue will be recouped by the new fine which started in October.

The first charges for under-used transponders are likely to hit motorists early next year.

The RACQ yesterday called for the fee to be dumped and the Opposition labelled it another "secret new state tax".

RACQ external affairs manager Gary Fites said there were few, if any reasons, for Queensland Motorways to introduce the fee.

Mr Fites said that the costs of setting up e-tolls were lower than manned booths.

But the State Government defended the fine, saying few motorists would face charges and it compared favourably with fees on toll roads in other states.

Queensland Motorways also said it was reviewing customer accounts and the impact of the fee.

"Once the process has been completed, Queensland Motorways will work with customers who are likely to incur the fee, giving them time to examine their usage patterns and explore their payment options," the government company said.

"Should customers wish to reconsider their tolling payment method, Queensland Motorways will help them organise a tolling payment that best suits them."

E-tolls account for 43 per cent of all Gateway Bridge tolls and more than 50 per cent of tolls on the Logan and Gateway motorways. Transponders in their vehicles warn motorists when their e-toll account is low.

The minimum top-up amount has been reduced from $100 to $25.

But the electronic toll system has a chequered history.

In 2003, Queensland Motorways was forced to repay more than $100,000 to motorists after The Courier-Mail revealed that the company knowingly overcharged many users.

Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg accused Transport Minister Paul Lucas of duping motorists with free transponders when he announced toll increases in February.

"The Government should be rewarding those who use transponders not finding a way to tax them," Mr Springborg said.

"This secret tax is just another example of the greed and duplicity of the Beattie Government."

Mr Lucas said all states had adopted minimum use fees and the one introduced by Queensland Motorways was "significantly more favourable".

The "tax" comes on top of toll increases on July 1 by 20¢ for cars and 50¢ for trucks on the Gateway Bridge and 10¢ on the Logan Motorway's Loganlea, Kuraby and Stapleton Rd toll stations.

The Government has also linked tolls to annual inflation which means that Gateway Bridge car charges will be $3.10 by 2011 and $7.75 for trucks by the time a duplicated bridge is completed.

Mr Lucas said motorists would not be paying extra for tolls until 2042 if Mr Springborg had convinced his Federal Coalition colleagues to support the second Gateway bridge across the Brisbane River.

"Every time there needs to be a consumer price index increase it will be because of the Federal Government," he said.

Mr. Fites said the fine set by Queensland Motorways was an unnecessary impediment for casual e-toll users.

"Certainly from a traffic efficiency point of view we encourage the use of that technology but this charge tends to work against that outcome," he said.

Mr Fites said there were few, if any reasons, for Queensland Motorways to introduce the fee for financial reasons.

Mr Springborg said the Government had made it clear that, in the future, all motorists would need to use a transponder, reinforcing his claim that the "secret tax" was just a grab for cash.

E-TOLL – how it works
E-toll transponders are free.
The transponder is fitted on the windscreen behind the rear-view mirror and is recognised when vehicles pass through toll areas.
Customers who fail to use their transponders during a three-month period will have $10 deducted from their balance.
Those who spend under $10 a quarter will have to pay the difference.

© 2005 The Courier Mail


Friday, December 23, 2005

"I am troubled by the direction this tollway board is taking."

North Texas Tollway Authority rate policy splits region


By Mike Raye
Frisco Enterprise
Copyright 2005

A new policy for setting toll rates on the North Texas Tollway Authority system threw out the concept of regional cooperation Wednesday, replacing it with a bitter disagreement between the board of directors, squeaking by on a 4-3 vote.

Those in favor called it a "solid, regional approach to road building" while opponents called it a "Robin Hood" plan akin to the school finance imbroglio and even went as far as saying it was "fiscal suicide."

As the debate wore on and points grew sharper, some appealed to the spirit of the season for détente.

"Christmas is a season noted for goodwill and sharing, and I support (the policy) because the NTTA is about regionalism and serving our region," said Director Bill Meadows of Fort Worth, the Tarrant County appointee to the board.

"We have been thinking about this for the last four months," said Kay Walls of Cleburne, the Johnson County representative first appointed to the NTTA board by Governor George Bush in 1999 and reappointed by Gov. Perry in 2002. "We were created as a four-county authority to get along together and to unify with each other, not to argue with each other. I am looking forward to the future of our region and the future of moving mobility forward," she said, pleading for consensus in slow, articulated speech.

At the heart of the battle was a disagreement about a Tarrant County project, the Southwest Parkway in Fort Worth, and the President George Bush Turnpike's eastern extension through Rowlett, Sachse, and Garland.

How to fund the two projects through tolls was the point of contention. Directors representing Tarrant, Denton, and Johnson counties supported a plan to keep tolls as low as possible on the two roads, while counterparts from Collin and Dallas counties voted in favor of a measure to establish higher tolls on the projects - 12 cents per mile for the Bush extension and 16 cents per mile for Southwest Parkway - above the current average rate of 10 cents per mile throughout the NTTA network. Collin and Dallas representatives contended the two projects wouldn't generate enough revenue on their own at the current rate and therefore should be higher to keep from penalizing Collin and Dallas tollway drivers - the bulk of NTTA customers.

