Saturday, June 07, 2008

"This idea of selling off (long-term leasing of ) American infrastructure is fundamentally flawed."

For sale: America's infrastructure

June 07, 2008

Henry Lamb
Copyright 2008

In the 1960s, the people of Florida borrowed a bunch of money to build a highway from Naples to the East Coast. To repay the construction costs, the state charged a small fee to each traveler who used the road. The idea worked so well that in the 1980s, they borrowed another bunch of money to widen the road to four lanes to meet interstate highway standards. The toll was increased to repay the construction costs.

The construction costs are now repaid. What should be done about the toll fee?

A. Eliminate it, since the debt is repaid.

B. Reduce it to an amount sufficient to pay maintenance costs.

C. Increase the toll for 50 to 75 years, to line the pockets of private investors.

The correct answer, of course, is "C," according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

Chicago built a toll-way; it brought $1.83 billion, leased for 99 years to a foreign financial group.

Indiana built a toll-way; it brought $3.85 billion, leased for 75 years to the same foreign financial group.

Texas wants to build a toll-way; the offer is $7.2 billion for 50 years.

Governments are going berserk looking for highways, bridges and other municipally-owned revenue-producing infrastructure that may be leased to private operators for big bucks up front. Government officials praise the idea as the perfect answer to budget shortfalls. The idea is sort of like manna from heaven for the current officials; they get tons of cash to spend, but will be long gone when the people who are paying the bill begin to want accountability from their government officials.

This idea of selling off (long-term leasing) of American infrastructure is fundamentally flawed.

In Florida, the toll-way up for grabs is "Alligator Alley," a 78-mile stretch of I-75 between Naples and the East Coast. At a toll of $2.50 per vehicle, the construction costs have been paid, and the road is now generating annual profits of about $23 million. Why should users of the toll-way be forced to continue paying the toll now that the construction debt is paid? If any toll can be justified, the amount should not exceed the amount needed to pay for maintenance.

The state is not considering reducing the toll; the state is chomping at the bit to negotiate a long-term lease that will surely increase the toll. When the state built the road, it acted as trustee for the people who paid for the road. Now, rather than acting as trustee for the people who rightfully own the road, the state government claims ownership and wants to force the very people who have paid for the road to now pay an additional fee for using it.

Back when Alligator Alley was first proposed, the elected officials of Collier and Broward Counties had to approve it, and pledge their county's portion of the fuel tax to the retirement of the construction debt. The Collier County commissioners sent their chairman, Tom Henning, to a recent meeting scheduled by Florida transportation officials. The message he brought in behalf of the county's elected officials: "We are opposed to leasing Alligator Alley." About 100 area residents cheered in agreement.

This decision by the county's elected representatives of the people who paid for the project should end the discussion. But it will not.

It will take a major rebellion by the people to prevent this gross injustice. The people have formed the Citizens Transportation Coalition to mount that rebellion. But it will take more than the people of Collier and Broward Counties to stop this money-grab by Florida's government.

People in every state should be concerned. At least 14 states have now passed legislation that allows governments to sell or lease infrastructure for which the people have already paid. Every sale/lease deal of American infrastructure, whether to foreign or domestic private financiers, forces the people to pay again and again and again for the privilege of using their own infrastructure.

The elected and appointed officials who promote the sale of infrastructure know they are likely to be out of office when the toll rate begins to rise. In Indiana, for example, the deal negotiated required the toll rates to remain relatively static for the first 10 years, before rapid increases were authorized. Who can be held accountable then?

Despite all claims to the contrary made by government officials that they will protect the interests of the toll road users, there can be no lease deal that will not penalize the users and force them to pay again and again for using the road the road they have already bought.

© 2008, Inc.

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"TxDOT — which spends $8 billion annually —is clearly hell-bent on pushing an agenda that few outside of the road-construction industry agree with."

TxDOT's problems warrant not just a fix, but replacement


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

Outside its own, its contractors' and Gov. Rick Perry's offices, the Texas Department of Transportation doesn't exactly have a bunch of fans.

That was apparent earlier this week when cheers erupted statewide after the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission released its blistering 159-page staff report on the agency.

Created by the Legislature in 1977, the Sunset Commission reviews each of the state's 150 agencies every 12 years, looking for waste, inefficiency and duplication.

The commission's 12 members often tweak staff recommendations, then fire them to the Legislature before the agencies are reauthorized.

If an agency is not reauthorized, it dies. This seldom happens, but Sunset recommendations have led to changes, even a few important ones.

One big reason TxDOT's evaluation got so much ink and air time is that it is unusually harsh and extensive. But it also confronts incredibly contentious Texas issues: TxDOT's relentless drive to build toll roads, privatize state roads and build the Trans-Texas Corridor that will cut through thousands of acres of private property.

TxDOT's ham-handed actions have created a broad and deep-seated distrust of the agency, so it wasn't surprising to read in the staff report's second paragraph: “Sunset staff found that this ... distrust permeated most of TxDOT's actions and determined that it could not be an effective state transportation agency if trust and confidence were not restored.”

And if that isn't clear enough, ask the thousands who attended TxDOT's public hearings on these issues and were treated rudely and then blown off entirely, or the reporters and others who sought public information only to be stonewalled.

TxDOT — which spends $8 billion annually — is not only dysfunctional, it is clearly hell-bent on pushing an agenda that few outside of the road-construction industry agree with.

But the Sunset report also excoriates its secrecy, and disingenuousness, and for how it remains unaccountable, even to the lawmakers who appropriate its budget. It also details management, bookkeeping and policy-development practices that are, at best, questionable.

TxDOT's projected $86 billion shortfall, for example, was even disputed by the Governor's Business Council Transportation Task Force before the state auditor faulted its seriously flawed methodology.

And what about that $1.1 billion accounting error that TxDOT kept under wraps for months? Or the instances in which the propriety of expenditures — like spending millions to promote and lobby for the Trans-Texas Corridor — have been seriously questioned?

And some of its practices have also made it difficult, if not impossible, to verify if appropriations are being spent for their intended purposes.

When the Sunset Commission meets in August to review this report in Austin, they can count on drawing a big crowd.

But replacing the five-member, governor-appointed Texas Transportation Commission with a single commissioner — the Sunset staff's principal recommendation — doesn't address long-term issues that need attention now.

Lawmakers need to replace this insular agency entirely with one that does not view itself as a self-governing road-building entity that lets private-sector vendors write its policies. In today's fast-changing world, Texas must deal with transportation more comprehensively by seriously incorporating rail and other public-transit options into its plans.

And if we don't, our grandchildren will inherit a huge system of largely underused highways that either will be controlled by unaccountable private-sector operators from who knows where, or will have been sold back to the state but their debt will remain unpaid for generations to come.

What kind of future is that?

© 2008, San Antonio Express-News

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“When the Trans-Texas Corridor project was put in with the I-69 proposal, public support disappeared.”

Brady urges TxDOT to drop I-69 as part of corridor plan

June 06, 2008

By Kristin Edwards
The Huntsville Item
Copyright 2008

Along with a group of nine Texas lawmakers from both political parties, U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady sent a letter Friday urging the Texas Department of Transportation to remove the Interstate 69 project from the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor.

According to Brady, the original I-69 project enjoyed long-term public support because it only upgraded existing highways, and the congressional group wants it returned to its original route.

“I had no problem getting signatures for this letter from members of Congress,” Brady said. “I’m convinced that if we’re able to pull I-69 out of the Trans-Texas Corridor proposal and put it back on its original route from 15 years ago, we can rebuild the public support that used to be so strong for it that has dropped to nothing today.”

The original I-69 project began over 15 years ago, Brady said, under the premise of making improvements to existing highways including U.S. Highway 59, U.S. Highway 281 and U.S. Highway 77.

“The original I-69 project was partially proposed because there was so much more freight traffic projected over the next 12 years,” he said. “The plan was designed to make roads safer, and long before the Trans-Texas Corridor was proposed, the I-69 project had always enjoyed strong support.

“When the Trans-Texas Corridor project was put in with the I-69 proposal, that was a mistake, because public support just disappeared.”

In addition to Brady, Republican members of Congress who signed the letter included U.S. Rep. John Culberson and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, while Democratic members included U.S. Rep. Gene Green, U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, U.S. Rep. Al Green and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee.

The letter was sent to Deirdre Delisi, chairwoman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

“When you’ve got representatives from both parties from all along this route saying that the Trans-Texas Corridor doesn’t work, hurts landowners and will destroy rural communities, that ought to send a pretty strong message,” Brady said. “I met with one of the new commissioners of TxDOT this week and told him there would be a letter coming his way concerning this change. There is new TxDOT leadership, and we believe they will listen with an open mind to our strong concerns.

“The way the I-69 proposal is written in with the corridor, I don’t believe it will get support from Washington, and certainly not from me.”

According to Bob Colwell, TxDOT public information officer for the Bryan district, Brady’s letter was received and will be reviewed by the department during the continuing planning process of I-69/Trans-Texas Corridor.

“We appreciate Congressman Brady’s comments and we welcome all public input during the environmental process for the project,” he said. “We always want to work with our delegation and we will continue the environmental process that will help us determine where the road goes.”

State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst said she was very pleased to find out that Brady and the group of congressional representatives had sent the letter to the Texas Transportation Commission.

Kolkhorst said she hopes that TxDOT will truly make changes to their plans involving the current I-69/Trans-Texas Corridor project.

“I have long advocated that we should go back to the original push for Interstate 69, which would widen existing roadways and allow for more capacity,” she said. “If TxDOT is simply rewording or rephrasing their proposal as a way to calm public fears but still move ahead with a 1,200 foot wide corridor, they’ll get no support from me.

“But, if this is truly an effort to go back to widening existing highways and not create the biggest Texas land grab in history, then I’m willing to listen.”

© 2008, The Huntsville Item

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Friday, June 06, 2008

“Since I-69 was incorporated into the TTC, the new route has rightly drawn fierce public opposition."

Brady Urges Removal Of I-69 From TTC

Jun 6, 2008

Carmen Izzo
KBTX (Bryan, College Station)
Copyright 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Congressman Kevin Brady lead a group of nine Texas lawmakers on Friday, from both political parties, in urging the Texas Department of Transportation to remove the Interstate 69 project from the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor and return it to its original route which brings existing highways U.S. 59, U.S. 281 and U.S 77 up to interstate standards.

In a letter to Deirdre Delisi, the new chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, the lawmakers maintain that “public support for the original I-69 project - which focused on bringing existing highways up to interstate standards and existed long before the Trans-Texas Corridor was proposed - will be difficult to maintain should the project continue to be included in the TTC concept.”

Brady stated, “As advocates in Washington for better Texas roads, we want I-69 removed from the Trans-Texas Corridor and the original route along existing highways restored.

There is new leadership at the Texas Department of Transportation and we believe they will listen with an open mind to our strong concerns."

The original I-69 project began fifteen years ago, long before the Trans-Texas Corridor was proposed, said Brady.

The original route enjoyed strong public support from county officials and economic development leaders along the route because it upgraded existing highways like U.S. 59, reduced congestion and improved safety for motorists.

“Since the project was incorporated into the TTC, the new route runs through our rural communities and has rightly drawn fierce public opposition from landowners, ranchers and community leaders. We want it put back. ”

Texas Republican members of Congress signing the letter include Kevin Brady, John Culberson, and Ron Paul. Democrats include Gene Green, Al Green, Sheila Jackson Lee, Nick Lampson, Ruben Hinojosa and Solomon Ortiz.

© 2008, KBTX-TV

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JP Morgan avoids the 'C word' (concession) while funding the conversion of freeways to toll roads in Austin

J.P. Morgan to lend up to $2.5B for toll roads

June 6, 2008

By Jean Kwon
Austin Business Journal
Copyright 2008

A growing interest by the private financial sector in transportation projects has spread to Central Texas and may be part of the long-term answer to funding toll roads.

J.P. Morgan Securities, a division of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., has pledged to provide the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority up to $2.5 billion in capital sources for planned toll road or managed lane projects at U.S. Highway 183, State Highway 71, U.S. Highway 290, and MoPac Expressway. JP Morgan's $1 billion Asset Management Fund is looking into directly investing in CTRMA's projects, says Don Henderson, Executive Director at J.P. Morgan Securities.

As cash-strapped federal and state agencies increasingly relinquish funding and control over transportation projects across the country, private capital is stepping in.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, infrastructure -- roads, water, and power plants -- as an asset class is worth an estimated global value of $17 trillion. The OECD expects global expenditure for transportation infrastructure to be $3 trillion by 2030.

In the last four years, the private financial sector has invested $20 billion in U.S. roads, according to a Morgan Stanley study.

Infrastructure matches with the asset types that investors want because essential services like roads and water have low risk and long-term predictable cash flow, says Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of CTRMA. Roads, for example, have built-in inflation protection since tolls can be adjusted to reflect inflation rates.

Overseas pension funds have been investing in long-term assets like energy and water for years but have more recently looked at roads, says Henderson. The Chicago Skyway Bridge, Indiana toll roads and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, for example, have been backed by foreign investors.

Having financial institutions like J.P. Morgan sell directly to mutual funds, pension funds and other long-term investors enables transportation projects to avoid entering concession deals with private firms that lease and operate revenue-streamed projects like toll roads, says Steve Pustelnyk, a spokesman for CTRMA. Australian infrastructure powerhouse Macquarie Group Ltd., which recently approached Austin city officials about privatizing all or part of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, has concession projects for 34 roads in 10 countries.

"We could have gone the concession route but [the JP Morgan model] is a hybrid," says Pustelnyk. "As we look at funding shortfalls and limits to traditional funding methods these things allow us to overcome funding challenges without letting us go to the extreme of doing a concession."

Under the private financial sector model CTRMA retains direct and complete control over toll road projects and reinvests revenue in the community, says Pustelnyk.

© 2008, Austin Business Journal

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"The latest act in an Austin political drama in which lawmakers and transportation officials have tried to cast one another in the villain's role."

Transforming TxDOT

Friday, June 6, 2008


Here's a thought to blow a gasket: state lawmakers as micromanagers of Texas' highway agency.

A legislative oversight panel wants a massive overhaul of the transportation department, reflecting years of mistrust and spiteful relations.

Lawmakers say, with some justification, that TxDOT invited the wrath in this week's scathing 146-page report. But like responsible adults, legislators mustn't get so angry that they lose their heads. Their idea of a "legislative conservatorship" could trade one problem for another.

TxDOT is now overseen by a five-person board appointed by the governor. The new proposal gets drastic. It would wipe away that board and install one appointed executive who would report to a special panel of lawmakers.

A better approach would be to address the criticisms of TxDOT. Many are serious, like concerns about efficiency, transparency, cooperation and methods of setting understandable priorities. There's also TxDOT's embarrassing $1 billion bookkeeper error.

As for governance, today's five commissioners at least ensure Texas' varied interests – urban vs. rural, for example – and the major metro areas are represented in policy decisions. It's frightful to think how a lone commissioner would behave if his or her strings were pulled by multiple political overseers whose chief concern was their own turf and the next election.

The new report is the latest act in an Austin political drama in which lawmakers and transportation officials have tried to cast one another in the villain's role. State fuel taxes have lagged behind road-building needs, but the Legislature has not boosted them in 17 years.

To fill the void, TxDOT turned to aggressive development of toll roads using financing tools (here's an irony) that the Legislature itself provided. Complicating matters, plans for privately run toll roads include Gov. Rick Perry's massive showcase project, the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor.

An inflamed public has inflamed lawmakers, who say they can't come to grips with things without reliable data from TxDOT.

Taxpayers deserve better. Lawmakers and TxDOT must figure out how to act more like partners than rivals.

© 2008, The Dallas Morning News

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

We really REALLY mean it this time....

NOW TxDOT must act on its promises


San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

The Texas Transportation Commission sounded the right notes last month in its first meeting under new leadership. Deirdre Delisi, recently appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to chair the commission, and her fellow commissioners finally seem to have gotten the message — the Texas Department of Transportation has lost the public's trust.

For those with short memories, here are a few highlights that explain how that happened:
  • TxDOT fought to keep details of Perry's proposed Trans-Texas Corridor secret. It denied repeated requests from the media and landowners to let the public view a plan that calls for hundreds of miles of toll roads.
  • When Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion that TTC documents should be made public, TxDOT joined in a suit with the design contractor to keep the information sealed.
  • While TxDOT officials complained about a shortage of funds for freeway projects, they diverted $9 million to an advertising campaign to promote toll roads.
  • The transportation agency quietly produced a report that advocated turning existing interstate highways into toll roads and giving tax breaks to private companies for investing in toll projects.
  • The report only became public when agency officials sought congressional support to enact the controversial, previously unknown plan.
Given this recent history, Delisi's concern about rebuilding the public trust is well placed.

At its May meeting, the Transportation Commission pledged it would open up TxDOT's financial data, restrict tolling options to new roadways while keeping existing roadways free, and ban noncompete clauses that limit improvements to existing roadways as part of tolling contracts.

The commission said all the right things. Now it has to deliver.

If it doesn't, the staff of the state's Sunset Advisory Commission has a solution: Abolish the Texas Transportation Commission and replace it with an appointed transportation commissioner who must answer to a Legislature with greater oversight authority of the state's transportation system.

Lawmakers may decide to adopt the recommendations of the Sunset review during the next session, regardless of what Delisi and her colleagues do. At minimum, the Sunset Advisory Commission's recommendations about accountability deserve serious consideration.

If the Transportation Commission doesn't follow through on its newly made commitments, it will simply make the decision for lawmakers easier.

© 2008 San Antonio-Express News

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"The collapse of political support for toll financing in Texas may have been a factor in the closure URS Traffic and Revenue forecasting business."

URS out of traffic and revenue business - clients


Peter Samuel
Copyright 2008

Once one of the big three in the US - Vollmer and Wilbur Smith were the other two - URS is getting out of the traffic and revenue forecasting business. We have this from a couple of major clients of URS, but calls to URS itself have gone unanswered. Twice we left messages: "We hear you're out of the traffic and revenue business. Please call us on this."

They still claim on their website to be a leading source of advice:

"URS has established an international reputation as one of the leading consultants in toll financing. URS reports are fully acceptable to the financial community and rating agencies. In illustration of this, URS staff periodically gives seminars on toll road traffic and revenue forecasting to staffs of the three rating agencies.

"Services include:

Traffic and revenue forecasts

Reports for financing

Engineering Designs and Inspections

Trustee-Services-Operational, Financial, Engineering and Traffic Reviews

Public/Private partnerships..."


Two established clients of URS traffic and revenue work told us independently that URS said after they finish up their present jobs they'll be taking on no new T&R work.

URS is a huge engineering firm with some 50k employees, offices in 34 countries and revenues of $5.4b. Publicly traded (NYSE:URS) it has its head office in downtown San Francisco.

It recently took over Washington Group.

URS's greatest strength in traffic and revenue work was in the US south. The collapse of political support for toll financing in Texas may have been a factor in the closure of their T&R work.

© 2008 TOLLROADSnews

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Transportation Transformation Group ('T2') is composed of those who would profit from Public Private Partnerships ('P3s')

Texan leads group seeking federal highway funding changes


By Gary Martin
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

WASHINGTON — A member of the Texas Transportation Commission is heading a national coalition proposing public-private funding, including tolls, to raise new revenue to improve and expand federal highways.

Ned Holmes of Houston announced the formation of the Transportation Transformation Group, or T2, at a National Press Club news conference on Thursday.

Holmes said the group is proposing a fundamental change in the way the federal government funds transportation projects, with the goal of giving local leaders more authority to shape policy and flexibility in spending federal money.

Acknowledging that some of the group's proposals would be controversial, Holmes said, “I come from a state that is trying to do things differently.”

A Texas proposal to toll existing federal highways to build more roads was met last year with howls of protest.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, sponsored bipartisan legislation to block the tolling proposal.

Texas transportation officials retreated from the idea, but they still want to use tolls to expand state highways to reduce congestion and improve safety.

The newly formed T2 endorses public-private solutions to the transportation crisis.

T2 members include former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

Gephardt said he understands the controversy toll roads create, but they represent a more realistic approach to raising revenue than increasing the federal gas tax at time when oil is selling at historic highs.

In Austin this week, the Sunset Advisory Commission recommended a dramatic restructuring of the Transportation Commission, saying the five-member appointed board is “out of control” and had lost its credibility with the public.

The advisory commission, which reviews state agencies, recommended replacing the board with a single commissioner, appointed by the governor, with more oversight authority for the Legislature.

© 2008 San Antonio Express-News

Transportation Transformation Group members

  • Banc of America Securities LLC
  • Econolite Group, Inc.
  • Goldman, Sachs & Co.
  • HNTB Corp.
  • JP Morgan
  • MARKIV Industries
  • Morgan Stanley
  • Northeastern University
  • Nossaman Guthner Knox & Elliott LLP
  • Pioneer Institute
  • Reason Foundation
  • The Office of Governor Mitch Daniels
  • The Office of Governor Rick Perry
  • Port of Houston
  • Florida Department of Transportation
  • Indiana Department of Transportation
  • North Texas Tollway Authority
  • Texas Department of Transportation
  • Utah Department of Transportation

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North Texas officials contemplate tolling neighborhood streets

Highland Park considers plan to make Dallas drivers pay to use stretch of Mockingbird

June 5, 2008

Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

Highland Park's solution to unclogging traffic congestion on Mockingbird Lane: Make Dallas drivers pay for it.

Since most of the 18,000 drivers on the road each day cut through the town, officials are exploring a proposal to toll the road. Most local drivers would not be charged.

A plan is far from developed, but if it comes to pass, transportation experts say the stretch of Mockingbird between Hillcrest Avenue and Dallas North Tollway could become the first tolled surface street in the country.

The concept, known as congestion pricing, was among dozens of ideas in an application last year in which Dallas Area Rapid Transit led a team of North Texas officials seeking part of a $1 billion federal grant program. It was aimed at finding innovative fixes for traffic-clogged streets in big cities.

The proposal did not win, but Highland Park town engineer Meran Dadgostar said he believes the Mockingbird idea merits consideration.

"Mockingbird was a thoroughfare that would be a good candidate," he said. "The idea is still a good one."

Mr. Dadgostar plans to brief the Town Council later this year on congestion pricing before the town will move ahead with further study. But first, officials must address a litany of questions: Is there public support? Can Highland Park legally charge tolls? How much would drivers pay, and how would revenues be used? Who would run the program?

Studying those issues was exactly what local officials had in mind when they included the proposal in the grant application, said Christopher Poe, an assistant director of the Texas Transportation Institute.

The grant would have paid for a detailed report that would have also addressed pricing policy, operations and enforcement.

"There was definitely the recognition that any potential project would have to be thoroughly vetted through the public and political process," Mr. Poe said.

History of tension

The tolling idea is not the first time talked-about changes to Mockingbird Lane have stoked tensions between Highland Park residents and the many non-resident drivers who rely on the road.

Highland Park's opposition to widening the road, some have said, was an attempt to keep out non-residents. The current project, a multimillion dollar reconstruction of the road, will leave it generally narrower.

Highland Park Mayor Bill Seay said that while he is unfamiliar with congestion pricing, he would be open to investigating it for Mockingbird. But he acknowledged potential problems.

"I'm sensitive to the fact that the town has been seen as being selfish with the use of that road," he said.

Dallas City Council member Linda Koop, a member of the Regional Transportation Council, said Mockingbird is seen as a key road in the region's fight to handle traffic, not just a residential street. Highland Park planners would have to be careful that their efforts don't lead to heavier traffic on crowded streets nearby.

Mockingbird's value has been clear since late September, as construction work has sent the 18,000-plus drivers a day looking for detours.

Initially, drivers streamed down Beverly Drive, but added stop signs and tough enforcement have spread traffic to Lovers Lane and other nearby thoroughfares. Mockingbird is expected to reopen by the end of the year.

'Neighborhood street'

Despite the traffic it carries, many Highland Park residents see Mockingbird as a residential street. In fact, resident Don Chase said, a congested Mockingbird may discourage people from driving on it.

"I love looking out on a Friday afternoon and seeing those cars stacked up in front of my house," he said. "Drivers will go for the path of least resistance. We're not using their neighborhood street, so why should they use ours?"

Mr. Chase says he doesn't think the plan is viable. But transportation experts say congestion pricing has been tested and proven elsewhere.

"This idea works, and it works anywhere there is a capacity problem and the need to smooth traffic flows," said Tyler Duvall, a top U.S. Department of Transportation official and one of the Bush administration's leading voices on congestion pricing and other new approaches.

Mr. Duvall said all the finalists for the $1 billion in grant money had plans for some form of congestion pricing or similar approaches. The Mockingbird Lane proposal was part of what made the North Texas application stand out, he said.

One of the grant recipients was San Francisco, which proposed, but later stepped back from, tolling a city street leading to the Golden Gate Bridge. While that proposal was designed to produce revenue, the Mockingbird idea would instead use fluctuating pricing to manage traffic, Mr. Duvall said.

Other tolling ideas

Other tolling ideas that were in the North Texas application will probably go forward without the grant money.

DART, for instance, plans to begin converting some of its carpool lanes to managed lanes sometime later this year. Eventually those tolls would fluctuate according to how congested their adjacent roads are.

Mr. Dadgostar, the Highland Park engineer, said he'd like to refine the Mockingbird proposal as much as possible before taking it to the council for discussion. He said the program could:

•Use cameras or other technology on each end of Mockingbird in the town.

•Charge drivers detected by each scanner within a limited amount of time – those using Mockingbird as a through route.

•Discourage drivers from using parallel residential streets through strict traffic enforcement.

Mr. Dadgostar said most traffic on Mockingbird is going through the town but that he didn't have detailed data. While many people would choose another route instead of paying a toll, roads such as Northwest Highway, which is north of the town, are better designed to handle large amounts of traffic, he said.

"This is to get drivers to change their habits," Mr. Dadgostar said. "We're telling people that there are other routes out there. You pay for things that are worth paying for.";

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News

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"The concern about the Department and the direction of State transportation policy is deep and undeniable."

Sunset report: Kill the Texas Transportation Commission

When: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 - 9:00am
View Streaming Webcast by clicking [HERE]

Download: Sunset Commission report

June 4, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

The five-member commission that oversees the Texas Department of Transportation should be abolished and replaced with a single commissioner accountable to the governor and lawmakers, according to a 157-page report by the staff of the Sunset Advisory Commission, the panel created by the Legislature to regularly assess state agencies. The commissioner should be appointed by the governor, the panel suggested. And every two years, that commissioner would report to -- and be subject to removal by -- the Legislature.

In addition, the report said, the Legislature should create a new oversight committee that will more closely monitor the agency and in many ways take over the policymaking and project priority-setting roles now filled by the Texas Transportation Commission.

The Sunset Advisory Commission reviews every state agency, usually every 12 years. The staff recommendations, such as the report issued today, are reviewed and often modified by lawmakers and other members of the commission. A reauthorization bill is then recommended to the Legislature. If it doesn't become law, the agency ceases to exist.

Few agencies have been allowed to die, however, and some survive with few changes.

The staff recommendations regarding the TxDOT and the Transportation Commission, subject to changes by Sunset Commission members, will be incorporated into a bill in next year's legislative session.

The Transportation Commission is the policy-setting board that governs TxDOT. All five current commission members were appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, and it is loyalty to the governor’s vision of using toll roads to finance tens of billions of dollars of unfunded road needs that has most characterized their tenures so far.

The report also recommends that the TxDOT's next sunset report be delivered in just four years -- in essence, putting the agency on probation.

At the core of the staff report is the question of trust -- and the authors' contention that the agency's full-speed-ahead approach to private toll roads has eroded trust among lawmakers and members of the public.

"Early concerns about the Department's approach to toll roads and its interest in public-private partnerships have become a deep-seated distrust of TxDOT's motives and direction, as reflected in the Legislature's insistent drive to recapture policy ground lost to the Department," the report says. "

Sunset staff concluded that the intensity and high level of concern about the Department demanded decisive action to rebuild trust and confidence in TxDOT. The recommendations in this issue offer strong measures to accomplish this.

The report says the staff review of the agency "occurred in an atmosphere of extreme legislative and public distrust about the Department and the way it operates. While Department staff cooperated and gave time generously to assist in the review, the concern about the Department and the direction of State transportation policy is deep and undeniable."

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said the agency will continue to work with the commission as its members -- who include Rep. Linda Harper Brown, R-Irving, and Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth -- take up the staff recommendations. A public hearing on the proposals is scheduled in Austin for mid July.

"The confidence of the Legislature and the public are very important to us," Mr. Lippincott said. "We still have work to do, but we are confident that our ongoing efforts to improve the transparency and accessibility of TxDOT are making a positive impact. We look forward to our continued work with the members and staff of the Sunset Commission."

Five senators and five state representatives serve on the Sunset Commission along with one member from the public. In addition, Houston real estate developer Michael Snow Stevens had been on the panel until his death last month from cancer.

Texas Transportation Commissioner Bill Meadows of Fort Worth said the proposals are strong medicine for the agency. But he said review process should be thorough, and perhaps even painful.

"Some of the proposals are not going to sit well with the commissioners," he said. "But the process is a good process. It was designed to be challenging." He said one advantage of the current system is that it puts five volunteers from throughout Texas directly in charge of setting policy for what is one of Texas' largest agencies. "You get a lot of geographic diversity, and that is a good thing," Mr. Meadows said. "I know a heck of a lot more about the roads and the priorities in North Texas than my good friend (and fellow commissioner) Fred Underwood in Lubbock."

Mr. Meadows, formerly vice chairman of the North Texas Tollway Authority, was appointed to the commission last month by Gov. Rick Perry.

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

"Even TxDOT's most strident critics turned out to have understated their case."

Texans must demand more from TxDOT, politicians and themselves


Ken Allard
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

Hotly debated public policy questions are rarely settled so decisively, so cleanly, so unanswerably. But Tuesday's Sunset Commission Report on the Texas Department of Transportation read like an indictment.

Its overall finding: the agency is “out of control” and desperately needs new leadership. TxDOT apologists must have felt as though they had been presented with DNA evidence that Dad had never married Mom: because even the agency's most strident critics turned out to have understated their case.

There was, of course, the small matter of the billion dollars mislaid by TxDOT, as well its nasty habit of spending public monies to advocate pet projects like the Trans-Texas Corridor, justifiably despised by many citizens. But the report also found TxDOT's strategic planning is “disjointed;” its project selection not “understandable or transparent.” Even in the information age, agency planning is so chaotic that there is only limited public access to “objective and reliable information about the state's transportation system.” Bottom line: TxDOT is simply not trusted by Texans or the people we elect to the Legislature. Gov. Rick Perry must have anticipated the stinging rebuke. On Monday, he suddenly left for Europe, there to boast about Texas business and to participate in the annual D-Day commemoration. (Hint: the Germans lost there because, among other things, we bombed their transportation networks into oblivion.)

Back home, where each day roughly 1,200 new Texans join the hordes already jamming state roads, bad planning is building toward gridlock levels usually produced by war or natural disaster. While we may need something like TxDOT, what would a more effective agency look like? Because the Sunset Commission report marks only the start of that larger debate, there are some basic questions about the future that Texans should begin considering carefully:
  • Appointed or elected? Who is in charge and who put them there are basic questions at TxDOT or anywhere else. Leaders naturally owe their first loyalty to whoever they feel is most responsible for selecting them, whether governor, legislature or the electorate. So whose loyalty should govern the decisions TxDOT commissioners typically make? For example, do you think the present incumbent, a thirty-something whose sole qualifications are her ties to the governor, could win statewide election to the office? (I don't either.)
  • One or Many? Travel here more than five minutes and you become aware that Texas is a subcontinent in its own right, with every conceivable kind of terrain and transportation challenge. We are rural and urban; coastal marsh and upland desert; piney woods and endless prairie. So why do we think a Soviet-style central planning bureau like TxDOT is the appropriate model for such a diverse and often fractious state? There have been ample precedents here for local planning authorities. Why not empower them with more decentralized planning and execution responsibilities, maybe even electing local transportation leaders as well?
  • Strategy or Tactics? Straighten out the structure and you also enable more precise divisions of labor. Elected local authorities are far better able to decide small but urgent issues, like building a ramp to the Dominion versus one connecting Loop 1604 with U.S. Highway 281. A reformed TxDOT could then focus more effectively on the overall system, including vital strategic questions like road versus rail or even the injection of new technologies like high-speed, magnetic-levitation trains. Eventually we might even engineer roadways that didn't look as though they had been designed by Martian bureaucrats.
  • Who pays and how? Like it or not, we need more and better roads as well as the means to pay for them. Texans, tolls and taxes have never gone well together, but even less so with gas climbing steadily toward $5 a gallon. So how do we raise the money, especially with fewer prospects for bailouts from Washington? Creative financing is one thing, but public expenditures always mean debt or taxes.
So let's begin by demanding better accountability from our public servants and our political leaders. But most of all, from ourselves.

Retired Col. Ken Allard is an executive-in-residence at UTSA. E-mail him at

© 2008 San Antonio Express-News

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"The department’s credibility, both with the public and the Legislature, is badly damaged."

TxDOT credibility in political pothole

June 4, 2008

By The Editorial Board
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

There’s no reason to think that radical changes to the governance of the Texas Department of Transportation, which spends $8 billion a year, alone would get this or that highway built or improved sooner than now, at least in the short run.

But it’s also clear that the department’s credibility, both with the public and the Legislature, is badly damaged. Unless it is restored, basic decisions about what to build and, ever more critically, how to pay for it will get put off - at a time when too many highways, especially in metropolitan areas, are overburdened.

The clash here isn’t between lawmakers and faceless highway bureaucrats, though both are players, but between Gov. Rick Perry and a Legislature that has rebelled against his policy of relying on tolls and privatization to build and maintain highways.

Over the last few years, the department has been embroiled in highly controversial projects - selling a new, future toll road to a private contractor with a foreign owner; attempting to rebuild existing highways as toll roads; and pushing the governor’s proposed Trans-Texas Corridor through rural areas over the fierce objections of many landowners.

Then, last fall, the department said it had no new money for road construction because it had diverted $1.1 billion to road maintenance - an announcement that particularly angered Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who had just spent months painfully reassembling a local highway construction plan that had been stalled by controversy over tolls.

Another blow to the department’s credibility came in February, when it announced that, because of an accounting error, it was short yet another $1.1 billion for new road construction.

Watson says the department is “broken,” in part because it has “virtually completely ignored local control issues.” Many lawmakers share his views.

The department is governed by the Texas Transportation Commission, a five-member panel appointed by the governor. Until December, when he died, Ric Williamson, a close friend of Perry’s, was chairman. Williamson was so disliked by so many that Texas Monthly last year called him “the most hated person in Texas.”

This week the staff of the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, an arm of the Legislature, recommended putting the department into a kind of “legislative conservatorship” to regain control.

The Sunset staff also recommended abolishing the transportation commission, replacing it with a single commissioner appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Texas Senate.

But it’s another Sunset proposal that especially reflects legislative impatience with the governor: The single transportation commissioner would get only a two-year term, and if the governor failed to nominate a successor, the lieutenant governor - who presides over the Texas Senate - would make the appointment. Last year, with the Legislature in town, Perry kept Williamson in office past the end of his term by declining to nominate a successor.

Perry has appointed a chairwoman, Deirdre Delisi, who used to be the governor’s chief of staff. She has said she will try to calm all the controversy.

Delisi’s success, however, will depend heavily on the willingness and ability of the governor and legislators to reach a more fundamental agreement about how to go about building highways - and how to pay for them.

© 2008 Austin American-Statesman

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"Welcome to the smoggy dawn of the Toll Road Era in Texas."

Pocketbook Pileup

The only thing more painful than gas prices may be the toll-road hell Texas is about to enter.


Fort Worth Weekly
Copyright 2008

Gas prices topping $4 a gallon. Freeways that have become parking lots — if you can get to them through surface-street traffic jams caused by fast growth, urban sprawl, and inadequate road planning. Transportation planning in Texas in general seems to have turned into a careening Mack truck that’s just as liable to plow into a city as help it.

New highways are needed to get more and more people to work and get NAFTA traffic from the Rio Grande to the Red River, but the state says it doesn’t have the money to build the roads and bridges and interchanges that are needed. Could driving get any more unpleasant?

Sure. Welcome to the smoggy dawn of the Toll Road Era in Texas.

State leaders say the only way they can dig Texas out of this transportation mess is by charging you more to drive. That could mean a higher gas tax, although legislators haven’t found the courage to raise the tax since 1991, for obvious reasons. But with gas prices seeming to go up a dime a week or more anyway, voting for a gas tax hike may no longer be an automatic ballot-box death sentence.

In the meantime, though, politicians and transportation planners have gone to Plan B: Get the money from taxpayers through toll roads. Any new highway construction in North Texas in coming years will have tolls built in — they’ll either be toll-only new highways or toll lanes added to existing ones. And the pain won’t just be in nickels and dimes — try hundreds of dollars a year, far more than the increased gas tax would cost. Toll tags may soon be as common in Texas as cell phones.

The last time Tarrant County drivers had to pay tolls was in 1977, when the last quarter got dropped in the basket on the section of I-30 going through Arlington. The tolls stopped only when Fort Worth sued the North Texas Tollway Authority, insisting that the highway had been paid for and tolls were therefore no longer needed.

But 30 years later, leaders in Fort Worth and the other Tarrant County communities are pushing for tolls. Within five years, toll roads will be part of the county landscape. State Highway 161 will run from just south of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to I-20 at the county line — six lanes of toll-only access. Hwy. 161 is expected to be completed by 2011 and help relieve traffic from the new Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington. That same year, the Southwest Parkway — six toll lanes of highway from downtown Fort Worth to Altamesa Boulevard (and eventually to Burleson) — is expected to open.

And those two are only the beginning. The DFW Connector or “Grapevine Funnel” as some call it, will be sort of a toll interchange, charging cars that use any of the four highways just north of DFW Airport. The North Tarrant Express will add toll lanes to Airport Freeway and to the portion of Loop 820 from Northeast Mall to I-35W, as well as toll lanes on I-35W from downtown Fort Worth north to Alliance Airport. Other toll lanes are planned on Hwy. 170 near the Texas Motor Speedway and Hwy. 360 south of I-20. And that’s not even including the massive Trans-Texas Corridor, which is supposed to eventually skirt Tarrant County.

If all this makes your head spin, then you’re in company with state leaders. Take a deep breath and get ready to make some choices: Get in the toll lanes, and you’ll probably get there faster, but you’ll pay for it, maybe more than $700 per year. Stay in the free lanes, and you’ll probably be stuck in traffic, but you’ll save some dough to help refill that gas tank.

“We don’t like toll roads, but it is really the only way we can see to pay for the needed highways at this time,” said North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino, who chairs the Regional Transportation Council of the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

“Citizens feel their gas taxes should be paying for the roadways,” he said. “The truth of the matter is that the cost of the roads is not being covered by the gas tax. Making it more difficult is that the Texas Legislature has been diverting the gas tax revenues to other projects that have little to do with transportation.

“We have been waiting for the expansion of Loop 820 since the mid-’80s, and it still isn’t even close to getting started,” Trevino continued. “Everyone is stuck in traffic, and it’s killing their quality of life. Even if we increased the gas tax, we couldn’t fund the needs today or the needs of the future.”

“It is extremely complicated — that’s what makes this so difficult,” Trevino said with a sigh.

The complications with Texas’ gas tax, from transportation planners’ point of view, started when legislators first moved to siphon off money from the state’s highway fund for other uses. Since then, more and more state and local agencies have joined the line to fill their jars with money originally intended for road and transit work — but the tax is still at 1991 levels. With a fast-growing population and a rising need for roads, it’s no wonder the funding picture is more confusing than navigating the Mixmaster.

The state tax is 20 cents per gallon, which is in addition to the national gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. But the tax is not “indexed” – it is flat, not rising with either inflation or the price of gas. In the spring of 1991, gas was going for about $1.15 a gallon, so that the state tax was about 17 percent of fuel costs. With gas now about $3.90 per gallon, the state gas tax is just five percent of the total.

With an increased population and more miles driven, total state highway tax revenues — which includes fuel taxes as well as motor vehicle registration fees and other fees — have continued to climb, from about $3.7 to $6.7 billion over the last decade. But the costs of and need for roads have risen even faster. During the past decade, highway construction costs have nearly doubled, mainly due to increases in the price of building materials like asphalt and concrete.

Even with a static tax rate, the highway fund might have been able to keep pace with need, had the legislature not plucked large amounts of transportation revenue from the fund for other uses. In 1946, voters passed the “Good Roads Amendment” to the state constitution, setting aside one-fourth of the fuel taxes for state school funding. That now amounts to about $750 million a year from the $3 billion raised through the tax.

But starting in 1986, Texas legislators began diverting transportation funds for other programs besides education, and the highway building coffers have been under siege ever since. The Texas Department of Public Safety received $526 million last year in supposed highway money. The Texas Department of Commerce received $1.8 million in highway funding to promote tourism. And next year, even the Lufkin Tourist Information Center will get $150,000 of it.

Since 1985, more than $12.6 billion in “non-highway-related appropriations” have been taken out of the fund, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, or roughly 15 percent of the total.

If the gas tax was raised by 10 cents, the state would get an additional $665 million in funding. Add to that the $1.5 billion a year in diverted funds, and TxDOT would be receiving more than $2 billion, or about one-fourth of its current budget.

State Sen. John Carona, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, is in favor of raising the gas tax and tying it to inflation figures and other indexes — but only if the diversions from the fund are stopped.

“We are at a crossroads,” the Dallas Republican said in a statement last year. “We can either continue the current, haphazard transportation policy for which the public has shown an increasing distaste, or we can give ourselves an essential tool to create a long-term responsive transportation plan that will best serve Texas for now and years to come.”

But Carona spokesman Steven Palunsky, staff director of the transportation committee, said even with a gas tax increase, “toll roads are not going away.” If we want to solve the highway problems, he said, “then we need to use all the resources necessary, and toll roads are part of the solution.”

Raising the gas tax — and stopping the diversions — are still items of heated controversy. State Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth sees plenty of problems at the highway agency but doesn’t think that taking away money for education is the answer.

“We rank about last in the country in terms of education and social service spending, and I don’t see how cutting their funding helps out this state,” Burnam said. TxDOT “has been running inefficiently for years, and they have been wasting the taxpayers’ money. The use of toll roads to solve the problem is merely how this state panders to the wealthy at the cost of the working class.

“What they are creating is a system that is taking the aspect of driving on a public road and making it unaffordable for the people who need it most,” the Democrat said. “So what they are saying to people is that you will have to pay all that money for gas taxes, drive on the jammed lanes that are free, and then have the rich folks who can afford it fly past you as you sit in traffic. That is not what taxpayer-funded infrastructure is about.”

A little math shows how expensive the tolls could be. If a commuter drove the 8.4-mile stretch of Southwest Parkway to and from a downtown job five days a week for 48 weeks a year, the car would rack up 4032 miles. At 25 miles per gallon, the driver would pay $32.25 a year in gas taxes at their current 20 cents a gallon level, or $48.38 if the tax were raised by 10 cents. The increase works out to about three cents per trip.

On the other hand, at a $1.50 toll each way, the commuter on the Southwest Parkway would pay $720 per year to get to and from work.

All the funding questions are based on estimating the state’s future highway needs. TxDOT and Gov. Rick Perry’s office claim the state’s road bill over the next 25 years will be about $85 billion. But the Texas Transportation Institute, a think tank based at Texas A&M University, said in a recent study that the figure is more like $44 billion. The researchers and planners also came to the conclusion that toll roads are not needed to — as the TxDOT newsletter says — keep Texas moving.

Predicting what Texas’ motoring universe will look like in 25 years is tough. Five years ago no one thought $4 gas prices could really happen. This year, driving miles in the U.S. will actually decline — something else no one ever thought would happen.

Some observers believe high gas prices will make toll roads unworkable. They figure that will wreak such havoc on household budgets that few people will be willing to pay tolls and instead will be looking for homes closer to where they work and pushing governments to provide serious mass transit options. A study two years ago by the consulting firm Vollmer Associates, which advises private toll road companies, found that toll roads would be economically unfeasible if gas prices went above $3 a gallon. Now the pump price is a buck higher than that, with no ceiling in sight.

Despite news stories about folks continuing to travel this summer, Americans do seem to be changing their driving habits. The U.S. Department of Transportation found that Americans drove 11 billion miles less in March of this year compared to the same month last year. That’s a decline of 4.3 percent, the largest drop since the agency began keeping records in 1942.

Terri Hall, of the San Antonio-based Texans United for Reform & Freedom (TURF), has been fighting the toll road buildup. Her organization believes that the toll roads are not needed and are simply an excuse to privatize the state highway system.

“We have studies that say the transportation needs can be worked out with a small increase in the gas tax, as long as we also clean up the waste, fraud, and abuse within TxDOT,” Hall said. “A gas tax is pennies a day, but a toll is dollars a day. And those dollars are likely to be going to private companies.

“This has really jumped up on people quickly, and folks don’t realize how all this is going to affect them,” Hall said. “It is not on a lot of people’s radar right now” because the toll road boom hasn’t affected them yet. “But we are trying to show people they won’t be able to escape the toll projects, and they are going to be double-taxed to use the roads,” she said.

Funding for state and federal highways used to be fairly simple. The government agencies would float bonds for the projects, hire private contractors to build them, and then pay off the debt with tax revenues, including the gas tax.

But a few years ago, some private companies, many of them foreign, began to see the looming U.S. transportation crisis as a good way to make money: Offer the government agencies up-front money to pay for road construction, then use the tolls accumulated over decades to pay off their debt and turn a profit. Many Texas officials thought this was a way to move the public burden of transportation into the private domain. In short, the state would choose where the new roads would go, choose the companies, and then shift the remaining burden to those contractors.

That way of thinking is fraught with pitfalls. For one thing, bureaucrats began to assume that all new roads could be built with toll lanes, needing no upfront money. But the cost savings are somewhat of a mirage – taxpayers are still footing the bill, and now they’re paying for private-firm profits, on top of the actual construction costs. The private companies also demanded that “non-competing” clauses be written into their contracts, banning the state from building any highways in an area of up to four miles from the privately run toll roads.

The companies would also have the right to set toll road rates over time periods in excess of 50 years. And there was no timeline that would keep track of toll revenues and shut them down once the road was paid off, as happened in Arlington 30 years ago.

But during the last year, the state has been forced to respond to some of that simmering citizen anger over toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor. Perry’s original plan was to use private firms to build the TTC and other toll roads and then use the toll fees to pay off the companies for their investment. But in the wake of public outcry that included everyone from farmers to environmentalists, the Texas Transportation Commission (an appointed board that oversees TxDOT) has changed its policies to restrict the role of private companies.

Last month, the Texas Transportation Commission issued a set of rules that may make it harder for the companies to gain control of new toll roads and toll lanes on existing freeways. The new rules give local organizations like the North Texas Regional Transportation Council the ability to set toll rates, deny requests for non-competing clauses, and prevent tolls from being charged on existing highway lanes.

That doesn’t mean the private companies are out of the picture, but their profit margins may be thinner. And the rules have also opened up the competition to allow local transportation agencies, like the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), to move into the business of building toll roads as well as managing them.

NTTA currently operates the Dallas North Tollway and the President George Bush Turnpike, both in Dallas County. Bad blood from the fight between Fort Worth and the NTTA over the Arlington turnpike kept the tollway authority out of Tarrant County for many years. Recently, however, TxDOT awarded the $3.1 billion contract for the Hwy. 121 project northeast of DFW Airport to NTTA instead of to a private firm. Profits will help pay for future local road needs.

The funding mechanism for highways, therefore, may be shifting gears again. In the past, the state assessed the needs and paid for roads with statewide taxes. Now, the local organization is funding the projects and paying them off with local tolls.

The danger of this, said Burnam, is that agencies like the NTTA may use the toll mechanism as a way to fund their own growth. The only way for a toll road authority to grow is to build more toll roads, he said. “So they are pushing toll roads as a way for them to have more power. I have a real problem with that.”

Sherita Colfert, a spokeswoman for the NTTA, said that is not the case. “We do not create policy. The Texas Department of Transportation decides where the roads are going and what kind they are. We come up with the funding mechanism to get them done. What we are doing is building roads, finding ways to pay for them, and keeping that money in the region for future projects.”

If all this seems very complicated, it is. The state needs new roads (as it always has), and politicians don’t want to raise the gas tax to pay for them. Consumers can’t fathom paying $4 a gallon. Toll proponents say this is a user fee, a great libertarian/ right-wing/ less- government- spending concept. Opponents of toll roads rail about public ownership of roadways and how the public is being charged twice.

But the party line for transportation- planning officials is that toll roads and lanes will be part of the equation because there is no other choice.

One choice rarely considered is integrating mass transit with road expansion. Rather than build four toll lanes in the center of the highway, transit supporters have suggested that passenger rail lines might alleviate congestion by getting cars off the road and improving air quality.

Take the widening of I-35W from downtown Fort Worth north. The plans are still tentative, but the idea is to expand the four-lane interstate to 10 lanes, with four toll lanes at the center and six free lanes on the outside.

Could putting a light-rail line down the middle have the same effect as the toll lanes? Probably not, local officials say. The mass transit would only work for those commuting back and forth from downtown to Alliance. In short, there are not enough likely riders at this point to justify such a system.

“I don’t think we have the density patterns for a rail system integrated in with the highway expansion,” said Russell Laughlin, a senior vice president for Hillwood Development and president of the 35W Coalition, a group of business and community leaders advocating the expansion of I-35W. Hillwood Development is the major real estate development firm around Alliance Airport, headed by Ross Perot Jr.

“The problem is cost of roadway versus the cost of rail,” Laughlin said, pointing out that light rail systems can cost $40 million to $60 million per mile. “You have to have critical mass to drive mass transit, and I don’t think we have that in northern Fort Worth at this time.”

As for the notion that people might move into denser urban areas to be closer to work and have a quicker and cheaper commute, Laughlin disagreed. “If you have an investment in your suburban home, you aren’t just going to move,” he said. “You aren’t going to stop driving. By adding toll lanes, we will be giving people a choice. I think most people will accept that cost. We have to be thinking long-term on this and not just on trends of the last few years.”

Vic Suhm, executive director of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Commission, another group working on the expansion of the county highway system, said both transit and toll options are necessary. “We don’t know the magic breaking point will be in terms of gas prices that will make people get out of their cars. Right now people live in the suburbs and drive alone in their car.

“What we have to do is work on expanding the highway system and getting better mass transit options,” Suhm said. “If we don’t have both, we won’t even come close to solving the problem. Managed toll lanes will have to be part of the solution.”

OK, so you figure toll roads and lanes are inevitable. Your plan is to avoid them when you can and, when there’s no other good option, toss your quarters in the basket and take advantage of the lighter traffic to put the pedal to the metal and get where you’re going faster.

Well, not so fast, actually. The NTTA is phasing out toll booths and cash payments. A toll tag will be the only option, and it will record the amount of miles driven on any toll road in the state. Those without the tags will get a bill mailed to the address listed on the license plate records. And that pedal-down thing? Sure, if you want to pay more. The new toll roads will have a sliding scale based upon speed. If you average 50 miles per hour, the rate will be the standard fee; if you average 35 mph, you’ll get a discount on your toll tag bill. The fees change according to times, too. Need the tollway most during rush hour? Of course! Therefore, that’s when toll fees will be highest.

The way roads are being planned is changing as well as the way they’re being paid for. One of the results of Perry’s heavy-handed push for the Trans-Texas Corridor is that citizens are seeking more local power in highway planning, as evidenced by the NTTA’s influence over the Hwy. 121 project.

There is also an effort now by some legislators to get rid of the Texas Transportation Commission. Much of the controversy centers on Perry’s recent appointment of his former chief of staff, Deirdre Delisi, to chair the commission. “When the governor put a staff member in as chairman … I think that will cause questions,” State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown told the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition at its meeting last month.

“TxDOT has done more to harm transportation in the last five years than they have in the history of the state of Texas,” the Irving Republican said at the meeting. “Everyone will agree that TxDOT needs more money. But how do you convince the public they need more money when they behave the way they have for the past few years?” One major sore point with legislators is the $1 billion accounting error TxDOT admitted to this year — which put the agency in the position of having committed to projects it did not have the funding for.

Controversies over the Trans-Texas Corridor have led to the state’s changing some of its toll road policies, including not favoring private business interest in building the roads and collecting the tolls. The death of Ric Williamson last December, former chair of the Texas Transportation Commission and hard-charging toll road advocate, took one of Perry’s frontmen out of the equation. Many legislators and congressional leaders are also seeing the political fallout with voters on the state policy of embracing toll road construction.

On the other hand, local leadership seems to be pushing for toll roads as a way to get any roads built. Rather than waiting decades for TxDOT to push new highways through, local agencies like the NTTA can use toll road fees to get the highways built. That doesn’t bring down cost, but it can speed up the schedule. At a meeting in Austin last month, the DFW Partners in Mobility made its their annual presentation before the transportation commission. The group is made up of local elected officials such as Trevino, Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, and regional planners and chamber of commerce members.

The group asked for several issues to be addressed in the 2009 legislative session: stopping the diversion of transportation funds to other uses, raising the gas tax rate gradually and tying it to inflation indexes, and allowing cities and counties to increase transportation-related taxes – like vehicle registration fees – locally to pay for road improvements.

Maybe the end is near for the Texas tradition of the open road, of getting in the car without a second thought to go everywhere, whether it’s two blocks for a loaf of bread or two days on the road to visit Grandpa. And maybe that’s not all bad, if it leads to more mass transit, more fuel-efficient cars, and less driving in general.

In the meantime, that “just drive” lifestyle is going to become more painful, whichever way the funding choices go. Don’t expect that second item on the mayors’ list to be taken care of in the 2009 legislative session, “because the political will is not going to be there when gas prices are hitting $4 a gallon,” said State Rep. Rob Orr, a Republican from Burleson.

“But all options have to be looked at,” Orr said. “Maybe we need to re-look at giving local agencies like the NTTA more power. Toll roads need to be part of the plan, but they aren’t the savior for our transportation problems. We are going to have some very hard choices to make in the next session. Very hard choices.”

You can reach Dan McGraw at

© 2008 Fort Worth Weekly

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