Friday, February 02, 2007

"When they advocate in their own documents that a position of stealth should be adopted...That's rather extraordinary."

Watchdog Worried About U.S. Meetings With Canada, Mexico

February 02, 2007

By Nathan Burchfiel
Copyright 2007

A government watchdog is calling for more transparency in talks between U.S., Canadian and Mexican officials who are discussing a "vision of North America" that some critics worry are the first step toward a North American Union.

Judicial Watch this week released documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request that include U.S. officials' notes from the North American Forum, a September 2006 meeting with Canadian and Mexican officials that explored ways to create "genuine partnerships."

That meeting followed the March 2005 creation of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP), which the U.S. government calls a "trilateral effort to increase security and enhance prosperity among the United States, Canada and Mexico through greater cooperation and information sharing."

Several points of discussion at the September meeting worried Judicial Watch, most notably a note in one set of documents referring to "evolution by stealth." The discussions also touched on integration of energy supply, easing immigration among the three countries and closing the "income gap" between Mexico and the U.S. and Canada.

"I don't know that there's an appreciation or an understanding that this is what the American government is busy spending its time doing," Chris Farrell, Judicial Watch's director of research and investigation, told Cybercast News Service.

"I think it's curious ... when they advocate in their own documents that a position of stealth should be adopted in trying to integrate the three countries," Farrell said. "That's rather extraordinary."

The group released documents from the meeting, including some handwritten notes taken by participant Deborah Bolton, a political advisor for U.S. Northern Command. Also included in the notes is a paper by Robert Pastor, the director of American University's Center for North American Studies.

"Our purpose is to build a greater sense of being a part of North America," Pastor wrote. "We do not want to displace the pride each of us feels in our countries, but rather to supplement that with a feeling of being North American."

Pastor recommended some questions for discussion including, "Should a new transportation corridor be designed and built between Canada and Mexico?" and "Should there be a North American Passport to facilitate travel within the three countries?"

Those kinds of proposals worry some conservatives, who fear that increased cooperation with its North American neighbors will harm United States sovereignty and lead to the creation of a North American version of the European Union.

According to Pastor, those critics have "nothing to fear," because he said none of the countries are taking the discussions seriously.

"There's a conspiratorial mood among certain groups out there that are trying to make it sound like as if this conference was more than just a conference, that somehow or other it set the agenda for the three governments," he told Cybercast News Service.

"I wish that were the case, frankly, that the three governments would take seriously some of the issues that were being discussed, but none of them are."

Pastor said that "those who are fearful that somehow this conference is creating a vast new agenda have nothing to fear. Those who are hopeful that we may approach our neighbors in more constructive ways have more reason to be frustrated."

He said the secrecy surrounding the meetings was a "mistake" and that he favored issuing a statement and report on the discussions, "but the three leaders who organized it thought that it would be a more productive discussion if the participants were not quoted and could express their views without fear of being distorted."

Pastor is also an author of the Council of Foreign Relations' May 2005 report called "Building a North American Community." The report is at the center of critics' fears that the goal of the SPP and North American Forum is a political union.

"The global challenges faced by North America cannot be met solely through unilateral or bilateral efforts or existing patterns of cooperation," the report states. "They require deepened cooperation based on the principle ... that 'our security and prosperity are mutually dependent and complementary."

Supporters of the report's recommendations point to the fact that it says a North American community "should rely more on the market and less on bureaucracy, more on pragmatic solutions to shared problems than on grand schemes of confederation or union, such as those in Europe."

© 2007 Cybercast News Service:

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"When government argues that its most basic roles would be better handled by a private enterprise, then the competence of those in office is indicted"

The leasing of toll roads to private operators defies common sense


Charles Paolino
New Brunswick Home News Tribune, NJ
Copyright 2007

I have one reservation about this plan to pay off state debt by leasing or otherwise turning over control of the toll roads to a private operator: It doesn't make sense.

Or is it wrong to apply that standard?

I realize this is a complicated proposition whose details are beyond my capacity to understand, but shouldn't even complicated matters be required to withstand the test of common sense? Indulge me in this.

These highways are now operated by an authority that is a creature of the state; they are supposed to generate enough revenue to pay the cost of operating them and to amortize any debt.

The authority — whose existence is justified in part on the grounds that it protects the state's own borrowing power — also insulates the operation of the toll roads from direct accountability to voters.

If the highways were leased to a private operator, that scenario would change. The private operator would have to raise more revenue than it takes to operate the roads, because the private operator would have to make a profit — without even considering the billions of dollars it would have paid to the state for the lease. Indeed, annual toll increases limited by the rate of inflation would be built into the program. And the operation of the toll roads would be further insulated from direct accountability to voters.

As it is, even the appointed authorities — when there were two — were very conservative about raising tolls on the turnpike and the parkway, and yet they kept them among the best maintained highways in the state.

How is it possible that a private operator could run the highways at the same level without significantly increasing the tolls? And, being one more step further removed from voters, what incentive would the operator have to keep the tolls stable?

Considering the perennial sentiment in New Jersey that the tolls should be removed altogether — a sentiment I don't agree with — I would expect motorists to be wary of a proposal that seems destined to preserve the tolls ad infinitum and raise them each year.

The reason highways are operated by government in the first place is that they are among the most fundamental public services. Governments should be able to operate them in the most cost-efficient manner, because government's only goal is to provide for the public's need.

When government argues that one of its most basic roles would be better handled by a private enterprise, when government finds itself financially embarrassed and wants to solve its problem in the short term by abandoning one of its most basic responsibilities for the long term — and with a solution that defies common sense — then the competence of those in office is indicted.

When private businesses experience financial crises they respond by reducing their workforce and consolidating operations. I've experienced this more than once; it isn't done with smoke and mirrors, it's done by finding real savings.

That happens in every industry, but not in government.

Instead of ceding control of some of the state's most critical assets, the Legislature and the administration should calculate what reduction in spending is needed in order to satisfy its debts, and then follow the painful path of the private sector and make those cuts.

Charles Paolino is executive editor of the Home News Tribune. (732) 565-7210. E-mail:

© 2007 Home News Tribune:

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Gov. Perry makes another 'booty call' for public pirates

Perry weighs odds on selling lottery

Sale could raise money for health care, research

Friday, February 02, 2007

By Laylan Copelin, Ken Herman
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday that his State of the State address on Tuesday would include a plan to fully privatize the Texas Lottery by selling it to private interests.

Perry said such a sale would raise substantial funds that could be used for health care and research.

Other states, including Illinois and Indiana, are looking into the concept, which allows a state to collect a large lump sum to replace future lottery revenue.

The proposal is likely to be controversial because the state's track record of turning over state services, whether welfare programs or toll roads, to national and international corporations has been criticized by some as either not working or a poor bargain.

Perry mentioned his plan at the end of an interview with the American-Statesman's Washington bureau.

Robert Black, the governor's press secretary, declined to elaborate on Perry's comments or explain how the sale would work.

Two of the states that are considering selling their lotteries — Illinois and Indiana — are inviting bids. Illinois hopes to receive as much as $10 billion in exchange for giving up all revenue and profit from the monopoly for 75 years, according to news reports. Indiana is expecting to raise more than $1 billion up front and annual payments of $200 million, according to The New York Times.

The sale of Illinois lottery, according to news reports, could be the biggest in the country — unless Texas puts its game up for sale.

While the Illinois lottery had profits of about $630 million last year, according to The New York Times, the Texas Lottery contributed $1 billion in profits last year to state finances.

Voters approved the establishment of the lottery in 1992, but profits have fluctuated. After a decade-long slump, lottery sales last year finally topped its 1997 record, primarily because of new games with scratch-off tickets.

Suzii Paynter, a gambling opponent with the Christian Life Commission, said she would have to study Perry's proposal before taking a position. But she said the timing seemed odd.

"With a $14 billion surplus," she said, "it sees like the last thing we need is a huge infusion of cash."

State officials have said all but $2.5 billion of that $14 billion is committed already.

But there are other considerations besides money.

Many public officials argue that the state should not be in the gambling business. Selling the lottery would remove Texas from that role.

Then again, public lotteries arose because of scandals in privately run lotteries.

Also, the state might lose control over where lottery tickets are sold and how aggressively it is marketed. The state restricts marketing it considers objectionable.

Even if the state tried to require the lottery buyer to follow current state guidelines, the buyer later could lobby to relax the rules.

It's unclear how selling the lottery would affect ongoing efforts by the gaming industry to persuade the Legislature to approve casino gambling or slot machines at dog and race tracks.

Lawmakers are concerned whether expanding gambling opportunities would hurt or help lottery sales.

Perry has had an on-again, off-again position toward the expansion of gambling.

In 2004, when Mike Toomey was his chief of staff, Perry supported video lottery terminals (slot machines) at race tracks as a way of helping pay for public education. His conservative base objected, however, and Perry retreated.

Toomey is now one of an army of lobbyists pushing gambling expansion. Toomey favors the video lottery terminals, or VTLs, for his clients, while competing interests are working for casino gambling.

Just prior to the start of this legislative session, Perry said he opposes casino gambling, but he said state lawmakers might support slots at racetracks if that helped the state to rein in similar, illegal games known as eight-liners.

"I share with my friends who are proponents of VLTs that their time may have passed because with a budget surplus, there's less pressure on these members to look for new sources of revenue," Perry said.

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman: www.

The Texas Lottery reported more than $3.77 billion in sales in the 2006 fiscal year, the highest amount in its 14-year history. Those sales resulted in a contribution of $1 billion to the Foundation School Fund, which supports public education in Texas. --(2/2/07) © 2007 The Associated Press:

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"TXDoT is finding that sailing the Corridor Seas is not as smooth as it once was, with few remaining friendly ports of call. "


Another revolution is now brewing at the local and grass-roots level in Texas.

February 2, 2007

Don Garrett
Citizens for a Better Waller County (CBWC)
Copyright 2007

Truth is universal--even in Texas when it comes to public transportation.

The truth is beginning to rise to the surface from the sea of rhetoric that has been created by Governor Rick Perry and TXDoT Commissioner Rick Williamson regarding toll roads and foreign investment. TXDoT is finding that sailing the Corridor Seas is not as smooth as it once was, with few remaining friendly ports of call.

Initially, the truth was relative to them as our own state elected officials were asleep at the wheel and did not study the alternatives that lay at their feet. It was a one sided argument from the “get-go”: Perry and Williamson were right and the citizens were wrong.

In 2002, Gov. Perry gave an ultimatum to TXDoT to come up with a comprehensive plan to relieve our cities congestion, despite the fact that in 1999 TXDoT had already put together a thorough transportation plan. Within 6 months of Gov. Perry’s mandate, a plan was orchestrated which included spending over $184 billion dollars, paving over 8,000 miles of toll roads and seizing over a million acres of private Texas land, without so much as a feasibility study. Nor were there any detailed financial models showing a best case/worst case scenario.

What Texans did get was a tall tale about congestion relief with all the bells, whistles, and accolades that seem to follow pork barrel legislation. And when citizens became concerned and questions were asked, there was a general lack of response.

Texans are still awaiting those answers. Meanwhile, the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) proponents threw luncheons and dinner parties for the Alliance for I-69 Texas organization where they preached to the choir and patted each other on the back as if to say, “Let them eat cake”. That attitude started a revolution once and it appears that another revolution is now brewing at the local and grass-roots level in Texas.

Congratulations Governor. 39% of the popular vote indicates you do not have the carte blanche you once had. Your actions on the Trans-Texas Corridors have polarized the State Republican Party and have given rise to a new Independent Party. Our State senators, representatives, county judges, county commissioners, and other local elected officials are now listening to their constituents specifically about the issues of tolls and the potential abuse of eminent domain powers.

It’s ironic that the private citizens now know more about toll roads, foreign consortiums such as Cintra Concessiones de Infraestruturas de transporte, AKA, Cintra and Macquarie Infrastructure Group, AKA MIG, and the abuses that follow the CDA’s (comprehensive development agreements) than many of our elected officials. The citizens owe much gratitude to grass roots organizations throughout the state such as the San Antonio Toll Party,, Backlands Coalition, Texas Toll Party, Austin Toll Party, and Independent Texans for bringing these issues out in the public. Something Governor Perry and Rick Williamson had hoped would not happen.

We now anxiously await TXDoT’s release of the DEIS (Draft Environmental Impact Statement which is a Phase I Environmental Study) for the I-69 portion of the Trans-Texas Corridor. This will narrow the path to a 4 mile wide area of focus where the quarter mile wide corridor may eventually lay within the borders of Waller County. It is now time to organize our thoughts and plans for action.

However, many questions must still be answered: Will our elected officials hold steadfast in the 80th legislature and truly represent their constituents or crater to the power structure wheeled by Speaker Tom Craddick, Gov. Perry, and the TTC pork barrel opportunists in Austin?

Most importantly, will we, the citizens, hold to the truth and keep to the facts to give our elected officials the tools they need to chip away at the plans for a quarter mile wide boondoggle, to be built and operated by a foreign company, the scope of which has never been seen anywhere? Texans have a real chance to bring this legislature back to the people, but that means being an active part in this legislature.

It is imperative that you contact your representatives and let them know your personal thoughts on the TTC. Give them the facts that they need as you can bet that they will be hearing only one side of the story from the Governor’s office. And tell them you will be there to spread the word about their agenda.

We need to maintain pressure and stay informed so that we can impact impending legislation. Contact organizations like Citizens for a Better Waller County for more information. Thirty-nine percent of the popular vote - we must show Gov. Perry that there’s not too much to celebrate from that….

Note: Don Garrett is the acting president for the Citizens for a Better Waller County (CBWC). Citizens for a better Waller County is a grassroots, non-partisan organization that exists to “promote the protection and wise use of Waller County’s natural and rural resources to ensure the healthy quality of life for all residents”.

© 2007 Citizens for a Better Waller County:

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TXDoT pays $1.5 million to D.C. lobbyists

Democrats rip state agency for hiring D.C. lobbyists

Feb. 2, 2007

Washington Bureau
Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

WASHINGTON — The dispute between Democrats and Texas Gov. Rick Perry over the hiring of Washington lobbyists for the state appeared to have ended last month when the governor canceled the controversial contracts.

But Democrats' anger has returned with their discovery that the Texas Department of Transportation has engaged its own lobbyists to advance the agency's interests in Washington.

TxDOT will pay more than $1.5 million in lobbying fees during a 13-month period that began in December.

The contracts, at $117,692 a month, are almost five times the cost of those that Republican Perry canceled in January with two well-connected Republican firms after an outcry in last year's campaign from Democrats and gubernatorial rival Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Republican who ran as an independent.

"Obviously, that's ridiculous that they would pay $1.5 million for five lobbyists in Washington, D.C.," state Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, said Thursday. "It just really is an outrage."

Dunnam questioned whether other state agencies have hired lobbyists. It's traditional for universities and cities to hire lobbyists but less common for state agencies.

A Houston Chronicle review of several state agencies that have significant dealings with the federal government found no other outside lobbying contracts.

Fight for gas tax funds

The Department of Transportation defends the contracts as necessary to the state's years-long campaign to bring back more of the gasoline taxes paid by Texas motorists into the federal Highway Trust Fund. The state gets 92 cents for every dollar it pays into the trust fund while some other states get well more than they contribute.

"Our position is: Until we receive all the gas tax funds that Texans send to Washington we are going to need to have every voice we can get to help us," said TxDOT spokesman Randall Dillard. The department has "not hidden the fact that we use federal consultants."

Democrats on Capitol Hill said, however, they learned of the existence of the TxDOT lobbying contracts only last week when two of the lobbyists — former Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro and William K. Moore of the lobbying firm ViaNovo — visited their offices.

The pair's longstanding Democratic ties did not mollify Texas Democrats who were dispatched by voters to Washington to represent the state's interests and who contend it's a waste of taxpayer money to hire lobbying firms.

"I like Garry Mauro, but I don't need Garry Mauro to talk to me about Texas transportation issues," said U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston.

Green was one of the most outspoken critics of the now-canceled contracts with Republican-connected lobbying firms.

Mauro lost the 1998 gubernatorial race to George W. Bush, and Moore was for years a Democratic congressional aide and campaign strategist.

Dillard said the current $1.5 million TxDOT contracts cover a deal with Rodman Co. worth slightly more than $1 million and $461,500 to be split among four subcontractors hired by Rodman — Mauro, ViaNovo, Chad Bradley & Associates and the Federalist Group.

Significant increase

The contracts are a significant increase over the department's prior two-year contract, for $850,000, with Association Strategies and two subcontractors, the Federalist Group and Chad Bradley & Associates.

The Federalist Group has proven most controversial to the Democrats because one of its lobbyists made sizable contributions to Republicans, including for an unsuccessful challenge to U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, the lone Texas Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

The contracts canceled by Perry, worth a total of $25,000 a month, were with the Federalist Group and Cassidy & Associates, which had ties to former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Dunnam, the state representative from Waco, this week wrote Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson asking for copies of all documents involving the Federalist Group and other lobbyists hired by TxDOT.

Spokesmen for the Texas Education Agency, Texas Health and Human Services Commission, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs and the Texas Workforce Commission said that rather than use lobbyists, they relied on the Texas Office of State-Federal Relations, a taxpayer-funded agency that reports to the governor.

The General Land Office signed a $24,000 contract with a Washington law firm for research of federal activities, not lobbying, spokesman Jim Suydam said.

The governor has significant sway over TxDOT because he appoints all five members of the Texas Transportation Commission that oversees the department.

Perry spokesman Robert Black said the Department of Transportation contracts were signed at the department's discretion and that Perry had nothing to do with them.

But Black also defended the contracts: "The fact of the matter is the transportation bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., is incredibly extensive and to have people on the ground who can traverse that bureaucratic maze is highly valuable."

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Eckels: "... had conversations with a New York firm and international investment banking firms."

Harris County judge could leave office early

Feb. 1, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said Wednesday he is mulling offers from the private sector and can't rule out walking away from the four-year term he just won in November.

An early resignation would create a political whirlwind in county government, where officials serve without term limits and open seats are rare.

"In the last 90 days I've had conversations with a New York firm and international investment banking firms," Eckels said, saying he often has been approached by lobbying and law firms interested in hiring him.

"I have had more serious discussions than in the past. They are more concrete."

He is contemplating those offers, he said, but it is premature to talk about who he is "visiting with."

"I don't have to decide today. But I don't rule out anything," said Eckels, who was in Los Angeles on business. "I wouldn't do anything until I knew the county was in good shape and I had a chance to visit with my colleagues. I'm not looking for something else to do."

Either way, Eckels said he will make a decision sooner rather than later. He has been county judge since 1995.

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt talked to Eckels Tuesday. Bettencourt declined to divulge the particulars of their conversation, but said his fellow Republican gave him the sense that he was seriously weighing other options.

"There's no doubt Robert is considering doing something else," Bettencourt said.

"He's already served 12 years in this job. There comes a time when everyone has to decide what difference they can make and whether they are ready for the next phase of their lives."

The county judge and four commissioners comprise Commissioners Court, the overall governing body in Texas counties.

If Eckels stepped down, it could create a political standoff, since the commissioners, who would be charged with appointing someone to serve until the next general election, are split 2-2 along party lines.

"The constitution doesn't allow offices to be vacant. Eckels will still serve until his successor is appointed and qualified," County Attorney Mike Stafford said. That also means that Eckels, a Republican, potentially could break a partisan tie in appointing his successor.

Possible successors mentioned in political circles include Bettencourt, District Clerk Charles Bacarisse, Commissioner Jerry Eversole and businessman Ned Holmes, all Republicans.

"From all indications, it seems he's decided he's found something better and is resigning. This is real," said Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, who frequently has butted heads with Eckels though both are Republicans.

Radack said he has spoken to several people who have direct knowledge about Eckels' intentions. "He hasn't talked to me about it and I wouldn't expect him to," Radack said. "We aren't big political buddies. We're not even little ones."

Other commissioners were more circumspect, though all said they had heard rumors about Eckels' plans. Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said she had not spoken to Eckels. Eversole and Commissioner El Franco Lee said they had.

"This is no bigger than any other overtures that have been made. He wanted to have a chance to evaluate it," Lee said. "It sounds like he's interested in what they are saying. He's been down this road so many times."

Eckels' salary is $141,552. He has the potential to make several times that in the private sector, which would value his knowledge of government and contacts in politics and business.

Eckels, a lawyer, formerly served in the state House.

The judge pointed out that he would have to resign before the expiration of his term anyway if he became a candidate for one of the several statewide offices up for election in 2010.

Eckels has eyed statewide offices for several years. He also was mentioned as a potential contender for the congressional seat vacated by former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay last year.

Chronicle reporter Bill Murphy contributed to this report.

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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Peters: DOT will aggressively support the development of the Corridors of the Future

Secretary Peters Advances Plans to Reduce Congestion on the Nation’s Busiest Highways

Announces Semi-Finalists in Corridors of the Future Program

February 1, 2007

Office of Public Affairs
U.S. Department of Transportation
Copyright 2007

Ambitious, forward-leaning plans to reduce traffic tie-ups on several of the nation’s busiest highways are one step closer to becoming a reality as a short list of interstate corridors under the Corridors of the Future program was announced today by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters.

Peters said that the Department is using this national congestion relief effort “to fight back against the traffic that is choking our major roads.” She said the Corridors of the Future effort is a progressive approach that includes transportation planning across state lines in ways that reduce congestion and preserve the efficient flow of goods and commerce across America. She went on to caution that “if we don’t act today, our economy will be facing a standstill in the future.”

The Department is advancing 14 of 38 proposals located on eight major transportation corridors including: I-95 between Florida and Maine; I-15 in southern California and Nevada; I-80/94 and I-90 linking Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan; I-5 in California, Washington and Oregon; I-70 from Missouri to Ohio; I-69 from Texas to Michigan; I-80 in Nevada and California; and I-10 from California to Florida.

The proposals currently include various combinations of expanded highway capacity, truck-only lanes, increased freight and passenger rail development, and extensive use of innovative technologies to keep traffic moving and improve overall safety. Peters said the applicants “exhibited creativity and innovation in their initial proposals to reduce congestion.” She indicated that the Department looks forward to the next phase of the program in which these ideas will be further developed and refined.

The 14 projects were selected based on the potential of each to reduce congestion on the eight corridors of national and regional significance using innovative financing and project delivery techniques. She noted that the Department will select up to five Corridors of the Future in the summer of 2007.

Peters said the Department will aggressively support the development of the Corridors of the Future by accelerating permitting schedules, identifying new financing options, and promoting innovative project delivery methods to “move these projects from the drawing board to completion faster than ever before.”

The Corridors of the Future program is one element of DOT’s six-point National Strategy to Reduce Congestion on America’s Transportation Network launched in May 2006. The overall national congestion initiative is focused on reducing traffic on highways, relieving freight bottlenecks, and reducing flight delays.

Contact: Brian Turmail
Tel.: (202) 366-4570

© 2007 U.S. Department of Transportation:

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

"We’ll continue poking our noses into this and other stinky public pork plates."

Free Press on the Block


Fort Worth Weekly
Copyright 2007

Surely Fort Worth Weekly publisher Lee Newquist’s phone will be ringing any second now with a call from Australia and an offer of millions of dollars. After all, your favorite alt-weekly criticized the Trans-Texas Corridor in a recent cover story (“Detours on a Super-Highway,” Jan. 10, 2007), and it’s pretty obvious that foreign fat cats who lease U.S. highways and charge tolls to drivers don’t take kindly to criticism. Macquarie Media Group of Australia is set to pay upward of $100 million for American Consolidated Media, which owns small community newspapers across Texas — newspapers that have criticized the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor.

OK now, follow the bouncing kangaroo: Macquarie Media is a sister company to Macquarie Infrastructure Group, one of the world’s major toll road operators. In Indiana, Macquarie has partnered with Cintra, a Spanish company, on a major toll-road project. And Cintra has the contract to build — and reap profits from — a major portion of the TTC. That corridor project, however, is drawing loud howls of protest from Texans who blanch at using eminent domain to take land from thousands of farmers, business operators, and homeowners to build a humongous slab of pavement that people would then have to pay through the nose to drive on. What better way to quell critics than by buying up the newspapers that are questioning the project?

The Weekly cover story included criticisms that the project could wipe towns off the map, gobble up about a million acres of farm and ranch land, crumble the state’s current highway system, and gouge motorists with tolls as high as 44 cents a mile. Static will let you know if any money-waving Aussies show up in the newsroom. In the meantime, we’ll continue poking our noses into this and other stinky public pork plates.

© 2007 Fort Worth Weekly:

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

“We want to take our capitols back for the working men and women in our country.”

Don’t Tag Texas

January 30, 2007

By JOANN LIVINGSTON, Managing Editor
Waxahachie Daily Light
Copyright 2007

One hundred and seventy-one years after the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence, opponents of the Trans-Texas Corridor plan to send a message to lawmakers: Don’t Tag Texas.

A massive rally is planned for March 2 in Austin, with organizers hoping to see at least 100,000 - if not a half-million people - march up Congress Avenue beginning at 2 p.m. to the Capitol steps to stage a several-hour rally that will oppose not only Gov. Rick Perry’s signature project but also a federal animal identification program.

“Don’t Tag Texas covers both issues: toll tags and animal tags,” said former land commissioner candidate Hank Gilbert in an interview Monday evening. “We picked March 2 to hold the rally because that’s Texas Independence Day. I felt that was a fitting day to have the rally since this is an issue that affects all Texans.

“It’s time for us to stand up for our independence,” he said. “Whether you live in downtown Houston or Waxahachie, Texas, you’re going to be impacted by both of these programs. Anytime our major roadways become tollways and anytime our producers have to add more expense to their livestock operations, the cost of goods goes up. Whether you’re in agriculture or a dentist, you’re going to pay more for necessities.”

Gilbert said organizers plan a big, fun event.

“It’s going to be different, but it’s also going to leave a lasting impression with a loud and positive message we want heard: We want our state back,” said Gilbert, who expressed a number of concerns with the Trans-Texas Corridor, the first leg of a roadway that would stretch from Mexico across Texas to link up with roadways connecting across the United States to Canada.

Gilbert, who ran as the Democratic nominee for land commissioner, said his campaign had focused on both issues: the Trans-Texas Corridor and the federal animal identification program.

“Those are two issues I know my opponent had supported through legislation and voting, and prior to the election, he flip-flopped and said he was against them,” Gilbert said. “This whole thing is power-driven and both of these issues are inner-linked together.”

Economically, the Trans-Texas Corridor would aid foreign countries that could deliver their goods into Mexican ports so as to bypass tariffs and import fees into the United States, according to Gilbert.

“The TTC provides a gateway from Mexico into our country and all the way to Canada. It allows these major corporations that have begun shifting a large part of their manufacturing and business to third world countries to import back into Mexico,” he said. “Of course, China is a big player in this because so much manufacturing goes on in China and Taiwan. Those goods and services can come in through Mexican ports - and those ports are being upgraded by China now.”

The two issues of toll roads and animal identification tags are being fought in Texas for one reason, Gilbert believes: “It all has to start here. Whether you’re talking animal IDs or the TTC, the powers that be in this country know that if you can win in Texas, so goes the rest of the country.

“That’s why this rally is key and why we’re making appeals across the country to help support this thing. If we can stop it here, then we stop it for the rest of the country,” he said, saying other states involved in toll road fights include Indiana, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Gilbert’s background includes being an East Texas cattle rancher and small businessman for most of his life, along with serving as a high school educator.

“I’m not a politician. I got into the (land commissioner’s) race because somebody’s got to stand up for the people,” he said. “Clearly, the people in Austin and Washington, D.C. - on both sides of the aisle - aren’t doing that for us. They’re not standing up for 98 percent of the people they represent. They’re only standing up for the 2 percent that has the money - that’s who they’re listening to.”

He believes people are “sick and tired” and that they will show up in numbers in Austin on March 2.

“These are two issues the Legislature needs to go back and visit,” he said. “They need to repeal these and then come back to the people and say, ‘Help us work this out a better way.’ ”

At least 100,000 in attendance for the rally would bring national attention, Gilbert said, saying, “We need national attention to let the 47 contiguous states know we have the same problems. We also hope to spur similar protests on the steps of their capitols, culminating into one big protest at the nation’s capitol.

“We need to let these legislators know we’re tired of this,” he said. “We want to take our capitols back for the working men and women in our country.”

With less disposable income and the cost of goods and services on the rise, the working class is being squeezed, “and then you start throwing tolls on top of this … . You’re in the red until something changes,” Gilbert said. “Our government in this country has shown us for the last decade that they’re not interested in changing for the working people. The benefits are going to those in the higher level of income - but they’re not the ones funding the economy. It’s the people making a lot less than that.”

Gilbert points to both parents having to work now in the middle class - and many of those have more than one job.

“Texas is leading the nation in foreclosures, we’re leading the country in poverty and uninsured people, and there’s a reason for that,” he said. “There’s not enough money to go around, and the day of the stay-at-home mom or dad is gone. You don’t have that anymore for middle class America.”

The Trans-Texas Corridor is only part of what Gilbert describes as a potential 1 million-acre problem for Texas and its residents.

“Something else can be done without having to go into a private contract with a private entity, and without having to take 1 million acres of land in eight roadways for Texas. That 4,000 miles of toll road is going to consume approximately 1 million acres of rural Texas land,” Gilbert said. “It will turn out to be the largest eminent domain project in the history of this country.”

He said the eminent domain language in the bill creating the Texas-Trans Corridor is unlike any he’s seen before.

Affected property owners are given an appraisal price, which they then have the right to appeal to a three-member committee. The committee then sets a price, he said.

“In regular cases, if either party doesn’t agree, they can appeal it to a court and jury and nothing is done until a final determination,” Gilbert said. “In this instance, once that committee arrives at a figure, the landowner can still appeal to a court and jury, but TxDOT (the Texas Department of Transportation) can take that figure and go to the county clerk and file it and then send out a 60-day eviction notice. And that’s the law. You have 60 days to leave, and then they come in with a bulldozer, knock down your home and barn and they can build the roadway before your case gets to court.

“The likelihood of getting the decision turned over is slim to none,” he said.
“It’s a nice way of saying, ‘We want your property. This is what we’re going to pay and you’re going to take it.’ ”

TxDOT held 55 hearings in communities along the projected path of the Trans-Texas Corridor, with Gilbert attending and testifying at 21 of them.

He recalls hearing landowners’ stories about their properties and how they had been passed down from generation to generation - and how losing those properties would affect them.
“There was always the landowner, about the age of my parents, who would get up and say, with tears in their eyes that ‘My property is in that blue line and that land has been in our family for four generations,’ or ‘five generations,’ ‘and now we may lose it.’ And I also heard people say, ‘You come to take my land, your gun better be bigger than mine,’” said Gilbert, saying he also expressed the same sentiments to TxDOT. “We’re not going to stand for it. This project, if allowed to go to fruition, will cause a civil uprising in this state. One thing in this state is true: Texans value their property and their property rights. And you can tie sovereignty into that.

“We’re going to give this roadway to a foreign investment company for 50 years? There’s probably been more battles waged in this state over land - physical altercations - from the Alamo on over land in this state,” he said. “For our own state to now say, ‘We’re going to take it from you and give it to a Spanish company’ - I don’t think so.”

The impact of the Trans-Texas Corridor would be far-reaching, from removing irreplaceable farmland from its use to displacing farming families that would never be able to get back into agriculture, Gilbert fears.

“It’s virtually impossible for a person to decide, ‘I’m going into farming or ranching’ unless they have extremely good credit or a lot of money. The people in agriculture today in Texas are only there because that land has been passed down. You can’t pay $3,000, $4,000 or $5,000 an acre for land and expect to make it back in farming or ranching,” Gilbert said. “Most of your big, viable agriculture producers do it in this state because of family land - and when you take away that land from a family, you’re displacing a part of agriculture that will never come back. What’s more important? A big, wide, unpopulated highway you pay to drive on or wondering what you’re going to eat next or who you’re going to eat next? Or where it’s going to come from?”

Gilbert and the rally’s other organizers are setting up a Web site - - that is expected to go online any day.

“Hopefully, we’ll have some material up on it (Tuesday) to where people can start going to that site,” Gilbert said. “We’re setting it up so people can subscribe and receive automatic e-mails every time it updates. We’ll also have contact information and have a place where people can e-mail questions to me or one of the other event organizers.”

On the Internet

E-mail JoAnn at

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Sen. Kirk Watson takes on the 'Straw Man'


Stopping area toll roads doesn't mean a free ride

January 29, 2007

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin
State Senator

Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

In the final analysis, anything that helps people move through a region — be it a road, rail, or bus — is nothing more than a tool. And, as with a hammer or power saw, if you aren't protecting the people using it, or you don't know what you're building with it, then you're better off never picking it up at all.

For some time, I've been recommending that the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board shelve a vote on the Phase II Toll Roads. CAMPO is our region's primary transportation planning group, and its board of elected officials named me chairman.

That night, the board unanimously accepted my recommendation to pull down the Phase II plan.

The Phase II decision wasn't about winners and losers. There can be no winners when traffic saps the freedom of Central Texans, or when leaders fail to address the problem in an open, accountable way that treats drivers as valued constituents.

Instead, this decision offers all of us a blank slate upon which to plan our transportation future. We must take advantage of this action, reject polarizing rhetoric, and come together to prepare for our future – identifying tools we'll have, how we'll use them, and what we'll create with them.

Traffic congestion in Central Texas is a major problem, and it's getting worse. To imagine the future, I think of an important constituent who isn't driving yet — my son, Cooper.

Cooper's in sixth grade. Before he's out of high school, we'll have 159,000 more people — two Round Rock's worth — on Central Texas roads. When he's only a junior in college, we'll have added 324,000 people — another Williamson County. So when we talk about transportation challenges, we're not talking about unseen generations. We're talking about us. We're talking about now.

This task demands a comprehensive regional transportation plan that includes new roads, public transportation, and passenger rail — and effective planning.

These different pieces should work together to improve our lives at a price we can afford. They should form a blueprint for our region's prosperity and quality of life.

I will work, as CAMPO chairman and as the vice-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, to help the region craft a comprehensive plan that's supported by, and that protects, the people it's meant to serve. We should never be faced with a transportation policy that does less to help the public than to tax it, or that treats commuters as little more than resources to be harvested.

While I look forward to hearing creative transportation ideas in the coming months, let me be very clear: I won't support a transportation policy that's less than completely open and fully accountable to the people of Central Texas. One of the lessons of the past several months is that "don't ask, just tell" policies — about tolls or anything else — cannot and shouldn't work.

But reality requires action. We must stop talking about "free roads," as if there ever were such things. Any tool we use, any road we're on, costs money from some source. We can't simply oppose things or divert attention from problems with slogans or personal attacks. Our citizens are too smart to let half-truths, untruths, innuendo and conspiracy theories define our future. We don't have the time and shouldn't have the patience for unaccountable ideologues distorting our present or jeopardizing our future.

And we can't pretend that a single tool — be it more roads, new trains, or nothing — is going to solve anything by itself.

Already, I believe, we're moving in the right direction.

I recommended and the CAMPO board has endorsed a process that should leave the organization more functional, accountable, responsive and strong. And I've formed a task force of local leaders and national experts to evaluate ways we build and pay for our transportation systems.

But there's no monopoly on good policy.

So, together, let's get this issue right. Let's evaluate our substantial traffic problem and talk about the comprehensive transportation system we need, want, and must pay for. Then, let's build it, for us and those who are coming after us.

This conversation is vital to our region's future. Think of it as the opposite of a traffic jam — if you don't get on this road, the rest of us can't get anywhere.
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"Look for some transportation fireworks in the next four months."

Senator, Transportation Department off to rough start in session.

January 29, 2007

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

That loud "D'oh!" you keep hearing from East 11th Street is the sound that Texas Department of Transportation officials make every time state Sen. John Carona files a bill. Or opens his mouth.

Carona, a Dallas Republican who leads the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, had filed 24 bills as of late last week, and several amount to a repudiation of what Transportation Department leaders have done the past few years with toll roads.

Then there was that little matter of Carona's call this month for Gov. Rick Perry to replace Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson. Carona has publicly referred to the department as arrogant and told me that his overall theme for transportation policy this session will be "proceed with caution."

That stands in contrast to state transportation officials, whose theme has been and continues to be more like "Katy bar the door."

Now, it would be one thing if this were just any old legislator taking these shots. But Carona's committee, like its twin in the House led by Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, is the gatehouse for all legislation that the Transportation Department would like to see happen. Or see stopped.

Carona, it appears, won't be anxious to do much of either.

He has filed a bill to outlaw so-called non-compete clauses for toll roads, language in bond sales documents that bar the Transportation Department from building highways that would hurt a tollway's bottom line. Another would reduce from 70 years to 30 years the length of contracts with private companies to build and operate toll roads. The Transportation Department wants that 70-year cap erased.

He also has a bill that would bar the Transportation Department from accepting upfront payments from private companies that want to build toll roads, like the $1.2 billion that Spanish-American consortium Cintra-Zachry said it would pay to build part of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

I should point out that Carona is not against all toll roads. And two of his bills would generate more money for the Transportation Department.

Senate Bill 165 would have the state's 20-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax float upward with the annual inflation rate for highway construction. And that inflation index would be applied to the whole gasoline tax rate, including the fed's 18.4 cents-a-gallon, which means it would grow fast and generate billions over time.

But this isn't necessarily a friendly bill from the Perry administration's point of view because rising gas taxes would probably make people even less likely to support toll roads, Perry's preferred strategy for building highways.

Senate Bill 126, meanwhile, would redirect about $300 million a year of various fees to the Texas Mobility Fund, which is used by the Transportation Department to build, mostly, tollways.

So, Carona giveth, but he mostly taketh away. Look for some transportation fireworks in the next four months.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Macquarie places bid on SH 121 toll road project

Australia's Macquarie Infrastructure to bid for Texas toll road project


AFX News Limited
Copyright 2007

SYDNEY (AFX) - Macquarie Infrastructure Group (MIG) and Macquarie Infrastructure Partners said they have lodged a binding offer with the Texas Department of Transportation to develop the SH121 toll road project in northern Dallas.

The project comprises the construction of a 23 mile (42 km) toll road.

The pair are the sole equity partners in the project consortium which includes construction partners, Kiewit Texas Construction LP, a unit of leading US transportation contractor Kiewit Corp, and Texas highway constructor JD Abrams.

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