Saturday, February 11, 2006

"We need to be very careful and proceed very cautiously."

Senators are latest bump for toll roads


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

Efforts to derail U.S. 281 toll plans have picked up some steam, with two state senators from San Antonio urging the Texas Department of Transportation to look at non-tolled options.

Sens. Jeff Wentworth and Frank Madla made their requests after prompting from Bexar County Commissioners Lyle Larson and Tommy Adkisson, who want TxDOT to reallocate gas taxes set aside for toll projects and instead build non-tolled highway lanes and overpasses on U.S. 281.

Wentworth, a Republican, sent a letter last week to the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, to ask that Larson's and Adkisson's proposals be reviewed.

"And let me hear back whether this may be a more acceptable solution than the increasingly unpopular toll idea," the letter states.

Madla, a Democrat, followed up with his own letter this week to the transportation commission. It makes a similar request but also suggests expanding bus service, forging ahead with commuter rail from San Antonio to Austin and taking advantage of a sales tax for roads and transit that voters passed in 2004.

"In addition, I want to encourage extensive public input into this process prior to any final determinations," the letter says.

Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said he's taking the requests seriously and that TxDOT will step back and take a hard look.

"We'll certainly take a look at the suggestions made," he said.

Toll critics are already notching another victory.

"One by one, courageous leaders are demonstrating their distaste for dealing with the public outrage on this issue and are asking for alternatives to TxDOT's toll-only mentality," said Terri Hall of San Antonio Toll Party.

Wentworth and Madla both said they're not necessarily opposed to toll roads, though Wentworth would prefer a gas-tax increase and Madla is skeptical about adding toll lanes to existing highways.

"This is not to say that toll roads are not needed in this state," Madla said. "We need to be very careful and proceed very cautiously."

Larson and Adkisson sent their letter to state lawmakers representing Bexar County after TxDOT postponed construction of toll lanes on U.S. 281 last month so the agency can redo environmental evaluations.

Overpasses at Encino Rio, Evans Road, Stone Oak Parkway and Borgfeld Road plus non-tolled lanes would solve most traffic congestion there, the letter says. "In the event that the current funding is inadequate to complete this project, it may be necessary for our local community to address the funding shortfall," it states.

In 2004, there were 91,000 vehicles a day on U.S. 281 just north of Loop 1604. The number is expected to swell to 148,000 by 2030, TxDOT says.

Workers were set to start construction on three miles of tolled express lanes and non-tolled frontage roads on U.S. 281, using $77 million in gas taxes. But a lawsuit filed in December persuaded officials to rethink their environmental clearances.

New environmental work could take a year or more, according to TxDOT. Public meetings are expected to start next month and hearings could come in the fall.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News:


Friday, February 10, 2006

Perry appointees keep pushing snake oil for congestion relief

I-69, corridor promoted

February 10, 2006

By Stephen Palkot
Fort Bend Herald and Texas Coaster
Copyright 2006

Texans are literally "congesting themselves into a corner," and a privately funded Trans Texas Corridor will be the solution, said a Texas Department of Transportation commissioner on Thursday.

John Johnson, a member of the Texas Transportation Commission, was one of several speakers at a meeting of the I-69 Alliance, which was held Thursday in the Rosenberg Civic and Convention Center.

Top TxDOT officials and area government leaders attended the meeting to hear an update on the project, which has drawn controversy and has become a hot-button issue in the 2006 election.

The rhetoric of TTC opponents was acknowledged by the speakers, who sought to convince the gathering the project does not violate long-held standards of eminent domain and will be conducted with public input.

"We have a big project educating people on what this project is about and how we're moving forward," said Ed Behrens, TxDOT's executive director.

The TTC and I-69 are two different projects that may be linked together. I-69 has been proposed as a highway to run from the southern border of Texas to the Port Huron, Mich., where it will connect with Canada.

The TTC is a proposed transportation corridor with car lanes and exclusive trucking lanes running side-by-side with rail lines and possibly utilities. TxDOT has been pursuing the idea of having I-69 be a component of the TTC.

Behrens noted the 50-year anniversary of the interstate highway system is approaching, and he described the TTC as the "next step" in transportation infrastructure.

The interstate corridors cannot be widened much more due to a lack of right-of-way along those highways, said Behrens.

Johnson said the project is being pursued in a relatively fast manner given traffic projections, to facilitate trade with Mexico and to create business opportunities along the TTC.

The environmental studies are under way, and TxDOT has been heavily involved in the process, said Johnson.

"I believe the rumors and innuendo that this will be a huge change from the way TxDOT normally operates - from an environmental, right-of-way standpoint - could not be further from the truth," he said.

The project will be funded in large part by private sector investors, who would seek to recoup their investment through tolls.

Johnson said that does not mean TxDOT will be ceding eminent domain to a private partner.

Ed Pensack, of the Texas Turnpike Division, said the TTC could be a huge investment and risk for investors, but that it could pay off.

"We're trying to make sure the industry understands that potential and its place in the world marketplace," he said.

He said TxDOT and the National Highway Administration will "always" be making decisions on plans for the road.

With the Panama Canal and a major port in Los Angeles nearing capacity, the TTC could handle overflow of cargo in the years to come. Cargo could be carried from ports on the western shore of Mexico and into Texas through highways, connecting at the TTC, said Johnson.

"Each one of those opportunities could really put that traffic though Texas," said Johnson.

County Judge Bob Hebert asked speakers about studies into the project, saying drivers might prefer to drive on existing, free roads instead of a toll road.

"We are making those analyses right now," said Pensack. "They will be made available as they get ready for completion."

Critics of the TTC say the project will require a massive land grab throughout Texas, and have questioned the idea of having private companies operate the road.

© 2006 Fort Bend Herald


"Tolling as a tool for all future state highways is not a good long-term plan."

Council nearly united on 121 plan


By Mike Raye, Staff Writer

It takes conviction to stand firm in your beliefs. As Thomas Jefferson once said, "In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current."

Frisco's mayor pro tem took the Founding Father's advice and stood as steady as granite Tuesday night, casting the lone dissenting vote against the approval of a plan by the North Texas Tollway Authority to build, maintain, and toll Texas State Highway 121. The proposal passed by a 5-1 vote.

Maher Maso said he wasn't concerned about the fact he was the only council member in the four-city consortium of Frisco, Allen, McKinney, and Plano to vote against the resolution. A bad deal is a bad deal, he said. Collin County Commissioner Jerry Hoagland of Plano also voted against the plan Monday night in a special session.

"Toll roads have a time and a place," Maso said in an e-mail Wednesday. "The DNT (Dallas North Tollway) is an example of a good toll road and NTTA is an example of a good organization. However, tolling as a tool for all future state highways is not a good long-term plan. Citizens have already paid a gas tax to build many of these roads. This is a prime example of double taxation."

Under the NTTA plan, which was to be presented to the Regional Transportation Council, a 40-member board of North Texas appointees yesterday, the tollway authority would enter a 50-year partnership with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) in which the NTTA would "develop, operate and maintain the project and provide to TxDOT all annual toll revenues" after its annual operating costs have been met, according to proposal's executive summary. NTTA officials admit it goes against their own Prime Directive of investing revenue back in its own system, but the potential windfalls - between $500 million and $1 billion by some accounts - to be spent on Collin County road projects, is too favorable a scenario to deny, they said.

That doesn't mean that all of the money sent to TxDOT will return to the region like the original resolution approved by the cities of Frisco, Plano, Allen, McKinney and the Collin County Commissioners Court intended. Some could be used for TxDOT projects elsewhere, a major sticking point for Maso.

"I cannot support any funds going from SH 121 to build other roadways," Maso said. "That simply is not right. As many have said, it is Robin Hood all over again. We are collecting funds from a small portion of our residents to pay for the use of free roads by others. The potential toll charge, when converted to what it would translate to as a gas tax, could be as high as a $2 per gallon gas tax," Maso said.

The NTTA plan would assess tolls at the same rate as on the DNT and the President George Bush Turnpike - currently 12 cents per mile - growing at 1.5 percent a year, and adjusted every five years. The NTTA would finance SH 121 as part of the DNT system, promising an opening date of 2010, including building interchanges at the DNT in Frisco and at US Highway 75 (Central Expressway) in McKinney. TxDOT district engineers said the construction of the highway's six main lanes (three northbound and three southbound) wouldn't begin until 2007 after all environmental impact approvals are secured. Construction of the highway's three-lane frontage roads is already under way, and some sections have already opened. The construction of the main lanes and frontage roads from the DNT to Hillcrest Road in Frisco has already been paid for by the state's gasoline tax.

"[That] is currently funded with $86 million and is already under construction to be completed by 2008 even without doing anything," Maso said.

The NTTA said it would build SH 121 for $370 million, and, along with other projects like the Lewisville Lake Bridge, Trinity Parkway, Southwest Parkway, and the eastern extension of the Bush Turnpike, pour $4.5 billion into North Texas Transportation projects, relieving cash-strapped TxDOT of those financial burdens. The NTTA's plan would be more fiscally attractive to the state than private companies' offers the state is considering under a comprehensive development agreement, or CDA. Foreign and domestic firms have entered bids on the project, which due to the nature of the bids the state is not obliged to divulge. A CDA could provide the state with more money up front while the NTTA plan would spread payments over 50 years.

Maso argued that tolling what is now a free SH 121 would have a bigger cost than benefit to area drivers, and he presented calculations to his council colleagues to illustrate his point.

"A policy that dictates tolls on state highways is highly unfair and inequitable," he said. "A 30-mile (round) trip, at 12.5 cents a mile, five days-a-week translates to $975 per year. If you drive a car that gets 15 miles-per-gallon the same distance on a free road and increase the gas tax 10 cents a gallon, your increased taxes for a year are $52. If your car gets 20 miles-per-gallon, that increased cost is $39 per year. That is a major difference. That $975 translates to a $1.88 per-gallon gas tax at 15 miles-per-gallon or $2.50 per gallon tax at 20 miles-per-gallon."

According to the NTTA proposal, the cost of a round trip between the DNT in Frisco and Central Expressway in McKinney - 25.6 miles - would cost $1.34 when the highway opens in 2010. If predictions for annual increases hold true, that cost could rise to $1.44 by 2015; $1.56 by 2020; $1.68 by 2025; $1.81 in 2030; $1.95 in 2035; and up to $2.11 in 2040, the end of the 50-year deal with TxDOT.

Tolls on SH 121 would be collected through toll tags exclusively - another point of contention for Maso.

"This creates a problem for those that do not have a credit card or out-of-state visitors," he said. "Another major problem that I had with tolling is the length of time. The tolls will not be reduced or removed after the bonds are paid off. In fact, there are escalation costs built into the agreement. This is not a 20- or 30-year agreement, but 50-plus years! Along with that, some right-of-way has been donated by landowners who were told it was going for a freeway. They were never asked to donate for a tollway and some do not support it. Along with that, major industrial users will not want to locate near a tollway for obvious reasons."

Maso's colleagues on the dais had more favorable opinions, mostly arrived at through attrition and weariness over wrangling with different scenarios and mostly summed up by City Manager George Purefoy - the author of the resolution agreed upon by the four cities and the county months ago: make a good deal.

"I've expended all the energy I can on this," Purefoy said. "All in all this is the best solution. It is a classic compromise. Nobody gets everything they want but everybody gets a little bit of what they want. It comes down to making the best deal you can."

"We have been working on this since 2004," Mayor Mike Simpson said. "The right thing to do is get the road done and get it done by 2010. If TxDOT is willing to look at a CDA and get a foreign entity to do this, they certainly should look at the NTTA. We all need to be able to go to the state with a united front and present this to them as a viable alternative."

"We appreciate the confidence you have shown in us," NTTA Executive Director Alan Rutter told the council before their vote. "Plano, Allen, and McKinney have all voted unanimously in favor of (our proposal). The Collin County Commissioners Court voted four-to-one for it. We look forward to working with the City of Frisco as well."

Maso did not let his chosen role as a naysayer overshadow the acknowledgement of a hard journey leading up to Tuesday night's council vote.

"I am awed by how hard the local elected officials tried to come up with a solution that attempts to protect our local citizens," Maso said. "There is no blame that can be placed on them, especially not Mayor Mike Simpson or City Manager George Purefoy who pulled out all the stops to protect our residents."

©Star Community Newspapers 2006


Read my lips....

County officials reiterate view on toll roads

February 10, 2006

By Ron Maloney
The Herald-Zeitung
Copyright 2006

How loudly do you have to holler “No!” before someone hears you?

Comal County Judge Danny Scheel is beginning to wonder.

County commissioners, who have voted unanimously against paying for any roads through tolls, said Thursday they are being “spammed” with e-mails from folks whose concern is the commissioners supposed support for toll roads.

Commissioners more than two years ago looked into legislation that gave local governments the authority to create a sort of miniature road-building body called a “Regional Mobility Authority.” But they discarded the idea because they thought placing toll lanes on roads already paid for through the gasoline tax and state money would be tantamount to double taxation.

Scheel, County Engineer Tom Hornseth, District Attorney Dib Waldrip and other officials met with state and regional staff of the Texas Department of Transportation to work out instead another arrangement for paying for new highway capacity through the county under a scenario called “pass-through” financing in which the county helps finance new construction by issuing bonds later repaid by the state.

Scheel, heatedly discussing the issue at commissioners’ court Thursday, stopped somewhere just short of a rolling boil.

“I got 40 e-mails just this morning from individuals in the north and west parts of the county,” Scheel said. “We have been opposed to toll roads, and there will be no toll roads in Comal County, and we have repeated that position again and again. Their concern is our supposed support for toll roads. I get so upset because I just don’t know how else to get across there are no toll roads in Comal County and we don’t support them — period.”

Scheel noted he has been in newspapers and spoke on the radio addressing the issue.

“I don’t know how else we can get it across that there are no toll roads for Comal County,” Scheel said. “If anyone would like proof, I have a letter on my desk saying just that.”

The pass-through financing agreement the county has negotiated with TxDOT and the Texas Transportation Commission, Scheel said, is unique.

“This is not a common thing,” Scheel said. “It’s a real sweetheart deal for our county. We’ve negotiated hard in bargaining with TxDOT to accomplish this.”

The letter Scheel referred to was one he wrote to TxDOT officials late last year that sets out the funding scenario that was negotiated in this county for U.S. 281 and Texas 46.

“Under the present scenario, the county would pay for 10 percent of the cost of right-of-way and relocation of utilities as usual but, in addition, would loan TxDOT $16 million per project to be repaid by TxDOT in four to five years,” Scheel wrote. “The only new expense in these projects would be the interest on the $16 million during the repayment period, which would be divided proportionately between New Braunfels, Comal County and Bulverde.”

TxDOT could begin acquiring right-of-way for the project this year, and construction could begin in 2008, Scheel said.

“Without our participation, the projects could be 10 to 15 years out,” Scheel said. “I think everyone would agree that with a projected county population of 144,000 residents by the year 2012, we cannot afford to wait.”

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jan Kennady, who last year at the Texas Legislative Conference loudly and publicly confronted Texas Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson over the toll road issue, saying commissioners and their constituents would never sign on to transportation improvements involving toll roads, has also seen some of the e-mails.

“We’ve been bombarded by people who are against toll roads and who are saying how bad toll roads are,” Kennady said. “The truth is, we have said over and over on numerous occasions that we’re opposed to toll roads. We’ve taken a stand that we do not want toll roads, there will not be any toll roads and U.S. 281 in Comal County will not be a toll road.”

© 2006 The Herald-Zeitung herald-zeitung


"If they're committed to the toll-road concept they're not going to improve those routes at all."

As tolls bog down, so does U.S. 281


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

A curious thing happened after the Texas Department of Transportation, facing a lawsuit, backed off plans to start construction on U.S. 281 toll lanes last month.

Within days, traffic got a lot worse.

Cars backed up for more than a mile at stoplights, and motorists spent almost twice as much time stuck in rush-hour traffic.

"It was always horrible," said Joe Dunn, who commutes daily on U.S. 281. "This was a whole lot worse than it had ever been."

Then came accusations that officials had re-timed the traffic signals, giving them less green time, to ratchet up the pain and make the prospect of toll roads look better.

"It seems to me that TxDOT, with the city's acquiescence, has been playing politics with our highway system," said Terri Hall of San Antonio Toll Party, a group critical of toll-road plans.

Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson, who lives near U.S. 281, said he noticed the slower traffic, too.

"There was definitely a change and it was noticeable to a lot of people who travel the corridor," he said.

At a recent meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization board, which Larson sits on, he asked the city to explain what happened to signal lights at Stone Oak Parkway, Encino Rio and Evans Road.

City Transportation Engineer Christina De La Cruz said that "they had been tweaking it."

Later, she said crews had replaced a faulty detector in the signal at Stone Oak Parkway and had checked the other two lights. She also said TxDOT recently provided new traffic counts for U.S. 281 and that the city might use the data to re-time the lights.

But the city hasn't changed the timing of any U.S. 281 lights yet, De La Cruz said. And the foul-up of the detector soon after TxDOT postponed work on the toll lanes was a coincidence.

"There has never been a coordinated effort to create problems out there," she said.

Larson said he's still not clear on what happened. But he did accuse officials of holding back on some quick, cheap fixes to improve traffic flows on U.S. 281, such as retiming lights to move more cars during rush hour and building turn lanes at intersections.

"If they're committed to the toll-road concept they're not going to improve those routes at all," he said. "They want people to get their fill of frustration out there."

Since 2000, TxDOT has installed traffic signals at Stone Oak Parkway, Bulverde and Borgfeld roads and has restriped shoulders to create additional lanes from Stone Oak Parkway to Redland, agency spokeswoman Laura Lopez said.

The real problem, she said, is that there's just too much traffic out there.

"No matter how badly you want it to happen, you just can't fit that amount of traffic through the existing infrastructure," she said. "It seems that the funnel is about as big as it can get without some major reconstruction."

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News:


“The constituents in my precinct don’t even want a toll road."

Leaders endorse Tarrant toll lanes

Feb. 09, 2006

Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2006

Regional leaders endorsed private toll express lanes for Tarrant County roads - Interstate 35W, Northeast Loop 820 and Airport Freeway - with almost no discussion Thursday.

Instead, Regional Transportation Council members saved their energy for a vigorous three-hour debate about the proposed Texas 121 toll road in Collin County, and ultimately refused to endorse the North Texas Tollway Authority’s plan to build the road.

RTC members voted with a sharply divided show of hands to wait until later in the year to decide who should build the Collin County toll road in Plano, Frisco, McKinney and Allen. Private sector companies have until November to submit competing bids to the Texas Transportation Department.

Several officials said the vote of no confidence raises questions about whether the tollway authority, which already owns several Dallas-area toll roads and has been selected to build Southwest Parkway in Fort Worth, can continue to serve as the region’s lead agency for toll roads.

Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said the move was “de facto” support for a privately built road. He and Collin County officials strongly favored the tollway authority’s plan.

But leaders in Denton County, where Texas 121 is under construction and may be leased to a private bidder later this year, led the opposition.

Thursday’s tense meeting came just two weeks after the tollway authority made an unprecedented offer to pay the state at least $500 million over 50 years in exchange for the rights to build and manage the Collin County project. The offer included a promise to keep toll rates comparable to other roads, including the President George Bush Turnpike.

Until recently, the tollway authority was the only practical option to build Metroplex toll roads. But state laws approved in the past five years now make it possible for the private sector to build toll roads and charge market-driven rates, which means potentially much higher tolls for drivers. However, private companies also typically offer large up-front payments - sometimes billions of dollars - as lease payments.

Privatization is a national trend, with about $37 billion already in play, a representative from the Goldman Sachs & Co. financial consulting firm told RTC members. That money, when combined with debt funding, can trigger about $189 billion worth of road construction - much of it in Texas.

Bill Hale, the state transportation department’s Dallas-area engineer, said private firms may offer bigger dollars than the tollway authority can - perhaps $575 million, for the region to use on other road work. The agency “doesn’t care who builds it, they just want to maximize the competition,” he said.

Whether the tollway authority or the private sector builds Texas 121 in Collin County, Hale said, the road is scheduled to open in 2010.

But Collin County Commissioner Jack Hatchell said: “The constituents in my precinct don’t even want a toll road. Our second choice was NTTA. Our citizens don’t want” a private road.

Hale said gas tax funding may not be available for the project until 2037.

Tarrant County Commissioner Glen Whitley urged the RTC to take its time deciding which side to back. He noted that the only reason the RTC is even deciding the fate of Texas 121 in Collin County is because the state transportation department two years ago turned over the decision-making process to the region’s leaders.

“I think what we’re seeing today is, be careful what you ask for because you just might get it,” he said.

Gordon Dickson, (817) 685-3816

© 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:


Thursday, February 09, 2006

"Anyone traveling between Lewisville and Frisco must pay."


February 9, 2006
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

The road less-traveled

I congratulate Dallas and Collin counties for not standing idly by while Tarrant, Denton and Johnson counties and the North Texas Tollway Authority attempt to fleece their citizens.
Toll roads were envisioned as a user fee: You drive, you pay. The philosophy is based on the understanding that a project is warranted only if it will generate enough traffic and tolls to pay for it. If a project cannot generate enough revenue, by definition it is unneeded.

The recent NTTA decision to pay for the impractical Southwest Parkway in Fort Worth violates the spirit of tolling because it asks non-users to pay for a project that will never generate enough users to pay for itself.

I encourage Dallas and Collin counties to dissolve the NTTA and take control of our projects that are paid for by our drivers. Southwest Parkway is not a regional road; therefore, the region should not pay it for. Let Fort Worth build it, and let us keep our ever-increasing tolls for our roads.

--E. Kyle Steinhauser, Frisco

It's a tax. Period.

Making State Highway 121 a toll road is a tax. There is no alternate route from Lewisville to Frisco. The next major route is the Bush Turnpike, and that is a toll road, as well. That means anyone traveling between those two cities must pay. How is it not considered a tax?

--Jeff Miller, Flower Mound

© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co


"Unnecessary delay will only increase the cost of the project and increase the frustration of motorists."


Comment: Toll roads pave way to a better future


Joseph Krier
Chairman, San Antonio Mobility Coalition
San Antonio Express-New

Recent columns by Carlos Guerra suggest the proposed toll lane system for Bexar County will fuel additional growth and degrade the environment.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

First, rapid and sustained growth is already occurring in North Bexar County and points beyond. Our metropolitan population is projected to grow to 2.4 million from 1.4 million, and the work force will double to 1.3 million by 2030.

Households are anticipated to grow from 26 percent to 50 percent along the Loop 1604 corridor. Major employers (such as Washington Mutual and the PGA Tour resort), major retail developments (such as the Shops at La Cantera, the Rim and Bass Pro Shops and Regal Hills) and major housing developments are already occurring along significant portions of U.S. 281 and Loop 1604.

Austin discovered the following dilemma during the past decade: Even if you don't build it (needed transportation projects), they still come. Austin is playing "catch up" with its transportation network, and its residents suffer painfully long commuting times. We have an opportunity to do better.

People are moving rapidly into North Bexar County. The Northside Independent School District alone is adding 11 new schools by 2008 and expects 2,500 new students per year.

Toll lanes are not fueling this growth; they are a necessary and vital response to it.

What the proposed toll lanes will do is ease traffic congestion. By providing toll express lanes, these projects can be brought on line in just a few years, rather than waiting up to two more decades for traditional funding to become available.

In addition to accelerating needed congestion relief and saving drivers' time, the toll lane network will also provide a major environmental benefit — better air quality.

Drivers stuck in traffic waste fuel (the equivalent of 3,800 tank trucks annually in the San Antonio metropolitan area) and emit more hydrocarbons.

We can ill afford an inadequate transportation system that worsens our air quality. The toll system will keep motorists moving and result in reduced air emissions and less wasted fuel.

During the coming months, as the Texas Department of Transportation revisits the environmental assessment for U.S. 281, it is essential that all critical environmental issues associated with this project be fully addressed.

Those of us who champion the proposed toll lane system are confident the environmental benefits of the network will more than offset any potential environmental costs.

The environmental and growth concerns raised by toll opponents really would apply to any expansion of the highway — tolled or non-tolled. The issue of tolling has much more to do with how the project is paid for and how soon it can be built, and much less to do with the physical structure of the facility.

The benefits — time, congestion relief, project acceleration and air quality — provide more than ample reason to proceed with construction of the proposed toll lane system. Unnecessary delay will only increase the cost of the project and increase the frustration of motorists.

Guerra suggests other options have not been considered. Other options have been considered for many years. For example, a proposed light rail system was soundly defeated by voters in May 2000 and was then taken off the table as a viable option. A commuter rail system (Austin to San Antonio) is now under development. VIA's express bus service to various points along Loop 1604 was recently expanded. Additional funding from the advanced transportation district quarter-cent sales tax is being used to further enhance the public transit system and improve arterials. The approach is multimodal, not just exclusively highways.

We suspect Guerra's proposal to "encourage less driving by raising gas taxes" would be extremely unpopular with motorists and legislators alike, as well as bad for the economy.

While a modest gas tax increase will likely be needed at some point to simply maintain our existing system, the type of punitive gas tax proposed by Guerra should be contrasted with the concept of choice and additional options that would be provided by toll lanes.

Krier is chairman of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition and president and CEO of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News:


Regional Transportation Council may put off decision to accept NTTA proposal

Move on 121 toll plan may be put off

Panel could seek time to compare agency's proposal, private bids

February 9, 2006
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

It's a case of showing up for a party and finding out it's been postponed.

That's the scenario that could be facing many local mayors and politicians today, when regional transportation leaders meet to decide whether to accept a North Texas Tollway Authority proposal to place tolls on State Highway 121.

Collin County leaders have strongly supported a plan by the tollway authority that would give virtually all the money raised on the state-owned road to the Texas Department of Transportation for the next 50 years.

That pledge, which breaks with the agency's practice of using the revenue for other toll roads, could mean a bonanza for local roads – at least $500 million in present value but possibly as much as $1 billion.

But instead of deciding on the tollway authority's plan, a seemingly divided Regional Transportation Council, whose 40 appointed members come mostly from elected positions throughout North Texas, may put off a decision for months to look at other plans by private companies.

"I expect them to press pretty hard ... for a decision," said David Blair Jr., chairman of the tollway authority board.

In addition to the tollway authority's plan, four private consortia have bid to build a Highway 121 toll road in Denton and Collin counties, stretching from Central Expressway in McKinney to west of Interstate 35E in Lewisville.

Because the consortia have worked under a separate process, the state is not scheduled to determine the best of those proposals until November.

Without a direct comparison, it will be difficult to say whether the tollway authority's proposal stacks up to the private proposals, said Bill Hale, the Dallas district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation.

"From what I know at this moment, I don't have enough information," he said Tuesday afternoon.

By Wednesday afternoon, the state had received more information, but Mr. Hale, a member of the Regional Transportation Council, who was evaluating the new information, could not be reached for further comment.

The tollway authority has responded to the state's questions, said executive director Allan Rutter.

"We feel very good about the proposal we made. It's very good for the region," he said. "Many of the issues that are being asked about can be, should be and will be dealt with in a formal agreement with TxDOT."

Construction on the Collin County toll road would not be affected under either the tollway authority plan or a private company's bid. Because new environmental approvals are required to convert it to a toll road, construction could not begin until mid- to late 2007.

The competing proposals raise the same question posed to people who buy lottery tickets: Is it better to take a lump-sum payment or spread revenue over a number of years? The tollway authority's proposal would pay over time, while the private companies are expected to offer a large upfront payment.

The tollway authority proposal guarantees $2.7 billion over 50 years, a figure that is worth $500 million in today's dollars. Using adjusted but still conservative assumptions, the road could raise another $2.7 billion for other road projects in 50 years.

Figuring for inflation, Mr. Rutter said, the value of the tollway authority's offer is "almost exactly identical" to a rough outline of what a private company would offer in a lump-sum payment. And while private companies' profits could vary, the tollway authority offer caps the revenue it keeps at about $100 million over 50 years, Mr. Rutter said.

"We felt like it was better to get it over time than up front," said Mayor Mike Simpson of Frisco, where the City Council voted, 5-1, on Tuesday to support the tollway authority proposal.

But decades of annual payments do not help with the region's current pressing needs, Mr. Hale said. "It's better to build projects now than to wait 20 to 30 years," he said.


© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Stall: "Our concern is the use of eminent domain to enrich a concessionaire."


Eminent domain power must have clearer lines


Tyler Morning Telegraph
Copyright 2006

Eminent domain always has been a process involving some controversy, but since a June 2005 United States Supreme Court decision that appeared to relax traditional domain limits, debate has intensified throughout the country.

Through eminent domain, governments have the power to appropriate private property without the owner's consent for public projects such as roads and lakes when the owner of the needed property is unwilling to sell. According to the Texas eminent domain law, the government pays the property owner just compensation for the property it uses eminent domain to acquire.

In Kelo v. City of New London (Conn.), the Supreme Court ruled that local governments also may use eminent domain to seize citizens' private property for economic development. That means the government can take a person's private property and give it to a private developer for an economic redevelopment plan if officials determine that the project would benefit the community as a whole or the government.

Since the ruling, reports of eminent domain abuses have emerged from several states, and some 40 states are reported to be re-examining their laws, and Congress also has indicated concern.

The Washington-based Institute for Justice that worked for homeowners in the New London case argues that state laws should be changed so property can only be seized for public uses such as a park or a school - not urban redevelopment that benefits private developers.

Bert Gall, an attorney with the institute, claims that abuses are widespread. But municipal leaders across the country argue that such charges are false and expressed fear that an emotional backlash to the court ruling is putting at risks an important development tool.

The Texas Legislature responded to the issue during the second called session of 2005 by approving Senate Bill 7 which attempts to narrow the power of government entities from using eminent domain to take private property for economic development. Authored by Sen. Kyle Janice from Houston, the bill went into effect on Sept. 1.

Specific criteria for use of the power is set forth in S.B. 7, and an interim committee is created to study the use of eminent domain.

"The (Supreme Court decision) opened the door for governments to seize private property to benefit private business," Janek said. "This bill will restore and further strengthen the right of Texas property owners to keep their land."

Observers have pointed out, however, that S.B. 7 provided some major exceptions by largely exempting the Trans-Texas Corridor, which would take large portions of land through a wide portion of the state to build a 4,000-mile rail, utility and road system.

David Stall, co-founder of a citizen group opposed to the TTC, said, "We have concerns about eminent domain being used to take excess land. We think the use of eminent domain is something that should be used extremely cautiously to meet immediate needs."

"We certainly recognize the legitimate use of eminent domain where it's required to provide roads and public transportation," he added. "Our concern is the use of eminent domain to enrich a concessionaire."

Numerous other exceptions to the protection of private property rights also are included in S.B. 7, observers note. These leave viable eminent domain for certain other favored economic development projects. The list includes transportation projects, port authority and navigation district projects, water supply, flood control, utilities and waste disposal projects, hospitals, libraries and parks, sports venues approved by voters prior to Dec. 1, 2005, and renewal efforts for slums or blighted areas.

Strong coalitions have been formed in other states to call on state judges and legislators to end eminent domain abuse.

Some in Texas who do not think S.B. 7 goes far enough are reported to be pushing for a constitutional amendment that would put stronger restrictions on the use of eminent domain.

"We think that's absolutely the correct approach," Stall said. Since S.B. 7 is a statutory approach, any bill passed by the Legislature subsequent to that can circumvent it, he added.

No matter how strong the case can be made that property needs to be taken for a necessary public project, there often are tragic cases involving long-term homeowners who simply don't want to give them up. Extending eminent domain to economic development projects is certain to compound the number of such scenes.

A rash of new examples of abuse likely would provide a much stronger drive for a constitutional amendment spelling out some clear eminent domain limits.

©Tyler Morning Telegraph 2006


"American Idol" or toll roads?

Big crowd drawn to toll road hearing

Critics, planners square off on proposal for U.S. 290 East

February 07, 2006

By Ben Wear

MANOR — "American Idol" or toll roads?

About 400 folks made the tuneless choice Tuesday evening, packing a Manor school cafeteria to sound off on the proposed U.S. 290 East toll road.

That project, still at least a couple of years from groundbreaking and subject to modifications, would transform about nine miles of U.S. 290 east of Ed Bluestein Boulevard from a four-lane, stop-and-go road into a six-lane turnpike with free frontage roads.

The toll road would be all-electronic, meaning no cash toll booths. Cars without toll tags would have to remain on the frontage road.

The expansion, the cost of which is yet to be determined, would require the Texas Department of Transportation to acquire an additional 100 to 200 feet of right of way along the road.

That potential taking was much on the minds of those in the audience Tuesday, as were the tolls and the particulars of the design. Where officials choose to put overpasses, entrances and exits will create different sets of winners and losers.

The project would dramatically increase the capacity of a road that is increasingly congested during rush hours. Traffic has grown from 10,000 cars a day in 1980 to about 50,000 in 2004.

The road is a major commuter route for the many developments springing up east of Austin all the way to Elgin. The proposed turnpike is among five highways remaining in the much-discussed — and cussed — Phase 2 toll road plan approved by local elected officials in July 2004. The expansion would extend about a quarter mile east of FM 973.

Its final character — toll road or free road — in theory hangs on the results of a $305,000 study that won't be complete until the fall. But the planning work is well along on U.S. 290 East. The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which will take over from the state and build and operate the road, has already solicited bids for final design and construction.

On Jan. 31, the mobility authority board of directors heard from local businessman Bill Milstead, whose company owns a 5-acre distribution facility on Springdale Road just south of U.S. 290. He wondered why that major arterial would dead-end at the toll road while Tuscany Way just to the west, which leads nowhere in particular, would get an underpass.

Bob Daigh, the Austin district engineer for the state Transportation Department, said in an interview Tuesday that residents on Springdale north of U.S. 290, tired of traffic, had pushed for putting the underpass at Tuscany.

"It's still bad planning," said Milstead, who came to Tuesday's public hearing.

Springdale is the only such anomaly along the length of the project, which would typically have three to four express lanes in each direction subject to tolls and two- or three-lane frontage roads that would be free to drive.

Aside from Tuscany Way, there would be underpasses at Arterial "A," a road that doesn't yet exist about a mile east of Springdale; Johnny Morris Road; Decker Lane; Parmer Lane, Gregg-Manor Road in Manor; and FM 973.; 445-3698

© 2005 Austin American-Statesman:


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The check's in the mail.

Williamson County hears proposals on pass-through toll plan

County weighs options to front the money until state pays them back.

February 08, 2006

By Jennifer Barrios
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

GEORGETOWN — Williamson County officials rejoiced last year at the news that the state was going to reimburse millions of dollars for new road projects under a pass-through toll program.

Now, those officials must figure out how to front the money for the projects, which total more than $170 million.

The Commissioners Court heard a presentation Tuesday on their options, mostly centered around which sort of bonds to issue and whether to back them with tax dollars.

Pass-through toll projects are so new, there are no ways established to finance them, said Dan Wegmiller, senior vice president of investment-banking company First Southwest.

Despite its name, the pass-through toll program does not involve tolls. The county will build the roads and then be reimbursed most of the money by the state over 10 to 20 years.

That adds up to a reimbursement of $152.9 million to the county for six projects involving U.S. 79, U.S. 183, FM 1660, FM 2338, and the interchange of Interstate 35 and Texas 29. The court also needs to decide how to spend $55 million left from a $350 million road-bond program that voters approved in 2000.

Transportation consultant Mike Weaver advised the court to use the money for extensions or sections of new road on Ronald Reagan Boulevard, County Road 274 and Gattis School Road, for an extension of O'Connor Boulevard, and to purchase right-of-way for Chandler Road. That would leave about $10 million.

County Judge John Doerfler then surprised some commissioners with a motion to spend $4 million of the $10 million to build on- and off-ramps from I-35 to Inner Loop in Georgetown, where several county buildings are located.

Commissioner Lisa Birkman, whose precinct covers the eastern portion of I-35 in question, argued that the county had more pressing concerns than the ramps, a project she said was not included in the original road-bond program.

Commissioner Tom McDaniel indicated that he would side with Birkman, and Commissioner Frankie Limmer said he would vote with Doerfler. Commissioner Greg Boatright said he would prefer to wait to allocate the extra money until the other projects were awarded.

Doerfler's motion died for lack of a second.

© 2005 Austin American-Statesman:


Defense contractor explains how it will monitor Texas toll roads



Tyler Morning Telegraph
Copyright 2006

Thinking of ways to beat Tyler's new Loop 49 toll road?

Better think again, warn transportation experts.

Members of the North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority were presented with a sneak peek Tuesday on how the future Loop 49 toll road will work, and what happens when motorists try to trick the system.

Simply put, the technology is so sophisticated, even the most speediest of drivers won't be able to beat it, the Texas Turnpike Authority claims.

Here's how the program is proposed to work: Motorists have to pay a toll if they want to use the roadway.

Those who don't will be cited with a violation and fined $5 per incident, officials said.

Under the current plan, payments will be collected electronically through pre-payments, made by either credit card or with cash at participating locations.

And there will be kiosks located along the tollway to serve those who may inadvertently enter without a toll tag.

People who purchase a tag will receive an identifying number, which must be affixed to the windshield so that it can be read electronically by the tolling authority, officials said.

"Laser scanners will be used to determine whether the vehicle is a car, truck or motorcycle, plus we'll have video," said Chris Hopkins, program manager for Raytheon working for the Texas Department of Transportation's open road program. "Pictures of the front and rear data will be sent to a data center."

Computers will flank the roadway to record data on what vehicles are passing through the system, based on photos taken of the front and rear vehicle plates.

"If they are behind in payments, it will associate their tag with a violation," Hopkins said. "That's the whole idea behind an electric system - you don't have to stop, you don't have to slow down."

RMA officials voiced inquiries about the accuracy, citing a recent instance in the Dallas area in which a woman racked up $76,000 in toll violations.

"We don't want to have that situation happen here," said Jeff Austin III, RMA chairman. "We want to make sure people are using the roads as they are intended. It is important to have the revenue to fund what we're building."

Speaking on the possibility of avoiding penalties, Catherine Sanchez, representing the Texas Turnpike Authority," said tests revealed 99.9 percent accuracy on determining what cars are passing through the gates.

The system is designed to quickly identify, contact and assess violators. Those who refuse to pay are referred to a collection agency and, potentially, law enforcement.

"We can take them to jail," Ms. Sanchez said.

Also Tuesday, the RMA selected PBS&J to begin work on the engineering aspects of the new tollway, approved by the Texas Transportation Commission.

The firm was chosen from a select group of firms, selected because of their reputations in the industry, and previous experience engineering tollways.

Federal authorities had previously approved the tolling concept, but state approval enables the RMA to secure $12.5 million in toll equity grant funding.

Money derived from those toll equity grants will be used to fund design plans, specifications and engineering for the portion of Loop 49 that extends from Texas Highway 155 West to Interstate 20, and Paluxy Drive to Texas Highway 110, RMA officials said.

The primary purpose of building Loop 49 is to help encourage economic development and reduce roadway congestion, especially along the South Broadway Avenue corridor, which attracts more than 44,000 vehicles a day.

If all goes according to plan, the first section of Loop 49, covering the area between U.S. 69 and Texas Highway 155, is slated to open in late summer.

Ground was broken earlier this month on the second leg, which is expected to connect U.S. 69 and Farm-to-Market Road 756 (Paluxy Drive) by early 2008.

And TxDOT predicts that the remaining western portion of the roadway, connecting Texas 155 and Interstate 20, could be completed in as few as seven years, thanks in part to tolling.

Community leaders throughout East Texas have voiced support for the project, which has been carried out largely between interested civic leaders in Smith and Gregg counties.

The North East Texas RMA was formed in April 2005 as a joint effort between Smith and Gregg counties, following the formation of RMAs in Austin, San Antonio, McAllen and Grayson County.

The Texas Legislature authorized the creation of RMAs in 2001 to help communities construct, operate and maintain turnpike projects themselves instead of waiting years for state funding.

Jacque Hilburn covers Tyler city government, planning and zoning and the Parks Board. She can be reached at 903.596.6282. e-mail:

©Tyler Morning Telegraph 2006


Monday, February 06, 2006

"The Latest investment Fad."

JPMorgan Launches Infrastructure Group

February 6, 2006

Institutional Investor
Copyright 2006

JPMorgan is throwing its hat into the ring of the latest investment fad with its creation of the Infrastructure Investments group. The asset manager is not currently in the market with a fund or product, but said it would consider investments in a variety of infrastructure projects including pipelines, water treatment systems, and bridges and tunnels and toll roads.

Mark Weisdorf, global chief investment officer, declined to offer specifics on when the group might launch a fund, saying only: "In the not too distant future the firm will be doing something in this space."

Australia's Macquarie Bank is the biggest player in the space several funds. Goldman Sachs is rumored to be raising a fund.

Pensions, foundations and endowments in Australia, Canada, Europe and the U.K. have been large investors in infrastructure for the last decade, allocating as much as 15% of their portfolios to a unique infrastructure asset class, Weisdorf said. While U.S. institutions are not there yet, the CIO, who is from Toronto, said the response has been "fantastic." The appeal? Infrastructure tends to be predictable, long-life assets with steady cash flows and a low correlation to traditional asset classes, like equities and fixed income.

"They truly diversify a portfolio and are very attractive," said Weisberg, who was previously v.p. of private market investments for the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. There he was responsible for the CA$91.7 billion (US$84.7 billion) plan's investment in real estate, private equity and infrastructure.

In Australia, for instance, infrastructure funds are the largest growing sector of the institutional superannuation market, according to a November study by Mercer Investment Consulting. Toll roads and airports offer the best returns with the least amount of risk compared to telecommunications and railways, the study found. Concerns to potential investors might be the long-term lock-up periods and high fees, which tend to include incentive fees as well as management fees.

Early players in this space have tended to organize investments similar to private equity funds. The JPMorgan group will be built alongside the global real estate group because of shared risk and return characteristics, such as large cash returns, long-term strategies and build-in adjustments for inflation, Weisdorf said.

Weisberg suspects that the first U.S. institutions will enter the space gradually, allocating funds from other parts of a portfolio. Overtime, he predicts U.S. pensions will follow in the footsteps of Australia and Canada by creating an asset class specific to "infrastructure that could be as large as the allocations to real estate."

© 2006 Institutional Investor


74% oppose hiring private contractors to build and manage toll roads in San Antonio.

Privately operated toll roads get thumbs-down vote in Alamo City, poll shows


San Antonio Business Journal
Copyright 2006

Drivers are finding that a shortage of available highway funds, coupled with explosive growth, is causing highway congestion to worsen throughout Texas, including San Antonio.

In order to address what some have called a transportation-funding crisis, Texas Department of Transportation officials are now signing leases with private contractors to build and operate new toll roads.

Toll roads are currently planned in San Antonio along stretches of U.S. Highway 281 and Loop 1604 and possibly a portion of Interstate Highway 35.

However, a San Antonio Business Journal online Business Pulse survey shows little support for the state's plan to create privately operated toll roads to deal with traffic congestion.

Seventy-four percent of participants who voted in the poll oppose hiring private contractors to build and manage toll roads in San Antonio. Only 22 percent support such a move, while 3 percent were undecided.

© 2006 American City Business Journals Inc.


Take out, please.

Dinner on them?

Feb. 06, 2006

By Gordon Dickson
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2006

Terri Hall, regional director of the anti-toll group San Antonio Toll Party, took exception to comments by Texas Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson published in this space two weeks ago.

Williamson warned companies vying for about $27 billion in private toll-road projects not to corrupt the process by providing gifts or favors to state officials. "So don't take my employees out to dinner," he said. "Don't ask me out to dinner."

Hall pointed out that the San Antonio Mobility Coalition, which is made up of not only elected leaders but also executives from companies that do business with the state, has invited commissioners to a reception Feb. 22 at an Austin restaurant.

"If Williamson is truly concerned about appearances of impropriety or the granting of favors for the companies that make up SAMCO, perhaps he should be urged to cancel this thank-you reception," Hall wrote in an e-mail.

© 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:


Sunday, February 05, 2006

"it's tollway or no way."

Business may get big role in roads

February 5 2006

By Ryan Mahoney
Atlanta Business Chronicle
Copyright 2006

State lawmakers and officials are exploring a new way to pay for the highways Atlanta desperately needs, maybe with your 401(k).

Several major international and U.S. companies are encouraging Georgia to consider a type of public-private partnership, known as "concessions," that gives the private sector an unprecedented role in road-building.

In concessions, a consortium of contractors and investors builds or expands a road with toll lanes -- putting up part or all of the funding -- then operates and maintains it under a long-term lease with the city, state or county. The concessionaires recover their investment by keeping the toll revenue generated over the term of the lease, which may be up to 100 years.

In some cases, the concessionaires even pay the government $1 billion or more for the privilege, although that payment can inflate the toll rates.

"We need to discuss this," said Larry Dent, Georgia Department of Transportation deputy commissioner and the department's No. 2 official. "It sounds exciting to be able to get that money, but it's going to be on the back of whatever toll mechanism you choose."

Sydney, Australia-based Macquarie Bank Ltd., one of the world's largest infrastructure investors, would like to add a few projects in Georgia to what is essentially its toll road mutual fund, which attracts institutional investors such as insurance companies, pension plans and 401(k)s.

"We've sort of been keeping an eye on Georgia," said Chris Leslie, an executive director at subsidiary Macquarie Securities, "and are really waiting for the right type of project to appear."

Billions invested

Other countries have long used concessions to build all types of public infrastructure, including roads, ports, light rail, airports and utilities. Now European and Australian firms are bringing the practice to U.S. shores and taking the lead on projects here.

Concessions-backed roads are in the works in a handful of states, particularly California, Texas and Virginia. They range from an 11-mile highway soon to open in San Diego to a planned superhighway through Texas to Mexico.

Some locales are even selling leases on existing toll roads to concessionaires armed with ready cash. Chicago recently got nearly $2 billion in such a deal, and Indiana is poised to collect almost $4 billion.

There have been some speed bumps; Orange County, Calif., ended up buying out the investors on a tolled lane expansion there, and the Texas superhighway has yet to materialize.

But there's a simple reason concessions are gaining steam, said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank in Los Angeles.

At 50 years old, the federal interstate highway system is showing signs of revenue exhaustion. In Georgia, as in other states, there's enough money from the gas tax to cover highway maintenance, but not enough to allow much major new construction. Concessions offer an easy way out.

"If you want funding for big capacity increases, it's tollway or no way," Poole said. "The concessions model works."

Governments like concessions because they can raise more capital for projects, stretching their finances over a longer period. They retain control of everything from how often the concessionaire can hike the tolls to how frequently it must remove graffiti and roadkill. And, as with most public-private deals, using private funding means projects get built faster.

For their part, the concessionaires don't have to worry about earning their money back during the first decade of the road's operation, which often is how long it takes for commuters to start using a new toll road en masse. On the downside, they can take a hit if drivers don't flock to the new road as predicted.

Georgia officials also may need time to get used to the concessions approach. GDOT approved the state's first-ever public-private road deal, a proposal that does not use concessions, less than two months ago. It is expected to take bids for public-private ventures on other corridors this summer.

That initial project, the billion-dollar widening of interstates 75 and 575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties, will be partially financed either by truck-only toll lanes or by bus rapid transit lanes that drivers could pay to use as de facto express lanes. A group led by Bechtel Infrastructure Corp. will design and build the project and chip in with debt financing -- as opposed to the equity investment common in concessions -- but will not operate the road or collect tolls as a concessionaire would.

Interest building

With the I-75/575 project moving forward, the state Senate Transportation Committee, under the new leadership of former Senate Majority Leader Bill Stephens, R-Canton, is taking a keen interest in concessions. On Jan. 25, in the first of what are expected to be several meetings addressing the issue, the committee heard a presentation by The Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS), which has advised several states on public-private legislation.

Goldman Sachs Vice President Rick Fitzgerald said the tolls planned for the I-75/575 project may not generate enough revenue, potentially leaving the state to cover the cost.

"To get private capital into the mix," Fitzgerald said, "a concession agreement is the best way."

Spokesmen for Bechtel and Washington Group International Inc. (Nasdaq: WGII), part of a group that has proposed conventional public-private projects for Georgia 400 and Ga. 316, said their firms are considering concessions for future use but are more comfortable with the low-risk, tax-exempt bonds used in conventional public-private initiatives.

"Concessionaires, by and large, are investors," said Washington Group Vice President Jim Carroll. "We're in business to build roads."

States are beginning to embrace the model, though.

"We want to use the private sector to build corridors, and undoubtedly, those corridors will be user-financed," said Jim Ely, executive director of Florida's turnpike system, who is scheduled to address Stephens' transportation committee later in February.

© 2006 Atlanta Business Chronicle


Citizens advisory committee allowed to give cosmetic input on Trans-Texas Corridor.

Committee could recommend no billboards on TTC

February 03, 2006

By Dan Genz
Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2006

The first leg of the massive Trans-Texas Corridor may lack a staple of most modern highways, if some members of a citizens advisory committee are able to convince the state to ban billboards along the route.

“This road could go through some of the prettiest rural areas of our state and there are some of us who believe it is important to protect the scenic views,” committee member Sandy Greyson said.

The 1,200-foot-wide proposed tollway, railroad and utility network will take travelers and freight between San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth. The 24-person advisory committee is debating how roadside advertising should work as it waits for an anticipated update on where the road will be built.

Greyson, a former Dallas city council member, said the corridor would be more attractive and lucrative for the state if it banned billboards and provided only blue and brown highway attraction signs sanctioned by the state.

Advertisers pay the state for a spot on those signs, while they pay billboard operators and owners for the much larger signs. For the Trans-Texas Corridor, the road's builder, Cintra Zachry LP, is expected to have the rights to billboards along the route.

Waco area committee member Roy Walthall, a professor of political science at McLennan Community College, said the suggestion received close to unanimous support during its meeting last week in Austin and is worth considering, but he warned that it could make the deal less appealing to Cintra Zachry, who could lose millions.

One opponent of the proposal cautioned that it could hurt hotels, gas stations and restaurants that rely on billboards, as well as travelers trying to get acquainted with the new road.

“Billboards are very informative, if used correctly. They're not just these ugly things in the sky,” said Mat Naegele, a vice president and general manager of Lamar Outdoor Advertising, the largest operator of billboards in Central Texas.

“If you get out in the country – which is where they're building this thing – would you know where to stay, where to get gas, where to eat?” Naegele said.

If travel-related business owners thought the state's blue signs, which advertise lodging, gas and food options at exits along interstates, were sufficient, Naegele said, “I wouldn't have a business.”

Greyson said the state sign system could be expanded to provide a better platform for businesses and better notice to tourists.

The committee has not formally recommended the idea, but may make that action or ask for further study at its next meeting, Feb. 24, Walthall said.

Gov. Rick Perry created the panel last year so its members could provide input on issues related to transportation, his spokeswoman Rachael Novier said.

“There is some precedent for this sort of thing,” she said, citing a no-billboards clause in the construction of Texas Highway 130 in the Austin area.

The Texas Department of Transportation will soon announce a 10-mile-wide study area for the highway, but is waiting for environmental approval of that broad route.

The corridor, which could begin construction in 2010, is expected to run through McLennan County.


© 2006 Waco Tribune Herald


"More highway robbery."

Letters from Plano

Do the math on tolls

February 5, 2006
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

Re: "Robin Hood for roads," Thursday "Tolling State Highway 121" Letters.

Steve Stovall is right – Gov. Rick Perry and his Texas Department of Transportation appointees apparently want to subject us to even more highway robbery, though it isn't quite Robin Hood when it hits everyone regardless of income.

No matter where you live in this great state, you take for granted that the state and county will provide good roads. All across Texas, roads have been built – some get used a lot and others relatively little. I can't imagine anyone ever thought about charging a toll on the road from Pecos to Marfa, yet highways got built and the state collected taxes to pay for them.

If I travel 12,000 miles this year with my car getting 20 miles per gallon, my fuel tax will be about a penny a mile, or $120. If I get better gas mileage, I get a break on my taxes, too – what a deal! Is it fair, then, that people who live in a certain area have to pay more than 15 times that rate per mile to have the roads they need to get to work efficiently?

My Quicken tells me that I have spent well over $5,000 on tolls since moving to Collin County 12 years ago. That's despite using Coit and Hillcrest roads more often than I care to mention to avoid tolls on trips to North Dallas.

Now there is mention that some of the money extracted from Collin County drivers wishing to use a safe and usable route across the county could be diverted to other routes. Most of all, it is not fair to permanently attach a toll to a particular route, just because it is urgently needed and wasn't planned for by the state. Or maybe I am naïve and it was in the plans.

Rick Tett, Plano

© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co


"It will be a hard sell."

Plan shifts tax from gallon to mile

February 5, 2006

Tony Hartzel
Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

In the not-too-distant future, motorists may have to start viewing their vehicles' odometers as personal taxicab meters.

Researchers in Oregon, at the request of that state's lawmakers, are testing the idea of a tax that is based on the number of miles driven. The idea is still years away from reality, and many obstacles remain. But it is getting attention.

"It will be a hard sell. It's been a hard sell in Oregon," said David Porter, an assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering at Oregon State University who helped develop the program.

Speaking at the University of Texas at Arlington last week, Dr. Porter said the increased fuel efficiency of vehicles has prompted the push to find new ways to raise money. Because motorists pay a set tax for each gallon purchased, increasingly fuel-efficient cars mean people drive farther between fill-ups – and therefore don't pay as much in taxes.

Increased fuel efficiency is expected to have an even more dramatic effect as fuel taxes level off in the future, Dr. Porter said.

"We've seen some of that already. It's not as significant as we expected. But we expect to see more of that in the next 10 years," he said.

What's at stake

Fuel taxes play the largest role in getting roads built. In Texas, motorists pay 20 cents per gallon to the state and 18.4 cents to the federal government. Each year, the state collects about $2.1 billion for roads and $723 million for public education. Texas also receives about $3.3 billion from the federal government.

In Oregon and Texas, political leaders have been reluctant to raise the gas tax. Oregon voters rejected an attempt to raise theirs in 1999.

Local and national leaders also have mentioned the possibility of mileage-based taxes as the need grows to find money for increasingly expensive transportation projects. In Texas, much of the attention so far has focused on toll roads as a way to raise revenue for other projects.

Road test

Starting next month, 280 Portland-area volunteers will participate in a full pilot study. Those motorists will pay about 1.25 cents per mile to drive, but the Oregon tax of 24 cents per gallon will be deducted when they buy gas at select stations. In addition, some of the participants will be asked to pay about 4.3 cents per mile for driving in peak commute times, Dr. Porter said.

"In the future, you can make a very specific system when it comes to collecting miles in specific zones," he said. The fee could vary based on fuel efficiency, which would encourage motorists to conserve gas, Dr. Porter added.

Mileage information will be collected with global positioning system satellites and transmitters. That information will be transferred wirelessly at gas stations. Data will be collected on the number of miles driven during peak and off-peak times. Because the study focuses on replacing the state gas tax, Portland-area motorists will not be charged a mileage tax for driving in other states.

The study raises privacy concerns, but the data collected will count only the number of miles and can place vehicles only in general areas. It cannot determine a vehicle's precise location, and the equipment does not store travel history, Dr. Porter said.

"People freak out and think we're following them everywhere they go," he said. "That's not going to happen."

Tony Hartzel can be reached at and at P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, Texas 75265.

© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co


"Conservancy vows to fight the land grab in court.'

Rural Texas county tries intimidation to gain access to Padre Island beach

The Associated Press
Copyright 2006

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, February 5, 2006 — A 9½-mile-wide bay separates rural Willacy County from what surely must be paradise: Padre Island’s isolated beaches, a nature retreat for bird watchers and what’s considered some of the best sport-fishing in the country.

For about 40 years, the county has sought direct access to the riches of the narrow barrier island, with no success. The land to the north of a manmade ship channel dividing the island is the federally protected Padre Island National Seashore, a wilderness area.

That leaves South Padre Island. But the most convenient access point for county residents — on the northern end of South Padre — is owned by the Nature Conservancy and is a haven for rare and endangered species such as Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, the most endangered sea turtle in the world; piping plovers and brown pelicans. The islands are also an important staging area for rare peregrine falcons in migration.

So what’s a county to do when an environmental group says the land’s not for sale?

Willacy County is exploring its use of eminent domain to seize the land, an option that has stirred a cauldron of controversy.

Willacy is a financially foundering county on the northeast end of the Rio Grande Valley, about 40 miles from the Texas-Mexico border. It has fewer than 18,000 people, and no real industry since fruit-packing sheds and clothing factories closed decades ago.

Its bright spot is Port Mansfield, a sleepy town with a picturesque cluster of marinas and stilted homes with boat slips. Fewer than 500 people call it home. The town has no access to the island’s beaches or the fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, and the waters of Laguna Madre Bay offer little for beachgoers and swimmers.

To reach the island, visitors must drive 25 miles up the coast from South Padre Island, a bumpy trip that requires a four-wheel drive vehicle and knowledge of tides that can trap a motorist on the return trip.

“If you don’t have access to the island, then what’s the purpose for coming here?” said Willacy County Attorney Juan Angel Guerra.

A few years ago the state General Land Office awarded the Willacy County Navigation District a $700,000 grant to fund a project to ferry passengers to the island. The district used $90,000 of that money in 2004 to buy “Lark,” a 40-year-old amphibious vehicle that could ferry as many as 30 passengers from Port Mansfield to the island.

Now, it wants to buy a place to load and unload the craft so residents and tourists can enjoy the beach.

Enter the county commissioners. They voted in November to use eminent domain to seize the land, angering conservancy members who fear an influx of beachgoers will threaten wildlife on the 1,500-acre section of island.

Eminent domain gives governments power to take private land for public use — usually for projects such as highways or mass transit systems. Texas was one of at least 31 states to review eminent domain laws following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that backed governments’ power to take private land for economic development as a way to increase tax revenue.

Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill into law last fall that limited eminent domain use in Texas, saying government should not encroach upon private property rights unless there is an eminent public need. “Eminent domain for private use is a great threat,” he said.

Guerra said the county can legally take the land, since it will allow the public better access to the island.

The Conservancy vows to fight the land grab in court, but a law professor in Texas said they may not have much to go on if the county’s aim is truly public use.

“As far as I can tell, Willacy County can clearly exercise their power of eminent domain. ... I don’t see the county not prevailing in the long run,” said Victoria Mather, professor of law at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio.

Still, she said, it could be a long fight.

“Anytime people decide to dig in their heels, it can drag things out,” she said. “But for the Nature Conservancy, I just don’t think there’s anything they can do, ultimately.”

Conservancy representatives said they learned of the county’s eminent domain decision through local news reports.

“No one at Willacy County has made any attempt whatsoever to contact the Nature Conservancy about this matter,” said Carter Smith, the Conservancy’s state director. “Candidly, we find that very disquieting.”

Smith said the Conservancy talked about selling the land to the county several years ago but decided against it because the county hadn’t thought through how it would deal with sanitation issues, law enforcement and other ways to mitigate environmental impacts and protect endangered species.

He said beachgoers could unknowingly tramp on clutches of endangered sea turtle eggs or disturb dunes and mud flats that are crucial habitat for reddish egrets, roseate spoonbills and redhead ducks. He said the county was vague about how and where it intended to install toilets or tote away garbage.

Mike Wilson, director of the navigation district, said all those concerns will be considered as the project moves forward, but the county doesn’t yet have a firm plan or budget.

He said he doubted the environment would be harmed by providing better access to the island.

“I don’t know why there would be more of an impact for our people coming over on a boat,” he said. “How would there be any more impact than people driving up the beach?”

© 2006 The Associated Press: