Saturday, December 02, 2006

"This governor's toll and 'innovative financing' scheme is destroying our public freeway system."


Perry's toll road proposals will fleece Texas taxpayers


Terri Hall
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

Re: the editorial "First few tolled miles right move for Texas" (Nov. 19):

No one can give a single rational reason taxpayers should pay tolls for roads and improvements that are already 100 percent funded, such as U.S. 281 here in San Antonio, Texas 71 and U.S. 183 in Austin and Texas 121 in Dallas.

The Texas Mobility Fund, also known as Proposition 15 and passed in 2001, was sold to voters as accelerating transportation projects using bonds. Toll roads were on a list of projects noted in this vague ballot wording that politicians also used to divine the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Nowhere did this authorize the conversion of existing roads and rights of way into toll roads, nor did it authorize privatizing our public highways, nor did it authorize a Minute Order the Transportation Commission passed in December 2003 calling for all new improvements to be considered for tolls first.

The Texas Department of Transportation is repeatedly attempting to use population growth as the reason to toll existing and new improvements to Texas roads.

Let's look at the facts.

When population increases, tax revenues also increase. TxDOT's budget has more than doubled since Rick Perry took office without raising our taxes. TxDOT's revenues have gone up about 178 percent in the past 20 years, and that's adjusted for inflation and population growth.

Then consider that close to $10 billion in transportation funds have been raided to fund such things as cemeteries, tourism promotion and a computer system in the comptroller's office. There's no shortage of cash. Rather, there's a shortage of fiscal discipline in favor of frivolous earmarks, which were a contributing factor in Republicans losing control of Congress in this last election.

TxDOT also has $7 billion (which is nearly equivalent to an amount doubling its annual budget) available in bonds right now to accelerate freeway improvements. Instead, it has earmarked them for toll roads.

TxDOT also has its own study on how to relieve congestion on Interstate 35 using existing funds and right of way, but it's now ignoring it in favor of tolling I-35, Texas 130 (a bypass route from San Antonio to Austin) and the Trans-Texas Corridor, making it nearly impossible to travel north-south in this state without paying a toll.

When tolls increase the cost of a project anywhere from 40 percent to 100 percent more than constructing it as a nontoll project, when we pay 1 cent to 3 cents per mile under gas taxes versus 25 cents or more per mile on a toll road (per TxDOT's own studies and admission it'll charge "whatever the market will bear") and when TxDOT uses noncompete agreements allowing the private entity control over the free lanes (including downgrading free lanes to frontage roads, slowing speed limits, increasing stop light times and prohibiting the state from upgrading or improving free lanes/roads near the tollway), it's a no-brainer to conclude the taxpayer is getting fleeced!

This governor's toll and "innovative financing" scheme is destroying our public freeway system. This new version of tolling is about generating more taxes (a toll is a tax) for the state while engaging in a revenue-sharing scheme that also lines the pockets of private and foreign companies (many based here in San Antonio), not about providing safe, efficient transportation all Texans can use.

It's time for the public's concerns to be addressed, not swept under the rug or sidestepped to "give toll roads a chance."

Most folks have no problem with traditional toll roads, such as those in Houston and Dallas, that were brought to a public vote, were brand-new roads and the money and control stayed local. But this "let them eat cake" mentality is going to be a political noose around the neck of any politician who continues down the road of privatizing our public assets to enrich special interests and hijacking our free lanes to line the pockets of private entities in 50-year monopolies.

For more information, go to www.

Terri Hall is regional director of San Antonio Toll, a nonpartisan, grass-roots organization promoting nontoll, good government transportation solutions.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News:


Friday, December 01, 2006

The Texas Farm Bureau is proposing a constitutional amendment on eminent domain

Texas Farm Bureau wants to overhaul laws on eminent domain

Dec. 01, 2006

The Associated Press
Copyright 2006

ARLINGTON - Saying it's still too easy for Texans to lose their land, the Texas Farm Bureau wants to overhaul state laws on how governmental bodies can seize private property.

Under a proposed bill, not as many entities would have the power to take land and homes from residents.

Also, if land were to be seized for pipeline or utility lines, residents would receive ongoing royalty payments in addition to the property's fair market value. No matter what the land would be used for, residents would be paid for their attorneys' and appraisal fees and given enough time to move.

The issue is to be discussed at the group's 73rd annual convention starting Saturday in Arlington. On Monday, the final day, the group is expected to adopt a policy that will be part of a bill submitted during the state legislative session in January.

"This is an important issue because we should have the opportunity to keep and develop our land as we see fit," Kenneth Dierschke, president of the 385,000-member organization, said Friday. "In some cases eminent domain is necessary, but when they take land, people need to be treated fairly."

Although the organization opposes the Trans-Texas Corridor - Gov. Rick Perry's proposed toll road network across the state - farmers and ranchers generally are more tolerant of traditional eminent domain uses, such as for roads, Dierschke said.

The Texas Farm Bureau also is proposing a constitutional amendment based on a bill passed during last year's special legislative session. The new law, among other things, prevents governmental entities from seizing private property for economic development projects.

Passing the state law and getting it into the constitution would guard against legal challenges.

A state constitutional amendment has to be approved by two-thirds in the legislative chambers, and the governor does not have to sign it. Then it goes straight to the voters, who get their say in a statewide election.

The Farm Bureau's eminent domain bill was filed during the 2005 special session in Texas two months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that governments can take land for private development to generate tax money, prompting worries that local entities would grab homes and turn the property over to developers.

But the Kelo vs. City of New London, Conn., ruling also allowed states to ban that practice.

While Texas law was strengthened after the bill was passed in 2005, more needs to be done, Dierschke said. That's why the group is proposing the constitutional amendment and another eminent domain bill, he said.

"Our people in Austin will be working diligently to get it passed," he said.

© 2006 The Associated Press:


"It’s incredible information that we were rather surprised to figure out."


Report: Eight-cent indexed gas-tax increase can replace tolling

December 1, 2006

by Christine DeLoma

The Lone Star Report
Volume 11 issue 16
Copyright 2006

New toll roads aren’t the only pathway to financing the state’s transportation needs, according to a recent report commissioned by the Governor’s Business Council (GBC).

An eight cent increase in the gas tax indexed for inflation may be all that’s needed to pay for new state roads over the next 25 years.

In outlining the report at the Nov. 28 meeting of the Study Commission on Transportation Financing, David Ellis of the Texas Transportation Institute offered lawmakers several toll-less financing alternatives to meet the state’s future transportation needs in the eight largestmetropolitan areas.

A flat increase in the gas tax, Ellis said, is possible but not optimal. “The fuel tax loses buying power to inflation every year because it is a tax based on the unit of volume. It’s not related to costs of projects,” he said. Nonetheless, he said, a 31-cent increase per gallon in the gas tax would provide for the Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) unfunded needs, as opposed to the estimated $1.21 increase frequently cited by Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) chairman Ric Williamson.

However, TTC commissioner Ted Houghton, a member of the study commission, called the gas tax regressive. “I think when you get down to it,” said Hougthon, “is raising the gas tax the way to go? Or is tolling and concessions and CDAs (comprehensive development agreements) and pass through financing and those other tools in the toolbox. [A]re those the ways to get to where we need to go? So the debate is, raise the gas tax. It seems to me, Mr. Chairman, that’s where we are, or continue on the plan that we have set forth that we believe is going to achieve our needs without putting it on the backs of the taxpayers on a regressive based system.”

Study commission member Michael Stevens, who is also chairman of the GBC’s Transportation Task Force, said the significant discrepancy in numbers results from TxDOT’s failure to take into account the increase in growth population in their revenue projections, as well as the increase in vehicle miles traveled.

Those factors alone, Stevens said, would generate enough additional income to eliminate the need for higher gas taxes.

“The reason for the importance of this issue,” Stevens told Houghton, “is your position is, and has been, that the reason we should follow your line of reasoning is because it takes a $1.20 increase in the gas tax to do anything to solve the problem. It does not require that amount of money. It is a debate that is worth having. It is a debate that has not occurred, and I welcome[it].”

Stevens added that TxDOT also included the cost of city and county roads, which it is not responsible for, in its projections for the construction costs over the next quarter century. “The $86 billion problem is a problem that includes city and county roads,” he said.

What TxDOT needs is closer to $60 billion, he said. Of that figure, the GBC report estimates TxDOT would need $44 billion for the state’s eight largest metropolitan areas.

Indexing the gas tax can address the $44 billion state shortfall, Ellis said. The last increase occurred in 1991 when it was increased to 20 cents. Due to inflation, the tax is worth less than 14 cents a gallon in terms of purchasing power.

According to the GBC report, indexing the state and federal portions of the gas tax to the highway cost index (HCI, which is a percentage of the annual increase in highway construction costs) would pay for the shortfall. Yearly highway construction costs have increased between 0.5 percent and 1.5 percent faster than inflation over the past 15 years.

“If you just create an index against the state and the federal portion of that tax, which is a little over a penny a year increase,” Stevens said, “that penny a year can pay for the entire shortfall for the state’s portion. It’s staggering. It’s incredible information that we were rather surprised to figure out.”

Ellis said additional revenues generated from the index would be deposited into the Texas Mobility Fund or similar fund to service the debt on the bonds. An eight-cent increase in the gas tax, coupled with the HCI, would pay for the transportation costs for both metropolitan and rural areas.

Houghton, however, wasn’t buying into it. “It sounds like it is a replacement for the current system,” he said. “If you’re depending upon motor vehicle taxes, I think we’re headed down a rocky, rocky road. And we can debate the numbers, and you can increase the gas tax, but it is our contention that eight cents won’t put a dent into your number of $44 billion. It’s just not going to happen. And we believe that. And we’ll continue to prove that testimony anywhere in the state of Texas.”

Houghton said the current system of tolling roads, and the proceeds from concessions, would provide a revenue stream available for building free roads or rail, something GBC’s report did not take into consideration. When the state, he said, awards the project to construct SH 121 in Dallas, it will receive over $1 billion in concession fees. Houghton also said that revenues from the gas tax cannot be used for alternative transportation projects like rail.

Ellis, in defending the report, said, “[W]hat we’re trying to do is develop a way to understand what some of the other options are.”

Stevens said the gas tax index is just another option. “We don’t recommend just that. We recommend tolls roads, We recommend local option taxes considered for the local portion.” If such is the case, Houghton said he wouldn’t be opposed to indexing the gas tax to generate additional revenue, saying we still need “all the tools in the toolbox.”

© 2006 The Lone Star Report:

For more on the toll tax versus the gas tax [CLICK HERE]


TxDOT looks at CDA for Ports-to-Plains Corridor

Infrastructure News

TxDOT Considers Alternative Funding For Ports-to-Plains Corridor

TxDOT will study private investments and partnerships in an effort to expedite the completion of the proposed Ports-to-Plains Corridor.

December 2006

McGraw Hill Construction
Copyright 2007

With funding scarce for the long-sought Ports-to-Plains corridor, state transportation officials are looking at opportunities for private investment and partnerships to pay for moving freight and utilities along the trade corridor.

TxDOT will consider Ports-to-Plains funding alternatives in a study that should be completed early next year.

The research will look at how local governments and regional entities can partner with the private sector to finance needed infrastructure. The potential for utility transmission along the corridor will be assessed, as well as the role of rail and the trade relationship among the nation's plains states.

Ports-to-Plains is a proposed divided highway corridor stretching from Laredo through West Texas to Denver, Colo. Designated as a High Priority Corridor by Congress in 1998, the Ports-to-Plains corridor is intended to expand economic opportunity and serve international trade from Mexico to Canada.

Despite the congressional designation, adequate federal funding has not been provided to cover the cost of the project.

Using Ports-to-Plains as a case study, TxDOT will research the best potential applications of the Trans-Texas Corridor concept for routes that may not attract tolling as a primary revenue source.

"The utilities industries have found a home in West Texas, and we want to study what potential opportunities are available for attracting private sector investment for utility transmission to other parts of the state," said Mike Behrens, executive director of TxDOT. He added that such an investment could help pay for road improvements "needed to make Ports-to-Plains a reality."

© 2007 2007 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"The more people talk about these things, the less they are enamored of them."

States, Localities Wary of Embracing Toll Road Sales

December 1, 2006

By Joe Mysak
Copyright 2006

Sell the roads? Not so fast.

That seems to be what the nation's lawmakers are saying in a year that began so well for the so-called public-private partnership movement, where states lease their toll roads to private companies in return for a big chunk of cash up front.

It seemed like such a good idea. In return for billions of dollars, states or localities would get out of the toll road business, arguably not one of their core competencies.

It has been done in Chicago, and in Indiana, and in Virginia -- and where is everyone else? Selling the roads seemed like the financial innovation du jour just a few months ago. Merrill Lynch & Co. last year estimated that at least 18 states contained good candidates for privatization, and everyone seemed to be talking about it.

So where are these deals? It's not as though they can be done in secret.

And maybe that's why we haven't seen a whole slew of them. The more people talk about these things, the less they are enamored of them. It turns out that most lawmakers tend to be pretty conservative when it comes to selling a state's or locality's assets, even if billions of dollars are at stake.

Those public officials looking for ammunition to stave off such sales are advised to take a look at a new report from Dennis J. Enright, a principal at the NW Financial Group, a Jersey City, New Jersey-based adviser to municipalities.

Things to Consider

The report, "Then There Were Two,'' looks at the Indiana Toll Road transaction, which took place this year, and compares it with the Chicago Skyway deal in 2005.

Chicago leased its Skyway, a 7.8-mile, elevated highway connecting the Dan Ryan Expressway with the Indiana Toll Road, to a Spanish and Australian group of companies for 99 years for $1.8 billion. The same group this year leased the Indiana road for 75 years, for $3.8 billion.

The question for lawmakers is "whether ceding control of toll road assets to the private sector for extremely long periods of time is in the best interest of the public sector,'' asks Enright, who wrote about the Skyway deal back in May.

And the answer is? Be careful.

There's a lot to be considered in these toll-road transactions. How much money is the private company paying for the right to operate the toll road? How high might the tolls go in the future?

Perhaps most troubling, from a public policy point of view, is: What are we giving up?

Future Revenue

"Indiana's sale of the Toll Road, while helping fund transportation projects for the next 10 years, will result in depriving the public transportation funding network of very large and much needed future revenues in the final 65 years of the concession agreement to pay for publicly needed capital projects both on and off the toll road,'' writes Enright.

"Instead these revenues are directed to private corporate profits and shareholders. If road users are willing to pay higher tolls these funds should be captured for the public good,'' according to the analyst.

And then there's the "hidden cost'' of the privatization approach. The private operators will have to finance capital improvements at a much higher cost than the tax-exempt financing that would have been used by a state or municipality. Drivers are going to have to absorb those costs "if the state wishes to expand the roadway for public policy purposes, including new exit/entrance ramping to encourage economic development projects.''

Loss of Control

Enright boils down the significant question to be considered by policy makers studying proposals like the one for the Indiana Toll Road: "How will the loss of state control over a statewide thoroughfare impact future economic development efforts, given the critical role that transportation infrastructure plays in driving economic development and growth?''

What are we giving up? Years and years of toll road revenue, and, perhaps most unsettling of all, control of an asset that has the potential to spin off some real money.

Public officials now have several examples of toll road privatizations to examine. Perhaps they're finding that getting out of the toll road business isn't as easy as it sounds. Like it or not, states and localities are already in the street and highway business, and there are some real benefits to it.

(Joe Mysak is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Joe Mysak in New York at
Last Updated: December 1, 2006 00:04 EST

© 2006 Bloomberg:


"The rhetoric over whether to toll or not to toll has obscured a much bigger issue, which is privatization of transportation."

Behind the Lines

His Way or the Highway

Now that Rick Perry has won another term, his transportation plan moves on down the road. What kind of a toll will it take on Texas?

December 2006

by Paul Burka
Texas Monthly Magazine
Copyright 2006

Every day I can look out the window of my office in downtown Austin and watch traffic creep along Interstate 35, half a mile away. The time of day doesn’t seem to matter, nor does the weather: morning or evening, wet or dry, the snarl persists. Part of this is due to the unwieldy design of the downtown exit and entrance ramps, but the main reason is the volume of traffic, much of it commercial. I dread the drive to Dallas, which I last made on the Friday afternoon before the Texas-Oklahoma football game – surely the worst day of the year for such a trip. It took me forty minutes to negotiate the eighteen miles from downtown to the suburb of Round Rock, and much of that time was spent idling in a canyon of eighteen-wheelers.

The announcement several years ago that the Texas Department of Transportation - TxDOT, as it’s widely known – would build a toll bypass known as Texas 130 east of Austin was cause for celebration. Texas 130 was particularly welcomed by community leaders in the fast-growing town of Pflugerville, which abuts Austin to the northeast.

The annexation, years earlier, by Austin of a strip of land along I-35 had kept Pflugerville from reaping the taxes generated by the high-dollar commercial property along the freeway frontage. Now, with the completion of another brand-new toll road, Texas 45, which will tie into the bypass, Pflugerville could lookforward to development along the flanks of the new highway, which would relieve homeowners from bearing the principal responsibility of paying for city services.

But when TxDOT announced the design of Texas 45, it has no Pflugerville exit and no frontage road, and that made the adjacent property unattractive for development. What was the reason for this oversight? It was no oversight, according to state senator-elect Kirk Watson, who, as mayor of Austin, had served on the board of the federally mandated regional mobility planning organization for the Austin area. “TxDOT,” he says, “wanted to maximize its toll revenue.”

A single nonexistent exit on a single yet-to-be-completed highway is of little consequence in the big picture of transportation policy in Texas. And yet the missing Pflugerville exit is emblematic of why so many Texans are upset about that policy and why it became an issue in the governor’s race: The importance of roads is not merely to make sure that you and I can get from point A to point B rapidly and safely. Roads create wealth. They multiply property values. They bring economic development. They improve the quality of life.

But as Texas turns more and more to toll roads, critics of TxDOT fear that the tail is wagging the dog, that the funding mechanism has become an end in itself, and that a mammoth stage agency has lost sight of its duty to serve the public and instead serves its own ends.

This is not going to be a screed against toll roads or against Rick Perry’s multi-highway Trans-Texas Corridor plan, through the opponents have made some legitimate points.
Existing highways built with tax dollars ought not to be converted to toll roads; this is double taxation. Commuters should not be forced to tithe for the privilege of using a freeway overpass, as TxDOT wanted to do on another Austin expressway – conjuring up the memory of Ludwig of Bavaria, who built his medieval castle on an island in the Rhine, the better to extract tolls from passing boatmen. Yet toll roads are an essential part of our transportation future. The current revenue stream, which depends on a twenty-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline, one fourth of which goes to education, is not enough to meet the state’s needs. Without toll roads, gridlock will continue to strangle Texas cities.

All of the rhetoric over whether to toll or not to toll has obscured a much bigger issue, which is privatization of transportation. TxDOT’s plan for toll roads is to surrender public control of these roads by entering into “comprehensive development agreements” (known as CDAs) with private companies, such as the partnership between Cintra, a Spanish company, and Zachry construction in San Antonio, which is building the first link in the Trans-Texas Corridor, an alternative to Interstate 35 known as TTC-35.

Cintra-Zachry paid $1 billion to TxDOT for the right to collect tolls for the next fifty years. I’m not going to make a xenophobic argument, as Carole Keeton Strayhorn did in her gubernatorial campaign, that this is a land grab by foreign companies. It doesn’t really matter whether the company operating the toll road is American or European or Qatari. What matters is whether the arrangement protects the public interest. Here is what John Carona, a Republican state senator from Dallas who is the new chairman of the Senate committee that deals with transportation, has to say on the subject: “Within thirty years’ time, under existing comprehensive development agreements, we’ ll bring free roads in this state to a condition of ruin.”

It may seem as if the system of granting a concession to private companies in return for money, like restaurants at an airport, is a great idea – “free money” that TxDOT can use to build other toll roads, enter into still more concession agreements, and build still more toll roads, as if the agency had succeeded in creating a perpetual- motion machine to finance roads in perpetuity.

But alas, there is no free money, and there is no perpetual-motion machine. The private companies that will build and operate the toll roads are in business to make a profit. In order to ensure that profit, they must have people who want to drive on their roads. And – here’s the rub – in order to be sure that people will want to drive on their roads, the CDAs with TxDOT will contain non-compete clauses that prohibit to TxDOT from building new roads or upgrading existing highways.

Any improvement to an existing highway that is not already planned at the time TxDOT enters into the contract is prohibited. That billion-dollar concession limits TxDOT’s ability to improve nearby secondary roads. How about adding extra lanes? Sorry, prohibited by the CDA. An HOV express lane? Not a chance. This is why Carona says that free roads will be reduced to ruin. TxDOT will no longer be able to respond to the transportation needs of the state, other than to say: If you don’t like the traffic, use the toll road.

Oh, I almost forgot. About that free money. It may be free for TxDOT, but it isn’t free for you and me. The billion dollars represents the present value of future toll revenue. TxDOT finds it attractive for the same reason that buyers of lottery tickets ask for the “cash option.” They want their money up front – so they can use it now, so that it won’t be eaten up by inflation – rather than have it dribble in over twenty years (or fifty). Meanwhile, the private toll road operator wants to get that billion dollars back. And the way the company will get it is by raising its tolls over fifty years, largely unrestrained by the public sector. Tolls will be marketbased – that is whatever the traffic will bear. In effect, TxDOT’s free money amounts to a tax on our children and grandchildren.

Concession agreements are not the only way to build toll roads, just the most expensive one. (Carona likens it to “renting to own.”) In fact, toll road authorities have functioned in Houston and Dallas for years by using the conventional method of building the roads: issuing revenue bonds that will be paid off with toll revenues over a period of twenty to thirty years.

When major league baseball first came to Arlington in the seventies, I drove to games from Dallas on the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike. In twenty years (1957-1977) the bonds were paid off and the turnpike became a free road, Interstate 30. It remains free today. The Dallas North Tollway followed a similar pattern, except that when the original section, from downtown to Interstate 635, was paid off, tolls continued to be collected so that the tollway could be extended farther north.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority has built 101 miles of toll roads, including a section of the Sam Houston for which I gladly pay $1.25 four times in order to drive to myhometown of Galveston without having to contend with Houston traffic. This method of financing is, in the long run, far cheaper for the public than concessions and higher tolls.

In the past, TxDOT cooperated with these local authorities – for instance, by making right-of-way available – but since Rick Perry has been governor, a much more aggressive department seemsto regard the local toll agencies as competitors. The North Texas Tollway Authority wanted to build Texas 121, for example, but TxDOT stepped in and forced the NTTA to cede control of the project, thereby allowing TxDOT to do another concession agreement. The NTTA will be allowed to collect the tolls, but that is all.

How did we get to this point, and what can we do about it?

For years, state budget writers have been dipping into the pot of money that is earmarked for highways to fund the Department of Public Safety, on the theory that state troopers are responsible for highway safety. This poly diverted $700 million from road building in the current biennial budget. At the same time, lawmakers have refused to raise the gasoline tax since 1991. In a Republican era, any kind of tax increase isunthinkable, even if its purpose is to further the case of free roads.

TxDOT played politics too, putting more projects on its approved list for future construction than it could afford; now it uses the length of the wish list to win the support of local transportation planning organizations for toll roads, warning communities like Austin and El Paso that their only other option is to wait 25 years for free projects.

The final step was that the 2003 legislative session, when Republicans controlled all the levers of power – House, Senate, governor – for the first time. Major bills were rushed through the Legislature with little debate or discussion. One of these was the omnibus transportation bill that authorized concessions and other mammoth changes in the way we build highways. Few lawmakers knew what was in the bill. The Senate gave it only cursory inspection. The result was a scheme in which TxDOT will be taking in billions of dollars from the private sector with no oversight by the Legislature, no responsibility to say how that money will be used, and no assurance for the public that free roads, as well as toll roads, will benefit from that money.

Governor Perry has strongly supported transparency, accountability, and oversight in public education. He could do the state and the public a great service by insisting on the same standards for highways. Otherwise, we are headed for the worst public fiasco in my lifetime.

© 2006 Texas Monthly, Inc.:

For more on road privatization [CLICK HERE]


Defense contractor Lockheed partners with NASCO to monitor Corridor cargo

Group announces new transportation tracking system

Dec. 01, 2006

David Twiddy
Associated Press
Copyright 2006

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A group advocating a seamless trade corridor through North America said Friday it's teaming up with Lockheed Martin Corp. to build a technology system capable of remotely tracking cargo.

North America's SuperCorridor Coalition Inc., a Dallas-based organization that supports efforts to improve and maintain Interstates 35, 29 and 94 linking Mexico to Canada, said the system would use Lockheed's electronic sensor equipment to note when cargo leaves a port and where it travels and even to warn if the cargo's temperature and weight changes.

"The ultimately goal is that it provides data to the ultimate user (of the cargo) of how to do things more efficiently and more securely," said Jim Bergfalk, a Kansas City transport consultant who will be president of NASCO's independent organization overseeing the program.

Bergfalk added that the network would also fulfill future demands from homeland security officials that shippers have a way to ensure that hazardous materials are being transported safely. He also said that once a shipment was entered into the system and being monitored, customs officials wouldn't have to stop the shipment again, cutting sometimes days out of the journey.

John Mohler, senior program manager for Lockheed, told a transportation conference in Kansas City that Lockheed will set up a pilot project to test the network. It would develop 14 sensor locations - including such stops as the Mexican port of Lazaro Cardenas; Laredo, Texas; Kansas City; and Winnipeg, Canada - within the next three months to track specific shipments moving through the NASCO corridor.

Mohler said Lockheed would contribute $5 million of the project's $7 million price tag, with the rest expected to come from federal money and other funding. A formal agreement between the two sides is expected in two weeks.

Eventually, Mohler said the network could cost $40 million and include between 350 and 400 sensor locations within the corridor as well as a "command and control center," which could monitor information on tracked shipments. In the meantime, that information will go to Lockheed's logistics center in Norfolk, Va.

Helping companies keep a better eye on shipments isn't new, especially as various groups look to break down trade barriers between Mexico, Canada and the U.S. to create a regional trading bloc.

Kansas City SmartPort Inc., a nonprofit organization promoting the city as an inland port for shipments from Mexico, earlier in the day said it was developing a "trade data exchange," which would bring together trucking, logistics and railroad companies to track cargo traveling across the country, not just in the NASCO corridor.

Bergfalk said NASCO and Lockheed are setting up an "electronic backbone" of sensors that could ultimately coexist with groups like SmartPort and make their jobs easier.

"Our ultimate goal is to drive as much of that cargo up this corridor as possible," he said.


North America's SuperCorridor Coalition:

© 2006 The Associated Press:


Thursday, November 30, 2006

"Politicians will face deep public doubts about selling off public assets or explaining why they condemn people's property to build for-profit roads."

The Transportation Tipping Point

November 30, 2006

Neal Peirce, syndicated columnist
The Seattle Times
Copyright 2006

By 2043, we're being told, there won't just be 300 million of us — there will be 400 million. With the roadways around our metropolitan regions increasingly clogged, how will we ever stay mobile?

Depending on the tea leaves you choose, some vividly contrasting futures emerge.

Vision No. 1 is "stay the course." Keep driving as we have. In 1980, 64.4 percent of us drove to work alone; in 2000 it was 75.7 percent, according to the Transportation Research Board's recent "Commuting in America" survey by Alan Pisarski.

The statistics are disturbing. Carpooling dipped from 19.7 percent to 12.2 percent in the same years. Transit use went from 6.2 percent to 4.6 percent. And walking dropped from 5.6 percent to 2.9 percent, as workplace locations exploded out (along with our waistlines).

A car-wheeled world is what Americans choose. Argument over, say some.

But wait a minute. Already there's the pain of stretched-out commutes; the 16 hours of delay the average motorist experienced in 1982 was 47 hours in 2003. Traffic congestion is costing us, cumulatively, 3.7 billion hours of travel delay, wasting over 2 billion gallons of fuel each year.

Plus, if Americans like highways so much, why do we so often and so fervidly resist increases in gas taxes to pay for them?

Which brings us to Vision No. 2. We privatize. We invite the private sector to take over roads — and then charge us.

This is the hottest new trend, discussed intensely by governors, state transportation officials and state legislators. Multibillion-dollar roadway investments by private financing firms are increasing fast. We've reached what transportation expert C. Kenneth Orski calls a critical "tipping point."

Some of the moves are primarily revenue moves. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley negotiated a 99-year lease of the eight-mile Chicago Skyway toll road to foreign investors for $1.8 billion. In New Jersey, there's active consideration of leasing the 148-mile New Jersey Turnpike and 173-mile Garden State Parkway to garner revenue to meet a mushrooming state debt of about $33 billion. In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels weathered a storm of political skepticism to lease the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road, again to foreign investors, for $3.85 billion. Indiana is now the nation's only state with a fully funded 10-year highway-building capital program.

But the even greater import of the new trend, Orski suggests, will be private funds for new "greenfield projects" including express toll lanes, new stand-alone toll roads (the Trans-Texas Corridor is the top example) and multistate truckways.

The timing for tollways should be perfect — with today's technology, automated toll-collection systems (like E-ZPass on the East Coast) take the daily aggravation out of the process.

But still, says Thomas Downs, president of the Eno Transportation Foundation, politicians will have to face deep public doubts about selling off public assets or explaining why they condemn people's property to build for-profit roads.

And then there's backlash when financing projections go awry. A private firm, for example, recently reversed field by telling Virginia officials it would need $100 million in public funds to build and run high-occupancy toll lanes on a 14-mile stretch of the Capital Beltway outside Washington.

The vision of privatized roads has more downsides. It assumes there's no problem with continuing to pave over so much of our continent. Given today's heavy auto ownership, 37 square miles need to be paved over and 1,400 miles of interstate-grade highway built for every 1 million new people. All too often, the new roads carve up fertile farmlands surrounding metro areas. This country already has more than 4 million miles of roads, enough, the Earth Policy Institute calculates, to circle the Earth at the equator 157 times.

And what about oil? In a nation richly endowed with reserves, we've largely depleted that treasure.

So is there a Vision No. 3? Yes, there's a set of tea leaves that says so — the vote of many Americans earlier this month to support new and expanded public transit. Transit proposals with cumulative value of $40 billion were approved from Rhode Island to Minnesota, Missouri to Utah to California.

My column on Monday will ask: Is Vision No. 3 a sentimental throwback, or a powerful alternative for this century?

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

© 2006 The Seattle Times Company:


“Eminent domain has been a key issue for our farmers and ranchers ever since the Supreme Court ruling in Kelo versus City of New London.”

TFB Districts Discuss Policy Proposals Prior To Convention


Livestock Weekly
Copyright 2006

WACO — Farmers and ranchers from all 13 Texas Farm Bureau districts met here recently to consider proposed policies submitted by county Farm Bureaus across the state in preparation for the 73rd annual TFB meeting next week in Arlington.

Policy adopted at the TFB annual meeting will guide the organization in 2007, according to Resolutions Committee Chairman and TFB Vice President Lloyd Arthur.

With private property-related issues continuing to surface in Texas due to the Trans Texas Corridor, pipeline and transmission rights-of-way and other concerns, eminent domain was an area that received heavy scrutiny.

“Eminent domain has been a key issue for our farmers and ranchers ever since the Supreme Court ruling in Kelo versus City of New London,” Arthur said.

Among eminent domain resolutions adopted by the Committee to be sent for consideration at the state convention:

  • Condemning entities should be penalized if they do not negotiate in good faith to acquire property.
  • Support for prompt, just and adequate compensation when property is taken, including legal costs, expert witness fees, associated costs, relocation costs, appraisals including highest and best use, replacement costs and participation fees.
  • Support for all efforts to challenge and reverse the Supreme Court ruling on Kelo v. City of New London.
Arthur said this year’s drouth lay heavy on agricultural producers’ minds as several resolutions addressed that ongoing problem. One dealt with providing assistance at the federal level to build hay storage facilities.

“Our folks felt like if they had some facilities to store hay where the hay wouldn’t be sitting in the weather and deteriorating, there would be a possibility of saving hay from the good years for years like this,” he said. “Of course, hay barns are very expensive to build. If we had some kind of assistance of any type to get to those producers so they could build those facilities, it would be a tremendous opportunity.”

County Farm Bureaus also sent in resolutions for increased funding for the Texas Forest Service, so that agency can fulfill its increased responsibilities for fighting wildfires, which devastated many parts of Texas earlier in the spring. Another resolution asked that provisions for agriculture disasters be included in the next farm bill.

Realizing property tax reform for school funding could be endangered by ever-increasing property appraisals, the committee forwarded several resolutions dealing with property taxes. Some of those resolutions included:

  • Lowering the appraisal cap to six percent, with all increases above the cap subject to approval by countywide election.
  • Support for the elimination of the unelected positions of County Chief Tax Appraisal Officer and support shifting the duties of the chief appraiser to the elected position of county tax assessor/collector.
  • Support for reappraising property every three years instead of every year.

Arthur said the resolutions committee dealt with a host of other issues important to farmers and ranchers from livestock identification to the new farm bill.

© 2006 Livestock Weekly:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"State officials have hailed Highway 121 as the wave of the future in toll roads."

Toll collection to start on 121 stretch

Don't collect quarters: Denton County leg will be all-electronic

November 30, 2006

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

No more free ride on the new State Highway 121 toll road in Denton County.

Starting Friday morning, the Texas Department of Transportation will start collecting tolls on Highway 121 between Lewisville and Coppell. And because it's North Texas' first all-electronic toll road, motorists won't find a place to drop their quarters.

State officials have hailed Highway 121 as the wave of the future in toll roads – no tollbooths to create delays or safety problems.

To drive on the road, motorists have two options. They can use a windshield transponder, such as a TollTag, connected to a customer account that pays tolls automatically. If they don't have a transponder, cameras will read license plates and send a bill to the addresses of vehicle owners.

"It's a new generation of toll facility," said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the regional planning agency. "There is going to be a transition. There is some fear that the road will lose revenue from cash payers. But we're more than convinced that technology can overcome the transition."

Plans call for other stretches of Highway 121 to open as toll roads in the next few years. Eventually, the highway could become one of the most lucrative toll roads in the nation.

It could bring billions to the region and partially replace the 20-cent-per-gallon state fuel tax as a source for highway construction money.

Right now, the state is operating the new toll road, but it will be turned over to a private company next year.

Four private groups are vying for the rights to operate sections of Highway 121 in Collin and Denton counties. The winning bid is expected to include payments of at least $2.5 billion to the region, with almost $2 billion of that in an upfront payment, Mr. Morris said.

"As we get closer to the bid deadline this spring, that number could get higher," he said.

There may be a learning curve for Denton County residents to adjust to the tolls and the electronic collection system, County Judge Mary Horn said. But there will be a payoff as toll payments funnel more than $1 billion to other Denton County projects.

Those expansion projects include Interstate 35E from Lewisville to Denton; FM720 from FM423 to Garza Lane; FM423 from Highway 121 to U.S. Highway 380; and sections of State Highway 114 and FM407.

"The money raised will stay right here to make improvements," Ms. Horn said. "We could have sat back and waited until 2040 for funding, but we got aggressive about solving our problems now."

Collin, Dallas and Tarrant counties also will receive a share of the upfront payment. It will be based on the number of Highway 121 users who live in those counties.

More toll sections

The 5.9-mile stretch of toll road has been open for three months, but no tolls were collected.

The Transportation Department said it needed more time to work out bugs in the new toll-collection equipment. Critics of Gov. Rick Perry said the delay was a ploy to avoid upsetting potential voters before the Nov. 7 election.

More sections of Highway 121 will open with tolls in the next few years. The segment from Old Denton east to the Dallas North Tollway should open as a toll road in 2008. Work continues on sections east of the tollway to Central Expressway, and that area should open fully in 2010.

Currently, there are no plans to place tolls on Highway 121 east of Central Expressway.

Other all-electronic roads in North Texas should soon follow. The state plans a 2009-10 opening for the State Highway 161 toll road in Grand Prairie.

The North Texas Tollway Authority also is considering an all-electronic toll road on Southwest Parkway in Fort Worth.

The planned Trans-Texas Corridor toll road that would run parallel to Interstate 35 also would feature only electronic toll collection.

Toll roads mark a shift in how transportation projects will be funded in the future, said Denton County Commissioner Cynthia White.

"People won't even think about it eventually," she said.


© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

"We need to be smart about how we address our transportation options. The most expensive might not be the best."

Toll-road rejection may spark big gas-tax jump


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

If the idea of paying tolls to drive on future highway lanes in San Antonio turns your stomach, perhaps you could swallow a higher gas tax instead.

How about adding 38.2 cents a gallon, or as much as $1.09, on top of the 38.4-cent tax that motorists pay now.

That's what Texas Department of Transportation officials came up with recently when they estimated how high the gas tax would have to go in Bexar County to widen 70 miles of highways without tolling the new lanes.

The difference is whether motorists everywhere in the county pay a new gas tax of 1 to 2 cents a mile, depending on vehicle miles per gallon, or if only drivers using the new lanes pay a toll of 15 to 20 cents a mile.

Neither is all that palatable.

"People are getting squeezed, especially the middle class," said Stone Oak resident Jerry Zimmermann, who lives near the nexus of a planned North Side tollway network. "There's no relief coming."

Zimmermann has at least two layers of protection against a local gas tax increase — state legislators and voters would have to approve it. However, he has only one line of defense against toll lanes that could be added to U.S. 281, Loop 1604, Bandera Road, Interstate 35 and the junction of Wurzbach Parkway and U.S. 281 — he simply could avoid them.

"If anything, I think we need to consider mass transit. I haven't heard anybody talking about that," Zimmerman said, adding that passenger rail might justify a tax increase.

The low-ball estimate of 38.2 cents a gallon would raise $231 million a year (in estimated 2026 dollars), or almost $9.3 billion over 40 years.

That's enough to pay off $2.2 billion worth of road bonds (in 2004 dollars), which projected toll fees otherwise would finance, and spend $30 million a year to maintain the new lanes.

Another $800 million, either from other taxes or private investments, still would be needed.

TxDOT argues it would be cheaper to sell bonds and build now because global demand for asphalt, cement and steel has forced up prices for those materials much faster than inflation in recent years and likely will continue. State highway construction costs went up 33 percent last year alone.

"You're making money if you go ahead and do it now," said David Casteel, who oversees TxDOT's office in San Antonio.

The lower estimate assumes that driving nearly doubles over four decades, average fuel efficiency doesn't get higher than 37 mpg, borrowing rates hover around 6.5 percent, all proceeds are spent on the roads and only 5 percent of motorists abscond to other counties to buy gas.

The jump of $1.09 a gallon assumes that driving increases just half as fast, fuel efficiency more than doubles to 50 mpg, borrowing rates get up to 7.5 percent, 40 percent of revenues are diverted to schools, mass transit and other uses — a third is currently diverted, including 25 percent to public education — and one in five motorists slip off to other counties to buy gas.

"There's an unlimited number of scenarios you can analyze," Casteel said.

At least one toll critic isn't completely sold on TxDOT's estimates.

Bill Barker, a transportation consultant and former VIA Metropolitan Transit planner who advises San Antonio Toll Party, wishes officials would look for ways to reduce how much people drive, such as creating neighborhoods friendlier to mass transit and walking, and consider cheaper ways to get more traffic moving on existing streets, such as adding turn lanes, timing traffic lights better or replacing signal lights with roundabouts.

"We're growing and we need to be smart about how we address our transportation options," he said. "The most expensive might not be the best."

It seems there are an unlimited number of opinions about tolls roads.

"They're fine, especially if you live out there (North Loop 1604)," said Jennifer Garcia, adding that toll roads won't ease her commute from near the Medical Center to her job downtown. "If it's going to alleviate problems over there, and everybody's happy, then they're fine."

"They suck," said Merlin O'Brien, who lives at Canyon Lake and uses U.S. 281 for his treks to San Antonio. "I don't think we need toll roads."

The gas tax idea doesn't have steady legs either.

"Nobody wants taxes raised at all," Garcia said.

Gas station owners say a local gas tax would scare away customers to other counties, and collecting the tax would be a bureaucratic nightmare.

"We would obviously have to oppose that," said Scott Fisher, a spokesman with the Texas Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, whose members own, operate or supply about 16,000 retail outlets.

O'Brien said he might be convinced if there was a way to ensure the money was spent as promised. And, he said, he still would buy gas in San Antonio even if it were 38 cents higher than other cities.

"Wherever I need it," he said. "You always need gas."

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News:


"State transportation officials have abruptly ended a program aimed at prettier, safer and historically relevant."

The end of the road for beautifying

Program cries foul after state denies millions for transportation enhancements

Nov. 29, 2006

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2006

Past expenditures under the Statewide Transportation Enhancement Program have included:

• Planting: $1.1 million for trees and beautification along the Hardy Toll Road connector to Bush Intercontinental Airport.

State transportation officials have abruptly ended a program aimed at making roadways prettier, safer and historically relevant, blaming federal budget pressure caused by war and hurricanes.

But the Texas Historical Commission's director said Tuesday the state Department of Transportation purposely targeted millions in proposed "transportation enhancement" initiatives because agency officials have never liked the program. An agency spokesman denied the claim.

"People can philosophically have that position, but this money was appropriated by the U.S. Congress, which had a big debate over whether to continue it," said Larry Oaks, executive director of the historical commission, which had projects among the hundreds denied funding by the Texas Transportation Commission's decision to cut back enhancement projects and focus on congestion relief.

"It's not just about driving on the roads. It's about having a great experience as you travel America," Oaks said.

A letter sent last week by Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson told the historical commission and others hoping for enhancement money that it was merely responding to three Federal Highway Administration requests this year to give up more than $305 million promised to Texas, "with the majority of the cuts coming from the Transportation Enhancement program."

"The spending authority withdrawn by the FHWA is due in part to hurricane response and the continuing war on terrorism," Williamson said.

The letter went on to tell applicants that because of "unstable and unreliable" federal transportation funding, state officials won't pursue future enhancement projects unless mandated by law.

Mark Cross, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, noted that it has passed along $466 million to 505 different enhancement projects through the years. And he rejected Oaks' assertion that the department opposes such expenditures.

"The enhancements program has been one the department and the commission have held very near and dear since its inception in 1991," Cross said. "It's been a very popular program and one we were glad to be a part of."

In a written statement, the Federal Highway Administration said the rescinded funding was mandated by Congress.

"We are anxious to learn more about the recent announcements made by the Texas Department of Transportation and are eager to work with the agency to address its concerns," the statement said.

A list of enhancement proposals was not immediately available Tuesday, Cross said.

The state began soliciting nominations for federal enhancement funds in November 2005. Eligible projects include provisions for bicycles and pedestrians, preservation of transportation facilities such as railways, control or removal of billboards and acquisition of scenic easements.

A group working to establish a Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum submitted a $1.5 million bid under the "establishment of historic museums" category. The nonprofit entity is renovating a two-story building in Cuero — on a roadway that's part of three federal highways that run concurrently through the town — to house a museum dedicated to the region's role at the beginning of the fabled trail.

It's the type of project that could put Cuero on the map for travelers along U.S. 183, 87 and 77 Alternate, said Robert Oliver, the group's chairman.

"Instead of passing through and gassing up and going down the coast, there's a reason now to stop," Oliver said.

U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, the South Texas Democrat who represents Cuero, blamed Republicans' unwillingness to properly account for the costs of war when writing budgets.

"Today, several communities in Texas paid the price for the administration's continued push to fund the war in Iraq through emergency supplemental provisions rather than including the cost of the war in the regular budgetary process," said Hinojosa, who added that cuts ultimately were made to money previously promised to states.

All candidate projects were not guaranteed any of the money, and Oliver said it has received healthy amounts of private philanthropy and is in the running for funding from the U.S. Commerce Department.

But Oaks said his commission's heritage tourism program was counting on "probably four-fifths of the money" from enhancement funds and that the Republican-controlled Congress did its part. "Congress said it should be one of the tools for historic preservation," Oaks said. "And (state highway officials) figured out a way to decimate it."

© 2006 Houston Chronicle:


Texas 45 toll road to pay for Texas 130 portion of the Trans-Texas Corridor

Fifth toll road clears legal hurdles

State expects work on Texas 45 SE to start in summer

November 29, 2006

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

A new road that would be Central Texas' fifth tollway and a crucial link to Interstate 35, long delayed by an environmental lawsuit, has cleared that hurdle and should break ground by summer, officials say.

Texas 45 Southeast, a 7.4 mile, four-lane expressway from I-35 to the future intersection of Texas 130 and U.S. 183 at Mustang Ridge, would open in late 2008, if all goes as envisioned. That means that for about a year after the Texas 130 tollway's 49 miles are complete late next year, drivers wishing to use it as an Austin bypass will have a less than optimal stretch to the interstate. They would have to take the two-lane FM 1327 between Mustang Ridge and I-35 or perhaps use Texas 71 as an early cutoff.

Earlier this year, with Texas 45 Southeast stalled by a legal challenge from the Save Our Springs Alliance, it appeared that the time gap could be much longer. Then, this summer, the Federal Highway Administration approved a revised environmental study occasioned by the SOS lawsuit, and a federal judge dismissed the case.

State transportation officials point out that investors who lent $2.2 billion to the state for Texas 130 and two other tollways and will be paid back in part by money from Texas 45 Southeast tolls, were promised only that the road would open by 2010.

"If we can get this thing built by the end of '08, I think that's great," said Phillip Russell, director of the state Transportation Department's turnpike division.

In 2004, all signs pointed to Texas 45 Southeast being completed by fall 2006. The state signed a contract in August 2004 with Zachry Construction Co. in which the contractor agreed to design and build the road within two years for $154.3 million.

Less than a week later, the SOS Alliance filed suit in federal court, alleging that the state in its original environmental study had failed to consider alternate paths for Texas 45 Southeast that would hit I-35 much farther south. The main concern for SOS, all acknowledge, was that Texas 45 Southeast leads directly toward the existing Texas 45 Southwest several miles to the west. With both in place, environmentalists believe, there will be more pressure to connect the two segments with a road that would funnel more traffic over the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer and fuel development there.

After the revised environmental study was approved June 26, SOS agreed to dismissal of the suit.

"TxDOT analyzed alternative routes as we'd asked them, and while we believe the revised (environmental) study still has problems, we had to consider other priorities and limited resources," SOS spokesman Colin Clark said in an e-mail Tuesday.

Bob Daigh, the Austin district engineer for the state Transportation Department, said the delay "is going to cost the state tens of millions of dollars." Given double-digit inflation in construction costs over the past two years, the agency and Zachry have decided to cancel that August 2004 contract. The two sides are negotiating a settlement cost — the state will keep Zachry's detailed construction design — but Daigh expects the final figure to be about $25 million.

Still to come, however, is the purchase of right of way for the road and, next spring, a second bidding process for construction. Daigh said that aside from the increase in construction costs, which are estimated at $170 million, the right-of-way cost of about $40 million likewise will be much higher than it would have been two years ago.

The road will be fairly straightforward, with interchanges only at I-35 and the U.S. 183/Texas 130 area on each end and at North Turnersville Road and FM 1625 in between. There will be one main-lane toll plaza near the west end and a handful of toll stations on exit and entrance ramps.

The state has not yet set the toll rates but expects to charge 12 cents a mile, comparable with the average tab on the three toll roads that opened last month.

Two years ago, the agency intended to build the road with gasoline tax money alone, rather than with a combination of taxes and borrowed money. All the toll revenue (save a small percentage for maintenance) could have gone to help pay operational costs on Texas 130 and its companion toll roads Texas 45 North and the Loop 1 extension. Given the higher costs now, that scenario could change, Daigh said.

But if the state needs to borrow money, it would have to conduct traffic and revenue studies and hold a bond sale. Could all that occur in time for a summer groundbreaking?

"It would be difficult," Daigh said, "but I'm not going to say impossible."; 445-3698

How to get a TxTag

Drivers with a TxTag, a windshield sticker with a tiny transponder, will be able to drive toll roads statewide without stopping at booths and will pay 10 percent less than cash customers. The tag is free (for now), but you'll have to establish an account with a credit or debit card and prepay $20 in tolls. You can get a tag by calling (888) 468-9824, going to or visiting the state's tollway customer service center at 12719 Burnet Road.

© 2006 Austin American-Statesman: www.


"A loophole big enough to drive an armored car full of cash through."

Cash gift loophole for Texas officials

Unlimited money allowed with only vague disclosure

November 29, 2006

Miguel Bustillo,
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 206

Houston -- Looking for that special something to give a Texas politician this holiday season? Don't fret: A suitcase stuffed with $100 bills is perfectly fine.

The Texas Ethics Commission affirmed this week that state officials can accept unlimited gifts of cash from donors without revealing how much they got. All public officials have to do is report a gift of "currency" on a disclosure form and who the money came from.

The legal interpretation shocked campaign-finance watchdogs and some Texas officials, who argued that it was tantamount to legalizing bribery in the Lone Star State. Under Texas law, elected officials, board appointees and many other public officials are supposed to disclose and describe any gift over $250.

"This creates a loophole big enough to drive an armored car full of cash through," said Craig McDonald, director of the nonprofit group Texans for Public Justice. "It makes a mockery of our ethics laws."

Ronnie Earle, the Travis County district attorney leading the corruption prosecution of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, called the interpretation absurd in a letter to the panel. He joked that Texas officials could reveal receiving a gift of a wheelbarrow, "without reporting that the wheelbarrow was filled with cash."

The issue came to light after Texans for Public Justice protested a disclosure filed last year by Bill Ceverha, a board member of the Employees Retirement System of Texas, which administers benefits for about 250,000 former state workers and oversees a $19.9 billion fund.

Ceverha reported a "check" from Bob Perry -- a Houston homebuilder and major Republican Party benefactor who is the biggest political donor in Texas -- but did not state its amount. Perry is best known nationally for funding the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad campaign against 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

Perry and Ceverha both stated that the gifts were two checks for $100,000, and were intended to help Ceverha defend himself against a civil suit related to his former role as the treasurer of a Texas political action committee created by DeLay. Ceverha filed for personal bankruptcy last year.

Campaign finance watchdogs were outraged when the Texas Ethics Commission ruled that public officials who receive large sums as checks do not have to disclose the amount -- as long as they report a gift of a "check" and its origin. Critics argued that such a loose interpretation of the law allowed a big donor to give thousands to a candidate as a personal gift. The candidate could then act as if he were funding his campaign out of his own pocket.

Some ethics panelists conceded there was a problem, but argued that it was the wording of the law that needed to be fixed. State lawmakers and Gov. Rick Perry have said they will consider tightening the restrictions next year.

© 2006 San Francisco Chronicle:


"We're basically entering in all the data from everybody traveling the new toll roads."

Cameras Capturing License Plates On Toll Roads

Nov 29, 2006

KXAN NBC (Austin, TX)
Copyright 2006

People who are driving on sections of the new roadways are being photographed. Most don't even know it.

A TxDOT contractor is taking pictures of your license plate and using that information to build a database of every driver on the road. It's got some people upset.

There are cameras along 45 taking pictures of every car's license plate We can understand photographing violators who aren't paying the tolls, but the roads are still free, and yet every driver is being tracked on camera.

We did some digging and found an employment ad seeking 57 image review clerks being hired by a contractor for TxDOT. It reads, "the position must perform accurate data entry of license plates from images into databases."

We found one of the people who was hired to do this work. He didn't want his identity revealed. He told us his quota was 4,000 license plates entered into the database everyday. It seemed high so he asked his supervisor.

"She said, 'Well no, we're not doing violations right now. We're basically entering in all the data from everybody traveling the new toll roads." Which sort of threw me back because at that point I thought I was going to be handling violations," the image review clerk said.

To get to the bottom of it, we went right to the source and talked to Gabriela Garcia at the Toll Road Authority. She says because the tolls are not being collected yet, the equipment is simply being tested. The photographs will be used to enforce people who blow through the toll booths without paying.

"There could be some of that going on now. I'm not sure how much of that's happening on which roads and how many of the vehicles are actually being photographed. It's not being sold to anybody or anybody else for any other purpose other than toll enforcement purposes only," Garcia said.

Garcia told KXAN in a second interview that any photographs taken and information gathered on people that are not violating the tolls will be deleted, and no records will be kept.

© 2006 WorldNow and KXAN:


“Selling the turnpike is akin to pawn-shop mentality, hock your assets for cash now, but pay big time down the road.”

OOIDA calls proposals to sell turnpike to private company 'un-American'

Nov. 29, 2006

The Trucker
Copyright 2006

GRAIN VALLEY, Mo. –– The national association representing the country’s professional truck drivers, including more than 7,200 small business trucking professionals from Pennsylvania, is voicing vehement opposition to any efforts to sell Pennsylvania highways to private investors.

In response to recent Pennsylvania politicians’ comments supporting the possible sale of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Todd Spencer, Executive Vice-President of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) said his organization believed that proposals to sell the turnpike to private companies are “un-American and to consider selling this national asset to foreign companies is downright anti-American.”

Spencer said that if the public were to scratch below the surface of this initiative they would find a well-choreographed campaign being driven by foreign-based private interests.

“The idea of selling the turnpike may sound good to some opportunistic politicians thinking in the here and now,” Spencer said, “but it certainly would not be a yellow-brick road for the highway’s users who will be paying exorbitant tolls for years to come or for Pennsylvanians who will see those tolls translate into higher prices at the checkout counter and more congestion on the commonwealth’s other highways.”

State Rep. Rick Geist, R-Altoona, said last week that when the General Assembly reconvenes in January 2007 his top priority will be to introduce legislation that will allow private ownership of state highways. Geist intends his legislation to open the door for the effective sale of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Similar deals have recently been signed in the Midwest where a consortium led by the Macquarie Infrastructure Group of Australia has taken control of the Indiana Toll Road and Chicago Skyway for 75 and 99 years, respectively. Macquarie is also in talks with New Jersey, Ohio and several other states regarding publicly owned toll roads, bridges and tunnels.

Macquarie already has a 100-percent interest in the soon-to-open South Bay Expressway in San Diego and a 100-percent interest in the 14-mile Dulles Greenway in Virginia near Washington.

“Selling the turnpike is akin to pawn-shop mentality, hock your assets for cash now, but pay big time down the road,” Spencer said. “You can sure bet the investors lining up to buy the turnpike aren’t a benevolent bunch. They won’t be doing this out of the goodness of their hearts for the people of Pennsylvania.”

Spencer said the primary motivation of these companies was the opportunity for long-term cash flows and large profits derived from high tolls and clauses restricting improvements to adjacent roadways.

— The Trucker News Services

© 2006 Trucker Publications, Inc.:


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Texas Rep. Michael Burgess paves the way for the Trans-Texas Corridor in Washington

Transportation summit focuses on problems and solutions

Surface transportation expected to be biggest challenge to economic development

November 28, 2006

By Linda Taylor
The Lewisville Leader
Copyright 2006

Civic leaders, members of area city staffs and representatives from the private sector joined Congressman Michael Burgess and members of his staff Tuesday at Texas Motor Speedway for a transportation summit that focused on the problems this area is facing as growth continues.

“The No. 1 complaint among the people who come out to the races is traffic,” said Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway. “If the roads don’t improve immediately, we are going to be in a real bind in just a few short years.”

This is the fourth transportation summit sponsored by Burgess, who represents the 26th Congressional District that includes most of Denton County, large portions of Tarrant County and Cooke County and a small section of Dallas County. Burgess served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during his first term in Congress, which began in 2002. He has been a solid advocate of drawing attention to the transportation needs and issues of the North Texas area.

“Our transportation system has a direct and significant impact on our lives,” Burgess told the gathering. “North Texas gives us some of the most profound transportation challenges in the country and because of that it needs to be on the forefront of the cutting edge of transportation reform. The solutions need to come from the grassroots up, because it is you people who know how significant the problem is.”

Burgess added that, rightly or wrongly, the lion’s share of this area’s transportation problems has been dropped on the doorstep of the Texas Department of Transportation. During the 109th Congress, Burgess worked with TxDOT together to ensure that a number of provisions would be enacted as a part of the highway reauthorization legislation, also known as SAFETEA-LU.

The key issues addressed by SAFETEA-LU that concerned Burgess and his constituents were transportation development credits, design-build, environmental streamlining provisions and borders to corridors.

Transportation development credits are important because they provide a source of funding for highways and other infrastructure. One provision of the bill allows states to receive credit on a pro rata basis for their investments in toll projects. Under the new funding formula, Texas’ toll investments should net an additional $2.1 billion in transportation development credits. This will allow TxDOT and local communities to support more transit and rail projects.

Design build, which allows entities to include the design and construction of projects under one bid, will streamline the process and shorten the project times.

SAFETEA-LU encompassed many environmental streamlining components that will allow for interagency coordination required to complete the environmental review process for large complex transportation projects. Delegation of this authority should result in significant cost savings to the state, measured in reduced days of project review.

A new funding formula for the borders/corridors program divided the program, making the border portion a formula program. The new formula directs funding to Border States for the promotion and facilitation of trade across U.S. borders. Because Texas has ports of entry and the longest contiguous international border in the country, they have the greatest need for these funds.

Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Texas Council of Governments, said innovative funding is critical if the area is to solve its transportation problems without raising the tax on gasoline by more than one dollar per gallon.

“Over the last 25 years, the Texas population has grown 57 percent, while the new road capacity grew just 8 percent over the same period,” Morris said. “Most of those funds go for maintenance and operations of existing infrastructure. In the DFW region, $79.3 billion of new projects are needed to reach an acceptable level of mobility by 2030. Only $45 billion has been identified to meet those needs, leaving us with a shortfall of $34.3 billion. The region is growing by a million people every seven years, leaving us with a significant challenge in meeting the transportation needs of those people.”

Morris said the aging infrastructure is another problem that can’t be overlooked. In 2030, the last major renovations and new projects, which were begun in 1980, will be 50 years old and in need of total replacement in many cases.

With highway congestion increasing and air quality decreasing, many officials are looking at mass transit as a way to help alleviate some of the area’s transportation issues. But again, funding is the critical element.

Nancy Amos, senior vice president for the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, acknowledged that ridership on public transportation has increased significantly during the past few years.

“The number of people who use public transportation in Fort Worth jumped more than 13 percent in the first six months of 2006,” Amos said. “During this period, we have added 12 new buses to keep up with the demand in ridership that edged close to 4 million trips for buses, trolleys, vans, vanpools and Tarrant County boardings on the Trinity Railway Express.”

The TRE, owned and operated jointly by the Fort Worth Transportation Authority and the Dallas Area Rapid Transit, also serves an increasing number of riders. In August, they reported their highest monthly ridership in its history by carrying 224,017 riders.

Doug Allen, executive vice president for Dallas Area Rapid Transit said regional cooperation is the key to solving the area’s transportation problems in both the short and long term.

“Currently we serve 13 member cities and five member counties,” Allen said. “We also have an aggressive expansion program that will provide service to many more residents by 2013.”

Charles Emery, chairman of the Denton County Transportation Authority said the primary source of funding for passenger rail service will come from sales taxes.

“A good solid passenger rail service, coupled with the other mass transit possibilities, should reduce the problems we are facing by about 85 percent,” Emery said.

The consensus of those participating in the summit seemed to be that there are many problems to face, most caused by growth and lack of funding. However, they are confident those problems can be overcome through joint efforts of all government entities and citizen involvement.

© 2006 The Lewisville Leader:


TxDOT pushes TTC-69 in Corpus Christi

TxDOT calls for added infrastructure to meet new demands on port

Nov 28, 2006

Bart Bedsole
Channel 6 KRIS-TV (Corpus Christi, TX)
Copyright 2006

CORPUS CHRISTI - The Texas Department of Transportation is calling for more infrastructure around Texas seaports to handle more traffic from the Panama Canal. A study released Tuesday indicates the expansion of the canal will have a major impact up and down the Texas coast, creating the need for more roads and more railroads.

Just a few weeks ago, the citizens of Panama voted in favor of a $5.25 billion project to widen the canal, allowing all cargo ships to pass through - not just the ones small enough to fit.

That means lots more cargo coming into the Gulf of Mexico and more jobs for ports like the one here in Corpus Christi. And now, TxDOT is evaluating the needs beyond the coastline to ensure we can handle the traffic when it arrives.

Right about the time larger cargo ships are coming through Panama around 20:15, La Quinta Container Terminal near Portland should be up and running. Officials at the Port of Corpus Christi said a deep channel and quick access to the Gulf will help to attract a large amount of new business.

TxDOT is already preparing for the rush. A study released this week found that Corpus Christi, Houston and Texas City will all see more congestion on highways also. The study recommends that the Trans-Texas Corridor system be constructed to address those needs, and that officials also look closely at how the highway system connects to the ports.

Port chairman Ruben Bonilla said traffic on local roads and rails is currently not an issue in Corpus Christi but that improvements could enhance transportation elsewhere. For example, Laredo will be an important link for truck traffic, but Highways 44 and 59 are not as efficient as they could be.

Highway 281 to the Rio Grande Valley will also be an important route, but it's currently not up to interstate standards.

Within a few years, 80 percent of the world's cargo will be shipped in containers, and state officials are working to make sure the shipments are able to reach their destinatons on time so that ports like Corpus Christi can meet the growing demand.

Online Reporter: Bart Bedsole

© 2006 WorldNow and KRIS: