Friday, January 06, 2006

"Anything can happen."

Strayhorn switch shakes up gubernatorial race


by Christine DeLoma and James Bernsen

Volume 10, Issue 19
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2006

With Carole Keeton Strayhorn abandoning her bid this week for the Republican nomination for governor to run instead as an independent, Rick Perry gets a free pass in the March primary. But that doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing for the governor from now until November.

Strayhorn turns independent

Strayhorn’s departure from the Republican ticket changes the dynamics of the gubernatorial race in more ways than one. For one thing, by running as an independent Strayhorn has until November to make her case to all Texas voters – not just Republicans.

By most indicators, polling predicted decisive defeat for Strayhorn in the March primary when matched up against Perry. A win in the primary would have given Perry an all-but-certain lock on the governor’s office for another four years because most believe there are no viable Democratic candidates who can beat Perry in a two-way race.

By stepping out of the Republican primary race, Strayhorn has another seven months or so to criticize and tear down Perry’s record. Perry, on the other hand, must contend, yet again, with trying to fix the state’s school finance system. In November 2005, the state Supreme Court ruled part of the finance system unconstitutional and gave the Legislature until June 1 to fix the problem. It is likely that Perry will call another special session to address the issue sometime in April.

The outcome can be either a boon or bust for Strayhorn or Perry.

If nothing gets done, which is possible given the Legislature’s track record on school finance, Strayhorn could come away with more ammunition to shoot at Perry for what she calls his “lack of leadership.” Perry stands to lose points if he is forced to call multiple special sessions that stretch into the summer. An even worse scenario is that schools would not open on time.

On the other hand, if the Legislature does pass a school finance plan, Perry can take most of the credit. He can point out that while Strayhorn was playing partisan politics, the Governor was working hard for the people to fix school finance.

However, with the passage of a finance plan, the devil will be in the details. Will the plan increase taxes? Will it increase school spending? Whatever the final outcome, Strayhorn will stick around to make sure voters hear her side of the story.

The one major disadvantage to the Strayhorn campaign strategy; running as an independent just got a lot more costly. That means Strayhorn will have to spend more time and energy raising money to run her “conservative commentary” radio ads throughout the campaign season.

A second disadvantage is the timing. To become an independent candidate for governor, Strayhorn has at most 60 days to get 45,540 signatures from registered voters who did not vote in the Republican or Democratic March 2006 primary or run-off.

It is no doubt that Rick Perry benefits, at least in the short term, from not having a serious opponent to contend with in the March Republican primary. There are three other candidates, albeit not serious ones, who have filed for the nomination against Perry: Larry Kilgore, Star Locke and Rhett Smith.

From now until March, Perry is free to concentrate his efforts on fundraising or getting involved in legislative primary races. Several Republican legislators publicly bucked the Perry administration over school finance reform. Some of these face opponents in the March primary.

Two independents and a Democrat

With Strayhorn’s entrance into the race as an independent, Texas voters will have more candidates to choose from at the ballot box in November. It’s now a four-way race. She joins independent candidate Kinky Friedman and the winner of the Democratic primary.

The playing field is full of Democratic hopefuls willing to take on Perry in the November election. The list includes: former Congressman Chris Bell, former Supreme Court Justice and Congressman Bob Gammage, Rashad Jafer, a Houston sales manager, and school administrator Felix Alvarado. The front runners for the Democratic nomination are Bell and Gammage, but a Hispanic surname could give Alvarado a surprising percentage of the heavily Hispanic primary vote.

The outcome of a four-way race is much harder to predict than a two-way race or even a three-way race. Anything can happen.

Being an incumbent with a track record, Perry is undoubtedly the front-runner, and most politicos think conservative Republicans are more likely to stick with him. In switching to independent, Strayhorn will lose some of the party faithful. She may hope, however, to gain disenchanted Republicans and independent voters. Democrats hope that a Republican Party split may be enough to get them enough votes to take over the governorship.

There is no runoff in the general

A key point to remember is that there is no general election runoff in Texas. That was the case in Minnesota when Jesse Ventura was elected with less than 40 percent of the vote - but Ventura narrowly beat the Republican and Democratic candidates.

This is important because even if the Democratic candidate only gets 35-38 percent of the vote, if Strayhorn (and even Friedman) can cummulatively take away enough of the vote from Perry, a Democrat can slip into the governor’s mansion. That scenario assumes Democratic unity behind a candidate and Strayhorn cutting into Perry’s Republican base. Many, however, expect that Strayhorn will take as many or more voters from the Democrat.

The real danger for Strayhorn comes in the fact that she can’t collect signatures to get on the ballot until both the Republican and Democratic primaries are over. If the Democratic race goes to a runoff, Strayhorn’s window of opportunity to get the signatures shrinks from two months to only one. That increases the cost and resource diversion from the campaign to the signature drive. That fact may in part explain the reported recent attempt of Strayhorn aide Mark Sanders to convince Bell to drop out of the Democratic race, which would have made a runoff very unlikely.

And because any signatures that appear on the Friedman and Strayhorn lists are automatically stricken, both independents must build up a list that includes a good margin of error.

© 2006 The Lone Star Report:


"State officials are concerned that opening Highway 121 without tolls could lead to legal challenges if tolls were added."

121's main drag: the paperwork

Road headed for early finish; wait for toll approval may delay opening

Friday, January 6, 2006

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2005

CARROLLTON – The new State Highway 121 toll road in Denton County could be ready by spring, but motorists may be barred by something stronger than concrete and steel – red tape.

Months of extremely dry weather have helped workers finish 90 percent to 94 percent of six new miles of Highway 121, putting crews on a pace to possibly finish a month or two ahead of the June completion dates.

That rate of progress, however, would outpace the receipt of required federal approvals to collect tolls on the road.

If that happens, the road may sit unused for up to two months.

"We don't want to be in a position of having something closed and not having the public use it," said Bob Brown, deputy district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation's Dallas office. "We're trying to make sure that doesn't happen."

But if the road opening is delayed, he added, "it may be a little pain now, but there will be many benefits later."

Regional leaders have a long-standing policy stipulating that any road that opens without tolls cannot be converted to a toll road. Such a conversion would also require countywide approval in an election.

In addition, state officials are concerned that opening Highway 121 without tolls could lead to legal challenges if tolls were added.

State and federal officials approved the Highway 121 project years ago, but only for a road without tolls. Construction began on the first segment in 2003, but state and regional leaders agreed in October 2004 to collect tolls on the new stretch of highway to help pay for other projects, including work on Interstate 35E in southern Denton County and FM423 in Lewisville.

The 2004 decision created the need for additional federal approval. At the earliest, federal consent would come in the first part of May, and construction of electronic tolling equipment would then take a couple of weeks, Mr. Brown said.

But no matter when construction is complete, the Texas Department of Transportation is not planning to open Highway 121 early if it does not have approval for tolls.

"That's not nice. At least they could let us try it out," said Crystal Chiles of Carrollton, who uses the existing Highway 121 frontage roads frequently.

In the realm of multiyear construction projects, a delay of two months is not a big concern, said Sam Daniel of Carrollton.

"I'm open to waiting until all approvals have been made," he said. The road "is not too bad. I travel it quite a bit. But I don't get out in traffic until everyone else is already at work."

As required by federal officials, the state Transportation Department has scheduled two public hearings for this month on the proposed tolls on Highway 121. The state must address each public comment made at the meetings and submit its answers to federal officials, who hopefully will finish reviewing the paperwork and have an answer by early May, Mr. Brown said.

According to the most recent estimates, the 3.3-mile Highway 121 segment around the Interstate 35E interchange is about 90 percent complete. Work on that part, which began in May 2003, is expected to cost $87 million.

The second part, a 2.6-mile, $31 million segment from near Hebron Parkway to near The Colony's city limit, is about 94 percent complete. Work began in February 2004.

A third section, from The Colony to the Dallas North Tollway, is not scheduled for completion until early 2008.

The construction pace would have the first highway sections open to almost 50,000 vehicles a day in March or April, but state transportation planners are predicting that they will not be ready before June.

Collin County officials, the state and the North Texas Tollway Authority are still working out the details of a Highway 121 toll road from the Dallas North Tollway to Central Expressway. That segment is expected to be open by 2010.

Just as dry weather has helped the project get ahead of schedule, wet weather and the challenges of finishing all the details on six miles and $118 million in new highways could slow the project's current rapid pace, said Denton County Commissioner Cynthia White.

"When it comes to construction, you never know," she said. "But the bottom line is, TxDOT is going to do what it's got to do."


© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co


"It is my belief that each project must pay its own way or not be built."

Jerry Hoagland: Regionalism may be hazardous to your pocketbook

Friday, January 6, 2006

Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

Collin County has had four options when it comes to financing improvements to State Highway 121.

The first was to wait 20 to 25 years and let the state of Texas take care of the problem – not a good idea, given the growth we are experiencing in our county.

The second was to finance improvements by tolling the road through a local government corporation. A good idea that would have gotten the road built quickly and would have kept the tolls as low as possible. But the Texas Department of Transportation nixed this idea, saying that we already have one regional transportation authority (the North Texas Tollway Authority) and didn't need another.

The third option, the one currently selected by Collin County and the four affected cities, is to join forces with the NTTA in submitting a "regional proposal" to TxDOT for approval.
By choosing to align ourselves with the NTTA regional financing approach, we have a mess on our hands. Paul Wageman, Collin County's appointee to the NTTA board, recently came to one of our meetings seeking input from the Commissioners Court about a strategic vote he would cast at the next NTTA board meeting. The court embraced a strategy that called for a 31 percent subsidy for a toll road that is to be built in Tarrant County.

I cast the only dissenting vote on this strategy. It is my belief that each project must pay its own way or not be built. During our meeting, I asked if Highway 121 would require a subsidy, and the answer was that it would not, but it would, in fact, have excess revenues at the lowest toll rates proposed by NTTA.

As you may know, the Dallas North Tollway and the President George Bush Turnpike are already "profitable" for NTTA. Are you beginning to see that the needed subsidy in Tarrant County will be coming out of our pockets?

We are talking untold millions of dollars here, folks. Mr. Wageman cast his vote as requested by the Commissioners Court at the NTTA meeting, but lost by a vote of 4-3. The NTTA board supported an even bigger subsidy – a whopping 55 percent – for the Tarrant County toll road! Now we are talking millions more dollars out of our pockets.

I believe it is time for Collin County to seriously reconsider its membership in NTTA. I now believe that a fourth option – private financing – is the only viable option left for Collin County.

TxDOT could and should contractually limit the internal rate of return – the amount of profit the successful low bidder can earn on this project – to 1 percent or 2 percent. This would result in the lowest tolls possible. If there were any bonuses paid by the successful bidder in order to win the contract, TxDOT should spend the bonus money in Collin County for other greatly needed Collin County road projects.

I also want to request everyone's help. We need the assistance of our local legislative delegation and the governor's office on this problem. You pay a gas tax to the state of Texas every time you fill up your car.

You assume that this tax is dedicated to the improvement of our state highway system. It is not. The Legislature and the governor have permitted approximately $360 million out of the current budget to be spent for items other than roads.

You should demand that your state elected officials dedicate future gas tax money to road construction. If TxDOT had the $360 million in question, the state could pay cash for improvements to Highway 121, and we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Jerry Hoagland represents Precinct 2 on the Collin County Commissioners Court. Precinct 2 includes southeast Collin County. His e-mail address is jhoagland

© 2006 The Dallas Mornnig News


Monday, January 02, 2006

Ahoy, Maties! Another "Public Pirate" Partnership!

County needs to move now on FM 1488 condemnations

Our View: Time to push for eminent domain on FM 1488 holdouts


The Courier
Copyright 2005

When The Courier's update Wednesday on the $160 million in bond projects indicated that the FM 1488 expansion project was being delayed by property owners holding out for a better deal on selling rights of way, it sounded like something we'd heard before.

Sure enough - the county was offering the same excuse back in Sept. 2004 for delays in the start of construction on FM 1488. That was more than a year ago; and work still hasn't started.
It's time to get this project rolling, and that means the county must move forward with property condemnation, and right now.

It's not that we're big fans of condemning private property for public use. We're in support of limiting the government powers of eminent domain when it involves condemning and buying out one private party and then turning over that property to another private property in the interests of economic development or other such arguments. The Legislature rightly sought to curb those powers in the last legislative session.

But eminent domain, in which the government condemns property and pays the owner fair market value determined by an independent, neutral arbiter, is designed specifically for public projects like the FM 1488 expansion. The county needs to be willing to be aggressive in using this tool, in order to get the rights of way needed to launch the necessary road work and serve the public interest in this crucial project.

The start of construction for FM 1488 is a can that has been kicked repeatedly down the road, to no effect. Where county officials once hoped work could start by the end of 2005, now they're looking at July 2006 - if all of the right of way necessary for the project to start can be purchased.

The manager for the Montgomery County Transportation Program overseeing the county's $160 million bond project is Jennie Taraborelli of Houston-based Pate Engineers.

She told The Courier in a story this week that some landowners along the highway believe "this is their moment to capitalize" and therefore are holding out for the best deal possible.

They've held out long enough. It's time for the county to stop kicking the can down the road and start condemnation proceedings on the relative handful of people who are holding up a project intended to benefit thousands of county residents. The July 2006 timeline for start of FM 1488 construction must not be missed.

Reader Opinions
Jan 2 2006

Alice Sorsby McGuffie

I am very uncomfortable with the idea of a private company taking on so much of the power of the government without the same accountability to the public.

It appears that this "aggressive" approach toward building Montgomery County's new "shadow toll road" at the expense of the environment and landowners may foretell how TxDOT and its private agents will handle the massive Trans Texas Corridor "Crossroads of the Americas" project.

Those "Crossroads" toward privatization are looking more and more like the "Crossbones of Piratization" to me. Maybe these new alliances between the public and private sectors should be called Public Pirate Partnerships. Ahoy, Mates!

©Houston Community Newspapers Online 2006


Cintra raises Toronto tolls by 9 percent

Cintra Says Tolls on Highway in Toronto Will Rise 9% (Update1)

Jan. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte SA, the road operator controlled by Spanish builder Grupo Ferrovial SA, said tolls on the 407 ETR highway in Toronto will rise about 9 percent after traffic increased on the road.

The hike will vary between 8.7 percent and 9.9 percent, depending on whether drivers travel during peak traffic hours or not, Madrid-based Cintra said today in an e-mailed statement. The change will take effect Feb. 1.

``Very positive,'' Banco BPI SA analysts Bruno Almeida da Silva and Ana Horno said in an e-mailed note. ``Given the year- on-year traffic slowdown recorded throughout the year we were expecting that the tariff revision for 2006 would stand below the 7.2 percent upward revision made in each of the two previous years.''

The 407-ETR highway in Canada contributed 40 percent of total nine-month revenue at Cintra, which has expanded further in North America by winning projects in Chicago and Texas. Last month the company entered the Italian market.

Shares of Cintra gained as much as 2.1 percent to 9.97 euros, and traded at 9.93 euros as of 10:56 a.m. in Madrid, giving the company a market value of 4.9 billion euros. Ferrovial shares climbed as much as 1.7 percent to 59.50 euros, and traded at 59.25 euros.

Cintra said in November revenue at the Canadian toll road increased 11 percent and traffic increased 6 percent in the 10 months through October. The Spanish company holds a 53.2 percent stake in the 407-ETR highway.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Joao Lima in Madrid at

Last Updated: January 2, 2006 04:59 EST

© 2005 The Associated Press:


Sunday, January 01, 2006

Toll roads: Future fodder for the Junk Bond Market

Roads take their toll on wallets


By Al Lewis
The Denver Post
Copyright 2006

Robin Wiesner was cruising home from work at more than 75 miles an hour in her Land Rover when she called me back on her cellphone last week.

Wiesner, 32, works for Frontier Airlines near Denver International Airport, and she drives E-470 and the Northwest Parkway several days a week. I wanted to ask what she thought of her commute on the toll roads.

"It's glorious," she said. "It's the most beautiful way home from work. ... You will never stop or even put on your brake. All you do is pass people."

When Wiesner takes the toll road, her 32-mile commute between work and her home in Superior shrinks to 28 minutes.Otherwise, she spends 40 to 90 minutes in traffic.

On the toll road, she says, there are few other cars to interrupt her cruise-control setting.

"You won't see anything but Land Rovers, Mercedes and Beamers," she said. "No one else can afford it."

Wiesner is from one of those double-income-no-kid families. She can afford to shell out several dollars a day in tolls.

She can even afford the 25-cent increase that both Northwest Parkway and E-470 put in place at their toll plazas and many access ramps effective today. But the tolls irritate her, so she takes the toll roads only one way on her daily commute.

"I am about to be paying $2 more a day, which doesn't sound like a lot, but there goes my Starbucks," said Wiesner.

"I won't get to go to Nordstrom as much as I want to," she said. "But what about all these people who work at the airport who make $8 to $10 an hour? What about the workers at the hotels? They can't afford it. They get up at 5 a.m., don't see their kids, and take the long way to work to beat the traffic."

The Northwest Parkway and E-470 are not for everybody. They are roads for the rich. They are now tied for third place as the most expensive urban toll roads in the nation. You have to drive in Orange County, Calif., to pay more per mile.

Toll roads provide a way of keeping government small and taxes lower, but at what cost? Toll roads are often more expensive to build than a government-funded highway because of the infrastructure needed to collect tolls.

Colorado's toll roads now cost more than 21 cents per mile. But it only costs about 2 cents per mile to drive on a government-funded road when you prorate registration fees and the 22 cents you pay per gallon of gas for highway taxes.

People won't use toll roads if they find them too expensive. Northwest Parkway's traffic is woefully below projections, though it blames slower than anticipated growth. So what are the toll road authorities doing? Raising prices. The recent toll increases have nothing to do with supply versus demand. They have to do with financing. And Northwest Parkway's financing is sliding toward trouble. Last month, Fitch Ratings downgraded its debt to junk bond status.

The downgrade came after the toll authority was unable to restructure part of its debt load by issuing new bonds. The junk bond rating may mean the toll road authority will pay higher interest rates in the future - which may in turn lead to still higher tolls.

E-470's finances were bumpy during its early years too, but they are now more stable thanks to rampant growth in southeast metro Denver. Nevertheless, E-470 has no choice but to raise tolls as it faces a 24 percent increase in debt payments.

Love it or leave it, if you can. In the mid-1990s, to get the toll roads built, eight communities agreed that they would not compete with the toll road. They cut a deal to limit what roads could be improved, expanded or even built.

The good news is, E-470 is scheduled to be turned over to the state as a public road in 2076. Of course by that time, many of you now reading this column will have died, gone to hell and learned it's a less aggravating place than Colorado's toll roads.

"We're in the upper middle class, and I am still complaining about it," said Wiesner. "It's ridiculous what I am paying, and now they are going to raise it? ... By the way, I have a Land Rover for sale, if you want to throw that in your column. ... I think I need to get a Volkswagen Jetta or a Honda."

Al Lewis' column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. Respond to Lewis at, 303-820-1967, or

© 2006 The Denver Post