"Southwest Parkway could end up having the highest toll rate in the United States of America and that does not speak to regionalism," Meadows said.

Meadows was seated next to Paul Wageman, the Collin County appointee to the board. Their body language spoke loudly about the brewing disagreement between regional sectors. When Wageman's microphone went out at the beginning of the meeting, Meadows offered to share his, prompting a sarcastic remark about regionalism and sharing from the Collin County appointee.

"I am troubled by the direction this tollway board is taking," Wageman said. "I think we have lost our way. The significant majority of tollway users come from Dallas and Collin County. This really speaks to the difficulties we will have down the road functioning as a regional authority."

Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher said the move will set a dangerous precedent, especially with the state considering foreign comprehensive development agreements (CDA) for highway building.

"We have CDAs coming into our region and TxDOT is making deals with counties. What scares me is you will go out and finance projects that are not feasible projects," she said, addressing the board.

"It sets, in my opinion, a bad precedent," said Alan Sims, board appointee from Dallas County. "It almost looks like fiscal suicide. It's like we're saying, 'It doesn't matter what the numbers are; let's move forward.' "

The division in opinions generally fell along an east-west regional dividing line.

Keliher, Wageman, and officials from the eastern part of the NTTA region argued that their constituents make up the majority of NTTA customers and therefore should not have to have their tolls increased by 1 to 3 cents per mile to pay for the $825 million Southwest Parkway in Tarrant County. Tollway officials contend that under the current 10 cents per mile rate the parkway will only raise enough money to pay for 45 percent of its cost. The Dallas North Tollway and the Bush Turnpike tolls paid for 75 percent of their costs in the first years of operation. Southwest Parkway tolls are not expected to pay for it in less than 30 years, officials said.

NTTA statistics show that almost 23 percent of toll transactions come in Denton, Tarrant, and Johnson counties, while Dallas and Collin counties account for as much as 75 percent, based on Toll Tag transactions.

"The real critical part of this is we are a regional authority," said Jack Miller, board vice chairman and Denton County appointee. "We have an obligation as a regional authority to encourage projects in our region, but they have to be sound. They have to have a system-wide soundness."

Under the plan approved by the board - alternative 4 - the "guiding principle" would be that all new NTTA projects would be supported by the NTTA system through "uniform toll rates on all facilities." The existing system of the Dallas North Tollway and the Bush turnpike would increase to 11 cents per mile in 2007 and grow to 12 cents per mile by 2010, a 1.5 percent annual rate change, reviewable after 5 years. The eastern extension of the Bush would open with a 12 cents per mile toll and Southwest Parkway would open with a 16 cents per mile rate, with 1.5 percent annual increases. Tolls on the new projects would be reviewed after five years as well.

According to the NTTA, even without new projects, the authority would consider toll increases in 2007, with a $300- to $400-million capital program coming online in the next eight years.

©Star Community Newspapers 2005


Thursday, December 22, 2005

"Once it's explained to the average person what's going on, they're opposed to it."

Activists seek injunction to stop U.S. 281 toll project


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

A multi-pronged attack to temporarily stop construction of U.S. 281 toll lanes got under way Wednesday.

Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas and People for Efficient Transportation Inc. filed a motion in federal court to get an injunction, and hope to get a ruling in mid-January.

"Unless we stop this project soon, irreparable damage will be done to this sensitive area and its residences and businesses," said Annalisa Peace, vice president of Aquifer Guardians.

The motion follows a Dec. 2 lawsuit that says the Texas Department of Transportation should have done a full impact study for three miles of frontage roads and toll lanes — 16 lanes at the widest points — to be built on the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone just north of Loop 1604.

TxDOT did a less intensive environmental assessment.

"They have not done as the law requires, which is to engage the community through this environmental impact process," Peace said.

Striking on several fronts, the groups say TxDOT should have done a better job evaluating effects on the aquifer, wildlife, businesses, motorists who will pay tolls or fight increased traffic congestion, and residents facing unhealthy noise levels.

The project would be much less intrusive if officials dropped the toll idea, said Bill Barker, a transportation consultant with Aquifer Guardians. Then they could nix the planned frontage roads, which otherwise are needed under state law to ensure the same number of non-tolled lanes as there are today.

"Once it's explained to the average person what's going on, they're opposed to it," he said.

TxDOT officials won't comment on the litigation but say a wider U.S. 281 is needed to deal with traffic congestion. Gas taxes will fund construction of the three-mile section, but tolls will be added to the express lanes to help pay for other toll roads, including an extension along U.S. 281 to Comal County.

Last month, workers began clearing trees and putting up silt fences to prepare for the construction, which is supposed to start in mid-January.

"We're moving forward until we hear something different," TxDOT engineer Frank Holzmann said.

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News:


"Unfortunately, this has been a money grab."

Tollway board OKs divisive rate policy

Plan lowers initial tolls on new Bush Turnpike, Southwest Parkway

December 22, 2005

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2005

PLANO – A sharply divided North Texas Tollway Authority board approved a new toll rate policy Wednesday that supporters termed a solid, regional approach to road building and detractors termed a "Robin Hood" plan and "fiscal suicide."

Four board members from Tarrant, Denton and Johnson counties voted for a measure that could result in setting the lowest possible toll rates for Fort Worth's Southwest Parkway and the Bush Turnpike's eastern extension in Rowlett, Sachse and Garland.

Three board members from Collin and Dallas counties voted for other proposals that would have required higher initial toll rates and larger regular toll rate increases on the two projects, arguing that higher rates are required because the roads will not raise enough revenue on their own to meet their costs.

"Unfortunately, this has been a money grab," Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher said after the vote.

Under the plan approved Wednesday, the Bush Turnpike extension's toll rates probably will be 12 cents per mile when it opens in 2010.

That is expected to be the same rate on the tollway authority's existing roads in 2010, up from the current rate of 10 cents per mile.

The Southwest Parkway could have rates of 16 cents per mile when it opens in 2010, a higher rate that will help pay for planned architectural amenities.

Under options supported by representatives of Collin and Dallas counties, Southwest Parkway and turnpike extension users could have paid an additional 1 cent to 3 cents per mile, generating millions in additional revenue.

Ms. Keliher and others on the eastern side of the region argue that motorists paying to use the Bush Turnpike and Dallas North Tollway now will be asked to pay to help build the $825 million Southwest Parkway. Most recent estimates show that under the proposal approved Wednesday, Southwest Parkway will collect only enough tolls to pay for 45 percent of its operating and debt costs. It also is not expected to pay for itself even after 30 years.

In comparison, money collected on the Bush Turnpike and tollway extensions when they were first built paid for about 75 percent of their costs.

"It sets, in my opinion, a bad precedent," said board member Alan Sims of Dallas County. "It almost looks like fiscal suicide. It's like we're saying, 'It doesn't matter what the numbers are; let's move forward.' "

Regional outlook

Supporters of the measure argued for a more regional approach. While the turnpike and tollway lie almost exclusively in Dallas and Collin counties, motorists from other counties pay to use those roads, said longtime Tarrant County Commissioner Glen Whitley, who recently resigned to run for Tarrant County judge.

"This is a region. It's not Robin Hood," he said, referring to the state's tax system for funding education. "Our residents are choosing to live in areas that are different from where they work."

According to the tollway authority, residents of Denton, Tarrant and Johnson counties account for almost 23 percent of all electronic toll transactions on all of the agency's roads, bridges and tunnels. Residents of Dallas and Collin counties account for 75 percent of all tollway authority electronic toll transactions.

Mr. Whitley also took issue with the tollway authority's most recent traffic and revenue estimates, saying the Southwest Parkway will almost certainly generate more money than expected, even when it first opens.

"I truly believe that if you build it, they will come," he said.

Jack Miller, one of two Denton County board members, proposed a compromise last month that would require the Southwest Parkway and turnpike extension to have toll rates that are 1 cent per mile higher than what was approved Wednesday. That proposal was designed to thwart a proposal that would have required even higher rates, he said. When support for the measure approved Wednesday began to grow, Mr. Miller said, he shifted his vote to the plan he initially preferred.

"We have an obligation as a regional authority to encourage projects," he said. "They have to be sound, but that can be a [tollway] system-wide soundness."

The policy approved Wednesday does not formally set toll rates, which will be established before the projects open.

Board appointments

Through a legislative quirk, a majority of tollway board members are from counties that contain little of the toll road network. A small section of the Bush Turnpike runs through Denton County, and no toll projects exist in Tarrant or Johnson counties.

Under legislation approved in the mid-1990s, Dallas, Collin, Tarrant and Denton counties each appoint one member. Two members are rotated among the three counties that have toll roads – Dallas, Collin and Denton – but those board members can live in any of the four counties. One member, currently Kay Walls of Johnson County, is appointed by the governor. That appointee must live in a county adjacent to the four-county urban area.

The board makeup changed dramatically in recent months with the replacement of a potential swing vote. Longtime board member and Collin County resident Don Dillard's term expired during the four-month debate over toll rates. The board slot shifted to Denton County, and Mr. Dillard offered to continue as an appointee of that county, as legislation permitted. Denton County officials declined, choosing local resident Dave Denison.

"The court decided it wanted someone from Denton County," said County Judge Mary Horn.
The swing vote came into play a second time Wednesday, as the same 4-3 majority voted to require the tollway authority to review the Southwest Parkway's and turnpike extension's progress five years after they open. Tolls could be lowered or raised based on whether the two roads meet traffic and revenue goals, and tolls also could be adjusted depending on amenities approved by the tollway board.

"This speaks to some of the future difficulties we will have down the road functioning as a regional authority," said Collin County board member Paul Wageman.

While Collin and Dallas officials hinted at pushing for legislative changes to the NTTA bylaws after the contentious vote, board Chairman David Blair Jr. of Dallas County tried to mend fences.

"This has been a trying situation for the board for the last four months," he said. "We will prevail."


© 2005 The Dallas Morning News Co


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"A few cents per mile adds up to millions in revenue each year."

Toll rate debate reveals N. Texas' great divide

Collin's plan charges more for future roads than Tarrant-Denton's

December 21, 2005

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2005

McKINNEY – Collin County commissioners endorsed a proposal Tuesday that would set premium rates for two future toll roads, furthering the debate over how far the North Texas Tollway Authority should go in building projects that don't pay for themselves.

The issue could come to a head today at the tollway authority, where the agency's board of directors will decide whether to adopt a policy that would charge higher tolls on Fort Worth's proposed Southwest Parkway and the Bush Turnpike's eastern extension through Garland, Rowlett and Sachse.

No matter the outcome, the debate promises to test the regional agency, which collects almost all its revenue in Dallas and Collin counties but whose board has members from Dallas, Tarrant, Collin, Denton and Johnson counties.

"The counties who are represented and who pay the tolls have one philosophy," Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher said, referring to Dallas and Collin counties. "And counties where they don't pay tolls, and their projects are determined not to be feasible, have another philosophy."

Under the scenario favored by Collin County commissioners, users of the $825 million Southwest Parkway would pay tolls of 19 cents per mile when the road opens in 2010. That scenario calls for rates of 15 cents per mile on the Bush Turnpike's $782 million eastern extension, which also should open by 2010.

In comparison, motorists with TollTags who use the Dallas North Tollway and the Bush Turnpike's existing sections currently pay 10 cents per mile. They will probably pay 11 cents per mile in 2007 and 12 cents per mile in 2010. A drive on the entire Dallas North Tollway would rise from $2.10 to $2.30 by 2007, and a drive on the entire Bush Turnpike would rise from $3 to $3.25 by 2007.

Although the difference amounts to a few cents per mile, it adds up to millions in revenue each year and difficult decisions for regional leaders.

Lower price per mile

Tarrant County and Denton County commissioners endorsed a proposal that would set rates of 16 cents per mile on the Southwest Parkway and 12 cents per mile on the turnpike's eastern extension.

"The idea that it's just Dallas people using these toll roads is just not the case. It's already a regional system," said Glen Whitley, a longtime Tarrant County commissioner who resigned recently to run for Tarrant County judge. After roads such as the Southwest Parkway open, their traffic and revenue counts almost always exceed the tollway authority's conservative estimates, he said. "If you look at what's best for the region, you've got to understand that sometimes we have to help a neighbor out."

The proposal endorsed by Tarrant and Denton counties would mean that tolls collected on the Southwest Parkway would pay for about 45 percent of its costs, and tolls on the eastern extension would pay for about 64 percent of its costs. The Collin County-endorsed proposal, with much greater toll rates, would raise more revenue so that the planned projects would pay for about 69 percent and 88 percent of their costs, respectively.

In comparison, money collected on the Dallas North Tollway and Bush Turnpike when they were first built paid about 75 percent of those projects' costs.

Dallas County commissioners have endorsed a compromise that would limit subsidies to projects, requiring them to pay for their operations and debt in 10 years. Under the plan, motorists on both projects would pay a penny more per mile than the plan endorsed by Denton and Tarrant counties.

That proposal could "force projects to meet criteria before we move forward, and that's prudent," said Paul Wageman, a tollway authority board member who represents Collin County.

Mr. Whitley argued against that plan, saying it could limit the agency's flexibility to meet the region's future transportation needs.

Balancing needs

"It's very important that we recognize that sometimes the regional good is not necessarily what's best for an individual county or city," he said.

Collin and Dallas officials also have expressed concern that the tollway authority board, which has a majority of its members from Denton, Tarrant and Johnson counties, might not fully account for motorists in the eastern half of the region, who they say pay the vast majority of all tolls collected.

"The Dallas County Commissioners Court is very sensitive to the impact this will have on Dallas County toll payers, and we're going to have to assess our options based on what impact the vote will have to the NTTA," Ms. Keliher said.


© 2005 The Dallas Morning News Co


'Tolling Philosphy': Where ideology collides with reason

County votes on tolling philosophy

December 21, 2005

McKinney Courier-Gazette
Copyright 2005

Collin County Commissioners on Tuesday voted on a “toll philosophy” they would like to see the North Texas Tollway Authority adopt for its current and future projects, which may soon include S.H. 121.

The NTTA's board will vote on one of five possible alternatives today: 1, 2, 3, 3A and 4. Collin County commissioners and Collin County's representative on the NTTA board are in favor of alternative 3.

Paul Wageman, Collin County's representative on the NTTA board, said he is in favor of alternative 3 because it means that revenue generated in Collin County and Dallas County does not subsidize future projects in Fort Worth. The planned Southwest Parkway, according to traffic and revenue studies, is not projected to be as financially sound of a project as other NTTA toll roads.

“It really protects the revenue we generate from the existing system so we can use it on projects that are financially feasible,” he said. “I think we should take a second look at (Southwest Parkway.)”

He added that alternative 3 is a “more conservative approach” to the future projects and that under alternative 4, “we're exporting more of our hard-earned nickels and dimes to Fort Worth to build a very expensive project that has a lot of bells and whistles and is not feasible.”

Wageman said that S.H. 121 would be a “high performing road” that would need no system support besides credit in its initial building stages, but would pay for itself in a “fairly short period of time.”

The “guiding principle” for alternative 3, according to the NTTA is that “new projects are supported at historic levels and tolls are set to limit system support and accelerate projects' contribution to the system. New projects with “extras” pay extra toll for non-standard features.”

Under alternative 3, drivers on the planned George Bush Turnpike Eastern Extension, for example, would pay 15 cents per mile, toll rates would increase an average of about 3 percent each year, with the toll rate reset occurring every five years.

Drivers on the Southwest Parkway in Fort Worth would pay 19 cents per mile, and toll rates would change in the same manner.

Drivers on existing NTTA toll roads would pay 11 cents per mile by 2007. Rates change on an average of 1 percent annually, and are reset every five years. Toll rates will rise to 12 cents in 2010.

Under alternative 4, “All new projects would be supported by the system with uniform toll rates on all facilities. New projects with extras pay extra toll for non-standard features.”

If board members choose alternative 4, the Eastern Extension will be tolled at a rate of 12 cents per mile, with 1.5 percent annual rate increase, and a rate reset every five years. Southwest Parkway would be tolled at 16 cents per mile. The same rate changes as the Eastern extension would apply.

Though drivers on the existing NTTA roads will pay the same 12 cents per mile in 2010 as in alternative 3, the annual rate increase would be 1.5 percent, and the rate would be reset every five years.

At a board meeting Nov. 11, members developed a compromise alternative that blended alternative 3 and 4, lowering the toll rate for the Eastern Extension and Southwest Parkway. Alternative 3A takes into account toll rate increases for non-standard features which are either nonrecurring or recurring costs. The road's financial feasibility is tested every five years to ensure the road is covering its costs and the toll rate is set and reset to pay for the road by its 10th year of operation. The rate can be decreased after it meets its “financial test.”

Under alternative 3A, driving on the Eastern Extension would cost 13 cents per mile. The toll rate would change by 1.5 percent annually. Southwest Parkway drivers would pay 17 cents per mile and toll rate would change by 3 percent annually.

Existing NTTA roads would still pay 12 cents in 2010, have a 1.5 percent annual rate increase and be reset every five years.

County Judge Ron Harris agreed that alternative 3 is the most fair of the alternatives.

“If (Southwest Parkway) can't pay its way, it shouldn't be built,” he said.

Commissioner Phyllis Cole also voted in favor of Alternative 3, but said that “we wouldn't have these toll roads at all if Dallas felt the same way we did about being part of the system,” she said, referring to the creation of the President George Bush Turnpike and the Dallas North Tollway and their benefits to Collin County citizens.

Commissioner Jack Hatchell said he also is in favor of alternative 3.

“What I'm getting from our residents is, ‘I don't want to subsidize Southwest Parkway,” he said. “(Alternative 3) would mean that Southwest Parkway in Fort Worth would be paying its own way, making enough money off tolls to pay for the debt service and maintenance and operations.”

He added the NTTA board's decision on tolling philosophy will not affect the S.H. 121 toll rate. County officials are still negotiating with the Texas Highway Commission to keep excess tolling revenue from the road in Collin County.

If S.H. 121 does become part of the NTTA system, however, toll revenue is used to pay off the bond to build the road, and NTTA keeps an additional 35 percent of the cost to build the road as part of a dues-type system to help finance other projects. The excess is sent to the Texas Department of Transportation. Collin County hopes to convince the Texas Highway Commission to direct TxDOT to use those funds on projects in Collin County.

Contact Krystal De Los Santos at

Copyright © 2005 The Courier-Gazette.


San Antonio needs more roads, not toll booths

Dave Pasley: S.A. needs more roads, not toll booths


Dave Pasley

San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

The only thing left to debate about the fix for traffic congestion in the U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 corridors on the North Side is how to pay for more lanes in the existing roadway alignments. It's either tolls or taxes.

All other practical options have been precluded because of deep flaws in the city's political and development practices.

Ten years ago there was excess capacity on U.S. 281 and Loop 1604. Today there is gridlock. How is it possible to screw up these two highway corridors so badly in just 10 years? How can a city without enough traffic to warrant an HOV lane suddenly have so much congestion it needs a toll road?

The short answer is that we have not provided for any connectivity during the development process. In other words, you can't get from Point A to Point B on the far North Side without getting on Loop 1604 or U.S. 281. The only east-west route connecting Interstate 10 and Interstate 35, between Loop 410 and Texas 46 in Comal and Kendall counties, is Loop 1604.

Developers have been allowed to blanket the far North Side with limited access subdivisions without providing an interconnected roadway system to support them.

Consequently, commuters on their way to work are mired in traffic jams with cross-country travelers. School buses jockey for road space with 18-wheelers.

This Loop 1604-U.S. 281 predicament should not be a surprise to anyone because essentially the same thing happened to Loop 410 and U.S. 281 in the 1970s and 1980s. The Wurzbach Parkway was conceived in the mid-'80s to provide an east-west alternative route midway between Loop 410 and Loop 1604. Unfortunately, 20 years after its conception, the Wurzbach Parkway is still not complete.

In January 1996, when I was the San Antonio planning director, I wrote a report to the Metropolitan Planning Organization urging the development of east-west alternatives to Loop 1604. Following is an excerpt from that report:

"Short of securing these important east-west routes through the development process, the only alternatives are for the taxpayers of the community to bear the cost and inconvenience of retrofitting arterials after development has occurred, or to endure the hardships of an inadequate major thoroughfare system.

"The city's current experience with the cost and construction of the estimated $90 million twelve mile Wurzbach Parkway across the northern portion of the community presents a clear example of the huge financial consequences associated with the failure to secure adequate east-west arterial movement through the development process."

They were prophetic words then, and they are still valid today. Simply put, the North Side needs more roads, not necessarily bigger roads.

It would be great if politicians had the spine to limit development on the recharge zone or if the bulk of consumers of new housing wanted to live in transit-oriented, high-rise developments. Changes in either of those mind-sets would go a long way to resolving the Loop 1604-U.S. 281 mess.

In the interim period, while we are waiting for hell to freeze over, I suggest the City Council assign two tasks to the new city manager:

1. Complete the Wurzbach Parkway ASAP.

2. Make San Antonio developers provide a network of arterial streets as they do in Phoenix.

Dave Pasley was San Antonio planning director from 1992 to 1996

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News:


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Strayhorn starts her engine.

Strayhorn's just getting started

Hopeful trailing but says Perry vulnerable

December 19, 2005

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2005

DUNCANVILLE – In the language of prizefighting, Carole Keeton Strayhorn is sure Gov. Rick Perry has a glass jaw.

"Perry's support is this deep," she said, holding her finger and thumb an inch apart. "Once we get to issues, he collapses."

Although she's trailing badly in the polls, in Republican endorsements and in campaign contributions, the state comptroller is confident she "can take this governor out" in the GOP primary by tapping voter dissatisfaction with Mr. Perry's leadership and his failure to lower property taxes and fix public schools.

If she can pull it off, the upset will be like nothing else in the state's recent political history. She's running an unorthodox campaign for a Republican, tapping trial lawyers as a major source of cash and taking on an incumbent popular among the party activists who dominate primaries.

And while she insists she is a Republican candidate for governor, she won't categorically knock down speculation that she could file to run as an independent. Plus, with less than three months until the March 7 primary, she has yet to air a single television commercial.
But the push is coming, Mrs. Strayhorn said last week.

On Jan. 2, the deadline to file as a candidate, "get ready to buckle your seat belt," she vowed as she made the rounds of fundraisers and political appearances.

Her strategy is to blast Mr. Perry relentlessly and, apparently, to try to draw more voters into the primary to counter the governor's strong support among the GOP base. Mr. Perry's campaign aides dismiss her efforts as desperate and predict that the appeal to Democrats and independents will backfire.

An array of support

While Mr. Perry has focused on his traditional GOP base, Mrs. Strayhorn has sought support from a disparate group of political backers – moderate Republicans, Democratic trial lawyers, educators who want a major infusion of state money into the public schools, opponents of Mr. Perry's toll-heavy, $184 billion Trans Texas Corridor highway plan and various voter groups unhappy with the governor's performance in office.

Thursday, she traveled to a Dallas fundraiser at the home of Republican Harlan Crow in a jet owned by Houston trial lawyer John Eddie Williams, a major backer of the Democratic Party.
"I sincerely appreciate it that I've got huge across-the-board, broad-based support from Republicans, Democrats and independents," she said. "And the beauty of that is that's what this state needs right now, someone who can pull everybody together."

Some campaign supporters, including trial lawyers, told The Dallas Morning News they are urging Mrs. Strayhorn to forgo the GOP primary. And her pollster recently surveyed Texas voters to gauge support should Mrs. Strayhorn run as an independent.

Political analysts say Mrs. Strayhorn is bucking a political headwind by challenging Mr. Perry in the Republican primary, which will be dominated by GOP loyalists not inclined to oust their party's incumbent and by religious conservatives the governor has actively courted. Mrs. Strayhorn, consistently among the state's top vote-getters in general elections, would find more receptive voters in November, analysts say.

"The foundation of her strategy stems from the dissatisfaction people have had with Rick Perry," said James Riddlesperger, a Texas Christian University political scientist.
The most recent Texas Poll shows Mr. Perry with a 2-1 lead over Mrs. Strayhorn in a GOP primary. But nearly as many voters have a negative impression of the governor as a positive impression, a weakness the Strayhorn camp hopes to exploit in a multimillion advertising campaign beginning in January.

Geared up

The outlines of that campaign were clear last week during political stops in the Dallas area.
"Rick Perry has promised tax reductions, and he broke that promise. He promised to fix school reform. He's broken that promise," Mrs. Strayhorn told business leaders at a Duncanville hotel. "Now he promises me, and I quote in his own words, 'a bloody, brutal campaign.'

"I say, bring it on," she said.

In her caffeinated, rat-a-tat speaking style, Mrs. Strayhorn blasted Mr. Perry for "signing into law $2.7 billion in new fees, taxpayer charges and out-of-pocket expenses" to balance the state budget. She denounced the governor's toll-road project as a land grab by "Governor Perry and his highway henchmen" to benefit a foreign contractor under secret terms. She said the state budget has grown 41 percent under his tenure, electric and insurance bills are on the rise, and children's health insurance is not properly funded.

In her rise from Austin mayor to the state's chief financial officer, Mrs. Strayhorn has campaigned with a distinct political persona – "one tough grandma." She often tells her audiences anecdotes about family and discusses public policy by its effect on children.
Her biggest applause last week came when she called for mandatory life sentences for violent child sexual predators – an issue she was unsuccessful in getting Mr. Perry to include on the agenda of recent special legislative sessions.

Robert Black, a Perry campaign spokesman, said Mrs. Strayhorn, "has been long on jaded criticism and very short on offering any kind of constructive solutions."

The Perry campaign is expected to spend at least $15 million in the primary, beginning with a high-dollar TV spot during the Rose Bowl, the college football championship game featuring the University of Texas. The Strayhorn camp will report in January that it has more than $10 million, which would allow a $1 million-a-week advertising campaign highlighting what the comptroller calls the governor's "misplaced priorities and failed leadership."

Lacking the formal field operation of the Perry side, the Strayhorn blueprint appears to hinge on a vigorous TV campaign to motivate at least 1.1 million Texans to vote, which would be a record for a GOP primary in a non-presidential year. The Strayhorn team believes many of the new voters would be hers.

Hurdles ahead

But she faces other obstacles, and the first – and easiest to remedy – was evident last week when a local official asked a question during a campaign stop in Duncanville.

"Mrs. Rylander," he began.

"Strayhorn," she gently corrected.

The last time she was on the ballot was as Carole Keeton Rylander in 2002. But her strategists believe they can remedy any voter confusion over her new married name with a $1 million, one-week burst of television to connect "one tough grandma" and the name Strayhorn.
The Perry camp is expected to counter with a blistering attack that challenges Mrs. Strayhorn's Republican credentials and accuses her of dispensing tax benefits as comptroller to big campaign contributors.

Todd Smith, a Republican strategist in Austin, said he's baffled why Mrs. Strayhorn didn't go on television early like candidate Clayton Williams, who began airing commercials seven months before the 1990 primary. Mrs. Strayhorn was a co-chairman of the Williams campaign.
"She got to watch firsthand the strategy of starting early and having the time necessary to create a clear and compelling contrast," Mr. Smith said. "Even if she's able to provide a compelling reason for voters to choose her over Rick Perry, I don't know if there's enough time to get them listen."

Mrs. Strayhorn said she is confident she can win and has a strong indicator to prove it.
A sixth grandchild is on the way, she said, and she has never lost a political campaign in a year when a grandchild was born.


Perry urges letters that attack foe

AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry's campaign is helping orchestrate letters to the editor designed to appear as spontaneous criticism of Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

In an e-mail to Perry supporters, North Texas field representative Lathan Watts offers "talking points and even sample letters" to help supporters write to The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

According to the e-mail, the Perry campaign wants letter writers to accuse Mrs. Strayhorn of using her state comptroller's office for political purposes.

The Strayhorn campaign denounced the covert letter-writing assistance as unethical.
"They may have to resort to begging people to write letters to the editor, but that is a false and misleading tactic that we would never be involved in," said spokesman Mark Sanders.
But Robert Black, a Perry spokesman in Austin, defended the letter-writing effort.

"We will do whatever we can to help grass-roots Republicans express their outrage," Mr. Black said.

Wayne Slater

© 2005 The Dallas Morning News Co


Monday, December 19, 2005

AGUA and PET Lawsuit alleges TxDOT performed only a cursory environmental assessment

Major Texas Job May Be Halted


Engineering News-Record
Copyright 2005

Activists in San Antonio are suing the Texas Dept. of Transportation for alleged failure to comply with the National Environmental Protection Act. They will now seek an injunction to thwart the January start of construction on a 4.9-mile-long first phase of a major toll road.

Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas and People for Efficient Transportation filed suit in U.S. District Court in San Antonio on Dec. 2. The suit alleges TexDOT performed only a cursory environmental assessment and failed to provide alternatives and an opportunity for public comment on the $83-million project to expand 4.9 miles of U.S. 281.

Local contractor Zachry Construction Corp. is slated next month to begin expanding the highway from four lanes to a 12-lane combination of toll road and frontage road. The expansion cuts through the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer, which provides water to 3 million people and to rivers that house several endangered species. State regulations require treatment of storm water runoff for projects within the aquifer zone.

TexDOT says it performed an environmental assessment and found no need for an impact statement. “The environmental assessment came back as a finding of no significant impact,” says Frank Holzmann, TexDOT area engineer. The Federal Highway Administration and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved a water pollution abatement plan, he adds.

Plaintiffs question the abatement plan, which uses vegetative filter strips and earthen berms. Vegetative strips are typically used for roads of four lanes and less and berms are not an approved method of abatement, says Annalisa Peace, executive director for Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.

© 2005 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Sunday, December 18, 2005

Proposed condemnation of entire nature preserve angers environmental groups along the coast.

Nature area faces condemnation

Threat to use eminent domain on South Padre brings criticism

Dec. 18, 2005

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2005

RAYMONDVILLE - Willacy County officials who want to ferry people to the pristine beaches of South Padre Island have astonished conservationists by taking the first steps toward condemning an entire 1,500-acre nature preserve.

The county's district attorney said commissioners are looking to purchase only a small part of the preserve for beach access for a ferry landing.

But he acknowledged that the commissioners court caused suspicion earlier this month when it ordered a condemnation suit to take the entire preserve through eminent domain.

There are no bridges linking this impoverished South Texas county with the nearby island, so officials have been planning for years to ferry residents and tourists miles across the bay so they can enjoy the public beaches. And now they want the preserve to serve as the ferry landing, where restrooms and picnic facilities can be built.

Officials with the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, which established the preserve in 2000, say county officials have yet to contact them about the condemnation.

''They're proposing to condemn an entire nature preserve, which is without precedent in this state," said Carter Smith, the group's state director. ''It's alarming, especially for all of us who care about protecting the barrier island and the Laguna Madre."

''I'm not aware of any instance in the Nature Conservancy's 40-year history in Texas in which a local government has attempted to condemn a nature preserve," Smith said. ''We will be fighting this vigorously."

District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra said he will recommend purchasing a small parcel of land — perhaps only 3 to 5 acres — from the Nature Conservancy so the county can have legal access to the beach.

''They (commissioners) have an interest in the county having some land they can own out there because right now the county has absolutely nothing out there," Guerra said. "Our position is people from Willacy County should be able to go out there and enjoy the public beach."

Access to preserve
A condemnation suit would be a ''last resort " if the reserve owners refuse the county's offer, Guerra said. He noted that the unfenced preserve is open to anyone who can reach it by four-wheel-drive vehicle or by boat, and people frequently camp on sections of the preserve next to the water.

''Because of the big number (of acres), people are assuming there is another reason the county is trying to do this," said Guerra, who explained the court merely wants ''to show we are serious" about acquiring land from the refuge.

Conservancy officials said that in the past, they and county officials discussed access to the preserve, which lines the south side of the Port Mansfield channel.

But county officials then would provide few details of their plans, Carter said.

Carter called the threatened condemnation ''a real assault on the sanctity of private property rights and private land conservation in this state."

County leaders said there is no intent to offer any Conservancy land for private development, which would violate a new state law that placed restrictions on land condemnation by Texas governmental bodies.

Gov. Rick Perry allowed the Texas eminent domain legislation to be added to a special legislative session this summer. Perry's decision came after a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Connecticut case that upheld a city's authority to condemn private homes and then sell the property to commercial developers as part of an effort to increase jobs and expand the city's tax base.

Willacy officials say they only want access to the nearby island by water so that local residents, schoolchildren and winter tourists who don't own boats can visit the undeveloped beaches.

The nearest bridge to the island is in Port Isabel, nearly a two-hour drive.

"I'm not much for developing — I'm for making people aware it's (the beach) there, so that it could be seen and it can be touched," said County Judge Simon Salinas, adding he doesn't envision ''skyscrapers like in Corpus Christi."

The plan to ferry tourists from Port Mansfield hit a major snag in March, when the General Land Office canceled a $700,000 grant to the navigation district to fund ferry operations.

Ferry proposal problems

The biggest drawback was the lack of a landing site on the island, Suydam said, noting that the federal agency that provided the grant money would not approve condemning land for that.

Other problems were a lack of Coast Guard certification for the district's 30-passenger amphibious vessel, which does not have restrooms or meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said.

Navigation district officials did not return repeated calls to the Houston Chronicle to comment on the ferry project or how it will be funded now that the $700,000 grant has been canceled.

Earlier this year, officials with the Padre Island National Seashore, which owns the land on the north side of the Port Mansfield channel, rejected the county's request to unload ferry passengers on parkland.

The 1,500-acre island preserve is part of a 24,500-acre tract the Nature Conservancy purchased for $7.5 million from a Houston firm, after plans for a large-scale residential and marina development on the site failed. The conservation group sold, at below its cost, the majority of the island acreage to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand an existing federal wildlife refuge.

The proposed condemnation has angered environmental groups along the coast.

"They (Willacy County) shouldn't take over a private sanctuary," said Patricia Suter, chair of the Coastal Bend Chapter of the Sierra Club. ''They're trying to take too much."

Houston Chronicle: