Saturday, December 09, 2006

Texas Transportation Institute study throws cold water on a long-cherished claim of toll road advocates

Toll road argument thrown into doubt


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

A new study throws cold water on a long-cherished claim of toll road advocates, surprising some of them, and could redefine a debate over if and how Texas should toll its highways.
For more than a year now, state officials have scared the dickens out of motorists by saying the gas tax would have to go up $1.20 a gallon to build all the roads needed statewide over the next quarter-century.

That would almost triple the 38.4 cents drivers now pay in federal and state fuel taxes. Since that's politically impossible to do, the argument goes, toll roads should be built wherever and whenever feasible.

But now a Texas Transportation Institute study says gas taxes wouldn't have to go up nearly as much.

Just indexing the gas tax to rising construction costs would be enough, the 139-page report says. The extra money could finance bonds through 2030 and pay them all off within five years after that.

Or, to avoid borrowing with bonds, the tax could be increased 12 cents in 2008 and indexed to construction inflation through 2030.

Even if the tax weren't indexed, a flat increase of only 39 cents a gallon would do the same — a far cry from the $1.20 that Texas Department of Transportation officials have maintained would be needed.

Toll critics embraced the news, saying it's proof TxDOT is pumping up numbers to justify toll roads.

"All of this is a charade to draw us into TxDOT's pointy-headed policy mindset that's obsessed with tolls and how to sell the public on it," said David Ramos of San Antonio Toll Party. "The bottom line is TxDOT is trying to create a crisis to justify their money grab."

Toll advocates were caught off guard when the TTI study was recently presented to the Legislature's Study Commission on Transportation Financing.

"That report was a surprise," said Ted Houghton, a Texas Transportation Commission member from El Paso who serves on the study commission. "It wasn't on the agenda and no one had any time to read it. So we're going through it and working on the assumptions."

The report, done for the Governor's Business Council, differs from TxDOT's assumptions in three key areas, said Michael Stevens, a Houston developer who's a member of both the Business Council and the transportation study commission.

TxDOT failed to account for how much tax revenues would go up over the 25 years from increased driving, he said, and overestimated unfunded needs for state roads by $8 billion.

And, when calculating the funding gap, TxDOT added an estimated $22 billion for local streets in the eight largest cities, though the state has no responsibility for such roads.

The study concluded that a bloated $86 billion in unfunded needs espoused by TxDOT is actually just $56 billion.

"These numbers are pretty tight," Stevens said. "We study it like we study our businesses. Before we published it, because we knew it was so different, we did a large amount of due diligence on it."

That included meeting with TxDOT and the governor's office after a draft quietly came out in September, he said.

Houghton said TxDOT is poring over the report and could respond next week.

State officials might question estimates for construction inflation, which is rising faster than consumer inflation.

Road building costs in Texas went up 33 percent last year because of higher fuel costs and increased global competition for asphalt, concrete and steel.

The study predicts construction inflation will go up just 3.4 percent a year.

Other issues could involve whether costs such as road maintenance were included.

Also, Houghton said indexing the gas tax to construction inflation could cause the tax go up faster than many realize — rising to 84.4 cents a gallon by 2030 or even a $1 or more, depending on the scenario — and would hit poor people the hardest.

"It's the most regressive tax there is," he said.

While the study doesn't recommend scrapping statewide toll plans, it does say toll dollars should stay in local areas and that the gas tax should be indexed to inflation to finance bonds.

It also calls for an end to diverting gas tax revenues to non-transportation uses.

Indexing the gas tax likely would mean fewer roads would need to be tolled, said Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, who chairs the House Transportation Committee and co-chairs the legislative study commission.

But a bill he filed last year to index the tax to consumer inflation was killed. He said he'll try again when the Legislature meets in January, and may consider tying the tax to faster-rising construction costs.

The legislative study commission also will offer ideas, but a report will be held off at least another month while members mull the TTI gas-tax study.

"The study has thrown a kink into the process," Krusee said.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News:


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Texas Senators criticize the Trans-Texas Corridor

Farm Bureau Convention-Goers Hear From Both U.S. Senators


Livestock Weekly
Copyright 2006

ARLINGTON — Texas Farm Bureau president Kenneth Dierschke set the stage for a challenging session of the Texas Legislature in his annual address to TFB convention delegates here Sunday.

