Saturday, March 22, 2008

TTC-69 tolls near urban areas to fund construction of other corridor segments

Three South Texas highways to be interstates

March 22, 2008

Jackie Leatherman
The Monitor
Copyright 2008

South Texas is not only going to get its first interstate - it is also going to get a second and a third.

State transportation officials knew one of three southern highways - U.S. Highway 281 in Hidalgo County, U.S. Highway 77 in Cameron County or U.S. Highway 59 in Webb County - would eventually become part of an interstate stretching from the Texas-Mexico border to Texarkana, in the northeast part of the state. Only Webb County is currently served by an interstate.

The state's Trans-Texas Corridor plan calls for an Interstate 69 extension linking South Texas to points north, with I-69 eventually becoming part of a federal highway project to connect Canada and Mexico. Advocates expect the project to reduce congestion, enhance safety, expand economic opportunities and improve air quality, among other benefits.

Now, though, instead of only one South Texas highway making the cut for I-69 inclusion, all three of them have.

"All three routes are considered part of the I-69 system," said Mario Jorge, the Texas Department of Transportation's local district engineer. "The actual determination of which one comes first will be handled at a later date when funding becomes available."

Early discussions included the possibility of adding new lanes to one of the highways and operating them as a toll road targeting commercial traffic, while existing lanes would remain free for motorists to use.

But Jorge said no new lanes will be added to the highways, and the major upgrades will just be overpasses.

U.S. Highway 77 is the most likely choice to become the first I-69 corridor running through the Rio Grande Valley, he said, because it will be quicker, easier and cheaper to upgrade. No final decision has been made yet, however.

"Our plan is to get an interstate to the Valley as soon as we possibly can," Jorge said. "If 77 can get it here, we will do that."

Of the two Valley routes, U.S. Highway 77 has more segments that are already up to "interstate standards," which means they have more overpasses compared to U.S. Highway 281.

There also are fewer landowners along U.S. Highway 77 between Brownsville and Corpus Christi, meaning the state doesn't have to get as many approvals from property owners to access land for construction.

"It is a lot more expensive and a lot more complicated along 281," Jorge said. "There are way too many property owners."

The private development team for I-69 will have the final say over which corridor is upgraded first.

A consortium comprised of Spanish infrastructure giant Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry Construction Corp. will provide TxDOT with a cost estimate and design for the Texas portion of the I-69 corridor in the next few months, Jorge said.

TxDOT also will ask the companies to do the upgrade of U.S. Highway 77, he said.

He said "zero dollars" have been allocated to upgrade the highway. State transportation officials started cutting road projects in December, citing a budget that can't keep up with existing road maintenance and new highway construction.

Jorge said the private developers will be funding the U.S. Highway 77 project from tolls collected in other segments of I-69 outside the Valley.

Once the consortium presents the three corridor construction plans to TxDOT, state officials will make their final decision on which route to upgrade first.

Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas met with Gov. Rick Perry last week to ask him to upgrade both U.S. Highway 77 and U.S. Highway 281 at the same time.

Salinas points to a February 2007 TxDOT study that repeatedly states that U.S. Highway 281 carries more truck traffic as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The federal government signed NAFTA in 1994 to increase trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico.

U.S Highway 281 carried 5.9 percent of the state's NAFTA traffic. U.S. Highway 59 was slightly lower and U.S. Highway 77 carried 3.6 percent.

The study also predicts U.S. Highway 281 will have the second largest increase in truck traffic by 2030 among seven major NAFTA corridors. Only Interstate 30, running from Dallas to Texarkana, will have a larger increase, according to the study's projections.

Salinas questions the state's rationale for leaning toward upgrading U.S. Highway 77 before U.S. Highway 281.

"Their own studies say that 281 is busier than 77," he said. Salinas added, though: "I'm not going to put 77 against 281 - they need to do both."

Repeated messages left with the governor's press office, the main TxDOT press office and Zachry were not returned Friday, which was a holiday. The Monitor was unable to locate contact information for Cintra.

U.S. Highway 281 will be upgraded, Jorge said. He just doesn't know when. However, construction for the U.S. Highway 77 upgrade should begin in the next three to five years.

"We're doing something very similar on 281 and trying to get the plans ready for expansion," Jorge said.

Jackie Leatherman covers Hidalgo County government and general assignments at The Monitor. She can be reached at (956) 683-4424.

© 2008, The Los Angeles Times:

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: Terminator and Tollinator

Schwarzenegger drops parks appointees

The governor doesn't reappoint his brother-in-law, Bobby Shriver, and fellow actor Clint Eastwood after they opposed a toll road plan.

March 21, 2008

By Michael Rothfeld, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2008

SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has dropped his brother-in-law, Bobby Shriver, and fellow action hero Clint Eastwood from the state parks commission after their vigorous opposition helped derail a plan for a toll road through San Onofre State Beach in San Diego County.

The decision not to renew the commissioners' terms, which expired last week, surprised observers and sent a strong signal that the governor expects loyalty from political appointees.

"This is a warning shot from the governor's office to all of his appointees: Do what I say, no matter how stupid it is," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles. "And I know of no project more destructive to the California coast than this toll road project."

Shriver, a Santa Monica City Council member and environmentalist who is the brother of California First Lady Maria Shriver, said he received a telephone call Monday from an aide to the governor saying he would not be reappointed.

Shriver and Eastwood had been appointed to the State Park and Recreation Commission under former Gov. Gray Davis and were previously reappointed by Schwarzenegger. A 60-day extension of their terms expired last week.

In an interview, Shriver said he and Eastwood had sought to remain on the board, where they were chairman and vice chairman, respectively, and that their removal would have "a chilling effect" on political appointees.

Eastwood could not be reached for comment. The governor's office confirmed that he would not be reappointed.

Although the board had no power to quash the Foothill South toll road project, it passed a resolution in November 2005 opposing it and joined a lawsuit pending in state court.

Last month, the California Coastal Commission, including some other Schwarzenegger appointees, defied the governor and voted to reject the toll road.

After learning that he would not be reappointed, Shriver spoke to his brother-in-law and had "a spirited disagreement" on the issue.

"It's a public-protection commission," Shriver said. "There are jobs that politicians appoint people to that they are not then supposed to do whatever a politician wants."

He added, "A big road in a park is a hard sell."

Asked about the toll road Thursday at a public event in Anaheim, Schwarzenegger reiterated his support for a project that is touted by supporters as a means to relieve traffic congestion in Orange County.

"I know the environmentalists are sensitive about it, and they say it is going through a park, but the road has to go through somewhere," Schwarzenegger said. "We can't stop progress."

Aaron McLear, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger, said the toll road issue did not precipitate the governor's decision not to reappoint his relative and the fellow actor. He said the governor wanted new appointees, though none have been chosen.

"The governor believes that both Mr. Shriver and Mr. Eastwood did an outstanding job, and he's grateful for their service," McLear said.

Shriver and Eastwood join a list of other spurned appointees.

Bilenda Harris-Ritter, a former member of the state Board of Parole Hearings, said she received a call from a member of the governor's office a little more than a year ago asking her to resign, six months after she had been appointed. No explanation was given, she said.

The call coincided with an Internet campaign from a crime victims group asking the governor's office to remove her for granting parole to too many prisoners.

Harris-Ritter, a lawyer whose parents were murdered in 1981, is an advocate for victims and said she had followed the law in giving parole.

"When people get yanked off suddenly in situations where it appears it's just because somebody in the governor's office doesn't like the fact that they're following the law, or a particular vote, that hurts the impression that the governor's office is being run professionally," Harris-Ritter said.

In June, the chairman of the state's Air Resources Board, Robert F. Sawyer, was fired by Schwarzenegger for pushing for antipollution measures beyond what the governor's office wanted, Sawyer said. The executive director, Catherine Witherspoon, quit in the aftermath.

In September, R. Judd Hanna quit the Fish and Game Commission at the request of an aide to the governor, after Republican lawmakers urged his ouster because he had sought to ban lead bullets in condor territory.

McLear said the governor's appointees take many actions that probably go against his wishes.

"I think it is far-fetched to suggest that there is a pattern of him removing people or not appointing people to boards or commissions simply because they don't agree with him," McLear said.

Caryl O. Hart, a member of the state parks commission from Sebastopol, lamented losing Shriver and Eastwood, who have been strong advocates of parks, at a time when the governor has proposed to drastically cut the parks budget.

"It isn't only this amusing thing about the Terminator," she said.

© 2008, The Los Angeles Times:

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"I don't really think it's 'Big Government' that's the problem here. I think it's 'Out-of-control-nobody- accountable Government.' "

TxDOT accused of hiding information on 290 project:

Required environmental study could cause major delays


Ann Fowler
Oak Hill Gazette
Copyright 2008

OAK HILL - TxDOT has been hiding information it knew would lead to major delays in completion of the Hwy. 290 project, say members of Fix290 and the Save Our Springs Alliance.

At community forum meetings last summer, TxDOT claimed that the Fix290 parkway proposal would require a new environmental impact study while their design would not. Now it appears TxDOT knew all along that all of the options they were presenting needed an additional environmental impact study.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) had requested that the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) complete a Supplement to the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) in part because of the controversy over the project and in part because the original document is 20 years old.

In all likelihood, this means a major delay of at least two years in the completion of the Hwy. 290 project at the 'Y' in Oak Hill.

The November 30, 2007 letter from FHWA District Engineer Salvador Deocampo, said, "Currently, on the west side of the project from FM 1826 to Williamson Creek, TxDOT has been working on a reevaluation of the project. The reevaluation was commenced to address changes in design which include consideration of additional alternatives including a reduction in the overall footprint of the segment and to toll the mainlanes. This reevaluation would also assess environmental issues such as endangered species, Mobile Source Air Toxics, noise impacts, etc., not previously studied in the original EIS and approved in the 1988 ROD [Record of Decision]. The project has generated some controversy as is expressed in public statements by the Fix290 neighborhood group, the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA) environmental group and several anti-tolling groups."

The letter was discovered by SOSA when officials made a Freedom of Information request.

Andrew Hawkins, staff attorney for SOSA, told the Gazette, "Yes, we (SOSA) sent a FOIA request to FHWA and turned up this letter. Public information laws are a crucial part of the democratic process, as they give people a way to hold our government accountable for its actions, all the more important to take note of during this Sunshine Week. But certainly it should not take a FOIA request to FHWA to find out what's going with the TxDOT's schedule and plans for the 290 project."

March 16-22 is Sunshine Week, a campaign by the media to push for an open and accountable government.

TxDOT did not respond to a request about whether the requested SEIS will delay the project. Said Hawkins, "When TxDOT presented the matrix of new alternatives last year, they estimated 48 months for an SEIS. They have some amount of time allotted in the current schedule for reevaluation that could be used for the SEIS, but we're still looking at a substantial delay."

Steve Beers, a member of the Fix290 Coalition that wanted a parkway instead of a multi-level roadway, told the Gazette, "In the mediation sessions [last summer to encourage Oak Hill groups to pick the best design for 290], TxDOT claimed a SEIS for their so-called 'parkway' Option 5 would take 48 months. Since I think they were exaggerating then in order to push their tolled and elevated plan, I think the true reality is closer to one or two years. But who knows? It probably depends on their funding, and the reluctance with which they approach the work. If they drag their feet, or produce biased studies, there may be further delays and possibly even legal trouble."

Carol Cespedes, spokesperson for Fix290, told the Gazette, "Last summer TxDOT made the claim that the Fix290 parkway proposal would require a new EIS while their design would not. I wonder how much longer people will believe TxDOT's statements when they are not only mistaken, but try to conceal their mistakes from the public."

She added, "The highway cannot go to construction without the SEIS, and, as I understand it, the SEIS may take two years. At very least this creates major delay. We wonder how they can be confident about securing private financing when they haven't finished the environmental impact study. Don't they need to disclose this detail before bonds are issued?"

Added Bruce Melton, a professional civil engineer who lives in Oak Hill, "This issue is extremely important in that TxDOT has not informed the public of this delay in the project. By not publicly disclosing this delay, in effect, they have kept the FHWA letter hidden."

Cespedes agreed, saying, "Last summer TxDOT argued that their designs were easier to permit than the Fix290 parkway and claimed they would not need an SEIS. Now we see that TxDOT has known about the SEIS requirement since November, but utterly failed to inform the public or the regional transportation agency, CAMPO [Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization], of this new source of project cost and delay. They kept it hidden even while they prepared to borrow money from Wall Street based on tolling 290."

Said Hawkins of TxDOT's failure to release the letter to the public earlier, "It is bad planning on the part of TxDOT, and runs counter to NEPA's [National Environmental Policy Act] spirit of ongoing, open coordination with the public and governmental entities such as CAMPO. Everyone wants 290 fixed sooner rather than later --it is hard to see how this will happen in light of TxDOT's persistent inability to play it straight with the public and CAMPO."

Cespedes added, "If TxDOT were open and honest with the taxpayers and their elected representatives, they would have disclosed this last year --but of course they were busy at that time, explaining what happened to that missing $1 billion."

TxDOT officials admitted to legislators earlier this year that they had substantially less money to spend than anticipated because they had mistakenly counted $1.1 in revenue twice.

Cespedes likened this latest 290 setback to the October 2006 rejection of TxDOT's Nationwide Permit application for 290 by the Army Corps of Engineers. She said, "There is a deja-vu. TxDOT would no doubt have preferred to keep the Nationwide Permit rejection quiet, but it was announced to the CAMPO Board during citizens' comments. TxDOT tried to insist that it really made no difference, but they spent six or seven months redesigning. This is a much more major delay."

Melton pointed out that in a July 2007 matrix TxDOT handed out at public meetings the EIS reevaluation planned for Option 4 would be 26 months. He said, "TxDOT's project schedule shows that they are currently in the process of reevaluation of the EIS. TxDOT's reevaluation was scheduled to be complete about this time next year. Supplementation takes 1-1/2 to 2 years as per Mike Leary of the FHWA Austin Office. The current schedule has one year remaining for EIS reevaluation, so the additional factual delay to the project is 6 months to a year if TxDOT is diligent in their pursuit of the Supplementation. They received this notice from FHWA in November. As of last week, TxDOT still had not issued their FHWA required Notice of Intent (NOI) to perform the SEIS that takes 1-1/2 to 2 years to complete."

Melton pointed out that the FHWA is asking for an EIS supplementation, which is like a new EIS but is not actually a new EIS. He explained, "FHWA requires for an EIS to be revised for three reasons. If the project boundary changes, if more than two years --that's 2 years, not 20-- elapse since the EIS was approved, or if conditions on the site change enough to warrant reanalyzes. Depending on the depth of the changes, EIS reevaluation could be required. Reevaluation is like a mini supplementation."

The FHWA letter also stated, "In recent discussions without our office, we considered the issues involved in this project and the areas needing to be addressed in any update to the FEIS. The areas needing more study and consideration include the significant changes in land use (from those anticipated in 1988), air quality issues related to Mobile Source Air Toxics, the change in design to construct and operate a toll facility and continuing controversy on noise issues."

Melton conducted a noise study last year that concluded, "Using conservative estimates, Oak Hill can easily expect to experience large increases in ambient noise levels due to the planned US 290/ SH 71 project."

Asked if the FHWA was referring to his noise report, Melton replied, "I would hope that they read my noise report, but in the same breath, I would hope that the analysis of the FHWA, with all of the subjects that needed official review for this project that was approved of two decades ago in 1988, was prompted and wholly dependent upon the diligence of the FHWA to get the job done according to the rules."

Melton said he did not believe anything suspicious should be read into the FHWA's request coming after the CAMPO vote to toll 290. "Just a coincidence of timing, I think," he said.

Said Hawkins, "I'm not sure if the result would have been different, but I definitely think this information would have had an impact. If CAMPO had been aware that TxDOT's switch from what was considered in the 1988 EIS to an elevated, tollway design would cause a significant delay, they might have been more willing to endorse quicker, less expensive options such as Fix290's parkway."

Beers believes the outcome may well have been different had need for an SEIS been known. He said, "I think the TIP [Transportation Improvement Program] vote outcome would have been different w/ CAMPO and Chairman Watson able to see this information. For one thing, since tolling is one of the new conditions to be studied, presumably CAMPO would not have voted to toll 290. It would have been premature to vote to toll US 290 before the studies were completed. For another, the SEIS puts the TxDOT design on somewhat of a level playing field with a parkway design as far as schedule goes--I believe they both must now be studied for their pros and cons."

Beers added, "I recall that CAMPO asked TxDOT to study a parkway way back in October of 2006. Now they will have to do this anyway, so why did they drag their feet, waste all our time, and resist so long? They put us in the position of having to come up with detailed blueprints in order to be considered by CAMPO, and that was something a citizens' group was not in a position to do--that is, do their job for them."

Locals believe the parkway plan may still be on the table. Said Melton, "Fix290 will continue to work with the FHWA to assure that the issues in Oak Hill seen by TxDOT as controversial are addressed in the new EIS. We have a wonderful amount of support for the parkway concept in the community. Not only can we meet future CAMPO traffic estimates, but our design concepts are much, much cheaper to build. Our cost estimate, performed by the transportation consultant that did the design analysis for Envision Central Texas, came in at less than $80 million, at the same time that TxDOT's estimate was climbing above $400 million. Technology today can toll virtually anything with a little black box so, if we absolutely have to, we can continue to fund, build and maintain roads exactly the same as TxDOT with their 12-lane elevated superhighway through the heart of our community. And we get to keep the heart of our community instead of having it paved over with an elevated superhighway like Hwy 183 between Mopac and I35 with a 5-story interchange at the 'Y.' Our parkway concept is not like the Southwest Parkway, we use the textbook definition of a parkway which is exactly like Mopac where it has no frontage roads."

Agreed Cespedes, "We still believe that Highway 290 West could be built more quickly at less cost if TxDOT would rethink the requirement for an elevated six-lane toll road with an equal number of frontage lanes. We have already demonstrated that a parkway has capacity to move traffic through the year 2030 and is also better for neighborhoods and the natural environment. We will continue to remind TxDOT, CAMPO and the CTRMA, believing that someday they will have to take a look at reality --and change their plans!"

Local activists believe membership in grassroots organizations like Fix290 is worthwhile because they can make a difference. Said Melton, "It's always worthwhile for citizens to be active in their community, in some cases--very worthwhile. I don't really think it's 'Big Government' that's the problem here. I think it's 'Out-of-control-nobody- accountable Government.' We don't need all of this extra expense and complication to make our highways work. The vast majority of the country creates transportation systems without access roads, why should we be different and destroy our community?"

Added Hawkins, "The spirit and letter of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) make public involvement a crucial part of the government's decision-making process. The community should always voice its concerns and preferences to make sure that decision-makers take the required 'hard look' at the environmental consequences of their actions. Having said that, I think public controversy is a minor reason among the deeper flaws mentioned in the letter, and such controversy would not have caused a SEIS by itself. The most significant reason, in my mind, is TxDOT's pursual of an elevated tollway design, which was clearly not considered in the 1988 EIS."

Beers added, "I think it is always worthwhile for the affected public to speak up and have their voices heard. In the case of the federal highway noise statutes, there is a duty not just to study future noise impacts from the project, and the various options to abate it --including narrower and less elevated designs--there is also an affirmative duty to take measures to limit or 'abate' the noise.

"For instance, if a new noise study shows that sound walls would be cost-effective to prevent damages to property values and health, they must build them. Conversely, if the road gets built without these noise abatement measures added before the road gets finished, then TxDOT is not under any obligation to add those measures later on, and their present policy is not to do so for already existing roads.

"Neighborhoods along MoPac in West Austin have waited more than 30 years for promised sound walls. There is also a duty under this federal noise law to hold hearings and consult with the affected residents and local officials, which TxDOT has not done.

"I hope that TxDOT does seriously consider a parkway plan. I believe they have a duty under federal law to consider non-tolled and non-elevated options with less community impact on neighborhoods and the environment. Fix 290 does not oppose all tolling necessarily. We have said tolling a managed lane in the middle might be okay as long as most of the other freeway lanes stay free. A managed lane is a carpool lane that allows some tolled single occupant vehicle traffic. But tolling all the main lanes as TxDOT wants to do means under state law you must supply free frontage roads which makes the whole profile twelve lanes wide--causing all the problems with Williamson Creek, the oaks, etc. Call that a 'parkway' or not, those elements are overdue for a real examination and real alternatives. I hope they use this delay productively, rather than frittering away the time w/ yet more manipulative game playing.�

© 2008, Oak Hill Gazette:

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

"The bubble of irrational exuberance in infrastructure and public-private partnerships has been pricked. "

Pricey debt drives infrastructure down road to nowhere

March 20, 2008

Michael West
The Age (Australia)
Copyright 2008

INFRASTRUCTURE projects are falling victim to turmoil on world markets as the rising cost of debt and shattered confidence discount the price governments can get for privatising their assets.

The bubble of irrational exuberance in infrastructure and public-private partnerships has been pricked. Big write-downs on Sydney's Lane Cove Tunnel toll-road project are as much about flawed traffic forecasts as falling asset values, but the pool of funds available for PPPs, both debt and equity, has shrunk. And the cost of financing the likes of hospitals, roads, schools, desalination plants, airports and jails is rising. This suggests assorted state treasuries will be taking a haircut on their estimates of how much money they will make from selling assets.

An aside: revelations that the NSW Government will proceed with its long-awaited metro rail line through the north-west of Sydney will trigger potentially hundreds of millions in penalty fees to infrastructure company Transurban, operator of Sydney's M2 Motorway and Melbourne's CityLink. The contracts are still secret, despite freedom of information requests, but are believed to contain indemnity clauses for losses suffered by the private operator due to new and competing transport facilities. Once again, the NSW Government shoots itself in the foot.

Macquarie Equities' transport analyst, Ian Myles, said the Government and Transurban (which bought the road from Macquarie Infrastructure) would renegotiate the project.

The M2 Hills Motorway prospectus says: "The parties must negotiate in good faith to ensure the lower of the equity return they would have received if the event had not occurred and the BASE case equity return (11.65% real after tax).

"Alternative public transport infrastructure. The minister must consult with the company in good faith in respect of any proposed development or granting of a concession in respect of any transport infrastructure servicing the specified region of north-west Sydney which could reasonably be expected to have a material effect on the project. The minister must have regard to the effect on the M2 and the fact it is the principal passenger and freight arterial route serving the north-west … of Sydney."

As the M2 has 25 years yet to run on the concession deed when the metro line is opened, the penalties may be substantial.

That's the bad news for taxpayers. The bad news for the corporate sector has already been felt for two months as listed sharemarket infrastructure players have been flayed by investors. Deal originators such as Macquarie and Babcock have watched the price of their shares halve while dedicated infrastructure companies such as Transurban, ConnectEast, Rivercity Motorway and Macquarie Infrastructure Group have come under pressure.

Most of these are highly leveraged stapled securities, an unpopular cocktail in the present climate.

But the news is not all bad. The failure of the Lane Cove Tunnel may prove cynics' contention that traffic forecasts are in some cases built to fit in with the business model, not the other way round.

When Cheung Kong Infrastructure conceded it would write down its remaining $113 million stake in the tunnel to zero, and construction group Leighton followed by foreshadowing a 70% write-down of its $117.5 million share, the view that traffic forecasts had been too bullish firmed.

Sydney's Cross City Tunnel, which opened in 2005, was an even greater debacle, with a target of 90,000 cars. The reality? Not even 40,000. The Cross City Tunnel did not even make it to the sharemarket.

Finally, Transurban is beginning to eke out a profit as its projects pass through ramp-up, mature and spit out cash from tolls. Though risk remains - particularly whether people will drive cars in 10 years if the oil price keeps rising - Transurban quelled leverage concerns with a $1 billion refinancing.

Market woes will mean that all players will have to scramble for institutional equity, which is not interested in sinking big licks of capital into these projects in this environment.

Elsewhere on the capital front, the banks (the locals and largely Europeans, some of whom are caught up in the credit market implosion), who have committed to underwrite the debt for these projects, will start baulking. Thankfully, it is US rather than European banks that are in the eye of the storm.

Still, should things get rough, their commitment letters no doubt will have several outs. Blow-ups and even delays arising from such incidents will not lend comfort to a reticent equity market, nor to government vendors.

One stock that appears to be in a spot of bother now is Rivercity Motorway. Rivercity units are changing hands for barely half their $1 float price.

A recent note from UBS mentioned an adjustment to the analysts' assumptions about the dividend reinvestment plan (DRP) over the remaining construction period.

Rivercity, which is building a motorway in Queensland, could have to pass the hat around for more equity.

UBS had assumed $150 million would be raised through the DRP. Since the security price halved, the group could be left with an estimated shortfall of $50 million. UBS said that it expected "ongoing weakness over the remaining construction period of two years. Management may therefore need to draw down additional debt or potentially cut distributions to fund this shortfall."

A keenly watched barometer of the toll-road sector will be ConnectEast. Its EastLink freeway is expected to open ahead of schedule. Management has been trying to dampen market expectations because lacklustre traffic would ensure the stock price got shellacked.

For the consortium that is privatising Brisbane Airport, an early stage project, sourcing finance at the right price could be tricky.

Finally, the call from Macquarie analyst Ian Myles on a possible outcome for Transurban, when it comes to its negotiations on the north-west rail line in Sydney, is that the M2 may be widened.

"From our perspective the M2 has shown another element of its option value," he said. "The Government, in its desire to address the public transport issues in the north-west, will need to engage with Transurban (M2 owner). The M2 has a series of desires itself, namely widening the road to three lanes, possibly buying back the deferred concession notes at a sound discount (to help fund the toll road), shift to full electronic tolling and possibly a shift to per-kilometre usage."

© 2008, The Age:

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Senator Hutchison sends a letter to the FHWA requesting 45 more days of public comments concerning TTC-69

Hutchison speaks on Nacogdoches history, declining economy and war in Iraq

March 20, 2008

The Nachodoches Daily Sentinel
Copyright 2008

U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison made a stop in Nacogdoches Thursday at the Sterne-Hoya House Museum to commemorate the beginning of the annual Azalea Trail, as well as answer questions on happenings on Capitol Hill.

Hutchison focused on preserving Nachogdoches' history.

"I am totally committed to this great town," she said. "I will always try to preserve the history of this wonderful town where I grew up."

She spoke on a more recent and tragic part of Nacogdoches history — the Columbia Space Shuttle crash.

"I am working very hard to make sure we have a Columbia Space Shuttle memorial here," Hutchison said speaking from the front porch of the Stern-Hoya House.

She said she anticipates a bill being passed this spring that will allow the memorial to be built. She and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert are working to push it through the House and Senate.

"It's taken a little longer that it should have, but that's kind of what happens in Washington — it's not Texas, I can say that," she said. "You can get things done a lot easier here in Texas."

While speaking of the Columbia tragedy, she noted that she has received many compliments from fellow senators about East Texas and the local hospitality shown in the aftermath of the crash.

Hutchison said people remark on having been "blown away" by the offers to help, offers for emergency officials to stay in private homes, food donations and even the special care with which the remains of the crew were treated.

The senior senator also commented on the El Camino Real de los Tejas trail that begins in Natchitoches, La., and runs through East Texas (Nacogdoches particularly) down to Mexico.

"In 2009, we think we will be able to start putting up the trail markers and the visitor centers," she said. "A lot is going to be happening with that. I think this is going to be a great destination for tourists."

Before addressing the crowd that gathered outside the museum, Hutchison toured the historic Sterne-Hoya house and even found an old photograph of a distant grandparent preserved in the museum.

"I'm very excited about being a part of the building of Nacogdoches," Hutchison said. "We've done a lot, and we have a lot to do, and I think we can do it together."

Before leaving the podium, Hutchison took time to answer questions from the audience and the media.

Nolan Alders, who publicly voiced his opposition of the Trans-Texas Corridor, asked the senator to comment on the proposed mega highway.

"I am very much against the concept of the Trans-Texas Corridor," Hutchison said. "I met with the I-69 coalition in my office last week and we are of one mind. We want I-69 back the way it was originally configured, and that's what we are going to work for."

She also said she sent a letter to the Federal Highway Commission asking for another 45 days for additional public comments concerning the roadway.

Another hot topic lately has been the dragging U.S. economy, and Hutchison said she wasn't sure how effective the recently passed economic stimulus package would be. However, she did express her optimism of the economy getting back on track.

"We hope that (the stimulus package) will stimulate the economy and try to get us out of this dip," she said. "We are also being watchful to see if there is anything else that can be done."

She noted that Congress is trying to not do too much, which could add to the national deficit, or anything else that would require a tax payer "bail out" down the line, which would hurt the economic recovery.

"I'm hoping that if we do another stimulus package, it will be something targeted at the housing industry," she said.

With this week marking the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, Hutchison responded to a question on how she believes the war is going.

"I think we are making great progress in Iraq," Hutchison said. "We must stay vigilant in both Afghanistan and in Iraq to make sure there is not a haven for terrorists and they are not able to export their terrorism throughout the world."

Hutchison said she just returned from Iraq, and it's important that America stays the course.

"We've got to make sure our children have every opportunity that we had growing up in this great country," she said. "If we fail, it will be our generation's failure to keep what so many have fought and died for before us. We cannot let that happen."

© 2008, Nachodoches Daily Sentinel:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE

"Death by a thousand questions."


Putting up a roadblock of questions

Related Link: Texas 391 Commission Alliance

Learn how to form a sub regional planning commission [Here]

March 19, 2008

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2008

LUFKIN — Mae Smith, the 64-year-old mayor of the teeny Central Texas town of Holland, seized the civic center lectern like a dragon-slayer ascending the throne.

In a fiery red pantsuit and a voice that echoed without the help of a malfunctioning microphone, she and her cohorts revealed to a crowd of about 50 souls clad in denim and plaid a little-known weapon against the foe of all in the room: Gov. Rick Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor.

The weapon, Smith said, doesn't involve marching on the Texas Capitol, like more than 1,000 did last year, some on tractors and horses. It doesn't involve clever Web sites that have been launched with cartoon characters and screaming rainbow text. And it doesn't involve confronting TxDOT big shots at public hearings across the state, like thousands did last year.

No, the mighty sword revealed by Smith is something called the Eastern Central Sub-Regional Planning Commission.

"It's a mouthful," Smith acknowledged quickly of the bureaucratically nebulous name. "You ought to try saying it with a lisp."

Re-conquest of Texas

Smith insists that such a commission is the best way for rural communities to empower themselves and fight the massive highway-tollway-rail project, slated to cover 4,000 miles, cost up to $183 billion and take a half-century to build.

The corridor, pitched by TxDOT as the answer to Texas' urban traffic crisis, is perceived by many rural folks as a land grab, an assault on rural life, the Spanish re-conquest of Texas by the Madrid-based company Cintra, which won the first contract.

But since Smith and three other mayors of nearby towns in Bell County formed their nine-member commission in August, they've already had an influence on the process.

Just since October, several representatives from the Texas Department of Transportation have traveled to Holland — population 1,180 — to meet with Smith and her cohorts, not once, but twice, to discuss citizens' concerns over the project. The most recent chat lasted four hours.

The fine folks of the Environmental Protection Agency paid a visit in January.

"They wouldn't be coming to us if they didn't have to and if a law wasn't on the books saying they had to," Smith said.

The law to which Smith is referring is found in Chapter 391 of the Texas Local Government Code. Strengthened in 2001, the provision requires state agencies, "to the greatest extent feasible," to coordinate with local commissions to "ensure effective and orderly implementation of state programs at the regional level."

In other words, the law may require TxDOT officials to sit in a room for hours, months, years, maybe even decades, as members of the Eastern Central Sub-Regional Planning Commission dwell on how the corridor might affect their water lines, EMS response times and any unforeseeable impact on their rural way of life.

ECSRPC commissioners plan to prolong the "coordination" process until, as Smith puts it, "they do it right or change their mind. I have no time limit, honey."

If all goes according to plan, the mighty Trans-Texas Corridor will succumb to a death by a thousand questions.

And the plot becomes all the more menacing if other rural towns across Texas join in, which was the goal of Smith's Monday speech in Lufkin.

"Delay is victory!" was a common battle cry to the crowd.

The workshop, entitled "How to Fight the TTC," charged participants up to $30 a pop for a barbecue lunch and step-by-step instructions on how to create a commission of their own. It was sponsored by corridor foes such as the American Land Foundation, Stewards of the Range and Texans Uniting for Reform & Freedom (TURF).

The folks at TxDOT don't appear to be flipping on the hazard lights just yet. Spokesman Chris Lippincott said his agency would happily meet or exceed legal requirements to coordinate with such commissions. But he questioned any intentions of commissioners who want to use the law for — in my words — evil rather than good.

"My understanding, and I haven't read the law, but they're not called 'obstruction committees'; they're called coordination committees," he said.

'Time is of the essence'

"I don't profess to be able to predict whether or not they could stop the project, but again, the law, it's not found in the 'how to stop a road' section of the state law," he said.

There's no doubt in the minds of some who attended the workshop. A few conspiracy theorists even preached that "time is of the essence" because, when the governor gets wind of their scheme, he could call a special session to change the law.

Paul Hale of Cass County, northeast of Lufkin, got so wound up at the historic significance of thwarting the TTC that he proclaimed it on par with the "Roman highway debacle" — whatever that means.

But if he and others intend to spread the word, their first order of business should be drawing more than 50 people to the meeting.

© 2008, Houston Chronicle:

Related Link: Texas 391 Commission Alliance:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

“We hope TxDOT and FHWA are approaching this planning phase with an open mind, but their efforts suggest otherwise.”

Texas Farm Bureau: “TxDOT’s Draft Environmental Impact Study will not withstand judicial scrutiny”

Mar 19, 2008

Southwest Farm Press
Copyright 2008

In comments filed with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Texas Farm Bureau said the Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS) for the proposed I-69 corridor “would not withstand judicial scrutiny.”

Under the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act, these detailed environmental studies are conducted under rules developed by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

According to the farm organization’s comments, the failure of the DEIS to consider the environmental impact of using existing rights-of-way–rather than a single minded focus on building a completely new route–means the study could not hold up in court. Current law and actual practice in the only other state, Indiana, to file a DEIS on the massive interstate project dictate that existing rights-of-way be considered. Indiana’s DEIS did, in fact, consider existing rights-of-way.

“The completely new route, of course, would be the most disruptive in terms of displacing families and impacting the environment,” said Kenneth Dierschke, president of Texas Farm Bureau. “Once again, it seems that TxDOT is trying to influence policy rather than implementing it, this time by pretending that there is only one way to build the Texas portion of I-69.”

Another problem, according to the document submitted by TFB, is the insistence by TxDOT and FHWA that I-69 be “multimodal,” complete with space for separate truck lanes, rail and a multi-purpose utility corridor. The Farm Bureau charges that the two agencies have failed to demonstrate the need for this kind of space-eating approach.

“I-69, as proposed, will pass through seven states. Of these, Texas is the only one to mention, let alone require, a multimodal corridor in connection with I-69,” Dierschke said.

Dierschke said the state needs additional highways but Farm Bureau is concerned about the lost farm and ranch land along the proposed route. That, he said, is another flaw in the DEIS. According to the TFB document, farmland loss was not considered in the DEIS, as required by federal law.

“There doesn’t appear to be any effort to minimize the loss of farm and ranch lands or the productive capacity that might be lost,” Dierschke said.

The Farm Bureau document suggests that many problems arise from the intent to include I-69–not only in the federal corridor that includes seven states–but in the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor as well. The TTC is most often described as multimodal, requiring more space.

“We have to wonder if the rest of the TTC is getting this kind of half-hearted scrutiny,” Dierschke said. “We hope TxDOT and FHWA are approaching this planning phase with an open mind, but their efforts suggest otherwise.”

© 2008, Penton Media, Inc.:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"While President Bush and other U.S. officials have derided fears of a NAFTA superhighway as merely conspiracy theory..."

Mexican official says NAFTA includes superhighways

'Transportation linking the United States, Mexico and Canada is key to the future'

March 18, 2008

By Jerome R. Corsi
Copyright 2008

While President Bush and other U.S. officials have derided fears of a NAFTA superhighway as merely conspiracy theory, a Mexican transportation expert contends the trade agreement includes plans for a network of international ship, rail and truck connections to deliver consumer goods from China and the Far East to Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.

"Transportation linking the United States, Mexico and Canada is key to the future of NAFTA," Eduardo Aspero, president of the Mexican Intermodal Association, told a recent luncheon sponsored by the Free Trade Alliance San Antonio.

In transportation economics, the term "intermodal" refers to the ability to move a container by crane to different modes of transportation, including ship, truck and railroad, without having to unpack or repack the container.

"It was interesting how the NAFTA transportation network so vehemently denied by the U.S. government was alive and well in Aspero's speech and openly discussed in San Antonio," said Terri Hall, founder of the San Antonio Toll Party.

WND reported President Bush, while attending the third annual summit of the Security and Prosperity Partnership meeting in Quebec last August said in an internationally televised press conference that those who believe the SPP might lead to NAFTA superhighways or a North American Union are "conspiracy theorists."

Hall, who attended Aspero's San Antonio speech, is a political activist whose website,, is dedicated to fighting the Trans-Texas Corridor and the expansion of toll roads in the state.

Aspero focused on plans by the Chinese firm of Hutchison Ports Holdings to develop the deep-water Mexican ports of Lazaro Cardenas and Manzanillo, on the Pacific Ocean south of Texas, to bring containers from China into North America.

As WND has reported, Hutchison Ports Holdings is paying billions of dollars to deepen Mexican ports such as Lazaro Cardenas and Manzanillo in anticipation of the arrival of post-Pamamex mega-ships capable of holding up to 12,500 containers currently being built for Chinese shipping lines.

WND also has reported how the U.S. southern border is being blurred for the benefit of global trade, with the official website of the Mexican northeastern state of Nuevo Leon disclosing plans to extend the Trans-Texas Corridor south through Monterrey to connect with Pacific ports in Mexico.

Aspero noted that currently 400,000 containers a year are being transported by truck and rail from Mexican ports on the Pacific into the U.S.

"The purpose of ports such as Lazaro Cardenas is to facilitate the cost-efficient transportation of container goods from Asia into the United States," he explained.

"Lazaro Cardenas is the new hope for intermodalism in Mexico," Aspero said, noting that Lazaro Cardenas is Mexico's deepest port at 49 feet, capable of accepting virtually any cargo ship in the world.

"Aspero noted that the largest markets for the Chinese-manufactured goods are at the center of the United States and in the Northeast," Hall said.

"He was trying to explain why multi-national corporations engaged in global trade continue to pressure the Bush administration," she continued. "Their goal is to cut loose American longshoremen on the West Coast in favor of the cheaper Mexican labor that can get goods into the interior of the United States through the southern route from these Mexican ports on the Pacific."

Aspero also argued the Automated Manifest System (AMS) put in place by U.S. Customs in 2002 is a key development in North American intermodal transportation.

"AMS allows cargo from Asia to go through Mexican ports virtually without any physical inspection," he explained. "AMS pre-clears cargo at the point of origin, not at the border when the container enters the United States."

© 2008, WorldNetDaily:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE

Monday, March 17, 2008

"I couldn't believe they could get away with this..."

Letting the Market Drive Transportation

Bush Officials Criticized for Privatization

March 17, 2008

By Lyndsey Layton and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post
Copyright 2008

It took a few moments for Tyler Duvall, the top policymaker at the Department of Transportation, to digest the news from the Hill. But when he realized what it meant, he was stunned.

Last year, Congress decided not to dictate how the department could spend its discretionary funds. No earmarks, no strings, no arm-twisting from lawmakers to direct money to bus systems or other mass-transit projects in hundreds of communities nationwide.

Duvall and other top department officials were staring at nearly $1 billion. And they knew exactly how to spend it.

They used the money to seed five high-profile experiments, in New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Miami and Seattle, that feature "congestion pricing" -- tolls that increase when traffic is heavy. The idea is to reduce traffic by discouraging some motorists from driving during peak hours.

"It's almost sort of un-American that we should be forced to sit and be stuck in traffic," said D.J. Gribbin, the department's general counsel and liaison to the White House, who worked closely with Duvall on the project.

For Gribbin, Duvall and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, the goal is not just to combat congestion but to upend the traditional way transportation projects are funded in this country. They believe that tolls paid by motorists, not tax dollars, should be used to construct and maintain roads.

They and other political appointees have spent the latter part of President Bush's two terms laboring behind the scenes to shrink the federal role in road-building and public transportation. They have also sought to turn highways into commodities that can be sold or leased to private firms and used by motorists for a price. In Duvall and Gribbin's view, unleashing the private sector and introducing market forces could lead to innovation and more choices for the public, much as the breakup of AT&T transformed telecommunications.

But their ideas and actions have alarmed transit advocates, the trucking industry, states struggling to build rail projects and members of Congress from both parties.

"They have a myopic view," said Rep. John L. Mica (Fla.), ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Pricing transportation to drive down traffic may make market sense, but it harms the public, he said. "This was a country based on some system of equality. People are paying their taxes and have representation. You can't exclude them from having a fair return."

Critics such as Mica do not oppose all tolling, but they argue that the traditional mechanism for funding roads and transit, the federal gas tax, which has not been raised since 1993, must be increased so that the nation's Highway Trust Fund does not run out of money in three years. Some Democrats contend that the Bush administration wants to starve the fund so that states will be forced to sell off roads to private firms, charge tolls and ration the best access to those willing to pay for a faster commute.

"Everything they're doing is designed to drive things to privatization," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure highways and transit subcommittee. DeFazio said the nation long ago settled that roads are public goods. "They're just trying to undo 200 years of history and go back to the Boston Post Road."

Even if the next president reverses its policies, the Bush administration will leave a legacy of new toll roads across the country, a growing number of public roads leased to private companies, and dozens of stalled commuter rail, streetcar and subway projects -- including the $5 billion extension of Metro to Dulles International Airport.

A New Focus on Tolls

Tyler Duvall was on his way to a departmental retreat in 2006 when he hit 25 miles of traffic on Interstate 270. At the retreat, the Bush administration officials agreed that congestion should be the focus of their remaining time in office.

Since the 1990s, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has spent about $10 million a year to study tolls. Inspired by the writings of economist and Nobel laureate William Vickrey, considered the "father" of congestion pricing, Duvall decided it was time to crank up that work. Polling data said the public was fed up with traffic and willing to try something new.

"We thought, let's expand and let every state try congestion pricing," he said.

When Democrats took control of Congress and stripped most earmarks from last year's federal budget, Peters took $850 million that would have been shipped to hundreds of municipalities and poured it into Urban Partnerships, a pilot program awarded to five cities on the condition that they test congestion pricing.

The focus on toll roads alarmed the transit industry, which argues that public transportation is the best way to fight gridlock in cities. Industry leaders say the DOT has made it increasingly difficult for expensive rail projects to qualify for federal dollars. The number of major new rail and bus projects on track for federal funding dropped from 48 in 2001 to 17 in 2007, even as transit ridership hit a 50-year high last year and demand for new service is soaring.

William Millar, who heads the American Public Transportation Association, says he set up three appointments with Duvall to try to influence how the Urban Partnership money would be spent, but each was cancelled. "They just see no role for transit," Millar said.

Duvall, 35, is a fourth-generation Washingtonian whose father is a well-connected lawyer. He had no transportation experience when he was plucked from his job handling corporate mergers and acquisitions at Hogan & Hartson and was offered a political appointment at the DOT in 2002. "It was a friend of a friend of a friend sort of thing," he said.

Within four years, he was setting national policy.

Tall and lanky, Duvall is a kinetic intellectual who talks animatedly about pricing theories and e-mails stray thoughts to colleagues in the middle of the night. In his office, he keeps a bust of Dwight D. Eisenhower, father of the interstate system. One recent day, he was reading a paperback copy of Barry Goldwater's book "The Conscience of a Conservative," lent to him by Peters.

Fans say Duvall savors a good policy debate; critics call him an ideologue who doesn't know how to compromise. All acknowledge his influence on major DOT initiatives and statements.

"Tyler Duvall is a little pointy-headed neocon with grand ideas about the future of transportation, and they all involve tolling," DeFazio said. "He's bright, young, energetic -- just totally wrong, and has a bizarre, neocon view of transportation."

Soon after Duvall arrived at the DOT as a "schedule C" -- the lowest-level political appointee -- Peters asked him to interview for the job of general counsel at the Federal Highway Administration. He lost out to another lawyer -- D.J. Gribbin.

Duvall and Gribbin soon became allies, bonded by a shared passion to inject free-market theory into transportation policy.

Gribbin, 44, grew up well connected to the Republican Party. His father was a longtime aide to Vice President Cheney and a former head of Halliburton's Washington office. The younger Gribbin worked as a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business and as a national field director for the Christian Coalition under Ralph Reed. For six months in 2005, he moved his wife and seven children to Guatemala, where they performed missionary work.

A cautious man who leaves nothing on his desk at the end of the day, Gribbin hatched the DOT's controversial plan to charge airlines a fee for landing at New York's JFK and other busy airports during peak hours -- a proposal the airlines say they will fight.

"Milton Friedman said 30 years ago you should price roads for users, but you couldn't because you can't have a toll booth on every corner," Gribbin said, invoking the Nobel Prize-winning conservative economist. But now, transponders and automatic toll collection have made Friedman's prescriptions possible, Gribbin said.

The cities that won the Urban Partnership grants -- New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Miami and Seattle -- are represented by Democratic leaders and a key Republican. "Basically, they bought off five urban areas," said Mica, who represents Miami. "I got the smallest amount, probably because I squealed the most about what they were doing."

Mica and other lawmakers curtailed the program this year by barring it from using more than 10 percent of the department's bus money.

But communities on the losing side last year were hit hard. Without funds for new buses, Dubuque, for example, had to rely on volunteers such as Shorty Harris, who drove passengers around northeast Iowa in his 2002 Chevy Cavalier.

"I couldn't believe they could get away with this, to just take that money away," said Mark Munson, director of the Regional Transit Authority in Dubuque, which has been frequently forced to deny trips to the elderly and disabled because there are not enough buses and volunteers can't fill all the gaps.

Duvall is unapologetic, saying the traditional pork-barrel process of divvying up transportation dollars is bad policy. The proof, he said, is the fact that increased government spending on transportation has not slowed congestion.

None of the five Urban Partnership projects has opened yet, and several face local opposition. New York faces a deadline this month for approval from the state legislature and city council or it will lose the money. Duvall hopes at least one project -- on I-95 in Miami -- will be operating by summer and will demonstrate the value of his theories.

"There are 250,000 people a day sitting on I-95 in Miami," he said. "In four months, thousands of people will have faster commutes, guaranteed trip times."

Highways and Wall Street

By limiting the federal role in transportation, the Bush administration has sped the growth of a new business: private investment in roads.

As they have crafted policy, Duvall, Gribbin and other Bush officials have been working closely with private equity funds. The DOT persuaded Congress to change the tax code to make $15 billion in tax-exempt bonds available for private firms to build road and freight projects.

The department waived regulations to speed development of toll road projects and wrote sample laws to help state legislatures permit the lease or sale of their roads to private companies, with laws now enacted in 23 states.

As a consequence, private equity funds focused on transportation attracted an estimated $100 billion to $150 billion in 2006, according to industry analysts.

The new opportunities for private equity have also created job opportunities for government officials. In the past three years, nine current and former top DOT appointees have worked for such funds or for engineering or construction firms interested in tolling projects subject to federal review.

Gribbin is one of those officials.

He came to the department in 2003 from Koch Industries, which has a road-building subsidiary and is owned by a prominent donor to Republican and libertarian causes. As general counsel at the Federal Highway Administration, he wrote a report to Congress praising private-public partnerships, citing a study he commissioned on the benefits of tolling while he was at Koch.

That report also included ideas attributed to Macquarie Holdings, a major toll-road builder based in Australia. Gribbin left the federal government in 2005 to work at Macquarie, where he earned $265,000. He returned to the DOT last year as general counsel.

Peters followed a similar path. She served as federal highway administrator from 2001 to 2005, then worked as a senior vice president at HDR, a construction firm with several tolling projects, where she was paid a salary and bonus of $225,833 to craft its public policy. She returned to federal government as transportation secretary in 2006.

Peters said she sees no conflicts.

"Having someone like D.J. Gribbin who has worked in the private sector helping us decide what kinds of protections [are needed in tolling deals] is a big advantage," she said. "I don't think the policies that we're advocating are premised on the fact that it creates this opportunity for people to go out and work in this industry at all. We're doing so because we firmly believe these are in the best interest of America."

Public distrust of privatization, however, remains high. Republicans lost control of the Indiana state legislature in 2006 partly because of controversy over the governor's lease of a public highway to Macquarie. Political opposition has also forced governors in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to suspend plans to lease roads. Texas lawmakers put a two-year freeze on the governor's strategy to privatize a 4,000-mile network of tolled highways.

Last month, the Government Accountability Office warned that tolls on privatized roads are typically higher than if the roads remain under public control, because of the need to generate steady profits for private investors. The report said the federal government needs to better protect the public interest.

"This is all about making money," said Frank Busalacchi, the Wisconsin transportation secretary and a member of a congressionally chartered commission that last year studied transportation funding and supported raising the gas tax. "The financiers, bankers, people coming in -- the foreign dollars coming in and buying infrastructure in this country that American people put down."

For Macquarie, the Dulles Toll Road has enormous appeal. The company approached Virginia in 2005 about leasing the road, pocketing motorist fees and financing the rail extension to the airport. But Virginia officials had other ideas. They wanted to keep the road in the hands of a public entity -- the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority -- and let it build the rail line.

According to four former senior DOT officials, Virginia's decision upset Duvall and then-DOT chief of staff John A. Flaherty. "They went ballistic," one of the officials said. "[They] wanted that to be their pet project in the nation's capital. Tyler would mention that frequently . . . that it would be better for the project to go to Macquarie."

Duvall said the DOT is not trying to steer Virginia toward a public-private partnership for Dulles rail and that Flaherty was angered because the state did not notify the department, not by the substance of its decision. "My interest in this was solely to make sure the taxpayer was getting the right deal," he said.

When the DOT said in January that it would not fund the rail project, Macquarie repeated its interest to Virginia officials, as did another private equity firm, the Carlyle Group, which created a $1.5 billion fund to invest in U.S. infrastructure and has hired Flaherty to head it.

A final decision on the Dulles extension is on hold. But Duvall and his colleagues have ignited a national argument -- the first real debate about how to fund transportation in 50 years.

"This is as big as it gets in terms of policy changes in America," Duvall said. "It's clear that we've ruffled feathers -- right, left and center -- in talking about new approaches. That said, I think the public is really dying for new ways to do things. . . . The genie is somewhat out of the bottle."

© 2008, Washington Post:

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"It breaks my heart to see transportation in the American city whored out for a mess of pottage tangled up in a web of lies."

Courtesans, or Firing Mary Peters

Mar. 17th, 2008

Daniel M. Laenker
Copyright 2008

Where courtesans shed no tears
When men leave them high and dry,
They just go on, they just go on
To the next guy.

I've been listening to the new Magnetic Fields album, which is amazing, and I've also been following the news about Dulles Metro, which is disheartening.

For courtesans only want
Compensation for their time:
A few kind words, a few nice things,
They need not whine.

I hate to say it, but maybe we should go along with what the Teamsters want and fire Mary Peters. Not because I particularly care one way or the other about Mexican trucking - though the Teamsters are part of Change To Win, in solidarity with UNITE-HERE, a hospitality union I certainly do care for - but because getting rid of the current team of USDOT policy makers would do this country's urban areas a world of good.

A sable coat, maybe a hat -
How I wish I could be like that!

Since Peters replaced Norman Mineta, she has consistently penalized transit in order to force roads privatization, ostensibly in the name of "congestion pricing". Normally, I would be in favor of actual congestion pricing - so long as it was part of a comprehensive plan that affects every commuter equitably and has positive impacts on local infrastructure, putting the revenues back into alternatives such as transit expansion.

But courtesans are not like me.
They don't take love very hard.
Their hearts are free, their hearts are free
How avant-garde!

But from Washington to Los Angeles to Houston to Chicagoland and even now in Miami, she and her appointees in the FTA have stonewalled economically sound projects with revolving-door excuses that change almost every day in order to force local and state governments to sell or lease highly efficient roads to private interests.

These firms, often foreign multinationals such as Cintra or BAA, pay concession fees that are frequently well out of line with the actual value of the road. These practices overcharge commuters and provide local authorities with significantly diminished opportunities to use these revenues to improve their own infrastructure. Instead, public value in the U.S. often disappears into fungible, unrelated shareholder interests abroad.

If no one loves them when they're old,
They'll sit and count their chains of gold.

Like with the Trans-Texas Corridor before them, Peters and her appointees have been profoundly dishonest about their interests in these projects, as well as their reasons for pursuing or denying myriad proposals along their path - here, cutting transit funds even as ridership reaches a 50-year high.

And as with other Bush administration stories of corruption, collusion, and nepotism in providing no-bid awards and broad-reaching carte-blanche powers to such firms as Bechtel, Halliburton and Cintra, they stand to personally profit in the millions, perhaps even in the billions, from the conversion of public goods for their own benefit.

You say you'll love them till you die,
And they don't care if it's a lie.

Maybe we can afford to ride out the year or so until a new administration comes into power, but the quiet damage to urban infrastructure being wreaked by USDOT and the FTA is difficult to ignore.

I support marketizing our road network in principle and for greater public benefit, and none of this will undo the last decade's progress towards renewed American urbanism. But this is beyond irresponsible to me - this is personal to me, an affront to sacred things. And it breaks my heart to see transportation in the American city whored out for a mess of pottage tangled up in a web of lies.

For courtesans don't believe
In anybody but themselves -
And Santa Claus, and Santa Claus
And his twelve elves....

Fire DOT Secretary Mary Peters

© 2008, Daniel M. Laenker:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE