Saturday, May 05, 2007

"I think it's a little too much."

Technology helps officers catch toll road violators


By Jessica Willey
Channel 13 Eyewitness News
KTRK-TV (Houston)
Copyright 2007

Next time you're on toll road, make sure you're up to date on your toll fees. Authorities have new technology that can run your license plate without you even knowing it.

With thousands of drivers using Harris County toll roads every day, there are plenty of cheaters.

"Those persons who routinely run the toll and owe Harris County thousands of dollars," said Assistant Chief Randy Johnson with the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

They're at the top of the toll road authority's watch list, but now every driver is on the radar with the help of a new camera.

Sgt. Tony Cartwright with the Harris County Precinct 5 Constable's Office showed us the new technology. A camera mounted next to the light bar takes a picture of every vehicle to its left. The computer then scans the license plate. If it's comes up with outstanding tolls or involved in crime, the driver is busted.

Also, gone are the days when the officer has to take his eyes off the road to check a plate himself.

"It allows us to use our time more efficiently and be able to operate a vehicle in a safe manner while on patrol," said Johnson.

Five patrol cars with cameras hit the toll roads Friday, but is it another example of big brother always watching?

"I think it's a little too much," said one driver we spoke with.

"I just don't think it's right," said another.

To that, officials say they're just doing what they've always done, just more often

"This allows us to check a lot more vehicles," said Sgt. Johnson.

So beware.

"It's going to make it much harder for them to break the law and run the tolls and get behind on their bills," said Sgt. Cartwright.

These cameras cost about $10,000 each. The Harris County Toll Road Authority hopes to soon buy more. The five they have are used as often as possible.

© 2007 KTRK-TV:

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"I find this type of intergovernmental blackmail amusing and arrogant."

Roads bond vote may hinge on who voters believe

May 05, 2007

By Brad Rollins
San Marcos Daily Record
Copyright 2007

Both sides in Hays County’s highway bond proposal are pointed to road funding wrangling in Austin and Washington as confirmation that voters should, or should not, approve $172 million in new debt to pay for the projects.

On Monday, the state auditor said the Texas Department of Transportation’s projected $86 billion shortfall in transportation needs through 2030 “may not be reliable for making policy or funding decisions.” At least $8.6 billion of the estimate was an outright error, the audit said, and $27.9 billion in needs identified by eight local metropolitan planning organization could not be documented. Another $9 billion was questionable because of crude projection methods used by TxDOT, the report said.

State and local officials have repeatedly said the gap puts the burden on local governments to come up with ways to fund needed projects. In Hays County, property owners will pay upfront for the $172 million and be reimbursed up to $133.3 million over 20 years if Prop. 1 passes on May 12. A second proposition would authorize $30 million to buy and preserve parkland and open space.

A day after the audit was released, TxDOT’s Austin district engineer Bob Daigh turned up at the Hays County commissioners court to say — again — that the arrangement as negotiated is the best residents can expect from the cash-strapped agency. Gasoline tax revenue is not keeping pace with road needs, he said, and the Federal Highway Administration has already slashed TxDOT’s funding by $600 million and told the agency it can expect more.

Without the agreement, he said, residents could wait years, if not decades, before they see added lanes to a 10.3-mile stretch of Ranch Road 12 and a six-mile stretch of Farm-to-Market Road 1626; shoulders and turn lanes on Texas 21; and a new three-mile segment of Farm-to-Market Road 110, the San Marcos loop.

“This is one of the last pass-through tolling agreements and it will be honored. If the pass-through toll program fails, given the state of federal funding, it would be reasonable to expect improvements to these roads would be delayed or deferred for a very long time,” Daigh told a reporter after the meeting.

“Pass-through tolling” is a system in which the state pays back local governments based on how many vehicle miles are logged on the new or improved roads; none of the projects in Hays County are traditional toll roads where drivers pay at a booth or with a toll tag.

Not to be outmaneuvered, bond opponents had prepared a response to Daigh’s comments a full six hours before he even appeared at the meeting, according to a facsimile time stamp on the statement from former Wimberley Mayor Steve Klepfer.

“The idea that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is not true. TxDOT will come back and build a road that meets their needs and meets the community’s needs,” Klepfer said. “I find this type of intergovernmental blackmail amusing and arrogant and it seems others in leadership across the state are feeling the same way about TxDOT as late.”

In many ways, the effort to improve safety and mobility in Hays County has from the start tracked a parallel, broader discussion in the state house about how to pay for roads.

Reacting to TxDOT’s estimates of critical transportation needs going unfunded, legislators in 2003 retooled the way TxDOT priorities are identified and funded. The legislation laid the groundwork for Gov. Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor by, effectively, increasing reliance on toll roads and making it easier for the state to partner with private entities to build the roads. The bill also created the “pass-through tolling” system.

Hays County was one of the first local governments to get in line for the funding, looking to pay for highway projects included in a $47 million road package approved by voters in 2001. About half that money was supposed to be earmarked for state roads, the other half for county roads. As the county roads portion of the package, however, busted through its budget — even as projects were cut or scaled down — the money set aside for partnering on the state projects dwindled.

By the time Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley took office in January 2005, only about $5 million was uncommitted to other projects. It is rarely disputed, even by bond opponents, that the deal he negotiated with TxDOT is more favorable to the county than just about any of the dozen pass-through agreements won by other cities and counties, including the city of San Marcos.

When the county voter’s replaced three Republican incumbents, including County Judge Jim Powers, with a new Democratic majority, it was apparent that the best road supporters could do was get it to the ballot.

For their part, TxDOT says the state auditor’s report proves what they have been saying all along, that a multibillion dollar gap between anticipated money and anticipated needs means Texans who for decades have driven on one of the nation’s best road systems have to adjust to a new reality.

“No matter what number you choose, Texas has a big problem: more people, in more cars, driving more miles on an already congested highway system,” said Michael Behrens, TxDOT’s executive director. “...We can all agree on one thing: The funding gap, no matter what anyone thinks it might be, is growing.”

© 2007 San Marcos Daily Record:

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"Delay gives the Governor and his allies an additional three days to round up votes to block the override."

Multiple reports to deliver toll road moratorium bill to governor's office are unsuccessful

May 4, 2007

by Harvey Kronberg
Quorum Report
Copyright 2007

Moratorium supporters checking to see if Governor for the Day, Senator Mario Gallegos can receive it on Saturday

Rep. Wayne Smith (R-Baytown) tells Quorum Report that multiple efforts to deliver HB1892, the private equity toll road moratorium bill to Governor Perry's office today were frustrated by an absent clerk. Multiple efforts to reach the clerk failed because he left early.

The urgency in delivering the bill is because the clock starts running on a gubernatorial veto when the bill is time stamped as having been received. Once the governor vetoes the bill as expected, it will be a test of legislative will to see if 2/3s actually holds to over ride the veto.