At the 73rd annual Texas Farm Bureau Convention, Dierschke said Texas agriculture has been through a difficult decade due to a series of weather-related disasters.

Now, with the 80th session of the Legislature only a month away, the organization wants to solve some troublesome issues, some old and some new.

At the top of Dierschke’s list is the issue of eminent domain.

“Those of us who make a living from the land consider eminent domain, at best, a necessary evil,” said Dierschke. Referencing the Supreme Court landmark eminent domain case of Kelo v City of New London, Dierschke listed the steps Farm Bureau is taking to ensure that the decision made in New Jersey cannot happen in Texas.

A constitutional amendment, payment of legal fees for landowners, relocation costs and royalties were some of Dierschke’s suggestions on how to better improve Texas’ eminent domain laws. According to Dierschke, these steps, such as a constitutional amendment, would “make absolutely certain that not one square inch of Texas land is ever taken away from the owners just because some taxing authority thinks a shopping mall or subdivision would produce more tax revenue.”

In a Congress now controlled by Democrats, Dierschke said the Farm Bureau will be pushing hard for extension of the current 2002 Farm Bill until the World Trade Organization “can produce some tangible results.”

“The WTO negotiations thus far have been, frankly, very disappointing,” said Dierschke. However, he noted that “we commend U.S. trade negotiators for holding fast and understanding that no agreement at all is better than a bad one.”

Also, Dierschke spoke about Farm Bureau’s “unique position” as a non-partisan organization.

“We are fed up with partisan bickering — the reluctance to support good legislation for fear the other party will get credit is crippling the nation,” he said. “This must stop for the good of our country. It’s time to lead or get out of the way.”

Dierschke also addressed the recent drouth that continues to affect farmers and ranchers across the state.

“The passage of a federal drouth assistance package is a top priority for Texas Farm Bureau. The drouth is a special set of conditions that deserves special attention —it is agriculture’s Katrina,” he said.

Dierschke encouraged members to continue to persevere through the challenging times that are approaching with the beginning of the 80th session of the Texas Legislature. “The spirit of Texas is our greatest resource,” he said.

Dierschke reminded members of the purpose of Farm Bureau: “to represent the interests of farmers and ranchers, to be in the places they cannot be, where the decisions are made that affect their lives.

“It’s time for an era of prosperity, for rejuvenation in rural Texas,” he said.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told members that issues such as the nation’s defense in its global war on terror, shoring up what the senator called a “failed immigration policy,” and writing a new farm bill that still provides support for American farmers and ranchers will be among the items Congress must pick up again as the new leadership takes over in January.

But forging ahead on renewable energy fronts, limiting government’s ability to condemn private property and helping Texas solve its transportation concerns will also be issues that must be addressed by Congress, the former Texas Attorney General said.

Cornyn drew applause when he spoke out against eminent domain and what’s become a close cousin to the issue in the form of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

”If you’re from Texas, private property rights are by definition a top priority,” Cornyn said.

The now infamous Kelo case, which granted government entities the right to seize private lands in the name of economic development, needs to be reversed, Cornyn said. In fact, when the case was first filed on a Thursday, Cornyn said he had filed legislation to reverse the court decision just four days later.

Cornyn also spoke against the TTC, which under current plans will claim hundreds of acres of some of the state’s finest farmland.

“I plan to advocate looking into existing arteries to solve the transportation needs of a growing Texas,” Cornyn said. “We all know that something will have to be done to solve our transportation issues as we face tomorrow, but I am certain we can come up with a plan that is a lot more respectful to the farmers and ranchers of this state.”

One of the biggest challenges that lie ahead comes in the leadership changes that now face Washington lawmakers, Cornyn said.

“We will have to use what leverage we have to shape legislation that is in the best interests of the American people,” the senator said. “And I stand committed to working with my friends in Washington on both sides of the aisle.

“It is such an honor to come before groups like yours —people who earn their living from hard work who deserve to be treated fairly by their government,” Cornyn said. “It is an honor and privilege to represent the best state in the strongest nation the world has ever known.”

Ensuring disaster aid legislation and securing energy policies will take priority in coming weeks on Capitol Hill, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison told the 1225 Texas Farm Bureau members.

Pointing to disasters such as Hurricane Rita, the Panhandle wildfires and statewide drouth, Hutchison pledged to keep fighting for the people of Texas. She has already introduced legislation to provide more than $1 billion in aid for producers affected by wildfires, but action on additional aid may have to wait until the new year as Congress wraps its final week in Washington.

“If we are not successful in getting needed disaster relief now, we will get it next year,” Hutchison said.

In addition to securing aid for current disasters, Hutchison also pledged to establish a reserve fund in Congress to better speed needed assistance in future disasters.

Regarding energy policy, Hutchison said more attention will have to be focused on making the United States independent from foreign oil. More than 60 percent of the nation’s natural energy resources currently comes from outside U.S. borders.

“It’s a matter of national security,” she said. “And with ethanol and biodiesel developments, Texas farmers stand a real opportunity to supply our energy needs and lower the price of those to everyone.”

In other issues, Hutchison criticized the Trans-Texas Corridor, urging state officeholders to seek out other options that are more landowner-friendly. She voiced support for extending the current farm bill, and urged colleagues in Washington to move forward with needed immigration reforms, including guest worker programs.

© 2006 Livestock Weekly:

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Ric Williamson: "We believe the enhancement program has the weakest connection to our goals."

State to suspend road 'enhancement' program

State cities federal cut, congestion relief in targeting trails, beautification and tourist projects

December 07, 2006

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

Faced with a 2 percent cut in promised federal transportation funds, the state plans to take the money away from proposed trail, beautification and tourist projects rather than from highway expansion and repair.

Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson, in a Nov. 20 letter to the various government entities that had submitted requests for "transportation enhancement grants" totaling almost $688 million, said the agency "did not make this decision lightly."

The federal government's decision to cut $305 million from Texas' $14.5 billion 2004-09 allocation, Williamson wrote, "put us in the position of having to choose between congestion-relief projects and enhancement projects. . . . (We) believe the enhancement program has the weakest connection to our goals."

Under the Transportation Enhancement Program, established by Congress in 1991, states distribute federal grants to local governments for projects aimed at improving the driving experience. That has been interpreted to include such things as museums, sidewalks, trails and highway beautification.

The state Transportation Department is indefinitely suspending the distribution of those grants.

Georgetown had sought more than $10 million for trails and bicycle/pedestrian projects and $9.7 million for an aviation and automotive museum. Austin wanted money for, among other things some downtown street beautification and a Texas music history museum. None of those requests will be fulfilled, at least for the foreseeable future.

Preston Tyree, the Austin Cycling Association's legislative liaison and a board member of the League of American Bicyclists, a national advocacy group, criticized the state's decision to limit the cuts to trails and other enhancement projects. He said the impact of the cut on the enhancements is absolute, while a 2 percent trimming of new road projects would not materially affect the state's road congestion.

"It is really small compared to what TxDOT needs," Tyree said. "And to take all of the rescission out of (enhancements) is crazy. It's certainly not fair."

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, an Austin Democrat, in an e-mailed statement, called the Transportation Department's action "disappointing, but hardly surprising. . . . TxDOT has never liked enhancements; it tried to remove this requirement from recent federal transportation legislation and has now chosen to disregard the intent behind federal transportation funding."

The state Transportation Department did not cancel the enhancement program permanently.

Rather, the agency cancelled a "call" for enhancement projects it had initiated a year ago. Localities, and the Transportation Department itself, had submitted 332 applications for enhancement funding, and the agency had been evaluating those requests. It had not actually awarded money for any of the proposed projects.

During the 15 years that the program has existed, the state has accepted 505 proposals — about one in three submissions — and awarded $466 million. Local governments must supply at least 20 percent of project costs.

Federal transportation money is generated primarily by an 18.4 cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax. That money is then returned to the states using various formulas and grant programs, as well as through specifically designated projects in budget bills placed there by members of Congress. Those so-called "earmarks" will not be affected by the $305 million cut.

The cuts were generated by three bills passed by Congress during the past year that provided money for the war in Iraq, hurricane relief and other emergency needs.

The state Transportation Department, in theory, could have spread the cut across all programs. But Williamson and other transportation officials, in justifying the turn to toll roads the past few years, have said the state has more than $80 billion in core transportation needs it can't fund over the next 25 years.

Some local officials were disappointed by the move.

"We all spent a lot of time on the applications," said Georgetown Assistant City Manager Tom Yantis. "Some may happen, but they will probably take longer to happen. Others won't happen unless we find other money somehow."; 445-3698

Central Texas projects

Central Texas governments and commissions made 29 requests for a total of $118.4 million before the enhancements program was suspended. Austin and Georgetown each made six requests.

Below are some of the largest projects. Amounts shown are federal funds sought, not total project costs.

Music history museum, Austin, $9,990,000

Seaholm district pedestrian/bike network, Austin, $6,111,265

Transportation, architectural museum, UT-Austin, $22,866,043

Historic bridge preservation, TxDOT, $20,538,540

Texas 130/Brushy Creek trail, Travis County, $8,004,000

Aviation and automotive museum, Georgetown, $9,703,056

Northeast Georgetown trail, Georgetown, $4,581,961

© 2006 Austin American-Statesman:


Mike Weaver rolls out his wish list

How the $250 million road bond might be spent

Reagan, Westinghouse, Chandler roads top commissioners' list of priorities.

December 07, 2006

By Lisa Ogle
Austin American Statesman
Copyright 2006

One day, it won't be so bad to drive through the county. Or so current and incoming commissioners hope.

Last week, they reviewed projects funded by the 2000 bond program and projects that still need to be done.

The court's top priorities for the $250 million bond issue that voters approved Nov. 7 are to widen and reconstruct Westinghouse Road and to extend Ronald Reagan Boulevard and Chandler Road, transportation consultant Mike Weaver said. The Commissioners Court also will look at finishing county roads that tie into Texas 130, a toll road that is partially open and should be completed next year.

"They all would help reduce congestion," especially the county roads off of Texas 130, Weaver said.

For congested Westinghouse Road, it's also a safety issue because of the nearby Celebration Church, he said. The growing nondenominational church has 4,000 members.

The three top projects would take about a quarter of the bond money, based on information from county spokeswoman Connie Watson:

n Ronald Reagan Boulevard, from Texas 195 to Interstate 35; 6.5 miles, $24.3 million.

n Westinghouse Road, from I-35 to County Road 110; 4 miles, $19.9 million

•Chandler Road, from FM 1660 to Texas 95; 8 miles, $21.3 million.

Other roads that require work, based on the ballot language, include Brushy Creek Road, Inner Loop, Lakeline Boulevard, U.S. 79, FM 1460, RM 2243 and RM 620.

None of the proposals has been formally approved, and work on specific projects has yet to be decided.

Commissioner Lisa Birkman said the incoming court should meet with the appropriate cities and the Texas Department of Transportation to work out agreements and develop plans that everyone can support.

The court is not expected to approve any projects before Jan. 1, County Judge John Doerfler said.

Even with this bond program, the second-largest after the $350 million package in 2000, more work will be needed, Birkman said.

"I would assume with the growth of the county that we're going to have to have more bond elections," she said.; 246-1150

© 2006 Austin American-Statesman: www.


"Developers were able to work directly with the road planners."

Toll road good for some, bypass others

When TXDOT announced four exits on I-35 would have to close when the toll roads opened, area businesses and residents balked. Exits will never re-open, but businesses cope.

December 07, 2006

By Andrea Lorenz
Austin American-Statesman
copyright 2006

Although the new toll roads have helped some Williamson County residents shave time off their commutes, they've been a mixed bag for some businesses.

At the La Frontera shopping center near FM 1325, the Texas 45 North toll road and Interstate 35, stores have been pleased since the toll roads, which include the northern extension of Loop 1 and Texas 130, opened Oct. 31. But some Round Rock locations along the eastern side of I-35 have lost out.

The closing of four exit and entrance ramps off I-35 between the Texas 45 North and RM 620 has made it more difficult to reach some businesses. That's particularly true for some on the eastern side of I-35 because of a large overpass that merges Texas 45 North traffic with northbound I-35.

"Customers have to work harder to get here," Kaleidoscope Toys owner Terry Myers said. She said her toy shop is blocked off from northbound drivers on I-35; they must exit early or turn around at RM 620 to get to it. Kaleidoscope Toys has seen a 10 percent to 15 percent drop in sales since the roads opened, Myers said.

There are no plans to replace the lost exits. Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Marcus Cooper said traffic flowing from the Texas 45 flyover onto northbound I-35 would cause too much of a hazard if vehicles already going north on I-35 tried to exit near McNeil Road and Hester's Crossing Road.

To alleviate congestion caused by the closing of the ramps, the City of Round Rock and the Transportation Department are funding a bypass of lights on the southbound access road of I-35 near Hester's Crossing. They are also planning a turnaround at RM 620 to make it easier to swing back and catch the missed businesses.

Myers said she has not considered moving her store to a more accessible location. Neither has Steve Greenberg, co-owner of Plucker's Wing Bar, which opened this year near the former McNeil Road exit along northbound I-35.

"If you don't get off at the La Frontera exit, you fly past our restaurant," Greenberg said. "It's a scary deal for Round Rock in general; they've kind of quarantined that whole northeast area of retail off."

It's still too early to know the effects of road changes, said Charley Ayres, the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce director of business retention and expansion, but he said an informal poll of area businesses has shown an upshift in sales since the toll roads opened — and since the construction ended.

While various lanes on I-35 were closed intermittently during construction, "it got to the point people didn't want to hassle with it and didn't drive down to La Frontera at all," he said.

He has heard good reports so far from businesses just south of Plucker's and Kaleidoscope in the Round Rock Crossing center, which is anchored by Target, and in the Boardwalk center anchored by Wal-Mart, as well as from those in La Frontera shopping center on the western side of I-35.

Smokey Mo's barbecue restaurant is in the same shopping center as Kaleidoscope Toys. General manager Lino Melchor said that he was concerned about the closing of the exit ramps but that the restaurant already had an established clientele, leaving sales unaffected.

Good timing and planning helped La Frontera because developers were able to work directly with the road planners to ensure that customers could access the shopping area. Drivers are now directed to La Frontera Boulevard from every direction along the new toll roads and I-35.

"The exits are excellent, related to La Frontera," co-developer Don Martin said.

Greenberg said he would like to see exit signs advertising food and gas that could direct traffic to Plucker's.

Although the exits — or lack thereof — worry him, he said, any number of factors could affect sales, including cold weather.

"Certainly what's occurred hurts, but is it the deciding factor? I don't know," he said.

"You try to do a good enough job with your business, and they're going to come anyway."; 246-0008

© 2006 Austin American-Statesman: www.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Editorial Pic from Trans-Texas Corridor Blog:

The Guv Who Stole Texas

The Gov. Who Stole Texas1

© 2006 Trans-Texas Corridor Blog:


Free TollTags for officials cost North Texas Tollway Authority $1.3 million a year

Dead or alive: Free TollTags for officials

December 4, 2006

Copyright 2006

A TollTag clearly makes driving on the North Dallas Tollway and other pay-as-you-go highways in Texas cheaper and easier.

But for at least 3,000 people and dozens of government agencies, it's more inexpensive than you might think.

It's free.

Allan Rutter, the director of the North Texas Tollway Authority, says it's perfectly legal to give government agencies and selected individuals free toll tags. "I don't see that as compensation," he said. "It's part of doing my job."

In part, it's a way of thanking individuals for helping the NTTA grow.

Last July, the agency tightened its rules on who gets free TollTags. The policy is now somewhat more restrictive and usage will be monitored more closely.

But when News 8 reviewed recent records, we discovered active toll tags for former Dallas County Commissioner Chris Semos and NTTA lawyer Charles Purnell—both of whom are dead.

Several other TollTags are being used by politicians and ex-NTTA board members who have been out of office—in some cases, for more than ten years:

• Retired Judge Robert Cole

• Former state senators David Cain and John Leedom

• Former NTTA board members Howard Riley and David Laney

"There are people who are no longer qualified to get these tags under our new policy, and we are going to be contacting them, informing them, and asking them to convert to paying customers," Rutter said. "To the extent that hadn't been done before, that's a mistake."

The Tollway Authority says the complimentary TollTags cost the agency about $1.3 million a year. That adds up to more than $10 million in lost revenue since the agency was established more than eight years ago.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price says the NTTA's new policies don't go nearly far enough. "It's a million-and-a half here, and a million-and-a-half there, and after a while, we're talking about real money," Price said.

The free TollTags are a fringe benefit to 750 current and former employees. "It's only for the employee himself," Rutter explained. "That's one of the things we use to attract and retain people."

"I just find it interesting you can build that kind of subsidy into individual's pay," Price said.

The agency says it is not changing its policy for current and retired employees, but employees' use of the perk will be monitored more closely.

"No one should have a TollTag that's probably not paying for it," Price said. "You can't just give it away."


© 2006 WFAA-TV:


"How are you going to make a profit if nobody will pay to use the thing?"

Proposed toll road could drive away truckers

December 04, 2006

By Mike Anderson

The Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2006

The proposed Trans-Texas Corridor has been touted as a means to ease congestion along Interstate 35 by siphoning off some of the thousands of trucks that use the interstate each day. Unfortunately, proponents of the massive project may have trouble getting some truckers interested in paying a toll to haul their goods across the state.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, passenger vehicles could pay 15.2 cents per mile and truck drivers 58.5 cents per mile to drive on the 370-mile corridor. The fees were set as part of a master plan for the 1,200-foot-wide tollway, rail and utility corridor developed by international firm Cintra-Zachry. The company is expected to spend $8.8 billion to build the road and pay the state $1.9 billion for the opportunity, according to the plan. The company then would have rights to recoup its expenses and make a profit by charging tolls for 50 years.

But for truck drivers like Joe and Sarah Herschberger, such a toll would add too big a burden to their operating expenses. The husband-and-wife truck-driving team from Pennsylvania, taking a break at a Waco truck stop last week, said they drive across the country on a regular basis and avoid tolls whenever they can.

“We don’t work for a company, we own our rig, so all our expenses come out of our pockets,” Joe said.

“We get paid about $1,500 a month, and most of that goes back into the truck in operating expenses,” Sarah added. “With the cost of gas lately, there’s not much left over for us.”

Some national trucking companies also say that they don’t send their drivers on toll roads and that the Trans-Texas Corridor won’t be different.

“We are not in favor of a toll road. That’s the way my company feels about it,” said Glen Burnett, manager of the Waco service center for the North Carolina-based Old Dominion Freight Line. “If (I-35) is still open and free, we are going to send our trucks on it. Why pay a toll when you can go for free?”

Concern over tolls

Such sentiments have raised concerns for Waco resident Roy Walthall and other members of the Trans-Texas Corridor Advisory Committee. Walthall said he does not consider charging a toll a good solution to reducing I-35 congestion.

“We just keep scratching our heads about it,” Walthall said of the advisory committee. “How are you going to make a profit if nobody will pay to use the thing? They keep saying we do this all over the world and make millions of dollars, but I’m not sure how that’s going to work here.”

Walthall said one solution might be to move more freight by rail lines proposed as part of the corridor. Another would be to build toll roads only as routes around congested areas such as Austin and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

Ken Roberts, spokesman for the highway department’s Waco office, said transportation officials “generally agree” that not all truckers will pay a toll to drive the corridor.

“But if we could get 10 percent to take the Trans-Texas Corridor, we could make a difference,” Roberts said. “Of the 80,000 vehicles a day on I-35, a third of those are trucks. It could be a significant reduction.”

Roberts said some truckers also may avoid the corridor because they need to stop regularly at cities along the interstate as part of their delivery routes. Cross-country truck drivers would benefit more from the planned road, he said.

John Esparza, president and CEO of the Texas Motor Transportation Association, agreed it is not safe to assume trucks will use the corridor in great numbers. But he applauded state officials for trying innovative ways to expand the state’s roadways.

“It’s not about the trucks on the tolls but the passenger vehicles on the tolls that will contribute to the ultimate goal of offering a safe, viable alternative to those who are willing to use it,” Esparza said.


© 2006 The Waco Tribune-Herald: