Saturday, August 11, 2007

Divorce Made E-Z

Not So Fast: E-Z Pass Data Used To Catch Cheaters

Divorce Lawyers Find Toll Records, Prove Spouses Lied About Whereabouts

Aug 11, 2007

Copyright 2007

(CBS/AP) TRENTON, N.J. There's some potentially troubling and telling news for all you motorists out there who may be taking the Turnpike for the worst crime in marriage: cheating on your significant other.

E-ZPass and other electronic toll collection systems are emerging as a powerful means of proving infidelity. That's because when your spouse doesn't know where you've been, E-ZPass does.

"E-ZPass is an E-ZPass to go directly to divorce court, because it's an easy way to show you took the off-ramp to adultery," said Jacalyn Barnett, a New York divorce lawyer who has used E-ZPass records a few times.

Lynne Gold-Bikin, a Pennsylvania divorce lawyer, said E-ZPass helped prove a client's husband was being unfaithful: "He claimed he was in a business meeting in Pennsylvania. And I had records to show he went to New Jersey that night."

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Generally mounted inside a vehicle's windshield behind the rearview mirror, E-ZPass devices communicate with antennas at toll plazas, automatically deducting money from the motorist's prepaid account.

Of the 12 states in the Northeast and Midwest that are part of the E-ZPass system, agencies in seven states provide electronic toll information in response to court orders in criminal and civil cases, including divorces, according to an Associated Press survey.

In four of the 12 states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, highway authorities release E-ZPass records only in criminal cases. West Virginia parkways authority has no policy. (Divorce attorneys in some cases can still obtain toll records from the other spouse rather than a highway agency.)

The Illinois Tollway, which hands over toll records, received more than 30 such subpoenas the first half of this year, with about half coming from civil cases, including divorces, according to Joelle McGinnis, an agency spokeswoman.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority said it turns down about 30 subpoenas in civil cases every year, about half of them divorces.

Electronic toll records have also proved useful in criminal cases.

They played a role in the murder case against Melanie McGuire, a New Jersey nurse convicted in April of killing her husband and tossing his cut-up remains into the Chesapeake Bay in three matching suitcases in 2004. Prosecutors used toll records to reconstruct her movements.

Davy Levy, a Chicago divorce lawyer for more than 30 years, said toll records from I-Pass (part of the E-ZPass system) are useful in catching a spouse in a lie.

"You bring up the I-Pass records and it destroys credibility," said Levy, who has used such records two or three times for such purposes.

The E-ZPass network covers about half the East Coast and part of the Midwest, with about 2 billion charges per year. That can mean a lot of records. One of the busiest toll plazas in New Jersey, the Garden State Parkway's southbound Raritan plaza, gets about 90,000 E-ZPass hits per day.

Some worry that using those records for other purposes is a violation of drivers' privacy.

"When you're marketed for this new convenience, you may not realize there are these types of costs," said Nicole Ozer of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia turned Libertarian and privacy rights advocate, said people who want to protect their privacy shouldn't use electronic toll systems.

"People are foolish to buy into these systems without thinking, just because they want to save 20 seconds of time going through a toll booth," he said.

© 2007 CBS Broadcasting Inc.:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Friday, August 10, 2007

"TTC-69 is alive and well. TxDOT is hoping that folks are asleep...when they show up with bulldozers.”

For Immediate Release

Waller County still targeted by TxDOT for TTC-69


Don Garrett
Citizens for a Better Waller County
Copyright 2007

Waller County Commissioners announced at Commissioner’s Court last Thursday, August 2, 2007, that they had been approached by Texas Department of Transportation officials and Gary Bushell, a lobbyist for the Alliance for I-69 and the Gulf Coast Strategic Highway Coalition, with a plan to route the Trans Texas Corridor along the proposed path of the Prairie Parkway, which has been recently discussed as a thoroughfare from 290 between Waller and Prairie View (James Muse Road), to I-10 and Woods Road.

Waller County Commissioners rejected the proposal. “For folks that think that the Trans Texas Corridor is not going to happen - this is a major wake up call. Not only does it show that TxDot and Governor Perry are going forward with the plans for the TTC-69, but that they still have Waller County dead in their sights for the path of this 1200 ft wide mobility monster,” said Don Garrett, President of Citizens for a Better Waller County. “Although there is a two year moratorium that prevents TxDot from signing a contract with a private company to build the TTC-69 under Senate Bill 792, that doesn’t mean that they can’t proceed forward with selecting a pathway for it.”

Citizens for a Better Waller County (CBWC) encourages citizens living in Waller County to remain vigilant in regards to TxDOT’s plans for the TTC through this area. “An express toll road that is a ¼ of a mile wide going through the dead center of Waller County would devastate it. It will change life as we know it in Waller County for generations to come,” Garrett warned. “This move by TxDOT shows that they are still trying to route this thing through the middle of our county, despite the fact that nobody in Waller County wants it here. We are not opposed to a rational approach to solving our future transportation needs, but are adamantly opposed to a system that primarily benefits Wall Street and foreign investors. CBWC has also confirmed that TxDOT representatives have also met with Fort Bend County officials in regards to routing the TTC-69 through Fort Bend County towards Waller County.

The Prairie Parkway has been on Waller County’s thoroughfare plan since 1985, but Waller County officials have recently updated it because of the development of the Houston Executive airport, expansion plans for Interstate 10, Hwy 290, and the possibility of tying the southern portion of the Prairie Parkway into the Westpark Toll Road, which currently runs west out of Houston into Fort Bend County, and will eventually extend towards Fulshear. According to elected officials, it would also provide an additional hurricane evacuation route for coastal counties. Waller County Commissioners have recently conducted meetings to answer citizens’ questions about the Parkway and have assured them that the Prairie Parkway will not have anything to do with the Trans Texas Corridor. “TxDOT saw an opportunity with the proposed Prairie Parkway to piggyback the TTC on top of it. It’s now up to the citizens of Waller County to let TxDOT know what they think about that.” Garrett stated.

Garrett also added that he also expects that TxDOT may release their Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the TTC-69 route within the next few months. The DEIS will narrow the path of the TTC-69 from the current 10 mile wide study area to a 4 mile wide potential pathway. After the release of the DEIS, additional hearings will be conducted in various counties along the proposed pathway, and additional studies will be conducted before TxDOT selects a final route for the TTC-69. Garrett continued, “It is more important now than ever that people pay attention to what is going on around here. The TTC is alive and well, and TxDOT is hoping that folks are asleep at the wheel when they show up with bulldozers.”

© 2007 Citizens for a Better Waller County:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"We're going to get a big check for a lot of money, and we need to make plans for how we're going to spend it."

Entities awaiting share of 121 pie

550 proposals offered for projects using funds as NTTA deal nears

August 10, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The North Texas Tollway Authority remains several days away from signing an agreement with the state to build and operate the State Highway 121 toll road, but local governments already have submitted hundreds of proposals for how best to spend the billions of dollars NTTA has promised to pay.

More than 50 North Texas entities – including cities, counties and transit authorities – have submitted more than 550 proposals to regional transportation planners. All hope to get a share of the $3.33 billion advance payment NTTA will make as part of its 50-year deal to build the road and collect its tolls.

Those requests include money for 95 highway projects, 17 traffic signal improvements, and 41 hike-and-bike projects, as well as hundreds of other ideas.

Together they would cost nearly $9 billion – a reality that did not dampen enthusiasm among Regional Transportation Council members ready to begin spending the money. The RTC, composed mostly of local elected officials, sets transportation policy in North Texas.

"One way or another, we're going to get a big check for a lot of money, and we need to make plans for how we're going to spend it," said John Heiman, an RTC member and Mesquite City Council member.

At its meeting Thursday, the RTC also expressed relief that U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has won a promise from federal transportation officials that they won't punish Texas for selecting NTTA to build Highway 121 over Spanish firm Cintra.

As recently as Tuesday afternoon, the Federal Highway Administration had said it was considering demanding that the state repay more than $200 million in federal funds already spent on Highway 121 because the selection of NTTA had violated its bidding rules.

On Thursday, Ms. Hutchison told a crowd of local officials and others in Irving that U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters promised her that Texas "would not lose a dime" in federal funding over its decision to go with NTTA.

Meanwhile, NTTA and RTC officials have said a project agreement giving final go-ahead to the NTTA could be signed as soon as Monday. All of the major terms have been agreed to – including how much NTTA will pay for collecting the Highway 121 tolls for the next 50 years, both sides said.

About $700 million of the $3.33 billion in payments by the NTTA has already been designated for projects subject to existing agreements. In addition, the RTC will probably set aside $833 million for future use, leaving only about $1.74 billion that will be available to pay for the hundreds of projects submitted by cities and counties last week.

Of those funds, the majority – $945 million – will pay for Denton County projects, since it will have most of the Highway 121 toll road within its borders. Collin County is tentatively set to receive about $529 million for projects.

Dallas County's hope

Only a tiny portion of the toll road will run through Dallas County, but it still stands to receive about $202 million for roadwork and other projects. With $1.6 billion in requests, officials in Dallas County – like their counterparts in the other counties – were anything but shy in seeking their share of the money. Tarrant County expects about $62 million for projects.

"We've been working for four or more years to get to this point, and now we are here," said Michael Morris, the RTC director.

The NTTA money has made possible the largest call for projects in North Texas history, but Mr. Morris said its significance goes beyond that. The region is emerging, he said, as one of the nation's best examples of how creative financing – like aggressively priced toll roads – can provide local governments funding without relying solely on state or federal dollars.

Turnpike extension

In other business:

• The RTC announced that contracts could be let as soon as January for a 9.9-mile extension of the Bush Turnpike. The new segment would run from Interstate 30 to State Highway 78, and include a bridge over Lake Ray Hubbard. In return for about $320 million in local and state tax dollars used for the project, NTTA has agreed to return about 20 percent of the tolls it collects on the new portion of the road. Mr. Morris said that could bring as much as $500 million for use in future North Texas road projects.

• The RTC announced it is in discussions with the NTTA to make all toll rates on any new toll roads consistent with the rates scheduled to be set for Highway 121. Those rates will start in 2010 at about 14 cents a mile and be raised every two years by about 2.75 percent. NTTA vice chairman Jack Miller said those plans would affect only Highway 121 and toll projects not yet completed. There has been no discussion about whether to increase rates on the Dallas North Tollway or the Bush Turnpike, Mr. Miller said.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"The rush to toll roads ... is a stop-gap solution brought on by the federal and state officials' reluctance to raise the gas tax."

Hutchison: Stay off road to higher gas tax

Irving: Lawmakers debate ways to pay for transportation needs

August 10, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Democratic calls for raising the federal gas tax to pay for national bridge repairs are wrongheaded, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said Thursday at a transportation forum in Irving.

"We cannot adopt every bridge in America," said Ms. Hutchison, R-Texas. "We have to be very, very careful that the federal government not become the genesis [of the funding] for all of the nation's bridges and for all of its highways."

Transportation officials in Austin and Washington have warned that the gas tax revenues supporting the Federal Highway Trust Fund will have a $4 billion deficit by 2009 unless new sources of revenue are found.

"My solutions do not include raising the gas tax," Ms. Hutchison said.

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, also said Thursday it would be a mistake to raise the gas tax to fix the nation's bridges or to meet other transportation needs. He said the federal government instead should reprioritize how it spends current revenue.

"For instance, every bridge in the nation is inspected every two years," he said. "Maybe we should take a look at that, and focus more of our money on inspecting the most critical bridges, or those that are in the most critical need of attention."

But Democratic members of the Texas delegation said Thursday that the firm anti-tax positions of the president and the Republican minority in Congress were too rigid.

"Everyone wants to act like taxes is a bad word, but tax increases have been what we have used to fund everything [the federal government does]," said U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, who also was at the forum in Irving. "At some point, we're going to have to own up to the fact that we are going to have to fund our transportation infrastructure."

The need for money to address deteriorating roads and bridges is not going away in Texas, where population growth and more over-the-road shipping will require more spending on roads, bridges and ports.

Ms. Hutchison said the best solution for Texas would be for Congress to send all of the gas tax money Texans pay back to the state, either in money for federal projects or in grants to the state Transportation Department for other roads.

Currently, the state gets about 91 percent of its gas tax money back – a holdover from the days when states including Texas were required to pay far more than their share to help more sparsely populated states in the West build national highways.

"The federal highway system is built out; we've already done that," Ms. Hutchison said. "There is no longer any reason for Texas to be helping to build highways and bridges in Montana or Wyoming."

She said that as a result of too few dollars flowing back to Texas, governments here are "forced to build toll roads everywhere in the state" to compensate.

Ms. Hutchison said tolling should be pursued but with caution. She criticized Gov. Rick Perry's plan for an Interstate 35 corridor of the Trans-Texas Corridor as an example of government pushing too hard on toll roads, despite opposition from property owners.

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said the rush to toll roads throughout North Texas is a stop-gap solution brought on by the federal and state officials' reluctance to raise the gas tax.

"Nobody likes tolls," Judge Whitley said. "And eventually, there is going to be more pressure from citizens for other solutions. We've made it clear that we think Washington should raise the gas tax."

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"What was once scattered resistance is now a full-fledged rebellion."

The NAFTA Superhighway

The 'NAFTA Superhighway' is a total myth. But the private Trans-Texas Corridor is all too real, foretelling a future America in which globalism and crony capitalism eclipse government as the provider of public services.


The Nation
Copyright 2007

When completed, the highway will run from Mexico City to Toronto, slicing through the heartland like a dagger sunk into a heifer at the loins and pulled clean to the throat. It will be four football fields wide, an expansive gully of concrete, noise and exhaust, swelled with cars, trucks, trains and pipelines carrying water, wires and God knows what else. Through towns large and small it will run, plowing under family farms, subdevelopments, acres of wilderness. Equipped with high-tech electronic customs monitors, freight from China, offloaded into nonunionized Mexican ports, will travel north, crossing the border with nary a speed bump, bound for Kansas City, where the cheap goods manufactured in booming Far East factories will embark on the final leg of their journey into the nation's Wal-Marts.

And this NAFTA Superhighway, as it is called, is just the beginning, the first stage of a long, silent coup aimed at supplanting the sovereign United States with a multinational North American Union.

Even as this plot unfolds in slow motion, the mainstream media are silent; politicians are in denial. Yet word is getting out. Like samizdat, info about the highway has circulated in niche media platforms old and new, on right-wing websites like WorldNetDaily, in the pages of low-circulation magazines like the John Birch Society's The New American and increasingly on the letters to the editor page of local newspapers.

"Construction of the NAFTA highway from Laredo, Texas to Canada is now underway," read a letter in the February 13 San Gabriel Valley Tribune. "Spain will own most of the toll roads that connect to the superhighway. Mexico will own and operate the Kansas City Smart Port. And NAFTA tribunal, not the U.S. Supreme Court, will have the final word in trade disputes. Will the last person please take down the flag?" There are many more where that came from. "The superhighway has the potential to cripple the West Coast economy, as well as posing an enormous security breach at our border," read a letter from the January 7 San Francisco Chronicle. "So far, there has been no public participation or debate on this important issue. Public participation and debate must begin now."

In some senses it has. Prompted by angry phone calls and e-mail from their constituents, local legislators are beginning to take action. In February the Montana state legislature voted 95 to 5 for a resolution opposing "the North American Free Trade Agreement Superhighway System" as well as "any effort to implement a trinational political, government entity among the United States, Canada, and Mexico." Similar resolutions have been introduced in eighteen other states as well as the House of Representatives, where H. Con Res. 40 has attracted, as of this writing, twenty-seven co-sponsors. Republican presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire now routinely face hostile questions about the highway at candidate forums. Citing a spokesperson for the Romney campaign, the Concord Monitor reports that "the road comes up at town meetings second only to immigration policy."

Grassroots movement exposes elite conspiracy and forces politicians to respond: It would be a heartening story but for one small detail.

There's no such thing as a proposed NAFTA Superhighway.

Though opposition to the nonexistent highway is the cause célèbre of many a paranoiac, the myth upon which it rests was not fabricated out of whole cloth. Rather, it has been sewn together from scraps of fact.

Take, for instance, North America's SuperCorridor Organization (NASCO), a trinational coalition of businesses and state and local transportation agencies that, in its own words, focuses "on maximizing the efficiency of our existing transportation infrastructure to support international trade." Headquartered in borrowed office space in a Dallas law firm, the organization, which has a full-time staff of three, advocates for increased public expenditure along the main north-south Interstate routes, including new high-tech freight-tracking technology and expedited border crossings. It has had some success, landing federal money to pilot cargo management technologies and winning praise from the Bush Administration. Speaking at a NASCO conference in Texas in 2004, then-Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta congratulated the organization for its efforts. "The people in this room have vision," Mineta said. "Thinking ahead, thinking long term, you began to make aggressive plans to develop...this vital artery in our national transportation system through which so much of the NAFTA traffic flows. It flows across our nation's busiest southern border crossing in Laredo; over North America's busiest commercial crossing, the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit; and through Duluth and Pembina, North Dakota, and all the places in between."

A few years ago NASCO put on its home page a map of the United States that more or less traced the flow that Mineta describes: Drawn in bright blue, the trade route begins in Monterrey, Mexico, runs up I-35 and branches out after Kansas City, along I-29 toward Winnipeg and I-94 toward Detroit and Toronto. The colorful, cartoonlike image seemed to show right out in the open just where NASCO and its confederates planned to build the NAFTA Superhighway. It began zipping around the Internet.

The organization soon found itself besieged with angry phone calls and letters. "I think the rumor going around was that this map was a blueprint and it was drawn to scale," says NASCO executive director Tiffany Melvin. (Given the size of the route markings, that would have heralded highways fifty miles wide.) Ever since the map went live, NASCO has spent a considerable amount of time attempting to refute charges like those made by right-wing nationalist Jerome Corsi, whose recent book The Late Great USA devotes several pages to excoriating NASCO for being part of the vanguard of the highway and the coming North American Union. Until recently, NASCO's website contained the following FAQs:

Is NASCO a part of a secret conspiracy?

Absolutely not... We welcome the opportunity to share information about our organization....

Will the NAFTA Superhighway be four football fields wide?

There is no new, proposed NAFTA Superhighway....

Is the map on the website an approved plan for the proposed NAFTA Superhighway?

There is no proposed NAFTA Superhighway.... The map is not a plan or blueprint of any kind.... They are EXISTING highways.

The Trans Texas Corridor is the first section of the proposed, new NAFTA Superhighway....

There is no proposed, new NAFTA Superhighway.

But NASCO is just one part of what Corsi and his ilk view as a grand conspiracy. There's also a federal initiative called the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), which they portray as a Trojan horse packed with globalists scheming to form a European Union-style governing body to manage the entire continent. The reactions of those in SPP to this characterization seem to range from bemusement to alarm. "There is no NAFTA Superhighway," Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Market Access and Compliance David Bohigian told me emphatically over the phone. Initiated in 2005, the SPP is a relatively mundane formal bureaucratic dialogue, he says. Working groups, staffed by midlevel officials from all three countries, figure out how to better synchronize customs enforcement, security protocols and regulatory frameworks among the countries. "Simple stuff like, for instance, in the US we sell baby food in several different sizes; in Canada, it's just two different sizes."

Another star in the constellation of North American Union conspiracies is the Mexican deep-water port of Lázaro Cárdenas. Located on the Pacific coast of the state of Michoacan, the port is undergoing a bonanza of investment and upgrades. According to a 2005 article in Latin Trade, the port is adding a terminal that could provide enough capacity to process nearly all of the cargo that comes into Mexico, making it "the logical trade route connecting the United States and Asia," in the words of the Mexican officials overseeing its overhaul. Since it's the only Mexican port deep enough to handle Super Panamax container ships from China--the most efficient means of shipping products across the Pacific--it's an attractive alternative to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which are unionized and increasingly congested. (More than 80 percent of Asian imports come in through these two ports.)

Of course, if cargo switches from Los Angeles to Lázaro Cárdenas, more and more manufactured goods will have to travel through Mexico to reach their US destination, and there will be a significant uptick in the northbound overland traffic. The Kansas City Southern Railroad company is already betting on that eventuality, spending millions of dollars to purchase the rail routes that run from the port up to Kansas City. At the same time, a business improvement group called Kansas City SmartPort, whose members include the local chamber of commerce, is pushing for Kansas City, which is already a transportation hub, to transform itself fully into a "smart port," a kind of intermodal transportation and cargo center. The group recently advocated a pilot program that would place a Mexican customs official in Kansas City to inspect Mexico-bound freight, relieving bottlenecks at the border. The notion of a Mexican customs official on American soil fired the imaginations of those already disposed to see a North American Union on the horizon, and SmartPort staff have been fending off angry inquiries ever since.

In his essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," Richard Hofstadter famously sketched the contours of the American tradition of folk conspiracy--a tradition that has, at different times, seen its enemy in Masons, Jesuits, immigrants, Jews and Eastern bankers. There's certainly a strong continuity between that tradition and the populist/nationalist ire that drives the NAFTA highway myth. Hofstadter's original essay was motivated in part by the activities of the John Birch Society, which today is one of the leading purveyors of the highway myth.

But there's something more. The myth of the NAFTA Superhighway persists and grows because it taps into deeply felt anxieties about the dizzying dislocations of twenty-first-century global capitalism: a nativist suspicion of Mexico's designs on US sovereignty, a longing for national identity, the fear of terrorism and porous borders, a growing distrust of the privatizing agenda of a government happy to sell off the people's assets to the highest bidder and a contempt for the postnational agenda of Davos-style neoliberalism. Indeed, the image of the highway, with its Chinese goods whizzing across the border borne by Mexican truckers on a privatized, foreign-operated road, is almost mundane in its plausibility. If there was a NAFTA highway, you could bet that Tom Friedman would be for it--what could be more flattening than miles of concrete paved across the continent?--and Lou Dobbs would be zealously opposed. In fact, Dobbs has devoted a segment of his show to the highway, its nonexistence notwithstanding. "These three countries moving ahead their governments without authorization from the American people, without Congressional approval," he said. "This is as straightforward an attack on national sovereignty as there could be outside of war."

Though the story of the highway has been seeded and watered in the fertile soil of the nationalist right wing--promoted by Birchers and Corsi, co-author of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's book about John Kerry--it also stretches across ideological and partisan lines. Like immigration and the Dubai ports deal, it divides the Republican coalition against itself, pitting the capitalists against the nationalists. And more than a few on the center-left have voiced criticisms as well: Teamsters president James Hoffa wrote in a column last year that "Bush is quietly moving forward with plans...for what's known as a NAFTA superhighway--a combination of existing and new roads that would create a north-south corridor from Mexico to Canada.... It would allow global conglomerates to capitalize by exploiting cheap labor and nonexistent work rules and avoiding potential security enhancements at U.S. ports." Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Boyda, from eastern Kansas, invoked its specter early and often in her improbably successful 2006 campaign against Republican incumbent Jim Ryun. A campaign circular inserted in local newspapers warned that "if built, this 'Super Corridor' would be a quarter-mile wide and longer than the Great Wall of China." Boyda told me that her attacks on the highway "hit a real nerve because enough people had the same concerns."

What might at first have been a niche obsession has bled, slowly but surely, toward the mainstream. "The biggest problem of these conspiracy theorists," says Robert Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University and a leading proponent of increased North American integration, "is that they are having an effect on the entire debate."

Add up all the above ingredients--NASCO, SPP, Lázaro Cárdenas, the Kansas City SmartPort, the planned pilot program allowing Mexican truckers to drive on US roads--and you still don't have a superhighway four football fields wide connecting the entire continent. Which is why understanding the persistence of the NAFTA highway legend requires spending some time in Texas, where Governor Rick Perry and his longtime consigliere, Texas Department of Transportation commissioner Ric Williamson, are proposing the $185 billion Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC), 4,000 miles of highway, rail and freight corridors, the first of which would run up from the border through the heavily populated eastern part of the state. Plans for the TTC call for it to be up to four football fields wide at points, paving over as much as half a million acres of Texas countryside. The first section will be built and operated by a foreign enterprise, and when completed it would likely be the largest privatized toll road in the country.

And unlike the NAFTA highway, the Trans-Texas Corridor is very, very real.

In 2003, amid a dramatic drawn-out battle over a legally questionable GOP redistricting plan, the Texas state legislature passed House Bill 3588. At 311 pages, it's unlikely that many of those who voted for the bill had actually read it (and many have come to regret their vote), but it received not a single opposing vote.

The bill granted the Texas Transportation Commission wide latitude to pursue a long-term plan to build a series of corridors throughout the state that would carry passenger and commercial traffic and contain extra right-of-way for rail, pipelines and electric wires.

What first triggered opposition was that under the plan, the new TTC roads would have tolls, something relatively novel in Texas. The state's Department of Transportation--known as TxDot--pointed out that the state's gasoline tax, which pays for road construction and maintenance, hadn't been raised since 1991, while population and commercial traffic were growing at a dizzying pace. Tolls, the governor and his allies argued, were the only solution. (Many TTC opponents propose raising the gasoline tax and indexing it to inflation.)

But opposition quickly spread, from those in metro areas concerned about the cost of their daily commute to ranchers angry that their land might fall under the TTC hatchet. According to Chris Steinbach, chief of staff for rural Brenham's Republican State Representative Lois Kolkhorst, when people in the district heard about the plan they responded by asking, "'Why would you want to do that?' It was a real front porch, rocking chair kind of question."

Meanwhile David and Linda Stall, a Republican couple from Fayetteville, Texas, began actively organizing opposition to the proposal. As early as 2004, they started bringing friends out to local TxDOT hearings and launched the website Corridor Watch. By the time the 2006 gubernatorial election rolled around, a wild four-way race with incumbent Rick Perry pitted against three challengers, the TTC had become one of the most controversial issues of the campaign. Perry was re-elected with 39 percent of the vote, but with all three of his opponents campaigning passionately against the TTC, it was hardly a popular endorsement of the plan.

What was once scattered resistance is now a full-fledged rebellion. The Stalls have pushed through a plank in the state's GOP platform opposing the corridor, which means the governor is now at odds with the official position of his own party. In March thousands of Texans from across the state attended an anti-TTC rally on the Capitol steps, and liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans came together to co-sponsor a moratorium on the plan. It passed the House and Senate, only to be vetoed by Governor Perry. (A considerably weaker version was ultimately signed into law.)

Perry's continued support of the TTC in the face of mounting opposition is more than just a political liability; it's begun to resemble Bush's Iraq policy in its obstinate indifference to public opinion. This, along with the fact that the federal government sent a letter to the state warning it not to pass a moratorium on the project, has fueled conspiracy speculations about what the real goal of the TTC is.

Kelly Taylor, a John Birch Society member and Austin-based freelance contributor to its magazine, has been working hard to connect the dots between the TTC and the NAFTA Superhighway. "It first surfaced because it was a local toll issue," she told me over coffee. "That, in and of itself, was alarming enough--all the corrupt politics that happened to make it come about. Then we thought, Wait a minute, something's not right here, this is bigger than just a local toll issue."

Taylor may represent a certain fringe of the anti-TTC efforts (her name prompted some eye-rolling among other activists), but there's a whole lot of cross-pollination between local concerns about the TTC and the growing North American Union mythology. When I asked David McQuade Leibowitz, a Democratic State Representative from San Antonio, why the governor was so determined to build the TTC, he put his boots up on his desk, leaned back in his chair and said, "I think Texas is the first link in the highway to run from South America to Canada. One nation under God. We see bits and pieces of it. We don't see it all. It makes us cringe and sick to our stomachs."

Texas Transportation commissioner Ric Williamson is one of those Texas personalities who seem almost self-consciously to will themselves toward caricature. One Democratic staffer in the Capitol casually referred to him as Darth Vader; Texas Monthly recently called him "the most hated person in Texas." Owner of a natural gas production company before becoming a state legislator in 1985, he has lately been reincarnated as a transit policy wonk, a role he plays as a cross between mid-twentieth-century road builder Robert Moses and J.R. Ewing from Dallas: the planner as good old boy. He does not suffer from a lack of confidence. "We're the greatest state agency you'll ever interview," he told me at one point. With his good friend Governor Perry hemorrhaging political capital, it's fallen to Williamson to advocate for the corridor and draw fire from its opponents.

At first the press contact for TxDOT told me Williamson wouldn't be available, but after I informed her I'd lined up dozens of interviews with TTC opponents, she called me back a week before my trip to Texas for this article to set up an interview. When I was ushered into Williamson's office, he was in the midst of a discussion with one of the four staffers who flanked him. At my appearance in the doorway, he made no move to acknowledge my presence other than slightly pulling out the chair next to him, where, apparently, I was to sit.

Williamson's case is straightforward: The state needs a whole lot of new roads it can't pay for. The sheer population growth in Texas, particularly in the urbanized area in the eastern part of the state that contains San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Austin, combined with the projected increase in commercial traffic, has precipitated what Williamson says is an impending crisis. The TTC would provide the necessary increase in capacity at the low, low price the state can afford. "Our view is, you can run from the corridor if you want to," he told me, smiling, "but that's eventually what we'll build. Because that's where the fricking people live!" At that he shot up to walk over to a map of the state hanging on one wall, patting my shoulder with paternal authority as he passed. "It's so logical to me it drives me nuts."

He's right about the challenges the state faces, but it's a long jump from the diagnosis to the cure. Opponents of the plan point out that, as conceived, the corridor will run parallel to the existing Interstate, possibly far from the same cities where it's supposed to relieve congestion. (TxDot says state law will require the roads to connect to Interstates, which connect to cities.) On top of that, the current plan employs a novel privatized financing mechanism that has many crying foul.

Under a comprehensive development agreement (CDA) signed in March 2005, the Spanish concern Cintra (in partnership with Texas-based Zachry Corp.) will pay the state for the right to develop the roads along the corridor, where it will be able to collect tolls and establish facilities within the right-of-way for fifty years. This kind of road-building deal is commonplace in other parts of the world, often in places where government lacks the ready capital necessary to develop large infrastructure projects. It's called a BOT, for build, operate, transfer. Until recently it was unheard of in the United States.

The arrangement has been heavily criticized for a number of reasons. The CDA includes a noncompete clause that could conceivably prevent the state from building necessary roads in the future because they would "compete" with a stretch of the privatized TTC. It's also expensive. A recent state auditor's report estimated the cost for just the first section of the corridor at $105 billion.

TxDOT portrays the deal as a clever way of getting the private sector to pay for public roads, but eventually the total cost of the project, plus a layer of profit for Cintra-Zachry, will be coming out of the pockets of Texas drivers. Finally, the timeline for development of the project, which will be constructed piecemeal, is based on which sections of the corridor Cintra has identified as "self-performing," according to Williamson--in other words, those sections that contain a high enough volume of toll-paying passengers that they will turn a profit.

Williamson argues that the state simply has no choice. Or, as he put it to one reporter, "If you aggressively invite the private sector to be your partner, you can't tell them where to build the road." But this seems, to put it mildly, pretty ass-backward. The point of transportation planning is to provide the infrastructure for people to move efficiently, safely and quickly from point A to point B, not to maximize the profits of some conglomerate that managed to win a state contract. You wouldn't want to place, say, fire stations across a city using the same logic that guides the placement of Starbucks. But that's more or less the way the TTC is unfolding.

"I always think of the corridor as a payday loan," said Kolkhorst's chief of staff Chris Steinbach. "You're going to get a little money up front, but you're losing the long-term gain you're charged by the people to oversee." As he said this I noticed his computer's screensaver, which featured an image of the Texas Capitol dome with a bright red banner Photoshopped in that read Everything Must Go!

In my conversations with people in Texas, it seemed that the privatized nature of the road was what got folks the angriest. Bad enough that drivers would face tolls, that ranchers would have their land cut out from under them, but all for the financial gain of a foreign company? "If you liked the Dubai ports deal, you'll love my TTC land grab," taunts an animated Rick Perry on one anti-TTC website. The cartoon goes on to portray Cintra as conquistadors clad in armor riding in to steal Texans' treasure.

"What really drives this is economic," activist Terri Hall told me. "It's about the money. We're talking about obscene levels of profit, someone literally being like the robber barons of old. And this is one thing that government actually does well, build and maintain roads."

Hall is an unlikely defender of the public sphere. A conservative Republican and an evangelical Christian who home-schools her six children, she first got interested in road policy when TxDot announced plans to toll the road near her house, which runs into San Antonio. Outraged, she brought it up with her local State Rep, and when that didn't work, she began organizing. She founded the San Antonio Toll Party (like the Boston Tea Party, she notes) by pamphleting at intersections and calling friends. "It's really like the old days, during the American Revolution...just fellow citizens trying together to effect change."

Hall soon became part of the broader anti-TTC effort, and though she originally thought she was just fighting a corrupt local government, she's come to view her battle in a much broader context. "There are big-time control issues," she said. "Someone is really jockeying around to control some things here in America. It explains the open borders, it explains our immigration issues, it explains our free-trade issues, what it's doing to the middle class.

"It really all started with NAFTA," she continued. "There've been people like Robert Pastor and the Council on Foreign Relations. All these secretive groups." She laughed nervously and apologetically. "It sounds like a conspiracy. But I do know there are people who have tried for a long time to go to this global governance. They see there's a way to make it all happen by going to the heads of state and doing it in a secretive way so they can do it without a nasty little thing called accountability. So they won't have to listen to what We the People want."

Hall had arranged to meet me in the San Antonio exurbs, in a home design center that doubled as a cafe. Outside, a thunderstorm lashed the windows with rain. As she spoke, her newborn son propped next to her swaddled and napping, it occurred to me that she was living the twenty-first-century version of the American dream. She and her husband had moved to Texas from California in pursuit of cheap housing, open space and a place to raise their family. Their web-design business was successful; their children healthy. Why, I found myself thinking, was she so upset about a road?

Ric Williamson must often ask himself the same thing. Just as the White House was blindsided by the opposition to the Dubai ports deal, just as NASCO was shocked to find that a simple schematic map attracted angry phone calls, just as the Commerce Department was shocked to find a simple bureaucratic dialogue the subject of outrage, so too have Perry and Williamson seemed ambushed by the zealous opposition of people like Hall.

But what people like Williamson don't seem to understand is how disempowered people feel in the face of a neoliberal order whose direction they cannot influence. For corporatists within both parties (Williamson, it should be noted, was a Democrat while in the Statehouse), selling port security or road concessions to a multinational is inevitable, logical, obvious. To thousands of average citizens in Texas and elsewhere, it's madness or, worse, treason. Both the actual TTC and the mythical NAFTA Superhighway represent a certain kind of future for America, one in which the crony capitalism of oil-rich Texas expands to fill every last crevice of the public sector's role, eclipsing the relevance of the national government as both the provider of public goods and the unified embodiment of a sovereign people.

For Williamson, this is progress; for Hall, it's an outrage and a tragedy. "We have so little control over our own government," she told me, the alienation audible in her voice, thunder punishing the air outside. "We are really the last beacon of freedom in the world--the land of the free and home of the brave--and we're letting it slip away from under our noses."

© 2007 The Nation:

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Goodwill Stumping

While Bandera County slept, TxDOT crept

Iconic pecan trees felled during dark of night

Aug. 9, 2007

by Judith Pannebaker & David Arny
Bandera County Courier
Copyright 2007

According to a source speaking on the condition of anonymity, Texas Department of Transportation personnel, assisted by private contractors, including armed security guards, removed two increasingly controversial pecan trees during the night of Wednesday, August 1. Under the cloak of darkness, TxDOT personnel apparently asked law enforcement officers to divert motorists along Highway 16 North from FM 470 and FM 2828. Travel was restricted on these thoroughfares between 10 pm and 4 am.

The unnamed source overheard a TxDOT official explain the traffic diversions were necessary to ensure “less chance of trouble.”

However, in an email to the Courier, Laura Lopez, TxDOT public information officer, put a different spin on the closures, writing, “In due consideration of safety for the public and our workers, the roadway was closed last night at midnight … and reopened at 3 am. We apologize for any inconvenience to travelers during this period.”

It should be noted TxDOT routinely closes heavily traveled roads in the San Antonio metropolitan area during repairs and construction projects to forestall public safety hazards.

The unnamed source described the workforce scurrying around the pecan grove as “a small army of chainsaw-wielding workers and clipboard-carrying technocrats.” Equipment at the site was said to include an excavator, a steel container with a 40 cubic-yard capacity and a “Barko.”

The Barko (Hydraulic Forestry Loader), which has the capacity to bristle with grapples, shears and tree-delimbers, was purportedly used to extract the roots of the two downed trees.
According to the website, the company’s mantra is “Leave no stump behind.” “Also included on the website is the phrase “… (makes) the trees cringe with our line of dependable, profitable and productive feller buncher models.”

In addition, it was also alleged the crew who felled the trees had been called away from a project in Seguin, a 170-mile roundtrip, to work their graveyard shift in Bandera. The crew was purportedly originally out of Yoakum.

In her email, Lopez characterized TxDOT’s approach to the trees’ removal as “innovative and carefully designed,” adding, “Engineers were able to minimize the tree removal.” After indicating original plans had called for removal of five or more trees, she asserted, “TxDOT engineers worked to preserve the integrity of the pecan tree grove and yet provide needed measures of safety to the public.” TxDOT personnel plan to plant 10 pecan trees to mitigate the loss of the pair of trees.

One of the trees, Lopez wrote, was suffering from fatal fungal rot and the other was directly adjacent to “high speed” travel lanes. The posted speed limit on that section of the two-lane scenic highway that meanders by the Medina River is 65 mph.

However, Medina resident Karen Schenck, who attended many court hearings challenging TxDOT decisions, disparaged the necessity of driving quickly through the historic grove. “The area is a natural passage for wildlife,” she said. “It makes absolutely no sense to allow traffic to go through that area at a high rate of speed.”

Schenck added, “It breaks my heart that they would cut those old-grove trees. They can never be replaced.”

The native pecan grove, which forms a canopy over Highway 16, has been the subject of protracted litigation between TxDOT and Bandera County citizens.

In a recent decision, US District Judge Royal Ferguson of the United States Western District Court of Texas determined that TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration “should not be enjoined from completing a Highway 16 road-widening project,” ruling the trees’ removal did not outweigh the “significant expense incurred by the state” from further delaying the project. In addition, he ruled the public has an interest in completion of the safety project.
Ferguson also determined it was “highly unlikely” that area landowners would prevail in a lawsuit filed under the National Environmental Policy Act, which claimed removal of two pecan trees would cause irreparable environmental harm.

After learning about Ferguson’s decision, John Payne, attorney for plaintiff Medina resident Jacquelynn R. Kyle, indicated he planned to file an appeal with the US Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans.

“The plaintiffs in this case do not believe the ruling by the federal district court is correct,” Payne wrote in an email. “They believe the people of this county have a right to be heard, and that the value of the native pecan grove outweighs any value TxDOT has to offer.”

After learning about the late night fate of the two iconic trees, Payne added, “It is certainly a shame that our government and governmental agencies can see fit to do their work in secret and in the dead of the night, with armed guards. Most of the people who operate that way are doing something dishonest that they don’t want the rest of the world to see.

“That does not sound much like the ‘America’ I think we all hold dear. When our government and governmental agencies cease to be accountable to the people, that’s the start of something other than democracy and the American way of life for which such a high price has been paid over the years.”

Payne decried the fact an state agency such as TxDOT could “come through our homes and do whatever they please, as well as being answerable to no one but themselves. He then reiterated, “My clients plan to continue their efforts to be heard in the federal district court in San Antonio, as well as in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.”

When asked for a comment on the events during the night of August 1, Todd Sandidge, local TxDOT employee, offered no explanation, saying instead, “All questions are to be answered by the TxDOT public information officer in San Antonio or Mike Coward, Kerrville area engineer.” The Courier’s calls to Coward were not returned.

In a prepared statement, however, Coward offered, “We are ready to complete the project. The delay from the legal challenges has impacted the contractor and resulted in an increased project cost that we will need to negotiate, but we are hoping to be finished by Christmas.”
After learning about TxDOT’s late night operation, Wesley Zirkel, salesman at Medina’s Ace Hardware Store, commented, “I knew they were going to pull a Paul Bunyon on us.”

© 2007 Bandera County Courier:

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"The settlement came 3 days after PBS&J chairman and chief executive H. Michael Dye pleaded guilty to charges of violating federal campaign laws."

Fort Bend County, PBS&J Engineers Reach Settlement For Contract Overcharges


by Bob Dunn,
Copyright 2007

It’s taken 10 months, but Fort Bend County finally is getting money back from an engineering consultant that has admitted to overcharging by millions of dollars on construction projects across Texas.

Fort Bend County Commissioners Court members approved without comment on Tuesday a $34,424 settlement agreement with Miami-based PBS&J Inc. as compensation for overcharges the agreement says came “as a result of incorrect reporting of PBS&J’s overhead rate.”

The settlement came just three days after former PBS&J chairman and chief executive H. Michael Dye pleaded guilty in a U.S. district court in Florida to charges of violating federal campaign laws.

One of the nation’s largest consulting engineering firms, PBS&J has been embroiled in financial and political scandals since 2005, when the company said it had uncovered a $36 million embezzlement scheme hatched by former chief financial officer Scott DeLoach and two subordinates. The three pleaded guilty to related charges and were sentenced to federal prison in July.

After the discovery, PBS&J repaid 12 to 15 state transportation departments for inflated “overhead” contract charges, which reportedly were a part of the embezzlement scheme.

One of those state departments was the Texas Department of Transportation, which suspended PBS&J from bidding for Texas contracts in May of 2006. PBS&J, which did $43 million in business in Texas in 2005, agreed to a settlement by which it paid TxDOT $5.3 million. In return, TxDOT dropped all claims against it and, in July, allowed the company to begin competing for contracts again.

Other government entities in Texas set about last year to collect on similar overhead charges. For instance, Hays County commissioners approved a $32,000 settlement with PBS&J in October 2006, according to news reports.

In the Fort Bend County settlement agreement approved Tuesday, the county agreed to release PBS&J from any further claims, and agreed that neither PBS&J nor the county “admits liability to any other party.” The agreement was signed by PBS&J Vice Presicent Keith Jackson and dated July 25.

Fort Bend County Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Meyers said Thursday the “overhead rate” overcharge to the county “was a direct result of the embezzlement scheme to defraud PBS&J and not an action by the company to overcharge its clients. He said PBS&J has now repaid the overcharges.

In Florida, an investigation of DeLoach’s embezzlement scheme by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office branched into a second probe involving PBS&J political campaign contributions. A federal grand jury began investigating whether the company reimbursed its employees for tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Using employees – or any other individuals – as “straw man” contributors is against the law.

As the political investigation unfolded, a check of Texas Ethics Commission reports from PBS&J showed the company gave money to political campaigns of Fort Bend County Commissioners Court members 11 times since 2003.

A check by FortBendNow in September 2006 found that six of those contributions – which PBS&J reported that it made to County Judge Bob Hebert and county commissioners Tom Stavinoha, Grady Prestage and Meyers – didn’t show up on the local officials’ campaign contribution reports during the same period in which PBS&J said it made them.

A few days later, Stavinoha, and Hebert’s wife, Pat, who keeps his campaign books, said their campaign records reflected that PBS&J made contribution commitments – but didn’t follow through with the money.

But the next week, after visiting with a PBS&J official, Stavinoha said he discovered he had received a political contribution from PBS&J after all. While the Florida company said in state filings that it made the contribution in March 2006, Stavinoha said he didn’t receive it until July 2006. The check, he said, was dated March 6, 2006.

Meyers said he was told by a PBS&J official that the company had written the contribution checks in March, but delayed mailing them until June “to ensure the contributions complied with state and federal laws.” He said his check arrived in July 2006, and thus was reported on his January 15, 2007, campaign finance report.

© 2007 FortBendNow Inc. :

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“It is a core attitude of arrogance that I believe still exists, and I guess I should expect it to exist because none of the characters have changed.”

State senator accuses TxDOT of ignoring lawmakers

August 9, 2007

By David Tanner
Land Line Magazine
Copyright 2007 OOIDA

A Texas state senator is accusing the Texas Department of Transportation of doing its own thing despite the wishes of state lawmakers.

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, made no bones about the relationship between lawmakers and the state DOT on Wednesday, Aug. 7, during a panel discussion before the Texas Senate’s Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, which was part of the 10th annual Texas Transportation Summit in Irving, TX.

“In order to maintain a good relationship with TxDOT, which is what I think every one of us wants, what does it take to get TxDOT and the commissioners to listen to the wishes of the legislature?” Carona asked to panelists Fred Underwood of the Texas Transportation Commission and Amadeo Saentz, assistant executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Carona accused TxDOT of doing its own thing by testing speed cameras despite opposition to such cameras from lawmakers.

“This is the treatment that we get, and yet you all like to feign disbelief that you have such a poor relationship with the legislature, and I’m still waiting on the courtesy of a reply,” Carona said.

Saentz fielded the question about the cameras.

“What we were trying to do with this research study was to find out how effective speed cameras were,” he said. “When we use speed cameras in construction projects, we don’t send letters (fines) to anybody.”

Saentz said TxDOT intends to approach the legislature next session with a camera proposal.

“We wanted to see if we could see a change in behavior,” he said.

Carona said he wanted more dialogue and communication from transportation officials. In opening remarks during the 50-minute panel discussion, Carona said he was denied information from TxDOT about the condition of the state’s bridges.

“The answer was, ‘we can’t give you that information, it’s confidential,’ ” Carona said.

“If the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee can’t get that – or its members – who does get it?”

Saentz said certain bridge information in the database is protected for security reasons.

“If you put out this bridge and the thing that makes it weak, someone knows where to go to do something to the structure,” Saentz said, adding that the information should be available to lawmakers but not the public.

Carona wanted to know locations of bridges in need of repair or replacement.

According to the U.S. DOT Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2,219 of the 49,518 bridges in Texas are structurally deficient – about 4 percent. Nationwide, 12 percent of bridges are rated structurally deficient by the DOT bureau.

The topic turned to toll roads and Senate Bill 792, signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry to establish a two-year moratorium on private investors building or operating toll roads.

Underwood provided the committee with a list of ongoing TxDOT projects that he said were exempt from the moratorium. Some of those didn’t sit well with Carona.

“What I heard was, ‘we’ve found another way to get around this because you all put roadblocks in front of us with (Senate Bill) 792,’ ” Carona said.

Carona said TxDOT seemed to be doing its own thing despite the moratorium.

“It is a core attitude of arrogance that I believe still exists, and I guess I should expect it to exist because none of the characters have changed,” Carona said.

“We have some ‘new’ characters,” he added, drawing uneasy laughter.

Underwood replied good-naturedly, saying, “I think that’s the nicest thing I’ve been called in the last month.”

Carona’s reply was curt, drawing more laughter.

“I’m not talking about you, because you’re new ... but you will be corrupted in time.”

Carona returned to a serious tone.

“All we’re asking for is the courtesy of an explanation,” he said. “Meeting us halfway is the respect to at least send a letter and explain yourselves. I certainly don’t have the power to sit here and mandate that you do it. I certainly have the ability to turn up the heat if you don’t. So I would just urge you to take that message back to your commissioners. We want to be partners with you, but partners have to be able to communicate with one another.”

The senator did thank the panelists for fielding his questions and comments, saying at one point to Saentz, “Every once in a while, we put you in the hot seat, but we love ya.”

Hoping to end with a mutual understanding, Saentz reiterated a previous point about a funding shortfall for transportation projects.

“We’re going to have to make some adjustments. Something’s going to have to be done at the federal level, otherwise we’re going to have more projects than money to build them in the years to come,” Saentz said.

Carona took one last opportunity to make a point.

“In a perfect world, we’d simply do away with the federal portion, we’d contribute not a nickel and we would tax ourselves at the state level and get our projects done,” Carona said. “But, I assume we don’t have that option.”

© 2007 OOIDA:

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"It doesn't take a math major to figure out what's going on."

El Pasoans facing toll roads


By Brandi Grissom / Austin Bureau
The El Paso Times
Copyright 2007

IRVING -- El Paso's Metropolitan Planning Organization has identified a Northeast bypass as the city's toll project, but Mayor John Cook said he has doubts about whether El Pasoans can and will pay to drive.

If the city doesn't build a toll route, it could lose that $134 million to other Texas cities, Cook said.

As legislators and transportation officials continue their bickering, though, there is uncertainty about whether those rules of the road could soon change. Legislators already made a number of changes this year aimed at ratcheting back the department's power.

They limited the Transportation Department's ability to sign billion-dollar, multi-decade road building contracts with private companies and to construct toll roads statewide.

But Houghton said they did "essentially nothing" to address funding the state's growing transportation needs.

The Department of Transportation, Houghton said, got a 2-percent overall funding increase, even though the cost of building roads grows about 20 percent per year.

Lawmakers rejected a proposal to increase the gas tax that provides revenue for Texas roads, diverted $250 million in road funds to other projects, and they nearly created a gas tax holiday that would have cost the department $700 million.

"It doesn't take a math major to figure out what's going on," Houghton said.

Legislators, he said, understand the need for new roads, but lack the political will to fund them.

Houghton said lawmakers and local officials must be creative, looking to the gas tax, rail, tolls and public-private contracts to fund new roads.

State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, and other legislators have said transportation officials have arrogantly ignored legislators' will and are pursuing plans to toll Texas roads and allow private companies to build them.

"The legislature has completely lost faith in the current leadership of TxDOT," Pickett said.

Pickett said he agreed the gas tax needs to grow and that Texas needs to provide more money for transportation, but he disputed Houghton's claim legislators did nothing to improve the situation.

"They need to look to themselves first," he said of the Transportation Department.

Instead of spending millions on projects like putting up speed monitoring cameras near El Paso and Bryan-College Station, Pickett said the department could use those funds on roads.

Legislators, he said, provided new revenue-generating tools, including a measure he helped develop that allows cities and counties to use local property taxes for road projects.

Pickett said Houghton was treading on "dangerous ground" blaming lawmakers for transportation woes.

"Believe me, they will not forget" when they review the agency in 2009, he said.

Despite the uncertainty ahead, Cook said, he and other local officials must continue working to secure funding for new roads to prevent congestion as the city grows.

"We're going to plan our infrastructure and our mobility issues," he said, "and then just fight hard to get our financing."

Brandi Grissom can be reached at; (512) 479-6606.

© 2007 The El Paso Times:

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Hunt: "They're going to say whatever they need to say to make it clear that without the toll road, the world will end."

Tell the Truthiness

August 9, 2007

By Patrick Williams
The Dallas Observer
Copyright 2007

Tell the truthiness: Is a high-speed toll road along the Trinity River a good idea? Would it help relieve traffic congestion downtown? Is the road the best use of resources?

Those are good questions to which Buzz has no answers, but we do know one thing: Some of the favorite arguments made by pro-road folk are awfully dumb. Some of the others are vaguely dishonest or, as Steven Colbert would say, "truthy."

Let's dispense with the dumber ones: First, there's the "Mom, I'm bored" argument favored by Dallas Morning News bloviators, as in, "We approved it nearly 10 years ago. C'mon, let's just build it already." There's only one reasonable response to that stinker, one perfected by Buzz's mother: a sharp left hook to the temple. But then there's also the "You knew what you were getting when you voted for the Trinity project 10 years ago, so there" argument. That one's easily handled with one of two responses: "No, we didn't" and "So what?"

But if the dumb arguments won't work, the pro-road folks can—and will—fall back on truthiness to win come November toll-road vote. For example, some pro-roadies are already suggesting that voting against the toll road this November would be a major setback to the artsy Santiago Calatrava-designed replacement bridge at Woodall Rodgers. Others suggest that without the toll road to relieve traffic, the snarled downtown mixmaster at Interstate 35/I-30 can never, ever be fixed. "It's all part of a puzzle," they say.

Buzz put a call in Monday to the Texas Department of Transportation to see how much truth there was in those arguments. Coincidentally, city council member Angela Hunt, leader of the no-toll-road folk, was asking some of the same questions. TxDOT shared her answers with Buzz.

Hunt asked what taking the toll road out of the levees would do to the bridge. The short answer: Nothing, a TxDOT engineer replied. She also asked what effect potentially putting the traffic "reliever" road down Industrial Boulevard, instead of along the river, would have on Project Pegasus, TxDOT's plan to fix the nearby mixmaster. Some designs would likely have to be altered, but those Aggie highway engineers are pretty smart, and construction on Project Pegasus is a ways off yet, so that might not be that bad.

Says Hunt of the pro-road guys: "They're going to say whatever they need to say to make it clear that without the toll road, the world will end."

Here's hoping that at least some of what they say is true, not truthy.

(To see TxDOT's full e-mail response to Hunt's questions, check out the Dallas Observer's blog here.)

© 2007 The Dallas Observer

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Cintra's firm 'Gateway Mobility Partners' bids on toll bridge in Canada

Bridge builders’ race


By Jeff Nagel
The Surrey Leader (Canada)
Copyright 2007

Three groups of bidders have been shortlisted to expand the Port Mann Bridge and Highway 1 corridor, maintain the route and toll the twinned bridge when it opens in 2013.

International firms based in Europe and Australia with experience building infrastructure projects across the globe lead the groups the province has selected.

The three Victoria will now deal with, chosen from an earlier six, are:

- Connect BC Development Group, based in B.C. It includes Australian firm Macquarie Group, which runs 30 toll roads worldwide and is also working on the Sea-to-Sky Highway expansion.

Also part of the bid is Transtoll Inc., which operates road toll systems on five continents.

- Gateway Mobility Partners, based in Austin, Texas. It’s made up of Spanish firm Cintra, which runs 23 toll highways, including Toronto’s Highway 407 (where it is a partner with Macquarie). Cintra’s partner is Skanska Infrastructure Development, of Sweden.

- Highway #1 Transportation Group, based in B.C. It includes German contractor Bilfinger Berger Group and toll road investor and operator Transurban Group.

The three are to file bids by spring, and the contract for the estimated $1.7-billion project to build the second span and widen 37 kilometres of Highway 1 is to be awarded by fall 2008.

The winner will finance the whole project and collect tolls for 35 years to recoup their construction and maintenance costs.

The assembled partners should give the transportation ministry a good set of choices, according to one industry observer.

“You’ve got all the major players there,” said Neil Gray, of the International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association. “It’s a very good mix.”

Absent from the preferred list was SNC Lavalin, a Canadian firm expected to bid. SNC is a partner in building the Canada Line.

© 2007 Surrey Leader

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