Saturday, August 02, 2008

Texas politicians divert money from donors and special interest groups into their family bank accounts

Mix of campaign and family business draws criticism

Aug. 3, 2008

Associated Press
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — It's been almost a year since the Legislature made it illegal for lawmakers to use political funds to rent property from themselves or their spouses, but some legislators have managed to still keep campaign business in the family.

Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, has campaign space in an office building his wife owns, and records show he makes payments to her company for computer usage and paper.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, meanwhile, has reimbursed from campaign funds nearly $600,000 to two of his companies in recent years. He doesn't pay rent anymore but still advertises the address and a phone number at his Dallas management company, Associa, as his campaign contact information, records indicate.

Neither Shapleigh nor Carona reported a donation of office space on their recent campaign reports.

"If the space has value, which it clearly does, and it's donated to the officeholder or the campaign, it needs to be reported," said Fred Lewis, an Austin-based political activist who favors stricter campaign finance laws. "That's as clear as can be."

Controversy over mixing campaign spending with personal business prompted the Legislature to clamp down on perceived abuses in 2007. Though elected officials were prohibited years ago from using campaign money to buy real estate, many made payments to their spouses for the use of homes and offices. Critics said the loophole allowed politicians to acquire second homes in Austin and benefit from fat campaign accounts.

The Legislature closed the loophole last year and made it illegal for elected officials to rent property from companies they own or control.

Sens. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth and Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, quit paying campaign rent for luxury condos listed in their spouses' names, records show. Both had made more than $150,000 each in rent payments and related expenses to their spouses since 2000, records indicate.

Nelson's husband and Brimer's wife have since sold the condos, located in the tony Westgate building next to the state capitol. Spokesmen for both senators declined to give additional information.

Elsewhere, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, adapted to the new law by moving his campaign office out of his Townview Professional Building. Until early last year, while the new law still was being debated, West had rented space from his own company, Skyview Development Corp..

As for Shapleigh, the El Paso Democrat said he saw nothing wrong with continuing to make payments to his wife's company for Internet service, computers and paper. Records show he has paid the company, 701 N. St. Vrain Joint Venture, $2,423 for those purposes since the law changed last year.

"I'm over there and I'm responding to something that has to do with Senate activities," Shapleigh said. "I think we've followed the law."

Carona, chairman of the powerful Senate Transportation committee, since 2000 has reimbursed two of his companies $582,000 for various services, including rent and corporate jet travel. Carona no longer charges his campaign for rent. However, the Dallas Republican's political headquarters, as listed on his campaign Web site, has the same address and phone number as Associa, his successful Dallas-based property management company.

Neither Carona nor Shapleigh reported the office space as an in-kind, or non-cash, contribution on their campaign reports.

"I don't do campaign work out of my business office," Carona said.

Natalia Ashley, general counsel for the Texas Ethics Commission, said if candidates for elective office, their spouses or their business entities give their campaigns "something of value" — whether it's money or not — the gift must be reported.

It is not uncommon for elected officials to put family members on the campaign payroll.

House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, pays his daughter, Christi, thousands of dollars a month for consulting work, records show. But while the law allows payments to adult offspring and siblings, payments to dependent children and spouses living in the same household are heavily restricted.

Complaints were filed last year against two House members who paid their wives for accounting work. One of them, Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, acknowledged he had erred and has since begun paying the money back — more than $50,000 — out of personal funds.

"I found out it wasn't permissible," Eissler said. "When I found out it wasn't, I stopped."

But Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, continued to make payments in 2007 to his wife's company, Lubbock Bookkeeping Services, after the complaint was filed. Isett told the Austin American-Statesman in late May he saw nothing wrong with paying her company a total of $39,158 last year.

However, when contacted by the Associated Press last week, Isett's consultant, Todd Smith, said the Lubbock Republican had decided to stop.

"Carl just thought it was better to end the practice altogether so there wouldn't be any questions," Smith said.

Ethics watchdogs say laws prohibiting or restricting the mingling of campaign and family business are in place for a good reason: to ensure that politicians don't divert money they get from donors and special interest groups into their family bank accounts.

"Texas law is designed to prevent campaign contributions from being used to enrich the officeholders or their spouses," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen of Texas. "There are firewalls and clear standards that have been set."

© 2008, Associated press:

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Friday, August 01, 2008

"This whole toll system is reaping a whole huge bureaucratic mess."

"Thuggish" Toll Collection Practices Worry Local Toll Opponents

Some North Texas motorists report being billed hundreds for a $1.50 toll

August 1, 2008

By Jim Forsyth
WOAI (San Antonio)
Copyright 2008

Reports of thuggish collection tactics to collect unpaid tolls on a north Texas toll road have San Antonio toll road opponents worried that local motorists will be subjected to 'Gestapo' tactics when they drive on the proposed 281 North toll road when it is completed in 2012, 1200 WOAI news reports.

The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reported on numerous north Texas motorists who drove on the new Texas 121 toll road in Collin and Denton Counties north of Dallas. Several motorists who don't have the 'toll tags' which bill them electronically for tolls, drove on the road, in some occasions for just a mile or two, and several months later received bills for hundreds of dollars. One man told the newspaper he received a bill for nearly $700 for driving a few miles on Texas 121.

If a motorist who does not have an electronic toll tag drives on a toll road, a camera will photograph the vehicle's license plate, and a bill will be sent to the registered owner of the car. In the cases of the people involved in the Star-Telegram article, the bills were sent to the wrong address, the charges were registered as 'past due,' and then turned over to a collection agency, which added, in some cases, hundreds of dollars in 'collection fees' to a $2 or $3 bill.

"None of these people did anything wrong," said Terri Hall, the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, an anti toll group.

"They didn't receive their bills because they were sent to the wrong address. And then they get their door banged down by a collection agency to collect some $200 that they owe the state."

The motorists told the Star-Telegram that TxDOT 'should' know their correct address, because they have used the address to renew their car registrations, a job which is also performed by TexDOT.

Hall says the incidents prove that the purpose of toll roads is not to ease highway congestion, but to build a bureaucracy.

"This whole toll system is reaping a whole huge bureaucratic mess."

Failure to pay a toll is a civil fine, not a criminal offense. People who don't pay can have their credit reports damaged, but cannot be arrested.

Hall says it's 'amazing' that TxDOT would allow a collection agency to pile fees and past due charges onto what is in many cases a toll for $1.00, a charge that the motorist was never billed for.

"They're spending more on postage and labor and the 'Gestapo' techniques of the collections agency, than they are to collect the tolls."

The U.S. 281 North tollway will also use a toll tag system and will collect tolls from motorists without the tag in the same fashion.

A TxDOT spokesman said the best way to avoid having hundreds of dollars in fees mount up is to acquire a toll tag...but to help the tolling agency make money with more convenience to the agency...will cost you $20.

© 2008, WOAI:

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“Inclusion of this corridor as part of the TTC project would limit both operation and commercial flexibility.”

Many trains could bypass S.A. and Austin — for $3.8 billion


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

Trains lumbering through and stopping up San Antonio and Austin can be sped up and rerouted to the countryside for $3.8 billion, say two long-awaited studies just released — but there's no money to do it.

The Texas Department of Transportation's 400-plus pages outline several scenarios that include adding 145 miles of tracks, building service yards and bridges, upgrading old lines and closing streets.

Any option would open existing lines for commuter rail from San Antonio to Austin, and a local bypass to the southeast could move two-thirds of the trains out of the city. Shifting train traffic would help quell fears sparked by past accidents, including a 2004 chlorine spill that killed three people.

But no money for rail relocation is available.

“The biggest obstacle to this is funding,” said TxDOT engineer Jennifer Moczygemba, who oversaw the studies.

One hope is a rail relocation fund approved by state voters in 2005 but left empty by legislators last year. With a statewide rail wish list topping $16 billion, a drive is on to nudge lawmakers into action.

“Let's get active,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff bellowed to 200 people Thursday at a luncheon held at Sunset Station. “Let's get ready for the next session.”

Another idea, advocated by TxDOT, is to use the Trans-Texas Corridor's private-funding umbrella to build the 145-mile bypass around San Antonio and Austin, which is estimated to cost $2.4 billion and give back $1.4 billion in public benefits.

A consortium, led by Cintra of Spain and Zachry Construction Co. of San Antonio, is willing to invest $6 billion to build tracks from Dallas to Mexico and charge tolls to rail users, but it hasn't revealed details.

But Union Pacific, which owns the tracks on the ground now, doesn't like the private-funding solution. The railroad instead wants to assume ownership of any new tracks.

“Inclusion of this corridor as part of the TTC project would limit both operation and commercial flexibility,” UP Vice President John Rebensdorf said in a letter to the agency.

UP also opposes the 68-mile bypass around San Antonio because it would be 14 miles longer than the current route. Trains would burn 1 million more gallons of fuel a year and trucks would gain an edge to compete for customers.

The railroad is at least willing to study the Austin bypass and a shorter San Antonio reroute inside Loop 410.

“If folks want to do this, we're willing to work on it,” UP spokesman Joe Arbona said. “But if they don't, we've got other business to do. We feel very strongly about this.”

The state can't force UP, which is regulated by the federal government, to do anything, the Central Texas Rail Relocation Study concludes.

“UP, as a private industry, owns and operates on its existing facility and may be resistant to relocating to another corridor without adequate compensation,” the last sentence says.

Without the full San Antonio bypass, which would cost $1.4 billion, fewer trains could be moved out of the city core.

“It doesn't do near as much,” TxDOT's Moczygemba said.

Commuter rail could still happen without either of the rail bypasses, but service wouldn't be as good, said Ross Milloy, president of the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council. Amtrak could deliver a study this year on how to get started without the bypasses.

A rail district has been shooting to ramp up passenger rail on 112 miles from Port San Antonio to Georgetown within four years but hasn't lined up $613 million needed for construction. Its studies say development around 15 stations could boost tax revenues by $2.3 billion over several decades.

The plan calls for trips as fast as 90 minutes on trains leaving every 30 to 45 minutes.

“It will never get cheaper,” Milloy told the Thursday lunch crowd. “We've go to do it now. This is our moment, this is our generation's project.”

© 2008, KENS 5 and the San Antonio Express-News:

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Commissioner Ted Houghton: “Keep using the Trans-Texas language.”

TxDOT strong despite funding cuts

August 1, 2008

By Maurel Merette
Wichita Falls Record-News
Copyright 2008

“Regardless of losing funding, TxDOT is moving ahead,” said Larry Tegtmeyer, district engineer for the Wichita Falls District of the Texas Department of Transportation during his report Thursday morning to the Texas Transportation Commission.

The Texas Transportation Commission is a five-member board appointed by the governor to oversee TxDOT.

The commission met Thursday in the J.S. Bridwell Auditorium at Midwestern State University. It was the first time in 12 years that the commission had met in Wichita Falls.

Tegtmeyer was enthusiastic about reporting the district’s accomplishments under a tight budget.

In November, the Texas Department of Transportation announced budget cuts to address a funding shortage.

Those cuts included reducing the consultant engineering budget by 57 percent, or roughly $250 million; reducing its 2008 right-of-way budget from $500 million to $275 million; keeping purchases to a minimum; trimming the research budget by 50 percent and instituting a hiring freeze.

Both the Kell West extension project and Loop 11’s expansion got under way just before the budget cuts took place.

“Our district has done a great job of getting our projects moving ahead,” Tegtmeyer said.

Local leaders took the opportunity to revisit an idea they hope will create a major roadway in the region.

State Rep. David Farabee, D-Wichita Falls, said he envisions two more lanes added to U.S. 281, which runs through several North Texas counties.

“I often avoid I-35 on my drives to Austin; I like to take 281,” said Farabee. “Sometimes I wonder, wouldn’t it be nice to have that extra lane?”

His sentiments were echoed by Wichita County Judge Woody Gossom, who showed a graph of a proposed U.S. 281 that runs a parallel trajectory to Interstate 35.

“It’s a way to miss the jam in the Metroplex and go right through to Oklahoma City and other points north,” he said.

Gossom also pointed out the proposed expansion could help truckers and other motorists save on fuel when traveling north from points in central Texas.

“It’s 17 miles farther to travel through Wichita Falls from San Antonio, but it’s two hours closer,” he said.

Gossom said an expansion of U.S. 281 would help with the creation of more businesses along the route.

Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton applauded local leaders for their positive input and encouraged them to continue with their efforts.

“Keep using the trans-Texas language,” he said. “Transportation initiatives are born from the local districts.”

Houghton also mentioned the possibility of a toll road on U.S. 281 which could further road expansion efforts.

While most of Thursday’s meeting focused on routine items, the true aim of the commission was to reach out to its local districts.

“Our aim is to improve our communications and improve our public transparency,” said Deirdre Delisi, commission chair. Delisi was appointed as the chair in April.

Budget shortfalls have slowed some projects around the state and caused TxDOT to prioritize on bigger problem areas, such as the I-35 corridor.

Delisi said that the growth of the population around the corridor causes it to get more attention.

“With the state’s population growth — and a larger part centered on that road — there’s no question that is one of our many priorities,” she said.

Delisi said that she thought ideas such as the suggested expansion of U.S. 281 are good for the state, but money is the limiting issue.

“It’s a question of where the funds come from,” she said.

© 2008, Wichita Falls Record-News:

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Rep Sid Miller: "Texans can look forward to more toll roads."

Rep. Sid Miller holds town hall meeting


By Jon Schroeder
Killeen Daily Herald
Copyright 2008

District 59 Rep. Sid Miller held a town hall meeting Thursday in the community room of the Copperas Cove Public Library.

At the meeting, the four-term Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives spent most of the time answering questions from residents, many of which were specific and posed by local Republican elected officials.

Miller did not campaign negatively – at no point in the meeting was his Democratic opponent, Oglesby resident Ernie Casbeer, mentioned, by name or otherwise.

Most of the campaign talk at the town hall focused on the presidential election and on getting younger voters involved on the Republican side.

"I won't belabor the point," said Ed Thompson, Coryell County Republican Party chairman, saying that every election is said to be the "most important we've ever had."

Thompson added, "Folks, this one really is."

As he began his speech, Miller ran through a list of 20 House bills and joint resolutions, all of which he authored, co-authored or jointly authored, the vast majority of which set up financial benefits for military members and their families.

As he answered questions, Miller laid out a few of his positions. On energy, he called himself an "all-of-the-above guy," saying that he favors using many different sources of electricity to make it affordable. He supports the diversification away from natural gas in Texas.

Answering a question about the Trans-Texas Corridor, Miller explained that the Texas Department of Transportation put the entire highway system out for bid.

"We have a problem there," he said, referring to TxDOT itself and the increasing needs for roads.

Saying that to call for an increase in gas taxes is "political suicide," (the rate has remained level at 25 cents per gallon despite huge rises in fuel costs), Miller said Texans can look forward to more toll roads.

On illegal immigration, Miller referred to $100 million the Legislature had approved for border control, adding that in the recent past drug traffic is down by 65 percent and illegal immigration is down by 40 percent. Miller said more work remains – because of Texas' relative success in dealing with the problem, federal aid is being removed.

© 2008, Killeen Daily Herald:

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"The so-called Macquarie model of listed infrastructure stocks is ...pushing up the daisies."

Macquarie's dead-parrot model

Monty Python's Flying Circus 'Dead Parrot' sketch: [LINK]

July 31, 2008

Michael West
The Age (Australia)
Copyright 2008

If the Macquarie model's not dead, it's surely comatose and dangling upside-down with its claws super-glued to the perch.

Despite touting a glamorous 14% yield, the latest stapled infrastructure float, BrisConnections, has tanked 60% on its sharemarket debut. The chief reason is that people have twigged to the financial engineer's lurk of the manufactured yield.

That is, they now understand they are simply being given back their own money after the Macquarie machine had slapped the structure together, raised debt with their equity and stripped out the fees up-front.

This one is an embarrassment for the Queensland Government and the state's largest fund, QIC, which is a major shareholder. Although the Government could boast, at a stretch, that it has got its financing in the bag for the $5 billion Airport Link project and the fate of BrisCon and its shareholders is incidentally a matter for the private sector.

After all, retail investors are only said to account for 12% of the issue. Much of the rest of it is lumped with the underwriters - Credit Suisse, JP Morgan, Deutsche Bank and assorted Macquarie vehicles. Especially the latter.

It's a tad hard to tell from the cluster of nominee companies on the BrisCon Top 20 shareholders list, it appears Macquarie in-house entities account for 26%, or one-quarter of the $400 million issue. The two tranches to come will make BrisCon a $1.2 billion issue but there is a prospect that, unless the stock bounces, investors will be reluctant to throw good money after bad. If market conditions deteriorate further it could even go to zero with $2 still to pay.

"The BrisConnections IPO was fully subscribed with the offer well supported by leading domestic and international institutional investors,'' said the press release. No it wasn't. There is a monumental overhang of perhaps half the float sitting there waiting to spill.

A miraculous recovery cannot be ruled out. Since investors are required to kick in another $1 in nine months time though, and yet another $1 in 18 months, this one has the ring of the Norwegian Blue parrot about it.

Besides the willingness of the promoters to stuff the overhang into their own vehicles, another measure of the brazen resolve which it took to get this float away was that, during the marketing process, the big toll-road operator Transurban declared a restructure. It would no longer adhere to the model of paying distributions out of capital, said new chief executive Chris Lynch. It was time to deleverage.

