Saturday, March 04, 2006

In Texas, campaigning is a lifestyle choice

CBS 42 Investigates Campaign Contributions

Mar 4, 2006

Nanci Wilson Reporting
For video, click CBS 42
CBS Broadcasting Inc
Copyright 2006

(CBS 42) AUSTIN Running for office is not cheap. Politicians spend a lot of money to get each and every vote.

If you contribute to a candidate, how do you know if the money was spent to get that candidate elected? Investigative reporter Nanci Wilson found out.

Yes, it takes a lot of money to run for office, but---wait a minute-- does it all go to get people elected?

"To run a headquarters, do mass mailings, to run an office you have to have a headquarter it's like a business office, to operate it, they have volunteers and all. They hire professional personnel like, public relations people, people who do the legwork and people to do the management. Also the money is used for press and commercials and advertisement," voter Susie Labry said.

Some is spent paying for TV and other advertising, but a surprising amount is spent in other ways. CBS 42 Investigates analyzed the campaign expenditure reports of a number of local and statewide officeholders.

Investigates found they spent thousands of dollars in campaign contributions living the good life--lavish meals, expensive trips, private planes and luxury hotels.

Investigates wasn't the only ones who found questionable spending.

Campaigns for People---a non-partisan advocacy group-- looked at how Texas state senators spent their contributions over a three year period and found, “Only 40 percent of donations were used for campaign activities, 35 percent went for lifestyle expenses, 20 percent was spent on office expenses and 5 percent for miscellaneous expenditures.”

"Well, I had a sort of Jimmy Stewart notion that it was going to be spent on their campaigns, but as it turns out, most of it goes to support their lifestyle, nice apartment in Austin, nice car, go on trips entertainment on the Super Bowl," Fred Lewis with Campaigns for People said.

"If they are truly spending it on Super Bowl tickets, cars, things like that I’d be very surprised,” voter Craig Brandenburg said. “Shocked surprised and kinda hurt surprised. That's definitely not what that money should be used for."

But it is. Investigates found trips to Rome and Florence, Italy are among the many travel expenses highlighting Governor Rick Perry’s campaign report. And even though the governor couldn't go, his campaign paid for a trip to Japan for first lady Anita Perry.

Speaker of the House Tom Craddick took his wife to Sweden last summer. He also spent more than $1,200 of his donors’ money on tickets to the 2004 Super Bowl.

Lots of elected officials use contributions for sporting events. Austin area state senator Jeff Wentworth’s campaign paid for his trip to the Cotton Bowl. And when there's been a presidential inauguration, whether it is President Clinton or President Bush, many elected officials spent their donors’ money to fly to Washington for the festivities.

Sometimes the parties and festivities are held here in Austin. In the past two years, Governor Rick Perry’s campaign has spent more than $247,000 on entertaining friends at the governor's mansion.

With millions of dollars in their campaign accounts some officials can afford to be generous. In the past two years, the governor spent more than $23,000 sending steaks to his biggest supporters. His wife spent more than $17,000 from his campaign account on gifts to constituents.

The Perry’s aren't alone in their generosity. Reports show lawmakers spend thousands of dollars on gifts to supporters and to each other.

'"Often times at the end of the session, committee members get together give their chairman a big gift, hunting trip to Alaska, or a fancy bowl or something like that as a memento of the year. And the chairman turns around and gives their members gifts as well. Fancy cowboy boots, rocking chairs the list is endless and goes on and on," Tom ‘Smitty’ Smith with Public Citizen said.

Sometimes campaign contributions stay in the family. House Speaker Tom Craddick pays his daughter a salary of $108,000 a year to work on his behalf. On top of that , CBS 42 Investigates found she is being paid from a political action committee supported by her father. Craddick gave $50,000 to Stars Over Texas Political Action Committee -- soon after it wrote checks for $45,000 to a company Craddick’s daughter owns and runs out of her west Austin condo. In the past year -- the PAC has paid her another $20,000. Investigates also found Craddick paid an undisclosed amount to his daughter through this company from his special Speaker of the House account.

"This is part of a political practice, it's not just Tom Craddick, it's Tom DeLay giving money to various entities who hire his wife and his daughter. This may be an issue of family values but we don't those think those family members have that much value to the political system that we ought to be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for work that could be done and should by somebody that is not in the family," Smith said.

Craddick, like other lawmakers, spends some of his donations on legal fees. During the time the grand jury was investigating the 2002 elections that ended in the indictment of US Congressman Tom DeLay, House Speaker Tom Craddick paid Austin criminal defense attorney Roy Minton more than $102,000.

"When you give money to a candidate you expect they are going to keep their business clean, their nose clean and are going to use your money to run for office, not to defend against practices that are shady or illegal,” Smith said. “And if you're spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers to keep you out of jail, the question is, is that why you got the money?"

One of the biggest surprises Investigates found? How many and how often politicians give away their campaign donations to other candidates. Thousands of dollars move from one campaign account to another.

Those are just a few of the expenditures that Investigates found.

So is this legal? Well -- yes. There are very few rules about how campaign donations can be used. They can't be used to buy real estate or for personal use.

The way the law is written, as long as politicians say they are campaigning, then it's not considered personal use.

Investigates spoke with the representatives of the office holders mentioned in this story. All confirmed the funds were spent as we described.

© MMVI, CBS Broadcasting Inc.


"The cost could really add up for North Texas drivers."

State gives region toll deadline

Sat, Mar. 04, 2006

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2006

Salary caps are common in pro sports.
So why not cap how much can be charged on toll roads?

Metroplex leaders are talking behind the scenes about what kinds of tolls they’ll accept in the future, as private companies step forward to build toll roads to relieve traffic on overcrowded, underfunded freeways.

State officials have given the Regional Transportation Council until April 16 to devise guidelines.

“Before the Texas Department of Transportation can negotiate any further with these private companies, a regionally supported toll structure is crucial,” agency spokeswoman Jodi Hodges said. She said proposed toll roads on Texas 161 east of Arlington and Texas 121 in Collin County, and toll/car pool lanes on LBJ Freeway in Dallas, cannot be awarded to contractors until the RTC takes action.

“The private sector doesn’t get to arbitrarily set toll rates,” she said. “That’s something negotiated in a contract.”

The RTC will also be allowed to choose between private companies or the North Texas Tollway Authority, a government-backed agency that typically charges tolls only high enough to pay its debts, currently about 10 cents a mile.

Private companies, on the other hand, like to charge whatever the market will bear — and in a metro area as congested as the Metroplex, that could someday mean $1 a mile or more.

The cost could really add up for North Texas drivers, who likely will be asked to pay tolls on most new roads. Toll express lane projects are planned for Airport Freeway, Northeast Loop 820, Interstate 35W and the Grapevine funnel. The Southwest Parkway toll road in Fort Worth is expected to open in 2010.

State officials would prefer privately run toll roads because companies often are willing to pay billions of dollars upfront in exchange for the rights to collect tolls for 40 to 70 years. But, to ease fears that drivers could be gouged by higher tolls, state officials say they are willing to let the RTC pick between private bidders and the tollway authority on a case-by-case basis.

The hitch is, the RTC has to state in writing what its toll thresholds are, so private companies know what they’re getting into when they submit bids. And, RTC members must agree to select the “best value” for a road project, and not just pick the tollway authority, whose members are appointed by area county commissions, for political convenience.

The region could lose highway money if area leaders cannot figure out a way to make the roads pay for themselves with tolls, plus bring in a little extra for other highway projects, according to a letter to the RTC by the Transportation Department’s Fort Worth engineer Maribel Chavez and Dallas engineer Bill Hale.

One option may be to allow higher tolls during rush hours and lower tolls during less congested times of day, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. He said that strategy might work for private companies and the tollway authority.

“If you change the rates during peak periods, there’s a chance people will car-pool,” he said. “We’re going to have to strike a balance between enhancing the revenues from toll roads but not get away from our ... principles.”

- -
“Before the Texas Department of Transportation can negotiate any further ... a regionally supported toll structure is crucial.”

- — Jodi Hodges, highway department spokeswoman - - Gordon Dickson, (817) 685-3816

© 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:


The calm before the storm

No fist-shaking, no debates, no divisive TV or radio -- will voters snooze through primaries?

Central Texas voters foresee Strayhorn as only realistic alternative to Gov. Perry

Saturday, March 04, 2006

By W. Gardner Selby
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

Grab-your-armrests governor campaigns have historically come down to clangorous TV and radio ads, clashing roadside signs and, occasionally, difference-making debates.

This year? Nothing of the kind so far, leaving in question whether voters will skip Tuesday's primaries, which are missing dramatic statewide contests.

Central Texans quizzed this week sounded ready to look past the primaries, especially if Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman collect sufficient voter signatures after the primaries to reach the November ballot as independents.

Voters generally view GOP Gov. Rick Perry (pitted against three token opponents on Tuesday) as an adequate leader — albeit one who has struggled on education finance — facing unexciting Democratic challengers.

"He has done average," said Kenneth "KC" Willis, of Austin, a GOP voter crediting Perry with keeping the state economically attractive.

Roger Myers, of Llano, said, "Everybody can make improvements, but he's OK."

Democratic candidates Chris Bell, Bob Gammage and Rashad Jafer have made little impression, the sampling suggests, as if their efforts have occurred out of sight and sound.

To be fair, Jafer hasn't campaigned widely, and Bell counts on Harris County (which generated nearly 1 in 10 votes in the 2002 Democratic primary,) as his base.

Gammage has concentrated his closing stops on South Texas and El Paso, Democratic bastions where combative local races could spur turnout.

Turnout in gubernatorial primaries has not proved impressive in recent years, falling from nearly 30 percent of voters in 1990 — when both major parties had hard-fought primaries — to 11 percent in 1998 before edging to 13 percent four years ago, when Democrats Tony Sanchez and Dan Morales waged high-profile campaigns.

Secretary of State Roger Williams projected Friday that about 13 percent of Texas 12.7 million registered voters will again turn out for this year's primary. The projection was based on factors including previous turnout, registration figures and early voting trends.

"Our voter turnout is consistent with 2002 levels," Williams said. "However, the levels are still too low."

Voters this week said they'll tune in if Friedman and Strayhorn make the race.

"It's going to be a crazy race," said Amanda Milani, of Leander, a bookstore employee skipping the primaries. She said neither Bell nor Gammage has gotten word out on substantial platforms. "It's going to be wild."

First stop: Austin

The unscientific attempt to gauge voters started near Bell's Austin office, t west of the University of Texas, and ended some 75 miles west near Gammage's home in Llano (his campaign staff works virtually, without a headquarters).

Barry Smith, of Kyle, a retired state worker, stopped near Bell's office and predicted that Perry will win another term. "He hasn't done enough wrong."

Yet Smith said he won't vote in the primary and might sign a petition enabling Strayhorn to qualify. Perry hasn't given teachers a fair shake, he said.

State employee Lynn Belton, of Austin, paused outside a supermarket to say she'll vote in the GOP primary. Belton called Perry's performance since succeeding George W. Bush in 2000 "not particularly remarkable. I don't think he's done anything poorly either" outside of calling several failed special legislative sessions on education finance.

Belton said she might favor Strayhorn in the fall because the self-styled "one tough grandma" seems less likely to put her future over what's best for Texas. Perry "might have higher ambitions," she said. "He's got the sexy movie-star looks."

Accountant Stephen Fox, of Leander, described himself as usually an early voter. But he's uncertain whether to vote in a primary or to sit tight and consider Strayhorn.

Zacharias Johnson, 21, a senior at Huston-Tillotson University, said he'll vote, maybe for Bell, who's spoken on campus. Johnson said Perry should visit or "at least make an appearance" at the university.

Down the road

A half-hour drive west on Texas 71 inside Opie's Barbecue in Spicewood, Willis followed up on his "average" grade for Perry by questioning Strayhorn's presentation of herself as an outsider to Capitol shenanigans. "She's right in there with the rest of them, asses to elbows, playing politics," he said.

David Johnson, his lunch companion, hailed Perry's cheerleading on economic development and drawing more jobs to the state. He hopes the governor and legislators will create a plan slashing school property taxes. Perry has promised another special session after the primaries. A Gammage sign was stuck in a yard on East Main Street in Llano, but the candidate's nearby front yard was absent advertisement.

Downtown, Lee Duncan said he voted early for Bell. Duncan, 78, a barber for more than half a century, might vote for Friedman in the fall. Perry "is a very poor governor," Duncan said. "I rate him very low," for failing on school finance and catering to donors' interests."

Leah Stewart, toting her 13-month-old, Elisabeth, voted early in Llano. She eeny-miney-mo'd among three challengers to Perry, whom she says has inappropriately taken credit for an economy steered by Bush.

She'll ponder Strayhorn after the primaries. "I don't know if she has all the answers, but she thinks she does."; 445-3644

© 2005 Austin American-Statesman:


Texas Secretary of State predicts low turnout in primaries

Election official sees 13% turnout in state primaries

Early voting tally cited in prediction; Williams hoping for higher figure

March 4, 2006,

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2006

AUSTIN - Based largely on early voting, Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams predicted Friday that 13 percent of the state's registered voters will cast ballots in Tuesday's primary election.

Early voting the past two weeks has been at about the levels of the 2002 primaries, the last time there was a governor's race, Williams said.

Still, he said, that percentage is too low.

"Elections are a vital part of our democracy and play an important role in shaping our state's future," he said in a statement. "My office is working diligently with local officials to promote a turnout in this election that is higher than my 13 percent prediction."

Williams said he encourages every Texan to vote in a primary or sign a petition for an independent candidate.

In coming up with his projection, Williams said he examined a variety of factors, including turnout in prior elections, registration numbers and early voting trends.

Throughout early voting, which ran Feb. 21 through Friday, the Secretary of State's office has tracked turnout from the state's 15 most populous counties. Those counties account for about 60 percent of all registered voters in Texas.

In Harris County, almost 19,000 Republicans and 6,500 Democrats voted early through Thursday.

There are 1.8 million registered voters in Harris County and 12.7 million statewide.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2006 Houston Chronicle:


Thursday, March 02, 2006

Happening right now in your backyard...


Toll roads; influence in Capitol

March 03, 2006

Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

Tolls should be the issue of the election

The large network of new and upgraded highways rapidly nearing completion throughout the area look like toll roads on the outside, but actually are a permanent revenue stream more on par with a state income tax. This new toll tax will cost thousands per household per year. Never in the history of our country have public roads been given over to private companies. But it is happening right now in your backyard.

The election coming up Tuesday is our chance to throw out the toll taxers. Let's bring in candidates who have pledged to turn this monster around, especially Barbara Samuelson in Williamson County and Sarah Eckhardt in Travis, and statewide look for Steve Smith and Major Buck Werner.

For more information, go to


Round Rock

Stop trying to buy Capitol

Re: Feb. 24 column by James Leininger, "School choice is good medicine":

Multimillionaire Leininger attempted to excuse his voucher crusade as altruism born of his desire to help children. Yet for years, Leininger has spent vast sums of money to defeat candidates of both parties who make improving public education their highest priority.

Leininger has already dumped more than $1.4 million into the 2006 campaign cycle. More than half of that amount was spent on his vendetta against five of my Republican colleagues who voted against vouchers. Those five members, along with a bipartisan majority of the House, rejected his scheme because our priority is ensuring that every child, in every neighborhood, has access to an excellent public school.

If Leininger is really so concerned about helping children, he should stop trying to purchase the Legislature and start supporting officeholders who have the guts to vote in the best interests of the children they represent.


Texas House member


© 2006 Austin American-Statesman:


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

“We should do everything we can to stop it."

Candidates agree on TTC


By Kurt Johnson
Taylor Daily Press
Copyright 2006

The six candidates running for Pct. 4 county commissioner in Williamson County addressed several issues at a forum in Coupland Monday, and the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC) was high on the list of concerns.

The forum was sponsored by the Coupland Civic Association and moderated by Buzz Garry.

To varying degrees the five Republicans and one Democrat in the race spoke against having the TTC go through the Coupland area, and some took a hard-line stand to cancel the plan.

“It's a boondoggle, and I'm absolutely against it,” said Republican Louis Repa of Granger. “If it's built, it will cut local transportation arteries for fire protection and for kids getting to school.”

Albert Filla, a Republican from the Wuthrich Hill area east of Taylor, said he would urge Williamson County to partner with other counties in killing the TTC locally.

“We should do everything we can to stop it,” Filla said.

Ron Morrison, a Republican from Round Rock, said the issue of the TTC might end up being moot.

“If I were a betting man, I would bet it won't happen at all,” Morrison said. “We're going to need more roads in our future to meet transportation needs, but we won't need the TTC.”

According to Bobby Seiferman, a Republican from Round Rock, the TTC doesn't need to come through Williamson County.

“There's opinion in Milam County that the TTC would be good for that area, especially Cameron, and if that's the case, and Milam County wants it, it should go to the east of us,” Seiferman said. “If they plan to put it through here, I'm against it.”

Gary Coe, a Republican from Round Rock, cited his agriculture background in stating that he wouldn't want the TTC “to go over good farmland.” Coe said the TTC isn't just a Williamson County issue and the plan should be viewed in the context of general transportation needs.

“We need to work so it won't be detrimental to our communities,” Coe said.

The lone Democrat in the race, Brig Mireles from Round Rock, said he's opposed to the use of eminent domain for such a project.

“I don't know who will benefit from this huge corridor,” Mireles said.

Another question addressed by the candidates involved what they would do to stymie property tax increases.

Seiferman cited the recent $48 million bond issue passed by commissioners using certificates of obligation instead of taking the issue to citizens for a vote.

“If we involve the public in such decision-making, then use the increasing tax base to fund needed projects, we could actually lower the property tax rate,” Seiferman said. “In fact, because of the added development the county's growth will bring to the tax base, I'd say we could decrease the property tax rate by 10 percent by the end of my first term as commissioner.”

Coe said the key to containing property tax increases is long-range planning.

“Right now, they're doing it year-to-year, and planning needs to be done at least five years out,” Coe said. “Non-emergency bonds should be voted on by citizens and not issues as certificates of obligation so we can keep our priorities straight.”

According to Morrison, economic development initiatives can grow the local economy and the tax base, making it unnecessary to raise the tax rate.

“Some things we must have, like the new jail we had to build and the road bond program, which voters approved,” Morrison said, “but other things are discretionary, and those especially are areas where we need to listen to citizens.”

Repa said a “good-old-boy system” has caused unneeded spending, and he cited cost overruns in restoring the county courthouse as a key example.

“There's no common sense in county government now,” Repa said, “and that's what we need to fix.”

Filla said living within the county's means would keep the tax rate down along with cutting waste.

“Don't spend what you don't have, and tighten up on the good-old-boy hiring practices,” Filla said. “The county could save a half-million dollars a year in salaries by tightening down.”

According to Filla, industry that's already in the county should be supported instead of giving incentives or tax abatements to external businesses.

Copyright © 2006 Taylor Daily Press


Tuesday, February 28, 2006

"Kelo reaction might signal the resurgence of a long-overdue property-rights movement in America."

States of Eminent Domain


The Monitor (McAllen TX)
Copyright 2006

It has been just over a year since the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Kelo v. the city of New London (Conn.) and eight months since the high court ruled in favor of cities. Yes, the high court ruled, New London and other municipalities were within their constitutional bounds to use eminent-domain to take property from homeowners and business owners and give it to developers who promise economic and tax benefits to the city.

City officials, leaders of municipal organizations such as the League of Cities and, of course, developers celebrated that 5-4 decision, which said: "Promoting economic development is a traditional and long-accepted governmental function, and there is no principled way of distinguishing it from the other public purposes the Court has recognized."

That statement is preposterous. It wasn’t difficult for the Constitution’s founders to make a bright-line distinction between public uses and private ones. Nevertheless, advocates for eminent-domain began celebrating a bit early, apparently overlooking another key portion of the ruling.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, wrote that "nothing in our opinion precludes any state from placing further restrictions on its exercise of the takings power."

Since July, the public has taken Justice Stevens at his word. Americans have been outraged at the idea that their home or business could be taken, and they could be forced to fight a long battle to gain just compensation, not so a city can build a road, but so that a city can give the property to a developer to build an auto mall, shopping center or hotel and thus raise tax revenue.

According to the Institute for Justice, which represented the property owners in Kelo, 40 state legislatures and Congress have proposed or passed legislation in the ensuing months. Conservatives and liberals have joined together to try to rein in abuses, even though only a handful of laws have yet been passed to deal with the issue. The few state laws that have passed still allow eminent domain for blighted properties.

California law requires a blight finding before eminent domain can be used for economic development, which has caused state redevelopment officials to tell Californians that there is nothing to worry about because Kelo hasn’t changed anything. Well, Kelo might not have affected California law, but abuses were rampant in this state before Kelo and they remain rampant after it. Changes are needed to protect homeowners given that cities take the widest latitude in declaring property blighted.

Although the California Democratic Party recently passed a resolution calling for reform, the Democrat-dominated Legislature halted any such reforms in the 2005 session. That’s why property-rights advocates, led by state Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Simi Valley, are circulating three separate initiatives that would place eminent-domain reform on a statewide ballot.

Meanwhile, Suzette Kelo and her neighbors have yet to leave their neighborhood in New London. Developers are leery of having their names associated with the landmark eminent-domain case. Redevelopment officials are frustrated and angry, and are trying to mount a countercampaign to prove to Americans that eminent-domain is a necessary "tool" in their redevelopment toolbox. Good luck on that point.

"My life hasn’t been the same since June 23, 2005," a top California redevelopment official told The New York Times, referring to the date the Kelo decision was issued. The Times article spotlighting the backlash against Kelo was on its front page, a testament to a rare level of resentment unleashed against a court ruling.

Coupled with the Oregon Supreme Court’s upholding last week of a measure requiring that the state’s municipalities pay compensation to property owners who lost value after the passage of land-use regulations, the Kelo reaction might signal the resurgence of a long-overdue property-rights movement in America.

© 2006 The Monitor:


Monday, February 27, 2006

Toll roads and the atypical working mom.



San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

Taxpayers charged twice

I thank Carlos Guerra for his column "Are toll roads really about traffic, or perhaps about big contracts?" (Feb. 12).

I'm not against toll roads. I'm against using existing roads that have been paid for by taxpayers and reallocating them as toll roads, thereby charging taxpayers twice.

I'm very against using a foreign company to do the work. We don't need foreign countries with their hands in our pockets any more than they are already. If were going to do something for Texas, then these contracts should be let to Texas companies so we don't have foreign countries with control over our highways.

- Earl Phillips,

Universal City

Atypical working mom

The only letter in "Focus: Toll roads" (Tuesday) that supports toll roads and Joe Krier's opinion is from Brenda Vickery Johnson, the president of Vickery & Associates ("Give drivers a choice").

Johnson noted she is a "working mom" who would benefit from being able to run errands on a toll road.

Vickery & Associates is a highway contractor, and Johnson is on the boards of both the San Antonio Greater Chamber of Commerce and the San Antonio Mobility Coalition.

I doubt many other working moms are equally enthusiastic about toll roads.

- Bill Barker

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News:


Transportation commission pushes conversion of I-69 to TTC-69

Bid vote ties I-69, 'Corridor'

February 27, 2006

By Stephen Palkot
Fort Bend Herald
Copyright 2006

A bid procedure that was approved last week will cement the connection between the Trans Texas Corridor and the I-69 project.

The TTC is described by Texas Department of Transportation officials as a "master plan" for future transportation development. It calls for building new highways, side-by-side with rail lines and utility lines, to run across the state in very wide swaths of land.

I-69, or the "NAFTA corridor," is a proposed highway that would extend from the Texas/Mexico border to Port Huron, Mich., where it would continue into Canada.

Since the introduction of the TTC concept, TxDOT officials discussed the possibility of making the proposed highway a portion of the TTC. Now, a study corridor along East Texas is being called "TTC-69" by TxDOT, and the department is looking for a single company to develop the project.

On Thursday, Feb. 16, a procedure was approved for companies to submit proposals for developing TTC-69.

In a break from past policy, TxDOT hopes to fund the project entirely through the private sector. A private company would pay for all construction costs, according to the department. The company would likely charge tolls for use of the road and other facilities, in hopes of earning a profit.

Proponents of the plan, most notably Gov. Rick Perry, say it will speed development of the project and will save taxpayers billions of dollars. Opponents, however, say the project could give private interests too much control over state-wide transportation projects.

A request for qualifications will be issued by TxDOT in March, and companies will be asked to submit their experience in developing and financing transportation projects similar to TTC-69, according to TxDOT. Also, TxDOT wants companies to outline a conceptual proposal, explaining how they would finance, design, construct, operate and maintain TTC-69.

A second phase will begin after TxDOT hears from applicants. A set of companies will be given approval to submit more detailed proposals for the project.

The entire process is expected to last 15 months, according to TxDOT.

© 2006 Fort Bend Herald


Toll increases designed to reduce congestion have only increased revenue.

Toll increases won't curb use, history shows

Toll increases designed to reduce congestion on Orange County, California's 91 Express Lanes

February 27, 2006

The Riverside Press-Enterprise
Copyright 2006

At least a few commuters returning from Orange County this afternoon likely will drive up to the 91 ExpressLanes, see the higher tolls that took effect today and decide to forgo the faster ride in order to save a few dollars.

But if history is any indication, there will be plenty of other drivers willing to pick up the slack, and then some.

Despite regular toll increases, the express lanes have shown strong and steady growth, records show.

The number of daily and weekly transactions on the lanes has increased each of the past three fiscal years, according to statistics from the Orange County Transportation Authority, which owns the lanes. The same holds true for weekly and annual tolls. "The revenues are off the charts, a lot higher than what they anticipated," Corona City Councilman Jeff Miller said.
Drivers may say they hate the idea of paying to drive on a freeway, but they apparently hate sitting in traffic even more.

"You can turn one of the worst rides in the county into one of the best rides in the county," said Bruce Schworck, a retired construction worker from Canyon Lake who used the lanes almost every day for years.

The transportation authority, for example, had projected that average daily trips on the express lanes would exceed 32,000 during this fiscal year. But just last month the figure was approximately 43,000, according to Daryl Watkins, the authority's manager of toll road and
motorist services.

The authority has contractual agreements with about 125,000 express lane users, meaning that about a third of the people who are eligible to use the lanes on a given day actually do. Watkins said about 56 percent of the traffic is eastbound, compared to about 44 percent westbound.

Most commuters see the express lanes as "congestion insurance," said Bob Poole, director of transportation studies and founder of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank in Los Angeles.

"You may not use it every time, but you know that it's there if you really need it," he said.
As usage continues to grow and tolls increase, the transportation authority eventually will wrestle with how to spend any toll revenue that exceeds the amount needed to pay off bonds used to purchase the lanes. The authority bought the lanes in 2003 for about $207 million from the private company that built them.

Excess toll revenue must be plowed back into improvements along the Highway 91 corridor. The transportation authority is conducting environmental studies now as part of a plan to build an auxiliary lane on the eastbound side of the freeway between Highway 71 in Corona and Highway 241 toll road in Yorba Linda. Such a lane already has been added to the westbound side of Highway 91.

"People don't see a lot of value in studies," Watkins said. "But you can't put new concrete down until you do that study."

Other possibilities for excess revenue include paying down the debt on the lanes early, reworking congested ramps or extending the express lanes further east to Interstate 15, Watkins said. That would mark the first time the 91 Express Lanes ventured into Riverside County.

A committee of elected officials from Riverside and Orange counties eventually will recommend potential projects, but the decision ultimately belongs to the Orange County agency that owns the lanes.

"It just highlights the need for Riverside County and Orange County to work together to do these improvements as soon as possible," said John Standiford, spokesman for the Riverside County Transportation Commission. "Orange County doesn't have the people to fill the jobs they have, and we have people who need those jobs."

© 2006 The Riverside Press-Enterprise


"Private investors built it, and they did not come."

Get real about Camino

February 27, 2006

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

File this quote along with "It'll never fly, Wilbur" in the pantheon of sentiments best left unexpressed.

Dennis Nixon, president of one of the banks that backed the Camino Colombia private toll road near Laredo, told The Wall Street Journal several years ago that getting the project approved was "like stars meeting in heaven."

Come to think of it, Nixon was kinda right. One assumes that when two stars meet, there's a huge explosion, and everything gets wiped out. That's pretty much what happened with the $88 million, 22.6-mile road connecting Interstate 35 to the Colombia-Solidarity Bridge northwest of Laredo.

Private investors built it, and they did not come. Or at least not nearly enough theys — cars, trucks — to pay back the money borrowed for construction.

The two-lane road closed in February 2004, about a month after a bank bought it from investors on the Webb County Courthouse steps for $12 million. The bank then quickly sold it to the Texas Department of Transportation for $20 million.

It's been open for business again since September 2004 under the state's shingle, with truck tolls cut in half to $8 and the car charge reduced from $3 to $2, and traffic is building slowly.

But for several reasons, the toll road is attracting nowhere near the numbers that Mr. Nixon and its other backers predicted during the road's formative stages.

The road's original owners said it needed about 1,500 trucks and 300 cars a day to break even. Since the state took over, the road has averaged 430 vehicles a day, most of them cars.

The road's sad history has been picked up by toll road opponents here and across the state and used as a cautionary tale about what would happen with other private toll roads. Such as the Trans-Texas Corridor twin to I-35, right now likely to be run by the Spanish toll road operator Cintra and its Texas partner, Zachry Construction Corp.

But Camino Colombia's genesis, tangled up in Mexican and Laredo politics, is unique, making such comparisons, at best, suspect.

The road, first of all, was built to connect to a bridge over the Rio Grande put in the middle of nowhere, about 24 miles upstream from Laredo, mostly because Mexico's president in the late 1980s was from the state of Nuevo León and wanted it to have its own connection to the United States. Nuevo León has a gerrymandered, 10-mile-wide peninsula of territory linking it to the border.

In the initial years after the bridge opened in 1991, you could get from Laredo to it only via two-lane FM 1472, known locally as Mines Road.

But with trucks stacked up in Laredo waiting to get over the two bridges there, Carlos Benavides III, part of a powerful Laredo family, figured that a toll road shortcut to the new bridge from I-35 well north of town would work.

Gov. Ann Richards' administration (egged on by some Laredo leaders who opposed the toll road) wasn't so sure, and her appointees to the Texas Transportation Commission wouldn't give the Benavides group permission to build it.

So the road idea languished.

Meanwhile, Richards showed up in Laredo to announce that a fourth bridge, much closer to downtown Laredo, would be built. That bridge opened in 2000 and is connected to I-35 by a short and very nice — and very free — stretch of Texas 20.

And Mines Road, the free route to the Solidarity Bridge paralleling the river, was upgraded to four lanes.

That's a whole lot of incentive not to take the toll road. Or build one.

But with some of Gov. George W. Bush's appointees on the Transportation Commission, Camino Colombia was approved in 1996 on a 2-1 vote and opened for business in 2000.

Financial heartbreak, as detailed previously, ensued.

So now the state, which bought it with gas tax money and thus has no debt to pay back, is bringing in about $600,000 a year. That money, state officials say, will be used on other transportation projects in the Laredo area.

Traffic on the road for December and January was about a third higher than the comparable months a year earlier.

How come? Well, Danny Magee, director of transportation operations for the state Transportation Department's Laredo district, says the working theory is that the violence between rival drug gangs in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, is encouraging some folks to go out of their way to Camino Colombia.

Let's see: Pay a $2 toll, or get hit by a stray bullet? Sounds like a bargain and a novel new justification for toll roads.

Anyway, you have to be pretty creative to look at all that and see a doppelganger for TTC-35.

That proposed road's competition is I-35, which, as we all know, is congested and dangerous between San Antonio and Hillsboro and sure to get more so.

And although a private company will build and run TTC-35, private investors didn't conceive the thing. Government did. And Cintra, unlike the toll road neophytes involved down south, runs roads all over Europe.

Will the initial estimates for TTC-35 traffic be wrong? Absolutely. Anyone predicting the near and long-term future is guaranteed to miss the mark, either low or high.

Traffic might even be so low that the road will default. It's happened elsewhere in the United States, as well. But all three toll roads in Houston and the two in Dallas are veritable money machines, and there are innumerable turnpikes across the country doing quite well.

There are a lot of legitimate talking points in the continuing debate about the Trans-Texas Corridor and toll roads in general. Camino Colombia, tempting as it is to toll road opponents, probably isn't one of them.

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

© 2005 Austin American-Statesman:


Strayhorn: "It is the largest land grab in Texas History. You're going to have to pay to play both ways. "

One Tough Grandma addresses McKinney Rotary


By Krystal De Los Santos, Staff Writer
Plano Star-courier
Copyright 2006

Gubernatorial candidate and Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn on Friday campaigned in McKinney as a guest of the Rotary Club, promising to fix Texas's flawed school finance system, protect jobs and shrink the size of the state's government.

Strayhorn, in addition to being the first female comptroller, reelected with the highest number of votes ever in any run for a Texas political office, was the first woman elected to the Texas Railroad Commission, and the first female president of both the Austin School Board, and of the Austin Community College Board of Trustees.

She was the first female mayor of Austin, and the only Austin mayor to be reelected to three consecutive terms.

Her stump speech was full of Keetonisms-the folksy, colorful comparisons for which Strayhorn has become known.

While she refrained from referring to Governor Rick Perry as a "weak-leadin', ethics ignorin', pointing the finger at everyone blamin', special session callin', public school slashin', slush fund spending, toll road building, special interest panderin', rainy day fund raidin', fee increasing, no property tax cutting, promise breakin', do-nothin' phony conservative," as she has in the past," she did fault the Governor for failing Texas' children by placing school finance low on his list of priorities.

Shifting state funds around to pay for school finance, she said, "is like rearranging the chairs on the Titanic."

"The Titanic's problem won't go away, either," she said. "We need a long-term solution."

"Over the past five years, we've had nine sessions of the legislature. Nine opportunities to fix serious problems, nine opportunities to cut property taxes, cut government spending and fix our unconstitutional and broken school finance system but instead of fixing out problems, we see that school funding is in crisis, property taxes are up and judges are having to do our government's job," Strayhorn said. "He sat in the Governor's office and while he sat there, education has been ignored, our children have been forgotten, taxes have gone up not down and the state budget has gone up $40 billion, a 41 percent increase. Spending is at its highest level ever while dollars going to our children and our teachers are at the lowest level ever. Pocketbook expenses have skyrocketed for everything from insurance rates to our electric bills and our border has been abandoned to the point where ordinary citizens, not law enforcement officials, are having to fight illegal immigration."

Billing herself as "one tough grandma," Keeton explained her decision to shed her party affiliation for the campaign and run for Governor as an independent.

"I believe we need to put partisan politics behind us," she said. "We can't wait any longer. It's time to shake Austin up...We need a strong leader who will put Texas above politics."

Strayhorn said that she wants to shrink the size of government applying her Yellow Pages test and letting competition regulate markets.

"Government should do no job if there's a business in the Yellow Pages that can do that job better and at a lower cost," she said. "The chief role of government in the economy is to provide incentives for work safety and investment and protect private property owners."

She said that compared with the Gross National Product of other countries in the world, Texas' Gross State product is the tenth largest, but that its reputation for educating its future work force is poor.

"Texas is great, but we can do better," she said.

She also spoke about the local economy, praising the low unemployment rate in McKinney, saying "ya'll are outpacing the state all over the place."

"McKinney is booming," Strayhorn said. "With gross sales, with the $200 million gateway center project. You've got fine employers here from Raytheon to Blockbuster and your small business retail." The city's sales tax revenue was up nearly 29 percent over 2005.

She joked that she watches several economic indicators everyday, one of which is Girl Scout Cookie Sales.

Strayhorn, a former teacher, also praised the city's school district.

"There is not a single low-performing school in McKinney Independent School District and that's good that's something to be proud of," she said.

She also spoke of her opposition to toll roads.

"I think we can have the transportation system that once was and will be again the envy of the United States," she said. "TxDOT is coming in and building tollroads like S.H. 121 and not working with city and county officials to keep toll rates down and keep toll profits local, and I think the North Texas Tollway Authority has been very responsive to local concerns and local accountability... I think nobody knows what's best for the local community like the local agencies."

Another major concern, she said, is the Trans-Texas Corridor.

"It is the largest land grab in Texas History. You're going to have to pay to play both ways," she said. "What really gets me is not only is it... totally ignoring local private property rights, property that has been in the family for generations...but now, they've signed a contract, a secret contract with Cintra, a foreign company, a 50-year contract for a $184 billion boondoggle."

Strayhorn's father was the long-time dean of the University of Texas law school. Her oldest son, Mark McClellan is the Administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services, and is former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Her twin sons, Brad and Dudley McClellan are both attorneys. Brad McClellan is former Assistant Texas Attorney General and manager of her campaign. Dudley McClellan is Assistant General Counsel for the State Bar of Texas and her youngest son, Mark McClellan is President George W. Bush's press secretary.

But her biggest joy, she said, are her granddaughters.

After raising four boys, "I've earned those five baby granddaughters, and the good lord really does have a sense of humor."

The Rotary club presented Strayhorn a banner and thanked her for visiting.

"I'm honored to stand here with each of you who put service above self," Strayhorn said. "To stand shoulder to shoulder with you... I salute the McKinney Rotary chapter."

Contact Krystal De Los Santos at

©Star Community Newspapers 2006


Sunday, February 26, 2006

"The idea of toll roads is as unpopular in El Paso today as it was two years ago."

Many in El Paso oppose toll roads

February 26, 2006

David Crowder
El Paso Times
Copyright 2006

The idea of toll roads is as unpopular in El Paso today as it was two years ago, and Mayor John Cook figures that's not likely to change.

Nor, he says, will his support for a regional mobility authority, which could use road toll revenues to provide the supplemental funding needed to get expensive and much needed highway projects started decades before they might be built by the Texas Department of Transportation.

An El Paso Times/KVIA ABC 7 Poll shows 59 percent of El Pasoans oppose toll roads as a way to pay for expensive transportation projects while 38 percent favor them -- the same percentage as in 2004.

"I'm surprised the number in favor is that high," Cook said. "Most people, if you ask them whether they are in favor of tolls, would say they'd rather hold on to their quarter.

"I'm only surprised there's not more opposition."

But Cook said that will not keep him and a majority of City Council members from pushing ahead with the creation of a regional mobility authority because they see it as crucial to the city's future.

"Yes there is opposition, but I think we have a City Council that votes its conscience and that says, 'We have to look at what's best for El Paso, not just what's best for me.' "

Two weeks ago -- after hearing residents speak for and against going forward with an El Paso mobility authority -- City Council voted 5-3 to petition the Texas Transportation Commission for the power to establish an authority.

"What is the rush? Why do we have to do this today?" said East-Central city Rep. José Alexandro Lozano, who had 20 questions he wanted answered first.

Northeast city Rep. Melina Castro and East-Valley city Rep. Eddie Holguin also opposed the petition because an authority would not be accountable enough to the public and road tolls would amount to a new tax.

Miguel Rodriguez, president of the Chihuahuita Neighborhood Association, said he had opposed an authority and the extension of the Border Highway until he saw the route plans that would take the proposed new roadway around the historical Chihuahuita district, not through it or over it as residents had feared.

"We were concerned about the fate of Chihuahuita," he said. "In my opinion, they should still do more study on this before going into tolling.

"We can look at an added fuel tax or driver's license fee or a car title fee."

Eastsider Mike Rooney, who has followed the issue closely for more than a year and participated in the process that brought the issue to the City Council, also supports the Border Highway extension but has overriding reservations about the accountability question.

"What you're seeing from people is the discomfort about the whole thing," he said. "Why do we have to go so fast?"

Rooney said he objects to including bus service in the county and bicycle paths in the list of ways that the City Council wants to spend toll money.

"If highways are the priority, why would you divert your toll money away from that to mass transit or light rail or bike paths," he said. "Why would we want to divert the funds?"

At the urging of South-West city Rep. Beto O'Rourke and Eastridge/ Mid-Valley city Rep. Steve Ortega, the council included county mass transit in the three projects mentioned in the petition for a mobility authority and included bike baths and light rail in a resolution supporting it.

Before the question goes to the Texas Transportation Department's governing body, the department will conduct at least one major public hearing on the issue and then will make its own recommendation to the transportation commission. The commission will consider the public input and the community's support and opposition to a regional mobility authority before deciding whether to grant El Paso's petition.

Chuck Berry, the El Paso district engineer for the state transportation department, said this should happen in May or June. Then, the decision to create a regional mobility authority comes back to the City Council for a final vote.

Berry said the highway project El Paso needs the most -- a five-mile raised roadway that would extend the Border Highway from Downtown to Sunland Park Drive and Interstate 10 -- would cost $300 to $400 million.

It is so expensive that the state has never put it on the list of scheduled construction projects, and without additional income from tolls, it may not be built for decades, he said.

Berry estimated that the toll for that stretch of new road would be about 60 cents per vehicle.

Tolls wouldn't be paid at traditional toll booths requiring traffic to stop or slow down, but by sensors that would read bar codes on stickers on vehicle windshields and automatically charge tolls to bank accounts, credit cards or funds that drivers would keep up.

By state law, a mobility authority cannot charge tolls for the use of pre-existing traffic lanes. It can charge only for new lanes.

The Texas Transportation Commission has never denied a community's petition.

The areas with active regional mobility authorities:

The Central Texas RMA for Austin's Travis County and neighboring Williamson County

San Antonio and Bexar County's Alamo RMA

Cameron County RMA (Brownsville)

Grayson County RMA (Sherman)

Hidalgo County RMA (McAllen)

Northeast Texas RMA (Tyler)

The issue is still being fought out in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, where opposition is strong.

Dallas and Houston have had toll road authorities for decades that are independent of the Texas Transportation Commission, said TxDoT spokesman Randall Dillard.

If the El Paso City Council creates a regional mobility authority this summer, it will be an independent government agency. The chairperson will be appointed by the governor, and the rest of the board will be named by City Council to two-year terms. Half the board will come up for reappointment or replacement every year to increase accountability.

David Crowder may be reached at; 546-6194.

Copyright © 2006 El Paso Times


Taking a toll on Pricinct 2

Toll road issue overshadows race for precinct 2


By: Allie Rasmus
News 8 Austin
Copyright 2006

We took a walk through one central Austin neighborhood and asked people about the race for Travis county precinct commissioner.

"I do not know what a precinct commissioner does at all," one resident said.

"I've just never heard of the --What is it? Precinct commissioner?" another told us.

Precinct 2 runs from north central Austin up to the Williamson County line.
But then we asked the same people what they knew about toll roads and they had a very different answer.

"Oh I know a little bit about that. I know there's a controversy about it," resident Tom Gohring said.

Precinct 2 goes from north central Austin up to the Williamson County line. It covers part of Northwest Austin, east of the 360 loop and extends Northeast to encompass the entire town of Pflugerville.

Toll roads and other transportation issues affect this area and they're key issues in this primary race.

Taking a toll on the race

News 8 Austin's Allie Rasmus shows how the bid for the next Travis County precinct two commissioner could come down to how people feel about toll roads.

"The average commuter if they want to take the toll the whole way is going to pay considerably more," Travis County precinct 2 candidate Sarah Eckhardt said.

"Everybody loves Austin, but if there's one ding on our reputation it's that the traffic is horrible," Incumbent Travis County precinct 2 commissioner Karen Sonleitner said.

Sonleitner's been the Precinct 2 Commissioner for 12 years. She's running for her fourth term, but she also wears another political hat.

She sits on the board of CAMPO, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The entire group's come under political fire for approving a controversial toll road plan.

"We had a crummy choice. It was either accept toll roads as an option in our transportation mix to get the state highways in our area completed, or do nothing and wait 20 to 25 years for our highways to be completed. I chose action over inaction," Sonleitner said.

"I don't think the public was adequately included in the process," Eckhardt said.

Eckhardt is a former Travis county prosecutor and is also running for precinct commissioner.

She believes transportation is important too, and says the people she's talked to in the precinct are worried about it.

"The vast majority of people are shocked when they see what the phase two toll road plan is," Eckhardt said.

Eckhardt says she thinks the only Central Texas road that should have a toll is SH-130, because it is a brand new road that isn't already in use.

"I don't have any issue with that," Eckhardt said.

But Sonleitner says she didn't vote for toll roads as a Travis county commissioner but as a CAMPO board member, and that no commissioners are guaranteed a seat on CAMPO if they're elected.

She believes the fuss over tolls is overblown.

"When I go into the office everyday, the phone is not ringing off the hook with calls about toll roads," Sonleitner said.

She says during her last term she's stood with neighbors to stop construction of a race track and strip club in Pflugerville and voted to have the county purchase 3,300 acres of green space after voters approved a bond authorizing the purchase.

"That was one of those landmark purchases that 100 years from now people will say that was a good thing," Sonleitner said

But Eckhardt says there are other things that county leaders need to focus on.

"We've got a jail overcrowding problem that we haven't solved yet. We have a mental health crisis. Travis County has a hospital district, but it doesn't include mental health and it should," Eckhardt said.

Although the toll road debate is the most prominent in this campaign, both candidates say there are other issues facing Travis County.

But there's an old saying in politics that people vote their pocketbooks.

And if voters feel the toll road plan will break their budget, they might voice that concern at the ballot and blame the elected officials who voted for it.

There are no Republicans running for precinct 2 commissioner, so whichever candidate wins the primary, will likely win the seat, although there is a libertarian candidate on the ballot in November.

Copyright ©2006 TWEAN News Channel of Austin News 8 Austin