Sources in the governor's office dismiss any conspiratorial explanations and say they will receive the bill on Monday, plenty of time for both the veto and the possible over ride. Nevertheless, the delay gives the Governor and his allies an additional three days to round up votes to block the over ride.

However, an unusual wrinkle popped up this evening. Sources tell us that supporters of the bill are looking into delivering it to Senator Mario Gallegos (D-Houston) tomorrow, while he is Governor for the Day. The spot is generally considered honorary for one senator each session. It requires both the Governor and the Lt. Governor to be outside the state.

The question is whether or not Gallegos' office can receive the bill and time stamp it, therefore starting the clock running.

© 2007 Harvey Kronberg's Quorum Report:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"The governor doesn't have to veto the bill to kill it. He has the option of the pocket veto — simply setting the legislation aside and ignoring it."

Perry's toll package faces huge legislative roadblock

May 04, 2007

The Longview News-Journal
Copyright 2007

The Texas House on Wednesday put the final crossbar in the barricade that the Legislature is trying to use to steer the state away from Gov. Rick Perry's vision of a network of privately operated toll roads.

The House, generally Perry's best friend in the Capitol, voted 139-1 for a measure that would put a two-year moratorium on private toll road deals, giving the state two more years to consider whether a privatized toll road system is the path to the future for Texas motorists. That came after the Senate voted 27-4 in favor of the moratorium last week.

According to news reports, the governor has not threatened a veto of the legislation, but he has hinted about the topic. Unfortunately, even though this legislation is moving to the governor's desk weeks ahead of the last minute rush that closes each legislative session, the governor doesn't even have to veto the bill to kill it. He always has the option of the pocket veto — simply setting the legislation aside and ignoring it.

Considering the overwhelming majorities voting for the moratorium on new private toll road contracts, the governor might sense a certain futility in stamping a veto on the legislation. Unless the numbers falter, the votes are there to override any veto and the governor already has enough egg on his face this spring, so ignoring the moratorium bill might be his only hope of keeping his vision of toll booths across Texas alive.

But just because the governor can kill a bill that way, doesn't mean he should.

Let's face it, Texas Legislators didn't show up in Austin in January just itching for a fight with Perry. More than simply being fellow Republicans, most of the lawmakers have been and continue to be in his camp — even if they aren't too fond of some of his actions this year.

Perry needs to think twice before he considers steamrolling the moratorium — or dodging it like a traffic cone in the middle of the road. Texas lawmakers showed up in Austin this year ready to buck the governor's highway building plans because they have spent more than a year hearing from a wide range of constituents who just plain don't like the idea.

From land owners who fear the state will take giant swaths of their Texas spreads to people who think there are better ways to fund highway construction than turning the process over to private operators, individual Texans have been talking to their state representatives and senators about the folly of the governor's ways.

Taking a page from his predecessor in the Governor's Mansion (who used his own veto stamp this week), Perry has frequently spoken of a grim future if the Legislature and the people don't go along with his private toll road plan. Traffic will grind to a halt, economic growth will suffer and the wheels will come off the state's progress of recent years.

Yes, if nothing is done to address the state's transportation needs, much of that could happen. But there are options to the Perry plan, readily available options that are both practical and likely to garner more public support.

If the governor wants to get a jump start on highway projects, he might want to look no further than the $8 billion in surplus revenues he has talked about somehow returning to property tax payers, even though property taxes aren't even the source of any state revenues.

Perry should follow the lead of the lawmakers who have listened to average Texans who reject the idea of privatizing state highway construction. He should forget razzle dazzle ideas that look like they save the taxpayer money while, in reality they cost the individual more money. Then he should get back to the real business of running an efficient government that provides the essential services that people expect of it.

© 2007 The Longview News-Journal:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Friday, May 04, 2007

Sen Ogden: "Over the years, the Legislature has been somewhat lazy and somewhat asleep. My last election was a wakeup call for me."

Senate wants reins on agency budgets


Peggy Fikac, Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Buffeted by a public outcry over toll roads, parks and the Texas Youth Commission, the Senate is seeking to control state agencies better by tying tight strings to their funding.

Whether the House will agree to rein them in as much will be a key area of negotiation as the two chambers try to resolve differences in a budget that will top $150 billion for the next two years.

"Over the years, the Legislature has been somewhat lazy and somewhat asleep," said Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, Senate Finance Committee chairman, of the provisions. "My last election was a wakeup call for me."

Ogden — who got nearly 62 percent of the vote in November but had expected to do at least 10 points better — said, "People weren't coming out to vote against me, they just weren't coming out to vote. ... The message I took back is, 'Why don't you guys go do what you think is right and exercise the power you've been given, instead of basically not doing your job?'"

The House spending plan, while imposing requirements on agencies, hasn't gone as far in tightening lawmakers' grip.

"Some of those are kind of OK, because we don't give anybody money without strings attached," said Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"We're not the executive branch of government, and we will constantly remind (senators) of that," he added. "These are agencies that the boards and commissions are appointed by the governor. And once they get the money, they're going to spend it under their direction."

Since the Legislature meets in regular session only every other year, both chambers' budget proposals reflect a need for oversight. But the Senate goes further for several agencies, including:

The Texas Department of Transportation, whose work on the Trans-Texas Corridor plan championed by Gov. Rick Perry has sparked protests from Texans who don't like planned toll roads' cost or layouts. An audit said the public might not know how much the state will pay for a toll road paralleling Interstate 35.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, an agency at which candidates for governor last year said they wanted to boost spending in a reflection of public support for parks. An audit released this year cited agency shortcomings including financial control weaknesses and inflated visitor counts.

The Texas Youth Commission, where a scandal has unfolded over treatment of juvenile offenders.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which some Senate leaders want to authorize to build new prisons only with safeguards against overbuilding in case diversion and treatment programs serve their purpose.

The Senate wasn't alone. The House also put in some additional, strong provisions for agencies including the Texas Department of Transportation.

"Clearly the House is in favor of getting some control over TxDOT," Chisum said. "I think we will probably do something on that."

Putting the directives, known as "riders," in the state budget would create a backup to separate legislation that could be vetoed by Perry. The governor can veto entire bills and line-item budget appropriations, but he can't veto budget provisions that qualify an appropriation or direct the method of expenditure.

The riders are "appropriate under the circumstances, because we've had some significant problems and some significant controversies," said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, Finance Committee vice chairwoman.

"They're controversial areas where there have been problems. Instead of business as usual and allowing agencies that have faced problems and caused problems to operate on their own, we are instead reining them in and providing more direct supervision," she said.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE


"State auditors were unable to document nearly half of the $86 billion TxDOT has said is needed to fund the state’s roads"

TxDOT may have overestimated state funding gap


by Christine DeLoma

Volume 11, Issue 36
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2007

With the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) long under the legislative microscope, recent news from the State Auditor’s Office couldn’t have come at a better (or worse) time for the agency.

The auditor’s April 30 report questions the accuracy of TxDOT’s $86 billion estimate of the state’s future transportation needs.

Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson had repeatedly cited the figure as one of the many reasons the state would not be able to afford to build its roadways without private sector assistance.

Yet state auditors were unable to document nearly half of the $86 billion TxDOT has said is needed to fund the state’s roads as outlined in the agency’s July 2006 strategic plan.

“The accuracy of the estimated costs for metropolitan and urban regions cannot be determined because of lack of supporting documentation at both the metropolitan planning organizations and the Department,” the report states.

In addition, the report indicates that TxDOT may have overestimated the funding gap by at least 10 percent by including costs that it shouldn’t have included and by errors in its mathematical calculations. Excluding these costs would put the funding gap at $77.4 billion.

This isn’t the first time TxDOT’s funding gap estimate has come under scrutiny. An October 2006 report issued by the Governor’s Business Council (GBC) also raised questions over the accuracy of TxDOT’s numbers. GBC’s study estimated the state’s funding gap is closer to $60 billion after excluding local costs. (The auditor’s report did not address this.)

Nonetheless, TxDOT officials used the audit report to underscore the need for more transportation funding. “Today’s report is further documentation of a multi-billion dollar funding gap between the transportation system our state deserves and one we can afford with current resources,” said TxDOT executive director Michael Behrens. “No matter what number you choose, Texas has a big problem: more people, in more cars, driving more miles on an already congested highway system.”

How did TxDOT identify future funding needs?

In an effort to quantify transportation needs, TxDOT asked the eight largest metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to identify the amount of money that would be needed to fund projects in their respective 25-year Metropolitan Transportation Plans.

Williamson, who testified at the Feb. 13 House Transportation Committee meeting to explain the basis for the numbers, told lawmakers that TxDOT had told the MPOs to calculate project costs without considering financial constraints or funding methods.

A few lawmakers, including Rep. Nathan Macias (R-Bulverde), equated the methodology to tallying up a “wish list” rather than identifying a real need. “[W]hen you’re given the idea of planning without any resource constraints, that tends to allow for whether intended or not, the inflated requests,” Macias said.

Williamson said the MPOs were asked to include projects that would reduce serious traffic congestion, increase public safety, and increase economic development. Each MPO used its own methodology in estimating costs.

Totaling the estimates for each region, TxDOT projected $188 billion in transportation needs. With only $102 billion in traditional funding available, the remaining unfunded needs came to $86 billion.

Inaccuracies in funding gap estimate

The State Auditor’s report identified several inaccuracies and weaknesses with TxDOT’s $86 billion estimate. For one thing, TxDOT accepted each MPO’s cost estimate without further examination or review.

When auditors reviewed MPO mobility plans, they found one plan included approximately $8.6 billion that should not have been part of the estimate. According to the report, a mathematical error caused the Austin MPO to overstate the funding gap by $3.7 billion on account of including costs for roadway reconstruction and rail freight relocation.

Examining other cost estimates, auditors found five of the eight MPOs (Houston, Austin, El Paso, Lubbock and Corpus Christi) lacked the documentation to support the $27.9 billion in identified costs outlined in their Texas Metropolitan Mobility plans. Without a paper trail, auditors were unable to verify the accuracy of the estimate.

To estimate the cost to urban regions, TxDOT used “broad and generalized assumptions,” the report states. The agency assumed that the unfunded needs for urban areas were at least equal to the $9 billion in urban projects currently funded within the MPOs’ plans.

“The Department acknowledged that this was a simplified method to estimate the urban regions’ funding gap and did not have any verifiable information to support its assumption,” said the report. To address these concerns, TxDOT will work with urban regions to come up with a Texas Urban Mobility Plan.

TxDOT has stated that improvements to cost-estimating methodologies are already underway. “TxDOT will develop common definitions for costs to be included in the funding gap calculation as well as a set of general assumptions that regions should agree to in estimating future public revenues,” according to TxDOT’s management response included in the report.

Auditor questions size of tax gap estimate

The auditor’s office found errors in TxDOT’s calculation of the so-called “tax gap,” that is, the difference between the cost of building and maintaining a roadway and revenues available to cover the cost.

TxDOT has used its estimated tax gap analysis to illustrate how tax revenue does not pay for the entire cost of a particular roadway.

Here’s an example. According to TxDOT’s calculations, it will cost $1 billion to build and maintain the proposed 15 miles of State Highway 99 in Harris County over 40 years. The agency also estimated that during the same period tax revenue would produce only $162 million, or about 16 percent of costs.

Williamson and his staff have publicly illustrated this example on numerous occasions.

The auditors, however, found significant errors in TxDOT’s calculations. The agency failed to take into account revenue from vehicle registration fees. For SH 99, that would add $66.4 million in revenue.

According to auditors, TxDOT also included reconstruction costs at the 30-year mark, despite generally accepted assumptions that the life expectancy of a roadway is more than 40 years. After subtracting the 30-year construction cost from a project such as SH 99, the roadway would cost only $287.8 million to build and maintain. After these corrections, auditors maintain tax revenue will pay for at least 80 percent of the highway’s cost.

The audit report recommended that if TxDOT wants to include reconstruction costs it should extend its “analysis period beyond the 40-year life cycle of a road segment to ensure that expenses are associated with revenues.”

TxDOT has indicated it has corrected its calculations to include vehicle registration fees. “We agree with the recommendations… and we have already begun to revise the tax gap methodology to reflect the recommendations noted in the audit report,” TxDOT responded. “We have also begun evaluating options for the appropriate consideration of reconstructions costs, depending on the analysis being considered.”

Moratorium legislation heads to governor’s desk

Legislation imposing a two-year moratorium on private toll road contracts now heads to the governor’s desk. It is unclear, however, if Gov. Rick Perry will sign the legislation.

The House voted May 2 to concur with Senate amendments to HB 1892 by Rep. Wayne Smith (R-Baytown).

The measure includes an amendment by Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) that places restrictions on the terms of comprehensive development agreements. It includes language from Carona’s SB 1929 that prohibits non-compete clauses that penalize the state for building ancillary roads near a private toll road, requires contract review by the Attorney General’s office, and specifies buy-back provisions if the state wants to buyback a road from a private developer.

In a statement released April 30 after the Senate’s passage of the legislation, Perry criticized the measure that would allow local toll road authorities to enter into comprehensive development agreements.

The governor also warned that federal highway dollars may be in jeopardy as a result of the moratorium.

“I will review this bill carefully because we cannot have public policy in this state that shuts down road construction, kills jobs, harms air quality, prevents access to federal highway dollars, and creates an environment within local government that is ripe for political corruption,” Perry said.

Another moratorium bill, SB 1297 by Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) was approved by the House Transportation Committee May 1. The bill now heads to the House floor.

© 2007 The Lone Star Report:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Eminent domain reform bill is headed to Gov. Perry's desk.

House bills look to limit eminent domain


by Mark Lavergne
Volume 11, Issue 36
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2007

Reform may be imminent for eminent domain.

Four bills came before the House floor May 2, seeking one way or another to limit governmental and private entities’ ability to nudge private citizens off their own land.

The main intent of the bills was to strengthen SB 7, passed during a special session in 2005 following the infamous Kelo v. New London U.S. Supreme Court decision. The court said it was constitutional for entities with eminent domain authority to acquire private property for the purposes of economic development.

The justices ruled that economic development qualifies as a “public use” – a longtime prerequisite for a government’s exercise of eminent domain. But economic development often requires that private commercial franchises put up shop.

This means a city government may, but is not required to, confiscate (albeit with compensation) a citizen’s private property, then sell the land to a business — often a big one — in the interest of developing the economy.

This would qualify, according to the high court, as serving a “public use.” Of course if that qualifies as public use, pretty much any conceivable purpose would.

But Kelo also allowed states to limit cities’ power of eminent domain if they so chose. SB 7 from Sen. Kyle Janek (R-Houston) was the Legislature’s first step in that direction. It said the state would not use eminent domain for economic development, with certain clear public use exceptions, such as highways, sewers, etc.

But a lot of conservatives including Rep. Bill Callegari (R-Katy) thought SB 7 did not go far enough. So they sought to determine how to make sure that the government would not abuse the authority to force people to sell their land.

Property rights advocates see the use of eminent domain for economic development purposes as inappropriate encroachment on free markets. Urban developers, on the other hand, frown upon limitations of eminent domain by the state. So after SB 7 was made law, legislators decided to spend the interim looking at the issue.

The bills that resulted, all heard May 2, were: HJR 30 by Rep. Jim Jackson (R-Carrollton), HBs 3057 and 1495 by Callegari, and HB 2006 by Rep. Beverly Woolley (R-Houston).

The House passed all but one of them, HB 2006, perhaps, and not surprisingly either, the most sweeping of the lot. When Woolley brought it before the floor, Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) called a point of order. The bill was recommitted to committee and taken up right after the adjournment of the House. It was then reported favorably as substituted, and will likely be back before the full House sometime next week.

  • The bill defines “public use” with important new clarity: “a use of property … that allows the state, a political subdivision of the state, or the general public of the state to possess, occupy, and enjoy the property.” In other words, no private businesses or individuals. Pfizer or Merck would not get land purchased by eminent domain under this bill.
  • It includes the “Truth in Condemnation Procedures Act,” which requires governmental entities to take record votes at public meetings for each unit of property in question, before initiating condemnation proceedings. It requires that a motion to exercise eminent domain include the name of the governmental entity, a description of the property, and a description of the public use intended.
  • It sets a “good faith standard” by which eminent domain authorities going after private property must make an effort to acquire it by voluntary purchase or lease.
  • The bills also clear up some vague language that makes it difficult for landowners to protect their rights. Under existing law, economic development can only be a secondary result, not a primary motive, of invoking eminent domain. The primary motive has to be either public use or the elimination of “an existing affirmative harm on society from slum or blighted areas.”

But the devil may be in the lack of detail, becuase “slum area” and “blighted area” are defined so broadly in current law that they could be read to include a building in need of a new paint job. So not only can the purpose of the confiscation be extraordinarily broad, but the pretext could be as well. That is, a city government could condemn an area as “blighted” that isn’t really blighted, and to seize it for a “public use” that isn’t really public.

Callegari looks to eliminate such stretches with CSHB 3057. The bill strikes from existing code the word “slum” and all its variations. It clarifies that a “blighted area” is a unit of property with any two of the following conditions:

*uninhabitable, unsafe or abandoned structures;

*inadequate sanitation provisions;

*the prospect of imminent harm to life or other property caused by disasters like fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or storm;

*a need for remedial investigation or feasibility study as a result of environmental contamination or finding by the Environmental Protection Agency; or

*repeated illegal activity about which the owner knew or should have known.

The property could also be condemned under the new legislation, regardless of the above, if the property is conducive to ill health, transmission of disease, infant mortality or crime in the immediate proximity.

But under Jackson’s HJR 30, even if the government successfully exercises eminent domain, it must follow through with its plans for the land, or lose it back to the private citizen. The joint resolution proposes a constitutional amendment to allow the repurchase of property acquired through eminent domain, for the original price at which the government purchased it, if: 1) the public use for which the property was purchased has been cancelled; or 2) no actual progress was made toward the public use during a prescribed period of time; or 3) the property was unnecessary for the public use.

The resolution was passed by the House 136-0, and received by the Senate the next day. If the Senate and governor sign off, it will be submitted to voters on November 6, 2007.

But all these reforms might not mean much if the landowners themselves don’t know about their own options when confronted with eminent domain. Callegari brought HB 1495, also dubbed the “Landowner’s Bill of Rights Act,” to the floor of the House on May 2.

The bill, passed to third reading without a record vote, requires the attorney general (AG) to create a “bill of rights” for owners whose property might be acquired by a governmental or private entity by eminent domain authority. The statement would have to be written in plain language and made available on the AG’s website.

The legislation would require that landowners be notified of their rights to the following:

*a notice of the property’s proposed acquisition,

*a bona fide good faith effort by the acquiring entity to negotiate,

*an assessment of damages resulting from the property’s acquisition,

*a hearing on those damages, and

*an appeal of a judgment in a condemnation proceeding, including that of a damages assessment.

The AG’s statement would also have to include descriptions of the condemnation procedure laid out in the property code; the condemning entity’s obligation to the property owner; and the owner’s options during a condemnation, including the right to object to and appeal an amount of damages awarded.

The bill also requires a condemning authority to send a bill of rights statement to the property owner before commencing negotiations. If the authority is a governmental entity, the statement would have to be made available on its website before negotiations could begin.O

© 2007 The Lone Star Report:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"In the pursuit of ‘no new taxes,’ the legislators have created a shadow tax in tolling.”

Controversial corridor faces new hurdle

Texas Legislature considers transportation funding options as TxDOT privatizes projects


Community Impact Newspaper
(Round Rock, Pflugerville, Cedar park, Leander, Austin)
Copyright 2007

Trans-Texas Corridor is a small term that encompasses a large number of projects. It is not merely a single road but an amendment to the Texas Transportation Code that has introduced an unprecedented system for highway funding.

Now two bills, one currently in the House and one in the Senate, are questioning whether the TTC’s bold ideas are helping or hurting Texas drivers.

The Trans-Texas Corridor is not a road, or even a network of roads, but simply legislation. In 2003, Gov. Rick Perry signed House Bill 3588, responsible for the Trans-Texas Corridor, into law, providing for private funding of public roads, large-scale tolling and the eminent domain of land.

One of the TTC’s main proponents, and an author of the bill, is Rep. Mike Krusee of Williamson County. Krusee, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, said he wrote the bill broadly to give local government many tools to address congestion.

“The 20th-century model for transportation growth will not suffice for the 21st century,” Krusee said in his 2003 statement of purpose for the bill. “Motor fuel taxes are declining per mile traveled on the state’s highways, and as a result the construction of new highways cannot keep pace with demand.”

The verdict is still out on whether it is an inspired solution or the source of more problems.

In the past, highway construction was funded through a rise in the state gas tax, but the gas tax has not increased in 16 years, while the number of people on Texas roads has grown by over 5.5 million in that time.

“The National Highway Trust Fund is scheduled to be insolvent in 2009,” Krusee said. “The state has invited the private sector to be its partner because the state lacks the revenues to address new growth on its own. The state needs private sector funds because the legislature has refused to dedicate adequate public funds.”

The Texas Department of Transportation signed a $3.5 million planning agreement with Spanish engineering and construction firm Cintra-Zachry in 2005. Although this is only an agreement for planning, in exchange for Cintra-Zachry’s $6 billion investment in a four-lane, 316-mile road between Dallas and San Antonio and another $1.2 billion for rights to that road, Cintra-Zachry would reap the toll concession for the next 50 years, according to the document’s language.

In addition to the use of tolls to fund new roads, TTC also allows existing roads to be tolled. It is this use of pre-existing roads, built using gas tax, to suddenly raise toll revenue that has caused some to lash out, calling it a “double tax.”

Already TxDOT has proposed managed, tolled lanes along MoPac. At an April 12 meeting, TxDOT explained how the managed lanes would work similar to High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, but people would pay to use these faster, less crowded lanes based on the amount of traffic at the time. The tolls collected here would be aimed more at easing congestion rather than raising revenue. These managed lanes are also being considered along IH 35 and US 183, according to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2030 plan.

Bills fight the TTC

When the TTC passed the House and the Senate in 2003, it did so with a vote of 146 to 0 and 31 to 0, respectively. Four years later, bills limiting the powers of the TTC have passed both the House and Senate with votes of 137 to 2 and 30 to 0.

This new legislation, House Bills 1892 and 2772, and Senate Bill 1267, put a two-year moratorium to new toll roads, allows individual cities more control over how TTC affects them and gives more consideration to privatization.

Some attribute the political dynamics of the 78th Legislature in 2003 as the reason the TTC legislation was passed.

“If you remember, the hot topic was redistricting,” said David Stall, former city manager of Columbus, Texas and head of the transportation watchdog group Corridor Watch. We had legislators off in Oklahoma, and that pushed other legislation to move quickly and with not even a normal amount of review. It was a large bill, well over 300 pages, and it passed in a few hours with little debate.”

Even after passing, the bills must be signed by Gov. Perry, a supporter of the TTC. However, a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate could override his veto, and current support for the bills indicates this could be possible.

“I’m thankful that we finished SH 130, SH 45, SH 183A and the MoPac extension when we did because the moratoriums would have had a devastating impact on Williamson County,” said Krusee, one of the two who voted against HB 1892. “It is wrong for the Legislature to take away their only tool for desperately needed new capacity while refusing to generate any new revenue for roads.”

Other possibilities

Regardless of whether the reigns are put on the TTC, Texas is still left in a transportation bind. If money isn’t coming from tolls, then it must come from somewhere, so one place legislators are looking is the gas tax.

Krusee has filed a bill, House Bill 9962, to allow the gas tax to rise with the inflation rate, and in the Senate, another bill would similarly raise the gas tax by the need for transportation funds. Texas’ gas tax ranks in the middle for state gas taxes at 20 cents, with New York the highest at 33 cents and Alaska the lowest at 8 cents.

“It’s unrealistic to lock in a revenue in 1991 and not have it grow,” Stall said. “How many people could pay their rent today if their income got locked in 1991? In the pursuit of ‘no new taxes,’ the legislators have created a shadow tax in tolling.”

© 2007 Community Impact Newspaper:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"There's a mood in this legislative body to protect property owners."

'Landowner's Bill Of Rights' Gains House Approval


Tyler Morning Telegraph
Copyright 2007

Further tightening of the government's eminent domain powers could come if the Texas Senate supports some recently approved House legislation.

Two bills by Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, gained final approval from the House on Thursday, and now move to the Senate.

One piece of legislation, the "Landowner's Bill of Rights," is joint-authored by Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, and co-authored by Rep. Chuck Hopson, D-Jacksonville.

"There's a mood in this legislative body to protect property owners," says Hopson. "I know it's an important issue for East Texas."

The Landowner's Bill of Rights would ensure that those whose property is under the threat of being seized receive a written statement of their rights and options.

"It gives landowners a way and an ability to fight municipalities and the state if they come to take their land," Hopson says. "It describes, in very simple terms, the rights a landowner has."

The Legislature addressed the government's powers to take property for a public purpose with a set of laws passed in 2005.

Another of Callegari's new bills would address the seizing of property in older neighborhoods, by tightening the rules for a city attempting to seize "blighted areas" for development.

"State law provides that certain governmental (bodies) may exercise the right of eminent domain to cure the problems of urban slum and blight," the bill analysis for CSHB 3057 says. "The statutory definitions for slum and blighted areas are arguably inappropriately broad and imprecise, and conducive to subjective interpretation where any material defect on a property may render it eligible for condemnation."

The bill would redefine "slum" and "blight" and would require that property meet certain conditions to be considered eligible for condemnation on grounds of blight.

Like other bills regarding eminent domain, this comes as a reaction to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said cities can use eminent domain for private development as a way to generate tax revenues.

© 2007 Tyler Morning Telegraph:

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

"The suburbanites get a cheap bypass through the middle of what was supposed to be our wonderful downtown park. We get their smoke."

Fresh Eyes

Basically, it's Coats versus the Manchurian Candidate


By Jim Schutze
The Dallas Observer
Copyright 2007

In recent weeks the call for a referendum on the Trinity River toll road has come to the center of the Dallas mayoral election. At the end of last week, The Dallas Morning News said in an editorial that Tom Leppert and Sam Coats were the two top contenders, but the News announced it was endorsing Leppert in large part because of his position on the Trinity referendum.

He's against it. Leppert believes we must move full-bore ahead and not pause to reconsider putting a six-lane limited-access expressway through our new park along the river.

Coats has not come out against the toll road. He says merely that he will bring "fresh eyes" to the issues. He thinks having a referendum is a good way to air those issues.

City council member Angela Hunt, leader of the pro-referendum movement, told me last week she has extracted from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers a renewed pledge that the timetable for the road has nothing to do with the timetable for the overall project. If the road stops or pauses, the project itself goes right on as if nothing has happened. (I checked with Gene T. Rice, the Corps official in charge of the Trinity Floodway project. He confirmed what Hunt told me.)

So what's so terrible about a pause, or about fresh eyes for that matter? It's not as if there is anything clear about the issues, as I learned at a recent debate between Hunt and former council member Alan Walne.

Walne told a room of about 100 very expensive haircuts that the toll road was originally proposed because the state had informed the city it could not rebuild the over-crowded "mixmaster" and "canyon" freeway exchanges downtown without it.

He said, "The Texas Department of Transportation has told us that in order to be able to rebuild the canyon, we have to have a reliever road."

A big red fire alarm went off in my head. As soon as I got back to the office, I went digging through the electronic data pile, even made a call to former DMN reporter Victoria Loe Hicks, until I found what I was looking for:

On May 30, 2002, under the headline, "Council no closer to tollway decision," Hicks reported on a briefing in which then Councilman Walne learned from city staff that the story about the toll road being linked to rebuilding the downtown freeways had never been true.

Hicks' story five years ago said, "Mr. Walne was surprised to learn that, contrary to what the city told voters in 1998, the state highway department never guaranteed that building a 'reliever route' to ease traffic on Stemmons Freeway would assure expedited reconstruction of the downtown 'canyon' and 'mixmaster.'"

The story went on: "[Council member Sandy] Greyson, who chairs the council's transportation committee, was startled to hear that the outdated downtown freeways can be rebuilt without a reliever route in place to handle the traffic that is diverted during reconstruction."

So Walne knew five years ago that the purpose of the toll road never was to serve as a construction detour for the rebuilding of the downtown freeways.

At the same debate between Hunt and Walne, Councilman Mitchell Rasansky stood up to warn against a referendum. He said, "The main thing is the flood control and getting rid of the mixmaster, which is a very important thing for the city of Dallas."

Another alarm in my head: Rasansky was telling people the Trinity toll road will "get rid of the mixmaster." For this one I trekked out to the regional headquarters of the Texas Department of Transportation to review what they claim is their only and therefore quite precious copy of the 1998 document that lays out the purpose for the toll road. (Angela Hunt, I learned later, has her own copy.)

It's fascinating reading. This document, called a "major transportation investment study," is the underlying legal document setting forth the purpose and general design for the road. The first thing that leaps out is the radical difference between the road it describes—the one we voted on—and the six-lane, high-speed, limited-access freeway now being proposed:

"The Trinity Parkway Reliever Route would be constructed as a lower speed parkway design rather than a freeway design," the document states, "allowing left-turn exits towards the river floodway.

"The parkway design would incorporate access locations directly from the parkway lanes into the adjacent park area..."

I even managed a laugh at this part: The document warns sternly that the river road will have to "provide motor vehicle, pedestrian, bicycle and equestrian access to the park."

In other words, what we voted for was a low-speed park access road with bicycles, horses and ducks crossing it. And now they want to build a six-lane, high-speed freeway with no access to the park and scarce access to downtown.

Why would that be? How on earth did this happen? What is the idea?

The TxDOT document shows plainly that the toll road is not about fixing the mixmaster or the canyon. But guess what else it shows. The toll road isn't even about downtown.

The document says, "An interesting observation from the traffic data is that only one out of five drivers on the canyon/mixmaster system is destined for downtown Dallas. The remaining four out of five drivers are trying to travel past downtown to other destinations."

OK, stick with me here for a second, because this gets to the heart of our dilemma. Part of what the document says is that I have been wrong—sort of—in something I have repeated often in columns. I have said many times that the toll road does not take us where any of us want to go. That part is true. It does not go where we want to go—we city people.

But it does go where they want to go. Suburban people. People who want to avoid downtown entirely.

That means two things. 1) It does have a purpose, and it would help relieve congestion. But 2) It could be built anywhere.

Why bring it right downtown and allow it to ruin the single biggest natural resource we have in this city, the riverfront?

The boosters keep saying it must go along the river, because moving it a few blocks to solid ground where there is already urban development would be too expensive. But that's a false dilemma.

If it's a regional suburban bypass anyway, why not move it west to much cheaper land along Hampton or Westmoreland roads or better yet put it way west on Loop 12 out by Mountain Creek Lake where there's already tons of undeveloped right-of-way in public ownership? I measure 660 feet of right-of-way along Loop 12/Walton Walker—twice what they say they need for this toll road.

Mary Vogelson of the League of Women Voters and Save Open Space has been trying for years to get me to understand there are serious costs to the city in bringing this suburban bypass right in snug with the heart of downtown. I finally did see in the TxDOT document that building the toll road along the river will increase, not decrease, the amount of car traffic coming through downtown in the year 2020.

Think about it. We make it easier for drivers to slick through from the southeast corner of the region to the northwest by using this fancy new toll road. More people do it. The increase in traffic will greatly slow or stagnate our efforts to reduce vehicular pollution downtown.

I can see why TxDOT and regional planners would like to put the road downtown. The current plan assumes that we city people will donate at no cost the land for the Trinity River toll road. That much free land hugely reduces the road's costs—to as little as $220 million for right-of-way, according to the 1998 projections, versus as much as $700 million if the road-builders have to pay for the land.

The suburbanites get a cheap bypass through the middle of what was supposed to be our wonderful downtown park. We get their smoke.

Who would want this? In fact, there is a guy. There is a guy who makes the case for just this outcome, and I have heard him do it fairly persuasively. I am paraphrasing a bit, but his argument is that people live regionally, and Dallas is part of this region, and the toll road is the sacrifice Dallas must make to remain connected to the region.

His name is Michael Morris. He is "director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments," or COG as it is known in the jargon. I am going to take the unusual step here of providing you with his office phone number, which is 817-695-9241, because I want to see if you have any better luck than I have had over the years trying to get him or his assistant or anybody near him to call me back.

I call him "The Son of COG." I believe I know why it's always so extremely difficult for me to track down the Son of COG. I did catch him once by crashing some kind of highway builder convention at a hotel in Plano. So he knows exactly what I want to get him to say on the record:

1) Is the primary purpose of the Trinity toll road to carry Dallas drivers or suburban drivers?

2) Will it not draw additional traffic into the downtown area?

3) Will that not make our pollution, especially our nitrogen oxide emissions, more difficult to cure?

4) Why can't it be farther out from downtown where it will carry just as much traffic but cost less and do less damage?

5) This is not a Dallas road, is it? This is a COG road. This accomplishes the Son of COG's objectives, right? Not ours.

Every big seminal victory won by the people of Dallas in the last 30 years, from defeating a "thoroughfare plan" to build highways through East Dallas, to creating DART, to putting Central Expressway below grade, has involved the people of the city rising up to defend themselves from pro-suburban, pro-automobile interests. All of our big successes in terms of neighborhood revitalization have happened because we successfully defended ourselves from the suburban car people, otherwise known as the children of the Son of COG.

The Dallas Citizens Council, which created Tom Leppert's Manchurian candidacy out of thin air, has always been the COG's fifth column in the city. These are people who make their money in the suburbs, often by selling the city down the river. In this case literally.

It's not exactly a conspiracy. A conspiracy would be so much simpler. This is a clash of cultures. It's the New Dallas, which is urban and sophisticated, versus the old-money Park Cities Dallas, which is rich-hick, makes its money in the 'burbs and spends it in shopping centers.

The New Dallas gets urban living. It understands living with as few cars as possible cheek-by-jowl with nature, even when it's hot outdoors. Rich-hick Dallas understands only jewels, BMWs and fur coats, even when it's hot outdoors.

After a full month of effort I was able recently to view a microfiche record of the campaign contributions in support of the 1998 bond program that gave us the Trinity River project in the first place. Hundreds of thousands of dollars came from banks and law firms—cutouts for the real donors—and engineering companies.

I also have been looking at ownership of the land along the proposed outline for the park and road downtown. Major blocks of it are in the hands of banks, law firms and development companies.

This brings us to the sordid case of council member Ed Oakley, chairman of the council's Trinity River Committee. I have reported ("What a Woonerful World," April 19) that Oakley has been dabbling in complicated real estate deals square in the impact area for the project.

This is where culture clash begins to bleed over into something a bit nastier. I don't think it's wrong for all those cutouts behind the banks and the law firms to be putting money into the Trinity project, its politics, the elections or the land itself. Hey, that's the American way.
Subject(s): Tom Leppert, suburban vs. downtown, Trinity River project, TxDOT, Alan Walne, Sam Coats, mayoral race

But if the Oakley example shows us nothing else, it shows us that the rah-rah never-look-back push for this thing does not provide at all for guarding our interests—the public interest. And we do need that.

I went to another mayoral forum at Paul Quinn College last week just to double-check myself on Coats. He's a very serious guy who is mature and knows himself. Given a chance to pander, he doesn't pander.

I don't think Leppert does, either. Leppert is probably a good guy with lots to offer. But his position on this referendum is just so...Manchurian.

The Dallas Observer doesn't endorse candidates, and even if it did I wouldn't be the one to do it. Me worker bee. Me no endorse. But I don't mind telling you for whom I'm going to vote. The one with fresh eyes. Definitely.

Not that there's anything wrong with being Manchurian.

© 2007 The Dallas Observer:

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Autopsy of a private toll road

Mexico toll road fiasco

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Copyright 2007

LA AUTOPISTA DEL SOL, Mexico -- This was supposed to be Mexico's toll road to the future, a four-lane, privately built ribbon of asphalt connecting Cuernavaca with the Pacific resort city of Acapulco.

But 14 years after opening, the Autopista del Sol, or "Sun Highway," is a 163-mile mess.

Motorists complain of blown tires and ruined suspensions. A national newspaper last year called the thoroughfare, on which a round trip costs $70, "a calvary of cracks, potholes and risks."

The government has been forced to spend more than $60 million to shore up the crumbling motorway after its operator walked away. Overall, Mexico assumed $14 billion of debt after bailing out nearly two dozen other such projects in the 1990s.

So it may come as a surprise that President Felipe Calderon is touting toll roads as a solution to Mexico's infrastructure woes. His administration is moving aggressively to award contracts to private companies to finance, build and maintain highways -- and charge motorists to use them.

It's a strategy embraced by cash-strapped governments worldwide.

But it's highly controversial in Mexico, where La Autopista del Sol remains a potholed reminder of the potential hazards of privatization.

"Mexico is the poster child for how to do [highway privatization] wrong," said Robert Poole, a transportation expert at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. "Now they have a chance to redeem themselves."

Proponents cite a variety of advantages to involving the private sector. Structured correctly, long-term concessions can shift risks of cost overruns and faulty construction to private operators. For-profit companies have pioneered innovations such as electronic billing and congestion pricing.

The Calderon administration is exploring three types of private-sector investment. It's planning to convert as many as 16 public freeways into toll roads to be managed by private companies. It wants to turn over existing government-run toll roads to private operators. And it's looking to construct 24 privately managed toll roads.

"With private resources we can do more: elevate the quality of the services offered to users, generate more [construction] jobs and ... obtain more resources to construct new highways," said Luis Tellez, Mexico's secretary of Communications and Transportation, in a recent presentation to legislators.

That upbeat assessment belies Mexico's previous disastrous experience.

Calderon's political opponents have criticized the plan and are demanding transparency and vigilance, which were lacking in the past. Some of the same companies that saddled the government with billions of dollars of debt in the 1990s are looking to score new highway projects.

"We are against these concessions because it has been proved throughout the history of Mexico they only represent corruption and fraud," said Sen. Ricardo Monreal of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.

Proponents counter that there is nothing wrong with privatization --just with the manner in which Mexico went about it.

Poole, who has studied the Mexican debacle, said the nation's biggest mistake was the short duration of concessions granted in the 1980s and 1990s -- some as little as 10 years. The tight time frame encouraged builders to cut corners, knowing they weren't responsible for long-term upkeep. And it forced them to charge high tolls to recoup their investment quickly.

Unwilling to pay the high fees, drivers shunned the pay roads and revenue didn't meet projections. But the death blow was Mexico's 1994 currency devaluation. Interest rates soared, making it impossible for private operators to pay their bankers. In 1997, the government assumed their liabilities as part of a massive bailout.


© 2007 North Jersey Media Group Inc.:

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Eminent domain bills moving through Texas Legislature

Limits OK'd on eminent domain

Legislature: House backs protections for property owners in older areas

May 3, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – Protections for older, run-down or impoverished neighborhoods and stronger leverage for property owners whose land is targeted for development were endorsed by the House on Wednesday, with more restrictions on eminent-domain projects moving through the Legislature.

Legislation by Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, bolsters the efforts of some Dallas neighborhoods, most recently around Fair Park, to guard against sweeping plans for redevelopment.

Key to those safeguards are requirements that governments meet stiffer criteria before they can declare a property "blighted," which triggers eminent-domain powers. It also requires that those entities can only declare one property "blighted" at a time, instead of entire areas in which only one property meets the criteria.

"This keeps you from being able to wipe out entire neighborhoods," said Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas. She worked with Mr. Callegari on the bill, which passed the House on a voice vote and faces a final procedural vote today before it heads to the Senate.

The issue of eminent domain – governments' rights to seize land for projects that serve a public purpose – is heated in Texas. In 2005, the Legislature passed a law that banned governments from using the power for commercial development, restricting it to "public use" projects such as museums, libraries and community centers.

The law was inspired by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said cities can use eminent domain for private development to generate tax revenue. The ruling prompted a national backlash, as state legislatures moved to protect against land grabs for private, commercial use.

Texas law allows cities to use eminent domain in "blighted areas" for development – but the definition of "blight" left a lot of poor, impoverished and minority communities vulnerable to the whims of cities that want to "clean up" those neighborhoods, critics said.

The legislation approved Wednesday requires that the property be proven to fit at least four of the following criteria before it can be considered blighted: It's uninhabitable, unsafe or abandoned; it has inadequate sanitation; a natural disaster made it unsafe; it's environmentally contaminated; and it is the site of repeated criminal activity.

"Blight means different things to different people," Ms. Davis said. "You can't take it away because of the fact that you don't like the way someone painted their house."

Ms. Davis pushed through sections of the legislation that require entities to pay relocation costs and "replacement costs" of taking the property, not just the value of the property.

The legislation is a strong message to the city of Dallas and the Foundation for Community Development, which a few months ago was considering a push for stronger eminent-domain powers – including declaring entire areas "blighted."

Community leaders met with residents of the Frazier neighborhood in South Dallas, the target of the foundation's renewal project. The area has a long-standing distrust of eminent domain after city leaders used it against hundreds of landowners, most of them black, in 1969 to expand Cotton Bowl parking for the Dallas Cowboys. The team soon left for Irving.

The backlash to the most recent plan was so strong that the city backed down from its plans. Instead, Dallas officials say, the city is simply monitoring efforts to strengthen the 2005 Texas law.

"We saw the writing on the wall," said Larry Casto, the city's chief lobbyist.

Proposed language in some of the other bills, including a massive measure that was delayed late Wednesday with a technical maneuver, could lead to court cases and slow down development if the projects are too expensive, said Frank Sturzl, executive director of the Texas Municipal League.

Dallas officials said Wednesday that the new laws wouldn't affect them much, since current law already restricts their ability to use eminent domain for economic development.

The House also approved the "Landowner's Bill of Rights Act," which would inform property owners of their right to a "good faith effort" by the entity trying to acquire their land to pay a fair price. The landowner would also be entitled to an assessment of damages resulting from having to relocate and a hearing, with a right to appeal any judgment.

The attorney general would be required to draw up the bill of rights by August.

Also winning approval was a constitutional amendment that would let entities sell acquired property back to their original owners if the development plans for the property don't pan out – but at the original price they paid for it, not current market value, which is sometimes lower. That measure now heads to the Senate, and if it's approved there, voters would consider it in November.

Staff writer Scott Goldstein in Dallas contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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"Landmark legislation for putting the needs of Texas drivers above the pockets of private shareholders."

House gives toll-road freeze final OK; bill heads to Perry

Legislature: He's hinted at veto, but lawmakers able to override

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

A two-year freeze on private toll-road contracts is on its way to Gov. Rick Perry's desk.

House members voted, 139-1, Wednesday to accept Senate amendments to a bill that would halt private-sector toll-road deals for two years. But the complex bill exempts most major North Texas toll projects already in the works. Mr. Perry has strongly hinted that he will veto the measure.

Both chambers overwhelmingly passed the bill in an effort to rein in the state's controversial toll-road policies. The Texas Department of Transportation has drawn fire for its deals with private companies to build and run certain toll roads for 50 years.

The toll-road moratorium was tacked on to a House bill originally designed to grant Harris County officials more power over local toll projects. Senators added a raft of amendments last week that would step up legislative oversight of private toll deals and limit them to 40 years, among other provisions.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, hailed Wednesday's vote as "landmark legislation for putting the needs of Texas drivers above the pockets of private shareholders."

Mr. Perry, who has championed private toll roads as a solution to the state's growing traffic congestion, now has 10 days to consider a veto.

Last week, Mr. Perry said in a prepared statement that he opposes policy "that shuts down road construction, kills jobs, harms air quality, prevents access to federal highway dollars and creates an environment within local government that is ripe for political corruption."

Senators approved the bill last week but recalled it Monday to exempt several North Texas toll projects from the new 40-year cap, including the State Highway 121 project in Collin and Denton counties. The final bill cleared the Senate, 30-1.

With such strong majorities in favor of a moratorium, lawmakers would be able to override Mr. Perry's veto if they chose to, something that hasn't happened to a Texas governor since 1979.

Mr. Perry may have another toll-road moratorium bill to consider before the session ends. On Tuesday, the House transportation committee approved a separate, simpler moratorium bill authored by Mr. Nichols.

That bill still has to clear the full House. But the governor could find it more palatable since it has fewer amendments curbing the state's toll-road powers.

Perry spokeswoman Krista Moody said Wednesday that the governor would rather not have to choose between moratorium bills.

"The governor would prefer to have no toll-road moratorium," Ms. Moody said. "He prefers to build roads."

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

AllianceTexas of Fort Worth could get 'inland-port' designation under a bill in the Legislature

Even without water, this may soon be a port

Designation would let Alliance levy taxes for infrastructure


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

FORT WORTH - AllianceTexas could soon be an inland port, drawing countless international shipments and new dollars for improvements, under a state plan that drew endorsements Tuesday from local leaders. Under a bill in the Texas Senate, city and county leaders would work together to create the ports, define property to be included in them and create governing boards to levy taxes for infrastructure and security improvements.

"Establishing a port authority will allow Alliance to continue to compete," said David Pelletier, director of communications for Hillwood, the company owned by Ross Perot Jr. that is developing the 17,000-acre AllianceTexas. "There's a lot of states looking to establish inland ports because it's about economic development."

The push for the legislation comes soon after the unveiling of plans to turn thousands of acres south of Dallas into a warehouse and distribution center that some say could rival Alliance.

What happened Tuesday: County and Fort Worth leaders unanimously endorsed a plan to create inland-port designations in Texas. The measure by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, also won approval in the Senate Natural Resources Committee and is headed to the full Senate for debate.

Where an inland port could go: The bill says a port could be established in an area with a municipally owned airport, a Class 1 railroad and a priority corridor highway. In Fort Worth, those are Alliance Airport, BNSF Railway and Interstate 35W. The bill would allow inland ports across the state.

What an inland port would do: Much like a Public Improvement District, the authority would tax itself and use that revenue for improvements such as roads, runways, security measures or customs.

How much this could generate and what for: Pelletier said there are no estimates on how much money could be generated by the inland-port designation. But it would help Alliance move forward with infrastructure improvements.

Why this is needed: "Establishing an inland-port authority will strengthen Alliance's position as a major international trade corridor," said Nelson, whose district includes Alliance. "Goods from all over the world are clearing customs right here in our back yard, so it is vital that there be resources available for security, infrastructure and continued growth."

What local officials are saying: Assistant City Manager Joe Paniagua said the city's staff supports the concept of an inland port but has some concerns. They include whether the port authority's board would be subject to the Texas Open Meetings Act and whether the port authority could buy land and build facilities that would be tax-exempt.

Staff writer Mike Lee contributed to this report.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

AllianceTexas, which covers 17,000 acres in far north Fort Worth, could get an inland-port designation under a bill in the Legislature. Alliance Airport, BNSF Railway and Interstate 35W provide the transportation for the development's distribution centers.

© 2007 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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