Saturday, September 08, 2007

“TxDOT has breached the public trust and it cannot be repaired short of cleaning house at that agency."

# 12th in a series

TxDOT under fire

Related Link: Texas 391 Commission Alliance

September 8, 2007

Managing Editor
Waxahachie Daily Light
Copyright 2007

Transportation was a hot subject during the recent legislative session - and it continues to be so in the interim.

This week, several Texas lawmakers, Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson and state Reps. Joe Farias, David Leibowitz, Nathan Macias and others held a press conference in San Antonio in protest against current transportation policy and the Texas Department of Transportation.

Key among their concerns are recent reports the state agency has launched a public relations plan to promote the Trans-Texas Corridor and to lobby for toll roads. Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom founder Terri Hall is among those criticizing TxDOT for using tax dollars to promote the TTC and tolling.

During the San Antonio press conference, the group also called for TxDOT to install the original gas tax-funded improvement plan for U.S. Highway 281 and drop plans to convert that roadway into a toll road, with Hall saying citizens on hand called for the “immediate resignations of TxDOT leadership.”

Hall said TxDOT intends to make some interstates into toll corridors, including Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Dallas and Interstate 10 between Houston and San Antonio and also is looking at highways 281, 1604, Bandera Road and others around San Antonio.

“If TxDOT and the politicians who enable them have their way, it won’t stop there,” she said, saying, “TxDOT plans to take every single lane on existing highway U.S. 281 and convert them into toll lanes. The only free lanes will be frontage roads, not highway lanes.”

According to, TxDOT’s Web site relating to toll roads, Texas’ population has increased 57 percent in the past 25 years, with road use up by 95 percent.
That’s a problem, the agency said, when state road capacity grew only 8 percent. TxDOT further notes on its Web site that the state’s population is estimated to increase another 64 percent during the next 25 years, with road use to increase 214 percent.

“Without new funding methods, state road capacity will only grow 6 percent,” the agency says on its Web site.

According to a TURF press release, Adkisson, who sits on the San Antonio Metropolitian Planning Organization, said, “TxDOT should begin (improving its relations with the public) by installing the overpasses and improvements at an estimated cost of $100 million and already paid for by our gas taxes instead building the hugely intrusive $400 million toll plan for U.S. 281 at four times the cost (and double the number of lanes).”

Adkisson said the state’s transportation policy has failed in several areas by not indexing the gas tax and by not accelerating other forms of transportation. Creative solutions such as contraflow should be implemented and Texas should cease being a donor state that gives away more of its gas taxes than is returned, he said, saying the state is bearing the burden of NAFTA-related traffic.

Macias, Farias and Leibowitz discussed their work during the legislative session relating to control over the toll road and TTC issues - and how that work was subsequently altered. All three encouraged voters to seek accountability at the ballot box in the next election so as to affect needed changes.

During the press conference, Macias characterized tolling of an existing highway as the same as double taxation - and questioned TxDOT’s cost escalations for certain projects.

Farias said amendments he tried to put into the two-year private toll moratorium bill, Senate Bill 792, were stripped out, adding that he’s concerned with the economic impact of tolls on economically-disadvantaged constituents.

Leibowitz, who also sits on the San Antonio MPO, said he is calling for that board to pass a resolution against TxDOT’s public relations campaign and said he will ask state Attorney General Greg Abbott for an opinion on the issue.

“I have never voted for a single toll road bill in my time in the Texas House,” said Leibowitz, who also shared his concerns that Texas is paying a disproportionate share of the NAFTA cost.
Hall noted more lawmakers are becoming involved with the transportation issues.

“The citizens support lawmakers’ efforts to put accountability and sanity back into transportation policy,” Hall said. “With U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison introducing a bill to prevent the tolling of existing interstates this week, calls from U.S. Congressman Ciro Rodriguez to investigate the tolling of existing interstates report, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Congressman Charlie Gonzales adamantly opposed to it, the people may get relief on the federal level first.”

Hall said she supports a move back to the gas tax-funded plan for improvements to 281 and a stop to the tolling of other existing highways.

“TxDOT has breached the public trust and it cannot be repaired short of cleaning house at that agency. They’ve repeatedly sworn to our faces they’re not tolling existing roads and then lobbied Congress to do just that,” Hall said.

TURF calls for investigation

In another development this week, TURF has called for Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle to investigate the Texas Department of Transportation relating to a public relations campaign it is mounting.

“Unaccountable, eminent domain abusing, runaway toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor,” TURF founder Terri Hall said. “It’s not just smarmy, it’s illegal.”

In a recent press release, TURF criticizes the agency for disregarding input from Texans, including more than 13,000 people who spoke during hearings on the TTC.

“Apparently they lack the intellectual capacity to understand one of the most basic words in the English language (‘no’),” the release reads, with Hall adding, “To add insult to injury, they patronize us further by thinking we just haven’t gotten the message or that we somehow don’t understand their cash-cow, land-grabbing, double-taxing toll road policies, therefore they need to spend our money to further indoctrinate us into submission.”

TURF’s disagrees with TxDOT’s plans to spend up to $9 million on its public relations campaign - which started June 1 - to promote the TTC.

“The politicians who are ramming this down our throats need to realize they can’t escape the long arm of the law, especially Ronnie Earle’s. Tom Delay couldn’t and neither will they,” Hall said.

“The citizens of Texas believe the Texas Department of Transportation is illegally using taxpayer money to wage a cleverly cloaked public relations campaign to push the wildly controversial Trans-Texas Corridor and toll road proliferation,” the complaint reads as filed by TURF, which notes the agency’s public relations campaign includes direct mail, billboards and employee training.

“It’s not only an inappropriate and wasteful use of our gas tax dollars by an agency perpetually claiming it’s out of money for roads, but it’s illegal for a public agency to take a policy position and use the public’s tax money to sell them something using an under-handed PR campaign,” the complaint reads.

TURF’s complaint also notes that a state auditor’s report issued earlier this year found “mismarking” of funds on expenditures relating to the TTC, with some expenditures marked as engineering instead of as an actual expense of public relations.

“Please open an investigation and prosecute this agency for its repeated illegal activities,” the TURF complaint reads. “The people of Texas want justice. When Ken Lay cooked the books at Enron, he was sent to jail. The same needs to happen with those guilty of breaking the law at the highway department.”

Hutchison’s response

In response to the tolling controversy, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, has filed legislation that would prohibit the tolling of existing federal highways across the country.

“My bill will protect drivers from paying tolls on roads that were already paid for by taxpayers,” Hutchison said in a statement about her legislation, S. 2019.

The legislation’s intent is to “prohibit the imposition and collection of tolls on certain highways constructed using federal funds,” by blocking the U.S. Secretary of Transportation from approving tolls on existing federally-funded highways. Under current law, states can apply to the U.S. Department of Transportation to place tolls on existing federal highways.

In a press release from her office, Hutchison said she would “vigorously oppose” any effort by Texas Department of Transportation to toll existing interstate highways through the use of buy backs.

Earlier this year, TxDOT officials said they intended to lobby Congress to allow for the buy back of existing federal highways in Texas for the purpose of tolling. Hutchison’s legislation specifically disallows states to place tolls on any federal highways they buy back from the DOT.

“I will work with members of the Texas Congressional delegation and the state legislature to ensure that Texans are never asked to pay a toll of an existing interstate highway,” said Hutchison, who serves as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which sets the budget for the federal Department of Transportation

In February, TxDOT released its legislative agenda in a report called “Forward Momentum,” which seeks changes in federal law that would allow such buy backs for the purpose of tolling interstate highways, pending approval by local governments.

S. 2019 is similar to a previous effort by Hutchison to block the use of tolls on existing interstate highways as part of the 2005 Highway Bill.

The amendment passed the Senate but was stripped in conference by the House of Representatives.

Cities fight to stop TTC

The cities of Bartlett, Holland, Little River-Academy and Rogers recently formed the Eastern Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission to fight the TTC.

“This is one issue all four cities are united behind to save our rural way of life,” said newly elected president Mae Smith, who is mayor of Holland. Other members of the board include Arthur White, mayor of Bartlett; Ronnie White, mayor of Academy; the Rev. Billy Crow, mayor of Rogers; and Ralph Snyder, a business owner from Holland.

“The purpose of this commission is to give us a voice in this process. It’s our land that the Texas Department of Transportation and our governor want to take and we are not going to let them pave us over and ignore the concerns of our communities,” Snyder said.

The commission reports the TTC would take from 5,000 and 7,500 acres in Bell County alone, while taking in another 50,000 acres of farmland between San Antonio and the Texas-Oklahoma border. The Texas Legislature created the TTC in 2003 “and ever since, landowners have been fighting to protect their rights,” according to a press release from the commission.

The commission was formed using Texas Local Government Code, Chapter 391, which allows cities and counties to form regional planning commissions to work together to develop plans for their local region and to force the state agencies to coordinate with their activities.

Under Chapter 391.009(c), TxDOT is required to coordinate with commissions to ensure effective and orderly implementation of state programs at the regional level.

“TxDOT must coordinate with us before they can implement their plans in our region,” said Ronnie White, commission vice president. “The TTC is driven by greed and has no respect for our rural way of life.”

The commission says that under state law, TxDOT will be required to work with it and coordinate the agency’s plans with the local group before any land is taken or any construction begins.

“If not, they are in violation of the state statute and we are prepared to take them to court if necessary,” Smith said.

The individual cities have also requested that the Environmental Protection Agency reject the Draft Environmental Impact Statement submitted by TxDOT, because the agency did not coordinate with local government as required under the federal law.

Waller County rejects proposal

Waller County commissioners announced at a meeting in early August that they had been approached by TxDOT 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 TTC along the proposed path of the Prairie Parkway, which had been recently discussed as a thoroughfare from Highway 290 between Waller and Prairie View (James Muse Road), to I-10 and Woods Road.

Waller County commissioners rejected the proposal, according to a press release from Citizens for a Better Waller County.

“For folks that think that the Trans-Texas Corridor is not going to happen - this is a major wake up call,” said Don Garrett, president of the citizens group. “Not only does it show that TxDOT and Gov. 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 1,200-feet wide mobility monster.

“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,” he said.

Garrett said he encourages people living in Waller County to stay aware of TxDOT’s plans.

“An express toll road that is a 1/2 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 said. “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,” he said, saying the organization has confirmed TxDOT representatives have met with Fort Bend County officials in regard to routing TTC-69 through Fort Bend County toward Waller County.

According to information from the organization, Prairie Parkway has been on the county’s thoroughfare plan since 1985 and has been updated because of development to Houston Executive Airport and expansion plans for I-10 and Highway 290. The route also will provide additional hurricane evacuation capabilities for coastal residents.

“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 said.

A final route for TTC-69 is pending release of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and additional hearings.

“It is more important now than ever that people pay attention to what is going on around here,” Garrett said. “The TTC is alive and well and TxDOT is hoping that folks are asleep at the wheel when they show up with bulldozers.”

On the Internet

E-mail JoAnn at

© 2007 The Waxahachie Daily Light

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"It's an abuse of the system."

Billionaire Seeks Tax-Exemption


Associated Press
Copyright 2007

LUBBOCK, Texas -Myriad obstacles remain for billionaire oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens to market Panhandle water to thirsty cities elsewhere in Texas but one intermediate hurdle appears to be a slam dunk.

Pickens still must lay a pipeline to deliver water to a buyer that's yet to be secured.

But this week Pickens secured a November election for a proposed fresh water supply district in Roberts County. Only five people will be eligible to vote and all either work for him, support him and live within the proposed district's boundaries.

The district could issue low-interest bonds to build a 320-mile pipeline for the water. He also wants to use the rights of way for the water line to bury transmission lines from his proposed 4,000 megawatt wind farm, which would be the largest in the world.

The move is the latest in what has been a five-year effort by Pickens' Mesa Water to ship water from the Ogallala Aquifer in the Panhandle to cities trying to plan for future growth.

"We continue to have discussions with potential (water) buyers, and want to have as many options as possible to address what we believe will be increasingly critical water supply issues and power issues in Texas, part in the Dallas-Fort Worth area," said Mesa spokesman Jay Rosser.

Though Roberts County Judge Vernon H. Cook voted Tuesday to approve a petition for the district and to call for the election to confirm it, he questioned the method.

"I feel like it's an abuse of the system," he said of only Pickens' people casting ballots. "I have all kinds of concerns about the way the legislation is structured, but I don't think we have a real legal recourse on it."

Wednesday was the deadline for any of Texas' 254 counties to order an election for Nov. 6.

Cook said he sees potential for economic development for Roberts County: jobs and payments Pickens' Mesa Power would pay landowners for acreage wind turbines would set on.

Cook called the election's outcome "a foregone conclusion." He said deeds for the acreage Pickens gave four of his employees were recorded with the county Tuesday, though he wasn't certain when Pickens gave them the land.

One of those employees, Mike Boswell, said Pickens handed over the deeds about two months ago and with the understanding that the new landowners would back the district.

Monty Humble, an attorney working for Pickens, said freshwater supply districts can get low-interest bonds for infrastructure beyond the boundaries of the district if they are revenue bonds.

The district also comes with eminent domain powers that reach beyond its boundaries.

"There's nothing remarkable about using eminent domain for water projects," he said. "And there's nothing remarkable to using it for electrical transmission."

The state has 55 fresh water districts, according to an official at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Officials in Kaufman County in North Texas on Tuesday put off approving a similar election because of a possible flaw in the petition seeking it.

Rosser said the Kaufman County decision is "a minor, although temporary, setback" to advance the project.

The company disagreed there was a flaw in the petition, but will review its application and resubmit it for a May election, said Boswell, who also has land on which he plans to develop high-end homes in Kaufman County.

Mesa officials want the Kaufman County water district to deal with any snags the could come up, said Rosser, who did not return a call from The Associated Press on Wednesday.

C.E. Williams, general manager of the Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District that places restrictions on how much water is pumped from parts of the Ogallala, said the fresh water district does not usurp his group's limits.

Pickens started Mesa Water several years ago to buy water rights beneath four Panhandle counties. More recently, he started Mesa Power LP to build wind turbines on as many as 200,000 acres in Roberts, Gray, Hemphill and Wheeler counties.

The farm would have as many as 2,000 wind turbines, and some would be large enough to generate 2.5 megawatts each. One megawatt is enough to power 250 homes in Texas.

Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

© 2007 The Associated Press:

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"Our room is reserved under the name ViaNovo, because 'Mile-Wide NAFTA Drug Corridor Conspiracy' wouldn't fit on the reservation card."

DOT guru for Perry skips PR training

Sept. 7, 2007

By PEGGY FIKAC, Austin Bureau
Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Gov. Rick Perry's deputy chief of staff decided to skip Friday's public-relations training session meant to prep officials for talk-radio appearances promoting the Trans-Texas Corridor and toll roads, a spokeswoman said.

"With the workload he had, he wasn't able to give up a half-day," Perry spokeswoman Krista Moody said of deputy chief of staff Kris Heckmann, whom she described as Perry's point person on transportation.

The Houston Chronicle reported in Friday's editions that the training by political and corporate strategy experts from ViaNovo is part of a $20,000 consulting contract included in the agency's multimillion-dollar Keep Texas Moving campaign. The campaign promotes the divisive transportation plans pushed by Perry.

The campaign's estimated cost of $7 million to $9 million in highway funds has been criticized by anti-toll activists and some lawmakers, who question the use of public funds on what they call a public relations push.

Supporters said it answers lawmakers' demand for the agency to do a better job of communicating with Texans.

Perry and others have championed toll roads and the ambitious transportation network known as the Trans-Texas Corridor as necessary to ease traffic congestion and boost highway funding that lags behind road needs. The initiative has sparked worry and outrage over the corridor's potential route and the state's decision to partner with private firms on toll roads.

Friday's training session was the third for various Texas Department of Transportation division directors, two district engineers, the agency's acting executive director and media and marketing staff.

Heckmann's decision doesn't imply any criticism of the training, Moody added.

"Kris has great communication skills already. It certainly doesn't hurt anyone to receive formalized training. We think it's definitely going to be very beneficial for the policy professionals and policy wonks to get a better grasp on how to communicate their message and their vision to Texans," Moody said.

She said Heckmann "has been our transportation guru for some time. He's invited all the time to give speeches and interviews regarding transportation issues in Texas."

She said Heckmann would treat requests to talk publicly about the Trans-Texas Corridor or toll roads as he always does.

"He's been our transportation guru for some time. He's invited all the time to give speeches and interviews regarding transportation issues in Texas," she said.

Coby Chase, director of the agency's government and public affairs division, said training session participants were picked because "You have a title that is impressive or is tailored to a specific audience ... You generally try to figure out what is coming out of the Greer Building (state transportation headquarters) and attempt to explain the company message to others."

The divisiveness of the transportation initiatives was the basis of an e-mail joke by TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott as he let people know about one of the training sessions, which was at the downtown Austin Club.

"Our room is reserved under the name ViaNovo," he quipped, "because 'Mile-Wide NAFTA Drug Corridor Conspiracy' wouldn't fit on the reservation card."


Coby Chase, director of the TxDOT's government and public affairs division, described in an e-mail some of the reasons people were asked to attend training sessions:

• "You have a title that is impressive or is tailored to a specific audience"

• "You generally try to figure out what is coming out of the Greer Building (state transportation headquarters in Austin) and attempt to explain the company message to others"

• "You're not easily intimidated"

• "You're an agency team player"

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Friday, September 07, 2007

"The bridge between Washington and Austin looks a bit shaky."

The tolling of Texas tug-of-war continues


Gary Martin
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

A Texas proposal to buy back federal interstate highways and levy a toll on those roads ran into a roadblock on Capitol Hill this week.

It was a crash that was heard throughout Congress, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, was the Jersey wall that stopped the traffic.

The state's senior senator, backed by a bipartisan group of Lone Star lawmakers, put a marker down when Ric Williamson, Texas transportation commissioner, unveiled his plan to lobby Congress to change federal law and toll highways.

When Williamson showed up on Capitol Hill, Hutchison promptly filed a bill to prohibit the tolling of existing federal highways.

"My bill will protect drivers from paying tolls on roads that were already paid for by taxpayers," Hutchison said.

As if to add an exclamation point, Hutchison pointed out she sits on the committee that sets transportation budgets.

Hutchison is eyeing a run for governor. She is also running Williamson out of Washington.

The Texas Department of Transportation and Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, say an $86 billion shortfall is preventing the state from improving highways needed to keep interstate commerce moving.

State officials want to spend $9 million to lobby Congress to buy back those federal highways and turn them over to private entities, which would levy a toll used to improve and expand the infrastructure.

But Perry was told in a May 10 letter that a public-private partnership, or PPP, would be illegal under federal law.

That letter was signed by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the highways subcommittee.

"We strongly caution you against rushing into PPPs that do not fully protect public interest," the letter warned.

Perry, in a responding letter, said, "I would hope that the federal government would encourage innovation and not stifle it."

The governor also described traffic congestion crisis on highways in the state. Anyone driving from San Antonio to Dallas through the bottleneck of Austin, on any given day, can attest to the problem.

But support for Perry's plan in Washington faces opposition.

In addition to Hutchison, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers oppose any state proposal that would force Texans to pay tolls on highways already built with public funds.

Cornyn said he does not oppose tolling for construction of new roads or highways, but could not support tolling on existing roads for future funds.

"We need to look for other alternatives," Cornyn said.

In South Texas, the entire congressional delegation has registered its opposition: Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio; Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio; Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio; and Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi.

"I don't think it's appropriate. I don't think it's ethical," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez met with Williamson to lodge his complaints. While the congressman said the state has valid concerns about funding, he remains unconvinced that toll roads are the best approach to alleviate the shortfalls.

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Rodriguez wants a hearing with witnesses on both sides of the issue so they can make their points about changing federal law.

Rodriguez said the state is in trouble with its infrastructure.

"But the problem is not the state, it's the country as a whole. We have not made the investment in our infrastructure," he said

The Texas proposal has garnered support from Dallas-area lawmakers and other states that share Interstate 35, which runs from Laredo to Duluth, Minn.

Hutchison is less conciliatory.

She said she would work with the congressional delegation and the Texas Legislature "to ensure that Texans are never asked to pay a toll of an existing interstate highway."

Williamson returned to Texas.

The bridge between Washington and Austin looks a bit shaky.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


“A lot of elected representatives are starting to see TxDOT as this rogue agency. They’re realizing that their arrogance is quite amazing.”

Hutchison Proposes Bill Banning Interstate Tolls

Could Halt Plans in Pennsylvania, Texas


by Richard Williamson
The Bond Buyer
Copyright 2007

DALLAS — Amid a furor over proposals to toll interstate highways in Texas, Pennsylvania, and other states, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison seeks to tighten a toll ban on existing federally funded freeways.

“I intend to immediately introduce as free-standing legislation my amendment that the Senate passed in 2005 to specifically prohibit states from tolling existing interstate highways,” Hutchison, a Republican, said in a prepared statement. “I will work with members of the Texas congressional delegation and the state legislature to ensure that Texans are never asked to pay a toll on an existing interstate highway.”

Hutchison’s bill would also halt Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s plans to impose tolls on Interstate 80, said Hutchison spokesman Matt Mackowiak.

Hutchison sits on the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which would have to consider the bill. She is also a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which appropriates funding for the U.S. Department of Transportation. But she is not a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which would also review her legislation.

The U.S. DOT declined to comment on the bill, noting that it was an issue for Congress.

However,Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has said publicly that she sees tolling as one way to reduce congestion and has personally lobbied lawmakers in Pennsylvania in support of tolling I-80.

Two northwestern Pennsylvania Republican congressmen, Reps. Phil English and John Peterson, included language in the House version of the fiscal 2008 appropriations bill for the DOT, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and related agencies that would stop Pennsylvania from tolling I-80. That language is not in the Senate version of the bill and would have to be reconciled in a conference committee.

Hutchison’s bill, S. 2019, follows an uproar over a Texas Department of Transportation report called “Forward Momentum” that was presented in February to members of Congress, but that received little press attention until this week.

“For whatever reason, it’s getting a lot of attention now,” said TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott, who yesterday traveled to Washington with Texas Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson for meetings with Hutchison and other members of the Texas congressional delegation.

The Texas Toll Party, an advocacy group opposed to tolling, this week held events to focus their opposition to the tolling proposals. Setting tolls on freeways that have already been paid for is a form of double taxation and will create congestion on access roads and surface streets that are controlled by stop signals, the group says.

“TxDOT just keeps pushing these things,” said Sal Costello, founder of the Texas Toll Party in Austin. “A lot of elected representatives are starting to see TxDOT as this rogue agency. They’re realizing that their arrogance is quite amazing.”

Although federal law bans the addition of tolls on freeways completed with federal money, states can apply to the U.S. Department of Transportation to place tolls on the roads as pilot projects. In Houston, TxDOT is building optional toll lanes for some of the traffic on Interstate 10.

Pennsylvania has applied for such a pilot project on I-80.

Hutchison’s bill would not prevent tolling on new lanes on federal highways but would ban it on existing lanes only. The I-10 project would be grandfathered, as would any existing toll lanes as of the date the bill passed. Also unaffected would be the toll section of Interstate 35 from Kansas City, Kan., to the Oklahoma border known as the Kansas Turnpike. That section of the interstate has been a toll road for more than 50 years, with $75 million in tolls collected last year.

TxDOT wants the option to buy back the highways so that it could convert them to tollways. To raise the funds to pay off the federal investment, TxDOT could try to sell the roads to foreign investors. The investors would collect tolls on the freeway and share some of the tax-free revenue with TxDOT.

Loosening restrictions on such a process would require federal legislation that would be the opposite of what Hutchison’s bill proposes.

Among TxDOT’s ideas for raising revenue are imposing a tax on motorists driving on existing federal interstate freeways, boosting the agency’s ability to borrow money, and exempting private companies that operate toll roads from federal taxation.

Lippincott said TxDOT is simply seeking innovative financial solutions amid harsh political realities and growing transportation needs.

“The old way of funding transportation is crumbling beneath our feet,” he said. “There is a very limited appetite for increasing the gas tax.”

Hutchison’s bill comes amid mixed signals from the Texas Legislature on the roll of tolling in Texas. In May, the Texas Legislature passed a two-year moratorium on construction of private toll roads while permitting projects already in the works to proceed. An attempt to strip TxDOT of much of its authority was passed but later withdrawn amid concerns about the impact on federal highway funding.

Texas Toll Party has no objection to construction of new toll roads but is strongly opposed to tolling on highways that have already been fully funded by tax dollars, a position Hutchison shares.

In meetings between Williamson and the Texas congressional delegation yesterday, Hutchison’s bill was not discussed, participants said. But Williamson called the meetings “very productive.”

“He talked with members about the funding crunch we face as a state and the prospect of moving billions of dollars from our new construction budget to maintenance in order to address soaring construction costs and increased wear-and-tear on our system,” Lippincott said.

Hutchison is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees the annual budget of the U.S. DOT. The agency declined to comment on the bill, noting that it was an issue for Congress. However, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has said publicly that she sees tolling as one way to reduce congestion and has personally lobbied lawmakers in Pennsylvania in support of tolling I-80.

© 2007 The Bond Buyer:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Perry staffer, TxDOT officials get tax-funded training to push the TTC in costly public relations campaign.

Before going on air, TxDOT hears static

Officials getting coached by pros on how to promote controversial plans


Peggy Fikac Austin Bureau
Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Top state transportation officials and Gov. Rick Perry's deputy chief of staff are being trained by political and corporate strategy pros before deploying to talk radio programs to promote the Trans-Texas Corridor and toll roads.

The airwave ambassadors are being schooled by experts from ViaNovo as part of a $20,000 consulting contract included in the agency's multimillion-dollar Keep Texas Moving ad campaign, which promotes the divisive transportation plans championed by Perry.

ViaNovo is led by a team that includes former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd, but Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Chris Lippincott said two other firm leaders — Blaine H. Bull and Julie Hillrichs — are doing the training. He confirmed the participation of agency officials and Kris Heckmann, a deputy chief of staff for Perry.

Plans call for several TxDOT division directors, district engineers from Beaumont and Amarillo, agency interim executive director Steve Simmons and Heckmann to start out on satellite radio — in part because "the listening audience is paying for radio so they might be more apt to pay a toll," according to a July e-mail from Coby Chase, director of the agency's government and public affairs division. He wrote that the agency likely will buy advertising time on the satellite networks.

Strong criticism

The Trans-Texas Corridor — an ambitious transportation network — and toll roads have been touted by Perry and others as necessary in the face of congestion and of gas tax revenues outpaced by transportation needs. But the initiative has drawn strong criticism over the potential route and the state partnering with private companies to run toll roads.

The Keep Texas Moving campaign, estimated to cost $7 million to $9 million from state highway funds, has drawn concern from anti-toll activists and some lawmakers who question the cost of what they see as a public relations campaign. Its defenders, including Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, House Transportation Committee chairman, said the initiative stems from lawmakers' call for the agency to better communicate with the public.

Opinions continued to be divided Thursday as details of the talk-radio part of the campaign emerged through agency e-mails obtained under the Public Information Act.

Lippincott said the contract for talk-radio training went to the Rodman Co. of Portland, near Corpus Christi. Rodman subcontracted with ViaNovo with TxDOT's approval.

Company experts providing training are Bull, a founding officer of Public Strategies Inc. who worked with SBC Communications and before that was legislative director for former U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen; and Hillrichs, whose experience includes being a director in Public Strategies' Dallas office and managing media relations for former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm.

"I think TxDOT's doing exactly what the Legislature asked them to do — demanded that they do — and legislators who now cry foul are being hypocritical. They were the ones that beat TxDOT over the head in public hearings for not explaining this," said Krusee, who added that specialized training makes sense.

Legislators disagree

But Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who fought for a moratorium on privately run toll roads, said: "The Legislature did not tell TxDOT to go on a media campaign explaining the pros of the Trans-Texas Corridor and private equity investment (in toll roads). The Legislature said, 'Please slow down, take a deep breath. We want you to pause while we make sure we are making the right decisions.'"

Kolkhorst said TxDOT is a "fabulous agency" but there is a "lack of faith in the policy."

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who heads the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, and pushed for a toll-road moratorium, said the proof will be in how officials conduct themselves on air.

"I don't think there's anything inappropriate about them obtaining media training," Carona said. "I think it's important to share with the public TxDOT's goals and missions.

"If what they do on these radio shows turns out to be nothing more than a PR initiative for their current tolling plans and other controversial initiatives, then I and other legislators, I think, would have a great problem with it," he said. "Additionally, if they were to use TxDOT funds to buy radio time or anything of that nature, we would be very opposed to it."

Talking points provided to those being trained were positive about toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Lippincott said the campaign is an effort to educate people and address their concerns, as lawmakers said the agency should.

"People need to understand what we're doing and why," he said. "They need to be part of the process. We will never solve the transportation challenges that face our state without public information and public awareness."

But Terri Hall, founder and executive director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, which opposes toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor, said: "It's clear that TxDOT is not interested in listening to the people. That's how they've gotten such an image problem. They could certainly use a PR campaign to clean it up — but not with my taxpayer money."

Public Strategies Inc.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:
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"TxDOT is making a big mistake"

Taking a Toll

TxDOT has no business considering idea of turning interstates into tollways

September 07, 2007

The Lufkin Daily News
Copyright 2007

We support Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's proposed legislation that would keep states from charging tolls on federal highways that have already been built.

It's sad that her home state is the one who caused her to file the bill.

The Texas Department of Transportation is trying to get Congress to let the state "buy back" parts of existing interstates and add toll lanes, according to an Associated Press story. The department also has proposed tax breaks for private company investment in projects to convert interstates to tollways, the story stated. And TxDOT, which has little money to play with, has launched a $9 million ad campaign on toll roads.

That makes no sense. Taxpayers have already paid for our U.S. interstates. We shouldn't have to start paying for the privilege of using them.

Hutchison's bill, S.B. 2019, would:

* Prohibit collection of tolls on any part of federal highways that already are built and where no toll is collected.

* Prohibit imposing tolls on federal highways bought back by states on or after the day the bill goes into effect.

Other people, thankfully, are joining Hutchison in the fight to make sure Congress doesn't fall for TxDOT's ridiculous idea. U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio has called hearings on the plans, and Sen. John Cornyn is a co-sponsor of Hutchison's bill.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry hasn't commented on the issue yet, although a spokesman said state law already prohibits turning existing roads into toll roads without local approval. Then again, Perry has been a staunch proponent of building new toll roads across the state.

It's obvious that TxDOT sees toll roads as the only way to effectively fund our highways of the future. The agency is making a big mistake by thinking it can go back and apply that concept to the roads we've already built.

© 2007 The Lufkin Daily News:

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

NTTA gets zip cash from new tolling system

NTTA Owed From Zip Cash Tolls

Sep 6, 2007

Bennett Cunningham Reporting
CBS 11 News (Dallas/Fort Worth)
Copyright 2007

Thousands of motorists using the zip cash lanes on Texas tollways are paying just that -- Zip!

According to the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), it is owed nearly $500,000 from non toll-tag users driving through the Wycliffe toll plaza.

The NTTA created zip cash lanes at Wycliffe in January to alleviate traffic due to road construction, thereby eliminating toll booth attendants.

Under the zip cash program customers without toll-tags are allowed to go through toll booths without paying, and when they've racked about $3 in charges, an invoice will is mailed.

The NTTA photographs the license plates of the vehicles passing thorough and sends that car owner a bill. But a lot of people aren't paying.

Clayton Howell of the NTTA says of the people the NTTA has already processed, it�s received a great return.

But if you look at the numbers, there may be some disagreement. According to the NTTA's records, over a recent 4-month period, it's billed motorists $786,000 for driving through zip cash lanes without toll-tags. It spent $30,000 on stamps to mail out invoices and it's owed about $450,000 dollars.

Motorists driving through zip cash lanes were upset. Some drivers told CBS 11 News the NTTA, 'needs to do something.' Others said they enjoy the freedom of no traffic jams.

Last month, the NTTA announced plans to eliminate all toll booth attendants system wide.

Officials say the zip cash system is new and it will take time to collect the money. But remember, the tollway gets its money by issuing bonds and collects tolls to operate, maintain, and pay down its debt. So the longer it takes to collect all the money its due - the longer we will all have to pay the toll, attendants or not.

Tollway officials say people who don�t pay can be fined, their account can go to a collection agency or the Department of Public Safety may issue them a citation.

The law doesn't allow the NTTA to revoke or suspend a driver's license or car registration for failing to pay the toll.

© 2007 CBS Stations Group of Texas Co

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"Any potential advantages of privatization should be weighed against the disadvantages of private financing and control."

Road Privatization:

Explaining the Trend, Assessing the Facts, and Protecting the Public


Executive Summary (To download the full report click HERE)
Federation of State PIRGs
Copyright 2007

Privatization of toll roads is a growing trend. During 2007, sixteen states had some privatized road project formally proposed or underway. In the last two years Indiana and Chicago signed multi-billion dollar private concession deals for public roads for 75 years and 99 years respectively. As a result of these deals, toll rates on these roads will increase steadily and revenues will be paid to private company shareholders rather than to the public budget.

Encouraged by the enormous anticipated profits that private road operators will reap from these deals, Wall Street investors and high-priced consulting firms have promoted similar deals to other states and local governments. Offering a short-term infusion of cash, privatization of existing toll roads harms the long-term public interest. It relinquishes important public control over transportation policy while failing to deliver the value comparable to the tolls that the public will be forced to pay over the life of the deal.

Proposed deals to construct new roads or bridges that would be privately operated are a more complicated matter. There may be instances where private companies can deliver services that the public sector currently lacks and can not efficiently create. However, private deals for new construction should also follow the principles outlined below to adequately protect the public interest. Any potential advantages of privatization should be weighed against the disadvantages of private financing and control.

Governments have a long history of outsourcing service delivery on public thoroughfares. Private companies, for instance, operate gas stations and food service at public rest stops. But the public interest is best served by outsourcing only those functions where public capacity is lacking and where continual competition exists for privately provided service.

In general, privatization makes sense only for activities where the private sector has a clear comparative advantage over public provision of those same services. The common characteristics of road privatization deals are that they enlist a private intermediary to borrow large sums of money backed by a schedule to collect multiple decades of steadily increasing toll rates. Private proposals should thus be judged according to the relative costs and benefits of enlisting this intermediary to borrow and to hike tolls. Governments can borrow upfront sums at substantially lower cost than can private companies. Government is also more democratically accountable than private companies when it comes to setting tolls. (In fact, according to a chorus of investment analysts, a chief contribution of the private intermediary is precisely that it can diminish public accountability for future toll hikes). Thus toll road concessions are a bad idea precisely because they outsource activities where the private sector is less capable of serving the public.

In addition to an inability to ensure that the public will receive the full value for its future toll revenues, privatization of toll roads entails a number of additional problems. Over the long-term, these may be of even more serious concern:
  • Loss of public control of transportation policy due to a fragmented road network, and an inability to prevent toll traffic from being diverted to local communities, or to change traffic patterns on toll roads without paying additional compensation to road operators.
  • An inability to ensure fair or effective privatization contracts due to leases that last for multiple generations and therefore can not fully anticipate future public needs.
  • The upfront privatization payoff is a short-term budget fix that does not address long-term budget problems and requires drivers and taxpayers to pay more over the long term.
For both existing toll roads and new construction, the safeguards to protect the public interest against bad privatization deals can be expressed in seven basic principles:
  • Public control retained over decisions about transportation planning and management;
  • Fair value guaranteed so future toll revenues won’t be sold off at a discount;
  • No deal longer than 30 years because of uncertainty over future conditions and because the risks of a bad deal grow exponentially over time;
  • State-of-the-art maintenance and safety standards instead of statewide minimums;
  • Complete transparency to ensure proper process;
  • Full accountability in which the Legislature must approve the terms of a final deal, not just approve that a deal be negotiated; and
  • No budget gimmicks because a deal must make long-term budgetary sense, not just help in the short term.
U.S. PIRG – The Federation of State PIRGs: 44 Winter Street, 4th Floor, Boston, MA 02108
Federal Advocacy Office: 218 D Street SE, Washington, DC 20003

© 2007 U.S. PIRG

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"The parkway could end up as a high-speed toll road that would worsen air pollution."

Dallas revisits Trinity road debate


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

Months after electing a new mayor who promised a fresh start, Dallas voters have been pushed back into an old debate.

Last month, the City Council approved holding a citywide referendum on the Trinity River toll road, a project that, depending on whom you ask, is either a mistake of historic proportions or the key to the city's survival. The proposition, if it passes on Nov. 6, will limit all roads built within the Trinity River Corridor to four total lanes and a 35-mph speed limit.

Groups on both sides are bracing for a contentious campaign this fall, centered on the fuzzy history of this controversial plan and its uncertain future.

"This is about ensuring we do not make one of the biggest mistakes in our city that would last us for generations," said Dallas City Councilwoman Angela Hunt, leader of the effort to ditch the high-speed toll road from the project.

Dallas voters narrowly approved the Trinity Corridor plan on May 2, 1998. The $246 million bond proposition was touted as Dallas' version of Central Park. The plan included flood-control levees, wetlands and lakes, and, crucially, a road project called the Trinity Parkway.

The ambitious plan quickly attracted controversy. Opponents decried the environmental impact, with many warning that the parkway could end up as a high-speed toll road that would worsen air pollution.

On election day, 10 propositions on the ballot passed with 72 percent support or more. The Trinity River Corridor Project squeaked by with 52 percent.

The 41-word ballot initiative made no mention of a toll road, instead referring to creating "the Trinity Parkway and related street improvements."

Since then, details of the parkway have firmed up. It is slated to be a high-speed, multilane highway with tolls. Critics say the parkway will ruin the world-class park that is supposed to be a key benefit of the massive project.

What did voters think?

The question now dominating both sides is a tricky one: What did voters think they were approving nine years ago?

Critics say the city misled the public with a reference to building "the Trinity Parkway" in the ballot initiative.

Proponents of the plan, who want voters to vote against the referendum, say voters were well-informed that a toll road on the banks of the Trinity would be part of the project. They point to news media reports referring to a toll road as part of the deal. When the Star-Telegram reported on the narrow win on May 3, 1998, the complex proposition was described as being for "flood-control levees, a toll road, lakes and parks."

Craig Holcomb, a former Dallas City Council member, supported the bond issue and now leads the group opposing Hunt's referendum. He says ballot initiatives often use general language to describe complex proposals.

"If you put on the ballot language 'toll road,' and then some other, better means of financing it comes about, you can't do it because you put on there 'toll road,'" said Holcomb, executive director of Trinity Commons Foundation.

Critics of the road, who are encouraging "yes" votes, dismiss any suggestions that media reports referring to a toll road were enough to ensure that voters knew what they were voting on.

"That's a bait and switch, pure and simple," Hunt said.

10-year setback

Proponents of the Trinity River Corridor plan, toll road and all, include former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, Mayor Tom Leppert, and 13 of the Dallas City Council's 14 members.

The one holdout on the council is Hunt, who has emerged as the face of the opposition. In June, she spearheaded an effort to collect 48,000 signatures asking for a recall of the toll road.

Backers of the current plan say the referendum will destroy the Trinity River plan if it passes. Many people involved in it think the referendum will set the plan back 10 years and "do absolutely nothing to relieve traffic and air quality," said Carol Reed, campaign director with the "Vote No! Save The Trinity" Campaign Committee. TrinityVote, the group that led the petition drive, is using grassroots supporters and volunteers to spread its message, Hunt said.

Opponents of the proposition expect to have an army of speakers address more than 200 civic groups. Holcomb said they plan to emphasize the need to relieve traffic while pointing out that the toll road is only part of the overall project.

"Generally speaking, the park is at least four football fields wide. The toll road is basically at the 40-yard line of one of those football fields to the goal line," Holcomb said.

Hunt said that's misleading. The entire Trinity Corridor will be that large, but the park area will actually be less than 200 acres, she said. The toll road, meanwhile, will be comparable to the Dallas North Tollway, she said.

"I'm delighted they're going to take that tack, because it's a fallacy that Dallas voters will see right through," she said.

Trinity toll road

The arguments both for and against the Trinity Parkway toll road are outlined on two Web sites.

For the toll road:


Aman Batheja, 817-390-7695

© 2007 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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"Texas officials said this year that they would lobby the federal government for permission to 'buy back' federal highways and charge tolls."

Bill would ban state tolls on existing interstates


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyrithg 2007

Texas and other states would be prohibited from charging tolls on existing interstates, according to a bill filed Wednesday by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

The Republican took action after Texas officials said this year that they would lobby the federal government for permission to "buy back" federal highways and charge tolls.

"I will work with members of the Texas congressional delegation and the state Legislature to ensure that Texans are never asked to pay a toll of an existing interstate highway," Hutchison said in a statement.

Texas Department of Transportation officials have said they didn't intend to place tolls on existing interstates without the blessing of local officials.

Hutchison's bill applies to existing interstate lanes and would not affect plans in Tarrant County to charge tolls on planned lanes on roads such as Interstate 35W and Northeast Loop 820, a spokesman in her Washington office said Wednesday.

Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816

© 2007 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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'TxDOT hasn't pulled out the terrorism angle'...yet

There ought to be a law about ...


The Navasota Examiner
Copyright 2007

Well, more than six hundred new Texas laws went into effect Sept. 1. Unfortunately, not one of them was about controlling the Texas Department of Transportation making propaganda films.

I'm sorry, did I say that? I mean, informative commercials about just how wonderful TxDOT wants to make our lives with brand-spanking new, wide, fast-moving roads. Now, the word "toll" was never used, let alone the phrase "Trans Texas Corridor," but, they were lurking in the background, like the shadow of an 800-pound gorilla.

Meanwhile, some people are even floating the legal possibility that TxDOT could "buy back" already-built roads; that is, it could pay the federal government its original construction costs and then make I-45, for example, a toll road.

Frankly, I'm shocked - shocked, I say - that TxDOT hasn't pulled out the terrorism angle. This would make a better commercial than anything they've run so far.

Picture a TV commercial voiceover saying, "When our roads are no longer free, then terrorists will no longer be free to use our roads. Support TxDOT's fight against terrorism by supporting the Trans Texas Corridor.

Just as no law was made about TxDOT propaganda commercials, likewise, no law was made against political stupidity, to come into effect Sept. 1. Perhaps that's why novelist/ musician Kinky Friedman said he's considering another run for governor - as a Democrat.

Contact Snyder at

© 2007 The Navasota Examiner:

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"Angela Hunt, sharply questioned city officials about what Dallas really stands to lose if voters approve the referendum and reject the road."

Toll road foe Hunt grills Dallas leaders on Trinity plan

Dallas: Park projects don't hinge on toll road funds, officials confirm

September 6, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The swirling politics over the proposed Trinity River toll road spilled into Wednesday's Dallas City Council meeting in a preview of the hard fight to come before a November referendum determines whether the road will be built as planned.

During an otherwise routine briefing on the overall parks budget, the toll road's chief opponent, council member Angela Hunt, sharply questioned city officials about what Dallas really stands to lose if voters approve the referendum and reject the road.

Pressed by Ms. Hunt, Parks Department Director Paul Dyer confirmed that an arboretum, equestrian center and white-water area – all elements of a sweeping park planned as part of the Trinity River project – aren't dependent on funds tied to the toll road.

"I think we've all heard in the media we're going to be losing money for our park. Look at these projects – they're going forward," Ms. Hunt said.

Her comments prompted Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia and council member David Neumann to quickly leap to the toll road's defense.

"We do have funding partnerships here," Ms. Garcia said.

The North Texas Tollway Authority has committed $30 million for excavation and access to the park's largest lake, she said.

Ms. Garcia also suggested that money from private funding sources could dry up if the toll road isn't built.

"We know how hard it is to do fundraising when all the pieces aren't in place and ready to go," she said.

Ms. Hunt also cautioned city employees to be careful when they discuss the acreage of the park, urging them not to refer to the park as the 10,000 acres that make up the Trinity River greenbelt from Royal Lane to Interstate 20.

"This park is not a 10,000-acre park by any stretch of the imagination," Ms. Hunt said, referring to the roughly 800 acres that would include most of the amenities in the planned park.

The council's division over city parks wasn't limited to the Trinity, however.

A discussion of Fair Park and the future of the Cotton Bowl prompted council member Mitchell Rasansky to argue that the city shouldn't put another nickel into renovation of the aging stadium until Dallas has commitments from prospective users for the next 10 years or more.

Several council members rejected that idea, saying the Cotton Bowl must be renovated before the city can hope to attract more long-term contracts.

"We can ill afford to act like we can't do anything with the Cotton Bowl," council member Dwaine Caraway said.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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Trinity River Toll Road: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rolls the dice on the first major highway to be built inside flood control levees

Put Out

If Dallas doesn't give the boys their road, they want the jewelry back

September 6, 2007

By Jim Schutze
The Dallas Observer
Copyright 2007

The nightmare anniversaries of both 9/11 and Katrina are upon us—again the dream-warped tracking shots of corpses and tangled rot, outstretched arms imploring helicopters from hopeless rooftops.

A basic element in both horror stories was the failure of engineering or politics to protect us. Especially in the Katrina story, what we took for an act of God two years ago we now know was an act of man. It wasn't the storm. It was the levees.

Someone, some group, some combination of interests, somebody told New Orleans that the Ninth Ward was safe from flooding. Even if we are never able to get a name, what do we call those people now?

Are they bastards? Did they lie? Are they traitors? Are they killers? Maybe they're just fools. Or is it none of the above? Are we all a little bit stupid, a little less smart than we think we are? Is this what we get for thinking we can rule nature?

These are the same questions that underlie the upcoming referendum on the Trinity River toll road. The Trinity River project is about flood control. Flood control through downtown Dallas is entirely a matter of dirt berms or levees along the river and electric pumps—exactly what failed in New Orleans.

Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt has repeatedly challenged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of flood control, to come up with another single instance anywhere in the United States where people have done what they propose here—a major highway inside flood control levees.

The Corps concedes it cannot. We are the test case, the roll of the dice. Since 1994, the national policy of the Corps of Engineers supposedly has been to avoid placing new structures in floodways. The Trinity River toll road, if built, will fly in the face of that policy.

Why? Why would we take that chance? Why in the wake of 9/11 and Katrina would we passively accept the vague assurances of the road boosters that all problems will be solved. Solved how? Solved by whom?

And here, I think, is the really telling point. What are the road boosters telling us about why we need to build this road?

They're saying it's very complicated. The suggestion is that maybe it's a little too complicated for us to understand, a little too complicated for them to explain. They say if we don't hurry up and sign on the dotted line, we'll lose a lot of money.

For one thing, they're threatening to take away the proposed Calatrava suspension bridges over the river, which supposedly never had any relationship with the toll road project in the first place. Those bridges were strictly "public art," a grand municipal statement, remember? It was the boosters who said the motive for the Calatrava bridges had nothing to do with the toll road.

This threat says everything about the underlying mentality. Strip away the pretense, and what they are saying is simple: "Listen, sweetheart, if you don't put out for me I'm going to have to have all that jewelry back."

I think they can make that one stick, mainly because the bridges really are baubles. The threat that requires the straight-up lying is the repeated vow that taking the toll road out from between the flood control levees will make all of the federal funding for the serious parts of the project go away.

Two weeks ago at a Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce function, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, who is leading the pro-toll road effort, rose from the audience and asked Dallas Congressman Pete Sessions a question. If the move-the-toll road forces win next November and force it out from between the flood control levees, will federal funding for the rest of the project be threatened? Sessions said yes.

I called Sessions to ask what federal funding he could possibly be talking about. The "Pegasus" project to rebuild the existing freeways through downtown is already fully studied and fully authorized. The Trinity Floodway extension project, the Trinity levee raises and the related projects on the Elm Fork of the Trinity are already studied and authorized.

The single most powerful person in the United States on these issues—arguably more powerful than the president—is Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, who represents the district where the Trinity project is being built, who is chair of the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee and who is the lead delegate of the House to the conference committee now working on revisions to the Water Resources Development Act.

Johnson has said adamantly and clearly in statements and press releases that nobody is going to yank the flood control money from the Trinity River project.

Therefore I wanted to know what money specifically Sessions thinks might dry up as a result of a vote to get the toll road out from between the flood control levees. I hope you will be as appalled as I was by the answer his office gave me.

Emily Davis, Sessions' communications director, told me at first that in Washington they don't really keep track of the money according to the specific purposes for which it will be spent: "We do not necessarily itemize, 'Here's a toll road, here's a levee system, here's a park,'" she said.

"The Trinity River project is looked at as a whole, and while there may be funding that is earmarked for particular places that then is itemized, we have sold the project as an entire piece to the appropriators."

I allowed as how I did not believe this to be the case. I didn't want to get all heavy and start hitting her with the very high grade I received in my high school civics class, almost an A if memory serves, but I did tell her I believed strongly that the appropriations process is a little more careful than that.

You know, like as least as good as my checkbook. I don't write in the ledger, "About four hundred bucks, stuff I did in Chicago." They don't appropriate $1.2 billion as "that Dallas river thing."

I tried to pin her down: "Are we talking about the flood control element? Is it WRDA money? Water resources?"

"Right," she said.

Later I asked: "There is no distinction between the flood control money and the transportation money?"

And here finally she paused, making me believe Ms. Davis may have been searching back through her own memory of high school civics class. "There is," she said at last. "I can get you specifically like how it's broken down if you want me to."

I said that was exactly what I had been hoping for all along. That was a week ago. I have tried to reach her by voice and e-mail to remind her of her promise. Radio silence. Nothing. Not a word. Sessions' staff still has never agreed to explain what federal money he was talking about.

But that's not my worst case. My worst case last week was our new mayor, Tom Leppert. I called him to ask him these same questions. He gave me a more precise argument than Sessions' staff had offered. But when I tried to ask follow-up questions, Leppert asked me to e-mail those to him. He promised to give me specific answers in time for my deadline.

Later I had a detailed conversation with Becky Mayad, his spokeswoman, in which I explained what my deadlines were and offered to stretch them out through a holiday weekend to give him as much time as possible to get back to me.

I asked him to respond, if possible, to the following points: Leppert continues to assert that the North Texas Tollway Authority is going to "dig our lakes for us" in the project but that the agreement to do so would disappear if there were no toll road between the levees.

But there is no such agreement. There is no contract. No one even knows if the NTTA would be able to use excavated river silt to build a flood-proof platform for the road.

He continues to assert that putting the toll road on Industrial Boulevard would cost much more than putting it between the levees. But no one knows what it will cost to build it between the levees.

The original assumption was that the toll road could be built on the sides of the levees. Six months ago the Corps of Engineers changed its mind and told the city the road will have to be built away from the levees with its own private levee and flood wall system and that it will have to be designed in a way that does not block water from getting through the floodway.

He never answered me. He never followed through on his agreement. Maybe I unwittingly gave him an out. I said in my e-mail, "If there are points you can offer in response, I promise that I will reflect them fairly in anything I write."

I guess maybe there weren't any points he could offer.

Look. I think right now we all have those terrible sounds in our minds—the sucking roar of the towers sinking to their knees, the cries of old people drowning in their wheelchairs. But somewhere in that discordant wail we must hear the cold, strong voice of personal responsibility.

We have an obligation to think these things through. We need to listen closely to what people say. If we don't understand, we must ask them to say it again.

That's an aspect of this upcoming election that is more important than the outcome. Sooner or later, somebody is going to have to tell the truth and spell it out. Then and only then can we vote with a clear conscience.

© 2007 The Dallas Observer:

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