Saturday, July 14, 2007

"Final solution? Elect new commissioners."

Tolls and public ire raised

July 13, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

A poke in the eye

I must be the only one in Houston who remembers when they passed a bond issue for the first toll road segment. I thought that the bonds could be repaid by the revenue from the tolls that were taken in. Once the bonds were paid off, the tolls should be stopped. That's how it's been in other areas.

I also recall reading a report that the revenue from the tollway was exceeding expectations. Why didn't they use the surplus to pay off the debt faster than scheduled? Instead, it seems the toll road authority is planning to plow the money into new projects.

And now to add insult to injury, the toll road authority raises the toll. This is a poke in the eye to those who use the toll roads.


Stop while we can

The working man's pocket is not infinitely deep! Stop this toll road building now while it's still a baby. Building roads for the benefit of land developers does nothing but create more congestion. Most people would use mass transit if there was a mass transit system. Houston is already far behind.


Solutions galore

Harris County Tollroad Authority admits that congestion pricing is not widely used in the United States. In California it is used with an eight-lane highway, with two lanes dedicated for EZTAG.

Congestion pricing irrationally penalizes (discriminates against) wage earners traveling to and from their jobs. The comments made by Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack were simply void of common sense.

The two-lane Westpark Tollway is proof that both the commissioners and their consultants should receive a failing grade: They failed to estimate the volume accurately.

For immediate help, police with signs could inform drivers to maintain the 65 mph speed limit between Old Westheimer and Gessner during morning and evening rush hours.

A long-term solution would be to build a limited-access upper deck along the heavily congested stretches of Highway 59.

Final solution? Elect new commissioners.


Look for speed trap

A partial answer is to spend some toll revenues on a proper interchange between Westpark westbound and Sam Houston northbound.

You don't need to be a high-priced consultant or retiring politician to figure it out, just take a drive through that intersection in the afternoon rush hour.

(But if you do, be careful, because there is often a radar set up to trap those going over the speed limit.)


© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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Friday, July 13, 2007

'Trilateral Open Skies Agreement' being worked out between the U.S., Mexico and Canada

NAFTA Aviation Market Plans Advance

Tri-lateral policy differences make reaching comprehensive deal called "challenging"


The CalTrade Report
Copyright 2007

WASHINGTON, DC – The vision for an open North American commercial aviation market has inched a bit closer with the announcement that the US, Canada, and Mexico have worked out a plan to work toward establishing a trilateral open skies agreement.

What that means is that, sometime over the next the decade, Air Canada could be competing with US air carriers on the New York-Paris route and Aeromexico might be launching flights between Los Angeles and Toronto.

We have an opportunity to set a new global standard for free and open transborder air travel, and bring greater convenience and lower prices to shippers and travelers who want to reach places like Tucson, Toronto or Torreon,” said US Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said after meeting her counterparts from Canada and Mexico in Arizona where the announcement was made.

According to a Peters, the process leading to a trilateral deal will be challenging but the potential rewards are substantial. The declaration signed at the trilateral meeting calls for expanding aviation relationships over the next 10 years – but likely not this year or next.

“The most significant piece of this document, in my opinion, is the vision for reaching a Trilateral Open Skies agreement between our three countries within the next 10 years,” she said.

The three countries, said another high-level DOT official, “hope that an open regional aviation market will help them accommodate the expansion of trilateral trade and tourism accelerated by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).”

Negotiating civil aviation agreements is, at best, a complex and tricky effort, experts say.

Even bilateral aviation deals are difficult to reach because of competing interests of each country’s airlines, national security considerations and other issues.

For example, the US and the European Union (EU) signed an open skies agreement in March only after numerous earlier attempts to liberalize the transatlantic aviation market had failed.

The differences among the three governments’ respective aviation policies might make future negotiations to open the aviation market in North America particularly difficult.

Observers anticipate that the first step toward a trilateral agreement will be for the US and Canadian governments to negotiate separate bilateral aviation liberalization deals with the government of Mexico.

The US and Canada concluded an open skies agreement in November 2005.

Talks involving all three countries would have to address a number of important issues such as routes, user charges and fees, pricing, advertising and sales, and a uniform dispute resolution mechanism, according to the DOT.

A bilateral open skies agreement gives airlines in both countries the right to operate air services from any point in their country to any point in the other, as well as to connect those flights to points in third countries.

A trilateral deal would make it much easier for Canadian, Mexican and US airlines to provide service to any of the three countries and to connect that service to different destinations from any point in North America.

The three aviation markets are quite different, according to experts.

The US, with many airlines, is a large, mature and competitive market. The similarly mature Canadian aviation sector is smaller and dominated by one large carrier – Air Canada.

On the other hand, the Mexican market, where far more passengers travel domestically by bus than by plane, is dominated by two airlines – Mexicana and Aeromexico.

US carriers are eager to fly more people to popular tourist destinations in Mexico, according to experts.

Under an existing but narrowly focused bilateral agreement, only three airlines from each country can serve routes between any city in the US and 14 Mexican destinations. So the competition among US airlines for Mexican routes is fierce and pressure to open the Mexican market strong, experts say.

But, says David Bond, a staff writer for Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, in the near future, that government would have a difficult time persuading Mexican carriers to support any international market liberalization scheme.

Only Mexicana and Aeromexico have any international experience. Together the two Mexican carriers connect 99 cities in the Americas and Europe. Both are members of global airline alliances, allowing AeroMexico share flights with Delta Airlines (DAL) and Mexicana to partner with United Airlines.

On the other hand, all of the country’s smaller carriers focus solely on the domestic market, said Bond, adding “they don’t “feel any urge for open skies.”

In 2005, the Mexican government decided to privatize both Aeromexico and Mexicana and allowed several budget airlines to enter the market.

In November 2005, the hotel chain Grupo Posadas purchased Mexicana. Since then, though, some budget carriers have experienced strong growth creating uncertainty about how to proceed with the privatization of Aeromexico, according to experts.

It may take time before the shake-up produces more competition, the DOT official said. “But once it happens, Mexico’s government might be more willing to move forward on an open skies deal.”

© 2007 The CalTrade Report:

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Sen. Nichols perpetuates 'last minute amendment' myth and supports Perry in veto of eminent domain bill

Nichols speaks to Athens Chamber

July 12, 2007

by Christina Campbell
Athens Review
Copyright 2007

Attendees at the monthly Athens Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday, heard 3rd District State Senator Robert Nichols speak about the past session in the senate.

Nichols said he believes the future is good for Athens because this is a place people want to come to.

“And it is good to be the official home of the hamburger,” the senator said. “I was proud to be the Senate sponsor of the bill District 4 State Representative Betty Brown authored in the House.”

Nichols went on to tell the group about the “conservative swing” of bills passed in the Senate.

He said these bills included funding property tax cuts, toning down franchise taxes and extending property tax cuts to the elderly.

The Senate and the House also placed “In God We Trust” above their doorways, he said.

“We also added it to the Texas Constitution,” the senator said.

Funding was increased for the Texas Forest Service as well.

“The Forest Service is the emergency coordinator for the state in any emergency, so this is very important,” he said.

A $30 million grant was established for volunteer fire departments throughout the state as well, Nichols said.

Sen. Nichols said he was disappointed that an eminent domain bill he filed failed. The bill provided regulations to protect private property owners from the government seizing land for pubic use.

However, he is proud the property owners bill of rights passed and the castle doctrine that he co-authored.

“The castle doctrine gives you (homeowners) the right to shoot someone breaking in your home and there is no question about it,” Nichols said. “It is also extended to your vehicle.”

An eminent domain bill that was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry was previously voted for by Nichols.

He said a last minute amendment was added to the bill that many senators did not have time to review.

“It was a good bill with a terrible amendment,” Nichols said. “I supported the Governor’s veto. It was our (senate’s) fault the amendment got through — he did the right thing.”

Nichols spent the remainder of his time answering questions from local business leaders.

The Chamber will meet again in August.


© 2007 Athens Review:

Related Article:

Texas Farm Bureau: ' Texas Farm Bureau Responds, Clarifies HB 2006 Veto'

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

"A convergence of gutless politicians, right-wing ideological fantasizers, conniving investment bankers, and raw corporate greed."

Based on the lie that companies do everything better than governments do . . .

Politicians are selling our bridges rather than building them

July 2007

Edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer
Volume 9, Number 7
Hightower Lowdown
Copyright 2007

WILL ROGERS SOMETIMES TUCKED little moral messages into his one-liners. For example: "I'd rather be the man who bought the Brooklyn Bridge than the one who sold it."

The gullibility of anyone who thinks it's possible to buy the Brooklyn Bridge is an old punch line, but today the joke is on us. In these weird times of privatization fever, buying bridges is no longer considered preposterous, and old Will would be appalled by the crass morals of both the sellers and the buyers in these increasingly common transactions.

The Brooklyn span has yet to be sold off, but similar public assets all across the country have been, and many more are up for grabs-- an estimated $100 billion worth of highways, bridges, airports, and other public properties could be transferred into corporate hands in just the next two years.

Among those already gone or actively being considered for privatization are Chicago's Skyway commuter route, the city's entire downtown parking system, and Midway Airport; in Indiana, three major throughways (a 157-mile toll road across the state, a new Illiana Expressway, and a section of the I-69 NAFTA highway) and the state lottery; Virginia's Pocahontas Parkway and Dulles Greenway; the 537-mile Pennsylvania Turnpike and Philadelphia International Airport; New York's Tappan Zee Bridge; a vast 4,000-mile network of toll roads across Texas; Colorado's Northwest Parkway; Alabama's Foley Beach Expressway bridge; the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel; and, in New Jersey, the NJ Turnpike, Garden State Parkway, and Atlantic City Expressway.

What's at work here is a convergence of gutless politicians, right-wing ideological fantasizers, conniving investment bankers, and raw corporate greed. What has drawn them together is the incandescent, transformative, blinding, neon-green force that rules American society: MONEY.

In 2005, when Congress was about to replenish the dwindling trust fund with an increase of 4 cents per gallon, George W killed the hike with a veto threat. As a result, a fund with a $23 billion surplus when Bush came into office will be broke when he leaves, running a deficit of nearly $2 billion in 2009 and $8 billion the next year.

If you're an antigovernment, privatization zealot (like Bush and his top Transportation Department appointees), those are joyous numbers, for they mean that state and local officials are more vulnerable than ever to your pitch that public assets are better placed in corporate hands. For years, such corporate- funded, right-wing think tanks as the Reason Foundation have dreamed of the moment when they could impose their ideology on the public--and here it is.

"Trust us," they're cooing into the ears of governors, mayors, and other officials who are looking at massive transportation needs, yet are too shackled to money interests even to mouth the words "tax increase."

These sirens of corporatization sing softly, "We have the perfect, painless solution. All you have to do is to turn over that toll road (either by sale or long-term lease) to GlobalGigantica, Inc., which will pay a pretty penny for it.

You'll get money for your public treasury, you'll lose your migraine headache, the magic of free enterprise will deliver greater efficiency and lower costs, and an adoring public will shower you with rose petals, hosannas, and votes."

Such rosy nonsense is now official U.S. policy. Last year, the Department of Transportation produced a plan known as the National Strategy to Reduce Congestion, which really should be called the Strategy to Induce Corporatization.

Under this scheme, DOT officials are actively working as proselytizers of privatization, aggressively pushing states to pass laws that help corporations take over chunks of their public transportation infrastructure. To move this ideological surge along, DOT has drafted sample legislation for states to rubber-stamp, and more than 20 states have passed such laws.

Washington is also throwing public money behind this push. The 2005 highway bill conveniently changed the law so that corporations-- not just governments--can now raise tax-exempt funds and get special subsidies for privatized projects. As a congressional staffer confided to reporters for Mother Jones magazine, "It's a very, very sweet deal."

The corporate players

Public infrastructure--long considered the stodgiest of investments-- suddenly has a financial allure surpassing anything since the California Gold Rush, with corporate powers from all over the globe hustling to get pieces of the action. Consider the transactions of June 29, 2006. On this single day:
  • A CONSORTIUM of two international corporations--the Spanish construction giant Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte (Cintra) and the Australian conglomerate Macquarie Infrastructure Group (MIG)-- inked a $3.8-billon deal to run the Indiana Toll Road for the next 75 years.
  • A PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN AUSTRALIAN TOLL-ROAD operator Transurban signed a $611-million deal to gain control of the Pocahontas Parkway in Richmond, Virginia's capital city. Why are corporations laying down such sums to run toll roads? Because these are high-fat sugar bombs with whipped cream dollops and sprinkles on top.
First, the corporate owners get monopolistic control of prime routes of travel. This provides a steady (and steadily increasing) flow of tens of thousands of captive customers every day. The corporations have a guaranteed cash flow that's literally driven to them!

Second--and this is the biggest factor of all--private owners get to raise toll rates. Elected officials are wary of hiking tolls because of the political backlash they can suffer, and the better pols actually give a damn about keeping costs affordable for regular people. But corporations are not subject to the electorate and thus have no qualms about stiffing the public (think of Big Oil's price gouging, ever-rising bank and credit-card fees, cereal companies that charge more for less, Enron's manipulation of energy markets, etc.).

When the hucksters tout the advantages of privatization, it's this political immunity that they highlight. Corporations, they exult, are able to amass private investment funds to build or repair roads because they are free to raise tolls. Robert Poole, a privatizing zealot at the Reason Foundation, even tries to turn such monopoly profiteering into a virtue, gushing that corporations "depoliticize the tolling decision." I'll say--We the People are conveniently removed from any decision-making role!

In 2005, when Cintra-MIG paid $1.8 billion for a 99-year lease to run the Chicago Skyway, the $2 toll to drive the 8-mile road immediately jumped by 25% and is scheduled to be $5 within a decade. That's $10 a day for just one short stretch of your commute. Similarly, last year's Cintra-MIG deal to take over the Indiana Toll Road came with a neat doubling of the tolls, plus allowing the consortium to raise rates every year after 2010 by 2% or the rate of inflation-- whichever is higher.

When corporations and their political enablers first push a privatization scheme on a state or city, they invariably claim that it will be in the public interest because "everyone knows" that corporations are more efficient than government. Ah, yes, we've seen the "efficiencies" of the Halliburtons, the big HMOs, and that ilk.

The reality is that the corporate operator not only has to cover the fixed costs of operating a road system, but it also must satisfy its shareholders with ever-expanding profits, cover the exorbitant pay levels of its top executives, and add in the enormous overhead of its own bureaucracy, including its marble headquarters, advertising budget, lobbyists, and so forth. What's "efficient" about these deals is that corporate operators can freely raise our tolls to cover their inherent inefficiencies.

Third, if a free-wheeling ability to jack up tolls is not enough to fatten the investors' bottom line, corporations receive two other advantages that the privatizers don't like to mention. The new operators receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks, and instead of staffing the system with full-time public employees getting decent wages and benefits, these private operators shift to low-wage, parttime workers with no benefits. So taxpayers subsidize the conversion to "free enterprise," and the reward to the community is worse jobs than it had before. What a deal!

Fourth, the profits are astronomical. As a Wisconsin transportation official reminds us, "The private sector's legal responsibility to its shareholders is to make money--profit is their purpose. [Privatization] is all about money." And lots of it. Business Week magazine notes that Cintra-MIG's investment in the Indiana Toll Road "could break even in year 15 of the 75-year lease, on the way to reaping as much as $21 billion in profits." In sum, the state of Indiana got $3.8 billion in exchange for inflicting much higher tolls on its citizens, thus producing $21 billion in profits that will benefit a handful of foreign investors rather than the Indiana people.

Banks always get theirs

The big investment banks and capital funds have sniffed the fecund possibilities of enormous fees and profits to be had in this game, and they are pushing their way into it with the exuberance of bank robbers tunneling into an unguarded vault. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, the Carlyle Group, and others are not only raking in fees as financial advisors to both the sellers and buyers of these assets, but also piling up cash from wealthy investors to put into infrastructure deals.

Wait. Doesn't the dual role of advisor and investor pose conflicts of interest? Of course!

Mother Jones reports that while Goldman Sachs was advising Indiana officials on selling rights to the state's toll road, it didn't mention that it was also putting together a private infrastructure investment fund to get part of the action, meaning Goldman had a financial interest in getting Indiana to sell the roads as cheaply as possible. You see, in deals this big, the first thing that bankers do is to drag ethical considerations into a back room and strangle them.

A Morgan Stanley banker estimates that around the world, some 30 special funds are now amassing a total of $500 billion in capital to buy U.S. public assets. At the same time, bankers are roaming from statehouse to statehouse to persuade officials to sell. Mark Florian, a Goldman Sachs executive who has become Wall Street's happy huckster of privatization deals, says he has personally visited top officials in more than 35 states to "help spur the market."

Laissez-faire ideologues are not bothered either by conflicts of interest or by any concerns about the public interest. They view our roads, airports, and such strictly as commodities that should be put on the market for the enrichment of wealthy investors. As Florian puts it, "There's a lot of value trapped in these assets."

A raw deal

For those of us without the wealth to profit from privatization, this is a mighty rocky road to travel. Instead of providing universal public service, our prime transportation routes will be priced at what the market will bear. Working stiffs, small businesses (from truckers to maid services), and others-- the majority--will be economically burdened or forced onto clogged side roads.

We'll also be giving up any semblance of democratic control, ceding decision making over fundamentally public matters to self-interested private executives cloistered inside board rooms. With long-term leases, decisions about major repairs or expansion 10, 20, or 30 years from now will rest not on public need, but on what will make the most profit for the shareholders. The corporation can refuse to add lanes, can raise tolls to do so, or can even sell its lease to another party that might choose to cover its cost of purchase by lowering the quality of service.

What we're losing here is the whole idea of public purpose. This is our commonly shared infrastructure we're talking about, and it's more valuable than money.

For example, privatizers estimate that the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge is worth $3.4 billion to investors. But that's its price--NOT its value. That bridge embodies community identity, history, aesthetics, unity, service, and purpose.

These are the people's assets--belonging not just to all of us here today, but to those who went before and to all those yet to come. Politicians need to know that these are not "theirs" to sell, that no one can "own" our public assets as their private property.

By politicians, I mean Democrats as well as Bushites.

It's Democrats who're running the fire sales in Chicago, it was a Democrat-- Rep. Chaka Fattah--who ran for mayor of Philadelphia on a plan to privatize the city's airport (he lost), and it's Democratic Governor Jon Corzine (a former CEO of Goldman Sachs) who has pushed the sale of New Jersey's major highways.

This abandonment of the public trust and the common good is a leadership issue of Rooseveltian proportions, yet no one running for president has made a peep about it.

If they did, they'd tap into a rich reserve of public resentment against the rip-off deals, the profiteering, and the very principle of selling what is ours.

Where are the Rooseveltian Democrats who'll stand up to the profiteers and rally the people to reclaim and reinvest in our public infrastructure? We can't wait on the pols to come to us.

© 2007 Public Intelligence, Inc. :

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"State leaders can't fight the numbers."

Put brakes on filching from state highway fund


San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Texas is the nation's fastest growing state.

New figures from the Census Bureau show that Texas gained 2.7 million residents between 2000 and 2006, an increase of 12.7 percent. Nineteen Texas cities are among the 100 fastest growing communities in the country. And six Texas cities are among the 25 most populous, with San Antonio number seven.

All those new Texans — some of whom are born here, some who move here — place increasing pressure on municipal and state infrastructure. Nowhere is the strain of population growth more obvious than on Texas roads.

Sixty percent of Texas highway funding comes from state fuel taxes and motor vehicle license and registration fees. The biggest chunk comes from the gas tax. And while the population has been growing and inflation rising, the gas tax has been fixed at 20 cents per gallon since 1991.

A report from Texas Comptroller Susan Combs lays out the issue in dollars and cents. The Texas Department of Transportation estimated in 1997 that the state needed to spend $11 billion annually on highway, bridge and aviation projects between 1997 and 2006. Actual spending for the period was $3.1 billion annually, or a shortfall of almost $8 billion per year.

TxDOT said the state should spend $4.9 billion annually on maintenance alone. The annual shortfall in the maintenance budget has been $1.8 billion.

Rather than spending more money on road infrastructure, the Texas Legislature has been finding ways to do the opposite. One-quarter of the State Highway Fund is diverted to public education.

Despite a budget surplus of $14 billion for the biennium, Express-News Staff Writer Patrick Driscoll reports that lawmakers diverted another tenth of state highway dollars to such unrelated purposes as the arts and mineral rights litigation. And the Senate quietly beat back a hair-brained scheme from the House to suspend the gas tax for summer vacation.

The first step toward getting Texas back on the road to a growing future is to stop filching the highway fund. Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio, and Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, each sponsored legislation that would have ended the diversion of highway dollars. Both measures died in committee.

But even that wouldn't fill the pothole in funding. The population and construction and maintenance costs are increasing. Texas needs a revenue source for roads that keeps pace with those increases.

State leaders can't fight the numbers. The unpopular choices are to raise more tax revenue for highways, charge people to drive on them or sell or lease them as moneymaking operations to private interests. Those choices will only become more unpalatable — and the transportation crisis more serious — the longer they wait to act.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Thousands of non-revenue EZ Tags are cancelled by HCTRA

Double Toll Plan Axed; Non-Revenue EZ Tags Canceled


KPRC Channel 2 (Houston)
Copyright 2007

HOUSTON -- Harris County commissioners officially rescinded its plan to double tolls on the Westpark Tollway and canceled all non-revenue EZ Tags, KPRC Local 2 reported Tuesday.

Commissioners voted in June to double tolls on the Westpark Tollway from 6 to 9 a.m. inbound and 4 to 7 p.m. outbound to relieve congestion.

The plan was scrapped after angry motorists sent in e-mails and made phone calls. Officials said construction along the Katy Freeway was also a factor in their decision.
Click here to find out more!

A systemwide 25-cent increase on all toll roads was approved. The new rates will begin on Sept. 3.

Commissioners also decided to cancel thousands of non-revenue EZ Tags on county vehicles.

"For us, the non-revenue tag program is over," said Art Storey with the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

Records obtained by KPRC Local 2 Investigates showed that the non-revenue tags racked up $1.3 million in charges over a 13-month period.

Employees who use the toll road for work-related purposes will have to sign at a tollbooth to use the road free of charge.

Officials said they are working on a plan for marked emergency and military vehicles.

© 2007 Internet Broadcasting Systems, Inc. :

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The flight to China

Open skies deal inked with US


By Xin Dingding
China Daily (China)
Copyright 2007

US passengers and businesses will have access to more frequent flights and cheaper cargo options to China after an aviation agreement was signed on Monday with the United States.

Yang Yuanyuan, minister of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), and US Transportation Secretary Mary Peters sealed the deal in Seattle, further opening up the skies between the world's two major economies.

Commercial passenger flights between US and eastern China are expected to more than double by 2012.

US airlines, currently servicing 10 flights to China a day, are permitted to increase that number to 23. Unlimited cargo flights can now occur between the US and the provinces of Anhui, Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Henan and Shanxi.

It is estimated that the agreement will generate as much as $5 billion in passenger and cargo revenue for the airline industry over the next six years, and as much as $8 billion in new economic activity in the United States, Peters said.

On the same day in Seattle, Yang and US Trade and Development Agency Acting Director Leocadia Zak signed an agreement from the agency pledging $1.69 million to fund aviation cooperation projects between the two countries.

The money will be used to evaluate the structure of China's aviation market, study the demands of its regional aviation market, train senior professionals, and develop a bigger air traffic flow management system.

Both sides said the pacts demonstrated the good cooperative relationship in the civil aviation sector between the two countries.

"By providing more and cheaper shipping choices to China, this agreement will make it easier for US companies to tap into China's enormous market," Peters said.

However Chinese carriers may not benefit as much as their US counterparts. One source said China's three largest airlines were all losing money in the passenger and cargo sector between the two countries, and the pact would add pressure.

But Yang said earlier the new aviation pact was an opportunity for carriers of both countries, and the US should make it easier for Chinese citizens and tourist groups to get visas, in order to promote balanced development.

Xinhua and agencies contributed to the story

© 2007 China Daily:

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Monday, July 09, 2007

"Are congestion problems going to be corrected if they threaten the income of the toll road? Not in our lifetimes!"

Tollway congestion pricing idea not dead yet

July 9, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack say the county is looking for ways to relieve congestion on the Westpark Tollway. Among them:

Heated opposition may have forced Harris County to cancel a steep increase in tolls to relieve gridlock on the Westpark Tollway, but such "congestion pricing" likely will be essential as population growth and traffic outstrip capacity, officials say.

"I believe that ultimately there will be customers who contact us, asking for congestion pricing," County Commissioner Steve Radack said.

County Judge Ed Emmett said that all other forms of transportation, from passenger airlines to freight haulers, charge a premium for speed and convenience. Tolls that vary with demand follow the same principle.

Congestion pricing is not widely used in the United States and often has been derided as "Lexus lanes," where those who can afford higher tolls cruise freely past slow-moving vehicles in regular lanes.

It got an icy response in Houston last month when drivers roared disapproval at a proposed increase from $1 to $2.50 on the Westpark Tollway during three hours of the morning and the evening. The plan has been shelved — for now.

Radack, whose Precinct 3 includes the Westpark Tollway and will include future high-occupancy toll lanes on the Katy and Northwest freeways, said the increase recommended by consultant Wilbur Smith Associates was too much for too long.

A smaller increase for just an hour in each direction could have made a difference and been acceptable to users, he said.

