Saturday, October 20, 2007

"The only folks that want the toll roads are people who profit from it."

Paving the Way for Profits

Why America's public highways are becoming private property.

Oct 19, 2007

By Daniel Gross and Temma Ehrenfeld
Copyright 2007

The process by which construction crews grind up rock with water to create cement is a relatively simple and ancient one. The process by which cement is turned into money for cash-strapped states and into a new asset class is a little more complicated, much newer--and far more controversial.

Across the country, from the Great Lakes to the shores of Southern California, the highways, roads, tunnels and parking garages that were built at public expense and for public benefit are being sold or leased to corporations. And in a related development, states with little cash but a big need for new infrastructure are partnering with private investors who are eager to ribbon states with toll roads. What's driving this is supply and demand, or rather demand and supply.

First, the supply. This summer's bridge collapse in Minneapolis tragically illustrated how badly U.S. infrastructure is in need of repair. In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that $1.6 trillion is needed over a five-year period to bring the nation's vast infrastructure network up to good condition. The Federal Highway Administration 2006 report says $79 billion a year is needed just to maintain highways and bridges and another $131.7 billion is required annually to improve them. But from the federal government in Washington down to municipal administrators in Michigan, money for new roads is hard to come by. Given their harsh fiscal realities, it's easy to see why states would rather earn cash from their roadways than spend money on them.

The demand? It's coming from pools of capital forming around the globe, seeking safe havens that provide consistent, reliable returns. For those investors, toll roads seem the way to go. The reasons: toll collection is done electronically and efficiently, traffic is rising steadily and Americans have generally not changed their driving behavior despite rising gas and toll prices. There are several major players looking to profit by paving more of America. Among the biggest are Macquarie, a massive Australian financial conglomerate, and Spanish roadway operator Cintra. But Wall Street firms aren't far behind, and investment houses like Morgan Stanley are forming funds to invest in infrastructure in the United States and around the world.

The recent trend to monetize America's infrastructure started in 2005, when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley decided to sell the Chicago Skyway, the 7.8-mile toll road that connects the Dan Ryan Expressway to the Indiana Toll Road. Just months after a $250 million modernization was completed, Chicago reaped a $1.83 billion windfall by selling a 99-year lease on the toll road to Macquarie.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels followed suit the following year by selling the Indiana Toll Road, which traverses the northern part of the Hoosier state from the Illinois border to Ohio, to a consortium of Macquarie and Cintra. The price tag: $3.8 billion for a 75-year lease. Not to be outdone, Chicago last fall agreed to sell 99-year leases on four city-owned parking garages to Morgan Stanley and a private company for $563 million to Morgan Stanley's Infrastructure Group.

Governments have also been turning to public-private partnership to build new roads. The 91 Express Lanes, a four-lane, 10-mile toll road built in the median of California's State Route 91 in Orange County, was the first privately backed American toll road built in modern times. It was constructed by a private company, which transferred ownership to the state upon completion and then leased it back for 35 years. In April 2002, the Orange County Transportation Authority bought the road back for $207.5 million. The same year California's SR-91 went operational, the Dulles Greenway, a privately owned, six-lane 14-mile toll road in suburban Virginia, opened for business.

And Macquarie of Australia is currently working on the South Bay Expressway, a 10-mile toll road running north from the U.S.-Mexico border. The $650 million road is financed by cash from Macquarie, and debt provided by banks and by the U.S. government ($154 million). In another border state, Texas, Gov. Rick Perry is hoping that the ambitious Trans-Texas Corridor project, a multiphase project that will see fast new highways criss-cross the state, will attract private investment.

What's not to like? In each case, the state and city governments set their terms in highly detailed operating agreements that force the owner (or leaser) to provide certain levels of service and maintenance, and to keep tolls and other costs under control. For the most part, the concept of enlisting private support for public works projects has drawn support from across the political spectrum. These deals also help place large capital projects off the states' balance sheets.

Last March, a consortium led by San Antonio-based Zachry Group and Spain's Cintra signed a contract with the state of Texas to build a 43-mile segment of SH-130, a toll road in Texas running from north of Austin to Seguin. Texas state highway projects have historically been funded on a pay-as-you-go basis. "We're able to go and sell bonds or some other debt instrument to raise the capital necessary to finance the construction," said Vicky Waddy, director of public affairs at Zachry Group. Once the $1.3 billion project is completed, the consortium will share toll revenues with the state.

Critics note, however, that there are several potential problems. The companies do have leeway to boost tolls, and frequently do so. And Fortune magazine's Bethany MacLean, the first reporter to sniff a rat at Enron, has raised questions about the sustainability of Macquarie's business model. Selling leases on public property are also classic one-shots: short-term, unrepeatable moves that serve to camouflage true structural deficits. And in this case, the push for public-private partnerships highlights the congenital unwillingness of elected officials at all level of government to align revenues (read: taxes) with the spending necessary to fulfill basic public responsibilities.

"We've got to acknowledge that infrastructure funding in the U.S. is at a crisis level and states are scrambling to try to come up with the funds," Rep. Terri Austin, chair of the Indiana House of Representatives Roads and Transportation Committee, who was critical of her state's decision to lease the Indiana Toll Road. While the sale produced funds for state highways, the benefits have been distributed disproportionately within Indiana. Austin is also concerned that the consortium, which froze tolls through 2016, might jack up rates. "The consortium maintains the authority to set the tolling rate upon the expiration of that freeze," she said.

What's more, the assumption behind this trend is that private entities can build and operate roads more effectively than governments can, and that shareholders can realize the maximum benefits from their investments by selling to private firms. These assumptions haven't always held true. The tunnel under the English Channel, built by a private company, has repeatedly run into trouble. Its debt was restructured in the 1990s, and it declared bankruptcy last year. Last month-13 years and billions of dollars in bad debt later-the company operating the tunnel was finally awarded an investment-grade ranking.

When the projected levels of traffic and tolls didn't materialize at the Dulles Greenway, its finances had to be restructured in 1999. (In August 2005, the owners eventually sold out to Macquarie for $617.5 million.) In August, Texas walked away from a deal to lease State Highway 121 to Cintra and a group of investors advised by JP Morgan for 50 years because the North Texas Tollway Authority, a state agency, offered substantially more. While disappointed, Cintra, which believes its offer "was the best option for both the State as well as Dallas-Ft. Worth," said it will "continue working in Texas and the rest of the United States to offer the most efficient solutions to help the public sector improve its highways" and reduce congestion. Sal Costello, founder of and, which oppose the proposal to turn 121--currently a free highway--into a toll road, says, "The only folks that want the toll roads are people who profit from it, the construction company, the toll-road operator and developers that see it as a endless slush fund."

Finally, there are signs that private owners won't do much better than governments in alleviating chronic delays. When Macquarie gained control of the South Bay Expressway project in California in 2002, it promised the road would open in late 2006. In July, the company said it could open by the end of September. Well, September has come and gone, and as the construction photos show, the South Bay Expressway is still very much a work in progress. The reason: "The contractor that was hired to build the project got behind on the construction schedule," said a Macquarie spokesperson. This week, Macquairie promised it would open on Nov. 19.

© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.:

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Is proposed I-69 'in no way associated' with Trans Texas Corridor (TTC-69)?

Commissioners hear BVCOG alternate I-69 plan


By Dave Kucifer, publisher
The Navasota Examiner
Copyright 2007

A room full of Grimes County residents, along with members of the Grimes County Commissioner Court and other county officials turned out Thursday morning to hear Michael Parks, Assistant Executive Director of the Brazos Valley Council of Governments, outline a change in the proposed route of I-69.

Prior to turning the meeting over to Parks, Grimes County Judge Betty Shiflett told the audience that the meeting was strictly an information session and commissioners would not be endorsing any particular plan. “We are on record as opposing I-69, especially the current proposed route which would bisect the county north and south.” Mr. Parks is here to explain an alternate route, one endorsed by the Council of Governments, that would use existing highways (State Hwy. 6) as much as possible and bring the proposed project closer to Bryan/College Station,” the judge said.

Parks began his remarks as saying it was the belief of the Council of Governments that it was important to get individuals involved. “The Texas Department of Transportation is expected to release its first I-69 environmental impact report soon. When the report is made public, people will have an opportunity to voice an opinion,” Parks stated.

The speaker went on to explain the reasoning behind the I-69 highway and emphasized it is in no way associated with the highly controversial Trans Texas Corridor, which also has a proposed route through Grimes County. In explaining the proposed interstate project, Parks touched on the projected state and area growth in the next 20 years and the need for additional highways. “Grimes County,” he said, “can expect a 30 percent increase. The rest of the area will also have like growth.”

In talking about the reasons for the highway project, and more especially the route change proposal, Parks listed the planned 10, 000 acre recreational park at TMPA. “This is a project the Council of Governments have been working on for over 10-years, it will be a valuable recreational asset for Grimes county and the area. Eighty percent of the state's population will live within 50 miles of Grimes County and have access to the park.” He stated.

After making his remarks and a Power Point presentation Parks took questions from the floor, again stressing that the meeting had nothing to do with the Trans Texas Corridor. “We're not talking about a 1200-1300 foot roadway that will carry automobile, truck and train traffic as well as natural gas transmission lines, we're talking about a 600-800 roadway for auto and truck traffic.” He reiterated.

In the course of his presentation Parks pointed out there was a strong possibility that I-69 could well be a toll road. “By 2009 the U.S. Highway Trust Fund will be insolvent, there is not, nor will there be sufficient gasoline tax collections to support highway construction and maintenance. The funds will have to come from somewhere, so additional toll roads are part of the solution for funding.” Parks said

Susan Boggess, president of the Anderson-Shiro CISD voiced her opposition to the I-69 issues citing tax revenue losses from property that would be taken by the highway project.

Others in the audience voiced their opinions, most of which were in opposition to any route through Grimes. Some said they have recently moved to the area from Houston to get away from the type of problems (air and noise pollution) the highway would bring. Others opposed the project saying it would lead to a higher trade deficit, after Parks pointed out that Mexico, not China, was our largest trading partner. One person expressed the belief that it would result in still more jobs leaving the country and going Mexico.

The meeting concluded with Precinct 3 Commissioner Julian Melchor making the motion that commissioners draft a resolution regarding its position on the I-69 project and hold another meeting after County Attorney Jon Fultz suggested that while the county did not endorse the project, but left with the choice it would probably favor the BVCOG proposed over the original proposal.

City to invite BVCOG to make presentation

City Manager Brad Stafford and Mayor Bert Miller said they intend to invite Parks to make his presentation to City Council in the near future.

The mayor and city manager both said they have mixed feelings regarding the proposed project but did see more advantages to the Council of Governments' route proposal than the original route.

“There may be a long time before anyone looks at the environmental impact report; some say it will be released soon, others are not so sure. Regardless, we need to wait. We would like an opportunity to talk with our industries and learn their feelings. Grant Prideco ships a lot of material; so do other industries,” the pair said.

Both said they thought the Thursday morning meeting was informative and interesting. “It was obvious there is a great deal of interest in the project and the possibility of alternate routes. We think Michael is very knowledgeable about every aspect of I-69 and its effect on Navasota and Grimes county. We were glad to see that he did an excellent job of separating the interstate proposal from the Trans Texas Corridor. It was obvious some had the two confused,” the mayor said.

Related Links:
Gov. Rick Perry: "Let's resuscitate I-69 as TTC-69."

© 2007 The Navasota Examiner:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"Taxpayers should wonder why we are asked to issue bonds when state government has a surplus...Voters shouldn't write a blank check to TxDOT."


More money for state?

Oct. 19, 2007

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

Taxpayers, it's time to open your wallets. November ballot initiatives total almost $10 billion in state spending. School districts are asking for almost $7 billion more in taxes, and local governments are seeking $9 billion in bonds.

Texans will be asked to consider shouldering considerable additional public debt with numerous measures on Nov. 6. Currently, the state's outstanding general-obligation bond debt is $7.5 billion. If passed, the state initiatives could more than double that.

Local governments -- including the 106 school districts seeking tax increases and the 52 school districts, 12 cities, seven counties and three colleges asking for bond approvals -- will hit taxpayers' pocketbooks even harder.

This building debt is particularly problematic because taxpayers already carry considerable government debt. The interest payments on local government debt in Texas total more than what local governments spend on police and fire protection combined.

Local governments have increased their spending at an unsustainable rate -- in 25 years, an astonishing 158 percent when per-person income increased by only 39 percent. Local government debt has grown at an even more alarming rate, increasing 270 percent in the same period.

That comes out to $132 billion in debt for local governments -- more than $5,700 for every man, woman and child in Texas.

Although local tax increases and bond initiatives are worthy of close public scrutiny, ballot issues dealing with state-issued bonds are the real problem for taxpayers. The Texas Constitution prohibits state debt. Voter approval will mean another amendment. Since 1874, voters have supported 69 percent of the Legislature's 634 proposed amendments.

Many ballot initiatives sound worthwhile, but taxpayers should wonder why we are asked to issue bonds when state government has a surplus. We hear a lot of talk about spending tax dollars for the children. But these spending measures are bad news for future taxpayers -- today's children.

Here is a list of what the November bond ballot initiatives will mean to our pocketbooks. The five general obligation bonds could commit Texas taxpayers to $9.75 billion, plus interest.

Proposition 2 will issue $500 million for student college loans. Though the program should pay for itself, taxpayers could end up bailing the program out if it becomes insolvent. The federal government and numerous private lenders already offer student loans.

Simply funding more loans while allowing tuition to climb won't make college more affordable, and requiring little fiscal accountability on how higher-education dollars are spent is not in the best interest of taxpayers or students.

Proposition 4 will issue $1 billion to pay for repair, maintenance, improvement and construction projects. Though $57 million in state funds have been obligated to pay for debt service, and many of these projects appear deserving of some funding, we have a state budget surplus.

Proposition 12 will allow for $5 billion for highway improvement projects. Yet the Texas Department of Transportation still has not drawn down $3 billion in bonds from a 2003 referendum. Voters shouldn't write a blank check to the department.

Because of a previous constitutional amendment, one-quarter of our state gasoline taxes go to education. This revenue should be redirected to transportation. With more fuel-efficient cars on the road, the gas tax does not provide enough funding to keep up with needed repairs. The state should be able to use dedicated funds and not obligate future state revenue and taxpayers.

Proposition 15 will authorize $3 billion for cancer research. Although Texans would agree that finding a cure for cancer is important, heart disease kills more people than cancer. Why fund just cancer research? Why Texas? Is it a state responsibility? And if it is so important, why not fund it from the state budget?

If medical research is a role of state government, the funds should come out of the taxes we already pay. Add to that price tag the $1.6 billion in interest costs that the bonds will reportedly generate. Texans want a cure for cancer, but we should question whether $3 billion-plus in public money is the real remedy.

Proposition 16 will allow the Water Development Board to issue up to $250 million in bonds to help distressed communities. The board has estimated a need for $5.4 billion and has $12 million more in remaining bond authority. The program appears to be a black hole with more outreach in unincorporated and hard-to-serve areas every time the opportunity for more money becomes available. Taxpayers can't afford to continue this program.

Perhaps we should call all bond initiatives a tax increase. Voters would think twice before voting "yes" on something that sounds good but costs too much. It's time for voters to just say "no" to more state spending.

Coming Monday

The Star-Telegram Editorial Board's recommendations on the 16 proposed amendments.
Peggy Venable is director of the 16,000-member Texas chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

© 2007 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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"Privatizing and letting the private companies own our toll roads is not the answer."

Taxpayers face $5B in transportation debt with November's Proposition 12

October 19, 2007

The Longview News-Journal
Copyright 2007

The saga of Texas transportation funding turns a critical page Nov. 6, when voters decide whether to overlay $5 billion in debt on state highways.

On Wednesday, a local mobility board asked residents to support the bond package, which it says could mean more money for East Texas road projects. Proposition 12 is a constitutional amendment that would let the state borrow money for highway improvement projects.

Texas Senate Joint Resolution 64, which called for Proposition 12, passed by a unanimous vote in both the House and Senate.

"I think Prop 12 is a step in the right direction to provide the Texas Department of Transportation the funding it needs for infrastructure improvements," said state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, a longtime supporter of pay-as-you-go government. Proposition 12 is the largest of four bond proposals on the Nov. 6 ballot, which together would bring roughly $6.75 billion in new state debt.

In the past six years, more than $6 billion in bonds have been issued for state highways through two constitutional amendments that voters passed in 2001 and 2003.

Texas Transportation Commission officials say there is a $77 billion shortfall between available revenue and needed road work statewide. The state highway department is mostly funded through federal money and dedicated accounts, including the state's 20 cent -per-gallon tax on motor fuels — to which 15 cents of each gallon is deposited into the State Highway Fund and the remainder into the Available School Fund, according to the House Research Organization.

"We're running out of money," said Jeff Austin III, chairman of the Northeast Texas Regional Mobility Authority. "We can't keep waiting on Washington. We can't keep waiting on Austin."

RMA Legal Counsel Brian Cassidy added, "This was a dismal session for legislative funding. At a time when the state's maintenance needs are increasing, the state's funding is diminishing."

As an example, the RMA chairman suggested Henderson's transportation requests, which include rail extension, widening of Texas 64 and a three-mile expansion of Loop 571. Money from Proposition 12 could join with a city or county funding match to pay for any or all of those projects, Austin said.

Eltife continued his call for increasing the gas tax, something he's suggested since taking office in 2006. The 20 cent-per-gallon rate has not increased in 16 years, but raising that rate would mean less borrowing for highway projects and less privatization or tolling of state roads, he said.

"Privatizing and letting the private companies own our toll roads is not the answer," Eltife said Thursday. "Everybody is Austin is yelling that we don't have funds for TxDOT, but no one is saying we need to raise the gas tax."

© 2007 The Longview News-Journal:

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"TxDOT is waging a one-sided political ad campaign designed to sway public opinion in favor of the policy that puts money in TxDOT's own coffers."

TxDOT use of public funds is political, organization says


By William Gest
The Daily Texan
Copyright 2007

A lawsuit seeking an injunction against a Texas Department of Transportation-funded advertising campaign that promotes toll roads will continue after a ruling Thursday.

State District Judge Orlinda Naranjo granted the plaintiff's request for continuance and a new hearing in 90 days, ending TxDOT's hopes for quick dismissal of the case, but delaying an injunction for at least that long.

The lawsuit was filed in September by Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, an organization that opposes toll road expansion in Texas. Terri Hall, founder and director of the organization, said that toll roads amount to taxation by private, unaccountable corporations and that TxDOT has refused to consider transportation alternatives.

"The tactics that they are pushing will continue to be privately funded toll roads," she said.

The organization alleges that TxDOT has illegally used public funds to pay for its "Keep Texas Moving" campaign.

"TxDOT is waging a one-sided political ad campaign designed to sway public opinion in favor of the policy that puts money in TxDOT's own coffers," Hall said.

Hall cited Chapter 556 of the Texas Government Code, which prohibits state agencies from using public funding for political advocacy.

Kristina Silcox, attorney for TxDOT, argued that the ad campaign is a public education effort and is fully legal under a different law, Section 228.004 of the Transportation Code, which specifically allows for the marketing of toll projects.

Thursday's ruling follows a Sept. 24 hearing in which Naranjo denied the group's request for a temporary restraining order that would have halted the campaign.

Hall's attorney Charles Riley said Thursday's ruling would allow time to amass evidence confirming the illegality of TxDOT's actions.

"This allows us to get into TxDOT's memorandums to show that this campaign is purely political," Riley said.

Though the campaign continues, Hall called the ruling a victory for taxpayers.

"The state wanted us thrown out of court," she said. "The case is being kept alive."

© 2007 The Daily Texan:


TURF Awarded More Time In Fight Against TxDOT

Judge Says TURF Has 90 Days To Prepare Case

October 18, 2007
Copyright 2007

SAN ANTONIO -- A San Antonio mom who waged war on the Texas Department of Transportation and toll roads has been given a little more time to put together a case against TxDOT.

The ruling was made Thursday in an Austin courtroom.

The group heading up this movement is called Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, or TURF.

They've been fighting TxDOT on all aspects of toll roads for years, citing everything from environmental concerns to, in this case, claims that TxDOT used taxpayer dollars to fund a pro-toll-road ad campaign.

On Thursday, a judge was set to make a ruling on whether to file an injunction based on those claims, but instead, TURF's attorney, Charles Riley, asked the judge for a continuance or a postponement.

Riley said TURF has uncovered more evidence to back up its allegations, and he said he wants a little time to get it all together.

"We've uncovered a number of e-mails and internal documents of TxDOT that clearly show this is a political campaign targeting certain audiences to try and turn the public in favor of toll road policy," Riley said.

"We're just delighted the judge is willing to hear our arguments and give us a fair shot," TURF spokeswoman Terri Hall said.

TxDOT's attorneys did fight that request, but the judge ruled in TURF's favor and set another hearing date for 90 days from Thursday.

© 2007


Judge Grants Anti-Toll Road Group More Time

Oct 18, 2007 (NBC)
Clear Channel Inc.
Copyright 2007

A judge in Austin granted an anti-toll road group more time to make their case against the Texas Department of Transportation during a hearing Thursday.

The group Texans United For Reform and Freedom, or TURF, filed a lawsuit against the TxDOT, claiming the state agency had violated the law by using tax dollars to promote toll roads.

Thursday's hearing at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin was fairly short but to the point.

The attorneys for TURF were hoping to get a little more time to research the allegations of illegal lobbying and use of taxpayer money to fund TxDOT's toll road advertisements. The ads are part of the agency's "Keep Texas Moving" campaign, which stresses the need for toll roads.

While the state argues current laws make it perfectly legal for toll roads to be built in San Antonio, TURF argues the campaign is political and shouldn't be.

The judge didn't rule on the allegations, but granted a continuance. The judge's move is considered a small victory for TURF.

News 4 tried to catch up with the state's attorneys, but they declined to comment.

TURF was given a 90-day continuance, meaning both sides are due back in court in January.

© 2007 Clear Channel Broadcasting, Inc.


Group Given Time To Prove Suit Against Toll Road Campaign

Oct 18, 2007

Copyright 2007

An Austin judge has given a group more time to prove its lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation's toll road campaign.

Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, or TURF, said the Keep Texas Moving campaign is political, and the law does not allow TxDOT to use taxpayer dollars to advocate public policy.

The Office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the campaign is informational and well within its reach.

Judge Orlinda Naranjo on Thursday gave the plaintiffs a 90-day continuance for fact finding.

"We've already uncovered some internal memos," said Charles Riley, the plaintiff's attorney. "And we want to be able to ask the people who wrote those memos what exactly they're talking about when they say, 'We're gonna target this area to change people's minds. We're gonna discredit the adversaries.'"

Riley said the next step is to depose individuals involved with this campaigning.

Kristina Silcocks, who represents TxDOT from the attorney general's office, did not want to speak on camera.

© 2007 WorldNow and KXAN

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

TxDOT to hold town hall and public meetings for TTC-69 in 2008

Details on TTC-69 to be released later this year

October 18, 2007

By Matthew Stoff
Nacodoches Daily Sentinel
Copyright 2007

A more detailed map of the long-anticipated Trans-Texas Corridor interstate highway project will become available at the end of the year with the release of a draft environmental report, according to Texas Department of Transportation officials.

Doug Booher, a manager in the turnpike division of TxDOT, said the report will document the proposed route of TTC-69, which is projected to run through East Texas and has been narrowed from an area 60 miles wide to a strip only a half mile to four miles wide. TTC-69 is one of a series of "priority corridors," including TTC-35, designated for development throughout the state.

The final placement of the highway and related facilities, which will extend from Texas to the Mid-Western United States, will not be planned for another three-to-five years, according to Booher, and construction may not begin until years after that.

As part of the planning and public education process, the state agency will host a series of town hall meetings and public hearings to answer questions and receive feedback about the project sometime next year.

"The corridor may change, it may be tweaked, it may be adjusted based on public comment as it is a draft corridor," said Booher. "That's one of the reasons we're going out to the public."

Booher said his agency is heeding advice from the public to look at expanding existing infrastructure like U.S. Hwy. 59 before building new structures.

"We're certainly not going to propose building anything that's not needed. That's a common misconception," he said. "It's not going to be this grandiose highway unless it's needed. Unless we need separate truck lanes, they're not going to be built."

The highway project was added to the national highway system in 1994 and has received mixed amounts of publicity since Gov. Rick Perry announced his vision for a series of Trans-Texas Corridors in 2002. According to, the official Web site of the project, new highways are necessary to face the state's rapidly growing population.

TxDOT spokeswoman Gaby Garcia said a series of town hall meetings will provide information to citizens that hasn't previously been available. A more formal public hearing later next year will permit the public "to review the document, see the recommended study areas in the document and provide comment on that we'll then go back and analyze after those hearings are over," she said. "It is their comments that's going to shape the final decisions on TTC-69."

The task of bankrolling the project is almost completely in the hands of the state government, according to Booher and Garcia.

"There is not any federal funding identified for I-69 for construction purposes," Booher said. "State funds are also challenged right now."

TxDOT is considering a combination of government funds, private investment, equity bonds and tolls to pay for the construction, though the agency has repeatedly said that no existing lanes will be tolled to pay for the project.

"A lot of things have to happen," Booher said. "It's a very long and complex process."

© 2007 Nacodoches Daily Sentinel:

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"Tolls often skyrocket under private owners, though with the blessing of elected officials, who avoid the political costs of raising tolls or taxes."

They Really Do Own the Road

Oct. 18, 2007

Copyright 2007

Pennsylvanians had been clamoring for a new road between Philadelphia and Lancaster for years, but the government just couldn't afford it. So in 1792 the state chartered a company that would build the nation's first private turnpike--62 miles (100 km) of stone and gravel--in exchange for the right to collect tolls. Today Pennsylvania finds itself in a similar bind, with the money it needs for roads and bridges far outstripping the money it gets from the gas tax and other revenue streams. So Governor Ed Rendell is turning back the clock, proposing a slew of deals with the private sector, starting with a long-term lease of the 359-mile (578 km) Pennsylvania Turnpike, which could bring the state an estimated $12 billion to $18 billion up front. "We have to be as creative as heck to get out there and fund our infrastructure needs," says Rendell.

For states and cities looking to upgrade or replace aging infrastructure, partnering with private players is the biggest idea to come along since the interstate highway system started ribboning the country with asphalt in the 1950s. The appeal: governments can stop worrying about roads, bridges and tunnels, and companies get lucrative leases that allow them to collect money from drivers for generations. The craze is being driven by investors who crave the steady cash flow of decades' worth of tolls. There are 71 projects worth $104 billion being considered for private development by state and local governments, according to the publication Public Works Financing. The proposals are feeding a new pack of investment funds from the likes of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and the Carlyle Group--as well as controversy over how roads should be paid for.

The deals, common in Europe for decades, got jump-started in the U.S. in 2005 when Chicago enriched its treasury by $1.8 billion by selling a 99-year lease of the Chicago Skyway to Spanish roads operator Cintra and Australian bank Macquarie. At about the same time, Texas bagged $1.2 billion to let a Cintra-led consortium build the first part of the Trans-Texas Corridor and collect tolls on it for 50 years. In 2006 Indiana signed a 75-year lease for the 157-mile (253 km) Indiana Toll Road in exchange for $3.8 billion, funding the state's transportation needs for the next decade--and grabbing the attention of other budget-conscious states. "It was an earthquake in transportation," says Bob Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation, a think tank.

But since the spring, a backlash has taken hold. Texas, a pioneer in privatization under the enthusiastic leadership of Governor Rick Perry, saw its legislature impose a two-year moratorium on new projects. The Pennsylvania legislature bounced Rendell's first attempt to privatize the turnpike, though now he's trying again in the wake of shifting state politics. The mother of all toll roads, the New Jersey Turnpike, is under review, but Governor Jon Corzine, a former Goldman chairman, disappointed eager bankers in June when he flatly stated, "We're not going to privatize."

The issue exploded last May when a letter was sent by the House Transportation Committee's James Oberstar of Minnesota and Peter DeFazio of Oregon to all 50 Governors, expressing concern that a flood of local deals might put "parochial and private interests" ahead of an "integrated national transportation network"--and threatening to undo any deals found not to be in the public's interest. That's pointedly at odds with the Department of Transportation (dot), which, following the lead of the Bush Administration, has been a huge supporter of privatization and helped pave the way by letting some companies issue debt with the same tax advantages as municipal bonds. The dot also drafted model legislation for states considering deals and in at least one case--when Texas backed off a deal with Cintra--threatened to withhold funds.

So what's not to love? The most common gripe is populist. Tolls often skyrocket under private owners, though with the blessing of elected officials, who avoid the political costs of raising tolls or taxes themselves. That's how privatized roads deliver double-digit returns for investors and often lead to upgrades like electronic tolling. But there are other devils lurking in the details, like noncompete clauses that may prevent transportation agencies from building new roads, or the inability to use roads for economic development by, say, adding a new exit to attract businesses. Some officials get queasy about locking themselves into long leases; Colorado officials already regret offering a 99-year lease for the Northwest Parkway. Others are turned off by the hard sell from investment bankers who advise states on some deals and bid on others. "This should be the last option," says Texas state senator John Carona, "not the first."

At the core of the debate is a fundamental issue: Is building roads one of those things, like trade policy, that only the Federal Government should steer, or is there a better way? Forty-five percent of the money spent on American roads comes to the states from the Federal Government, but Congress hasn't raised the gas tax, its main source of highway funds, since 1993. And that's just fine by people who find the free market efficient and earmark-free.

The debate is more than philosophical. Even before the recent Minnesota bridge collapse, commuters in crowded corridors from Atlanta to northern Virginia knew that our infrastructure needed investment and that capacity hadn't kept pace with demand. It hasn't helped that many state politicians have been just as reluctant as Congress to raise gas taxes. Or that thanks to the surging price of materials like petroleum and steel, the cost to build highways has jumped 43% since the beginning of 2004.

Money from the private sector could help fill that gap, but there is more than one way to get it. Deals like the Chicago Skyway and Indiana Toll Road, which lease existing assets, may tap the private sector's operating prowess and political immunity in raising tolls, but critics see them as long-term mortgages to solve short-term fiscal problems. "People are giving public-private partnership a bad name by running around the countryside trying to entice cash-strapped states and municipalities to participate in these monetizations," says Tim Carson, vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Turnpike commission and a public-finance lawyer.

Carson argues that the public sector can wring plenty of cash out of toll roads by essentially behaving like the private sector and charging market rates for usage. The express lanes of State Road 91 in Southern California, for example, carry some of the highest tolls in the nation--at peak hours, nearly a dollar a mile--which may annoy drivers but help pay for the state's transportation needs. The Pennsylvania Turnpike commission has produced a plan to raise turnpike tolls and attach tolls to other roads in the state.

Deals in which the private sector actually builds new infrastructure are usually a better bargain for the public. The state or city gets a new stretch of highway or a bridge or a tunnel, and it shifts risk to its private partner--a genuine benefit. If construction costs spike or expected traffic doesn't materialize, that's the company's problem. "We've had some governments say to us, 'I don't really need to be in that business,'" says Mark Florian, who oversees infrastructure deals for Goldman Sachs. These so-called greenfield projects are starting to catch on. And some states are getting savvy about how to structure the terms. The 50-year lease for Texas' State Highway 130, for example, includes a revenue-sharing clause that nets the state 4.6% of gross receipts at first and up to 50% as traffic increases--just in case the road proves more valuable than predicted.

And even though 2007 has placed a few speed bumps in their way, public-private partnerships are almost certainly here to stay. Many of the financiers who run infrastructure funds actively drum up deals--some states allow unsolicited bids, and bankers have fanned across the country in response--and the big global players in infrastructure have set up shop too. Worldwide, somewhere from $50 billion to $150 billion worth of equity is waiting to be invested in infrastructure of all stripes (including assets like airports and water systems), and much of that is trained on the U.S. "U.S. infrastructure needs lots and lots of capital, and it's not obvious where all that money is going to come from," says Murray Bleach, who runs U.S. operations for Macquarie. "The potential is huge." With all that cash waiting in the wings, other concerns may not stand a chance.

© 2007 Time Inc.: www.

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"No small group of activists alone could force such a vote. More than 48,000 Dallas voters signing a petition this year to prompt the referendum."

Ad Watch: Trinity road vote

October 18, 2007

Dave Levinthal
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Checking out the pro-Trinity River toll road organization's latest campaign mailer to Dallas residents:

DETAILS: It's a four-panel color brochure that the Vote No! Save the Trinity organization says it's mailing to 100,000 households.

CONTENT: The cover pictures a path made of $100 and $20 bills. It's surrounded by trees and a green field. Superimposed over the image are the words, "The Angela Hunt Plan: Leading Dallas down the road to new Trinity taxes." Two of the three remaining panels quote several sources – Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, North Central Texas Council of Governments transportation director Michael Morris and two Dallas Morning News pieces – discussing why a Trinity River Corridor toll road should be built inside the corridor's levee walls, as planned. The final panel urges voters to "say 'no' to new Trinity road taxes by voting 'no' on Nov. 6." It also displays a North Texas Tollway Authority conceptual drawing of the planned tollway's location relative to planned lakes and parkland just northwest of downtown.

ANALYSIS: This second mass Vote No! mailing in three weeks indicates that the well-heeled organization will outclass its counterpart, the anti-toll road TrinityVote group, where advertising is concerned. Save for a few billboards, cash-strapped TrinityVote hasn't produced any mass advertising, with leaders saying they're focused on "grass-roots campaigning." But TrinityVote enjoys a simple, almost singular message: Don't build a big, ugly, polluting toll road, carrying tens of thousands of cars and trucks each day, right next to our beautiful park. Vote No!, in contrast, must convince voters that they should continue to support building a toll road within the Trinity floodway. Unable to offer one overriding motivator to vote no on Nov. 6, they've resorted in this mailer and others to a patchwork quilt of reasons, such as the potential loss of transportation funding, the specter of higher taxes, increased traffic congestion and decreased economic development. Vote No! backers acknowledge theirs is a tougher sell. They're not making it any easier on themselves, either, by erroneously stating in this latest mailer that "a small group of activists, led by Angela Hunt, have forced a referendum to redesign the Trinity Parkway." In truth, no small group of activists alone could force such a vote. It took more than 48,000 Dallas voters signing a petition this year to prompt the referendum. The mailer also states that if Ms. Hunt's forces win, "they could throw this beautiful, well-planned project into limbo, and Dallas could lose more than $1 billion in road funding." Vote No! supporters have been unable to itemize that dollar figure, and there's no concrete number for how much money Dallas could lose – or how much the city would need to increase taxes, if at all – if Dallasites pass TrinityVote's Proposition 1 next month.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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"The nation is tired of Texans, period."

Perry's VP chances could ride on Giuliani

Governor endorses Republican presidential candidate

Oct. 18, 2007

Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Gov. Rick Perry's endorsement Wednesday of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for the Republican presidential nomination sparked renewed speculation that Perry is seeking a spot on the ticket as a vice-presidential candidate.

"I would say that Gov. Perry is at the top of everyone's list, my own and any other Republican nominee," Giuliani said in a conference call with reporters. "He's governor of one of our largest states. He's a very successful governor."

When asked about the speculation, Perry was quick to say, "I won't consider that." But he also declined to say whether that meant he would turn down a vice-presidential slot on the ticket if it is offered.

"I have a really, really good job. I love my job. As a matter of fact, I just had to move out of the mansion, and I'm not looking for another move," said Perry, referring to the remodeling of the Governor's Mansion.

Perry's endorsement of Giuliani was unusual because the conservative governor differs with Giuliani on numerous issues, including Perry's opposition to abortion and support for gun rights.

Perry downplayed their differences on abortion, saying Giuliani would appoint "strict constructionists" to the U.S. Supreme Court who would have an impact on limiting abortions.

Perry said a presidency under Democrat Hillary Clinton would lead to court appointments "that would cause people to wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night."

Perry also said Giuliani understands there are differences on what kind of firearm limits might work in New York and not work in Texas or other places.

Perry made it clear that one of his biggest reasons for backing Giuliani is a belief that he can win the presidency.

"The mayor knows how to lead. He knows how to get results, and he knows how to win," Perry said.

But the endorsement definitely represents a case of politics making for strange bedfellows.

Giuliani is taking support from a governor who was re-elected with 39 percent of the vote and has lost support among his Republican base over the past year. Conservative Perry is signing on with the most moderate candidate in the Republican field.

'Tired of Texans'

"Texans supporting the mayor of New York City? Get a rope," joked Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who is backing Republican Fred Thompson for president.

Thompson this week announced Patterson and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott as his state chairs.

"As far as helping Rudy carry Texas in the primary, this is of no impact. The governor is an unpopular governor," Patterson said, noting that Perry has been in office since 2000, "wearing out his welcome."

Patterson said he could see why Giuliani might want Perry on the ticket with him, though. He said Perry's conservative image would help Giuliani in the South and West. Patterson said he thought Perry would hurt Giuliani in the rest of the country.

"The nation is tired of Texans, period. It makes no difference who it is," Patterson said.

John Weaver, a GOP consultant who was a key consultant on Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign until earlier this year, said the endorsement will be a great boost nationally for both Perry and Giuliani.

Weaver said Perry's endorsement gives "air cover" to other conservatives who might want to throw their support behind Giuliani for president: "Rick becomes a validation for other conservatives."

For Perry, joining Giuliani's campaign will give the governor the opportunity to become a major national surrogate speaker, Weaver said. He noted that Perry is about to ascend to a leadership role in the Republican Governors Association.

"It gives you another vehicle other than the Republican Governors Association to get out and about outside the borders of Texas," Weaver said.

Weaver said the early presidential primaries make it unlikely the nomination battle will still be alive when Texans vote March 4. He said the nomination likely will be all but settled in multistate voting Feb. 5.

Cathie Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum, a conservative political organization, said she is "disappointed" that Perry would endorse a candidate who is as moderate as Giuliani.

'The rest of the story'

Adams said that is especially true after Perry last month told California Republicans to shun candidates who don't adhere to the party's principles, including opposition to abortion.

"He (Perry) was throwing them red meat," Adams said. "But they don't know the rest of the story."

Republican consultant Mark Sanders worked for Democrat Tony Sanchez against Perry in the 2002 election and for independent Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn in 2006. He said Perry's 39 percent victory in 2006 will keep him off any Republican presidential ticket.

"I don't know of anybody in the presidential field who is seriously considering Rick Perry as a vice-presidential candidate," Sanders said. "He doesn't bring much to the table."

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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The Bridge to Deception

Court looking at state's promotion of toll-road plan

TxDOT coached on thwarting toll foes on talk radio

Oct. 17, 2007

Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — When Texas transportation officials talk about bridges these days, they don't necessarily mean steel spans and concrete girders. Instead, they are being taught how to "bridge" from off-message questions to their own talking points in a toll-road campaign.

"You will often be asked questions that don't get to the points you wish to make or that you don't wish to answer," says a "radio interview techniques" section of Texas Department of Transportation documents released under the Public Information Act. "You can use bridging to turn the question to your points."

One useful phrase, suggests the document — prepared by consultants who are to be paid $24,500 for talk-radio training for the campaign, and tweaked by the department — is this: " ... I think what you are really asking is ... "

The document also offers this timeless advice: "Keep calm. Leave wrestling to the pigs. They always end up looking like pigs."

The training document is part of the multimillion-dollar Keep Texas Moving campaign, the subject of a court hearing today.

The hearing comes after activist Terri Hall of the San Antonio Toll Party and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom filed a court petition to stop the agency from spending public funds on the campaign, projected to cost $7 million to $9 million in highway money.

Hall also wants to block any lobbying attempts by transportation officials to persuade Congress to allow more toll roads.

The Keep Texas Moving campaign has a focus on toll roads and the proposed transportation network known as the Trans-Texas Corridor. Both are touted by GOP Gov. Rick Perry and others as necessary in the face of congestion and gas-tax revenues that fall short of meeting road needs. Criticism has centered on the potential corridor route and on the state partnering with private firms to run toll roads.

In her court filing, Hall contends that transportation officials, in promoting the initiatives, are violating a ban on lobbying and on using their authority for political purposes.

Hall also has filed a complaint with the Travis County district attorney's office, which is looking into the merits of the case, said Assistant District Attorney Beverly Mathews.

The state says that TxDOT is allowed by law to promote toll projects and that its campaign is a response to a call from the public and from elected officials for more information on road initiatives.

State District Judge Orlinda Naranjo of Travis County last month refused to order an immediate stop to the spending. Naranjo today will consider a state request that she dismiss the case.

The state contends the legal complaint is moot because an existing contract for media services was due to end Sept. 30.

Thompson Marketing of San Antonio got a state contract of nearly $2 million last year for the first phase of the project, which included a marketing development plan and such items as TV and radio spots, print ads, Internet banner ads and billboards.

The company billed the agency in March regarding a Senate transportation hearing and in April and May for "legislature, media monitoring for strategic planning, messaging." Lawmakers this year worked to curb new private toll projects.

The state plans no more spending on "any future media placement under the current Keep Texas Moving campaign," but still needs to pay Thompson Marketing for some previous work, said an affidavit by Helen Havelka, the campaign's manager.

The agency also has a $20,000 contract for talk-radio training for transportation officials with the Rodman Co. of Portland, which subcontracted with ViaNovo, whose team includes former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd. It plans another $4,500 training class and the two consulting companies plan two telephone town-hall meetings at a cost of $17,480.

Rodman and ViaNovo worked on the radio training guide, said TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott, who also had input on the document, "Talking on Talk Radio."

"The talk radio environment runs the gamut from productive and thoughtful to vitriolic and silly" Lippincott said. "We certainly want to prepare (agency spokespeople) for all possibilities, and that includes everyone from a skeptical talk-show host to an outright hostile caller."

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"This is about much more than a fight over a road. This is a fight over destiny."

Gunfight at the Trinity

The biggest shoot-out in Dallas' political history

October 18, 2007

By Jim Schutze
The Dallas Observer
Copyright 2007

As of a year ago, I had been writing critical stories and columns about the Trinity River project for a decade. I went to work for the Dallas Observer in 1998 in part because I knew it was the one place in Dallas where I could write honestly about the Trinity. And by last year, I have to tell you, I was sick of the whole thing.

Worse than sick. Heart-sick.

So were all of the people who had served as my best sources. Two dark angels hovered over them named Defeat and Despair.

I hated calling my Trinity sources. The sigh in their voices when they heard me on the other end made me feel like a guy on an 800 number calling during the dinner hour to sell identity theft insurance.

Jeanie Fritz, one of the stalwarts in the anti-toll road campaign, agreed with me recently that things a year ago were at a low ebb. "We weren't exactly giving up," she said, "but the spark wasn't there. We didn't have many good ideas."

David Gray, a computer engineer who was at the center of all the big Trinity River fights from the late 1990s, told me: "We were all in a state of despair. 'This thing's coming. Is there any hope of a lawsuit? Are they going to get the money? Can we keep them from getting the money? Probably not.'

"We were still meeting, but no one really felt like there was much we could do to stop that freight train."

The Trinity River toll road, a multi-lane high-speed highway and truck route between the flood control levees downtown where the voters had been told a park was to be built in 1998, did indeed feel like a head-on freight train with whistles blowing.

And then all of a sudden in the fall of 2006, everything changed. The opposition to the toll road caught a spark again, ignited into flames and roared back to life, bigger than ever.

Two weeks from now, depending on what happens in the Trinity toll road referendum, that movement may achieve deep permanent change in the fundamental political nature of the city.

If the anti-toll road forces win on November 6, their victory will constitute the single biggest electoral victory of a grassroots coalition—and the single most devastating defeat of the old downtown power elite—that I have seen in my 30 years covering Dallas politics.

The Trinity project, whichever way it goes, will be one of the largest public works projects in Dallas history. Whether it's a 10-mile high-speed toll road jammed with 18-wheelers and suburban commuters, or the river park voters approved in 1998, the project will change the face of the downtown area for generations to come.

On one side of the fight are the city's biggest power brokers—including oilman Ray Hunt, real estate magnate Harlan Crow and Dallas Morning News publisher Robert Decherd. This group—toll-road supporters from the beginning—have lined up almost every single officeholder from City Hall to the Congress on their side.

And yet, for all their wealth and power, they have been stymied by a coalition of environmentalists, fiscal conservatives and urban activists who want to get the toll road out of the planned river park downtown. Their de facto leader is a young, relatively inexperienced councilwoman named Angela Hunt. Somehow, this group has turned the tide in the city, gathering 91,000 signatures in just 60 days to call for the coming referendum vote, a remarkable display of the power of civic engagement.

This is the story of how it happened.

Late in 2006 I was invited to a secret planning session for a group of activists interested in stopping the Trinity River toll road. I can't tell you how badly I did not want to go. First of all, it was going to ruin half of a lovely weekend day. In the second place, under the terms of the invitation I would not be able to write about it for months. I suspected I would not want to write about it ever.

And finally, and most guiltily, I didn't want to face the faces. I expected this to be the same small cadre of people who had explained to me what was wrong with the Trinity project 10 years earlier when I was the Dallas reporter for the Houston Chronicle.

They had fought the good fight. And lost. Several times. Originally Ned Fritz, founder of the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, fought the Trinity River project because he believed it was a dangerous, destructive plan that flew in the face of national flood control policy and would one day cost lives.

When I was still at the Chronicle, Fritz steered me to the "Galloway Report," a study of national and global flood control knowledge commissioned by the White House after disastrous floods on the Upper Mississippi in the early 1990s. I wrote a story for the Chronicle in which I quoted flood control experts around the country saying that the Trinity plan in Dallas, building new structures in a floodway, was unsafe and irresponsible.

Eventually the Bush White House took the Trinity project out of the president's budget, agreeing that it was not a worthy project. But Dallas leaders succeeded in pushing the local congressional delegation to stick it back into the congressional budget as an earmark. So the battle to kill it at the level of national flood control policy was lost.

In the meantime, another battle was lost in the bond election to fund the Trinity project. Fritz and a coalition of community activists were hugely out-spent by proponents of the project, and they were defeated, albeit narrowly, at the polls.

After the election, another loose alliance of environmentalists and citizen watchdog groups brought two suits against the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one in federal court on environmental grounds and the other in state court arguing the city had done a "bait and switch" on voters, promising to use the 1998 bond money for parks but diverting it instead to a toll road and other uses.

The federal judge refused to look at evidence that the Corps had faked its justifications for the project, even though that was precisely why the Bush White House had tossed it out of the presidential budget. So the antis lost that suit.

The state judge ruled against the antis, agreeing with lawyers for the city that the city was not bound by promises it had made in any of its own pamphlets, publications or public utterances.

These were bitter defeats for the antis, because both rulings seemed to be based on narrow, technical readings of the law and not on fairness or common sense. It knocked the wind out of them. The fight to stop the toll road was comatose, if not dead.

I was feeling pretty comatose myself. In my column for the Observer, I had taken a strong advocacy position in support of the people fighting the road. Over 10 years, the toll road foes had lost so many bitter battles that by last year I was starting to feel like Custer's drummer boy.

So of course I went to their damned secret meeting.

The minute I stepped into the large, sun-washed living room of the house in North Dallas where the meeting was taking place, it was clear that something entirely new and different was afoot. Most of my regular sources were there, but so were many new and unfamiliar faces.

At center stage was Angela Hunt, a sitting member of the Dallas City Council from District 14, which boxes the Park Cities on three sides. At her side was recent former city council member Sandy Greyson from District 12 in Nosebleed Almost-Oklahoma North Dallas.

Greyson is very popular in conservative mainstream North Dallas. At City Hall she was respected as the city council's expert on transportation issues.

Mary Vogelson, the meeting's hostess, had become one of the city's reigning technical experts on the Trinity and clean air issues when she studied them for the League of Women Voters.

Around the room were young, energetic and very undefeated-looking types whom I did not recognize. In the course of the meeting, some of them came across as greenies, but others clearly were fiscal conservatives.

They were all talking seriously and with great animation about a referendum. They intended to stop the city from building a high-speed multi-lane toll road where they had been promised a park. They were talking about fund-raising and hiring a consultant. They were talking about action, and they were speaking of it in terms of winning.

Jeanie Fritz winked at me across the room as if to say, "Bet you can't believe it."

More than that, I was completely dumbfounded. Where in the hell had all this come from? What were two city council members doing here? No elected official had ever been willing to give critics of the toll road more than a bored nod.

No member of the city council, in my opinion, had ever understood the project beyond the deliberately shallow level of the PowerPoint presentations given them by city staff. And yet here were Hunt and Greyson talking about the project at a level of deep detail and sophistication. Frankly, I, with my 10 years invested, found it ego-challenging. How were they grasping so quickly what had taken me 10 years of investigation and reporting to understand?

Part of the secret, I have learned since, is in knowing a few things about Angela Hunt. She's 35 years old. She went to Rice on a full-ride scholarship and UT law school on a full scholarship. She and her husband, Paul, 37, have been boyfriend and girlfriend since she was 15 in blue-collar Pasadena, near Houston. Their violins, which they no longer play, hang side by side on the living room wall of their M Streets home. He designs back-end Web pages—the extremely technical user-specific software that businesses use to run their operations.

Think of them as really smart band kids who, in their 30s, still ride bikes together and act like boyfriend and girlfriend. All of that is important to me now because it helps me understand how Hunt cracked the code at City Hall.

"I started looking at this in January and February of 2006," she told me. "I had gotten really fed up with the very superficial way the council was presented information on the Trinity River project.

"I felt that they presented the information in a disjointed way. At the time I didn't recognize it as a purposeful, calculated means of keeping the council away from the depth of information. I just thought we're not getting the information in a comprehensive way."

But, you see, I've watched this for 30 years. City staffers make the council watch PowerPoints for the same reason hypnotherapists make people count backward. The staffers scroll this endless diorama of soft generality and half-baked detail past the heavy-lidded eyes of the council until no one who has a question can remember what the question was.

Council members, one must remember, only recently acquired any pay at all. It's still less than $40,000 a year. When Hunt left her position at the law firm of McKool Smith to devote herself full-time to council duties, she says her pay dropped to one-fifth what it had been.

Council members who aren't rich usually have to keep at least one eye on a business or paycheck somewhere else. The ones who are rich, in my experience, may look like they're paying attention to the PowerPoint but often they are mentally already on the golf course. Usually it's easy for the staff to slide things by them.

A friend of mine who has worked for the city for many years told me the staff refers to the council members as "the summer help." I would call them "the temps." But Hunt's focus was permanent.

She said, "I thought, 'I have a responsibility to look at this in greater depth. And I'm not getting enough depth.'"

Hunt went to Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan, who was over the project. "I said, 'Jill, I want to understand where the money's going and where it's gone. Where has all the money gone from the '98 bond?' So she gave me this spreadsheet that was several months old at the time."

Jordan gave Hunt the information she was seeking, but not in the form she wanted. "They always want to give me things in a PDF [portable document format] that I can't manipulate, and it really irritates me," Hunt said.

"I said, 'No, I want it in an Excel spreadsheet in electronic form so I can really look at it.'"

Because I have covered the Dallas City Council for about 100 years, I feel qualified to state that most city council members take the information they get from city staff on paper. The few who could even accept it in digital form would be thrilled with a PDF file, even though there's nothing you can do with a PDF file except open it in your computer and stare at it, as if it were a printed pamphlet or book.

Almost nobody would demand information in an Excel file or have the slightest idea how to begin analyzing that data and pushing it into charts and graphs.

Hunt said: "I'm a computer geek, so I took this spreadsheet. It was broken out in transportation, environmental, recreation and something else. I had to see it visually.

"I made a chart that went across horizontally. I did the parks in their own little chart. I made the things that were totally unfunded red and all on one bar. I made the stuff that is going to be funded outside of the city in a light green, and I did the stuff that's fully funded in kelly green.

"There was lots and lots of red. Lots of red.

"What I figured out was that this toll road was eating up all these transportation dollars and just eclipsing everything else in the funding. It was enormous."

Hunt decided she needed to know a lot more about the toll road. She said the staff had presented the council with artistic renderings to explain the road, rather than data.

"All of these watercolors were the same things, I learned later, that had been used as marketing drawings in 2003 to show how gorgeous this road was going to be."

Hunt didn't want to see the marketing drawings. She wanted to see the numbers underlying the drawings, assuming there were any.

"I sat down with Jill Jordan, and I talked to her about it. I asked her to explain it to me, because I couldn't grasp where this road was going to be.

"She said, 'It's inside the levees,' and she kind of sketched it out for me. I said, 'Jill, why do we have to have a toll road?' She said, 'Angela, we have to have the road. If we don't have the road we can't have the lakes.'

"And she gave me this very reasonable explanation about how we have to dig our lakes. We don't have the money to build our lakes. So the people who are doing the toll road need dirt to build their shelf. They're going to dig our lakes for us.

"At that point I put the brakes on the idea of griping about this ridiculous toll road, because I thought, 'I can't ruin this project. The lakes are the key to it.' It was an unfortunate compromise that had to be made."

But in fact she did not put on the brakes. Not the full brakes. She put the brakes on her mouth. For a while she stopped bringing it up to colleagues. But she didn't put the brakes on her curiosity.

It was at this time that Hunt made her first contact with the group I had talked to for 10 years about the Trinity. She called Jeanie Fritz, wife of Ned Fritz, a man often described as the dean of the Texas environmental community.

Ned, now 91, has a list of environmental victories as long as both arms, including saving the Big Thicket Wilderness in deep East Texas. But these days he leaves the day-to-day to Jeanie, who is considered a force in her own right in the environmental community.

Hunt called her and said, "Jeanie, could you maybe get together some people that know about this and who could educate me a little bit?" She said sure. But there wasn't much enthusiasm.

"Here I came in, I was graduating law school in 1998. I came in kind of wide-eyed and bushy-tailed saying, 'What can we do about this?' There was a real malaise in this group and skepticism. It was like, 'We've tried everything.'"

In fact, looking back now, I'm not sure Hunt was entirely correct in her appraisal of my old source group. I have talked to them since about it. Some agree that they were dispirited before Hunt came along, but not by her, and they had been watching her even before she called them.

"She had been writing about it on her blog," Jeanie Fritz told me. "I didn't see it, but some of the other people did. We thought she was wonderful. She was asking all the right questions."

Hunt also had been discussing the issue with the-young-and-the-bright crowd who frequent "Dallas Metropolis," an online discussion group (

Gray told me the group's initial reaction to her was of pleasant astonishment. "We thought, 'Angela, oh, she gets it.' Finally here was somebody that really understands what we've been saying."

It didn't take long for Hunt to discover two things: 1) It was not true that the city needed the toll authority to build its lakes, and 2) it was not true that the road was going to go up on the side of the levees, away from the park.

Levees are big dirt berms, parallel but distant from the banks of a river, sloped on both sides. They are dirt walls designed to hold the water in when the river floods. Most of the year the Trinity River downtown is a trickle in a ditch way out in the middle of its levees, which are about half a mile apart through downtown. But during the fall and spring monsoons, the water jumps up out of the river banks and floods from levee to levee, as it has done already several times this year.

"At some point I talked to Gene Rice [Trinity project manager for the Corps of Engineers]," Hunt told me, "and I learned what their plans are. They were raising the levees, and they were going to extend the levees.

"I asked, 'How much dirt do you need to raise the levees? How much do you need to extend them?'"

At this point I won't blame you, dear reader, if you worry that Angela Hunt is starting to sound like some kind of obsessive-compulsive Super Wonkette. I, too, have had my concerns about her interest in dirt, as on the day she called me after tromping out onto the rain-soaked levees and questioning a work crew that was trying to patch a mudslide. For 15 minutes she provided me with a detailed description of the method by which tarps and layers of soil may be used to patch leaky levees.

I thought, "Angela and Paul need to get on their bikes, go down to the Meyerson and listen to some concerts."

But in fact Hunt's interest in dirt is all about getting to the central knot of the problem. We want the lakes. They say we have to accept the toll road inside the levees in order to get the lakes. And it's all about digging the dirt.

Hunt told me: "I kept thinking, 'Why can't we extricate these different issues?' People kept saying, 'Don't look too closely, but all of these issues are completely interwoven, and you cannot extricate them. But we can't really say why.'"

Finally one day Hunt asked Rice of the Corps: "How much dirt do you need to raise the levees? How much dirt do you need to extend them?"

Rice told her they needed a lot of dirt. Hunt thought, "Why can't the Corps dig our lakes?"

Aha! The Gordian knot is untied. We don't need the toll road in order to dig our lakes. The Corps and the Congress both have said repeatedly that the levee work along the Trinity is going to proceed on schedule and fully funded no matter what happens with the toll road. So the Corps can dig the lakes no matter what.

In the meantime the Corps announced that the "Balanced Vision Plan," devised under former Mayor Laura Miller that called for the road to be built up on the sides of the levees, was not going to happen. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the Corps nixed the idea of building a highway on the Dallas levees.

Hunt had already squeezed out of them an admission that no major highway had ever been built on or inside flood control levees before in the history of the United States. Post-Katrina, someone at the Corps must have decided against doing shake-and-bake experiments with a highway on top of the Dallas levees.

The city council presentation announcing the change showed that moving the road off the levees and closer to the river would shrink the downtown Trinity park from 136 to 91 acres, a reduction of one-third.

The problem for Hunt was that nobody in the public seemed to know or care about any of it, as she found in talking both to neighborhood groups in her district and to her colleagues on the city council.

"When I would go talk to neighborhoods, I just bluntly asked people, 'Well, what about this toll road down between the levees?' And I got these blank stares. 'What are you talking about?'

"No one knew about it. There was total ignorance of it, but once they got over that ignorance there was disbelief. 'Why would we put a toll road down there?' And it was very fast going from ignorance to disbelief to anger. That was kind of the flow of emotion that I encountered."

What she found among fellow council members was apathy. Proving my thesis that none of them even watch the PowerPoint presentations, most of them told Hunt they thought the road was still going up on the levee.

"I asked some of the new ones, 'What do you think of this? We're putting a toll road down there.' They really didn't believe it. They thought I was mistaken. They said, 'I think you're mistaken about that. It's going to be on the levees or right outside, some other explanation, but it's not going to be in there between the levees.'"

Even more upsetting to Hunt than the park shrinkage was a slide in a PowerPoint presentation informing the council that the Corps might impose new, tougher safety standards on levees nationally and that these new standards might interfere with plans for the toll road. The slide said that the tollway authority "hopes to get a waiver or exception to prevent further modification of their current plans."

Hunt was appalled that the city would allow the toll authority to seek weakened safety standards for downtown Dallas. If the Trinity levees ever give way, the damage both in property loss and life will far outstrip Katrina in New Orleans, because the Trinity levees protect our downtown, not residential neighborhoods.

Why was this 10-mile road so important to its backers? Why did the city's wealthiest and most powerful men support the toll road from it inception, funneling cash into the pro-highway campaign at $100,000 a clip, according to the most recent campaign finance reports? The answer is money.

In 2002, a study commissioned by the city council found that the toll road had almost no economic value to the city. It would not spur economic development in downtown, Oak Cliff, or the poor, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods near the river, The Dallas Morning News reported.

But there was one neighborhood that stood to benefit enormously from the toll road. "It is the aging warehouse district where the new highway would intersect Stemmons and State Highway 183," Morning News reporter Victoria Loe Hicks wrote. "Without the tollway, that area would see little or no economic development, the study predicts. With the tollway, it would be a good candidate to sprout sleek, suburban-style office campuses."

And who exactly owned much of the land down there? Real estate tycoon Harlan Crow and oil and real estate billionaire Ray Hunt, according to the Morning News.

When Angela Hunt confronted her fellow council members on those issues, she says she ran into a brick wall. "They said, 'Look, Angela, this toll road has been planned for a long time. This is the only place it can go. It's on track. And you don't want to destroy the project. We can't really change this now. It's too late,' and 'Blah-blah-blah.'

"So I knew that if we were going to make a change it would not be through the political channels. There simply weren't eight votes to make the type of change that needed to be made.

"But I knew from reading the charter that a referendum was an option."

When Hunt started openly discussing a referendum as a possibility, some of the old Trinity crowd felt their first and last pangs. It wasn't that they thought she was reaching too far. But they wondered if this woman in her mid-30s, who didn't grow up in Dallas, really understood what was going to happen to her if she challenged the downtown power elite in so direct and serious a fashion.

Mary Vogelson, who held that meeting in her home in the fall of 2006, was also a reigning expert on how Dallas deals with mavericks.

"It's not pretty," Vogelson said. "They know better than to go directly at something they can be caught at. So they go for whatever you hold near and dear."

She said the Trinity group tried to tell Hunt: "You will be ostracized. Whatever project you might want to do next, that's what they will go for.

"I admired her, but she had not a clue how vindictive and mean and ugly and closed the people who run this city are. We told her, 'Anybody who comes out publicly and supports you is going to lose his job.'

"She asked us, 'Who is willing to contribute money and help fight this fight?' We said, 'Not anybody with money.'"

Vogelson and the rest of the group knew how difficult it was going to be and how important to raise money. "You pay to play in this town," Vogelson told me, "and I mean all the way to the wall."

They didn't want to make unnecessary missteps. That brought everyone to delicate questions of timing. The group could announce an intention to gather signatures any time it wished. Once it actually began to gather signatures, a clock would start at City Hall: By law the petition circulators would have 60 days to complete their effort.

The legally required number of certified signatures was 50,000 to 55,000—whatever turned out to be 10 percent of the registered voters in the city. It was more than twice the number that had to be gathered for the recent referendums on the "strong mayor" charter changes.

In the fall of 2006 the group found it had an immediate problem in Hunt herself. The following May 12 Hunt would have to stand for re-election to her council seat. So far she had no serious opponent.

"Mary Vogelson brought this up," Hunt remembers. "She said, 'Angela, we're a little worried.' I said, 'Well, what are you worried about?'

"Mary said, 'If you step out on this, they're going to run somebody against you. It's going to be tough on you.'

"I said, 'Well, I don't care about that.' They said, 'Well, we do care about that, because you have more influence on the council than off.'

"I thought I was being brave by saying I don't care. But they pointed out that that was being kind of stupid."

Vogelson remembers it almost that way. She was concerned that at earlier meetings she and the other battle-hardened veterans might have been a little hard on Hunt in trying to warn her of the difficulties ahead.

"She asked to meet us again," Vogelson told me. "We were trying not to discourage her. Bless her heart, she wasn't discouraged. She and Paul came together and said, 'Hey, we want to do this.'"

So a certain plan was agreed upon. Hunt and her husband would proceed with their brave crusade. But the battle-scarred vets would exact a few conditions.

On March 14, two days after the final filing deadline for the May 12 city council election—that is, two days after anyone could legally file to run against Hunt—the group, now calling itself "TrinityVote," held a press conference on the Trinity River bottoms announcing its intention to seek a referendum on the Trinity toll road.

I went. I saw all of my old friends and sources, but I saw dozens of people I had never seen before in my life—many of them young and fresh-faced—people who did not look politically battle-hardened at all.

I spoke recently with one of the new people who had shown up that day. Nathan Morey, 29, is a first-year law student, now at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. He was living in North Oak Cliff at the time of the press conference.

"I go to all the parks," he said. "I love the trails in Fort Worth and Arlington.

"I had been following what Dallas was going to do with its portion of the river. I was one of those people who was sort of fooled.

"I thought the road was going to be the parkway, because on one of the city-sponsored Web sites, you see this image from an Oak Cliff vantage of the parkway coming down and having a regular street intersection with Zang Boulevard right as it crosses the river. There's, like, crosswalks right across the street.

"When I found out it was going to be a freeway, I was a little upset. And that was when Angela was making a stink at City Hall about the flood control and the safety standards.

"I e-mailed her, and she e-mailed me back and said, 'OK, come to the river bottoms.' And they had that press deal down there. I guess that's where I got hooked into everything."

In the legally required 60 days, Hunt and her allies gathered 91,000 signatures calling for a referendum. To put that in context, that's 6,000 more people than voted in the last citywide election, which was the June 16 mayoral runoff.

Harlan Crow, among other big-money Dallas types, hired professional "blockers" to stop Hunt's petition gatherers from getting the legally required number of signatures. They failed. Hunt and her group had finally won. It was a phenomenal accomplishment.

So right now I'm not sick of it at all. The Trinity River movement now is a much bigger and more inclusive ball of wax than it was before Hunt. It includes many young, energetic and idealistic people like Nathan Morey, who bring freshness and energy to the game.

Angela Hunt, Sandy Greyson, former city council members Donna Blumer and John Loza all occupy the center, bringing officeholder experience and an interesting blend of civic-minded conservatism, greenness and diversity.

But I have to admit the ones I'm soft on are the old originals. Ten years ago former Mayor Ron Kirk insulted them as hippies and weirdos and predicted they would all blow away after their 1998 defeat at the polls. His arrogance was one reason they kept meeting through all those bleak years.

Now they're the battle-hardened pragmatists of the team, the ones who pushed Hunt into putting off the announcement until after the filing deadline had passed. They're the ones I was starting to have trouble facing a year ago when I was going through my General Custer's drummer boy phase.

Now, Hunt and her allies seem to be on a roll. At debates around the city, at forums in urban pioneer Oak Cliff and affluent Jewish North Dallas, audiences have laughed and clapped for Hunt's side, groaned and jeered at Mayor Tom Leppert and the pro-toll road team.

In the last few weeks, the city has admitted the road may also become a truck route. Not only were those plans kept secret for years, the city actively denied there would ever be trucks on the toll road through the river park. The Allen Group of California, which is developing an enormous new rail and trucking center in southern Dallas, has emerged as a major funder of the pro-toll road campaign.

A YES vote in the referendum will force the city to take the toll road out from between the flood control levees and out of the planned river park downtown. There will still be a low-speed "parkway" in the park, just not a multi-lane high-speed toll road. A NO vote leaves the toll road inside the levees and the park.

I have no idea how the election will come out. No idea. But here is what really amazes me. Twelve months ago the city's plans for the Trinity River project were rolling down the road without a bump in sight. Now the toll-road backers are looking at the cliff.

The November 6 referendum and the battle leading up to it have become the O.K. Corral and Alamo combined, the biggest shoot-out ever in Dallas local politics.

The immediate outcome will be one thing. Either we will have a highway in the park downtown or we will not. But this also is about much more than that. It's really a question of whose city it is. This is about much more than a fight over a road. This is a fight over destiny.

© 2007 The Dallas Observer Co

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