Saturday, July 07, 2007

NTTA Executive Director salary: $260,000.00 per year (plus 'perks')

Tollway agency picks five finalists for director's job

Tollway agency to interview finalists

July 7, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The North Texas Tollway Authority named five finalists Friday in its search for a new executive director.

The announcement comes at a pivotal time for the NTTA, which will lean on its new director to help it mend fences after a bruising campaign to win the lucrative State Highway 121 toll road project.

The five candidates are:
  • Rick Herrington, interim deputy executive director at NTTA. He recently spent two years at the private engineering consulting firm HNTB Inc.
  • William Dillon, an engineer and a national manager for professional services firm PBS&J. He is a former employee of the Texas Department of Transportation.
  • Jorge Figueredo, who is responsible for PBS&J's toll road business in the central United States, including Texas.
  • Stephen McCullough, who was Irving city manager for 12 years. He is now a principal at Dallas-based Public Werks Inc., an investment firm that focuses on public infrastructure construction.
  • Douglas Wiersig, an engineer and transportation programs manager for Jacobs Engineering in Houston. He previously worked in transportation for the city of Houston.

Before NTTA won approval to build the Highway 121 toll road last month, many critics demanded that the authority expand its focus beyond needs in Dallas and Collin counties. Denton and Tarrant county representatives on the Regional Transportation Council made up many of the "no" votes that favored giving the Highway 121 contract to the Spanish firm Cintra.

Nevertheless, the NTTA won the contract by a vote of 27-10 and later gained approval from the Texas Transportation Commission in a 4-1 vote on June 28. As a result, the agency's new executive director soon will become CEO of one of the nation's largest metro toll operators.

In return, the job will pay as much as $260,000 a year, plus generous cellphone and car allowances, NTTA spokesman Sam Lopez said.

"This is a strong field of candidates with over 125 years of collective experience in the transportation, public sector and related industries," Mr. Lopez said.

The NTTA's board of directors picked the finalists from a national pool of candidates recruited by Waters Consulting Group, an executive search firm in Dallas.

NTTA board members will interview each of the five during the next week and could invite some or all of the candidates back for further interviews. Mr. Lopez said a final decision is expected by August.

Jerry Hiebert has served as interim executive director since February, when Allan Rutter resigned. Mr. Hiebert's temporary position ends in August, and he was not a candidate for the permanent job, Mr. Lopez said.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

To search TTC News Archives click HERE


Toll roads trump freeways in the Rio Grande Valley

Valley highway travel could take a toll

July 7, 2007

By ALLEN ESSEX, Valley Morning Star
The Brownsville Herald
Copyright 2007

PHARR — Toll roads being planned by the Texas Department of Transportation will provide quicker access to any point in the Rio Grande Valley without burdening taxpayers with more debt, state officials say.

TxDOT District Engineer Mario Jorge said to forget images of Valley motorists fumbling for change in long lines at tollbooths.

Instead, cars would have an emblem attached to the windshield that would be scanned in much the same way items are scanned at supermarket checkout counters.

The tolls would either be billed to credit cards or motorists would have to buy a certain number of credits in advance by paying cash.

“We haven’t figured it out yet,” Jorge said of the system.

Four toll road projects planned in Hidalgo County will form a loop about 100 miles long around the urban part of the county, Jorge said.

Two other toll roads planned in Hidalgo County will not be part of the loop, he said. One would run from the Starr County Line to Farm-to-Market Road 1427 and is projected to cost $138 million; the other would run from Expressway 83 to Spur 600 (Pharr Connector) and is projected to cost $100 million.

Only two of the toll roads proposed for the Valley will be in Cameron County, and both will loop around Brownsville, Jorge said.

The west loop will be built from Expressway 77/83 to the Brownsville & Matamoros Bridge near the former Amigoland Mall, he said.

“Cameron County is working on that,” Jorge said. The county will acquire the railroad right-of-way and do preliminary engineering work on the project.

“We’re looking at it as a potential toll road. It will be a direct connection from (the expressway) to the B&M Bridge, so it has very good potential.”

The toll road will pass right by the former Amigoland Mall, where a branch campus of the University of Texas-Brownsville is now located, he said.

“That will be very positive to have the west loop in place,” he said. The university branch campus and other offices being located at the former mall will have quick access to the expressway, he said.

The Brownsville east loop toll road will be a connection from the Veterans Memorial Bridge at Los Tomates Bend to the Port of Brownsville, Jorge said. “It will be about 12 miles.”

David Allex of Harlingen, chairman of the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority, said the planned toll roads will not only give rapid connections to all points in the Valley, but also to the interstate highway system through the already upgraded portions of Expressway 77 and Highway 281, north of Harlingen, Brownsville and Greater McAllen.

Equally important is connecting the northern half of the Valley to the southern half, including Matamoros and Reynosa, Mexico, with their burgeoning maquiladora industrial areas and huge population growth, he said.

Allex, who headed the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce for more than 30 years, and brought in major businesses and industries such as Southwest Airlines, General Dynamics (which became Lockheed Martin) and Fruit of the Loom, said local leaders need to have the vision of a toll road looping around the entire area with a population of more than 1 million.

Now a private business and industry consultant, he spends as much time working in Mexico as in South Texas, Allex said.

“It’s an area 80 miles long and 60 miles wide,” he said of the Valley.

“The Rio Grande is just a street with water in it,” he said, noting the business, family and industry connections that exist between Mexico and Texas.

The Valley needs to become united and think of itself as an economic region that is competing with other regions and nations, instead of just cities and counties competing with each other as well as with Mexico, he said.

“We can’t sit around on our big, fat butts, or we’re going to be (in trouble),” he said.

All the projects in Cameron and Hidalgo Counties are being done in cooperation with the counties’ engineering departments, Jorge said.

Environmental studies are being done on each segment, he said. Counties are working on obtaining rights-of-way and doing preliminary engineering work, he said.

© 2007 The Brownsville Herald:

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Texas Farm Bureau: "The governor has done a great disservice to rural and urban property owners."

Governor’s explanation of veto misses the mark

July 05, 2007

Kenneth Dierschke, President
Texas Farm Bureau
Copyright 2007

Governor Perry’s explanation of his veto of the eminent domain bill on editorial pages statewide was almost as astonishing as his decision to strike down House Bill 2006 in the first place.

The governor has done a great disservice to rural and urban property owners. Governor Perry has said a great deal about private property rights, yet he rejected the opportunity to sign the most significant property rights legislation in more than a decade. HB 2006 passed the Texas House with 125 out of 150 votes. The Senate passed it unanimously. Few bills get through the Legislature with that kind of support.

Despite reports that he intended to veto the bill, many of us could not square that with what the governor has often said about property rights protection. The governor knew that many of the groups supporting HB 2006 have been his supporters. Yet, we were never contacted by the governor’s office about his concerns. In fact, our request to meet with him late in the session and prior to the veto fell on deaf ears.

It is not true that HB 2006 had nothing to do with the U.S. Supreme Court Kelo decision of 2005. That case allowed the taking of property in Connecticut for economic development. We need to stop even the potential for that in Texas, and we mistakenly believed the governor was our ally.

Some Kelo protections were adopted in special session in 2005, but that was only a beginning. HB 2006 finished the job by defining public use. The bill closed the loopholes left by the prior legislation.

Kelo was only part of the story though. It was a Texas Supreme Court decision, the Schmidt case of 1993 that did the most damage to Texas property rights. It stripped away the right of Texas property owners to be compensated for diminished value of their property, including loss of access. It was this situation that the amendment by Senator Glenn Hegar was designed to fix. The governor cites this as his reason for the veto.

The governor and others have said that the Hegar amendment would have cost too much. Does fairness have a price tag? Prior to Schmidt in 1993, roads were still being built. Public projects were completed without breaking the bank. Why is fairness too expensive now?

The first number thrown out by the bill’s opponents in advance of the veto was $100 million. Before long, they were talking about a billion dollars. In his editorial, the governor refers to plural billions. Yet, there has not been any official estimate.

It is all too common to make lawyers the culprit when opposing a popular idea. They are not to blame this time, though. HB 2006, in fact reduces the amount a lawyer would earn on a condemnation case, because they are only paid on the difference between the final settlement and the initial offer. A lawyer’s portion of fair market value would not interest legions of attorneys, contrary to the story the governor is attempting to spin.

The governor’s suggestion that HB 2006 would not have affected rural areas leaves me flabbergasted. The governor, through his Trans Texas Corridor, is preparing to launch the largest taking of private property in the history of the state. Does anyone believe these roads will not bisect rural acres?

Bulldozing rural Texas won’t stop with the TTC. The 19 reservoir sites designated by the Legislature are not in Mesquite or Rosenberg. This land will be taken from rural property owners. Without the protections of HB 2006, it might well be done at a forced discount.

Rural and urban property owners share the risk of takings and unfair compensation. It really doesn’t matter where the property is located if the law does not require fairness.

The governor suggests that the Legislature strike a balance that allows property owners to be treated with fairness and respect. We welcome that. We suspect, however, that those that stand to profit from taking private property intend to leave the burden squarely on the backs of Texas property owners.

The veto of HB 2006 has severely damaged Governor Perry’s reputation as a defender of property rights. The only way we know he can repair it is to sign an eminent domain bill in 2009 that is very similar to the one he just vetoed. Anything short of that is political smoke and mirrors!

© 2007 Texas Farm Bureau:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Sen. Carona stacks the deck against rural property owners the path of Trans-Texas Corridor network with H.B. 1857

Senate Research Center

H.B. 1857

By: Murphy (Carona)
Transportation & Homeland Security
Committee Report (Amended)


Under current law, cities and some of the more densely populated counties have the authority to designate transportation corridors within their jurisdictions for future development, but over 80 percent of the counties in this state do not have such authority.

Even in the areas in which plans for future corridors are authorized, notice of a future corridor and related construction may not reach people who, after the corridor is designated, decide to buy or build homes or businesses in the corridor. Later, these people are forced to relocate so that the planned transportation project may be built.

Furthermore, when information about a transportation project becomes known, speculators sometimes purchase property within the construction zone before the state or county is able to fulfill the requirements necessary for it to do so, resulting in inflation of the price of the property. Taxpayers then bear the increased cost for the acquisition of land for the project. It appears that the Texas transportation system has not kept pace with the needs of a rapidly increasing population and that transportation problems are not limited to urban areas, extending to rural areas as well.

H.B. 1857 authorizes the Texas Department of Transportation and a county to enter into an agreement that identifies future transportation corridors and requires publication of a notice stating such information. Furthermore, this bill provides additional requirements for future transportation corridors.

This bill does not expressly grant any additional rulemaking authority to a state officer, institution, or agency.


SECTION 1. Amends Subchapter H, Chapter 201, Transportation Code, by adding Section 201.619, as follows:


(a) Defines "corridor."

(b) Authorizes the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and a county to enter into an agreement that identifies future transportation corridors (FTCs) within the county in accordance with this subsection. Requires the corridors identified in the agreement to be derived from existing transportation plans adopted by TxDOT or the Texas Transportation Commission, the county, or a metropolitan planning organization.

(c) Requires TxDOT to publish in the Texas Register and in a newspaper of general circulation in the county with which TxDOT has entered into an agreement under Subsection (b) a notice that states that TxDOT and the county have entered into the agreement and that copies of the agreement and all plans referred to by the agreement are available at one or more designated TxDOT offices.

SECTION 2. Amends Subchapter A, Chapter 232, Local Government Code, by adding Section
232.0033, as follows:

SRC-ARA, TMD, CAS H.B. 1857 80(R)


(a) Provides that this section applies to each county in the state. Provides that the requirements provided by this section are in addition to the other requirements of this chapter (County Regulation of Subdivisions).

(b) Requires the commissioners court of a county in which all or part of a subdivision for which a plat is required under this chapter is located within a corridor identified in an agreement under Section 201.619, Transportation Code, to refuse to approve the plat for recordation unless the plat states that the subdivision is located within the FTC and authorizes the commissioners court to refuse to approve the plat for recordation if all or part of the subdivision is located within the area of the alignment of a transportation project as shown in the environmental decision document applicable to the FTC. Requires each purchase contract or lease between the subdivider and a purchaser or leesee of land in the subdivision to contain a conspicuous statement that the land is within the FTC if all or part of a subdivision for which a plat is required under this chapter is located within an FTC identified in an agreement under Section 201.619, Transportation Code.

SECTION 3. Makes application of this Act prospective.

SECTION 4. Effective date: September 1, 2007.

Committee Amendment
Amends H.B. 1857 by striking Section 232.0033, Local Government Code (engrossed version,
page 2, lines 1-22), and substituting the following:


(a) Provides that this section applies to each county in the state. Provides that the requirements provided by this section are in addition to the other requirements of this chapter (County Regulation of Subdivisions).

(b) Authorizes the commissioners county of a county in which land is located to take certain actions, and requires each purchase contract or lease between the subdivider and a purchaser or lessee of land in the subdivision to contain a conspicuous statement that the land is located within the area of the alignment of a transportation project as shown in the final environmental decision document that is applicable to the future transportation corridor if all or part of a subdivision for which a plat is required under this chapter is located within a future transportation corridor identified in an agreement under Section 201.619,
Transportation Code.

© 2007 Texas legislature Online:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"Generally speaking, engineers don't design things to fail. It's the quick-money guys who do that for us."

Go With Your Gut

Do you really see a freeway somewhere out in that flood?

July 5, 2007

By Jim Schutze
The Dallas Observer
Copyright 2007

Trust your eyes. Go with common sense. If you've seen pictures of the Trinity River flooded from levee to levee in downtown, believe your gut: It's a fat angry cottonmouth snake inside your house.

If you have driven over the river, I don't have to tell you: That slimey thick-shouldered beast is surging beneath the bridges, shoving its round snout against the mud banks of the levees, searching for weakness.

Think of Katrina. This is the same story—rivers and human tinkering.

In his history of flooding on the Mississippi, Rising Tide, author John M. Barry describes 130 years of Katrina-like disasters that preceded the hurricane of 2005. Again and again he comes back to the same theme: Nature provides the raw force, but man creates the disaster by trying to tinker with the force.

One of the images that sticks with me from his book involves an early 20th-century attempt to make the Mississippi change its course in order to shelter some real estate. Men built earthen levees, as they have done here, to serve as prison walls, forcing the river to turn in a direction it didn't naturally want to go.

When the river flooded, that brown snout found soft soil beneath the levee and scoured it out in a huge tunnel. The river burrowed beneath the levee and exploded straight up into the air in a gigantic geyser inside the neighborhood on the other side.

Today in New Orleans people nurture a fervent hatred of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which they blame for building the levees and canals and flood walls that failed them two years ago. But blaming the Corps is a way for New Orleans to dodge its own responsibility for its demise.

Not that the Corps is blameless. But we have to go back to the way the Corps is set up by law. The Corps can do almost nothing without a "local partner." By statute and by political reality, the Corps can't come into New Orleans or Dallas and build what it wants to build.

I firmly believe—I will swear to you based on 10 years of watching them—that if the engineers of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been able to build their own independently designed flood control system in New Orleans, there would have been no Katrina disaster.

But huge areas of New Orleans also would never have been drained, sliced up into lots and peddled as prime real estate. Instead of neighborhoods, those areas would be wetlands today. And somebody would have missed out on big piles of money.

If New Orleans says to the Corps—if Dallas says to the Corps—"Thanks but no thanks," then the Corps can't do any work in New Orleans or Dallas. And the Corps, like all of us, wants work.

Imagine we say, "We're sure that's a real engineer's daydream you want to build there. But it doesn't let us peddle the land. So forget it. We don't want it. We want cheap floodwalls and higher levees and no real control of runoff, so we can make money off the land. And if you won't do that for us, take a hike. We don't want to be your partner."

In that case, the Corps is out of business. It has to have a local partner.

And then you have the factor of both U.S. Senators and every Congress member in sight calling the commander of the Corps in Washington and saying, "If you can't help my friends down there in Dallas a little better than you've been doing, you can sure as hell count on a rough year for appropriations next time around."

So what you get are compromises. The cheap flood walls and worn-out pumps in New Orleans were compromises that New Orleans forced on the Corps every bit as much as the other way around. Generally speaking, engineers don't design things to fail. It's the quick-money guys who do that for us.

At key points along the way, the Corps of Engineers has signaled in fairly plain language that it does not want the city of Dallas to build a high-speed limited access toll road along the river downtown inside the flood control levees.

Early on, now almost 10 years ago, the Corps stated in a study of the overall project that a highway inside the levees would seriously impair any recreational value the remaining space might offer.

More recently the Corps changed its mind about where the road can be built and told the city the road could not be built on top of or into the sides of the levees, as the city had planned to do. The Corps had to know that this edict would create huge new challenges for the road.

Then the Corps told the city the road must be designed in a way that is "hydraulically neutral" in its impact on the overall levee system. That's a whopper. It says the city can put a superhighway down there as long as its presence between the levees does not lift the flood waters between the levees by even a fraction of an inch.

Imagine a footed bathtub full to the very brim and your fat uncle Waldo standing with a towel around his big middle, looking longingly. It's like saying, "You can get in the tub, Uncle Waldo, as long as not one drop spills out."

You know what that really means? Waldo! Use the shower!

Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, who has become the de facto captain and commander of the anti-highway forces, pushed and pulled and tugged on the Corps recently and finally got them to admit something that really hasn't sunk in publicly yet: If the Trinity River tollway gets built, it will be the first major highway the Corps has ever allowed to be built inside a Corps of Engineers levee system.

First time. Ever. There we will be—messing with the river in a big way. Gambling it will work, like that time they tried to make the Mississippi turn.

On top of that, you have the city now telling people that the toll road won't flood, because they're going to put a wall next to it. Think about Katrina. Walls don't work. Huge, brown, angry rivers knock walls out of their way like wet paper.

That's why levees are big and fat and sloped—so they can't easily be flattened. The only way to protect that highway from flooding will be with a second levee system inside the flood control levees.

Think of the area between the flood control levees as a pipe big enough to carry all that flood water through downtown without letting any of it spill. Now inside that pipe we're going to stick an entire freeway and another levee system, leaving a space only two-thirds to maybe half the size of what we now have to carry the water.

Back to that idea of making the road "hydraulically neutral." How to get this much Waldo into the tub without spilling? Make the tub deeper. Way deeper. In this case, we would have to dig the river channel out deeper and wider by an amount that would totally offset the mass of the entire freeway and the levees built to protect it.

What's wrong with that? A little issue called "scouring"—just what the Mississippi did when it dug that tunnel and blew up like Vesuvius on the other side of the levee.

For example: I've been talking off and on this week with Corps officials about water releases from flooded lakes upriver from Dallas. At a certain point, the Corps has to release water from those lakes, or the water will overtop the dams and possibly blow them out.

That would be Katrina in Dallas.

But they have to let the water out in trickles because of scouring. If they pull open a floodgate and allow a major release all of a sudden, that water will come roaring downstream and rip down bridges, dig through levees and cause who knows what mayhem.

If you dig the Trinity River channel down into a deep channel, you create huge new velocities and brutal, unpredictable forces contributing to scouring. I know somebody is going to tell me that engineers can do anything. And I am going to point to New Orleans and say, "Yeah, but engineers with politicians on their backs can create havoc beyond imagining."

So back to Dallas. Last week I watched while Angela Hunt and her small army of volunteers delivered boxes of petitions to the city secretary, calling for a referendum on the toll road. Most of these are people I have known for years. They are motivated by all of the issues I have raised here.

I can't prevent the road hucksters from denigrating them as tree-huggers and trouble-makers. But I do know better. These are people who have taken the time to learn about these issues and who are genuinely horrified by the mistake the city seems determined to make with this highway.

On the other hand, we have our newly elected mayor, Tom Leppert, a construction executive who was unknown in the city until he was recruited and funded by the Dallas Citizens Council, a private group that meets in secret. Leppert's stance on the referendum so far has been the worst imaginable, a line that is both utterly irresponsible and crassly exploitative:

Just do it. People want to see some pretty stuff built down there. Just get going. No more delays.

People are stupid.

He ignores the fact that the toll road is slowing down the overall project. Getting rid of it will speed up the rest of the project, not slow it down. He ignores all of the flood control issues. He dismisses Hunt and her effort as a distraction.

Don't worry. Be happy. Just do it.

Leppert is exactly what happened to New Orleans. The difference between Dallas and New Orleans?

This referendum.

© 2007 The Dallas Observer:

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"Confusing Setup"

Tollway design generating rash of violations

183-A's toll-tag-only section has more than 30 percent violation rate.

July 05, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American -Statesman
Copyright 2007

More than 30 percent of people who drive on the 183-A tollway's anomalous toll-tag-only section are doing so illegally, an abnormally high violation rate that has the road's operator pondering alternatives to

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority has asked Vollmer Associates, its traffic and revenue consultant, to analyze what might result from several scenarios, including continuing under the current arrangement. The authority expects to have that information within a few months and could consider making changes in the fall.

The good news for the agency is that in June, after toll charges began for all drivers, daily traffic on the 4 1/2-mile tollway in Northwest Austin and Cedar Park was about 125 percent higher than projections that were used to borrow money for construction.

On three Wednesdays in June, the tollway had an average of almost 62,000 toll transactions a day. With low-traffic weekends averaged in, the road had about 55,850 daily transactions in June. Vollmer's original traffic and revenue analysis, in December 2004, predicted 24,600 transactions a day by the end of 2007.

Based on unaudited numbers, 183-A generated $775,636 in June. On an annualized basis, that would be $9.4 million, not far below what the agency had expected to make in 2008. However, the agency did not start charging customers with toll tags full price until Sunday; drivers with tags paid 50 percent of the cash rate in June but now will permanently pay 90 percent. The higher price could produce more revenue even if usage ebbs.

"We're getting some complaints up there, but overall we're doing much better than expected," authority spokesman Steve Pustelnyk said. "The issues we're having are with infrequent customers."

Authority officials say that the road over time probably will move toward an all-electronic approach, which would be less confusing than the existing situation, although it would exclude cash customers. The tollway currently is something of a hybrid, with its southern third open only to people with toll tags and the northernmost three miles available for both cash and toll tag customers.

That mixture, along with the road's infancy (it opened March 3), has caused an unusually high number of tag-less people to blunder onto the all-electronic southern section.

That results — after forgiveness for the first couple of violations — in their getting citations and bills for both the forgone toll (45 cents) and a $5 "administrative fee."

The numbers are particularly bad for the northbound all-electronic gantry, which looms over the road just north of the Lakeline Mall Drive exit. In June, 38 percent of northbound drivers in that section did not have a toll tag.

The Lakeline Mall ramp is the last free exit for cars coming from Austin on U.S. 183. Drivers who are inattentive to the signs pointing that out or who are unaware that the road doesn't have cash booths for part of its length can find themselves on a toll-tag-only section with no tag. On the three other toll roads in the Austin area, which are operated by the Texas Department of Transportation, going through a tag lane with no tag generates only a bill at a higher toll rate (cameras record the car's license plate, and the bill goes to the car's owner). But on 183-A, which is run by the mobility authority under a different policy, doing so is considered a toll violation and triggers that $5 fee.

The tollway's this-and-that arrangement is not necessarily what the mobility authority would have chosen. With two flyover bridges from Texas 45 North hitting the road near Lakeline Boulevard and heavy traffic in the area, the agency had neither the room nor the inclination to build a broad toll plaza there with cash booths. In the alternative, the authority wanted the entire road to be open only to cars with toll tags, like toll roads that have opened in the past year or two in Dallas, Tyler and Houston.

But after looking at the numbers, Vollmer said that cutting off the entire road from cash customers would hurt revenue badly and not allow enough money to be borrowed for construction. So the agency built cash booths at Park Street and Brushy Creek Road. Now, with 70 percent to 80 percent of the customers at those points (and southbound at Lakeline Boulevard) using toll tags, going all-electronic is becoming a serious possibility.

"Anything we do, we have to do very carefully with great research," Pustelnyk said. "We don't want to make any sudden changes."

Tracking 183-A tolls

In June, the first month when all cars on 183-A were subject to tolls (albeit at a reduced rate for toll tag users), the road averaged 55,850 toll transactions a day. However, more than 11,000 of those times — about 20 percent — the driver did not pay for the privilege, many at the toll-tag-only toll gantries near Lakeline Boulevard.

Toll point Daily toll transactions Violations Violation % Tag Use
Lakeline (northbound)* 16,246 6,216 38.3 61.7
Lakeline (southbound)* 10,260 2,148 20.9 79.1
Brushy Creek (northbound)** 3,623 187 5.2 76.5
Brushy Creek (southbound)** 2,701 151 5.6 79.7
Park Street (both directions)** 23,016 2,515 10.9 73.2

* Toll-tag-only plaza with no cash booths

** Cash booths and toll tag readers

Source: Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, unaudited toll statistics; 445-3698

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman: www.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

"You may be less aware you’re paying the toll, but you’re paying a higher toll than you used to."

Technology Eases the Ride to Higher Tolls


The New York Times
Copyright 2007

There is a stretch of the Garden State Parkway that used to feel like the tollbooth capital of America. In a span of 100 miles — from Pascack Valley, in northern New Jersey, to Barnegat, along the coast — eight different toll plazas greeted drivers. In much of the rest of the country, you wouldn’t find any tolls on a 100-mile stretch.

I spent a good part of my childhood summers at the Jersey Shore, and the tollbooths on the parkway always seemed to be a cruel final obstacle between me and the beach. Every 15 minutes or so, our car would have to stop yet again to drop a measly quarter in a bucket.

The ride is very different today, thanks mostly to the electronic toll system known as E-ZPass. At four of the tolls along the Garden State, the system is so sophisticated that cars barely have to slow down. A little box attached to the car’s windshield sends a message to a computer reader looming over the road, and money is then deducted from an electronic account.

I imagine that some of the children being driven to the Jersey Shore today won’t even look away from their DVD players as they glide through a toll. And I’m quite certain that very, very few of them will remember, decades from now, how much the Garden State tolls cost back when they were young. As a result of E-ZPass and its ilk, even many adults don’t notice the cost of a toll.

Which raises an interesting question: If you don’t know how much you’re paying for something, will you notice when the price goes up? Or has E-ZPass, for all its benefits, also made it easier for toll collectors to take your money?

A young economist named Amy Finkelstein started thinking about these issues a few years ago when she and her fiancé were driving back and forth between Boston, where they were living, and New York, where they were going to be married. So she collected decades of toll records from around the country and found a clear pattern.

After an electronic system is put in place, tolls start rising sharply. Take two tollbooths that charge the same fee and are in a similar setting — both on highways leading into a big city, for instance. A decade after one of them gets electronic tolls, it will be about 30 percent more expensive on average than a similar tollbooth without it. There are no shortage of examples: the Golden Gate Bridge, the George Washington Bridge and the Tappan Zee Bridge, among them.

“You may be less aware you’re paying the toll,” said Ms. Finkelstein, now an associate professor at M.I.T., “but you’re paying a higher toll than you used to.”

The implications of this go well beyond highways. We increasingly live in an E-ZPass economy, in which bills are paid online, corporate cafeterias are going cashless and people take along their debit card, instead of cash, when they leave the house. Last year, 55 percent of consumer spending was done electronically, mainly with credit and debit cards, while checks accounted for less than 25 percent and cash only 20 percent, according to Visa. As recently as 2003, only 45 percent of spending was done electronically.

The E-ZPass economy is indisputably more convenient. It saves time and frustration. But the old frustrations that came with cash also brought a hidden benefit: they forced you to notice that you were spending money. With electronic money, it’s much easier to be carefree.

Marketers understand this dynamic well, which is a big reason they promote refillable gift cards and other forms of money that don’t feel like money. Part of what’s so intriguing about Ms. Finkelstein’s work is that it suggests that government officials may be coming to understand the dynamic, too.

The idea that hidden taxes — and tolls are really a kind of tax — could lead to higher taxes goes back decades. Milton Friedman famously came to regret his role in creating the withholding system for income taxes during World War II, because it eventually made people forget how much they were paying in tax. “It never occurred to me at the time,” he wrote in his autobiography, “that I was helping to develop machinery that would make possible a government that I would come to criticize severely as too large, too intrusive, too destructive of freedom.”

Even economists who don’t share Mr. Friedman’s political views agree with the larger point that how taxes are collected, and not just the underlying tax rate, matters. “We need to take seriously the possibility that people are not paying attention to the tax code,” said Raj Chetty of the University of California, Berkeley, who has been conducting some fascinating experiments on semi-hidden taxes.

Mr. Chetty argues that the complexity of today’s tax code ends up aggravating inequality. Both rich and poor families face a dizzying spectrum of tax laws, from carried-interest rules to the earned-income tax credit. But affluent families are better able to navigate the system, often by hiring an accountant. Also, the little day-to-day taxes, like highway tolls, mean a lot more to a moderate-income family.

Ms. Finkelstein obviously can’t prove that electronic tolls cause prices to rise by making drivers less aware of them. Neil Gray, the head of government affairs at the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, disputes her argument and says setting tolls is more complicated than Ms. Finkelstein suggests.

But she makes a spirited case for her conclusion. She has considered a number of alternate explanations for the increases and says the evidence doesn’t support them. At the very least, electronic systems do seem to make it easier for toll collectors to increase prices.

There is one notable exception to the trend, though: the good old Garden State. Tolls on the parkway itself have increased only once in the last 50 years, back in 1989, when they were raised to 35 cents. (In the last few years, the price at each tollbooth has doubled, but highway officials have also removed half of the tolls, keeping the effective price unchanged.) Even after E-ZPass, the Garden State Parkway remains a relative bargain.

Of course, Ms. Finkelstein discovered that tolls don’t usually rise as soon as an electronic system arrives. The increases tend to come a number of years later, once electronic payment becomes old hat.

On the Garden State, the first E-ZPass system was installed in 1999. And guess what New Jersey’s governor, Jon S. Corzine, has recently been talking about? Raising the tolls on the parkway for the first time in almost 20 years.


© 2007 The New York Times:

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"It may not be a violation of anti-lobbying provisions in the law, but it's a violation of anti-stupidity provisions."

Records detail effort to stop California emissions plan

Administration lobbied against state's proposed auto standards


By Frank Davies
MediaNews Washington Bureau
San Jose Mercury News
Copyright 2007

WASHINGTON - Transportation officials in the Bush administration lobbied members of Congress and governors in nine states with a large auto industry presence, urging them last month to oppose California's request to another federal agency to enforce its own, tough vehicle emissions standards.

The first information about the U.S. Department of Transportation's effort was disclosed June 12 by the House's top investigative committee. This week, 71 pages of documents and e-mails that the Department of Transportation supplied the committee were released, providing details on the extent of the campaign.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters' deputy chief of staff, Simon Gros, urged three DOT staff ers June 7 to "just hit the members and senators with really big facilities." Transportation officials used lists that showed the number of auto plants and employees by congressional district in Michigan and eight other key states.

The officials asked legislators and governors to weigh in with the Environmental Protection Agency, which will decide later this year whether to allow California and 11 other states to enforce greenhouse-gas emissions standards on vehicles.

Urgent efforts

There was urgency in the Transportation Department's effort because the EPA's public comment period ended June 15. California's waiver, if granted, "could greatly impact the auto facilities in your district," according to one of the DOT "talking points" used in the campaign. "If asked our position, we say we are in opposition of the waiver."

Rep. Henry Waxman, the Los Angeles Democrat who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said he will seek more data from Transportation officials on its contacts with the White House and other federal agencies.

"This initial set of documents reveals that the Bush administration was working hand in glove with the auto industry against state efforts to fight global warming," Waxman said. He added that federal resources should not be used against a state initiative.

Transportation officials said the campaign was "part of a three-decade-long effort to promote one federal, national set of efficiency standards," opposing state initiatives such as California's, said Brian Turmail, department spokesman.

In a letter to Waxman, D.J. Gribbin, the Transportation Department's general counsel, said outreach to Congress and governors did not violate anti-lobbying restrictions, which he said allow such contacts between the executive and legislative branches.

California officials reacted sharply to the Transportation Department's efforts. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown already have announced plans to sue the EPA if it does not decide on the waiver by Oct. 23. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson has said he will decide by the end of the year.

"We are very concerned that one department is lobbying against the waiver while another federal agency is supposed to be objectively considering it," Bill Maile, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger, said Tuesday.

According to the Transportation Department documents and e-mails, at least 32 congressional offices were contacted. Most were sympathetic to opposing California's waiver.

"Do you think your boss will be interested in getting comments submitted by her office or someone at the state level?" Heideh Shahmoradi, special assistant to Peters, wrote in an e-mail to a staffer for Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich.

"Yeah, we are thinking about it and discussing it with other Michigan offices," responded Caleb Overdorff on Miller's behalf.

Vocal opponent

In another e-mail, Gros of the DOT informs two other department officials that Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., will "send a comment to the EPA and call Gov. Jennifer Granholm."

Knollenberg, whose district includes 49,000 auto workers, has been a vocal opponent of California's drive to enforce higher efficiency standards, saying it will hurt the auto industry. In March, his re-election campaign spent $10,000 on a billboard near Detroit that featured the face of Schwarzenegger and the words: "Arnold to Michigan: Drop Dead."

According to the documents, Transportation officials made efforts to contact governors in nine states that have auto facilities: Michigan, Ohio, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. The DOT's data on auto plants and employees was supplied by the Auto Alliance, an industry trade group.

In the case of Indiana's Gov. Mitch Daniels, a notation on the DOT list said "industry reached out to them, but they declined to take action because it was a federal issue."

Paul Light, a New York University professor who has written extensively on the executive branch and government ethics, said the Transportation Department's lobbying effort was "unusual and unnecessary, given that most members and governors know these issues already."

"I think it's a gross misuse of taxpayer money," Light said. "It may not be a violation of anti-lobbying provisions in the law, but it's a violation of anti-stupidity provisions."

Contact Frank Davies at or (202) 662-8921.

© 2007 San Jose Mercury News :

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In 1998, voters thought they were endorsing a low-speed parkway, not the faster toll road, that the council approved as part of the plan in 2003.

Trinity plan up for debate again

July 4, 2007

Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The music at a local jazz dive stopped for a moment. Then a guy wearing a blue and white TrinityVote T-shirt grabbed the microphone and read the proposed ballot language for the referendum that would ditch the project's planned toll road.

As he read, a woman at the bar whispered, "What is he talking about?" Others looked to the bandleader for help.

"Come on, man," someone said. "Let him play."

If you want to spoil a party, just start talking about the complexities of the Trinity River project and the efforts of Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt and Co. to scrap the toll road, a key component of the project.

Ms. Hunt announced Friday that 80,000 people had signed petitions to force a vote on the planned high-speed road.

If the city secretary certifies that at least 48,000 of those signatures belong to registered voters living in Dallas, the measure will go before voters in November.

So like it or not, we'll get a much-needed update on how far along the project is, its latest cost, what all this business about the toll road is about and, more important, when we can expect to see that part of the city transformed into the promised urban oasis.

"The public voted on the Trinity a long time ago, and there is a sense that not much has been done," said Southern Methodist University political scientist Matthew Wilson. "No matter which side you're on, the campaign will tell us what the plan is and what the hurdles have been."

In 1998, Dallas voters approved $246 million in bonds for the Trinity River project.

The sticking point with Ms. Hunt and some former council members is the proposed $1.2 billion road that the council approved as part of the plan in 2003.

As currently configured, the nine-mile toll road would have six lanes in places and four in others (with room to expand to six), and a speed limit of 55 mph.

If passed, the November referendum would prohibit construction of any road inside the river levees that is more than two lanes in each direction, with a speed limit of more than 35 mph.

Supporters of the referendum say Dallas voters thought they were endorsing a low-speed parkway, not the faster toll road.

Defenders of the existing plan say the toll road was always envisioned as part of the overall plan, particularly since it would relieve traffic congestion.

Both sides are already bickering over the prospect of project delays.

Ms. Hunt's detractors say a road outside the river corridor would be difficult to assemble and much more expensive. They say it would also delay the project, much as changing directions in building a home would put off its completion.

But referendum supporters say the project and its funding would not be affected.

These details should be sorted out during the campaign.

Mayor Tom Leppert and Ms. Hunt are putting together campaign teams.

The mayor could resurrect his successful election coalition of consultants, which includes Carol Reed and Mari Woodlief, president of Allyn and Co.

Mr. Leppert says an environmental impact study being done by the North Texas Tollway Authority would answer questions about the toll road.

He said he's against the referendum because it would drive up costs and expand the project's timeline. He agrees that the campaign would be a good way to educate voters.

"We have an obligation to communicate the importance of the project and how the different elements are put together," he said.

Those pushing the referendum are expected to be scrappy but outspent.

"We're going to have a debate on what the project is about and reach consensus on where to put the road," said Brooks Love, campaign manager for the group pushing the referendum. "There will be transparency on this project."

More important to voters, however, is a thoughtful prediction of when they can expect to enjoy the lakes, parks and development promised when the plan was approved.

Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who led the successful campaign in 1998, said there has been progress with the project.

He said he's spoken to Mr. Leppert about the potential referendum and likens it to the haggling over the Dallas Area Rapid Transit rail lines and the expansion of North Central Expressway.

"We now have the opportunity to get the city focused on how much progress has been made on the entire project," Mr. Kirk said. "Our challenge is to educate people. At the end of the day, Dallas will hopefully stay the course and move forward."

© 2007, The Dallas Morning News:

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

TxDOT, Cintra look for NTTA to stumble

Little Time to Celebrate


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

Leaders of the North Texas Tollway Authority must be ecstatic now that the Texas Transportation Commission has agreed to let them build the Texas 121 tollway in Denton and Collin counties.

Happy, that is, until they look at all the hard work they must do quickly in order to seal the deal.

The commission gave the tollway authority and the Regional Transportation Council just 60 days to iron out all of the details of a contract. Then NTTA will have just 45 more days to line up financing for the project. NTTA promised to give the RTC $2.5 billion upfront if it is allowed to build the project and collect tolls for 50 years.

If NTTA misses any deadlines, if contract negotiations snag or if terms for financing become a problem, the transportation commissioners will be only too happy to take the project away and give it to the Spanish company Cintra.

Cintra says it could start work on the tollway immediately. Cintra participated in the initial round of bidding on the Texas 121 project last year and appeared to have it locked up. Local legislators objected, and the bid process was reopened so that NTTA could participate.

RTC members worked through an exhaustive process in deciding that NTTA should build the project instead of Cintra. It was a victory for both the RTC and NTTA when the Transportation Commission agreed.

Now RTC and NTTA will be on opposite sides of the table as they work out specific responsibilities and tie them down in contract language. Each side has plenty of incentive to make the process work, but neither can afford mistakes.

The thought of Cintra waiting in the wings provides extra motivation to get things done right and to meet the deadlines. There is no time to lose.

© 2007 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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"The Holt bill allows the federal government to erect an impenetrable wall between American voters and their votes."

Congress about to "just say yes" to permanent secret vote counting

Jul 2, 2007

By Nancy Tobi,Guest Writer
Online Journal
Copyright 2007

Centralized control of voting is a form of tyranny, pure and simple. Joseph Stalin is said to have explained why: "Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything."

Meet the new boss

Congress is about to pass an election "reform" bill, HR811 (the Holt Bill). The bill will enshrine secret computerized vote counting, controlled by the White House.

The Holt bill would tempt the likes of the late Mayor Daley of Chicago and vote villain Boss Tweed of New York City's Tammany Hall.

How will our modern vote villains resist?

A "yes" vote on the Holt bill allows the federal government to erect an impenetrable wall between American voters and their votes. It will lock in secret vote-counting technology owned by corporations. The public will be shut out for good.

That's why our New Hampshire Secretary State, the New Hampshire City and Town Clerks Association, and the Democracy for New Hampshire (DFNH) Fair Elections Committee all oppose the bill.

They're not alone.

National organizations for the chief voting officials in all 50 states, state legislators, and the nation's counties all oppose the Holt bill. There are more than 100 national and regional voting rights groups who oppose the bill as well.

So, why is Congressman Paul Hodes (D-NH) a cosponsor of the Holt bill? And, why is Congresswoman Carol Shea Porter (D-NH) undecided on the issue?

Lobbyists like Common Cause are promoting HR811 to "get it straight by 2008." But HR811 is primarily drafted for a 2010 effective date. It will never protect our 2008 elections.

Grassroots activists have drafted a simple bill that really can make a difference for 2008. They need a congressional sponsor but have yet to find any takers.

Congress is stuck on HR811, dangerous flaws and all.

"Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely"

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed in 2002, created the Election Assistance Commission. This shadow White House agency -- four presidential appointees -- wields total control over voting system standards. They design the computerized voting machines, and even the paper ballots, used in our nation's elections.

HR811 cements voting system control in the hands of the president, shifting the balance of power in elections from the citizenry to the Elections Assistance Commission.

This is a complete reversal of the founders' vision of dispersed power.

American revolutionaries rose in opposition to centralized power and wrote our Constitution to ensure dispersed power, checks and balances, and respect for the citizenry. The founders knew they needed to limit human inclinations to abuse power when a very few are given control over the many.

HR811 makes the Elections Assistance Commission a permanent fixture in government: one president appointing four commissioners with absolute control of our elections.

The American people need to think carefully about this.

HR811 gives the commissioners broad reaching powers. They will be the "deciders" on selecting precincts for election audits. They will control and own all information related to our voting systems, election results, and audits. They will define all standards and e-voting equipment. The states, our state, will have to report to the commission to have our election results certified. And our elections will become more complex and computerized, assuring citizens less and less access to the process.

The money trail

It's always instructive to follow the money in hard fought political battles, as New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner recently reminded us.

One of the strongest champions of HR811 is an organization called VoteTrustUSA. This "grassroots" organization has ties to one of the nation's largest "data consolidation" companies, ChoicePoint. Remember them? They helped Katherine Harris purge the Florida 2000 voter registration rolls. Nearly 100,000 registered American voters were denied their right to vote for what journalist Greg Palast called the crime of "voting while black." Palast claims the denied vote -- and not hanging chads -- is what really cost Gore that election.

Last summer the Atlanta Progressive News reported that the wife of ChoicePoint's CEO Doug Curling has contributed money to VTUSA. Doug Curling confirmed to Bev Harris of Black Box Voting that his wife Donna is a VTUSA donor "and probably a board member." Donna Curling also had participated in leadership groups under an assumed name. She remains involved with this grassroots group, which now has a full-time Washington lobbyist working for passage of the Holt bill.

Why would a grassroots election reform organization have these ties to ChoicePoint?

Absolute power: The marriage of federal and corporate power

A corporation like ChoicePoint, combined with the commission, would have one-stop shopping control over our elections. The commission controls the voting systems and all information relating to elections everywhere in the country.

All the data consolidation company needs to do is overlay their vast demographic and other election data maps over a map of our nation, put together their game plan, and they'll own every election.

They succeeded in Florida. HR811, the Holt Bill, gives them the nation.

Nancy Tobi is the author of numerous articles on election integrity, including "The Gifts of HAVA: Time to Ask for a Refund," "What's Wrong with the Holt Bill,"and "We're Counting the Votes: An Election Preparedness Kit." She is Legislative Coordinator of Election Defense Alliance, co-founder of Democracy for New Hampshire and Chair of the New Hampshire Fair Elections Committee. Her writings may be found at and

© 2007 Online Journal:

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Concrete thinking by TxDOT leaves out commuter rail

Strange omission

Katy Freeway light-rail line will be necessary; failure to include it in a draft agreement makes no sense.

July 2, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

What comes first, the completed Katy Freeway with toll lanes or advance planning to make sure there's room for a light-rail line?

Judging by a draft operating agreement for the roadway that doesn't mention rail, precious little planning has gone into figuring out how commuter trains would fit into the scheme of things on the expanded westside freeway.

Rather than being an integral part of an overall transit plan for the corridor, rail, if it is built there, will be tacked on as an afterthought. That's a surefire formula for project delays and added construction expenses.

Metro has already contributed $10 million to strengthen the freeway's overpasses to support rail lines, an investment agency President and CEO Frank Wilson calls a downpayment for future rail. The proposed operating agreement between the Texas Department of Transportation, the Harris County Toll Road Authority and Metro calls for four toll lanes down the middle of the freeway, leaving no room for rail. That would mean rail lines would either consume existing traffic lanes or be built on frontage roads.

Metro officials asked their TxDOT counterparts to include a rail option in the agreement, but got the rather mystifying response that once the train lines were built the agreement could be amended. If this is an indication of how the transit agencies will coordinate rail on the freeway, it will make the chaotic construction of the downtown light rail seem like a masterpiece of planning.

Unless we are to continue widening freeways indefinitely, commuter rail eventually must be a part of major transit corridors in Houston. The Katy Freeway is a logical choice for such a line and should have a high priority. It is distressing that key transit agencies aren't planning for it before setting their projects in concrete.

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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Rail remains an afterthought

Draft agreement leaves rail out of I-10 plans

Metro wants it corrected, but there may not be room in design without sacrificing toll lane space

June 30, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

The Metropolitan Transit Authority's longstanding desire to someday squeeze a rail line onto the widened Katy Freeway may not be realized as soon as agency officials had hoped.

A new draft agreement among Metro, Harris County and the Texas Department of Transportation for operation of the freeway's future toll lanes does not mention rail, an absence that has Metro officials concerned.

A March letter to TxDOT from Metro's capital projects director, Vincent Obregon, noted the omission: "We believe this is a fundamental issue that should be coordinated prior to action by our board."

TxDOT's Transportation Planning Director Gabriel Johnson responded that, "If, and when, light rail transit is provided by Metro within the corridor, the Operations Agreement will be amended accordingly."

The question is, where could Metro put its rails once the toll lanes are in place? There is no room in the freeway's current design without removing some traffic lanes, TxDOT spokeswoman Janelle Gbur and Metro board chairman David Wolff agreed.

Running rail down the middle of the freeway would displace two or more of the four toll lanes, which are to replace Metro's current High Occupancy Vehicle lanes and serve the same role for transit and carpools while generating revenue from other vehicles.

Nonetheless, Metro vice president Bryan Pennington told the agency board Friday it was "very realistic" to believe Metro could be operating rail in the Katy Freeway corridor within five to seven years.

"I think that's optimistic," Wolff said afterward. "It's intriguing because the demand is there in the I-10 corridor for rail — but the demand is there for traffic, too."

Current plans call for the toll lanes, two in each direction, to be operated by the Harris County Toll Road Authority, charging tolls that vary with the time of day or number of vehicles.

Outside of the rail omission, the draft agreement is similar to a 2002 memorandum of understanding that said Metro could run buses on the lanes for free and that carpools with 3 or more occupants could ride for free during peak hours.

Deputy toll road director Peter Key said he did not know details of the proposed operating agreement, but knew that current plans call for the managed toll lanes.

"That's what TxDOT has built, and the concrete is there now," he said. "The operating agreement is geared right now to how you manage those lanes."

The toll road authority is contributing $500 million to speed the freeway reconstruction and would need toll revenue from the lanes to pay off its bonds, said Alan Clark, who heads transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

Clark said if lanes are converted to tracks later, "Instead of buying right of way, Metro might agree to pay the toll road authority for its investment.

"It would be hard to do and expensive to do, and that kind of investment would require quite a bit of public involvement," he said.

However, Clark said the toll lanes were not Metro's only option for rail. Besides, he said, those lanes would pose problems getting passengers to and from the trains in the middle of a busy freeway.

There are road shoulders and transition areas as well as main lanes and frontage road lanes that could be used instead, Clark said.

The Metro board Friday authorized president and CEO Frank Wilson to negotiate the final agreement on the lanes' use with TxDOT and the county.

Wilson reminded the board that Metro has paid TxDOT $10 million to beef up the freeway's overpasses to carry the weight of trains, and called that a "down payment" on the plan.

Asked how an impasse between Metro and the toll road authority would be resolved, Clark and Gbur said any plan to replace lanes with tracks would go through the process for federal assistance.

That includes environmental and cost-benefit studies, and approval by H-GAC and its Transportation Policy Council, representing area governments and agencies.

A commuter line on I-10 isn't mentioned in the 2003 referendum in which voters passed Metro's rail plans.

However, a light rail line from downtown to the West Loop was included.

The ballot also authorized commuter rail along the Southwest and Northwest freeways and such "other corridors ... as are found to be feasible through consultation with other agencies."

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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'Congestion pricing' planned for Mongomery County

Traffic relief coming to Montgomery Co., but it will cost you

Toll road coming to Montgomery Co.


Deborah Wrigley
KTRK-TV (Houston)
Copyright 2007

THE WOODLANDS - Montgomery County is booming and county leaders are looking for a way to handle the quickly growing population.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were an estimated 398,000 people living in Montgomery County in 2006. That's more than a 35 percent increase from just six years before and nearly three times faster than the average population growth statewide.

That growth can perhaps best be felt near where I-45 crosses over Texas Highway 242 in southern Montgomery County. It is clogged with commuters every day. A solution is coming, but it will cost you.

Montgomery County has grown up and a lot of it has to do with The Woodlands. A ground cover of malls and commercial development follows the 81,000 people in The Woodlands in the 2005 census. And that means traffic, especially around FM 242 and I-45 and especially at rush hours.

"It does back up really bad right here," said Eve Cregar, who lives in The Woodlands, of the intersection. "I usually just go to 336 to avoid all of this."

Montgomery County has its Northstar traffic monitoring station. Ground zero for peak time gridlock is 242, with a new hospital complex and a new community college. The solution the local toll road authority is considering is a flyover ramp from 45 north to 242 both east and west.

"We're in much need of an additional north-south corridor, something similar to an extension of the Hardy Toll Road or off the Grand Parkway when it comes through Montgomery County," said Montgomery County Commissioner Ed Chance.

No toll rate has been set and no dirt has been turned. But it will be in months to come. Montgomery County has grown and grown congested enough that drivers may have to pay extra to move.

The Montgomery County Toll Road Authority is poised to set its rate at the next board meeting. It would also include something at the intersection that Harris County has learned not to do -- congestion pricing.

Meanwhile, Harris County commissioners are preparing to formally scrap their plans to apply congestion pricing to the Westpark Tollway. The commissioners came under fire last month after announcing they would increase tolls on all roads by 25 cents and double the tolls on the Westpark during rush hour. After hearing from hundreds of angry commuters who argued that there was no viable alternative to the toll road, the commissioners changed their minds.

They will formally rescind the increase later this month.

(Copyright © 2007, KTRK-TV)

© 2007 ABC Inc., KTRK-TV Houston.:

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

"Contractors have become so big and entrenched that it's a fiction that the government maintains any control."


The Sack of Washington

Comparisons of America and Rome are everywhere these days, whether deploring an over-extended military, social decadence, or illegal immigration. A more disturbing—and largely ignored—similarity lies in the wholesale privatization of the U.S. government, which has blurred the line between public good and personal gain. In an excerpt from his new book, Cullen Murphy charts a dynamic that is more dangerous than corruption, unprecedented in scale, and visible everywhere from Hurricane Katrina to the Iraq war, to the justice system.

June 2007

by Cullen Murphy
Vanity Fair
Copyright 2007

Excerpted from Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, by Cullen Murphy, to be published this month by Houghton Mifflin; © 2007 by the author.

President and emperor, America and Rome: the matchup is by now so familiar, so natural, that you just can't help yourself—it comes to mind unbidden, in the reflexive way that the behavior of chimps reminds you of the behavior of people. Everyone gets it whenever a comparison of Rome and America is drawn—for instance, the offhand allusion to welfare and televised sports as "bread and circuses," or to illegal immigrants as "barbarian hordes." If reference is made to an "imperial presidency," or to the deployment abroad of "American legions," no one raises an eyebrow and wonders what you could possibly be talking about. Invoke the phrase "decline and fall" and thoughts turn simultaneously to the Roman past and the American present.

To be sure, a lot of Rome-and-America comparisons are glib, and if you're looking for reasons to brush parallels aside, it's easy enough to find them. The two entities, Rome and America, are dissimilar in countless ways. But some parallels really do hold up, though maybe not the ones that have been most in the public eye. Think less about decadence, less about military might—and think more about the parochial way these two societies view the outside world, and more about the slow decay of homegrown institutions. Think less about threats from unwelcome barbarians, and more about the powerful dynamics of a multi-ethnic society. Think less about the ability of a superpower to influence everything on earth, and more about how everything on earth affects a superpower.

One core similarity is almost always overlooked—it has to do with "privatization," which sometimes means "corruption," though it's actually a far broader phenomenon. Rome had trouble maintaining a distinction between public and private responsibilities—and between public and private resources. The line between these is never fixed, anywhere. But when it becomes too hazy, or fades altogether, central government becomes impossible to steer. It took a long time to happen, but the fraying connection between imperial will and concrete action is a big part of What Went Wrong in ancient Rome. America has in recent years embarked on a privatization binge like no other in its history, putting into private hands all manner of activities that once were thought to be public tasks—overseeing the nation's highways, patrolling its neighborhoods, inspecting its food, protecting its borders. This may make sense in the short term—and sometimes, like Rome, we may have no choice in the matter. But how will the consequences play out over decades, or centuries? In all likelihood, very badly.

A little more than 50 years ago, the Oxford historian Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, a radical thinker and formidable classicist, decided to take a close look at the change in connotation over five centuries of the Latin word suffragium, which originally meant "voting tablet" or "ballot." That change, he concluded, illustrated something fundamental about Roman society and its "inner political evolution."

The original meaning went back to the days of the Roman Republic, which had possessed modest elements of democracy. The citizens of Rome, by means of the suffragium, could exercise their influence in electing people to certain offices. In practice, the great men of Rome controlled large blocs of votes, corresponding to their patronage networks. Over time Rome's republican forms of government calcified into empty ritual or withered away entirely. Suffragium meaning "ballot" no longer served any real political function. But the web of patrons and clients was still the Roman system's substructure, and in this context suffragium came to mean the pressure that could be exerted on one's behalf by a powerful man, whether to obtain a job or to influence a court case or to secure a contract. To ask a patron for this form of intervention and to exert suffragium on behalf of a client would have been a routine social interaction.

Now stir large amounts of money into this system. It is not a great conceptual distance, Ste. Croix observes, to move from the idea of exercising suffragium because of an age-old sense of reciprocal duty to that of exercising it because doing so could be lucrative. And this, indeed, is where the future lies, the idea of quid pro quo eventually becoming so accepted and ingrained that emperors stop trying to halt the practice and instead seek to contain it by codifying it. Thus, in the fourth century, decrees are promulgated to ensure that the person seeking the quid actually delivers the quo. Before long, suffragium has changed its meaning once again. Now it refers not to the influence brought to bear but to the money being paid for it: "a gift, payment or bribe." By empire's end, all public transactions require the payment of money, and the pursuit of money and personal advancement has become the purpose of all public jobs.

Looking back at the change, from ballot box to cash box, Ste. Croix composes this epitaph: "Here, in miniature, is the political history of Rome."

The arc traced by suffragium covers not just the political history of Rome but its social and military history. It goes to the heart of a question that is only just starting to be asked in America: Where is the boundary between public good and private advantage, between "ours" and "mine"? From this question others follow: What happens when public and private interests are not aligned? Which outsiders, if any, should be allowed to put their hands on the machinery of government? How can governments exert collective power if the levers and winches and cogs lie increasingly outside public control?

The phenomenon with which all these questions intersect was called the "privatization of power," or sometimes just "privatization," by the historian Ramsay MacMullen in his classic study Corruption and the Decline of Rome (1988). MacMullen's subject is "the diverting of governmental force, its misdirection." In other words, how does it come about that the word and writ of a powerful central government lose all vector and force? Serious challenges to any society can come from outside factors—environmental catastrophe, foreign invasion. Privatization is fundamentally an internal factor. Such deflection of purpose occurs in any number of ways. It occurs whenever official positions are bought and sold. It occurs when people must pay before officials will act, and it occurs if payment also determines how they will act. And it can occur anytime public tasks (the collecting of taxes, the quartering of troops, the management of projects) are lodged in private hands, no matter how honest the intention or efficient the arrangement, because private and public interests tend to diverge over time.

Let's start with how the Roman system worked during the many centuries when it actually did. By modern standards there were not a great many officials or bureaucrats in Rome until late in the empire; the administration and well-being of the capital and all the other cities and towns depended on the talents and the largesse of the upper classes. A memorable passage in Jérôme Carcopino's Daily Life in Ancient Rome describes what happened every morning soon after Romans woke up, when all around the city clients visited their patrons, and each was alert to the other's needs. On those rare mornings when I've found myself sipping $15 orange juice at the Four Seasons, I've enjoyed imagining the breakfast convergences at tables all around me as an elite remnant of the old Roman dynamic. But to get Rome right you'd have to extend the scene to every suburban Hyatt, every neighborhood diner; you'd have to see these relationships governing every business transaction, every trip to the doctor's office, every college application.

The patron-client relationship was so pervasive that it helps illuminate not only Rome's social architecture but also, frequently, its way of conducting foreign affairs. The term "client state" came into being for a reason. As Julius Caesar fought his way through Gaul, he brought tribal chieftains over to his side and described their professions of loyalty to him—and thus to Rome—as those of clients to a patron. The relationships of the Bush family with various world leaders have often been essentially personal. The longtime Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, spent so much time at Bush family gatherings that he came to be known as Bandar Bush.

Patronage spilled over into communal adornment; it was in fact inseparable from it. The Roman magnates competed with one another to endow the capital with improvements. Rome's wealthiest class, the senatorial aristocracy, constituted by one estimate two-thousandths of 1 percent of the population; then came the equestrian class, with perhaps a tenth of a percent. Collectively these people owned almost everything. Americans are well aware of the nation's worsening income inequality, with those in the top 1 percent earning nearly 50 times more a year than those in the bottom 20 percent. The average C.E.O. earns more than 400 times as much as a typical worker. In Rome, the gap between the elite and everyone else was on the order of 5,000 or 10,000 to 1. ("Nothing is more unfair than equality," observed a very comfortable Pliny the Younger, who would have felt at home in many Washington circles.) The expectation in Rome was that affluent citizens, as individuals rather than as taxpayers, should provide for community needs. Did the city require another aqueduct? New roads? A stadium? Some magnate would surely provide it—in return, implicitly, for a measure of public power, and, of course, for ample public recognition. Inscriptions on countless marble fragments attest to such generosity—an early version of "Brought to you by … "

On Rome's edifice of private giving—whether with the seemliness of an Andrew Carnegie or the vulgarity of a Donald Trump—an empire was built. The Roman system was a remarkable contrivance. But it contained the seeds of its own destruction. For one thing, it fostered an expectation that "others" would always provide. If public amenities came into being through private munificence—and if these in turn served to enhance private glory—then why should the public pay for their upkeep? This way of doing business "did not work for the common benefit of the overall urban fabric," writes one historian, much less nurture a sense of common purpose and shared responsibility. I've seen the same mind-set at work within my state, Massachusetts, in hardscrabble mill towns whose philanthropic founding families have departed, where local taxpayers resist the idea that support of libraries and hospitals must now rest with the community as a whole. Moreover, even at its most uncorrupted, the patronage system was greased by small considerations: "It was a genial, oily, present-giving world," Ramsay MacMullen writes.

Now gradually remove from all this any sense of public spirit or public obligation and replace it at every level of government—in the barracks, the courts, the city councils, the provincial prefectures—with an attitude of "What's in it for me?" To see this transition in starkly American terms, first consider the idealistic sensibility of a letter of introduction written from France by Benjamin Franklin to George Washington in 1777, on a matter of public business: "The Gentleman who will have the Honour of waiting upon you with this Letter is the Baron de Steuben He goes to America with a true Zeal for our Cause, and a View of engaging in it and rendring it all the Service in his Power. He is recommended to us by two of the best Judges of military Merit in this Country."

For comparison, consider the more contemporary sentiments in proposals and e-mails from Jack Abramoff's lobbying team, also on a matter of public business: in this instance, mounting a political operation to reopen the Speaking Rock Casino, in Texas, in return for millions of dollars in fees and political contributions. In 2002, the Abramoff team explained to its clients the Tigua Indian tribe: "This political operation will result in a Majority of both federal chambers either becoming close friends of the tribe or fearing the tribe in a very short period of time. Simply put, you need 218 friends in the U.S. House and 51 Senators on your side very quickly, and we will do that through both love and fear." Abramoff, who would eventually plead guilty to corruption charges, explained to his clients that favors might need to be topped off: "Our friend … asked if you could help (as in cover) a Scotland golf trip for him and some staff (his committee chief of staff) for August. The trip will be quite expensive … (we did this for another member—you know who) 2 years ago. Let me know if you guys could do $50 K."

This is the story MacMullen traces, as throughout the empire a lubricious glaze of venality came to coat every governmental surface. I don't know how it would be phrased in Latin, but one of Jack Abramoff's e-mails ("Da man! You iz da man! Do you hear me?! You da man!! How much $ coming tomorrow? Did we get some more $ in?") captures some of the spirit of public service in the late empire. What accounts for the change? No one factor but a combination of many, including the sheer growth in the government's administrative reach and the resultant transformation of "public service" from the rotating duty of the upper class into a lifelong career for a larger group. A bronze plaque was affixed to a public building in Timgad, in Numidia (now Algeria), a city built as a bastion against the Berbers, which literally provided a recommended price list for payments to ensure the prosecution and success of various kinds of litigation. We don't have anything exactly like that now, I suppose, but have you ever received a fund-raising solicitation from one of the political parties, with degrees of access and other perquisites tied to specific contribution levels? Here's the Republican contribution hierarchy for the 2004 elections, which I can't help visualizing as a Numidian bronze plaque:

$300,000 Super Ranger
$250,000 Republican Regent
$200,000 Ranger
$100,000 Pioneer

Time and again imperial decrees throughout the later empire attempt to put a stop to skimming, extortion, and the illicit use of office—or, failing that, to codify what may be permissible. But the emperors are standing athwart the tide, and the imperial pronouncements have a doomed, forlorn, ritual feel to them. Modern newspaper headlines along the lines of congress votes new curbs on lobbyists convey something of the same formulaic quality.

How does the buying and selling of influence hollow out government? Some make the argument that, whatever its moral shortcomings, the profit motive, including its corrupt dimension, is in fact an efficient economic mechanism: it gets things done. As one character argues in the movie Syriana, corruption is why we win. But as MacMullen points out, for a government to be effective on a national or an imperial scale, there needs to be a presumption that information is traveling accurately up and down the administrative chain of command, and that every link in the chain between a command and its execution is reliable and strong. Putting power into private hands frequently ends up breaking that link. Making the exercise of power contingent on payment by definition breaks the link.

Privatization today often makes itself felt in ways that would have turned no heads in ancient Rome. Naturally, it still includes influence peddling and bribery and the buying and selling of public office. Former California representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham, now in jail, infamously drafted a "bribe menu" on official stationery, linking the size of defense contracts he would deliver with the size of payments he received.

Representative Bob Ney, implicated in the Abramoff scandals, resigned his congressional seat, having been reportedly warned by his majority leader that if he stayed and lost his seat for his party, he "could not expect a lucrative career on K Street"—that is, he would jeopardize any future as an influence peddler, what the Romans called a suffragator. (All for naught in Ney's case: he's now in jail.) And as in Rome, privatization still includes turning over government departments to incompetent cronies, empowering private individuals at the expense of public intentions. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, staffed by inexperienced political appointees and unable to cope with the Hurricane Katrina disaster, is only the most prominent instance.

But the dominant form of privatization today is something relatively new, at least in its dimensions. Government on its stupendous modern scale—regulating every industry; re-distributing treasure from one sector of society to another; forecasting the weather and mapping the human genome—simply did not exist in ancient Rome. Because the extent of government is larger, privatization has more scope. Its most pervasive form is perfectly legal: the hiring of profit-making companies by the thousands to do government jobs. The ostensible motives may be pure, but the result is to diminish government's capacity. For one thing, government loses the ability to perform certain functions; it's hard to un-privatize. Moreover, the effect in every case is to insert an independent agent, with its own interests to consider and protect, into the space between public will and public outcome—a dynamic that represents a potential "diverting of governmental force" far more systemic and insidious than outright venality.

Privatization along these lines has occurred most decisively in America and Britain. In 1976 a book was published in the United States called The Shadow Government, written by Daniel Guttman and Barry Willner; its subtitle spoke ominously of "the government's multi-billion-dollar giveaway" of decision-making authority. Government agencies, the authors warned, were farming out various functions to high-priced consultants, secretive think tanks, and corporate vested interests—accountable to no one! And "outsourcing" was not the only issue. Some parts of the government, they went on, might even be sold off completely—turned into private businesses! The process was "cloaked in contractual and other formal approvals by the various executive departments," but make no mistake: it amounted to nothing less than a "drive to merge Government and business power to the advantage of the latter."

A little more than a decade later, the shadow government was out of the shadow. There is a plausible rationale for privatization—one that often makes sense in the short run and for specific tasks. Private contractors may be able to operate more efficiently than government agencies do. Marketplace signals may prove to be more direct and powerful than bureaucratic ones. And why shouldn't the government hire outside specialists for help with certain chores, the way any household or business does? In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan created a presidential commission on privatization to study not how the boundary between public and private might be bolstered but how it could be pushed out of the way even further, to give private interests more opportunity to move in. The same idea surfaces in the "re-inventing government" movement taken up by the Clinton administration: "We would do well," one proponent wrote, "to glory in the blurring of public and private and not keep trying to draw a disappearing line in the water." Since then privatization has affected every aspect of American public life.

The most visible surge in government outsourcing has come in the realm of the military. Rome hired barbarian soldiers to make up for its acute manpower shortages (not a good long-run solution, history would show). America is hiring private military companies for the very same reason—not the Visigothi or the Ostrogothi but the Halliburtoni and Wackenhuti. Conan the Barbarian has become Conan the Contractor. But in fact every facet of "personal security" is increasingly in the hands of private business. It was not until the mid–19th century that America's urban governments, by setting up local police forces, managed to make an ordinary person's safety a matter of real public responsibility. This was a major advance, though perhaps only temporary. No one with money relies on such guarantees any longer (nor did they in Rome, where police forces as we know them were virtually nonexistent). More and more people have withdrawn into protected enclaves. Private security is a major growth industry; in 1960 there were more police officers than hired security guards in America, whereas today private guards outnumber the police by a margin of 50 percent. Individuals may owe nominal allegiance to a town or a state, but their true oath of fealty is to Securitas or Guardsmark.

One of the chief obligations of any government is simply to dispense justice—to resolve disputes, oversee legal business, mete out punishment. These functions were once held in private hands. After a stint as a public responsibility, they are now migrating back. Lawyers and clients increasingly shun the civil courts—congested, expensive, fickle—and instead buy themselves some private arbitration, provided by a growing cadre of profitable "rent-a-judge" companies. As for the criminal-justice system, those sentenced to prison may very well do their time in a private facility, run on behalf of state and federal governments and operated by a company with some former public official in its management to grease the wheels. Faced with rising numbers of inmates, and unwilling to raise taxes to build more public prisons, governments at all levels have found that the easy, cost-effective way is to turn the prison industry over to the private sector: to a behemoth such as the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, or to one of many smaller companies.

America's public colleges and universities are fast losing their public character. These institutions were created under the terms of an act signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, providing federal land grants to the states as a basis for public financing of higher education. But state support is diminishing. Nationwide, state legislatures are picking up only about two-thirds of the annual cost of public higher education. For the University of Illinois, the figure is 25 percent. For the University of Michigan, it's 18 percent. What makes up the difference in funding? To a large degree it's money from private donors and private corporations, creating an incipient "academic-industrial complex" at public and private institutions alike. You can't escape the signs. At the University of California at Berkeley, one administrator is officially known as the Bank of America Dean of the Haas School of Business. But for a conviction or two, Rice University would have had a Ken Lay Center for the Study of Markets in Transition, endowed by the late former chairman of Enron. Much money for universities comes with strings attached—for instance, the power to push research in certain directions and perhaps away from others, and the ownership of patents deriving from sponsored research.

Sociologists have a term for what is occurring: they call it the "externalization of state functions." Water and sewage systems are being privatized, as are airports and highways and public hospitals. Voucher programs and charter schools are a way of shifting education toward the private sector. The protection of nuclear waste is in private hands. Meat inspection is done largely by the meatpacking companies themselves. Americans were up in arms last year when they learned that DP World, a company in the United Arab Emirates, would soon be in control of the terminals at half a dozen major U.S. seaports—only to discover that the privatization of terminal operations at American ports had begun three decades ago, and that 80 percent of them were already operated by foreign companies, the largest of which is Chinese. Serious proposals to privatize portions of Social Security have been on the table, and the new Medicare prescription-drug plan effectively puts an enormous government program into the hands of private insurance and drug companies.

Many services that used to be provided free of charge now must be paid for—government by user fee. Detailed statistical data from the Census Bureau and other agencies were once available to everyone; now they're being sold, mainly for marketing purposes, and often at prices that only private corporations can afford. The vaults of the Smithsonian were once open to documentary-film makers regardless of provenance and financing. Now an agreement between the Smithsonian and the cable company Showtime has created something called the Smithsonian Networks, which has jurisdiction over, and priority access to, certain kinds of material.

Is there any government function that can't be transferred to some private party? A considerable amount of tax collection is now done, in effect, by casinos; rather than raise taxes to pay for services, legislatures legalize gambling and then take a rake-off from the profits earned by private casino companies. It's "tax farming" for the modern age, recalling the hated Roman practice of selling the right to collect taxes to private individuals (including the apostle Matthew in the Gospels), who were then allowed to keep anything over what they had agreed to collect for the government. As the recent revelations about torture have made clear, even official interrogations for national-security purposes have been outsourced—in this instance to other countries through the process known as "extraordinary rendition." The sale of naming rights for public facilities and other amenities attracts notice mostly for the ungainly nomenclature that results—mutants such as the Mitsubishi Wild Wetland Trail, at the New York Botanical Garden, in the Bronx, and Whataburger Field, in Corpus Christi. To attract more corporate underwriting, the Department of the Interior has proposed that America's national parks be liberally opened up to the sale of naming rights. No one is suggesting that there will soon be a J. Crew Cape Cod National Seashore. But might there be a Sherwin-Williams Painted Desert Trailhead?

An analyst at Johns Hopkins observes, "Contractors have become so big and entrenched that it's a fiction that the government maintains any control." One obvious recent example is the rebuilding effort in Iraq. To supply the army or provide other services, traders and contractors often traveled with Roman legions; Julius Caesar had such a person with him during the Gallic Wars, explicitly "for the sake of business." There may have been no alternative to giving the reconstruction job in Iraq to private corporations, including giant combines such as Bechtel and Halliburton, but the result has been an effort that defies management or accountability. The evidence of widespread corruption in the Iraq rebuilding effort is beyond dispute. Corruption aside, private companies are exempt from many regulations that would apply to government agencies. The records of private companies can't be obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. They can use foreign subsidiaries to avoid laws meant to restrain American companies. Before the war, Halliburton itself used subsidiaries to do business with Iran, Iraq, and Libya, despite official American trade sanctions against all three countries.

More and more secret intelligence work—translation, airborne surveillance, computing, interrogation, analysis, reporting, briefing—is being farmed out to private entities. Not only is the intelligence community becoming further fragmented, but, because the new jobs pay so well, a "spy drain" is drawing officers out of the public sector and into the private market. And the drain isn't restricted to spies: at least 90 former top officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the White House Office of Homeland Security are now working for private companies in the domestic-security business. Meanwhile, the government seems poised to turn the job of border police over to multi-national contractors, a task that will in turn be subcontracted out to dozens of smaller companies. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman were among the corporations that indicated they would submit bids to build a high-tech "virtual fence" along the Mexican border, with an array of motion detectors, satellite monitors, and aerial drones. (Boeing eventually won.) A Homeland Security official conceded the abdication of government leadership, saying to the companies, "We're asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business."

One study from the late 1990s suggests that the "privatization rate"—the rate at which public functions are being outsourced—is roughly doubling every year. On paper the federal workforce nationwide, leaving the military aside, appears to total about two million people. But if you add in all the people in the private sector doing essentially government jobs with federal grants and contracts, then the figure rises by 10.5 million. The commercialization of government probably explains why so many Washington entities are now referred to as shops: "lobby shop," "counterterrorism shop." There's no question that in certain ways the private sector can outperform the public sector. Users of Federal Express, U.P.S., and DHL would sooner renounce citizenship than go back to relying only on the U.S. Postal Service. The problem is the cumulative effect of privatization across the board—projected out over decades, over a century, over two—and the leaching of management capacity from government. This is the same "misdirection" of government force that MacMullen discerns in Rome: easier to observe in retrospect, when the whole film is available, than in the brief, real-time clip any of us is allowed to see.

The activities of government are, in effect, being franchised out. You can't help lingering over the concept of "franchise," wondering what a latter-day Geoffrey de Ste. Croix would make of it. Like suffragium, the word originally had to do with notions of political freedom and civic responsibility. Derived from the Old French word franc, meaning "free," it later came to be associated with the most fundamental political freedom of all: to exercise your franchise meant to exercise your right to vote. Only much later, in the mid–20th century, did the idea of being granted "certain rights" acquire its commercial connotation: the right to market a company's services or products, such as fried chicken or Tupperware. Today, to have a franchise on something is in effect to have control over it.

Looking at the history of the word, it's tempting to write this epitaph: Here, in miniature, is the political history of America.

© 2006 Vanity Fair:

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