Saturday, June 09, 2007

Moratorium? 'Most of what Perry wants to do can happen in the next two years.'

Perry Had a Good Session


by Will Lutz
Copyright 2007

The Legislature huffed. The Legislature puffed. But when all was said and done, the Legislature did not blow Gov. Rick Perry's house down.

To put it another way, lawmakers may have expressed public displeasure with the governor at some points during the session, but they passed many major Perry policy proposals and left most of his signature policy plans intact.

Here are a few key Perry policy initiatives that got enacted.

Medicaid Reform

Many of the principles the governor laid out for the state's subsidized health care program - Medicaid - are incorporated into SB 10, the omnibus Medicaid reform plan. What's fascinating is that many of Perry's ideas remained in the bill and were negotiated so as to pass with bipartisan support.

Some of the big ideas that Perry and lawmakers laid out in an early-session news conference with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt included tailoring benefits to specific populations and adding co-payments to emergency room visits for Medicaid - the state-federal subsidized health care program for the poor.

Much of SB 10 will require a waiver from the federal government, but as evidenced by the press conference with Leavitt, many of those discussions are already taking place.

Another major part of SB 10 is the three-share program - a plan that subsidizes individuals and employers who provide health insurance to the previously uninsured. This program was funded, in part, by reallocating federal health care dollars - one of the many reasons legislators included an increase in reimbursement rates for health care providers in the budget. They wanted to ensure that these changes do not adversely affect key players in the health care area.

All these are proposals that Perry backed (and that were developed with input from key lawmakers in the health care area). They now await the governor's signature.

Higher Education

True, the Legislature did not adopt all the governor's higher education proposals, and reduced the scope of some. This is quite common when a Texas governor proposes major changes in the way an area of state government operates.

But the Legislature did act on some of the key ideas he proposed. It funded $100 million in incentive-funding for higher education. It directed the Higher Education Coordinating Board, working in conjunction with the Office of the Governor, to develop a plan for distributing the money.

Lawmakers also increased funding for financial aid, though not by as much as Perry requested.

For the first time in recent memory, the Legislature itemized some of the money earmarked for specific projects on specific campuses, allowing the governor to exercise line-item veto over them.

Lawmakers did not abolish special items, as he suggested, but they did try and make them more transparent and increased his authority over them.

Perry did not get as much as he wanted on higher education, but he was able to get the Legislature to lay a foundation, particularly with the incentives, that he can build on later.

Cancer research

One of Perry's big themes for the session was doing something about cancer. Much media attention went to his attempt - struck down by legislation - to mandate either the human papilloma virus or a parental opt-out for sixth-grade girls.

But Perry got legislators to pass both a constitutional amendment and a bill authorizing $3 billion for cancer research.

Yes, the Legislature disagreed with Perry's method of finance - viz., selling the lottery. But it adopted his whole spending program. Rarely does the Legislature seriously consider - much less pass - anything that would obligate future legislatures. But it did so this time.

Teacher Incentives

True, House Democrats did amend the budget to strike performance-based incentives for teachers. But the Senate insisted they stay in.

The Legislature - over the objections of teacher groups - dedicated the bulk of the money for teacher compensation increases to a program set up in 2006 to reward high-achieving teachers, rather than spending it on across the board raises.

True, there is money sent to school districts intended for across-the-board raises, but most of the new teacher compensation money is dedicated to performance-based increases.

The concept of pay for performance was pushed in 2005 by the House leadership, but it is also one that Perry has championed for years in speeches.

In addition to the above-mentioned items, getting more money for border security was a major Perry priority.

The legislature added $110 million to Perry's Office of Homeland Security to help expand border security surge operations.

Besides seeing several major policy initiatives advance, Perry dodged legislative bullets in two key areas.

Texas Enterprise Fund - Emerging Technology Fund

During the 2006 campaign, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn referred to the Texas Enterprise Fund as a "corporate slush fund" and regularly called for its repeal. Lawmakers funded both of the governor's business incentive programs with extra cash this session. Speaker Tom Craddick ruled out of order Democratic amendments to strike or reduce Texas Enterprise Fund appropriations in the budget.


There is significant discontent with toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor. Two-thirds of legislators actually voted to declare a moratorium on the renting of state right-of-way for toll roads and give local toll authorities more power over local toll projects than the Texas Department of Transportation. But when Perry threatened to call a special session over transportation, the lawmakers relented. Indeed, they passed a bill that technically puts a moratorium on new comprehensive development agreements, but the bill contains lots of exemptions and loopholes. In short, most of what Perry wants to do can happen in the next two years.

Powers of the governor

The House passed a constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to come back into session after the regular session to override vetoes. The Senate passed an amendment allowing it to dismiss gubernatorial appointments whose terms have expired. Both measures died.

This is not to say that Perry had a perfect session. Relations between the center office and lawmakers were certainly strained. And that tension cost Perry some of his key priorities.

In particular, the idea of giving taxpayers more protections to force elections on local property tax increases did not get far. Perry's Texas Task Force on Appraisal Reform suggested many additional protections for taxpayers, but legislators seemed more inclined to leave local tax increases to the complete discretion of local authorities.

Nor did they bite on Perry's call to pass a lower state spending limit and make the state budget more transparent.

"My quarrel is not with where the dollars flow, but the lack of transparency, accountability and budgetary honesty involved in how they are allocated," Perry said.

"That being said, important investments have been made that legislators can proudly proclaim. Lawmakers came here with high hopes and have laid firm tracks that will continue Texas ' stride as a prosperous state."

Perry wanted individual lines broken down in more detail so taxpayers could see where money was being spent. The measure likewise would have made it easier for a governor to use line-item veto authority.

Under current law, in some cases, the governor has to veto an entire agency budget if dissatisfied with one item in that agency's budget. The Legislature didn't display much interest in limiting its own power of the purse.

Throughout the session, the theme of checks-and-balances came up. Did lawmakers cede too much power to Perry in 2003? Certainly, under Perry , Texas has moved closer to a cabinet form of government.

Lawmakers expressed frustration and considered seriously measures to rein the governor in. But when the session ended, Perry survived with his powers intact and many of his major initiatives awaiting signature.

© 2007

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Rep. Jim Pitts writes about the 80th Legislative Session


Capitol Update

June 9, 2007

Rep. Jim Pitts
The Waxahachie Daily Light
Copyright 2007

The 80th session of the Texas Legislature has finally drawn to a close, giving me time to return home and visit with my friends and family.

I’ve also had time to reflect on the results of the past legislative session. While there were areas where this past legislative session fell short, there were also some notable accomplishments.

Property Tax Relief - Probably the most significant accomplishment of this session was delivering on the promise we made to voters more than two years ago that homeowners would see significant property tax relief.

This session, more than $14 billion in state funds were dedicated to help reduce local property taxes to $1, down from a statewide average of $1.50 just two years ago. In addition, on May 12, voters helped correct a glaring oversight from the last special session, extending this property tax relief to seniors and disabled homeowners.

Public Education - Following on the heels of multiple special sessions to address school finance and reform, it was clear that little, if any, major legislation dealing with public education would be taken up this session.

However, there were two notable items that will make a positive impact on our schools and teachers.

First, legislation that was passed ends the standardized Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, replacing it with end-of-course exams in core subject areas in grades 9-12. This legislation was overwhelmingly supported by both educators and parents alike.

Second, funding for the Teachers Retirement System was increased to ensure the fund is actuarially sound, laying the groundwork for future annuity increases and eliminating any need for health insurance premium increases for active and retired teachers.

Most notably, legislation was passed that will provide retired educators a one-time “13th” check this year.

Criminal Justice - Not more than 30 days into the legislative session, news reports began to detail the horrible abuses happening at youth correctional facilities across the state.

The Legislature responded by passing significant reforms to overhaul the structure and operations of the Texas Youth Commission. Much of the senior management that sat by while abuses went without investigation or public disclosure was dismissed.

The reforms passed this session will ensure that only youth committing serious crimes will be sentenced to these facilities and, once there, will be put on a road to rehabilitation and not further incarceration.

In addition to addressing the problems at the Youth Commission, we were also able to pass legislation that will provide valuable resources to state and local law enforcement on the border and across the state.

Too many parts of our border have become havens for drug traffickers and hopefully this effort will give law enforcement some of the tools they need to take these areas back.

The Legislature also stepped up in strengthening penalties for child predators. “Jessica’s Law” makes sexual abuse of a child a capital offense in certain cases and imposes stronger minimum sentences for all cases.

Transportation - Transportation, most notably the Trans-Texas Corridor, was a major topic this session. Texans from all walks of life have voiced their concerns about the impact this project could have on rural Texas, and an overwhelming majority of the House and Senate responded by passing legislation that provides a two-year moratorium on comprehensive development agreements for projects such as the Trans-Texas Corridor.

This legislation also gives local public toll entities - not private investors - the first option to build transportation projects in their area.

Water - Water continues to be one of Texas’ most precious and contentious resources.
Legislation passed this session will help promote water conservation, study ways to balance the state’s needs to conserve while also addressing Texas’ growing population, and, perhaps most significantly, designates several sites for possible reservoir construction.

State Parks - Most of us have read the articles about the deteriorating condition of our state parks with years’ worth of repairs going incomplete and many parks having to scale back their hours and let staff go.

This session, we were able to dramatically increase funding for our state parks through the sporting goods sales tax. Legislation passed this session also transferred many historical sites from the Parks and Wildlife Department to the Texas Historical Commission, allowing Parks and Wildlife to focus on its core mission of supporting our state parks and wildlife areas.
Despite these notable accomplishments, there were many areas where the legislature fell short.

While we were able to ensure that homeowners see property taxes reduced to $1, efforts to reduce these taxes even further were stymied.

While the Legislature was able to reward retired teachers and eliminate the TAKS test, other efforts at meaningful education reform went nowhere. I personally filed legislation (for the second time) that would have required the state to reevaluate the weights applied to school finance formulas - measures that have not been reexamined in more than 10 years.

Unfortunately, this legislation, or bills making similar efforts, was never granted a hearing.
While I was supportive of legislation that provides a two-year moratorium on the Trans-Texas Corridor, it is a shame that it took two different bills - and one gubernatorial veto - for this to pass. In fact, according to recent news reports, Gov. Perry still believes the issue of a moratorium is subject to debate and his staff is examining this legislation to see if there are any potential loopholes.

While it was important that our state parks receive additional funding and attention, it is unfortunate that, despite much of the campaign rhetoric last fall, we continue to see less than 100 percent of the sporting goods sales tax dedicated to our state parks.

Finally, in one of the biggest contradictions of the session, the bill that contained some of the Legislature’s greatest accomplishments also embodied much of what was wrong with this session.

Our state budget for the coming biennium contains many good things: funding for property tax cuts, increased funding for children’s health insurance and Medicaid, increased funding for the Teacher’s Retirement System, additional funding for a better air quality. But it also contains hundreds of millions of dollars in pork-barrel projects (much of it in higher education) that appear to be there for one reason alone: to help the speaker of the House remain in power.

I served on the Appropriations Committee for many years, culminating in serving as chairman last session. So voting against this bill, and speaking against many of these items, was extremely difficult to do.

There has always been and probably always will be some small amount of “pork” in the budget. That is just the reality of politics. But the sheer scale and amount in this budget were too much for me and other members to take.

Last December, I announced my bid for speaker of the House. I did so because I believed that the current leadership in the House was using that position of authority to manage the legislative process to the benefit of a few lobbyists and special interests, and not the needs of this state. I was disheartened to see members threatened or cajoled into voting for legislation that ran counter to the best interests of their districts.

I was disappointed to see an end to the important role committees and members play in the legislative process, being replaced by one office that micro-managed virtually every piece of legislation.

These are the reasons I decided to run for speaker in December and joined with many of my colleagues throughout the session in calling for new leadership. I believed then - as I do now - that the work of this chamber is too important and the issues facing this state are too great to be relegated to the decisions of one office and member.

I am glad this session has drawn to a close, and that there are successes we can point to for the work of the last five months. But more importantly, I’m looking forward to the future and the changes we can make next session that will improve this great state.

As always, thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve as your state representative, now and in the future.

Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, is state representative for District 10, which includes Ellis and Hill counties.

Copyright © 2007 The Daily Light

© 2007 The Waxahachie Daily Light:

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Portuguese-Brazilian toll road consortium is placed on CreditWatch after being awarded concession for Colorado toll road

BRISA toll road operator gets negative S&P rating


New Europe
Issue 733
Copyright 2007

Standard & Poor's Ratings Services announced on June 4 that it has placed its A long-term and A-1 short-term corporate credit ratings on BRISA Auto-Estradas de Portugal S.A., the owner and operator of the Portuguese toll road network, read a press release. The agency also placed A long-term corporate credit rating on financing arm BRISA Finance B.V. on CreditWatch with negative implications.

The CreditWatch placement follows the announcement that the consortium formed by BRISA and its Brazilian subsidiary Companhia de Concessoes Rodoviarias (CCR) has been awarded the 99-year concession for the operation of the Northwest Parkway motorway, part of the ring-road network of the US city of Denver, the capital of the state of Colorado.

The associated investment is estimated at 543 million Euro, which BRISA intends to project finance. "The negative CreditWatch implications reflect our concerns that Brisa might pursue a more aggressive investment strategy in the future, given the limited growth potential in Portugal," Standard & Poor's credit analyst Jose Ramon Abos was quoted as saying.

It was noted that the ratings on BRISA have been under pressure over the past year, due to uncertainty about the recovery of traffic levels on the company's motorway network.

Abos added that a deterioration of BRISA's business profile or the company's failure to meet the target ratios indicated by S&P in November 2006 could lead to a downgrade.

S&P expects to resolve the CreditWatch status over the next three-four weeks, after having met with BRISA's management to evaluate its strategy regarding this concession and potential future ones, as well as the related financial impact on the company's debt sustainability, the release read.

The ratings are supported by the group's strong franchise, which includes the only interconnected toll motorway network in the Republic of Portugal (AA-/Stable/A-1+). Historically, strong operating cash flows, protection against inflation through a toll escalation mechanism and a supportive concession framework have also been positive factors. These strengths are offset by exposure to traffic volume risk and competition from parallel roads that remain toll-free.

© 2007 New Europe:

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Friday, June 08, 2007

Craddick suporters repaid in pork

State budget loaded with pork-barrel spending


Associated Press
Copyright 2007

In this year's legislative session, it paid to support embattled House Speaker Tom Craddick.

That support translated into state dollars for an antebellum plantation home near Dallas, an Edinburg museum of South Texas history, and upgrades to a Houston park named for an influential Craddick legislative ally.

Recent budget prosperity and a presiding officer in desperate need of allies ushered in a return of pork-barrel spending during the recent session. In the new budget for 2008 and 2009, those who helped Craddick survive a bipartisan coup try were big winners of an estimated $176 million in so-called "special items."

But Craddick spokeswoman Alexis DeLee says the "budget process that took place this last session is the same as it's always been."

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, supported Craddick. He got a $600,000 matching grant for renovations at the Sylvester Turner Park in Houston. Turner says renovations to the 27-year-old park are needed, including new bathrooms to replace portable toilets.

Rep. Helen Giddings is another Democrat who supported Craddick. She helped the South Dallas suburb of DeSoto get $500,000 to buy the historic Nance Farm, a plantation home built in the 1850s.

Border area Democrats, a key bloc of support for Craddick's re-election, did particularly well in the $153 billion budget.

Democratic Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City got an $800,000 matching grant for a new park in his small border town and a new rural technology center for vocational skills training. A zoo in Brownsville and a soccer complex in Kingsville will get almost $700,000 combined for renovations. Another $10 million was set aside for Harlingen's South Texas Hospital and $1 million for a border security technology and training center in McAllen.

Democratic Representative Aaron Pena of Edinburg helped bring the city $3 million for a new drug treatment center and $750,000 for the Will Looney Legacy Park and a museum of South Texas history.

© 2007 The Associated Press:

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TxDOT's 'pattern of intimidation' - NTTA was discouraged from competing with Spanish firm Cintra on SH 121 Toll Road bid.

NTTA felt pressure to skip 121 bid

Officials claim pattern of intimidation

June 8, 2007

By Danny Gallagher, Staff writer
McKinney Courier-Gazette
Copyright 2007

Some current and former North Texas Tollway Authority board members said they felt pressured by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) into not competing for the State Highway 121 toll project and unsure about what would happen if they didn’t sign a regional protocol agreement in August of 2006.

“I think it’s pretty clear TxDOT has not been encouraging us to get in and compete,” current NTTA board chairman Paul Wageman said.

James McCarley, a former executive director of the Dallas Regional Transportation Council, said, “It wasn’t widely known at the time but the NTTA has been strongly encouraged not to explore (SH) 121.”

Gov. Rick Perry and TxDOT officials announced on Feb. 27 that the Spanish company Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte had been granted a conditional award to build and operate an SH 121 toll road in Collin and Denton counties for 50 years. After an outcry of protest from legislators, the North Central Texas Council of Government’s Regional Transportation Council asked the NTTA to submit a proposal, which it did last month. State Sen. Florence Shapiro said she believes the NTTA are competing equally for the project for the first time.

“They (NTTA) are the entity that has served this region for the last 40 years and to just toss them out willy nilly with no rhyme or reason other than they (TxDOT) want the private sector take over the most lucrative toll road in the nation was unacceptable to me,” Shapiro said. “Give them a level playing field, let them compete with the same tools that are available and see which one’s better and that’s now what NTTA has for the first time.”

Collin County wanted NTTA deal

In 2005 Former Collin County Judge Ron Harris said Collin County wanted to work with NTTA on SH 121 by forming its own local entity and licensing it to NTTA, an idea he credits to Collin County Commissioner Jack Hatchell.

“I wish I could say it was mine,” Harris said. “He said why don’t we get NTTA to submit a proposal to do the whole road?”

The plan was formed and taken to TxDOT, Harris said.

“We got that moving and everybody seemed very united and comfortable with it,” Harris said. “Then we went to that ominous TxDOT commission meeting…and the TxDOT commission didn’t receive it well at all. They just said it should be a foreign corporation, and I can’t say that was their words but that was the thought behind it, that they didn’t want, in essence, NTTA to do it.”

All private bidders for the SH 121 contract were foreign corporations.

In fact, county officials said in March and April 2006 that TxDOT warned Collin County that funding for other county projects, such as U.S. 75 improvements, might be in jeopardy if it proceeded. “We could end up with a whole heap of nothing,” Commissioner Joe Jaynes said at the time.

Dave Denison, NTTA’s Denton County appointed board member, said he felt a lot of pressure came down on the NTTA to stay away from the project.

“I never saw anything official to this fact, but I always felt TxDOT really did not want the NTTA or the public sector involved in the process, and by the public sector, I mean the NTTA,” Denison said. “They said we could submit, but I always got the distinct impression they didn’t want us to submit. I just think the process seemed to be geared for a private proposal rather than a public one. Some of the things required in the submittal process didn’t fit a public agency like the NTTA.”

‘Never see the light of day’

Dave Blair, former NTTA chairman, said he received comments that any proposal NTTA made would “never see the light of day.”

“I also heard from one of their financial advisers, Greg Carey (managing director with Goldman, Sachs & Co.), I believe it was a TxDOT Transportation Summit in the summer of last year [2006],” Blair said. “He pulled me aside and, whether it was a friendly gesture or a message from someone else, I never asked, but he unmistakably told me if we made this proposal, it would ruin the NTTA.”

Goldman, Sachs spokesman Michael DuVally said, however, "That’s not our recollection of how the conversation went, and secondly, I would point out that the issue raised is not germane to the bid that’s currently on the table.”

Bill Hale, TxDOT’s Dallas district engineer, called Blair’s comment “bull.”

A regional decision

While this was going on, however, the NTTA was receiving another message: That the decision about who got the SH 121 contract was a regional one.

Wageman and Collin County leaders came home from a December 2005 meeting with the Texas Transportation Commission leaders with the news that Texas Transportation Commission chair Ric Williamson told them it was a local choice.

“The chair, on more than one occasion said it was a regional decision,” Wageman said after that meeting.

“We’re still alive,” Hatchell said at the time. “We asked them to consider the NTTA just like they would a private company.”

“They agreed to work with the NTTA if they submit a proposal through the Regional Transportation Council,” he said. “Any excess revenue could go back to Collin County for its use.”

Such an agreement would have been similar to one made with Denton County in late 2004, though that deal did not include the NTTA. The Denton County accord called for approval of toll roads on SH 121 from near DFW Airport to the Dallas North Tollway. The cities involved n Coppell, Carrollton, Lewisville and The Colony -- would receive money for additional projects to ensure mobility in and out of the city, such as improvements to Farm to Market Road 423, Interstate 35E, FM 544, and Freeport Parkway in Coppell.

Warnings of bankruptcy

This year, though, the words were harsher. A memo surfaced at in April, credited to TxDOT staff, that stated an analysis of NTTA’s proposal found it would lead to bankruptcy and “to avoid this shortfall, NTTA would increase toll rates beyond the Regional Transportation Council’s (RTC) policy,” according to the memo.

TxDOT also asked the Texas Legislature to let them take over regional tollway projects. According to TxDOT’s 80th Legislative Session agenda, TxDOT asks lawmakers to amend state law to “explicitly authorize TxDOT to acquire county toll projects and regional tollway authority projects and vice versa.”

Blair said he believes the legislative agenda was meant to apply pressure to NTTA to stay out of the 121 project.

“That’s kind of the way I took it, that they did not want us specifically at that time on SH 121,” Blair said. “That just was my perception. I have no idea why they were thinking about it…I didn’t know why they did it. It was just my perception of it, that they were doing it because they didn’t want us involved in their projects.”

Hale denied the legislative request was meant to serve as a threat to the NTTA.

“Some other toll agencies wanted to go into the market and sell their assets to raise money,” Hale said. “It wasn’t to take over NTTA or HECTRA (Harris County Toll Road Authority). If they offered it to the market, TxDOT would have liked to offer a proposal on that sort of thing and we needed legislation to do that.”

Protocol under pressure

Blair said given the pressure they were under, the protocol agreement seemed like a better deal at the time. He said NTTA would have to spend approximately $5 million on constructing a proposal in a couple of months whereas Cintra’s proposal took more than a year to complete.

“When the 121 deal came up and we decided to take a crack at it, it was very obvious to me and several other board members that TxDOT was going to fight us to the end to get 121,” Blair said. “In the meantime when TxDOT came to us and said, ‘Hey guys, we’ve got this protocol we’d like you to look at that basically said it would allow you to be the operator of all the tollways in your district for five years.’ We looked at that and said we think this is a better deal for us right now than trying to fight this 121 project, so the board decided that we would accept the protocol.”

Wageman said the protocol gave NTTA “very little.”

“It had three projects we already had: the east extension of the George Bush Turnpike, the phase three extension of the Dallas North Tollway and Southwest Parkway in Tarrant County,” Wageman said. “TxDOT would not allow us to compete for the [SH 121] project and also be the toll collector if we were unsuccessful. We couldn’t collect tolls for a private firm if we submitted a bid...We felt we could, but that was not the view of TxDOT.”

It was the NTTA’s idea

Hale said the NTTA suggested the protocol.

“TxDOT had a ‘minute order’ that authorized TxDOT to make a proposal that allowed NTTA to be a compactor on the project as well as with the private sector. Then in July, they (NTTA) submitted a request for private partners to come in and help them with their proposal because their public sector compactor could not be competitive. We called them in and that’s when we started hashing up the protocol.”

Since then, the protocol has been rescinded by TxDOT and NTTA has submitted their bid to the Regional Transportation Council for review.

Jose Lopez, Cintra’s U.S. president, said NTTA was the agency applying the pressure after they chose to sign the protocol and remove their bid.

“They chose to be with the winning horse and be the mandatory supplier,” Lopez said. “Then they were going to the political world and telling stories around and gaining favor from the politicians and trying to win this way. It’s like saying we cannot win on their plate, so let’s go to the underground.”

Superior proposal

Wageman said he feels NTTA has the “superior proposal.”

“Obviously, we’re very concerned about the transparency of the evaluation process and that it’s not biased,” Wageman said. “We’re going to insist that it be fair to us…I think the public demands that it be a fair and transparent evaluation process.”

Lopez said he believes Cintra’s proposal is better.

“What if the economy doesn’t go well? What if oil prices go very high for the next few years? If it fails with us, that’s OK for Texas. We lose our equity and our project and the project is the region’s again and they can sell it again probably at a lower price,” Lopez said. “If this happens when NTTA is on the project, NTTA must raise tolls.”

Michael Morris, the North Central Texas Council of Governments’ Director of Transportation, said he wants both proposals to receive a thorough and balanced examination.

“I think there’s a definite public interest to find strengths and weaknesses of the public financial sector approach and the private financial sector approach, so we’re back to where wanted to be year ago,” Morris said. “I just wish we had gotten this in the fall, but we’ve got it now and we’re moving forward.”

McCarley declined to offer any further comment after he was contacted a second time. Hatchell could not be reached for comment.

Contact Danny Gallagher at To post comments online, access this story at


  • November 2004 - Texas Transportation Commission approves deal with Denton County cities to allow tolls on SH 121 in exchange for funding of important county road projects.
  • November 2005 - Collin County and four cities along the 121 corridor (Frisco, Allen, McKinney and Plano) requested the NTTA submit a proposal to TxDOT to fund the Collin County portion of the roadway.
  • December 2005 - Texas Transportation Commission chair Ric Williamson tells NTTA and Collin County leaders that the decision of who wins the SH 121 contract is “a local one,” and that the state would work with NTTA as it would a private firm.
  • February 2006 - RTC rejects NTTA’s proposal
  • April of 2006 - RTC adopts series of policies for application to the 121comprehensive development agreement procurement. These include mandates that 75 percent of expected revenue be paid up front.
  • May 2006 - TxDOT issues a draft “Request for Detailed Proposals for SH 121” to the short-listed firms for industry review
  • June 2006 - The RTC adopts recommendations to the Texas Transportation Commission for the evaluation criteria for the 121 project; NTTA said they authorized their staff to develop a proposal for the Collin and Denton counties portions; TxDOT says NTTA brings up the concept of a protocol agreement
  • July 2006 - NTTA publishes a notice of intent to use private companies to prepare their proposal; TxDOT issues a letter outlining their concerns of their “private partner;” Former NTTA Chairman Dave Blair said he is told at a TxDOT Transportation Summit by a Goldman & Sachs employee that a 121 proposal would “ruin the NTTA”
  • August 2006 - NTTA board approves protocol agreement and rescinded their authorization to make a proposal
  • February 2007 - Spanish-based Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte wins 121 toll bid
  • April 2007 - Texas House passes toll road moratorium bill; NTTA announces interest in preparing another proposal
  • May 2007 - TxDOT memo criticizing NTTA’s proposal posted at; NTTA submits 121 proposal to RTC

  • The project: A 25.9-mile State Highway 121 toll road from U.S. 75 in McKinney to the western junction of Business 121 in Coppell/Lewisville.
  • Status: Operational, all-electronic toll road from western terminus to FM 544 in Carrollton; main lanes under construction from FM 544 to Preston Road in Plano/Frisco; service roads from Preston Road to U.S. 75.
  • Cintra bid: $2.8 billion ($2.1 billion up front; $700 million in concession payments). Total economic impact of $5.06 billion.
  • NTTA bid: $3.333 billion ($2.5 billion up front; $833 million in annual payments). Total economic impact of $6.3 billion.
© 2007 McKinney Courier-Gazette:

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"We have to work together to campaign against legislators in Austin who aren't there to represent their people--regardless of their political party."

Lobbyist describes status of toll roads

June 08, 2007

Longview News-Journal
Copyright 2007

Hank Gilbert was not impressed with the 80th meeting of the Texas Legislature.

Gilbert, a former candidate for agriculture commissioner and Democratic anti-toll road lobbyist, offered his opinions and reported on his efforts, specifically on bills concerning the toll roads, at the Texas Democratic Women of Gregg County's monthly meeting Thursday.

"The 80th session probably had some high points," he said of the Democrats' progress. "But I didn't see them; except the raising of the minimum wage to $7.25, which won't go into effect for another two years."

Gilbert spoke in detail about Texas House Bill 1892, a piece of toll-road legislation putting a two-year moratorium on all toll-road projects.

"They said, 'Hey, let's stop where we are, study the vitality of these roads and make a decision from there,'" he said.

The bill was approved by the House and the Senate with a combined vote of 166-5. Gov. Rick Perry promised to veto the bill, prompting the Senate to compromise with Senate Bill 792. This new edition added amendments protecting certain roads and businesses from the two-year moratorium, including the development of Interstate 69, as it would hinder the economic development of the Rio Grande Valley. Interstate 69 is expected to extend from Northeast Texas to Mexico.

He said he saw this compromise as big business deliberately infringing upon smaller towns' rights, which will be affected if the Trans-Texas Corridor continues adding highways through small towns.

The Trans-Texas Corridor is a 4,000 mile plan of tollways, according to

"We have to work together to campaign against the legislators down in Austin who aren't there to represent their people regardless of their political party," he said.

Juneau Embry, president of Texas Democratic Women of Gregg County, said they try to bring speakers to their meetings who talk about issues important to women in East Texas.

"We invited Hank because he's a good speaker, and he's funny," Embry said.

© 2007 The Longview News-Journal:

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'I was sure [the TTC] would never sign away their responsibility for developing Texas highways. Imagine my surprise when I learned they had.'

Nichols notes Perry hasn't inked road bill

June 07, 2007

By Jim Goodson
The Jacksonville Progress
Copyright 2007

Texans are much safer now that the Legislature is over, Robert Nichols joked Wednesday at the Jacksonville Rotary Club.

State Senator Nichols, who represents Cherokee County and 15 other counties, said despite the seriousness of addressing major state issues there were some light moments in the just-completed legislative session.

For example, Nichols said when he first began to explore the possibility of running for office he was advised by consultants to shave his beard. “They said no one with a beard could be elected,” Nichols said.

“So after I was elected and during one of the first days of the legislative session, they introduced all of us freshmen to the research staff. One of the researchers heard me ask a fellow freshman how long it had been since someone with a beard was elected.

“A few days later one of the pages brought me a packet. ‘Here’s the research project you requested,’ the page said. I didn’t know what it was. Well, the research staff studied photos of every senator ever elected and determined I was the second senator with a beard in 100 years.

“Basically, since the end of the Civil War, no one with a beard has been elected.”

Nichols said he felt good about the Texas Legislature for increasing the budget for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to $180 million. He singled out Dr. Michael Banks of Jacksonville for organizing and galvanizing support for increasing the parks and wildlife department’s budget.

He also supported the legislature’s decision to do away with the TAKS test in favor of course exam comparison testing.

Nichols also had praise for new legislation that empowers and increases the Child Protective Services department budget. “I probably get more calls about CPS than any other subject,” Nichols said.

More funding for the Texas Forest Service will help that state agency be of greater assistance to volunteer firefighters, Nichols said.

The castle doctrine bill, which releases property owners from liability if they shoot someone entering their home illegally, also drew praise from Nichols, who also had a hand in developing a property owner’s bill of rights that outlines the legal steps available to people facing eminent domain threats.

“Eminent domain should be used rarely and only for a genuine public necessity,” Nichols said. “Too many governmental agencies are abusing eminent domain laws at this time.”

Nichols’ major piece of legislation was to convince legislators to pass a bill that would place a two year moratorium on the construction of privately owned toll roads.

His bill, which has enough co-signers in both the Senate and the House to override a governor’s veto, has yet to be signed by Gov. Rick Perry.

Nichols is a former Texas Transportation Department commissioner who wielded a lot of authority - more than the usual amount for a freshman Senator - especially on transportation issues.

He stressed his adamant opposition to the state’s current plan to allow private roadbuilders to operate toll roads, complete with non-compete laws signed by the state and that do not adequately protect the state should the private firms want to sell the roads back to Texas.

Nichols said Texas has already agreed to a privately-operated toll road to connect Austin and San Antonio, another to connect DFW Airport and McKinney and about 14 others throughout the state. In each case the state signed a non-compete contract pledging not to built highways near these for 50 years.

‘In some cases more than 50 years,” Nichols said. “ I used to fight this fight from within the Transportation Department. Now I’m fighting it as a state senator.

“It is a terrible policy for a government agency to limit its capabilities in this way. 50 years is a long time.”

Nichols said he spoke personally with each each transportation department commissioner, and he was sure they would never sign away their responsibility for developing Texas highways.

“You can imagine my surprise when I learned they had,” Nichols said. “I went straight over to the transportation department building and looked up all the commissioners I could find.

“They told me they had no choice. ‘This was the only deal we could make (with these privately owned firms).’ That’s what they said.

“I couldn’t believe it. That’s why I sponsored this bill.”

© 2007 The Jacksonville Progress:

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

"They're in for the fight of their lives. People in Texas will not put up with this."

Spoilers or swing voters?

Independent Texans founder discusses corridor, politics with area group

June 07, 2007

The Victoria Advocate
Copyright 2007

Members of the independent movement can make a difference in United States politics with their ability to "spoil" elections, Linda Curtis said.

"The two parties use that word to describe us," said Curtis, a spokeswoman for the independent movement and founder of Independent Texans. "They say we're spoilers. I choose to think about it differently. We are the swing vote right now and we can swing and sway elections."

Curtis spoke with the Concerned Citizens for Responsible Government on Tuesday about pushing the independent movement forward in a positive way. People are upset with the way politicians are running the U.S., she said, and it's time to find a solution.

"There is unrest," she said. "People are trying to figure out what the heck is going on in this country. I think people are ready to hear what independents have to say."

One of the main issues the group hopes to tackle is the Trans-Texas Corridor, a stretch of highway that would run the length of the state.

"They need to slow it down," Curtis said. "We certainly need roads but this is not a road. This is a trade agreement."

Curtis attended 18 of the 54 TTC hearings that took place last summer and said the plan gives China a trade advantage, while it hurts America's neighbor to the south.

"The people of Mexico will be hurting even more," she said. "When you impoverish people across your border, what are they going to do? I know if I were one of them, I'd be jumping that fence. They're further impoverishing an already impoverished country."

The funds involved is something to take notice of, she said.

"It's scary the kind of money that's getting thrown around about this," Curtis said. "If you add up all the dollars it would take to build the corridor completely, they said it was originally $184 billion. Actually it's close to $1 trillion. It's $754 billion."

More people have taken notice of the movement, Curtis said, and 42 percent of the public self-identifies as independent.

"When people say they're independent they mean they don't identify with a party, but with the candidate," she said.

And that's one thing people need to work toward, she said. People must start voting for a candidate and for the issue, rather than for a political party.

"Corruption has no party line," said Russell Pruitt, a spokesman with the CCRG. "We tend to support party politics. I'm hoping to get people thinking about what's in their best interest. If people are informed on what's going on they will make the right decision."

Independent Texans will meet Saturday and Sunday in Bastrop to discuss ways to bring in members to the independent movement and to discuss which candidates to support in upcoming elections.

The group will continue to stand for what it believes in, Curtis said, on issues such as the TTC.

"They're in for the fight of their lives," she said. "People in Texas will not put up with this."

© 2007 The Victoria Advocate:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE


"It looks bad, it smells bad, and it calls into question the integrity of this agency and the people who work here."

Parties at toll road agency invite new scrutiny

Auditors investigate roles of donors in Christmas bashes, golf tournaments

June 6, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

The Harris County Auditor's Office said Tuesday it is investigating whether the county's Toll Road Authority relied on donations from firms that do business with it to pay for Christmas parties, golf tournaments and summer outings during the past five years.

The widening probe follows last week's forced retirement of Toll Road Authority Director Mike Strech amid revelations that county contractors had paid thousands of dollars to fund an employee party at SplashTown last year.

Public Infrastructure Director Art Storey said earlier this week that Strech told him he planned to solicit contributions for a similar party at SplashTown in July, in direct violation of Storey's order not to hold such events or ask vendors to donate.

Also Tuesday, county officials released several documents involved in their investigation, including a "sponsorship list" for an employee picnic held at SplashTown last June.

The list of 31 county contractors, many of them engineering firms, is broken down by the amount each donated or pledged. The amounts ranged from $250 to $5,000, with companies classified as copper-, bronze-, silver-, gold-, or platinum-level donors.

The total sponsorship was listed as $59,750. Of that, the authority spent $45,000 on the SplashTown outing, leaving $15,000 an off-the-books social account, district attorney's investigator Dan McAnulty said.

Several vendors contacted by the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday said they had no problem with the parties, to which they and their families were invited. They said they did not feel pressured to contribute and did not receive any improper benefits.

"If we didn't donate, that wouldn't affect our relationship with the authority," said V.N. Vijayvergiya, president of Geotest Engineering, Inc. "It's a request. It's not an obligation."

Robert Barnett of the engineering firm Sparks, Barlow & Barnett Inc. called the events "a community effort."

"We get jobs through the Commissioners Court, but we want the authority staff to know we appreciate them," he said.

Strech, who made $153,275 annually, said Tuesday he would not comment while under investigation by the district attorney's office.

District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal on Monday said his office had found no criminal wrongdoing in the solicitations.

Steve Garner, chief assistant county auditor, said officials have found two off-the-books bank accounts overseen by Strech that were used to pay for parties and celebrations for Toll Road Authority employees.

Garner said that in one instance, Strech took $1,800 from an "HCTRA Helping Hands" fund, set up for needy toll road workers, to rent Tin Hall in Cypress for a 2006 Christmas party.

Strech later paid back the fund with $1,800 taken from another account, where money solicited from toll road vendors was deposited, Garner said.

Peter Key, who was appointed deputy director of the authority by Storey 20 months ago, said Tuesday that Strech said he would seek the Commissioners Court's approval to use toll road funds for the party.

An Oct. 18, 2006, e-mail to Strech and Key from the authority employees' "Celebration Committee" says the party — with barbecue, a deejay and a gift for each employee — would cost about $30,000 based on a "pre-head count" of 900 attendees.

Key said he initially approved the expenditure at Strech's request, then withdrew his approval the next day.

"I decided it was just not appropriate to use public funds to hold a Christmas party," he said.

Key said Storey told Strech "not to have any more events or parties." But later, Storey said, he learned that the authority was planning to solicit donations from vendors for an employee picnic at SplashTown in July. A similar event had been held there in 2006.

In a letter delivered Thursday, Storey told Strech he would fire him if he didn't retire before the end of Friday. Strech retired, and his executive assistant, Diana Wilcox, resigned.

Garner said auditors also will look at whether Electronic Transaction Consultants, a Toll Road Authority vendor, paid for an authority golf tournament in February.

"We're not going to comment on this," ETC spokeswoman Carla Kienast said.

County Judge Ed Emmett said the public should not be concerned that vendors were winning county contracts based on their contributions.

Key said about 20 managers from the Toll Road Authority attended a meeting Tuesday at which he and Storey explained the situation and the new rules banning gifts to employees.

Even if no crime was committed, Key said afterward, "it looks bad, it smells bad, and it calls into question the integrity of this agency and the people who work here."

Chronicle reporter Dale Lezon contributed to this story. ; ;

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

"Why on earth would elected officials think citizens want less protection from eminent domain?"

Eminent domain letter is delayed


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

Tarrant County commissioners must wait to send a letter to Gov. Rick Perry asking him to veto an eminent domain bill, because the full court must approve such a move, and one member wasn't present at Tuesday's meeting.

Even so, Arlington property owner Linda Lancaster spoke to the Commissioners Court, urging them to instead send a letter supporting the bill.

"Why on earth would elected officials think citizens want less protection from eminent domain?" she asked. "We depend on you for protection and representation."

The issue: House Bill 2006 would give landowners more rights when governments take property through eminent domain, a controversial practice in which local governments appropriate land for public projects. The bill would ensure that landowners receive good-faith offers, be compensated for damage done to adjoining property, and have a chance to buy back their land -- at the same price they received -- if it isn't needed in 10 years for the development.

The cost: Officials have said the measure could cost the state an extra $1 billion a year in transportation projects.

The status: Perry has until June 17 to sign or veto bills. Commissioners say they hope to vote on sending a letter asking for a veto Tuesday.

Roll call: Commissioner Gary Fickes was not present Tuesday, preventing the vote.
Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

© 2007 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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"It was not all about a picnic."

Ex-toll road chief defends party contributions

Going against boss's orders was a mistake, he says, calling such events a small worker perk

June 6, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Former Harris County Toll Road Authority Director Mike Strech said Wednesday that he sees nothing wrong with having contractors pay for a party for his employees but said he made a mistake by going ahead with plans for such an event against orders from his boss.

"I guess I overstepped my authority," said Strech, who served as HCTRA executive director for six years. " ... It was a way for the employees to have a little bit of a perk."

Strech abruptly retired from the $153,000-a-year post last Thursday after his boss, Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Director Art Storey, threatened to fire him over his leadership of the toll road authority and the ongoing investigation into allegations that the agency used contractor donations to pay for parties and events.

Authorities said earlier this week that about 30 vendors who perform at least $100,000 of work for the county annually had contributed nearly $60,000 for a toll road authority employee picnic at SplashTown last June. Of that, some $45,000 was spent on the picnic. The remaining $15,000 was found in one of at least two "off-the-books" bank accounts the Harris County Auditor's Office says were overseen by Strech.

Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said his office found no criminal wrongdoing in the circumstances surrounding the Splashtown event in part because contractors said they did not feel they had been coerced into making financial donations.

The county auditor is conducting its own investigation into whether the toll road authority used contractor contributions to pay for Christmas parties, golf tournaments and summer outings during the past five years.

Strech, who authorized last year's SplashTown picnic and was preparing to solicit contributions from contractors for a similar event planned for next month, said he sees nothing wrong with allowing companies who do business with the toll road authority to pick up such a tab.

He acknowledged, however, that he understood why some may question the practice of having contractors pay for government gatherings.

Cancellation was ordered

Storey said he had ordered Strech to cancel next month's party at SplashTown after Strech showed him the solicitation letter he was planning to send vendors.

"Mike had a big job. I have a big job," Storey said Wednesday. "People with big jobs with high responsibility do difficult things and make decisions and are accountable for their actions."

Storey said earlier he was particularly bothered by this episode as Strech is undergoing radiation treatment for prostate cancer.

Strech, who said he had hoped to retire in seven years but decided to retire early after his cancer diagnosis three months ago, said he has 38 radiation treatments remaining.

He said he was never part of a quid-pro-quo in which companies were asked for financial contributions in exchange for contracts with the toll road authority.

"There was never any pressure at all," Strech said. "I wouldn't do people like that. It was totally voluntary."

Vendors approached by the Houston Chronicle said they had not been coerced into donating money toward events, nor did they view it as an obligation to get contracts.

'Not all about a picnic'

Strech declined to discuss specifics of the ongoing investigation into contractors-sponsored events, including a February golf tournament and plans for an employee Christmas part at Tin Hall, in Cypress.

"I'm not going to go over it point by point," he said. "My friends know me, and they understand my integrity."

Storey said he simply lost confidence in Strech.

"It was not all about a picnic," Storey said. "The guy was speeding, was determined to be an unsafe driver, and his license was taken away."

Strech said he was disappointed with "how things came down the way they did" but that he has only one regret.

"I didn't get to finish a program I believe in," he said. "I thought it was good for the people of Houston."

Outings the Harris County Toll Road Authority held with vendors include:

• Picnic: An annual picnic held last summer at SplashTown for 1,400 on which $45,000 donated by vendors was spent.

• 'Rocking' celebration: A celebration when the Sam Houston Tollway was completed with a large crowd "rocking" to a band on one of the ramps.

• Parties: Christmas parties, golf outings and previous years' picnics held at a local ranch.

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

TxDOT is 'buffeted in a rough legislative session, but emerges with more financial tools than ever.'

TxDOT To Sell $1.1B Tomorrow

Another $1 Billion Set for Early 2008


by Richard Williamson
The Bond Buyer
Copyright 2007

DALLAS — The Texas Department of Transportation — buffeted in a rough legislative session, but emerging with more financial tools than ever — will sell $1.1 billion of general obligation bonds tomorrow, with another $1 billion expected in nine months, officials said.

The negotiated deal led by Morgan Stanley and Southwest Securities Inc. comes the week after TxDOT executive director Michael Behrens announced plans to retire at the end of August. It also follows a swirl of legislation that would nearly triple the department’s bonding capacity and redrew the landscape for developing toll-road projects.

Working with financial adviser Ron Morrison of First Southwest Co., TxDOT expects a receptive market for the 30-year, fixed-rate debt among institutional investors looking for large blocks of high-quality credit.

“The demand has certainly been there in the past,” said James Bass, TxDOT’s chief financial officer. “We’ve been doing about $1 billion every eight to nine months. This deal is kind of typical.”

Indeed, Bass said, TxDOT will likely go to market with another $1 billion in eight or nine months. After tomorrow’s pricing, TxDOT will have issued $4 billion backed by the mobility fund that is made up of fees for drivers’ licenses, vehicle inspections, and titles.

Projects covered by the mobility fund are usually designed to relieve congestion in growing urban areas. Recent examples include an Interstate Loop 410 interchange at U.S. 281 in San Antonio and State Highway 45SE, a four-lane turnpike connecting Interstate 35 to State Highway 130 near Austin. While TxDOT has no cap on mobility fund debt, it must obtain the state comptroller’s certification that revenues will be 110% of debt service, Bass said.

Although that means revenues are more than adequate to cover debt service, the state applies its full faith and credit to the bonds under a state constitutional amendment passed in 2001.

Fitch Ratings rates the upcoming issue AA-plus, Standard & Poor’s rates it AA, and Moody’s Investors Service rates it A1.

Bass said the state would provide bond insurance for any large investors that require it.

Noting Texas’ relatively low debt ratios of $433 per capita and 1.3% of personal income, Fitch also pointed to financial pressures that rapid growth places on the state’s consumption-based tax system to meet property tax relief, transportation needs, and increased costs for health care, as well as corrections. The state has no personal income tax.

“The stable outlook reflects the state’s strong economic and revenue growth, and satisfactory balances,” Fitch analysts said.

Moody’s notes that revenue sources for the mobility fund are expected to grow about 2.6% annually, reaching about $578 million in 2036.

Analysts also commented on the fact the Legislature exempted the state from some reporting requirements under the Government Accounting Standards Board’s Statement 45. GASB 45 requires governments to report the future cost of retiree health plans — or other post-employment benefits — as liabilities.

A bill awaiting Gov. Rick Perry’s signature requires the state to estimate those costs but not to report them as “liabilities” that require advance funding.

“The state has not yet released a GASB 45-compliant valuation of its other post-employment benefits liability, although the Legislative Budget Board has estimated that the figure could be as high as $50 billion,” Moody’s analysts wrote. “In fiscal 2006, the state appropriated $626 million for OPEB costs in its four retirement systems.

In addition to the mobility fund, TxDOT issues debt from the State Highway Fund, which derives revenues from the state gasoline tax.

Sources of funding for transportation projects dominated the recently completed legislative session. Advocates of private financing of highways through public-private partnerships faced opposition from advocates of free highways supported by fuel taxes.

The authority of TxDOT to supervise toll-road development also faced a stiff challenge from the Harris County delegation that sought to transfer TxDOT’s powers to the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

TxDOT also saw years of work leading to a $5 billion private concession agreement with Spanish developer Cintra — Concessiones Infraestructuras de Transporte — for the State Highway 121 toll project near Dallas superseded at the suggestion of Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. At Carona’s suggestion, bidding for the project was reopened to the North Texas Tollway Authority, a public entity that had previously agreed to sit out the project under a protocol agreement with TxDOT. Regional controversy over SH 121 reflected popular alarm over long-term lease agreements for toll projects. That led to calls for a two-year moratorium on private toll projects.

The NTTA’s competing bid for the project has been submitted to a coalition of regional governments operating as the Regional Transportation Council, and a decision is expected by the end of June.

Carona, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, brokered deals in the final days of the session, seeking to protect existing toll projects in urban areas while addressing rural concerns about private highways. Carona’s SB 792 became an omnibus transportation bill after previous measures faced vetoes from the governor or political uncertainty in the Legislature.

Included in SB 792 were watered-down remnants of the moratorium on private concessions for toll road projects, a realignment of toll road development authority and, at the last minute, an amendment that doubled TxDOT’s authority to issue bonds backed by the State Highway Fund to $6 billion.

In its final form, SB 792 left TxDOT “whole,” while allowing public toll-road authorities first shot at toll projects, but leaving room for private concessions from foreign firms such as Cintra, Carona said.

“We did not do anything harmful to transportation,” Carona said. “The moratorium, in my opinion, does not have any effect in the urban areas.”

The bill does create a competition between TxDOT and authorities such as the NTTA to develop toll projects, Carona acknowledged.

“Each has a gun to the other’s head, and the result is that we’re going to get more roads built,” he said.

Carona also authored SJR 64, a proposed constitutional amendment that would create another $5 billion of general obligation bonding authority for TxDOT. The amendment will require voter approval Nov. 6.

Carona said the legislation is designed “to bring TxDOT into the 21st Century.”

Although he said he has “no qualms” about using foreign corporate investment to build roads in Texas, he also believes the state fuel tax should be raised to reduce an estimated $66 billion funding gap in transportation projects over the next 25 years.

Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, the governing board of TxDOT, said he is assessing the impact of the legislation as he looks for a replacement for executive director Behrens.

“Our immediate focus is to thoroughly review all the new transportation legislation to make sure we understand the Legislature’s direction and intent,” Williamson said. “We will then move forward with a process to find the best person possible to lead TxDOT and implement the will of the Legislature.”

Behrens, who began his 37-year career as an engineering assistant, helped develop financing tools such as comprehensive development agreements, pass-through financing, and P3s. He became the department’s assistant executive director for engineering operations in 1998 and executive director in 2001.

“When I started, plans were still being drawn by hand, calculations made with mechanical calculators, and measurements done using tapes and surveying chains,” Behrens said. “What has not changed are the people who perform the work. They go about getting the task done, day in and day out, too often with little recognition from the public they serve.”

During Behrens’ tenure as executive director, TxDOT gained the right to issue bonds backed by the Mobility Fund and GO debt from the Highway Fund. The previous Legislature also authorized TxDOT to bid projects to private developers.

“The important thing to us was that we were getting a facility built that we could not afford to build ourselves,” he said.

Legislative efforts to devolve TxDOT’s authority to local and regional agencies and ongoing battles over public-private financing did not prompt Behrens’ retirement, he said. “There’s always something going on,” he said. “Sometimes you just get a gut feeling that it’s the right time.”

© 2007 The Bond Buyer:

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The unforseen costs of 'Life in the Fast Lane.'


FasTrak to courthouse


By John Simerman
Contra Costa Times
Copyright 2007

George Orwell warned about Big Brother, but some who glide through Bay Area toll booths to the "beep-beep" of FasTrak risk an even more haunting specter: Big Angry Soon-to-be-Ex Spouse.

As the number of cash-free bridge commuters rises, so do the ranks of divorce lawyers and other civil attorneys who have subpoenaed, and received, personal driving records from the agency that oversees the regional e-toll system.

Subpoenas that the Times obtained under the state Public Records Act turned up several cases in the past two years in which the Metropolitan Transportation Commission released FasTrak subscriber records in civil disputes.

The records include logs of the date, time and bridge where a car using FasTrak rolls through a toll plaza at any of the eight Bay Area spans.

"Part of the reason Fred has not had success ... is that he takes too much time off," argued a woman who sought her husband's toll activity in one divorce case. "His transponder records ... will show how little he works."

The use of FasTrak customer data in such cases reveals another wrinkle to what privacy advocates call a troubling question: At what cost is life in the fast lane? Such concerns largely have focused on possible government monitoring. But other logical uses have long been foreseen.

The numbers remain small: Fewer than 20 search warrants and subpoenas were issued for FasTrak data in two years, most of them for criminal cases. Police and prosecutors say the records have helped catch criminals and bolster prosecutions.

Privacy advocates wonder, however, whether customers know that the records also can be used in civil matters, and they fear an increase as the e-toll system grows. About 620,000 people now hold FasTrak accounts, up roughly 65 percent from a year ago, officials said.

"You just kind of wonder if people would as happily use this system if there was a big red thing on the transponder saying, 'All data collected by this device could be used in any court for anything,' " said Lauren Weinstein, founder of the Privacy Forum.

Along with credit card numbers for refueling FasTrak accounts and license plate numbers, the system logs bridge activity so drivers can dispute charges or violation notices, said Rod McMillan, MTC's director of bridge operations and oversight. He said the agency keeps the data indefinitely.

"We've had cases where people come back a year or more after and say, 'This is a wrong charge,' " he said.

Weinstein said the agency should purge old data or give customers an option to have their logs periodically deleted in exchange for waiving the right to appeal an old charge.

"It doesn't make sense to say we're holding onto the data for, say, five years so people could get their $5 back," he said. McMillan said Monday that the agency now is planning to form a policy on how long to keep the data.

The system also is used to monitor traffic flow on most freeways with roadside signals that read the windshield devices as drivers cruise past. Officials say that data is scrambled to allow anonymity. None of the lawyers interviewed by the Times said they received any of that data.

The Times requested all subpoenas and search warrants of FasTrak records since June 2005, when oversight shifted from Caltrans to MTC. The system launched on the Carquinez Bridge in 1997 and reached all eight toll bridges in 2000.

Some lawyers said they have subpoenaed FasTrak records for years.

"We often have arguments about whether or not one spouse works to his or her maximum earning capacity," said Alexandra Mussallem, a San Rafael divorce lawyer who said she twice has sought FasTrak logs. "If someone hits the Bay Bridge toll plaza at noon on a day he said he was working, you know he's not working. He might be with his girlfriend in Contra Costa County."

Another divorce lawyer jokingly pleaded with a Times reporter not to write this story, saying it could "ruin a great gig I've got going."

"With the FasTrak data and maybe credit card receipts, you can put together anybody's life every day," said Oakland attorney Matthew Graham. "It's pretty damaging stuff you can come up with."

He said FasTrak data recently helped him refute claims by a client's wife that she worked often from home -- an issue in a dispute over visitation rights. Graham said he has considered giving up his own FasTrak account.

Since the start, transportation officials have sought to ease privacy concerns, highlighting a policy that bars release of customer data "except as required by law or ordered by a court of competent jurisdiction." McMillan said the policy is among the tightest of any e-toll system.

Neither the privacy policy nor the customer license agreement explain that court orders may include subpoenas in civil cases, which do not require a judge's approval unless they are contested.

In one case, a judge agreed to quash a subpoena for FasTrak records. The case involves a 70-year-old San Francisco man who is suing a business that fired him after three decades. He argues that he worked hard. The company sought to prove he did not. Sonya Smallets, a San Francisco attorney, argued that releasing FasTrak data "would be an unwarranted, Orwellian invasion" of her client's privacy.

"When people get a FasTrak account they're expecting to pay to go across the bridge," she said. "They're not expecting somebody's going to be tracking every single one of their movements and creating a record that would be available to the public."

Earlier attempts to create an anonymous e-toll system, in which drivers could buy value cards to use with their transponders, went largely ignored by toll authorities, said Phil Agre, a UCLA information studies professor and author of "Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape."

McMillan noted that people with concerns have another option: pay cash. There is also a third way, he said. Drivers can open an anonymous account with no name or address and pay with cash at FasTrak's service center. Only a few people have done it, he said.

That does not surprise Weinstein, the privacy advocate.

"If people don't know about it, it doesn't help," he said.

Most do not, including a FasTrak customer service agent who answered a call Monday from a Times reporter inquiring about an anonymous account. The agent said there was no such thing; every account needs a name.

"That's how the system works," he said. "You can pay your own toll. That's as anonymous as it's going to get."

Reach John Simerman at 925-943-8072 or

© 2007 Contra Costa Times:

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