Calls to the consulting firm for comment last week were not returned. But its report said a toll of $2.50 to $3 would be needed to lower peak-hour usage below the Westpark Tollway's capacity of about 3,600 vehicles an hour at 50 mph. It also said that if the higher tolls were in effect for just one hour, motorists might avoid them by changing their commute times, which would only move congestion time, not eliminate it.

Although congestion pricing is generally favored by economists, it's often been a hard sell with the driving public.

"Toll roads can't compete without the presence of congestion and motorist inconvenience on the public highway system," National Motorists Association president James Baxter wrote on the group's Web site recently.

The group advocates against various regulatory measures on driving and opposes congestion pricing and toll roads in general.

"Are congestion problems going to be corrected if they threaten the income of the toll road?" Baxter wrote. "Not in our lifetimes!"

Harris County officials are not against congestion pricing in principle. But Radack and Emmett agreed the issue, as far as Westpark is concerned, is dead for now.

No decision has been made on whether congestion pricing will be used on toll lanes planned for the Katy and Northwest freeways, Emmett said.

He said he does not expect the county to float the idea on the Westpark again before the Katy Freeway widening project is completed in March 2009. The freeway runs parallel to the Westpark Tollway about two miles to the north and is expected to relieve some of the Westpark pressure.

"Congestion pricing doesn't work unless there is an alternative," Emmett said. Unless drivers get some advantage by paying a toll, he said, "it becomes just a way to gouge the public."

In theory, congestion pricing can be used to maximize either traffic flow or toll revenue. In practice, however, those goals are not entirely in conflict, said Mark Burris, a researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.

That's because the toll levels needed to accomplish both are about the same, he said.

One place it's been implemented is in Los Angeles at the 91 Express Lanes, a 10-mile tollway down the middle of the Riverside Freeway where the tolls increase during peak hours.

But Burris points out that the 91 Express Lanes were managed privately before being turned over to a public agency.

"A lot of people were hoping for lower tolls" after the changeover, he said. "But the toll road authority (of Orange County) decided they could not lower rates and keep the traffic moving."

Burris said congestion pricing is implemented in two ways. The simplest is to publish the tolls in advance — the 91 Express lanes publish a matrix of rates for each hour and day of the week — and revise them as needed.

The second way is to have tolls change from moment to moment, based on traffic speed or volume. Signs display the current toll shortly before the entry ramp and the car owner pays that amount, regardless of whether the rates change down the road.

The first method is "a little less difficult to manage, and it's more politically acceptable because drivers know in advance what the toll will be," Burris said.

The second method is better in cases of bad weather, accidents or breakdowns, he said, because it allows officials to respond faster to slowing traffic.

Burris said rush hour, which Houstonians know can last for several hours, follows a typical scenario that congestion pricing can help prevent: At first, everything goes smoothly. Traffic volume increases, but all the vehicles maintain highway speeds. As capacity is reached, something happens to disrupt that flow.

It can be anything from an accident to "just a few more vehicles that get on at the next entrance ramp," Burris said. Whatever the cause, "Everything slows down, and it can take hours to get back to full capacity."

This is shown dramatically along the Westpark Tollway. For instance, the average speed for westbound drivers in the evening rush plummets from the 70s to below 10 mph in less than a mile, shortly before Fondren. They stay mostly under 30 mph until motorists pass Beltway 8, then shoot upward.

Radack said such slowdownseventually will persuade drivers to accept congestion pricing.

"If you have a commute that should take 18 minutes, and it takes 48, think of the wear and tear on your car, and you may use up half a gallon of gasoline. It reaches a point where it becomes revenue-neutral," he said.

"You pay Exxon or you pay the toll."

* Talking with city of Houston officials about widening Richmond west of Wilcrest as a relief valve - a job Radack said he is willing to spend county road funds to help accomplish.

* Talking with the Metropolitan Transit Authority about running buses and vanpools on the tollway, which has three Metro Park & Ride lots and a major transit center along its route.

* Metro says it does not run buses on the tollway because the nearby Southwest Freeway is more convenient to its routes.

* Adding more eastbound exits to give drivers the opportunity to exit before reaching congestion at the Beltway.

* Radack said the Westpark Tollway was designed with no exits in an 8-mile segment from Barker-Cypress to the Sam Houston Tollway because officials did not want it used for short hops and because exit ramps are costly to build on the south side of the tollway, which abuts a Metro rail right of way.

* A crackdown by constables' deputies on EZ Tag cheating.

* Directing toll road officials to contact EZ Tag users and ask for suggestions.

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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A 1.6 $Billion Diversion

Highway shortfall is worsening


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

State lawmakers did plenty of bellyaching about toll roads in the spring legislative session, yet curiously were bent on hamstringing transportation funding more than ever.

House members torched an effort to index the gas tax to inflation. The tax has been frozen since 1991 and is now losing ground to construction costs in annual double digits.

They also eagerly offered motorists a summer gas-tax holiday, which would have cost the state up to $700 million, though Senate members quietly let that flash of generosity die.

Then, after the session, news trickled out that lawmakers filched another $243 million from the State Highway Fund to plug budget holes, despite bold talk about stemming such bleeding of the fund and a $14 billion state surplus to play with.

In all, a tenth of the highway fund, $1.6 billion, will be diverted from building and maintaining roads over the next two fiscal years, up 15 percent from this biennium. That doesn't include a fourth of the gas-tax funds that go to schools.

Toll-road critics say the diverted money is just one way state leaders have created a self-fulfilling funding crisis, which is hyped to justify tolling.

San Antonio's share of the $1.6 billion might have been $170 million, more than enough to widen several miles of U.S. 281 or add direct ramps to Loop 1604. But Texas Department of Transportation officials want to toll most new lanes because, they say, money is short.

"They've simply abdicated their responsibility to fixing our highway system and now they're coming into communities and saying, 'Well, we gotta toll it,'" said Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson.

Meanwhile, facing widespread voter suspicions that toll plans are a gimmick to squeeze profits from captive motorists, most legislators last session hopped on board to pass a bill that freezes leasing of tollways for two years — which, it turns out, doesn't affect Trans-Texas Corridor projects along Interstate 35 or forbid any private investments.

Hobbling the 20-cent a gallon gas tax and draining more money from the highway fund, while at the same time clumsily trying to slow down private-sector toll projects, may sound like lip service to average Joes.

But lawmakers in the thick of a labyrinth of transportation bills last session put it this way:

"The Legislature as a whole is just not a very sophisticated animal," said House Transportation Committee Chairman Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, agreed.

"There's still a severe lack of understanding as to how critical the transportation shortfall in Texas has become," he said.

Even Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, a hero of the toll moratorium bill, joined the House stampede to thwart indexing the gas tax to consumer inflation. The vote was 122-19 to stifle the measure, which Krusee had tried to tack on a bill.

Kolkhorst couldn't be reached for comment.

Nine of the 10 House members from Bexar County voted to kill the indexing proposal.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, added a statement to the House journal to say that there should be serious debate on the issue rather than an off-the-cuff decision.

There needs to be more than a debate, said Rep. Robert Puente, D-San Antonio. Without solid support from leaders, starting with Gov. Rick Perry, voting for a tax bill is like putting your neck on a chopping block.

When such a bill fails — and Perry over the years has threatened to veto attempts to raise the gas tax — there's nothing to show for it. Those who voted yes would be caught with no projects to brag about, just a record of supporting higher taxes.

"Yes, it's used against you politically," Puente said.

So, like junking an old car with a blown engine, voting against a tax bill that's going nowhere makes sense, he said.

On the other hand, putting a stop to raids on the highway fund also makes sense, an idea Perry does support, Puente said. He filed House Bill 2578 to let voters decide, and Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, filed an identical bill.

But both bills were bottled up in budget committees, neither getting a hearing.

The latest argument for business as usual refers to the Texas Constitution, which says highway funds can be used to police roadways. This is key because 80 percent of the money being diverted from construction and maintenance goes to the Department of Public Safety.

"In fact, this funding source is indeed dedicated to both TxDOT and DPS," House Speaker Tom Craddick said in a letter last month to Larson.

Such reasoning is cloudy, others say, because not everything DPS does is related to policing highways. Besides, that's still less money for roads.

"The governor does consider it to be a diversion," spokesman Robert Black said. "The diversion compounds the problems we're having in building transportation infrastructure."

And then there's niggling questions over where the other 20 percent of diverted funds go, such as social, health and educational programs and — among favorites used to spice up the fight — arts and historical commissions and even tourism.

In short, a long debate is needed to iron out differing views on what to do, said House Appropriations Chairman Warren Chisum, R-Pampa. And that should start way before the next session in 2009.

"We're all aware of the fact that we have to do something about highways," he said.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

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