Sunday, October 21, 2007

"$9 million of your tax dollars are paying for propaganda that will serve the private interest of a foreign contractor."

Revisiting the Trans-Texas Corridor

October 20, 2007

Paul D. Perry
Waxahachie Daily Light
Copyright 2007

Some readers have asked me to re-visit a few of my concerns regarding the Trans-Texas Corridor or TTC, because I have mentioned the project in my last two columns. Recently, I introduced what I like to call Nosygate. I think that is an appropriate name for the advertising campaign and subsequent information gathering effort, by a private company, on behalf of the Texas Department of Transportation or TxDOT.

A brief re-cap is probably in order. Unsuspecting motorists had their license tag numbers photographed while traveling and minding their own business. Their tag numbers were then traced to their home address.Their home address was provided to a private company that sent a questionnaire through the mail. Junk mail or a survey - you call it reader — was then mailed to the motorist asking nosy questions in excess of what the state needs to know if their purpose was merely to project traffic flow. The questions submitting to the homeowners were obviously designed to collect data for a recently announced $9 million advertising campaign initiated by TxDOT. This taxpayer funded propaganda blitz is being made to justify the unpopular Trans-Texas Toll Road. More simply, $9 million of your tax dollars are paying for propaganda that will serve the private interest of a foreign contractor.

The TTC is a proposed 1,200-foot-wide toll way that will bisect the state of Texas through its heart and will be built and operated by Cintra-Zachery, a private company that is Spanish owned. The Texas Department of Transportation will use the state government’s power of eminent domain to force folks off their land-at a court ordered price-and in so doing support the profits of Cintra-Zachery as well as their supporting cast -- the consultants, lobbyists, and camp followers — who have little or no regard for the rights and property of average citizens. I like the Mel Brook’s spoof of western land grabs “Blazing Saddles,” but I do not want to see a modern land grab of that nature. Rest assured that I do not oppose new road construction or even the limited and thoughtful use of toll roads in Texas. I do oppose foreign meddling in our state government as well as the looting and abuse of average taxpayers.

Our state government through TxDOT is quick to point out that the underlying ground will still be owned by the state and merely leased for 50 years or so by Cintra, gee thanks.

That brings us to some of my concerns. Perhaps the most galling to me is the provision in the enabling legislation, HB 3588 (section 370.165), and the follow-up legislation, HB 2702 (section 203.066 and 203.067), allowing private property to be taken prior to any litigation. One of our protections in the case of a government taking property (eminent domain) in Texas is a right to trial in order to assess value and even the appropriateness of the taking under the state code. A value on your property can be set in a court of law by a jury or you can elect to accept a value placed beforehand by a special commission of taxpayers from your area appointed by the presiding judge. The original bill that passed both houses about this specific project included language allowing homesteads to be taken by “the authority” after 91 days from the date of initial service and even before you have your day in court. You still get your hearings and court-assessed value, but in some cases after you have been evicted from your own home. Raw land can even be taken immediately upon service and before any court hearings. This puts the land or homeowner at a disadvantage. Families will find themselves under a lot of pressure to relocate prior to their initial hearing, if they do not accept the initial offer from Cintra/TxDOT.

The pressure may force many to make a quick settlement with the authority. Make no mistake: The conquistadors at Cintra are driving the bus in the “authority.”

Some people assume the government’s right of using eminent domain to forcibly buy land (a taking) is limited to property to be used for government-owned and -operated projects referred to as “public use” in the federal constitution, such as highways and reservoirs. Over much of our history, the government’s “power” of eminent domain was defined narrowly along those lines.

Over time court rulings have broadened the definition of the government’s powers in this area. These rulings have even allowed private property to be taken and conveyed through government entities to private developers for other private development. The common good is said to be served by the enhanced tax revenue that will then go to the governing entities: municipalities, counties and school districts for instance. The use of eminent domain to acquire land in the case of the quasi-private TTC probably falls under the latter, more modern logic, even though taxable value in many counties could fall immediately after a sale is forced for land to be used for TTC construction. The short term effect of such an eminent domain proceeding may be to remove giant swaths of easement from local tax roles because the property will then accrue to the ownership of the state. Those details seem to be in flux.

Knowing how things work in Austin, perhaps Cintra’s cash flow will be exempt from the new business activities tax as well. Rumor has it the improvements made by Cintra-Zachary to facilitate toll collection could also be exempt from property tax collection. However the corridor’s construction may increase values and taxes owed on private property over the long haul-in many areas, especially around the limited exits and entrances to the toll road. It sounds like average everyday Texans may get to pick up the bill.

There is a public need for more roads and transportation, but it can easily be argued that this project is first designed to profit Cintra-Zachery rather than benefit everyday Texans. While many who argue for this project use language that is designed to appeal to the public good, this is a private project designed primarily to move international trade through Texas, from Mexico to Canada. So far, Cintra-Zachery and TxDOT have done everything but wrap themselves in a Texas flag to sell this project, although this limited access road is certainly not designed with Texas taxpayers primarily in mind

We are allowing state employees and Cintra-Zachery to muddy the waters between a private project and public utility. Interestingly Cintra-Zachery even resisted the State Attorney General’s attempt to procure certain files via open records request, claiming particular files are exempt because they contain certain “trade secrets.” Cintra has objected to an open records act request from your government using language that might be appropriate for a private entity, but Cintra is going to operate a public thoroughfare on top of land owned by what is still your state, maybe.

Paul D. Perry is a contributing Sunday columnist for the Daily Light. He is a local businessman and mediator.

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