Saturday, February 04, 2006

"Everybody here is an enemy of the state; a scofflaw, a toll cheat."

TollTag court: A driver's nightmare

February 4, 2006


News 8 Investigates
Dallas/Fort Worth
Copyright 2006

Every day, more than a million vehicles enter a toll plaza in North Texas, and more than a million motorists breeze through the barriers using radio technology.

The TollTag mounted in their windshield identifies the vehicle to the North Texas Tollway Authority's computer network and charges the user's account—no stopping, no coins needed.
For most drivers, it's a great system. But for everybody at "TollTag court," it stinks.

It's one of 10 municipal courts in North Texas where—once a week—most of the proceedings are devoted to TollTag cases.

The prosecutor will tell you that everybody here is an enemy of the state; a scofflaw, a toll cheat.

But people like Gail Blair will tell you they didn't know they were criminals until they suddenly received a warrant for their arrest.

"There's a possiblity I could be sitting in jail for a 75 cent toll," Blair complained. "I had a valid TollTag, and I had money in the account. And the court is very aware of that."

Blair received a warrant for her arrest stemming from 30 "misreads" on her TollTag over a three-year period. The North Texas Tollway Authority says as many as 4,000 vehicles a day may be misreads.

For two years, the agency sent bills to her at the wrong address, even though her correct address was on file with both the NTTA and the state of Texas.

Blair spends about $1,000 on tolls every year, and has always had a valid TollTag.

The warrant for her arrest came from one toll. This is her fifth court appearence trying to get it resolved.

Blair can wage her court battle because she has a night job. Most of the people summoned to TollTag court aren't as lucky; they have day jobs. So they pay a fine because they can't spare the time and money to fight the system.

Is this justice?

"No, it's not," said Ward Maedgen, Gail Blair's lawyer. "It forces hard working people to come down to court and spend their day in court."

On her previous four visits Blair represented herself and faced more than $350 in fines and court costs. This time—with Maedgen along—the prosecutor offered to settle her case for $50.
No deal, Blair says.

"I don't care if they fine me a penny; I'm not guilty," she said. "I don't care if it's 75 cents, a dollar, a hundred dollars—it doesn't matter to me."

Blair said she is trying to punish the tollway authority and get her money.

The NTTA's Clayton Howe said his system targets only non-responsive customers for court action. He said accused offenders first receive an invoice. Then, after 60 days, the Texas Department of Public Safety sends a citation.

Only then is an arrest warrant issued.

"What we say basically is, we didn't get paid for this transaction. Please contact us at this phone number," Howe said.

Eli Lucero got picked up during a routine stop on New Year's Eve. When he was thrown in jail, he was shocked to discover he'd been arrested on warrants from unpaid tolls in 2004.
"I've tried to pay thee guys their fees at every turn, and all they're trying to do is push more money out of me," Lucero said.

He discovered that some of the so-called violations resulted from the NTTA transposing the numbers on his license plate.

Lucero said he telephoned the NTTA five times to try and resolve the problem. But the agency said its sophisticated call center system has no record of those conversations.

A frustrated Lucero finally gave in and paid $304.75—$4.75 for the allegedly unpaid tolls.

"I won't use the tollway any more," Lucero said. "I'll stick to 635 and the side roads."


© 2006 WFAA-TV


"Our state government needs to get back to the basics and provide us with what our gas tax was meant to pay for."


February 4, 2006
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

Tolls are unequal taxation. The Texas Department of Transportation states, "Paying to drive on a tollway is an optional user fee, not an additional tax. Motorists who choose to drive the tollway and pay the user fee should experience reduced travel time to their destination." Since the gas tax is not optional and it is supposed to be used to pay for our roads, they are wrong. Tolls are taxes. If my gas tax is used to pay for a free highway in North Collin County and I have to pay an additional toll to use State Highway 121, then it is double taxation.

That being said, I would prefer that the North Texas Tollway Authority have control versus a foreign company. The NTTA uses about 17 percent of its budget to just collect tolls; if you add a 20 percent profit for a foreign company, then 47 percent of tolls would not be used for construction and maintenance.

There should never be a profit from a road. Our government's job is to provide security, infrastructure, public education and public health services. Our state government needs to get back to the basics and provide us with what our gas tax was meant to pay for.

If two people pay the same gas tax and one has to pay an additional toll tax to use a road, then there are unequal transportation opportunities. I am waiting for the first lawsuit based on economic justice and tollroads.

Sharon Overall, Plano

© 2006 The Dallas Morning News


TxDOT pushes tolling Interstate 10

Officials say toll roads can fund I-10 projects

February 4, 2006

By Zahira Torres
El Paso Times
Copyright 2006

If new funding sources — including toll lanes and toll ways — are not created, El Pasoans may have to wait more than two decades before money can be gathered to alleviate traffic on Interstate 10, Texas Department of Transportation Officials said Friday.

“We have a very big challenge in El Paso, and TxDOT is proposing a solution to that problem,” said Charles H. Berry Jr., El Paso district engineer.

“Historically and traditionally there have only been a couple ways of paying for highways in the state of Texas ... and that has come to us from gasoline payments. Our gasoline prices include a state and a federal gasoline tax. Those two taxes have not changed since the early 1990s, and we’re still paying the same rates.”

Berry said these funding sources are no longer enough to provide for a growing city with increased traffic, like El Paso. The Department of Transportation receives between $28 million and $30 million a year for new projects, but officials said that money is tied up in other necessary projects through 2030.

Berry added that if new funding sources are not sought, some projects might be on the back burner for at least 26 years before they can be considered.

Through its El Paso District Mobility and Funding Study, the Transportation Department is hoping to expedite several projects expected to ease I-10 traffic: an $800 million Southern Relief Route proposal to widen and extend the Border Highway West and the $204 million Northeast Parkway, which will begin at the Purple Heart segment of Loop 375 and continue northwest to New Mexico Highway 404.

Officials do not yet know how much money is needed for a Northern Relief Route proposal, but estimate the Texas section from Purple Heart highway to the New Mexico state line would cost $204 million.

To get some of these projects under way, parts of Border Highway West and I-10 from Sunland Park Drive to the New Mexico state line are being considered for express toll lanes. The Northeast Parkway would become a toll way.

Six other funding sources are also being considered to help pay for each project. The sources include Proposition 14 bonds, which authorize the Transportation Department to issue notes or borrow money to fund highway improvement projects, and pass-through financing, which allows private or public entities to fund a project and be reimbursed by the department at a later date.

El Paso will also receive a one-time allocation of $108 million through the Texas Mobility Fund within the next three years as long the city can show that it is using other funding sources.

East Side resident Sheri Huerta, who has lived in cities with toll ways and toll lanes, said she does not want to see them in El Paso.

“The city keeps growing and all we have is I-10 or Loop (375) so I think some (of the plans for roads) are necessary,” Huerta said. “I would think, from what I’ve heard from people I’ve talked to and people at work, that (TXDOT) would have a better chance of getting the money through the proposed bonds or paybacks because people are going to purposely avoid tolls.”

Officials said that the construction of toll ways and toll lanes would not affect construction of additional non-toll roadways as the city continues to grow.

“If anything, it will help because the toll lanes will pay for their own upkeep,” said Marty Boyd, mobility coordinator.

The Mobility and Funding study has yet to address how much money would come from toll lanes and toll ways but officials said that revenue would stay within the region.

Zahira Torres may be reached at; 546-6156.

Copyright © 2006 El Paso Times


Divide and Conquer

NAFTA Corridors: Dividing the Nation to Multiply Profits


by Richard D. Vogel
Monthly Review
Copyright 2006

The NAFTA corridors system currently under construction will irreversibly divide the U.S. geographically, economically, and socially for the sake of profit. The cumulative consequences of this "biggest engineering and construction project in the history of the U.S." promise to be more damaging than any natural disaster in modern times.

The largest of these massive transportation corridors, designed primarily to accommodate NAFTA traffic from Mexico across the U.S., will be 1,200 feet wide and consume 146 acres (almost 1/4 of a square mile) per mile. Because the corridors will contain high-speed passenger and freight rails and underground water, gas, and petroleum pipelines, as well as multiple high-speed truck and passenger vehicle lanes, they will be constructed at grade level and permanently divide the areas through which they pass. To make matters worse, the extensive grading and construction of barriers to protect the high-speed traffic will alter air currents and watersheds and prevent the movement of wildlife.

Dividing the Nation

The two priority NAFTA corridors under construction, I-35 and I-69, will divide the nation in half from south to north. The I-35 corridor, beginning at the international border at Laredo, will split the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Iowa in half, and lop off the southeast corner and the eastern edge of Minnesota. The I-69 corridor will sever the Gulf Coast from the state of Texas and cut diagonally across Arkansas. It will then slice off the western margins of Tennessee and Kentucky before bisecting Indiana and cutting a big chunk out of southeastern Michigan.

The losses due to these divisions will be enormous:

Ultimately, up to 1/2 million acres of land, much of it prime agricultural and undeveloped open spaces, could be permanently lost from U.S. land stocks to these two corridors alone (and several more are in the planning stages). These properties will also be permanently removed from tax roles, depriving local communities of critical revenues for education and infrastructure support.

Large tracts of private and public land will be practically inaccessible because of the blocking of county highways and farm-to-market roads and the high cost of bridging the corridors (bridges will have to span over 1/2 a mile and local bridges will have to be paid for by the local community). Consequently, where the corridors pass through inhabited areas, many communities, and even families, will be permanently divided.

Because the corridors will be toll roads and local entities have to finance the construction of access ramps, many small communities will be isolated from the mainstream economy. Consequently, the NAFTA corridors will have an exclusionary effect -- exactly the opposite effect of the existing Interstate Highway System.

The bigger trucks and faster speeds that will be permitted on the corridors and the increased volume of traffic mean that air, sound, and surface water pollution will all increase geometrically. Public Citizen reports that one consulting firm predicted a 400 percent increase in traffic on NAFTA highways between 1995 and 2020. Significantly, the towering barriers that are being erected along the route of corridors where they pass through residential areas, while muffling the roar of the traffic to a degree, will only aggravate air pollution, the most dangerous environmental impact of the corridors.

Multiplying the Profits

A primary purpose of the NAFTA corridor system is to accommodate the flood of cheap manufactured goods from the Far Eastern Pacific Rim to the heartland of America. The strategy of many corridor backers is to bypass organized labor on the West Coast (primarily Long Beach and Los Angeles) and route the containerized freight south through Mexican ports and then north by rail and truck via the corridor system in order to save on shipping costs. These capitalists are willing to divide the nation with no concern for the collateral damage to the environment and communities along the route.

The NAFTA corridor system is meeting considerable resistance. Various environmental protection groups are campaigning against the project, and the powerful Texas Farm Bureau, citing the concerns listed above among others, has asked the Texas legislature to "scrap" the whole corridor project. Many local communities, including 35 counties in Texas, have passed resolutions against having the NAFTA corridors in their back yards. Ranchers in Grimes County, Texas, which will be divided by the I-69 corridor, have organized what they call a "direct action" network against the project. When I asked one rancher what "direct action" means, he nodded towards the scoped rifle in the gun rack in his pick-up and said, "We're ready for when they come to take our land."

It would seem that this latest scheme to divide the nation for profit has also deeply divided the people.

Richard D. Vogel, "The NAFTA Corridors: Offshoring U.S. Transportation Jobs to Mexico" (Monthly Review 57.9, February 2006)

To join the resistance, go to, seek out environmental organizations that oppose the NAFTA corridors such as the Hoosier Chapter of the Sierra Club at, or contact the Coalition Against NAFTA Superhighways at P.O. Box 4347, Arcata, CA 95518.

© 2006 Monthly REview


Friday, February 03, 2006

Damn the torpedoes!

Reformers taking aim at shadowy earmarks

Feb. 3, 2006

Washington Bureau
Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2006

WASHINGTON - When advocates for restoring the Battleship Texas sought funding last year to save the historic, rusting ship docked in the Houston Ship Channel, they didn't go through cumbersome federal grant procedures.

Instead, they enlisted the help of local members of Congress, who slipped $1.5 million for the ship's renovation into the defense funding bill, making it one of thousands of earmarks, or special projects sought by lawmakers, tagged onto spending bills.

As Congress considers ethics reforms amid a lobbying scandal, critics of the system argue that the rapid growth of earmarks has made it harder to reduce the federal budget deficit while providing a bonanza for lobbyists, who often prod lawmakers to secure projects for their clients.

Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, elected Thursday by House Republicans to serve as majority leader, wants to get rid of them.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has called earmarks "disgraceful," cited the Battleship Texas funding and other earmarks in the defense bill as examples of what he called pork-barrel spending.

Local impact

Others say the earmarks allow lawmakers to better and more quickly respond to their constituent needs.

Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, who requested the earmark for the Battleship Texas, which sits in his district, said that when people "elect representatives, they expect them to have some impact."

Green was approached by the Battleship Texas Foundation, a nonprofit group seeking as much as $20 million to restore the ship, which was commissioned in 1914 and retired in 1948.

Green said he enlisted the help of Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, and Rep. John Murtha, R-Pa., on the Appropriations Committee.

The funding for the project was announced only after final compromise on defense spending was reached last fall.

Charles Alcorn, chairman of the Battleship Texas Foundation, defended the federal funding for the ship project, which includes removing the ship from the water and building an interpretive center for visitors.

"It's one of our national treasures. We want to preserve it for future generations," he said. The Texas Legislature approved $16 million for the project, and the rest of the money is expected to be raised privately, Alcorn added.

Critics of earmarks say that though some of these projects may be worthwhile, they all avoid the scrutiny to which other programs are subject. Rather, they are attached to spending bills by Appropriations Committee chairmen, who disclose the projects just before lawmakers are asked to vote on the larger bills.

"The last thing on people's minds are these good investments. We are making terrible decisions on where money goes," said Keith Ashdown, head of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a fiscal watchdog group.

Critics cite former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunnningham, R-Calif., who recently pleaded guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes from two defense contractors in exchange for securing legislative favors in the form of defense spending earmarks.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has refused to make earmarks, noted that under the current procedures, lawmakers were not allowed to challenge the earmarks sought by Cunningham or any other lawmaker.

Flake has proposed a measure requiring that the funding requests be included in original appropriation bills that are debated in committees and on the floor of House and Senate.

President Bush says he would welcome restrictions on earmarks.

But Ron Utt, at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the White House and congressional leaders are seldom inclined to discourage earmarks.

Earmarks often are used as incentives for lawmakers to vote for legislation they might otherwise oppose, Utt said. The lobbying-reform plans offered recently by Senate and House Democrats and House Republicans make no mention of earmarks.

Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, under whose leadership earmarks proliferated, has defended the practice, saying the highway projects he secured for his district helped spur economic growth.

On the rise

The number of earmarks has exploded from 4,100 totalling about $29 billion in 1994 to 14,000 worth about $52 billion for 2004, according to the Congressional Research Service.

There were 6,376 worth about $24 billion just in a transportation measure approved by Congress last summer that critics derided for being loaded down with pork-barrel projects, including the so-called bridge to nowhere in Ketchikan, Alaska. After the $230 million bridge project received national publicity, lawmakers deleted it from the transportation measure but still awarded the money to the state.

Culberson said there should be more publicity about earmark requests but that any attempts to eliminate them would be "abdicating complete control of spending decisions to unaccountable bureaucrats."

Without earmarks, he said, Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority's rail project would not have received money for preliminary engineering studies.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, who along with Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, secured $15 million in earmarks for the Grand Parkway loop around Houston, said there should be a moratorium on the practice until the budget is balanced.

© 2006 Houston Chronicle:


"Critics say GPS technology could make it too easy for governments to track the movement of citizens."

Would you rather pay a toll or the gas tax?

Feb. 03, 2006

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2006

Tolls are considered a double tax by many motorists, who argue that they already pay for roads with gas taxes.

But what if drivers had the option of paying tolls instead of a tax?

Oregon is testing such a system and, if it works, Texas and other states may someday follow suit.

“You would stop paying the gas tax,” David Porter, an Oregon State University engineering professor leading the research, said during a class room presentation this week at the University of Texas at Arlington. “It’s not a double tax. It’s a choice.”

The Oregon test begins in March, when vehicles belonging to 280 volunteers will be outfitted with special devices that use global positioning satellite (GPS) technology to track how many miles are driven.

A small number of gas stations will be rigged with wireless equipment that automatically reads the GPS devices when the volunteers pull into those stations. The volunteers will pay the pre-state tax price for gas, which in Oregon is 24 cents per gallon less than other drivers pay.

Then in a separate account, perhaps pre-paid or backed by a credit card, they will be charged a per-mile fee that could range from 1.25 cents to 4.3 cents per mile, depending upon where and at what times they drive.

The pilot program is expected to continue through summer 2007.

Gas taxes can’t keep up with road projects even in Oregon, a state that has far less traffic than Texas, Porter said.

“In about 10 years, the ability to support roads is at risk — that’s what economists predict — because of increased fuel efficiency,” Porter said.

However, critics say GPS technology could make it too easy for governments to track the movement of citizens.

“I’m going to venture to say that will be a hard sell in Texas,” Roger S. Walker, UTA professor of computer science and engineering, said during a Q&A period of Porter’s presentation.

Even so, Texas and many other states are already looking at other ways of charging drivers on a per-mile basis as a way to limit traffic on certain roads during rush hour.

In the Metroplex, the Federal Highway Administration in late 2004 approved a plan to charge tolls on single-occupant vehicles using the Interstate 30 carpool lanes between Arlington and Dallas, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

The “value pricing” project on I-30, which could begin next year, will make it possible to charge motorists varying rates on the high-occupancy vehicle lanes based upon how heavy traffic is on the I-30 main lanes.

Also, later this year private companies will be asked to bid on the construction of toll lanes on Interstate 35W, Northeast Loop 820 and Airport Freeway in Tarrant County. Motorists likely will be charged variable prices on those lanes as well.

But Metroplex researchers say it’s too early to speculate whether gas taxes — in Texas, that’s 20 cents per gallon in state tax, and 18.4 cents federal tax. — could ever be eliminated.

But some level of per-mile charging is imminent, Texas researchers say. Perhaps not far in the future, cars will no longer be powered by gasoline or diesel, rendering the gas tax obsolete. If that happens, they say, government officials will need some other way to pay for roads.

The debate, they said, is really over how to create a system that’s accurate and fair.

ONLINE: To read more about the Oregon study, visit

The study began after Oregon lawmakers created a Road User Fee Task Force to explore a realistic alternative to the gas tax.

Gordon Dickson, (817) 685-3816

© 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:


"We covet our seat at the table."

Group opposes Perry's transportation plan but endroses him


Associated Press
Copyright 2006

Despite ardent opposition to Gov. Rick Perry's Trans Texas Corridor transportation plan, the political arm of the Texas Farm Bureau has decided to endorse Perry's bid for re-election.

"It's not just about the corridor. We will continue to oppose it, and will kill it if we can," farm bureau spokesman Gene Hall said Friday. "(But) the farm bureau is not a single-issue organization."

Perry, the son of West Texas tenant farmers, has worked well with the farm bureau on other issues such as water rights and the government seizure of private property known as eminent domain, Hall said.

Officially, the endorsement comes from the Texas Farm Bureau Friends of Agriculture Fund, the bureau's political action committee, which can donate money to a campaign. Hall said a donation would be made to Perry's campaign but declined to say how much, noting that such information will later be available to the public.

"There's a lot that happens (at the state Capitol) and we have a stake in most of it," Hall said. "We covet our seat at the table."

The Trans Texas Corridor is Perry's sweeping $184 billion vision of thousands of miles of highways, railways and utilities crisscrossing the state.

Perry has said the corridor project, a 50-year project that hinges on the development of new toll roads, is necessary for Texas to meet its transportation needs of the future. Spanish consortium Cintra-Zachary is already developing a plan for the first phase, a 600-mile traffic and trade route from Oklahoma to Mexico to run parallel to Interstate 35.

Farmers and environmentalists worry that landowners and small towns will pay the greatest cost. The Texas Farm Bureau had resisted the corridor project because of worries that farmers could be forced to give up land without adequate compensation.

Opponents have rallied at the state Capitol. A rally in May drew Perry's opponent, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Republican who is running for governor as an independent.

Writer and musician Kinky Friedman is also running for governor as an independent.

Democrats Chris Bell and Bob Gammage will face off in the Democratic primary on March 7.
Perry spokesman Robert Black said Perry, a former state agriculture commissioner, welcomed the endorsement and would continue to work with farmers.

"Gov. Perry is someone who has a deep understanding of how important agriculture is in Texas," said Perry campaign spokesman Robert Black.

© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co


Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Texas Farm Bureau remains in Perry's corner: A case of political "Stockholm Syndrome?"

Hate the sin, love the sinner.

February 2, 2006
By Ben Wear
Austin American Statesman
Copyright 2006

The Texas Farm Bureau, which has opposed the Trans-Texas Corridor — and continues to through its political arm — has nonetheless endorsed that massive toll road plan’s creator: Gov. Rick Perry.

The board of the Agfund, the Farm Bureau’s political action committee, Tuesday voted to go with Perry in this year’s election over the various Democrats, independents and mystery writers vying for his job. Kenneth Dierschke, president of both the bureau and the Agfund boards, asked if the vote was unanimous, said only that “it was a majority.”

“We’re very opposed to the Trans-Texas Corridor and have been since our convention two years ago,” Dierschke said. “But we’re more than a one-issue organization, and we have several issues that the governor works with us on.”

Along with the endorsement, Dierschke said Perry’s campaign will get a five-figure contribution from the bureau’s PAC. He declined to be more specific on the amount.

© 2005 Austin American-Statesman:


"Some commissioners have stated a preference for private companies "

NTTA approves SH 121 toll involvement


By Amy Morenz,
The Allen American
Copyright 2006

North Texas Tollway Authority board members are facing a critical week after unanimously demonstrating their willingness for the agency to build State Highway 121 main lanes and interchanges on Monday.

The board-approved plan would have the NTTA build the toll road in a partnership with the Texas Department of Transportation. The cities of Allen, Frisco, Plano and McKinney, and Collin County all have upcoming meetings to endorse the plan this week. Allen's will take place at 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall.

The final costs for 50 years could total $1.543 billion, according to NTTA estimates.

Maintaining SH 121 for 50 years could cost $591million; project management of frontage roads total another $66 million; and maintenance adds $517 million.

The NTTA will bring its proposal to the Regional Transportation Council on Feb. 9, said Paul Wageman, Collin County's NTTA board representative. Collin County leaders were told on Dec. 15 that a RTC endorsement would receive "significant weight," the NTTA's executive summary said.

The NTTA's proposal calls charging a toll of 12 cents per mile to fund the estimated $368 million needed to build main lanes and interchanges at Central Expressway and Dallas North Tollway. The 12.8-mile Collin County project would consist of a six-lane tolled facility between the Dallas North Tollway and North Central Expressway. The main lanes could open in 2008 and interchanges by 2010.

"Such a plan would accommodate the current pace of construction on SH 121," the executive summary states.

"We've been able to put together a very strong proposal," Wageman said. "We expect more questions to be out there."

The NTTA's involvement would mean lower toll rates than a private company would charge, faster completion because of the NTTA's track record and revenue to pay for other local projects, the NTTA's executive summary states. The NTTA's involvement would maintain local control and accountability, including setting toll rates, it adds.

The project is one of the most "financially feasible in the nation," the NTTA plan states. The NTTA is prepared to provide $4.5 billion in transportation funding to North Texas, including the Trinity Parkway, Lewisville Lake Bridge, Southwest Parkway and President George Bush Turnpike's eastern extension, it adds.

Revenues from NTTA's construction of SH 121 would cover all of the project costs, maintenance and debt service, its SH 121 proposal states. Enough extra revenues would pay TxDOT for the right-of-way it owns over a 50 year repayment period. Annual payments to TxDOT will be detailed in a separate agreement with Collin County, its four major cities and the RTC. A similar approach was adopted by the RTC for the Denton County portion of SH 121 and State Highway 161 in Dallas County, the NTTA executive summary states.

Collin County asked for the NTTA to become involved after four private companies submitted unsolicited proposals to the Texas Highway Commission directly. Some commissioners have stated a preference for private companies as an additional source of revenue to fund other state highway projects.

The state is now stressing tolls as a revenue source to fund upcoming highway construction projects. With highway gas tax revenues limited, some transportation experts consider tolls as a source of financing project and generating additional revenues to pay for other neary projects.

"The highlight is that we are proposing what the four cities and county want to keep to toll rate as low as possible," said NTTA chair Dave Blair. "We need to satisfy TxDOT that there will be enough money left over pay them for the road."

Two agreements will be needed to make the NTTA's involvement a reality, said Collin County Judge Ron Harris. The NTTA and TxDOT will need to finish its detailed review, and the cities and Collin County will need to finish paperwork with the RTC.

County leaders have been scurrying to meet a timetable before next week's RTC meeting and the Feb. 23 Texas Highway Commission meeting. The RTC serves at regional entity that dispenses federal highway funds.

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

©Star Community Newspapers 2006


Approval for loop 49 tolls comes during a turbulent time for toll road projects around the state

It’s official: Loop 49 will be tolled


Tri County Leader
Copyright 2006

Completing what ever ybody else already knew, The Texas Transportation Commission has voted to designate Loop 49 as a toll road, bringing the first road of its kind to Northeast Texas.

The approval, which was the final step in opening Loop 49 as a toll road, gives TxDOT and the North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority (NETRMA) the opportunity to partner on funding and design plans.

The first segment of Loop 49, between US 69 and SH 155, will open this summer. The second segment, which broke ground earlier this month, will connect US 69 and FM 756 (Paluxy Dr.) by early 2008.

Thanks to the ability to toll, TxDOT officials said they could connect the remaining western portion of the loop between SH 155 and I-20 in as little as seven years.

”This is an exciting day for us,” said Mary Owen, District Engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation’s Tyler District. “We couldn’t have gotten this project rolling without steadfast support from our local community and its leaders.”

Loop 49 boasted a 70-percent approval rating among attendees at the project’s final public hearing in Tyler on Oct. 25 of last year, and has experienced little of the resistance plaguing similar projects. The Tyler Metropolitan Planning Authority (MPO) has pledged nearly $70 million toward the completion of the proposed highway.

Further planning, development and construction, which will be done in cooperation with the NETRMA, will focus on connecting SH 155 to the interstate, then expanding the facility from two lanes to four.

”We have a host of financial options to choose from,” said NETRMA Chairman Jeff Austin III, whose organization received $12.25 million from the commission via its approval of Item 7b on Thursday to do further research and development work on Loop 49. “And we have a long way to go.” The project’s main focus is to provide some needed relief to steadily increasing traffic on US 69, which, inside Tyler’s city limits, becomes South Broadway, and sees more than 44,000 vehicles per day on average.

Giving motorists an option to bypass South Broadway while heading north could also provide relief to Tyler’s Loop 323, which is seeing steadily increasing volumes of traffic as Tyler and the surrounding communities grow.

Tyler declared in January that it had 100,000 inhabitants, up from 84,000 in the 2000 Census.

The project’s designation and approval comes during a turbulent time for toll road projects around the state, which have met with skepticism at best, and fierce opposition at worst from politicians and citizens alike.

Toll projects in San Antonio and Austin have met with stiff resistance from local anti-tolling activist groups, including one that won a federal injunction on the US 281 tolling project in San Antonio.

© 2006 Tri County Leader


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

"If you have questions or concerns about tolls, you might want to call Madrid and see how that goes."

Toll Alternatives Proposed


Jim Forsyth
San Antonio

Two Bexar County Commissioners who oppose the construction of toll roads on the far north side are proposing a non toll alternative to the Texas Legislature and the Texas Department of Transportation, 1200 WOAI news reported today.

Republican Lyle Larson and Democrat Tommy Adkisson are asking Bexar County lawmakers to urge TxDOT to support revisions to Highway 281 between 1604 and the Comal County line.

Larson says TxDOT should built overpasses to take through traffic on 281 over Encino Rio, Evans Road, Stone Oak Parkway, and Borgfield Road, and build one extra lane both northbound and southbound.

"Build an additional lane each direction and see what the cost is, rather than just going in and tolling these roads," Larson proposed in his letter, obtained by 1200 WOAI's Bud Little.

Traffic lights at those intersections, as well as poor planning in the construction phase of 281, is given most of the blame for the massive congestion on the highway today. In addition, explosive development in the area, which will only get worse when Washington Mutual adds several thousand jobs to the complex of buildings at 281 and Stone Oak Parkway, will add to the nightmare.

TxDOT and the Bexar County Regional Mobility Authority have proposed building new express toll lanes along 281, but that plan is stalled indefinitely due to environmental concerns and much stronger than expected opposition from toll road opponents, including Larson and Adkisson.

"We should take a sensible approach to simply build overpasses, rather than allowing the state to just come in and toll it," Larson said.

Adkisson has expressed concern that a Spanish based company is among the bidders to build and operate the Bexar County toll system, saying if you have questions or concerns about tolls, you 'might want to call Madrid and see how that goes.'

© 2006 Clear Channel Broadcasting, Inc.


"The cost of construction has gone up significantly.”

2001 county bond work estimates up $12.7 million

Feb 01, 2006

San Marcos Daily Record
Copyright 2006

County road improvements approved by voters five years ago will cost at least $12.7 million more than originally projected, forcing officials to cut projects and juggle priorities to make ends meet.

Roughly half of the $47 million package authorized in a 2001 election - about $26 million - was budgeted for widening and straightening 37.8 miles of county roads. The remaining $21 million was supposed to go toward paying part of improvements to state highways, including Ranch Road 12 and Texas 21, and constructing the San Marcos loop.

Now the county road portion alone is projected to cost at least $34.3 million despite a scaled-down program of 26.4 miles of improvements, five miles of which have been completed.

Three projects - Satterwhite, Fischer Store and Mount Gainor roads - have been cut from the package alltogether though officials say they will be improved at some point with non-bond money.

“Clearly costs and services have increased beyond what anyone expected,” said Commissioner Will Conley, the only commissioner not in office at the time the packaged passed. “...It's extremely difficult to grab a crystal ball and see what construction costs are going to do in the next five or 10 years. But this is definitely a lesson for future bond elections.”

In a court workshop on Tuesday called to examine the overruns, a consultant overseeing the program said the cost of construction materials and right-of-way comprise most of the increases.

Market rates for oil, steel, concrete and earthworks have all increased significantly in the last five years while massive projects in the region, such as the Texas 130 toll road, have increased demand for contractors, said Bob Sutton of Turner Collie and Braden.

“Ultimately, contractors are the ones that determine the cost of a road,” said Sutton said. “...These big contracts are keeping contractors busy so the cost of construction has gone up significantly.”

Original estimates for buying right-of-way were calculated based on an estimated $4,000 per acre. The actual average cost so far has been $16,000 per acre and ranges as high as $26,000, Sutton said. The cost of relocating utilities and modify railroad crossings have been about $2.2 million more than expected.

Another cost went unmentioned. Turner Collie and Braden's management fees have increased from $449,809 to about $1.2 million so far. Another $1.2 million has been spent managing bond financing.

The discussion that followed Sutton's update quickly erupted in fireworks, coming little more than a month before the March 7 primary in which Commissioners Susie Carter and Russ Molenaar and County Judge Jim Powers face challengers from their own parties.

Carter took exception with priorities for state road funding, an issue separate from the county road overruns. She blasted suggestions that another bond election may be necessary to complete roads included in the first one.

“I think taxpayers have a reason to complain. ...I don't see how we can ask them to trust us to do what's right if we haven't done the best we could this time around,” she said.

Powers said afterwards that the construction cost increases on the county portion of the bond package are justified by market rates.

“I definitely understand the overruns,” Powers said. “There's no question why the costs have done what they've done. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that everything is costing more.”

© 2006, San Marcos Daily Record


"I say politicians should not fear, but should embrace, the will of the people."

Strayhorn calls for popular vote on big issues


Associated Press
Copyright 2006

Texas voters should have more direct power to write state laws and set policy instead of leaving important issues in the hands of elected officials, independent candidate for governor Carole Keeton Strayhorn said Wednesday.

Strayhorn, the state comptroller, said she supports statewide initiative and referendum, a process that would allow voters to petition to have issues placed on the ballot and approved or rejected by popular vote.

"Texans, practical people — not professional politicians — have the right to shape their own future and determine their own destiny at the ballot box," she said.

Texas allows voters to amend the state constitution, but amendments must first be approved by the Legislature. It would take a constitutional amendment — approved by the Legislature — to put Strayhorn's idea into effect.

Strayhorn said she has long supported such a change, although previous efforts by others to push similar plans have failed.

Strayhorn's plan would allow voters to move with or without the Legislature's approval. It would allow voters to have a direct say not only on constitutional matters, but also in state law.

At a news conference at her campaign headquarters, she said that could include public education, toughening penalties for sex offenders and toll roads, specifically Gov. Rick Perry's transportation plan, the Trans Texas Corridor, an ambitious $184 billion vision of thousands of miles of tollways, railways and utility lines crisscrossing the state, which she has criticized.

Perry campaign spokesman Robert Black said voters will reject Strayhorn and her ideas.

"This November we are having a referendum, and voters will have the final say on Carole Strayhorn's continuing campaign of no plans, no solutions and no leadership," Black said.

Strayhorn, a Republican, decided to campaign as an independent rather than face Perry's re-election campaign in the March primary.

According to Strayhorn's campaign, 24 states have some form of the initiative and referendum process. Many local governments also use it.

"I say politicians should not fear, but should embrace, the will of the people," she said. "Let the people vote."

© 2006 The Associated Press:


Tuesday, January 31, 2006

"Toll roads aren't the problem, it is how they are being implemented."

Readers say toll road dispute points to troubles down the line


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

Apparently, not many of my thoughtful readers are big toll road fans. And many who write also send me great stuff to read.

"I am one of many San Antonians who are livid that toll roads are being shoved down our throats without a chance for us to vote on them," wrote one, echoing numerous others.

Many also greatly distrust the new regional mobility authorities, which lawmakers empowered to seize private property, issue bonds, establish tolls and even set up special taxing districts for transportation projects. Voters, however, got zero say in the creation of these authorities, picking their board members or reviewing their decisions.

Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn issued a blistering report on the first RMA created that cited apparent conflicts of interest, self-dealing and lax fiscal controls.

Sal Costello, founder of People for Efficient Transportation, sent several common-sense suggestions. These include purging the Texas Department of Transportation of its good-ol'-boy culture that thrives on building overly pricey highways while turning down less costly options, like double-decking existing freeways instead of buying more right of way for new ones.

Bill Barker, a transportation consultant, says, "Toll roads aren't the problem, it is how they are being implemented." Today's proposals aren't the product of "a rational public policy and a planning process with ample community input" but rather of state officials relying on the vendors to propose highway projects.

"The interstate highway system has been completed and vehicular travel is going down," Barker says. "We need to rethink our entire transportation program."

There are additional things we also need to rethink, others wrote.

"These roads are only a symptom of a greater malady: Our manic push to build huge, horizontal cities with little or no mass transit. ... We no longer have the luxury of putting off the decision. We must build our cities up and install workable mass transit," wrote Gary Keener.

San Antonio and Austin "need more than a few loft conversions in their downtown cores, (and) San Antonio, in particular, has a huge incorporated area filled with substandard housing that begs for redevelopment."

Also received was a warning in a recent Fortune Magazine report.

"Two of the world's most successful investors say oil will be in short supply in the coming months," the magazine said in an article about Hermitage Capital's Bill Browder and legendary commodities trader George Soros.

Soros wouldn't predict an expected price, but Browder detailed six scenarios, each of them plausible in varying degrees, and per-barrel prices they would produce.

Major attacks on Iraq's oil infrastructure would give us $88 oil, and an Iranian oil embargo $111 oil. But the fall of the House of Saud would send oil skyrocketing to a whopping $262 per barrel.

Far gloomier is the scenario James Howard Kunstler paints in "The Long Emergency," a five-page article adapted from his book of the same name. Since U.S. oil production peaked at 11 million barrels in 1970, it has dropped to 5 million barrels a day. But we consume 20 million barrels. Many experts expect global oil production to peak by 2010, he writes, and after that, supply will decline steadily and extraction costs will rise.

If such predictions are true, we may not even need the freeways we have, much less costly new ones sticking us with tolls.

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News:


Showdown looms between Texas Transportation Commission and NTTA

Tollway authority wants in on 121

Board's proposal would make tolls comparable to others in region

January 31, 2006

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

PLANO – The North Texas Tollway Authority wants a shot at remaking a Collin County stretch of State Highway 121 by charging tolls comparable to other area toll roads.

The tollway authority's board hastily endorsed a proposal Monday to do just that, providing a first glimpse at its detailed financing plan.

But it has competition. The state highway department is weighing proposals from private partnerships, some with foreign investment. They see the road as rich in revenue potential, fueled by growth and favorable demographics. This could mean higher tolls.

"The value of the road itself is very unique," said North Texas Tollway Authority Executive Director Allan Rutter.

The reason for the project, according to state officials, is simple: Mobility needs outstrip available revenue, leading to toll roads.

The tollway authority's proposal calls for tolls to start at 12 cents a mile, a rate in line with those charged around the region. The project would cost $369 million. The tollway authority would also guarantee payments to the state over time – a minimum of $500 million over 50 years. If revenue falls short, tolls on that road would rise to help cover the payments.

Under the proposal, the state would receive all revenue except that covering project costs. Dollars funneled to state coffers ultimately return to the area, however, and back other transportation projects, officials said. This financing model is a change for the tollway authority: It now plows additional revenue back into its own system.

There was little objection to the proposal from the board.

"To me, it's an unequivocal statement by the tollway authority that we're willing to look at very innovative ways to do roads," said Collin County board member Paul Wageman.

Some of the private entities are thought to be dangling large up-front sums to the state for taking on Highway 121. A more detailed version of the tollway authority's proposal was not immediately made public. At the board meeting, agency officials refused to release a copy of the draft document to The Dallas Morning News, saying it first needed to go to the state and Collin County governing bodies.

Monday's vote set off a round of crucial decisions in coming weeks, culminating with the authority presenting its proposal to the governor-appointed Texas Transportation Commission in February.

A showdown may loom: the state sees Highway 121 as a revenue source but has promised to consider local wishes on its future.

Collin County officials would prefer the project be handled locally by the tollway authority, given its history of operating other stretches like the Dallas North Tollway. But there could be a tussle among tollway authority members on where and how excess revenue from State Highway 121 gets spread.

The haste of Monday's vote upset some authority board members, who only received the draft over the weekend. They begged for more time to understand the details and take them to constituents.

"I'll vote for this, but I'll tell you that from my perspective, I never want to see, and I don't want to vote again, for something where I get the details on a Saturday over the weekend and then am expected Monday morning to vote on it," said board member Alan Sims of Dallas County.

The tollway authority staff said it needed to move with speed to remain in the running for State Highway 121.

Board members then unanimously adopted a resolution allowing the tollway authority to move forward in dealings with the state.

Almost immediately, the tollway authority will seek endorsements of its plan from Collin County as well as Allen, Frisco, McKinney and Plano.


© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co


City Council meeting draws a crowd

Special Meeting

Toll roads were of big interest for folks who turned out for a special City Council meeting.

KTSM News Channel 9
El Paso, Las Cruces, CD Juarez
Copyright 2006

Monday, January 30, 2006 — It was a special City Council meeting that drew quite a crowd. This was the third and final open meeting on regional transportation needs. The main topic tonight was how to fix roads and finance the projects. One option is to create a Regional Mobility Authority. That group would have the power to decide which projects would become toll roads.

The City Council listened to different options for tackling the transportation issues. Specifically, how to fund improving I-10, competing Loop 375 and finishing the inner-loop.

If a Regional Mobility Authority was created the chair would be appointed by the Governor. But, the six member committee would be selected by the city. The plan is drawing mixed reaction, as some say these issues should be decided by the City Council and not a Regional Mobility Authority, that's not accountable to voters.

Bill Hart Jr. would like to see the city make these decisions on their own. "We're not talking about grade schoolers here. These are adults with savvy say. They should be able to do the necessary coordination."

But others, like Rene Leon, see a Regional Mobility Authority as necessary step. "I view it as an investment into our community, which is on top of great growth and expansion."

Officials say only a Regional Mobility Authority can fund projects outside of Texas. Some of the proposed projects call for investment in New Mexico, and that's why proponents say it's important to consider the option.

No decisions were made at the special meeting. The City Council Legislative Review Committee will talk about the issues again on February 10th.

© 2006 KTSM - Comcorp.


Monday, January 30, 2006

Texas Transportation Commission wish list for 2007


2007 legislative wish list in works

Jan. 30, 2006

By Gordon Dickson
Fort worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2006

The Texas Transportation Commission is already putting together its wish list for the 2007 legislative session. Here are some examples:

Find money to move freight rail lines out of populated areas, including Tarrant County.

Issue fraud-proof temporary tags for newly purchased automobiles.

Improve planning at the county level for transportation, including Trans-Texas Corridor toll roads, rail lines and utilities.

Seek other transportation funds, possibly from motor-vehicle user fees, fines, bonding and debt financing.

Seek authority to issue bonds to buy existing toll roads and bridges.

Create a way to resolve disputes with private toll-road contractors.

Allow sobriety checkpoints.

Allow cost to be considered before deciding which engineers, architects and other professionals firms to hire for a road project.

Expect changes to the list in the coming months. Commissioners plan to discuss the subject at most monthly meetings through December. To keep track, go to

© 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:


"I don't trust a toll authority that doesn't answer to the public."

Special city council meeting to review need for toll roads

January 30, 2006

Ramon Bracamontes
El Paso Times
Copyright 2006

Toll roads, tolling authority and transportation issues are quickly becoming the hot potato of this election season as candidates in the March 7 primary are constantly being asked for their position on tolls.

And sadly, some say, most of those seeking public office are responding with the neutral answer of, "I need more time to study the issue."

"If you've announced for public office in this election, it is too late to study up on the issue," said H.W. Bill Sparks, an Eastside resident and voter. "You should already have an informed opinion because if you get elected this is an issue that you will have to deal with right away."

City Council has called a special meeting for 6 p.m. today to get more information on the region's transportation needs and on the need for a Regional Mobile Authority. City Council has the legislative power to establish a Regional Mobile Authority, which will have the power to establish tolls.

Though those running for state legislator or a county position will not have a vote when City Council votes on an Regional Mobile Authority, if elected, these state and county officer holders will have a seat on the Metropolitan Planning Organization's transportation board.

The organization typically approves the construction of all major roads in the region. It is this new construction, which includes the expansion of Loop 375 from Downtown to the Upper Valley, that is being targeted for tolling.

"I don't trust a toll authority that doesn't answer to the public," said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who is up for re-election and has taken the lead against tolling in El Paso. "This RMA will answer to no one."

The Regional Mobile Authority's chairman would be appointed by the governor and its members would be appointed by City Council. No elected officials can serve on the authority.

Terry Bilderback, vice chairman of the mayor's Transportation Cabinet, which conducted two public meetings on the issue last week, said the authority cannot be classified as a governmental body with taxing authority because the tolls are voluntary and there must be alternative free routes.

"People just have a natural opposition to paying a toll," he said. "In this case, people can decide if they don't want to pay a toll, or if they want to be stuck in traffic. No one has to pay the toll."

Another argument revolves around the availability of money for the improvement of the region's infrastructure. Some have said, incorrectly, that without tolls El Paso will no longer get state money for new roads.

That is not the case, Bilderback said.

The truth is that Texas Department of Transportation funding will continue to be sent to El Paso probably at its current level of about $120 million a year. However, that amount of money is not enough to finish some of the major projects within the next 10 years because the TxDOT money is also used for maintenance.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization has identified $10.7 billion worth of future transportation project needs for this area in the next 25 years, including about $1 billion for possible relocation of railroad lines. Only about $2.5 billion in traditional funding is likely to be available for those projects, according to TxDOT data.

"Having toll money ready allows us to speed up projects and get more done," Bilderback said.

Pickett said that while that is true, there are other ways that TxDOT can generate money for new construction projects.

"Tolls should be the last thing we do," Pickett said, "not the first."

The state legislative bill that authorized the establishment of Regional Mobile Authorities also gave TxDOT the ability to build roads with pass-through funding, or by selling bonds and other methods. Pass-through funding is what is currently being considered to build the inner loop that will connect Loop 375 to the Northeast.

In pass-through funding, the contractor puts up the money to build the road, and the state pays it back.

"This is a complicated issue and I hope that City Council will take the time to study the issue before they decide to establish an RMA," Pickett said.

Northeast city Rep. Melina Castro said she is feeling the pressure from the mayor's office and some business interests in town to establish a Regional Mobile Authority. But Castro, who is the chair of the council's Transportation Legislative Review Committee, said she will not move fast.

"I am going to take as long as it takes," Castro said. "I would hate to make a rushed decision and later realize that it was the wrong decision."

Her committee two weeks ago asked for more public input and for more meetings. There is no timetable for when City Council will vote on the issue.

Ramon Bracamontes may be reached at; 546-6142.

© 2006 El Paso Times


Political appointees and private corporations will set toll road rates in Texas

Toll road rules aren't shady, just unclear

January 30, 2006

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

State Rep. Mike Krusee sought me out last week to say he didn't particularly care for my Jan. 23 column.

Krusee, a Williamson County Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee, hated the headline: "Hey, buddy, wanna buy a toll road?"

He said, with some justification, that it implied something crooked was going on.

But Krusee especially didn't like the last sentence.

In a quick discussion of who might get to set toll rates on a privately run toll road, I pointed out that Texans don't vote on who serves on the board of directors for Cintra.

Cintra is the Spanish company that, with minority partner Zachry Construction of San Antonio, will build a toll road alternative to Interstate 35 and operate it for the next 50 years.

Foul, Krusee said.

The Legislature last year, he pointed out, passed a statute, HB 2702, preventing Cintra or any other private toll road operator from imposing whatever toll rates it pleases.

Fair enough.

But the changes in HB 2702 are, uh, vague. What the bill said was that if the state or other Texas governments (such as a regional mobility authority) make an agreement for a private company to run a turnpike, the government must "approve a methodology" for setting or changing those tolls.

That's it. No guidance on what that methodology might be. With the forbearance of the Texas Transportation Commission, Cintra could in theory set toll rates based on a percentage of the passing yards the Longhorns get against OU each year.

Unlikely, sure. But possible under the law.

The actual method that I've heard officials toss around would be to tie toll rates to some sort of acceptable rate of return for the company's investment.

Sounds reasonable. But in practice, that would create a very large and complex black box of accounting that the public would have a hard time scrutinizing.

By the way, it's worth pointing out that we voters likewise won't get a chance to elect those who set rates on publicly run toll roads.

Rates for the three toll roads being built by the state north and east of Austin are under the control of the Texas Transportation Commission. And the board of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority will set rates on U.S. 183-A, the toll road that agency is building in Cedar Park and Leander.

Those boards are appointed, not elected. Appointed by elected officials, to be sure.

But if you hate toll rates on Texas 130, you won't be able to fire Chairman Ric Williamson or the other four commissioners. Only the governor can do that, and he's hard to fire. Just ask Tony Sanchez.

And then there are managed lanes, where toll rates can vary by the minute based on traffic. You'd have to fire a computer in that case. Very sticky.

Anyway, my apologies, Rep. Krusee. Cintra-Zachry will indeed have a leash on it.

Just how long and how strong that leash will be, however, won't be clear until the state and Cintra make that toll rate methodology public. And until someone explains that method to the rest of us.

Getting There appears Mondays. For questions, tips or story ideas, contact Getting There at 445-3698 or

© 2005 Austin American-Statesman:


TxDOT wants red-light cameras on state roads

Two Texas cities launch red-light cameras

Jan. 30, 2006

Associated Press

PLANO, Texas - Police in Plano and Richardson have a new tool to discourage drivers from rushing through red lights.

The two cities north of Dallas planned to activate newly installed red-light cameras on Monday. They're among several cities to employ the cameras as a tool to decrease red light running and side-impact accidents.

The cameras take photos of the license plates of offending vehicles, which enables police to send citations to the vehicles' registered owners.

Opponents of the cameras argue the cameras increase rear-end collisions, serve as a "cash-cow" for cities and encroach on motorists' privacy rights. During last spring's legislative session, lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to pass a bill that would have banned the use of such cameras.

Plano and Richardson have identified the intersections where the cameras are placed, but Plano Lt. Jeff Wise said he hopes drivers will be more careful in all locations because they'll be unsure of the cameras' exact locations.

Both cities have a one-month warning period before they start charging $75 civil fines for red-light infractions.

Plano City Council member Sally Magnuson said most residents she's heard from support the cameras. She said privacy concerns aren't an issue for people who follow traffic laws.

"If you don't run the red light, nobody will take any pictures," she said.

Frisco plans to unveil the cameras in late February, and the Dallas City Council approved the cameras earlier this month, with plans to have them in place by August.

In Garland, which has had the cameras for more than two years, police say red-light violations have dropped by 21 percent.

The Texas Department of Transportation in December asked Attorney General Greg Abbott to decide whether the agency can install red-light cameras on traffic signals along state roads.

The state controls many traffic signals along freeway frontage roads, U.S. and state highways and farm-to-market roads. The department also wants to know how to respond to requests from cities that want to place cameras on state roads within their borders.

© 2006 The Associated Press:


Sunday, January 29, 2006

After shooting "the Road Fairy," TxDOT loots the Bolivar ferry

Ferry lines may be history — for a fee

Proposal would give priority to those paying $250 or more per year

Jan. 29, 2006

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2006

Motorists willing to pay $250 or more a year soon may be able to bypass the long lines that form in the hot sun during tourist season to wait for the Bolivar and Port Aransas ferries.

The Texas Transportation Commission had scheduled a vote last week on the proposed priority boarding lanes. The commission postponed voting on the measure until Feb. 23 after Bolivar Peninsula resident Darlene Leal pleaded that the proposed fees are too steep for many beach-loving retirees to afford.

The free ferries connect Bolivar Peninsula with Galveston Island and Padre Island with the mainland north of Corpus Christi.

Leal, spokeswoman for the Bolivar Ferry Access Project, a residents group, said the narrow peninsula with one road down the middle is home to fewer than 4,000 people.

One in four is retired, she said, and all are outnumbered by the visitors who arrive on weekends to play.

Texas Department of Transportation statistics show the Bolivar ferries carried an average 7,501 vehicles a day last July, the busiest month. TxDOT says long lines are a weekend and tourist season problem, and that 86 percent of the time there is no wait at all.

Leal asked the commission to reduce the proposed fee for cars to $125 or $150, but it already had been cut from a proposed $400, and TxDOT officials say that if the cost was too low, so many people would buy priority stickers that they would offer little advantage.

Residents want priority

The proposal calls for buses, motor homes and single-unit trucks with up to three axles to pay $500 (reduced from $600) and larger vehicles $1,000 (increased from $800).

Leal also asked for peninsula residents to get automatic priority. "There just has to be a way you can identify people who live there and let them in and out," she said. "Does everybody else have the right to go before you?"

But TxDOT attorney Richard Monroe said the agency has no authority to treat residents differently from visitors and probably would lose a lawsuit if it tried to.

Commission chairman Ric Williamson moved to delay the vote in an effort to obtain endorsements from local elected officials.

He also told TxDOT district engineer Gary Trietsch to "take a second look" at a long-proposed bridge that could replace the ferries.

But Trietsch said such a bridge would be costly at 2.5 miles long — twice the length of the Galveston Causeway — and at least 200 feet over the water so ships could pass under it. Construction would be 15 to 25 years away, he said.

Trietsch said the priority boarding setup would increase ferry waiting lanes from two to three on the Galveston side and from one to two on the peninsula, with one lane on each side for priority boarding.

Priority vehicles would be limited to half the space on each 70-car ferry, he said. TxDOT also will add a sixth ferry to the five now operating at Bolivar, Trietsch said.

Unlike Leal, Port Aransas Mayor Georgia Neblett had hoped the commission would approve the plan.

"We're looking forward to it," Neblett told the panel, because on a busy weekend the ferry traffic clogs the city's streets. "We'd put in more streets if we had room, but we're an island."

"We're not going to be able to satisfy both of you," Williamson said after being advised that separating the two projects could delay both. The panel is likely to approve the current proposal next month, he said.

Mixed reactions

While the commission was meeting, passengers on the Bolivar ferry Ray Stoker Jr. — named for a former transportation commission chairman — had mixed reactions to the priority boarding plan.

Dienst Distributing Co. president Stacy Dienst said he doesn't think his firm needs it at $500 per truck. The beer delivery trucks leave a mainland warehouse so early in the morning that drivers don't have to worry about lines, he said.

But many University of Texas Medical Branch employees live on the peninsula and commute daily.

Lifelong peninsula resident and UTMB senior secretary Janelle Brannan said she'd reluctantly buy a pass at $250 "just to keep from sitting in line during the summer."

"We have these kids who want to come over here and party and they don't care if they sit in lines for hours," she said. "We are at work all day long and ready to just go home and sometimes it's 7 p.m. before I get home." During the rest of the year, Brannan said, her evening wait is about 20 minutes and she gets home at about 6 p.m.

Vivian King was less enthusiastic about a fee. "We pay taxes and this is the only way we have to get to Galveston and shop and do other things," she said. "I think we should have priority without having to pay for it."

But fellow peninsula resident Guy Hailey, who rides the ferry two or three times a week, said he might buy a sticker.

"During the summertime, it's impossible to get from Bolivar to Galveston on the ferries," Hailey said. "It's just frustrating and sometimes you just end up not going."

© 2006 Houston Chronicle:


County’s plan to condemn part of the 24,500-acre nature preserve smells of economic development

Some in Willacy worry about development on Padre Island

Jan 29, 2006

Valley Morning Star
The Brownsville Herald

PORT MANSFIELD, January 29, 2006 — Some residents here fear Willacy County would develop Padre Island land if the courts allowed it to be seized from a wildlife refuge.

But County Attorney Juan Angel Guerra said the county and its Navigation District want to give residents access to the Island.

As part of a plan, they would develop a park that would include a boat dock and restrooms, Guerra said.

“I don’t think it’s about access for Willacy County. I think it’s about development,” said Walt Kittelberger, a fishing guide who serves as chairman of the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preservation of the bay.

In November, the County Commission and the Navigation District requested Guerra file under the law of eminent domain to take over more than 1,500 acres of Island land owned by the Nature Conservancy of Texas, a San Antonio-based nonprofit organization that preserves natural habitat.

“We just want access to the Island so people can enjoy the beach and the scenery there,” Guerra said.

A new law prohibits public entities from using eminent domain to seize private land to sell it, Guerra said.

But residents like Kittelberger fear the county and Navigation District could enter into a partnership with a private firm to develop the land.

“If the property is seized it would open it up for development, whether it would be the Navigation District or the county,” Kittelberger said. “It could be developed by a wide range of people. That’s why we’re so opposed. It’s bad for the environment and it’s bad for private property ownership.”

Guerra denied hidden motives were behind the plan.

“We’re not trying to do business there,” Guerra said. “There is no hidden agenda, there’s no hidden purpose.”

Mike Wilson, the Navigation District’s director, did not respond Friday to a message requesting comment.

The county would limit the land’s development to a park to include restrooms and a dock for an amphibious vehicle that would ferry residents from Port Mansfield to the Island, Guerra said.

“We want to make a park where the people of Willacy County could go and enjoy the beach,” he said.

At the Conservancy, Director Carter Smith said he’s concerned the county and Navigation District could use eminent domain to sell the land for development.

The county’s plan to condemn part of the 24,500-acre nature preserve could threaten endangered species and their habitats, Smith said.

“This does appear to be about promoting tourism and economic diversification,” Smith said. “That sounds like economic development to me.”

Under law, governments cannot use eminent domain to seize private land for the primary purpose of development of economic development projects.

“They have made no effort to communicate their intentions although we are long-standing landowners and taxpayers in the county,” Smith said.

The county will try to reach a “mutual agreement” with the Conservancy before it files an action to condemn the land under eminent domain, which gives governments the right to seize private land for the public good, Guerra said.

The land’s ownership would allow the Navigation District to launch a proposed project that would ferry residents from Port Mansfield to the Island’s beaches.

The county stands behind an agreement intended to allow the Navigation District to buy Island land in an area across the bay from Port Mansfield, Guerra said.

In the early 1990s, a Houston-based insurance company known as American General Corp. agreed to sell 300 acres of its Island land to the Navigation District for $300, Guerra said.

Later, American General sold 24,500 acres, including the 300 acres earmarked for the Navigation District, to the Nature Conservancy for nearly $9 million, Guerra said.

In the agreement, American General stipulated that the 300 acres be sold to the Navigation District, Guerra said.

But Smith said the Conservancy didn’t buy the land from American General. Instead, the organization bought the land from a Houston-based company known as Westbrook, SP about five years ago, Smith said.

For years, the Navigation District planned to ferry residents from Port Mansfield to the Island’s beaches.

In 2002, the state General Land Office awarded the Navigation District a $700,000 grant to fund a project to ferry passengers to the Island.

In April 2004, the Navigation District paid $90,000 for an 1966 amphibious craft that could take as many as 30 passengers from Port Mansfield to the Island about 10 miles across the Laguna Madre. But the state refused to reimburse the ferry’s purchase.

The state refused to reimburse the purchase because the craft didn’t comply with requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which required the vessel be wheelchair accessible, Jim Suydam, spokesman for the General Land Office in Austin, said in an earlier interview.

Last March, the state pulled the grant because the Navigation District “failed to meet their business plan,” Suydam said.

Last year, public hearings in Raymondville, Corpus Christi and San Antonio sparked concern that the project’s proposed construction of restrooms and docks threatened the Island’s pristine habitat, Colin Campbell, superintendent of the Padre Island National Seashore in Corpus Christi, said in an earlier interview.

The office refused to approve the Navigation District’s plan to land the ferry because it could threaten the Island’s ecological system, Campbell said.

“We have already protected that land for a clear and compelling public use benefit, not the least of which is protection of the open beach for public use and enjoyment and conservation of protected species and habitat on the Island,” Smith said. “The access may not be as easy as some would like but there is unfettered access.”

© 2006 The Brownsville Herald


Meanwhile, in the Hoosier State: "Indiana lawmakers should be leery of the governor’s now-or-never approach."


Toll road rush could be costly

Jan. 29, 2006

The Journal Gazette
Fort Wayne, Indiana
Copyright 2006

“And for those who say they are still opposed, we have a question of our own: What’s your idea?” – Gov. Mitch Daniels, in a Journal Gazette commentary published in response to an editorial critical of his Major Moves initiatives.

“We believe there are funding alternatives that will allow the state to make wiser use of revenues and stop this administration’s policy of selling off our state’s assets,” – House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, announcing an alternative plan of bonding on proposed toll increases and federal gas tax revenues.

“This isn’t a plan. This is a joke,” – Daniels’ budget director, Chuck Schalliol, in response to the Democrats’ plan.

If Gov. Mitch Daniels is truly interested in hearing anything other than accolades for his sketchy transportation program, it’s hard to tell. His administration’s dismissive response to the House Democrats’ proposal is indicative of more than partisan politics. It shows the governor’s contempt for the political process and for an honest discussion of Indiana’s economic future.

Hoosiers should demand that the General Assembly put the brakes on the governor’s Major Moves proposal. His unrelenting push to lease the Indiana Toll Road to an overseas consortium is an affront to those who have raised legitimate questions about the implications of such a policy and to those who have urged him to exercise caution.

The Democrats’ plan would earmark revenues generated from the already-announced toll increases to support $800 million in 20-year bonds. In addition, they propose using federal Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle bonds to borrow against gasoline tax revenues, which would produce another $800 million over 20 years.

There’s no doubt that an immediate payout of $3.85 billion seems more attractive. The “astounding sum,” as the governor characterizes it, is obviously enticing to contractors clamoring for a piece of the payout. It’s also enticing to Hoosiers who will benefit from new infrastructure without paying higher tolls or taxes.

But the prospect of instant gratification doesn’t excuse due diligence in studying the governor’s plan or in examining the alternative proposals that he himself asked for. His argument that Indiana must act fast before other states jump in is specious. A day after Daniels announced the toll road bid results, Texas’ Harris County commissioners authorized $1 million to study options for an 83-mile toll system. They will separately investigate selling the toll road authority, leasing it or keeping it county-owned.

“We have no preconceived notions,” the county budget and management director was quoted in the Houston Chronicle. “It may be county-owned is the best way to go.”

Indiana lawmakers should be leery of the governor’s now-or-never approach. If Texas officials, whom Daniels has cited as leaders in public-private transportation partnerships, are spending $1 million to study the issue and taking until June to make a decision, what is the rush here?

The governor invited other ideas. He should now allow them to be aired. Otherwise, the General Assembly – and Hoosier taxpayers – could pay a steep price.

Copyright 2006 Knight Ridder


Fierce opposition has developed across Texas to toll road boondoggles.

Carlos Guerra: Have we considered alternatives to ambitious toll-road plans?


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

Yes, Texas' population explosion and increased overland shipping — especially to and from Mexico — have created big traffic congestion.

And as they build highways at some of the nation's highest per-mile costs, Texas Department of Transportation officials insist that the gas taxes that funded highways for decades just aren't keeping up.

We need to start on hundreds of billions of dollars of new highways, they say. And the only way to pay for expanding existing freeways, building new ones and maintaining Texas' fast-growing web of asphalt is to charge tolls.

Granted, charging tolls isn't a new idea, even in Texas, once bragging that it had the nation's best highways. But it also had locally approved toll roads — such as the extensive systems in Houston and the Metroplex. Tolls were also used to pay for local projects, like the causeway to North Padre Island. But in many of these smaller projects, once the bonds were retired, so were the tolls.

What TxDOT now proposes, however, differs markedly from toll projects of old in several ways, and especially in its magnitude.

That is why fierce opposition has developed across Texas to the boondoggles, and turned toll road plans into a hot potato for elected officials who have embraced them.

Did anyone really expect many to cheer the notion of turning existing free highways, and still unbuilt highways funded to be free lanes into toll roads?

And even more galling are plans to award contracts without competitive bids to private firms so they will pay for huge tollways — on state-seized land — in return for pocketing unspecified tolls for many decades into the future.

Similar arrangements exist elsewhere, and more such ventures are being considered in at least 16 other states. But where such public-private ventures exist, there have often been problems.

Many projections of how many drivers would use the tollways turned out to be wildly optimistic, and I found only one case in which the public ultimately benefited. That was in the nearby Camino Colombia, which for a price, would allow Mexico-bound truckers to bypass Laredo. But its projections were so far off that within four years of opening it was bankrupt. And TxDOT picked up the highway that cost $90 million to build for $20 million.

Elsewhere, traffic and revenue shortfalls have almost always led to toll increases, and in at least one case, they led to the state getting stuck with maintenance costs.

Perhaps the worst case, however, was that of the 10 miles of toll-lanes built parallel to a state highway in Orange County, Calif., by a private venture group that would collect tolls for 35 years.

As is now promised here, Californians were told they could keep taking the free — and perhaps, slower — lanes if they chose to not pay tolls. And so many drivers took that option that the state started preparing to widen the free roads and better maintain them.

But the state was stopped because the investors had exacted a non-compete clause that prevented California from building or improving state roads within 1 1/2 miles of the toll lanes. In the end, the state bought the toll lanes that cost $125 million to build for $207.5 million, which was raised with bonds that will be repaid by —you guessed it — toll-lane revenues.

Here's a better alternative: People drive less as gas prices rise. So, let's encourage less driving by raising gas taxes, which will let us scale back highway building plans — and let us keep them free.

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail

San Antonio Express-News: