Thursday, July 03, 2008

Virginia is for Tollers

Toll Road Firm Made Illegal Contributions

Transurban Gave $172,000 To 90 Campaigns in 3 Years

July 3, 2008

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post
Copyright 2008

RICHMOND, July 2 -- A company involved in building the express toll lanes on the Capital Beltway violated federal election law when it contributed $172,000 to 90 campaigns in Virginia over the past three years, company officials said Wednesday.

Officials at Transurban, a U.S. subsidiary of an Australian company, said they should not have made the donations, because federal law forbids contributions from foreign companies and foreign nationals.

"We made an honest mistake," said Michael Kulper, Transurban executive vice president. "We are genuinely concerned and upset about it."

The company sent letters Wednesday to every candidate and political action committee it has contributed to in Virginia, asking for the money to be returned. Many did not know about the problem when they were contacted late Wednesday.

Recipients were Democrats and Republicans, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), dozens of state senators and delegates, the three candidates for governor next year and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who is running for Congress.

"I was not aware of it," Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News) said. Hamilton said that a member of his staff monitors his campaign contributions and that he does not track them himself. But he added that if the company asks for its $1,500 contribution back, he will send it.

Charlie Kelly, director of Kaine's political action committee, Moving Virginia Forward, said any out-of-compliance contributions will be returned immediately. Kaine and Moving Virginia Forward received $9,500. "It was our belief that Transurban USA's contributions were made in compliance with state and federal law at the time they were made. We received contributions from a U.S. company through U.S. representatives. As such, we had no reason to question the contributions," Kelly said. "We were disappointed to learn of this issue . . . but we appreciate Transurban's admission that no one receiving these contributions could have been aware of their noncompliance."

Transurban has invested $500 million in two projects in Virginia: helping build and maintain high-occupancy toll lanes on the Beltway and maintaining the Richmond-area Pocahontas Parkway toll road. It expects to finalize a third project to create toll lanes on interstates 95 and 395 between the 14th Street bridge and Stafford County. Transurban is working with a second company, Fluor Enterprises, on the Beltway, 95 and 395 projects.

The projects were negotiated through the Virginia Department of Transportation and Commonwealth Transportation Board. But the company has lobbied legislators on a number of bills in recent years.

Company officials were in Richmond on Wednesday to apologize to Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer. "We've taken the matter under review and consideration," Homer said after the meeting.

The General Assembly will return to Richmond on Wednesday to continue a special session on transportation. Many legislators, primarily House Republicans, want to encourage more public-private partnerships, such as the Beltway project, in which companies pay for projects on roads and bridges in return for the right to collect tolls.

"We certainly hope this doesn't negatively impact on the process," said G. Paul Nardo, chief of staff to House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). Howell's political action committee, Dominion Leadership Trust, received $12,500, the most of any group or individual, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Nardo said Howell will cooperate with the company and return the money.

Transurban officials are asking those who received donations to return them. Kulper said the money will be donated to the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, which provides help to abused and neglected children in court. Company officials said they discovered the violations in February and began an internal review. In recent weeks, they contacted the Federal Election Commission, which is looking into the problem and could fine the company.

© 2008, The Washington Post:

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HOT lanes boosted by illegal campaign contributions

HOT lanes builder made illegal campaign contributions


Fairfax County
By Monty Taylor
Copyright 2008

Transurban, an Australia-based company that is building and will operate the beltway high occupancy toll lanes, revealed this week that they illegally contributed over $170,000 to electoral campaigns throughout Virginia over the last three years.

“This absolutely doesn't look good. ... This is very embarrassing to us,” said Michal Kulper, executive vice president of Transurban.

The firm's contributions, which date back to 2005, were in violation of federal election laws which restrict donations from foreign based companies and foreign nationals. The company contributed to numerous elections, giving $12,500 to House Majority Leader William Howell, $5,000 to Gerry Connolly and numerous contributions to local delegates including Tom Rust and Chap Petersen.

“The check they sent me said 'Transurban USA' on it,” said Virginia Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Springfield), whose campaign received $6,000 from the company.

Saslaw and other politicians were notified that the donations were illegal by Transurban itself, and the company has also notified the Federal Election Commission. According to Transurban, the company didn't realize the donations were illegal until early this year, after consultation with a lobbying firm.

According to Kulper, the company launched an internal investigation of the matter before notifying the FEC and donation recipients.

“We hope the FEC will take into account that we voluntarily disclosed this information. ... this was an inadvertent breach,” he said.

The violations mainly have to do with accounting - if Transurban kept its U.S. revenues separate from foreign ones, and foreign nationals weren't involved in the contribution process, many of the contributions would have been legal.

“Transurban USA was unaware of these requirements at that time,” reads the letter sent to affected politicians.

Transurban has asked candidates to return the money and will donate the returned money to Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children, a children's charity.

According to Saslaw, aside from the accounting problems there's nothing unusual about Transurban's donations to campaigns.

“Is there a difference between getting money from them and any federal contractor? Is there a difference between contributions from them and the housing industry?” Saslaw asked, adding that he wasn't previously aware of the restrictions on donations from foreign sources.

“I don't think there's anyone alive who knew about that law,” Saslaw said.

© 2008, The Fairfax Times:

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Grand Theft Auto

Nonsensical surcharges for road tolls

July 3, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

Using local toll roads can be a royal pain in the tailpipe for rental-car drivers.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Many rental companies are the culprits here and should quit looking at Dallas-Fort Worth customers like they are a bunch of suckers.

Here's how the public gets hosed: Some stretches of road controlled by the North Texas Tollway Authority are equipped with cameras – not coin baskets – for toll collection. If a driver doesn't have a TollTag to accept automatic charges, a camera shoots the license plate.

Regular drivers get a bill in the mail. Rental drivers might get an awful surprise on their credit card statement in the form of hefty "administrative" fees imposed courtesy of their rent agreement.

Thus, a few dollars in tolls can turn into hundreds of dollars of charges against the unsuspecting customer.

Talk about grand theft auto!

There is a decent way for rental companies to deal with their customers. Enterprise Rent-A-Car, for example, has been providing NTTA with lists of drivers that correspond to the cars snapped by the cameras, and the toll authority bills drivers directly. The information exchange soon will be more efficient through a computerized exchange of data.

Most other companies – you know who you are – turn over toll matters to outside companies that jack up the charges. These rental businesses try to put a good face on the practice, saying their customer contracts contain a toll-charge warning or an offer to sell a type of toll insurance.

That's like selling someone a hamburger that causes indigestion, then defending it with a warning printed on the back of the menu.

Not only is North Texas getting to be a toll-happy place, but NTTA is slowly converting all of its standard toll plazas to photo-only. By 2010, the agency plans to have 90 miles of roads without a coin basket.

We have enough road rage already, and car rental companies should take advantage of technology to avoid ramping it up even more.

© 2008, The Dallas Morning News:

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Texas tollers' dispute over cash leads to bottleneck

Tollway officials may pay $26 million to end dispute with TxDOT


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

PLANO — The North Texas Tollway Authority will consider paying $26 million to the Texas Department of Transportation to end a dispute that threatens to delay the widening of Northeast Loop 820.

Bidders for the roadwork, which would widen the four-lane bottleneck to six free lanes and four toll lanes, have been critical of the project because the tollway authority would collect the tolls but isn’t required to post a bond guaranteeing that the developer will be paid.

The $26 million would be placed in a special account that would be tapped only if the tollway authority is unable to perform its duties. In that event, toll collection would be turned over to the Transportation Department, which is already capable of collecting tolls electronically.

The compromise with the Transportation Department will be discussed during the tollway authority’s next board meeting July 16.

The Loop 820 work was originally supposed to begin in 2005, and is now scheduled to be under contract by the end of this year as part of a project known as the North Tarrant Express. The project also includes new toll and free lanes on Interstate 35W in north Fort Worth and on Texas 121/183 in Bedford, Euless and Hurst.

State law mandates that the tollway authority collect tolls on Metroplex roads, even those built by private developers. The developer is supposed to manage the roads and receive toll revenue for 52 years. But the tollway authority isn’t required to post a bond guaranteeing that the developer will be paid.

Related project

The compromise would also resolve a $52 million dispute with the Transportation Department over the value of the Texas 121 toll road north of Grapevine.

Last year, the tollway authority paid the state $3.2 billion for the right to collect tolls on Texas 121 for decades to come — and the Transportation Department can now spend that money on other highway and rail projects in North Texas. But the two sides were still $52 million apart on estimates of the long-term value of interest payments.

A $26 million payment by the tollway authority would represent half of the disputed amount, requiring the two sides to essentially meet halfway, said tollway authority Executive Director Jorge Figueredo. It would simultaneously end the North Tarrant Express and Texas 121 disputes between the agencies, he said.

Transportation Department Executive Director Amadeo Saenz suggested the compromise Monday, Figueredo said.

Tollway board Vice Chairman Victor Vandergriff of Arlington scolded the tollway staff for not offering a compromise of its own, and instead waiting for the state Transportation Department to come forward.

"We can’t just say no," Vandergriff said. "We have the ability to do something positive. We did . . . but the other side came up with it first."

GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

© 2008, Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Toll plan is more popular with Tarrant County politicians than the public

In North Richland Hills, Loop 820 hearing draws hundreds


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

NORTH RICHLAND HILLS — About 350 people signed up to speak Tuesday at a federally required public hearing on the planned expansion of Northeast Loop 820. But first they had to wait.

For the first hour of the hearing at the Richland Hills Church of Christ, officials presented plans to expand the highway from two to five lanes, including two toll lanes, in each direction from Texas 121 through North Richland Hills, Haltom City and north Fort Worth to Interstate 35W.

The second hour was taken up by public officials, including mayors, council members, a Tarrant County judge and a chamber of commerce member — all unanimously agreeing that the expansion plan is the correct way for Northeast Tarrant County to meet future transportation needs.

But the plan didn’t prove as popular with residents.

"Everybody is begging for help," said Pat Coyle of North Richland Hills. "You are going to help us by giving us one free lane."

Each person had three minutes to ask questions or make comments on the plans.

Officials didn’t respond to the public’s comments Tuesday. The Texas Department of Transportation is expected to respond in the project’s environmental impact statement, expected out by the end of the year.

Judith Anderson, a Transportation Department engineer, said the public’s input will be carefully considered during the end-stage design of the project.

Northeast Loop 820 expansion plan Some of the questions asked during Tuesday’s hearing:

Why build two toll lanes for the affluent but only one for regular traffic?

Why is a foreign company being paid to build a Texas road?

Why has it taken so long for the Texas Department of Transportation to put together plans to meet the transportation needs of Northeast Tarrant County?

Didn’t make the public hearing?

It’s not too late to have your say. Written comments may be submitted by mail and must be received on or before July 14 to become part of the official hearing record.

Address: Texas Department of Transportation Fort Worth District Office

2501 SW Loop 820, P.O. Box 6868, Fort Worth, TX 76115


MATT FRAZIER, 817-685-3854

© 2008, Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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Fourth man indicted in connection with bribes-for-contracts scheme at TxDOT

Man accused of lying to agents about TxDOT bribes

July 2, 2008

By Jeremy Roebuck
The Monitor
Copyright 2008

McALLEN - A fourth man has been indicted in connection with a bribes-for-contracts scheme at the Texas Department of Transportation.

Federal prosecutors allege Ricardo Ballí lied to FBI agents and Texas Rangers when he said he had not witnessed TxDOT's local maintenance administrator extort cash payments from a contractor looking for work.

The administrator, Cresenciano "Chano" Falcon, 56, and two other TxDOT inspectors pleaded guilty in May to accepting bribes in exchange for certifying completed contract projects.

Authorities would release little information Tuesday about Ballí, including his age, city of residence and how he was connected to the case. But local TxDOT spokeswoman Amy Rodriguez said he had never worked for the agency.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Ormsby ordered Ballí to present himself in court on July 8 for an initial hearing.

The investigation into the three TxDOT workers was initiated after a private contractor informed authorities he was being forced to pay bribes to the men in exchange for continuing to receive work from the agency.

Falcon and his two co-defendants -- Ray Llanes, 50, and Noe Beltran, 42 -- could each face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine at a sentencing hearing scheduled for August. None of the three works for TxDOT now, but the exact circumstances and timing of their departures from the agency were not immediately clear Tuesday.

If convicted, Ballí could be incarcerated for up to five years.

His attorney, Robert Armand Berg, did not return calls seeking comment late Tuesday.

© 2008, The Monitor:

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"Some Metroplex officials worry that state lawmakers will consider the money to be surplus cash and spend it on nontransportation needs."

DFW officials want 121 toll money moved to bank


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

A state official has asked for a legal opinion as to whether $3.2 billion in proceeds from the Texas 121 toll road north of Grapevine can be moved to a North Texas bank.

The North Texas Tollway Authority paid the money to the Texas Department of Transportation in exchange for the right to collect tolls on Texas 121 for decades to come. The money is to be used on other Dallas-Fort Worth transportation projects, including highway expansions and commuter rail.

The money is deposited in a state treasury account. But some Metroplex officials worry that state lawmakers will consider the money to be surplus cash and spend it on nontransportation needs.

Transportation Department executive director Amadeo Saenz has asked the attorney general’s office for a legal opinion as to whether the money can be shifted to a bank in North Texas, under control of the Regional Transportation Council, a 40-member planning body.

In his June 19 letter to Attorney General Greg Abbott, Saenz said his staff and the Texas Transportation Commission "want to transfer the funds if the legal authority exists to do so."
GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

© 2008, Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

"The governor realizes he has a political problem on his hands."

Perry bypassed business people for transit post

State documents back accusations of political cronyism

June 29, 2008

Associated Press
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — When Gov. Rick Perry chose his former political aide to head the Texas Transportation Commission, he bypassed prominent business people who some legislators say were better equipped for the job, state documents show.

Perry's selection of Deirdre Delisi led to claims of political cronyism. But Perry's office and Delisi herself say she has the policy expertise and legislative experience needed for the transportation hot seat.

Before appointing her in April, along with non-controversial pick William "Bill" Meadows, Perry received resumes and recommendation letters for at least eight potential transportation nominees, according to records obtained by The Associated Press under the Texas Public Information Act.

Only one candidate — Meadows, who was vice chairman of the North Texas Tollway Authority — appeared to come directly from a regional transportation board, records show. Others up for consideration for the five-person commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, known as TxDOT, were attorneys or businessmen.

"The governor recognized that TxDOT needed to communicate better not only with the public at large but certainly with the Legislature," said Perry spokesman Robert Black, calling the 36-year-old Delisi one of the best communicators the governor knows. "That was the governor's choice."

Delisi was Perry's 2002 campaign manager and more recently his Capitol chief of staff.

The transportation commission's work is crucial to Perry's gubernatorial legacy, and until December his longtime friend and former legislator Ric Williamson led the push for Perry's proposed Trans-Texas Corridor. Williamson died of a heart attack Dec. 30 at age 55.

The proposed toll road corridor has gotten the Republican governor some national notoriety, but he's also endured home-state denunciation. Perry says his bold road-building plans are necessary to cope with Texas' growth in population, trade and traffic.

One businessman who came heavily recommended but wasn't selected for the commission was Erle Nye, chairman emeritus of Dallas-based TXU Corp. Political and business leaders in the Dallas-Fort Worth area united in recommending Nye and Meadows, a former Fort Worth city councilman.

Others expressing interest in the commission were Dallas attorney Alan Wade Tompkins; Houston attorney Felix Chevalier; Southlake Mayor Andrew Lee Wambsganss; Livingston businessman Benny Leon Fogleman; and Snyder civic official Jay D. Burns, records show. Some of the applicants listed multiple state boards they were interested in.

It isn't clear whether Perry considered any additional candidates, either informally or those who submitted applications before this year.

"Names inevitably bubble up to the top and are sent to the governor for his consideration," Black said. "The appointments process is an inexact science."

Black said Perry looks at a candidate's commitment to public service, an ability to lead and make difficult decisions and his or her governing philosophy.

Delisi said Perry approached her about the transportation position.

"We had extensive conversations," Delisi said, adding that their talks focused on Perry's expectations for the job. "I wasn't really aware of who else had applied."

Republican state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown of Irving, a high-ranking member of the Texas House Transportation Committee, said she joined other North Texas political and business leaders in supporting Nye and Meadows.

She said she worries that Delisi, because of her close ties to Perry, may have difficulty taking the transportation department in a new direction it desperately needs.

"I did think it was a questionable appointment," Harper-Brown said, explaining that even though Delisi may be capable and has reached out to those interested in transportation, she'll have to overcome the perception that Perry simply is moving his former aides onto state boards. "She's going to have to work very, very hard."

Besides endorsing Nye and Meadows, Harper-Brown said she did not urge the governor to choose other possible appointees.

"I really do think that it is his prerogative, at this time," she said. "That is the role and that is his choice."

Lawmakers may consider changing the structure of the commission and possibly diminishing the governor's power over it when the transportation agency comes up for a periodic review in the 2009 legislative session.

Republican Sen. John Carona of Dallas, leader of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said he supported Nye for the commission and thought Meadows was a "solid appointment."

Carona said he considered several other potential choices more experienced than Delisi in the business world, a qualification both Carona and Harper-Brown said are necessary for overseeing the state's multibillion-dollar transportation system.

"Unfortunately, the governor went in a different direction," Carona said. He said he has made no secret that he believes Delisi "was a political appointment, for sure. ... I do feel that they were interested in a strong political ally. Clearly, the governor had that in former Chairman Ric Williamson."

But Carona said it's the governor's choice and that Delisi is a bright person who seems to want to do a good job. He said he is optimistic she will try to improve the troubled agency.

The transportation department has come under fire for financial secrecy and attempts to turn private land into toll roads.

"The governor realizes he has a political problem on his hands," said Terri Hall, founder and director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, a group critical of Perry's transportation policy. She said her organization didn't recommend any potential appointees.

"We could have put forward twenty names, and it would have made no difference with this governor," she said.

Delisi is technically filling the position vacated by outgoing transportation commissioner Hope Andrade of the San Antonio area. Meadows is filling the seat left vacant by Williamson. Perry can decide which member serves as chairman.

Though a business background is useful, Delisi said, her 12 years of experience in and around the Legislature is her strength. She said she wants to bring more openness to the transportation department and rebuild public trust in it.

Even Perry's conservative GOP base railed against the Trans-Texas Corridor at the recent state Republican Convention and produced a party platform adamantly opposing the superhighway. Potential 2010 candidates for governor, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, spoke against the corridor at the convention.

Delisi has now presided over two monthly meetings as commission chair. On Thursday, the commission took a step closer to building Interstate 69, part of the Trans-Texas Corridor that's to run from northeast Texas to the Rio Grande Valley.

"So far, so good," Delisi said. "Things are going well. I've had very productive meetings with members of the Legislature."

© 2008, The Houston Chronicle:

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Trans-Texas Corridor Maps and Routes

"Governor Perry and his friends spent a great deal of time researching ideas to create more revenue" -- Texas Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson

BoldTTC 35, 69 and priority corridors
"...concentrating on the four primary routes first,is the beginning of generating the cash flow..."- Texas Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson, Gov. Rick Perry appointee

Overview of Corridor Watch Maps: HERE


view of affected counties: HERE


view of affected counties: HERE


See the latest Corridor news HERE

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"The new toll road is still on the drawing board, right where it ought to stay — unless, of course, there is a waste bin handy."


Road future: Corridor planning taking a toll on East Texas land?

June 29, 2008

Longview News-Journal
Copyright 2008

Every Longview resident who thinks a toll road connecting our city and the proposed Interstate 69 is a good idea raise your hands.

Go ahead, raise them high so we can get a good count.

Come on now, where are your hands?

Doesn't anybody in Longview think it's a good idea to charge a toll to travel to the Marshall area?

Is anybody getting the impression that the only way that Gov. Rick Perry and the cronies he has put in charge of Texas' highway planning have any ideas that don't involve toll roads — especially toll roads operated by private contractors?

What's more, the private companies designing the proposed Interstate 69/Trans Texas Corridor say the toll road included in their conceptual plan would not involve an existing road.

That is supposed to reassure East Texans that they won't be asked to pay tolls to travel along U.S. 80 or Interstate 20 to catch the new highway that is supposed to follow the route of U.S. 59 through East Texas. So we will still be able to travel our traditional routes to reach the Marshall area without paying tolls.

That's good, but if the new connector won't follow old routes, does that mean another swath of East Texas forests and fields would be rolled under the road graders to make way for this proposed toll road? Is that really necessary?

We don't think so.

Fortunately, the new toll road is still on the drawing board, right where it ought to stay — unless, of course, there is a waste bin handy.

© 2008, Longview News-Journal:

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