Saturday, July 19, 2008

Rep. Harper Brown: "TxDOT circumvented us once again."

TURF'S Terri Hall Testifies before the Sunset Commission

Terri Hall: This mistrust is being fueled by how they're perverting the laws, whether its by the lobbying, or ..about converting the existing freeways into toll roads.

I know a lot of members thought you took care of it with HB 2707, which was supposed to prevent TxDOT from double-taxing citizens by converting existing freeways into toll roads. Yet that's precisely what they are doing on Highway 281 in Bexar county, despite the law.

If you look at Exhibit A it actually shows you the drawings that were shown to the public in two different public hearings. One in 2001 and one in 2005. The 2001 plan the freeway plan. That was going to be the improvements done to the road, paid for with gas tax money. The money was programmed in 2003...and then the whole thing was yanked because they wanted to turn it into a toll road. Remember how the department said they haven't analyzed all these roads, if they're viable for tolling, they're going to toll it.

So all of the freeway plans were taken off the table, and now they're going to toll this road. And you can see that what they are going to do is take the existing freeway lanes that are already paid for with our taxpayer money, and convert them into toll lanes. and make the only free lanes now frontage roads. Calling it highway robbery is not hyperbole here.

We also caught them trying to reduce the lane width of the non-tolled lanes on another project on 1604. Their own environmental document shows that this would slow traffic, and force more traffic onto the toll road. They even admit that when you narrow lanes, it slows traffic, which of course is an incentive to have people take the toll road.

So HB 2702 needs to be fixed to prevent this sort of chicanery from happening again.

Rep. Linda Harper Brown: I just want to be sure all the members understand this Ms. Hall, because I was quite shocked the first time I saw this, because I thought--and I guess it was once again niavete on my part--I thought when you pass a bill that said you couldn't toll existing lanes, I thought that really meant main lanes. I had no idea that they would redesign a road as they did here, and I just want to be sure that every member understand this because it could happen in their district as it did in your area.

So what they did is, if you look at these drawings you provided us, What they did was that they, supposedly, I guess, determined that the free lanes that we talked about, that you wouldn't toll existing roads... You have a road that's there now that's two to three lanes each direction--four to six lanes. And they have now...In the first drawing in 2001, they actually showed those, the new highway as being six lanes that are un-tolled in the center as main lanes that we all understand--main lanes of the highway.

Then all of the sudden they decided that that language in 2702, which said that you can't toll existing roads, meant that you could pick that road up and move it to the outside as a frontage road and consider that at free lanes...So I just want TxDOT to call me the next time they get ready to pick up a road and move it to the outside like that so I cansee that process being done, because I certainly want you and the other members of your group that are here and the other member of this commission and the legislature to understand that if they did it to you they can do it to us, and this is not what I thought it meant. I thought it said when you can't toll existing roads, it meant main lanes. It didn't mean that you could say the frontage road of a highway now, is going to be your free lanes, and we are going to toll every single main lane of a highway.

Terri Hall: That's right. If you look at the second drawing, that's what it shows. It's almost the identicle plan, as you you see. The six lanes will now be tolled. The only non-tolled will be frontage roads. They're replacing highway lanes--expressway lanes--with frontage roads and access roads, and clearly that is not a fair replacement. And that's why toll opponents continue to call it double taxation. I meant this is literally stealing our roads, out from under us.

And frankly, I'll tie that in to TTC-69, because remember, TxDOT made that announcement, that they're going to shift everything to existing, but the lanes that you have will still be there. Well guess what, they've been telling us that in Bexar County for three and one-half years. Those lanes could be downgraded to service roads. An have the main lanes be the Trans-Texas Corridor toll road, and once they do this, guess what? You're all out of luck.

And so that's why we bring this to your attention as well, because this could spread easily if you don't do something to fix this.

Rep. Linda Harper Brown: The other thing this does is because there are still the still have the problem on the frontage roads, you're not really getting an expressway or a freeway, a thruway because of that. So, it ... accomplishes another one of their goals. That is it forces people into paying those tolls. It's part of kind of a 'noncompete.' If you don't want to sit through all of those lights, you have to pay that toll to be able to be able to get where you're going.

Terri Hall: You've got it

Rep. Linda Harper Brown: So they circumvented us once again.

Terri Hall: They sure did. And in fact, you heard testimony today that they're not going to have 'noncompetes.' Well guess what. The public notice for 281 that was just done by the RMA ( Regional Mobility Authority) not even a month ago, shows that they're going to have a 'nononcompete' on 281. They're lying to you.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst: I've got a question. Is 281 a part of the carve outs in part of the Moratorium?

Terri Hall: No. That was the only CDA that got stopped and that was because we melted down the phone lines of Senator Jeff Wentworth

Rep. Lois Kholkorst: Okay, so you know it's for none of the carve-outs.

Terri Hall: ...But the problem is the [Alamo] RMA is doing it. All it stopped was Cintra- Macquarie from taking that road. Now the RMA's still converting this road.

Rep. Lois Kholkorst: Now the question about this is-- and Mr. Chairman, I think I was unusually nice today.-- It was the opening remarks by the new [Texas Transportation Commission] chairwoman [Diedre Delisi] about a 'new day for TxDOT.' And I think I wrote them down. The words were 'transparent and efficient, open and responsive. An so I would like to give TxDOT a chance to respond to that. Part of what you talked about in 2702.... [House Bill] 3588 [in 2003] was 'shame on us.'

[Senate Bill] 2702 [in 2005].... you know Senator Hegar was with me. I like to say we got the crumbs at the bottom of the floor, didn't we? We got a couple of little amendments here, it was hilarious, but nobody was really with us. There were three of use [Representatives], and nobody else was really listening.

Thank goodness the grass roots kicked in, and in the next [election ] cycle I got so many phone calls from legislators all over the state saying 'gosh, we should hae listened to you.' So in 2007 we really tried to do some things, even though we weren't as sucessful as we wanted to. This is my point Mr. Chairman, and it goes to the heart of the Sunset Report--is the lack of trust. Because it's always on semantics.

This is not what I want. I don't want the old TxDOT....

Terri Hall: This freeway 281 for improvements, as an example, was paid for with gas tax money, and the price tag was $100 million. Now as a toll road, they want to charge $1.3 billion, for what's essentially the same project. Look at the drawing.

Now when we're talking about funding roads, when we're talking about the 'funding gap,' and these other things that are happening, we need to know what the real 'apples to apples' comparison is. What will it take to fix our roads and keep them freeways, versus reconfiguring, bulldozing, putting down the toll gantries, putting up the cement barriers and doing all of this other nonsense to turn things into toll roads, versus 'just slap down the two extra lanes that are needed and get those overpasses in that have been paid for for five years, and be done with it.

That's the kind of thing we want you to be sure to demand from TxDOT. You deserve to know this before you appropriate money to this agency.. to really know wht the 'apples to apples' [comparison] is.

And I wanted to end with the lawsuit. TxDOT does not want this case heard. In our public interest lawsuits we have had this happen before. You might be familiar with the Texas Association of Counties case with Peggy Venable, where they were using our taxpayer money for lobbying. [LINK: TxDOT, Lies, and Videotape]

They did the same thing in that case as they are doing in our case. They used a plea of the jurisdiction. They claimed sovereign immunity, and they throw you out of court and the trial court before your case is ever heard. And that's what they did to our case. [But] it was settled in favor of the plaintiff. And that's what we intend to do. So our case isn't dead. I want you to see what these depositions show. It's that it's absolutely abundantly clear that TxDOT has used our taxpayer money. They've crossed the line.

Representative. Kolkhorst, to answer your question, Fund 6 is being used to fund this [Keep Texas moving] campaign. And we have the documents to prove it if you'd like them.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst: All of 'Keep Texas Moving'?

Terri Hall: All of 'Keep texas moving' is being funded with Fund 6 money.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst: (shaking her head) That's right.

Terri Hall: I could go on and on obviously, but at the end of the day, we've seen legislators hammer TxDOT before, but [they] have done very little to reign in TxDOT. The next [Legislative] session is the year of transportation. We have got to rein this agency in, and restore the public trust, and really get back to getting the roads done that need to be done.

TxDOT Executive Director claims ignorance

Rep. Ruth McClendon: "It is so unfortunate, that we came here and we started off on a good note. We talked about 'being honest.', we talked about it being 'a new day', we talked about 'fairness', and we talked about 'transparency.'

"Then you sit in front of us and tell us and everybody in this whole state who knows anything about toll roads, [that you don't know about highway] 281, because [there have been lawsuits] back and forth, I don't know how many times.

"And you know, because I know you know TxDOT. You've been there a long time. You're a smart man, and I know you know up and down, what 281 looks like.

And I think it's unfair that you sit before this commission, and try to pretend that you're not aware of what your department is doing..... We try to have a new day, and you continue in the same vein with this dishonesty that we have gone through over the last several years."

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