Saturday, March 31, 2007

"Moratorium proposal faces roadblocks by legislative leaders despite veto-proof support in both the House and Senate."

Toll road bids running out of fuel


Gary Scharrer, Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Public wrath over private company toll roads has soured most Texas lawmakers on a 2003 law that started the controversy, but some of their leaders say they can't support a moratorium on it — at least not yet.

As they jockeyed over whether and how to slow down toll-road privatization, the state's first private toll highway contract, to build toll lanes between Austin and Seguin, was quietly signed just one day after a Senate panel held the only hearing so far on a moratorium bill.

The bill, which would put decisions on future contracts on hold for two years, is expected to pass out of a Senate committee this week but stay parked on the back burner as a last-resort measure while lawmakers look for compromise in the final two months of the session.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has directed Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee Chairman John Carona to allow the panel to approve the bill, despite Carona's discomfort with it.

"I think a moratorium ought to be a last resort rather than a first response and, while I support a moratorium as a last resort, I believe it's much too early in the session," Carona, R-Dallas, said.

The veteran legislator said he has assurances that Dewhurst will give him time to try to draft legislation that calms the outrage over proposed 50-year state contracts with private companies to build and operate toll roads.

More Information

State lawmakers unhappy with privatizing toll roads are trying to halt such contracts for two years. Their moratorium proposal faces roadblocks by legislative leaders despite veto-proof support in both the House and Senate.

Local impact:

Private companies hope to develop and operate toll lanes on 47 miles of U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 on the North Side. A contract could come as early as next year, but a moratorium would stall work for a year or two.

Out of the gate:

The Texas Department of Transportation has quietly signed the state's first toll-road concession contract to extend Texas 130 from south of Austin to Seguin, putting it out of reach of the proposed moratorium.

Critics are howling at contract provisions that restrict competing highways near the toll roads and contain prohibitive terms for buying back the roads in the future.

They say the specter of high toll rates combined with a loss of control over Texas highways has inspired broad, bipartisan support for a moratorium.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, has 27 of 31 senators backing his moratorium bill. On the House side, 111 of 150 members have signed up for Rep. Lois Kolkhorst's bill.

"It boils down to whether the 10th largest economy in the world (Texas) can build its own highways or if we're going to give private equities the chance to take all the profits from Texas," Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said.

Investors will net a projected $300 million over the next 50 years for private company toll roads in major cities along the Interstate 35 corridor, Kolkhorst said.

"The real question is, do you want that $300 million just on one highway to be plowed into more highways in Texas, or do you want that $300 million to go to Wall Street and Spain? That's what it boils down to," she said. "That's a clear policy question."

Debate heating

Many lawmakers likely will defer to Nichols, who spent eight years on the Texas Transportation Commission before becoming a senator. He expects a moratorium to pass.

"We need to call a time-out. We need to fix this problem, and we need to fix it right," Nichols said. "The current plan removes the control of your future transportation system out of your own hands. It sells the future revenues at a discount, and it's designed to extract exorbitant toll rates."

Dewhurst called those rates "astronomical" but declined to discuss them because of confidentiality agreements with the private companies.

Decisions about the state's future highway system will be dictated by corporations instead of Texans unless lawmakers intervene now, Nichols said.

But Carona and House Transportation Chairman Mike Krusee, R-Taylor, are urging caution. Political dissent will scare off investors and increase the state's financing costs for building roads, they warn.

Texas is short "tens of billions of dollars" needed to build highways, Krusee said.

Publicly run regional toll authorities can build some of the roads but lack necessary bonding authority to build all of them, he said.

"Once we tell the capital market that Texas is closed for two years, will they ever want to come back? Because it's very expensive to make proposals," he said. "The capital market looks for willing partners and if Texas is not a willing partner, they leave."

A moratorium is shortsighted because it simply postpones a solution for two years, Carona said.

"What we need to focus on is a bill that takes care of the problems and allows us to meet our transportation needs," he said. "A moratorium stops the process, but no part of that bill addresses how you will fix the problem."

Carona also favors indexing the state's gasoline tax to keep pace with inflation. The state's 20-cent per gallon tax has not increased since 1991.

Texas' ongoing population boom requires "a massive road building project today — not two years from now," he said.

Done deal

The concession-development agreement to extend Texas 130 from south of Austin to Seguin was widely trumpeted last summer when the state and a group led by the Spanish firm Cintra and Zachry Construction Corp. of San Antonio settled on terms.

But not a peep was made when officials signed the contract March 22 at the Texas Department of Transportation office in Austin, across the street from the Capitol.

"We made an announcement in June, when we made a tough decision to do it," said Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

Awarding Cintra the construction fulfills a contract guaranteeing the firm at least one segment of the project, Kolkhorst said.

Cintra-Zachry will pay to build and operate the 40-mile, four-lane tollway and has pledged to give the state $25 million in up-front cash and a share of profits. The road could open in 2012, with toll fees set at about 15 cents a mile in today's dollars and increasing with annual growth of state domestic product.

But Kolkhorst said it's costing Texas $19 million in environmental and legal fees to get the $25 million, "so we're really not even going to net anything on that one."

Up next is a concession to make Texas 121 north of Dallas into a toll road, another Cintra project that has created an even bigger uproar. An agreement was unveiled in February and could be signed within three months, said José Lopez, a Cintra director in Austin.

"We would be very happy to sign tomorrow," Lopez said.

The North Texas Tollway Authority, which had agreed not to bid on the project, said it could have matched Cintra's upfront carrot of $2.1 billion and that for the rest of the 50-year contract they could have paid $4.2 billion compared to Cintra's $700 million.

Motorists will pay the $3.5 billion difference if the deal is signed, officials say.

In San Antonio, Cintra-Zachry is competing with a consortium headed by Macquarie of Australia to develop and operate toll lanes on 47 miles of U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 on the city's North Side. That contract could be signed as early as next year.

A moratorium on concession contracts could stall that work for a year or two.

"A lot of it depends on what the language actually says," said Clay Smith, a TxDOT engineer in San Antonio.

When Cintra-Zachry submitted a proposal in 2005 for the $2.2 billion project, about $630 million in public money was freed up for other uses. If environmental studies get federal clearance this summer, construction could start next year and finish by 2012.

San Antonio lawmakers say they're hearing plenty of complaints about toll roads from Bexar County residents.

"A lot of it is because of the lack of information," Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, said.

Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, who supports a moratorium, emphasized that a two-year cooling off period would not affect toll roads built by public toll road authorities.

"We have to continue building highways. The people are coming whether we like it or not," Wentworth said, noting it took Texas hundreds of years to reach a population of 23 million but its population is expected to double over the next 30 years.

Carona can't promise that a consensus will emerge from negotiations on SB 1929, the moratorium bill, but he complimented Krusee and TxDOT officials for showing good-faith efforts to resolve nagging worries about long-term private toll road projects.

The moratorium option hovering over negotiations will help that process, he said.

Staff Writer Patrick Driscoll contributed to this report from San Antonio.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

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"Some lawmakers are scrambling to kill Senate Bill 1267 ... Nichols isn't backing down."

Local leaders rip into toll road bill

March 31, 2007

Scott Streater
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

A state bill designed to protect motorists from high toll fees could unintentionally hamper efforts to bring Dallas-Fort Worth into compliance with federal ozone standards, a growing number of local leaders say.

The legislation some lawmakers are scrambling to kill is Senate Bill 1267, sponsored by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville. The legislation would prevent the state Transportation Department from entering into contracts in which private companies put up billions of dollars to build roads in exchange for permission to charge tolls, in some cases for decades, to recoup costs and make a profit.

Nichols and other lawmakers want to place a two-year moratorium on the contracts because they're concerned that the agreements don't include safeguards to control toll fees. They're particularly concerned about clauses in some contracts that prohibit new roadways that would compete with the tollways.

But state and regional leaders are depending on the private money to pay for a host of transportation projects that, in addition to relieving congestion, are designed to slash ozone-forming pollution from cars, trucks and off-road construction equipment. These projects include expanding railways, building park-and-ride lots and adding high-occupancy vehicle lanes to promote car pools.

The projects are an integral component of a federally mandated clean-air plan that outlines how the region will bring Dallas-Fort Worth into compliance with the ozone standards. The region is required to show that it has the money to pay for these projects, said Thomas Diggs, chief of the federal Environmental Protection Agency's air-planning section in Dallas.

More than a dozen regional leaders traveled to Austin last week to speak out against the bill at a Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee hearing.

Clean-air fallout

'If things get delayed we're automatically out of compliance with our clean-air plan,' Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes said in a recent interview. 'We've got a big problem.'

Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell, one of the bill's most vocal critics, said, 'If they put a moratorium on, it will have ripple effects that people just don't realize.'

Nichols and other supporters say the legislation will not kill road projects. They say state and regional transportation officials can use bonds and other resources to pay for the projects.

But the pressure has had some effect.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the transportation panel, said last week that he does not plan to let the bill out of committee.

That will make it difficult for Nichols' bill to reach the Senate floor for a vote, said Harvey Kronberg, an Austin political analyst

The bill, however, is far from dead; it has been co-sponsored by 27 of the 31 senators. What's more, a companion bill -- House Bill 2772, sponsored by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham -- has more than 100 co-sponsors and is moving quickly.

Nichols isn't backing down.

'I think this bill still has lots of life and we do not intend to give up,' he said. 'We are on a mission.'

The bill is the latest wrinkle in local plans to bring Dallas-Fort Worth into compliance with federal ground-level ozone standards by 2010. The region faces severe federal sanctions, including mandatory emission caps that hamper economic development.

Emissions from automobile tailpipes and off-road construction equipment account for 74 percent of ozone-forming emissions in the nine-county region, said David Schanbacher, chief engineer for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

That's why they play a central role in the state clean-air plan for the region.

Texas 121

One proposed project that could be affected by the legislation, and that is crucial to the clean-air plan, is the expansion of Texas 121 in Collin and Denton counties.

The Transportation Department wants to enter into a partnership with a consortium led by Cintra, based in Spain, to build the expansion. The section of Texas 121 would become a tollway, and Cintra would collect tolls for 50 years.

Cintra is offering a package worth $5 billion that includes a $2.1 billion 'concession' payment that can be used on other transportation projects in the region. Regional officials plan to use some of that $2.1 billion for road projects designed to cut ozone pollution.

Nichols said he plans to offer an amendment to his bill that would exempt HOV-lane construction from the two-year moratorium.

But Nichols is convinced that the public-private partnerships are unnecessary and that clean-air projects can get money elsewhere.

'In my opinion, knowing what I know with the dollars involved in those projects, I don't see any problem,' he said. 'They can continue rolling on the plan they're on.'


Ground-level ozone

The federal government regulates ozone levels as a health concern.

At high concentrations, ozone can trigger asthma attacks, stunt lung development in children and aggravate bronchitis, emphysema and other respiratory problems.

Nine counties are in a regional ozone violation zone: Collin, Dallas, Denton, Ellis, Johnson, Kaufman, Parker, Rockwall and Tarrant.

Ozone, the main ingredient in smog, needs lots of sunlight and heat to form. Ozone season in Dallas-Fort Worth runs from May 1 through Oct. 31.

Ozone is produced when nitrogen oxides mix with volatile organic compounds. The nitrogen oxides and organic compounds come mostly from automobile exhaust and industry smokestacks. Trees also produce the organic compounds as part of photosynthesis.

SOURCE: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

© 2007 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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Harris County plan might reduce the likelihood that future toll roads would be developed by private companies

Plan would break logjam on toll road, freeway projects

State and county would share in proceeds collected from drivers

March 30, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Tolls paid by local drivers would pay for new area freeways as well as toll projects under an arrangement state and county officials are negotiating.

The plan, subject to approval by Commissioners Court and the Texas Transportation Commission, would break an impasse that has stalled three projects the Harris County Toll Road Authority wants to build promptly.

It could also reduce the likelihood that future toll roads in the area will be developed by private companies that might ship most of the toll revenue elsewhere, said Art Storey, the county's infrastructure director.

Gary Trietsch, district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, presented the proposal recently to elected officials on the Houston-Galveston Area Council's Transportation Policy Committee.

A 56-project list

Trietsch listed 36 toll projects and 20 non-toll projects planned through 2035. He said these could probably be built, using toll funding, within 30 years and possibly as little as 12 years.

"I don't look at it as a wish list," he said. "I think we can implement it in a reasonable amount of time."

Storey and Trietsch said they roughed out the concept for sharing toll money at the urging of newly appointed Texas Transportation Commission member Ned Holmes of Houston. He asked them to resolve a stalemate between the Toll Road Authority and TxDOT that began last year.

Ending free rides

After decades of allowing the county to build toll roads on state right of way for free, TxDOT told the Toll Road Authority in May that it would have to pay $1 billion up front, plus some share of its future toll revenue, to use state land for toll projects on the Grand Parkway, Beltway 8 and Hempstead Highway.

The new proposal would waive up-front payment to TxDOT, but calls for the county to spend a share of its toll funds on various TxDOT projects now classified as "unfunded" in the region's mobility plan.

The share of the 56 projects' cost that the county would pay remains to be negotiated. Storey said the authority's annual revenue is about $400 million, which is only about 2 percent of the $22 billion total price tag.

That revenue will increase, however, as more toll roads are built, and the cost would be leveraged by bonds supported with toll revenue. Also, other counties in the Houston area are invited to join in similar agreements, Trietsch said.

Instead of viewing the concept as a way to siphon county toll revenue for state projects, Storey said he sees it as expanding the Toll Road Authority's role. If the county does not participate, TxDOT has said it will build and operate new toll roads itself or seek bids from private firms to build and run them for profit.

Priority for toll projects

Although the sequence in which the projects are built has not been worked out, Storey said toll projects on the list will likely get priority so they can begin generating revenue for the non-tolled ones.

Janelle Gbur, TxDOT spokeswoman, said the department still plans to build other projects over the years using federal dollars from fuel taxes.

"But we are looking for a way to fund all the needed projects, and federal funding is woefully inadequate to being these forward fast enough," she said.

Storey and Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack — both of whom were indignant when TxDOT said it would require payment for use of its right of way — praised the new proposal.

"This gives HCTRA the ability to analyze and build things that will bring in revenue, and it doesn't allow that income to go to the private sector," Radack said.

Storey described the idea as "visionary" and called it "the biggest single concept I've worked on in the 50 years I've been in this business."

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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"Some at the Capitol think... there won’t be political consequences, as long as individual members don’t take bad votes on those issues."

Republicans should recall their campaign issues


by William Lutz

Lone Star Report
Volume 11, Issue 31
Copyright 2007

Remember back in 1997 when Speaker Pete Laney and his lieutenants played games with the bill that required parental notice before a minor has an abortion?

The House’s top brass used every procedural game in the book to kill this legislation, even though it had widespread popular support and a majority of the House co-sponsored the bill.

Republicans were rightly frustrated and furious. The bill’s defeat galvanized the GOP inside and outside the Capitol. (It became law two years later.)

Unfortunately, history has a way of repeating itself.

In 2006, Republican candidates heard loudly and clearly from Texans that they want something done about illegal immigration, have concerns about toll roads, and are fed up with spiraling property taxes. The party listened, and its candidates promised to address these issues.

Many GOP legislators are working diligently to keep those campaign promises. Yet three months into the legislative session, all proposed remedies seem in danger of getting chewed up by the legislative sausage mill.

Let’s take a look at each issue in turn.

Immigration. The business lobby is telling lawmakers that the best state action on the immigration issue is no action at all.

Unfortunately, it appears some businesses and industries out there enhance their short-term profits by exploiting low-wage illegal labor.

While some limited legal immigration – properly structured – can yield benefits, the grass-roots base of the party also understands that illegal immigration increases the cost of government services and imposes a hidden tax on all those here legally. It also hurts the job prospects of those who play by the rules – forcing them to accept lower wages, if they can find a job at all.

Some at the Capitol simply want to put some more money into border security, pass a resolution bashing the feds, and maybe a couple of token bills, then go home.

That’s certainly not what most Republicans promised in their campaigns, and it’s certainly not what the Republican platform says.

The vast majority of GOP primary voters want the Legislature to take action to ensure that Texas will not give government goodies to people who break our laws, and clearly state that people who want to come to America should do official business in English and try to become Americans.

Taxes. The Legislature actually has a better record on this issue, largely because of the excellent property tax relief measures passed in 2006. Still, keeping property taxes low means empowering taxpayers with new tools to ensure that their tax cuts are not eroded in five years by appraisal and local spending increases.

Remember when more than 90 percent of Republican primary voters said they wanted appraisal caps, and remember when more than 90 percent of Republican primary voters said they wanted it to be easier to rollback local tax increases? Some legislators seem not rot to remember at all. So far,neither appraisal caps nor revenue caps have even gotten a committee hearing in either house.

Some are unsure the votes are there to pass tough taxpayer protection measures. This is not a legitimate concern. If 76 House members and 16 Senators want to vote for higher property taxes and more spending on local government services, that is certainly their prerogative. But they should have to take that stand publicly, and then next year, the voters can decide whether to retain them.

Toll roads. This is perhaps the best parallel to the parental notification fight in 1997. There are many excellent bills to fix a lot of the problems in this area. One of them, HB 2772 by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), has 111 co-authors (as of March 29). It has also been endorsed by the State Republican Executive Committee.

The bill would declare a moratorium for two years on comprehensive development agreements, which allow private companies to operate toll roads in Texas in exchange for an up-front concession fee. During that period, the Legislature will study the issue.

During the last election, legislators got an earful from constituents on the Trans-Texas Corridor, toll roads, and comprehensive development agreements.

Will the leadership give the full Texas House an opportunity to debate these issues or will the powers that be abuse House procedures to keep these measures off the House floor?

Among Republican activists, there is growing frustration with the inaction on their top priorities. Some at the Capitol think it’s OK to do business as the Democrats did and bottle up measures favored by most Texans in committee. They think – as Laney did – that there won’t be political consequences, as long as individual members don’t take bad votes on those issues.

In 2006, the Republicans in Congress found out the hard way that – yes – there are political consequences when the base of a party is demoralized.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of time left in the legislative session, where lawmakers can take action on these issues and further justify the confidence placed in them by the voters.

That way, the frustration that many Texans felt over the way the Democratic leadership mishandled the parental notification bill won’t reappear this year.

© 2007 The Lone Star Report:

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Friday, March 30, 2007

"A toll road built by private investors gives our taxpayers' money to those investors for 50 years."

Letters ters from Plano, Frisco, Sachse

March 30, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Policy, not politics

Re: "Getting Realistic About Highway 121 – Shapiro, Self offer different visions for funding," Sunday Editorials.

First and foremost, the exchange between County Judge Keith Self and me was never about politics. It was about policy. No matter how or why this editorial board brought politics into the mix, it is belittling to us both. We both agree that there is no animosity between us, today nor ever.

Mr. Self and I have a fundamental similarity and a fundamental difference. Our common goal is to build more roads for Collin County's burgeoning population and build them quickly. Where we differ is who should build them. I believe the Cintra contract is a manifestation of this difference. A toll road built by private investors gives our taxpayers' money to those investors for 50 years. The North Texas Tollway Authority has a stellar track record of building roads to meet our needs in North Texas, and I believe that agency should be granted the contract to continue to do so.

Mr. Self believes roads must be built with priority funding from the state's general revenue. Throughout the history of state-funded roadways, the general revenue fund has never been used, nor could it ever sustain, the cost of building roads. Over the years, we have created tools for transportation funding, such as the gasoline tax, created in 1923, bonding through the Mobility Fund and toll roads.

Together, our ultimate goal is to build more roads. Mr. Self and I also agree they should be built at a fair price to the taxpayer in order to meet the needs of this dynamic area and for the future of Collin County.

Florence Shapiro, State Senator, District 8

Road delay essential

Re: "We need bold highway funding – New direction needed for the state, but Collin County cannot afford a delay on 121, says County Judge Keith Self," Friday guest column.

The article by Mr. Self concerning the State Highway 121 project is completely off-target. Mr. Self asserts that a two-year delay in the construction of Highway 121 is unacceptable. This self-serving view attempts to justify the rush to construction and subsequent financial fiasco approved by Collin County.

To the contrary, a two-year or longer delay in construction of Highway 121 and all other toll road projects in the state is absolutely necessary. A completely revised method of funding highway construction must be enacted before we are asked to fork over any more money into this bottomless pit. Toll roads should be built on their own merits, and the tollbooths removed after funding costs and return on investment are recovered.

The North Texas Tollway Authority's habit of building unneeded and unused bridges and airport tunnels with revenue from other projects must be halted. Sending money on needed roads out of the country is ridiculous. The Texas Department of Transportation must learn how to build roads without massive planning and right-of-way acquisition delays.

Mr. Self truly doesn't care who builds the roads. Let's get it right before we start.

Fred L. Yarbrough, Frisco

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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"Delay is not friendly to the region."

N. Texas needs $59B for roads, officials say

Local leaders want state to plan well for area's growth over 25 years
March 30, 2007

By JAKE BATSELL / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – North Texas is $59 billion short of paying the bill for the region's mushrooming traffic needs over the next 25 years, local leaders told state transportation commissioners Thursday.

About 100 city, county and transportation officials from North Texas made their annual pilgrimage to the Texas Transportation Commission, outlining plans to expand highways, toll roads and rail systems as the region's population swells from 6 million to 9 million over the next two decades.

With lawmakers weighing a two-year freeze on controversial private toll-road deals, local leaders stressed that any delays for projects in the pipeline will be costly for the region.

"We have to get people moving in the metroplex, or we will be in complete gridlock," said Dallas City Council member Linda Koop.

The backlash against private toll roads has been mounting since the Texas Department of Transportation unveiled a 50-year deal with the Spanish company Cintra to build and operate a toll road on State Highway 121 in Denton and Collin counties.

The deal includes a $2.1 billion upfront payment that will help pay for other road projects.

Costly delays

Critics say the lucrative half-century deals amount to selling the state's roads to the highest bidder. Bills are pending in the House and Senate that would place a two-year moratorium on private pay-road contracts.

But local and regional leaders cautioned Thursday that delays of any kind threaten to add millions in ever-rising construction costs.

Paul Wageman, board chairman of the North Texas Tollway Authority, said costs are rising at a rate of $4 million a month for the eastern extension of the Bush Turnpike from Garland to Interstate 30.

That project's cost is currently estimated at $931 million.

Mr. Wageman asked commissioners to move quickly to approve revenue-sharing agreements for the Bush extension project.

"Delay is not friendly to the region," Mr. Wageman said.

Even if private toll roads proceed as planned, leaders said, North Texas is still running $58.6 billion behind in its transportation funding needs through 2030.

Transportation commissioners were receptive to the North Texas delegation's comments on Thursday, saying the Legislature has left them no choice but to seek new ways to pay for roads. Texas lawmakers have not raised the state's 20-cents-per-gallon gas tax since 1991.

Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said the challenge during the recent flap over toll roads has been "trying to explain how you balance some potential unknown possible loss of revenue against the known benefit today of building something that we couldn't otherwise build."

Filling the gaps

Lawmakers are considering bills this session that would reduce the state's reliance on toll roads for transportation funding. One bill would raise the state gas tax to more closely mirror inflation, while another would give cities the option to levy additional sales taxes for transit funding.

But with North Texas adding a million residents every seven years, local leaders said toll roads, high-occupancy-vehicle lanes and other nontraditional financing mechanisms will still be needed to fill the gap.

"We're not going to get rid of the congestion with 3.3 million more people coming to our region over the next 20 years," said Oscar Trevino, mayor of North Richland Hills. "But we can't just sit on our hands and do nothing."

Mr. Williamson agreed.

"The leadership of North Texas, they're not focused on how bad things are, they're focused on how we have the ability to solve our problems," he said. "They are united in using every tool available."

Transportation commissioners also voted Thursday to return $288 million to the federal government, which has asked states to send back previously authorized transportation funds to help support other national programs such as hurricane-response efforts and the war on terror.

In Texas, programs selected for cuts include road maintenance, air-quality projects and highway and bridge construction.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Sen. Nichols: "It's a good example of why we just can't delay reform in this arena. You're trying to catch a runaway train."

Private tollway contract a done deal

State, Cintra-Zachry last week signed 50-year lease for Texas 130 extension to Seguin.

March 29, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American Statesman
Copyright 2007

The Texas Department of Transportation and Cintra-Zachry last week quietly signed a final contract for the company to build and operate the Texas 130 tollway southeast of Austin for 50 years.

The signing of that long-term lease agreement March 22 almost surely exempts that project from a two-year freeze on so-called concession agreements proposed by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville. Legislation for that moratorium is pending.

Nichols' bill was inspired by provisions in the Texas 130 agreement he says will cost the state heavily during the contract's duration if competing free roads are built or the state attempts to buy back the road. If nothing else, Nichols said Wednesday, the signing should spur changes in what the Legislature will allow in such long-term toll road leases.

"That contract is a done deal, and any errors in it will have to be fixed a half century from now," said Nichols, a former member of the Texas Transportation Commission. "It's a good example of why we just can't delay reform in this arena. You're trying to catch a runaway train."

Cintra-Zachry, made up of Spanish toll road operator Cintra, San Antonio-based Zachry Construction Co., and Hastings Funds Management, an Australian investment firm, probably will begin buying rights of way this summer along the road's Mustang Ridge-to-Seguin, 41-mile route. Cintra-Zachry will cover design, land and construction costs, but the state will retain ownership of the land.

Cintra's Austin-based director, Jose Lopez, said Wednesday the tollway is expected to open by late 2011, joining a 49-mile section that the state is building.The state opened about 29 miles of that road, from Georgetown to U.S. 290 in East Austin, late last year and the rest should open by the end of this year. Taken together, Texas 130 will give drivers a 90-mile bypass of Interstate 35 congestion from north of Georgetown to Interstate 10 east of San Antonio.

The state will get at least $25 million upfront under the agreement, and a minimum of 4.65 percent of the road's toll revenue initially. That split could increase to 50 percent if the road brings in enough cash. The maximum toll for passenger cars would start at about 14 cents a mile, and be inflated annually by the percentage of growth in gross state product per capita.

Nichols said he is concerned about so-called noncompete and buyback provisions in the contract. State officials defend those provisions as typical of such contracts elsewhere, and fair to Cintra-Zachry given the financial risks it is taking.

The contract sets out a zone extending several miles on each side of the road and stipulates the state would have to pay Cintra-Zachry if improvements to state roads in that area (or new state roads) drew business from the tollway. It exempts free two-lane frontage roads that will be built alongside the tollway from Mustang Ridge to Lockhart (where the road will essentially replace existing U.S. 183), and any improvements to I-35. But adding more frontage lanes would trigger compensation.

If the state wants to take back the road early, the contract requires it to pay "fair market value." Nichols says that would be a huge number, one subject to legal wrangling, and that Cintra-Zachry instead should have been promised only a fair rate of return on its investment.

Nichols said the Legislature can prevent future private road contracts from exposing the state to such financial risks.

"There's a rollout of a dozen or more of these things pending, some of which are much larger," Nichols said. "So it's the responsibility of the members of this body to try to get ahold of it and fix it, and fix it right."; 445-3698

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman: www.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Rep. Chisum: "Selling highways is not politically correct in this state. I don't care how much you get for it."

Budget add-ons would give lawmakers sway over tolls

'Riders' offer second way to skin tollway cat if other legislation falters.

March 28, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Looking to rein in a Texas Department of Transportation that one powerful legislator says has "run amok," the Senate Finance Committee unanimously passed measures Tuesday that would give legislative leaders direct control over some toll road policies.

The riders attached to Senate Bill 1, the Senate's version of the state's next two-year budget, would give legislators unhappy with the Transportation Department what amounts to a veto-proof mechanism for rolling back the agency's toll road powers.

Dozens of bills have been filled this session with that in mind. But with toll road advocate Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, in charge of the House Transportation Committee and tollway supporter Gov. Rick Perry wielding a veto pen, it's possible that few, if any, of those bills will become law.

Putting similar controls in the budget, which is the only legislation lawmakers must pass and Perry must sign to avoid bringing state government to a halt, would solve that problem.

The budget riders, among other things, would require the Transportation Department to get approval from the Legislative Budget Board to:
  • Enter into "comprehensive development agreements" with private companies to build and operate tollways.
  • Include in such agreements non-compete clauses that trigger state payments to those companies if the state makes highway expansions and reduces tollway revenue.
  • Spend any money paid to the state by the private companies under such contracts, such as the billion-dollar-plus payments dangled by Spanish tollway operator Cintra.
The Legislative Budget Board has six members: the lieutenant governor, the House speaker, and the chairmen and vice chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees, which write the budget.

State Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, the Finance Committee chairman and author of the bill riders, was asked whether the measures in effect put the budget board in charge of the Texas Transportation Commission. The five-member commission is appointed by the governor and has been aggressive — overly so, in the view of many legislators — in using the powers granted it by the Legislature in the past three sessions.

"You could conclude that," Ogden said. "My intent is just to provide more oversight."

He said that this new, more activist role for the budget board — assuming the riders survive negotiations with the House over the huge budget bill — might mean the board's six leaders would have to convene with some regularity when the Legislature takes its typical 19-month hiatus between regular sessions.

But Ogden said it was necessary "until we're satisfied TxDOT is acting in the best interest of the State of Texas."

Will the riders survive on the House side?

State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, the Appropriations Committee chairman, said Tuesday that he wasn't familiar with specifics of the Senate budget riders. But he is among more than 100 House sponsors of a bill that would ban private road contracts with Texas for two years.

"Selling highways is not politically correct in this state," Chisum said. "I don't care how much you get for it. . . . When you have an agency that's run amok, you have to exercise the oversight authority of the Legislature."; 445-3698

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman: www.

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"When blame is assigned for bad decisions the most damning question is, 'What did you know and when did you know it?' "

‘On TTC’

March 28, 2007 11:42 AM CDT

Letters To The Editor
The Waxahachie Daily Light
Copyright 2007

To the Editor,

Respected transportation experts have given the Legislature a clear warning, among them Sen. Robert Nichols who sits on the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, and Jere Thompson Jr., former chairman of the North Texas Turnpike Authority. Both have raised issues with the state’s toll road policy.

Sen. Nichols, who just completed eight years on the Texas Transportation Commission, has serious concerns with the pending SH-121 contract. Nichols says contracts containing those terms will create a monopoly forcing Texans to pay ever-increasing tolls while leaving very few alternatives.

Thompson describes the SH-121 contract as a perfect example of a bad deal. The state’s Spanish partner will take billions in profit for very little risk. Those dollars will benefit the company and their banks instead of funding additional transportation projects.

It’s no surprise that those who will profit from the SH-121 deal, including TxDOT and others ready to spend the concessionaire’s upfront money, steadfastly support the agreement. On the other side are the citizens and consumers who will ultimately pay for the roads plus the hefty private profits. Both sides want highways built quickly, the question is how much taxpayer money should be given away in the process.

The majority of legislators recognize there is a problem and support bills that give temporary pause in the contract process to allow for review. But two key legislators, Rep. Mike Krusee and Sen. John Carona, chairmen of House and Senate transportation committees, are blocking those bills and that opportunity. Why?

Decisions carry consequences and when blame is assigned for bad decisions the most damning question is, “What did you know and when did you know it?” History will forever record that the Legislature knew these things now when they had the opportunity and obligation to act.

David K. Stall

© 2007 The Waxahachie Daily Light:

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Sen. Ogden: "It is unnecessary and inappropriate to ask private entities to loan us money to build highways."

Bill Pushes bigger TxDOT Cap

Ex-P3 Booster looks to double limit

March 28, 2007

by Richard Williamson
The Bond Buyer
Copyright 2007

DALLAS — A state senator who won $3 billion of bonding authority for the Texas Department of Transportation in 2003 is seeking to double its bond cap to $6 billion as a way to bypass public-private partnership toll road financing.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, submitted SB 1795 in a package of bills addressing highway finance. Ogden authored the legislation that created Proposition 14, which voters approved in 2003. That allowed TxDOT to issue $3 billion of bonds backed by revenues from the state highway fund.

TxDOT expects to issue $1 billion from that authorization in September. Another $1 billion issue under the Texas Mobility Fund is expected this summer, possibly as early as June. The Mobility Fund debt is backed by the state’s general obligation pledge, as well as revenue from the state fuel tax and other fees.

A former supporter of so-called P3s for highways, Ogden said the financing has spun out of control and should be used only as a last resort.

“I don’t think that four years ago anyone imagined that we could basically sell our roads to the highest bidder,” Ogden said in a hearing on the bill last week in the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, where the package of bills are awaiting approval.

SB 1795 raises the amount of revenue debt TxDOT can issue each year under the program from the current $1 billion to $1.5 billion.

At the same time, Ogden introduced SB 719 that prohibits the lease or sale of a publicly financed highway to a private entity. That could derail a deal awaiting final approval that allows Spanish developer Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte to build and operate the State Highway 121 toll road in the Dallas area.

Cintra would pay $2.1 billion upfront and $700 million over its 50-year contract for the right to operate Highway 121 in Collin and Denton counties. Critics say the North Texas Tollway Authority could operate the road at a lower cost because of its ability to issue lower-interest debt.

“When I look at this state’s ability to access capital through bonding, it is unnecessary and inappropriate to ask private entities to loan us money to build highways,” Ogden told the transportation committee last week.

While Ogden’s package is awaiting further consideration, the Transportation Committee recommended a bill that would end an agreement between the NTTA and TxDOT that prevented the tollway authority from bidding on the SH 121 toll road project in Collin and Denton counties. The deal allowed the agency to collect tolls on the road for five years.

Backers of the NTTA said it could have offered twice as much as Cintra offered for the project.

Ogden’s bills provide an alternative to others in the House and Senate that call for a two-year moratorium on private-public toll financed projects such as the SH 121 toll road and a major project in the planning stages called the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Ogden won passage of Proposition 14 two years after voters authorized TxDOT to issue debt for the first time. Before that, the state used pay-as-you-go financing. Ogden and others argued that adding $1 billion dollars of revenue bonds each year would increase new construction spending by 66%.

As the Legislature considers the higher bond cap and the P3 funding issues, TxDOT is grappling with the news that it will have to return $288 million of federal highway funds due to budget constraints in Washington.

A recent resolution for Fiscal 2007 rescinded more than $3.4 billion of previously authorized transportation funds to the states. TxDOT last week held meetings to receive public comment on how to adjust for the lost revenue.

TxDOT officials expect to have less than a month to tell the federal government how the state will respond. Over the last 15 months, Texas has returned $305 million in response to federal funding cuts.

© 2007 The Bond Buyer and SourceMedia Inc.:

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'Taken for a ride' in Florida


Selling out the public interest

March 28, 2007

Stephen Goldstein
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Copyright 2007

Warning: Unless you put up a roadblock this minute, soon Florida Republicans will "Dubai" all the state's assets.

Once again, Elephants in the Florida Legislature have sold their souls, assuming they ever had any. Routinely, they barter the public interest for a buck.

This time, in a scheme that only Halliburton could hail, House Republicans just passed H.B. 7033, giving private companies virtual monopoly ownership of most of Florida's toll roads. (Democratic state Reps. Susan Bucher and Keith Fitzgerald told me they were outraged.)

That's right! If the scheme becomes law, corporate interests will be able to make a profit by levying the fees you pay to drive on most current, and all future, toll roads. In addition, the state could use eminent domain to take private land for new toll-road construction, then turn it over to private companies. The bill even prohibits any local, non-toll roads from being built that would "compete" with those of for-profit companies.

It's a one-way street: Politicians pumping public dollars into private hands, but no guarantee that the state will ever make a penny. It's a dead end for democracy: Your elected officials selling the public interest in sweetheart deals that could last for 50 or 75 years, or longer.

According to the sponsors of 7033, the state doesn't have enough money to build the roads we need to keep up with the pace of development. So, it must look for "creative" and "innovative" financing measures -- buzzwords for profiteering.

What they don't want you to figure out is that they intentionally put us in the financial rut we're in, as part of their grand scam to stay in power, gut government, and foster corporate-socialism to pay back their crony campaign contributors.

Here's how they take you for a ride: (1) Republicans know that a growing state like Florida needs more money, but they win elections by promising to lower, or not raise, taxes. (2) Then, because they don't give state government the money they know it needs, they say we must turn its functions over to the private sector to save money. (3) Then, for-profit companies do their dirty work, taxing the public with higher fees.

It's duplicity in search of a rationale for raping the public -- really a Republican tax increase, palmed off on the private sector, because elitist Elephants have good reason to believe Floridians are dumb.

For almost a decade, voters have let a Republican governor and a Republican-dominated Legislature do everything in their power to privatize government -- public education, prisons, foster care, you name it -- all of which have failed to save money and deliver better services.

But by setting out to privatize our public toll roads, Republicans may have made a strategic error. Their previous schemes have affected only segments of the population, most that too few care about. This time, they've sold out everyone. This time they have tried to sell our souls.

Our roads are concrete symbols of American freedom. Throughout our history, government has fostered their growth and development. They have been vehicles to open up territory and unite us. Most are toll-free. From Federal Highway to Route 66, they have assumed unique personalities. Dwight Eisenhower's vision of the Interstate Highway System uniquely linked this country for strategic military and commercial purposes.

Nothing is more American than knowing that you can get into your car and head out for the open road, going wherever you want to go, even if you have to pay a toll now and then. The slogan "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet" not only sold cars, it helped "make" Florida -- and the nation.

Our roads are our lifeblood: It is un-American to let private businesses profit by levying road tolls.

Wreak your road-privatization rage on Republicans. Tell key officials to dead-end privatizing public toll roads: Gov. Charlie Crist (850-488-4441); Sen. Carey Baker, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee (850-487-5014); Senate President Ken Pruitt (850-487-5229); House Speaker Marco Rubio (850-488-1450).

The toll-call you make today will be a pittance compared to the piles of private road tolls Republicans will make you pay.

Stephen L. Goldstein's commentaries appear on alternate Wednesdays. E-mail him at

© 2007 South Florida Sun-Sentinel:

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

'Toll roads or no roads' a false dichotomy

Toll road options, notions

March 27, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Statewide authority

IT seemed to me that Geoffrey Segal posed a false dichotomy in his March 25 Outlook article, "For whom the tolls pay / For Texans, the choice is a stark one: It's toll roads or no roads."

Aren't there any other choices besides these two?

How about funding the roads through an increase in the fuel tax? That may be a good choice, even though it would be a hard one.

Another choice might be a statewide toll road authority, modeled on the successful Harris County Toll Road Authority.

Ohio built its turnpike system 50 years ago, using bonds that were paid off ahead of time, essentially in competition with the burgeoning interstate system.

A Texas toll road authority could answer to the people through the governor and the state Legislature, which would allow the necessary roads to be funded by their users but controlled in the public interest.

Jersey Village

A powerful outcry

I ATTENDED two public meetings that were held to protest the Texas Department of Transportation's proposal to turn State Highway 249 — from Beltway 8 to Spring Cypress — into a "toll road."

The idea was quashed, thanks to the level of public outcry.

Unfortunately, the folks in Dallas weren't so lucky.

Their state Highway 121 became a toll road after it was funded and built by tax revenues.


© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

"We feel we need to do something to try to block this effort."

Victoria group plans to fight Trans-Texas Corridor

TxDOT official says there's 'just so much emotion' about the project

March 25, 2007

The Victoria Advocate
Copyright 2007

A Victoria-based watchdog group called Citizens for Responsible Government is organizing local opposition to the Trans-Texas Corridor, a futuristic highway network that state officials say is needed to keep traffic moving.

"We feel we need to do something to try to block this effort," said Russell Pruitt, one of the leaders of Citizens for Responsible Government.

"I think the key to that is the people knowing what's going on," he said. "That's what it's all about."

District Engineer Lonnie Gregorcyk with the Texas Department of Transportation Yoakum office said he doesn't want to debate those opposed to the project. He said he understands their concerns, but he also understands the need for the Trans-Texas Corridor project.

"There's just so much emotion with this concept," he said. "Any time you have change like that, it's going to generate a lot of discussion and controversy."

Specific routes have not yet been determined for Trans-Texas Corridor highways, although footprints have been outlined showing general areas that could be affected.

In and around Victoria, the general area would be along U.S. 59 between Houston and Victoria. South of Victoria, it could continue on U.S. 59 toward Goliad and Beeville or along U.S. 77 toward Refugio.

Pruitt, whose group successfully pushed for a property tax freeze for senior citizens in Victoria County, said Citizens for Responsible Government has several reasons for opposing the plan.

He said one of the big ones is that it will require additional right of way, and that means taking private property from the owners. In some cases, that might be done through eminent domain. He said also he's heard that, in some cases, a two-mile-wide swath would be needed.

He said once the land is taken, the concern is that it would be sold to a company based in Spain, which would run the highway system. He also said it appears the state is attempting to keep those types of details from the public.

"You can't find out any information about this," Pruitt said. "Everything about this is scary. This is just the tip of the iceberg."

Gregorcyk said the plans call for taking no more than a 1,200-foot-wide swath of land for the right of way. "But we're not selling it."

He said the land would still belong to the state, although a private company could be allowed to build the superhighways in exchange for charging a fee in some areas to recoup costs.

Gregorcyk said it's possible that eminent domain might be needed to get some of the property, but the property owners would be fairly compensated.

"We're surely sympathetic to that," he said. "But it takes property to build a new road."

Gregorcyk said the state doesn't have the money to build the corridor highways, which is why it's considering a deal that would let a private company do the work and charge a fee.

"We're facing a major shortfall in transportation funding," he said. "It's here. It's already occurring."

Gregorcyk said the transportation department has conducted hundreds of public meetings across the state. Information is posted on the department's Web site devoted to the project, and civic groups and elected officials have been given briefings.

He said some people may think the state is hiding information because it hasn't nailed down all of the details yet. "We don't have all the answers and we don't pretend to have all the answers."

David Tewes is a reporter for the Advocate. Contact him at 361-580-6515 or, or comment on this story here.

© 2007 The Victoria Advocate:

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"I didn't write it just for me. There are thousands of Texans, if not millions, who will be directly affected by the corridor."

"Howl from the Highway"

Edna man thinks Trans-Texas Corridor would ruin his home,and he wrote a song, 'That New Road,' to say exactly that

March 25, 2007

The Victoria Advocate
Copyright 2007

For the past three decades, as Jack Motley of Edna worked to perfect the land on his ranch, he did it with visions of his grandchildren playing and swinging in the oak trees. Unfortunately, those dreams were shattered when he found out that a proposed section of the Trans-Texas Corridor would cut straight through that land.

"I've spent 30 years building the land, clearing it, feathering the nest, always with the vision of my family benefiting from the land in years to come. As soon as I first heard about the corridor, those visions of my kids and grandkids swinging from the trees were replaced with ones of cars and semis rushing by," Motley, 59, said. "I was appalled, angered, hurt. I felt violated. My family has owned land in Texas before Texas was even a state and now they want to build a road right through it."

Motley isn't about to take it lying down.

He decided to voice his anger and frustration by writing a song, entitled "That New Road." The song is now being used in various television and movie projects about the corridor, Motley said.

The Trans-Texas Corridor is the largest engineering project ever proposed for Texas. Adopted by the Texas Department of Transportation, it will be a statewide network of corridors that will stretch 4,000 miles and measure up to one-fourth of a mile wide. The corridor will include toll roads for passenger vehicles and trucks, passenger bullet trains, commuter trains, high-speed freight trains, pipelines of all types, and electrical transmission towers.

"The song is about the effect the TTC would have on the land where I live, on my life, and the lives of my children. But I didn't write it just for me. There are thousands of Texans, if not millions, who will be directly affected by the corridor," said Motley, whose ranch is on the north side of the Lavaca River in Edna.

"I wrote the song because what else was I going to do? If you have something to say, you have to find a vehicle to get it said, and as a songwriter, I wrote a song so my voice could be heard."

Motley began writing songs about 10 years ago and soon after began to take guitar lessons. Motley, a school counselor by day, released a CD called "In Treatment" in 2005. But it wasn't until Motley wrote "That New Road" that his music began to garner more than just local consideration.

The song first got attention when he sang it at an open meeting of the Senate Transportation Committee in early March. Footage of him singing was picked up by several news organizations in Texas and aired in several Texas cities. Soon after, Bill Molina, a filmmaker who is working on a movie about the corridor, approached Motley. Last week, Molina filmed Motley at his ranch and plans to include the song in the movie.

While Motley isn't sure when the movie will be done, Victorians will have the chance to see his performance at the Senate Transportation Committee meeting when it airs at 11 p.m. Wednesday night on KUHT-TV Channel 8's Special Session program.

"My goal with this song is to help call attention to what is going on. This is a big issue that people need to be informed about and it's not going to go away," Motley said.

So what is Motley's solution to the problem?

"My hopes are that since Highway 59 is already there, they will use the existing right of way and, beyond that, I hope America would realize mass transit is a good idea and to utilize it more. It's better than thousands of cars and trucks driving by. People need to explore the mass transit option more and realize that while the toll road is a solution, it's only one solution. There are smarter choices," Motley said.

To find out more information about the Trans-Texas Corridor, go to or For more information about Bill Molina's movie, go to

Aprill Brandon is a reporter for the Advocate. Contact her at 361-580-6514 or, or comment on this story here.