Despite Transurban disavowing the model, Macquarie pressed ahead.

If the Airport Link project were such an attractive investment proposition the bank, having won the tender, would have slotted the asset into Macquarie Infrastructure Group.

Instead this is a structure designed to produce cash today - $110 million in fees - with unitholders in the BrisCon trust taking the risk on the assets tomorrow. Actual cashflow is years away.

As is de riguer in these offerings, the traffic forecaster charged a king's ransom for its advice. The expert in question, Arup, snips $4.7 million for making estimates without, one can assume, any liability.

To give Macquarie its due however, although it has structured most of the toll-road deals in the country, the two which have gone belly up thus far for their investors have been Sydney's Cross City and Lane Cove Tunnel projects - both teed up by other financiers.

While the long-term viability of the other projects will not be known for years, the so-called Macquarie model of listed infrastructure stocks is surely pushing up the daisies - notwithstanding the denials at last week's shareholder meeting, and the strong inflows into its unlisted vehicles.

Whether all these projects will be viable in the longer term (BrisCon has a 45-year lease) is highly moot. For one, the model was designed when oil prices were $US25 a barrel and every operator steadfastly refuses to disclose the oil price assumptions in its modelling. As do the Queensland, NSW and Victorian governments.

Surely Andrew McNamara, Queensland's Minister for Sustainability, Climate Change and Innovation, and his Oil Vulnerability Taskforce will be wanting to know what his counterparts in government - particularly Deputy Premier and Infrastructure Minister Paul Lucas and Transport Minister John Mickel - have signed off on here. Not to mention Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman, who is a key proponent.

Given, today was just one day in the listed life of this trust and the likes of Macquarie Airports also had a rough beginning with many a sceptic lambasting the group for shelling out too much money to buy Sydney Airport. The sheer overhang though in BrisCon bodes poorly for the stock in this environment of distaste for complexity, leverage, high oil prices and bear-market sentiment.

There is potential for renewable energy to fuel cars and keep toll-roads ticking over but evidence has recently emerged that the cost of petrol is not "inelastic", as they say, to demand for motoring. The traffic numbers for MIG's assets such as the French APPR and Toronto's 407 have been flat, even in some cases declining.

Until now, Queensland had a superior track record in PPPs to the southern states but now it is catching up, or is that down? The government has declined to reveal its Public Sector Comparator - a study which looks at various options to fund infrastructure - if indeed it bothered to do one at all.

Meanwhile, the other toll-road in Brisbane, RiverCity Motorway, is travelling at 30 cents, down 70% on its $1 issue price, albeit before investors have taken their distributions from capital along the way.

This week's revelations that the NSW Government had been given strong advice that its proposed metro rail line out to the north of Sydney would be a dud demonstrate further that, when it comes to splashing around the ideas and the taxpayer money, appropriate disclosure and transparency is in order.

For a start, governments should bring back the PSC test. It should be made public so the public can debate the merits of different financing options in a defined consultation period rather than doing clandestine deals with big corporates and claiming spuriously that the deals and the modelling are "commercial in confidence''.

© 2008, The Age:

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

"Pickens has gamed Texas for his own ends, and now he’s trying to game the rest of us, too."

Pickens Gives New Meaning to ‘Self-Government’

July 31, 2008

By Steven Milloy
Copyright 2008

The more you learn about T. Boone Pickens’ plan to switch America to wind power, the more you realize that he seems willing to say and do just about anything to make another billion or two.

This column previously discussed the plan’s technical and economic shortcomings and marketing ruses. Today, we’ll look into the diabolical machinations behind it.

Simply put, Pickens’ pitch is “embrace wind power to help break our ‘addiction’ to foreign oil.” There is, however, another intriguing component to Pickens’ plan that goes unmentioned in his TV commercials, media interviews and web site -- water rights, which he owns more of than any other American.

Pickens hopes that his recent $100 million investment in 200,000 acres worth of groundwater rights in Roberts County, Texas, located over the Ogallala Aquifer, will earn him $1 billion. But there’s more to earning such a profit than simply acquiring the water. Rights-of-way must be purchased to install pipelines, and opposition from anti-development environmental groups must be overcome. Here’s where it gets interesting, according to information compiled by the Water Research Group, a small grassroots group focusing on local water issues in Texas.

Purchasing rights-of-way is often expensive and time-consuming -- and what if landowners won’t sell? While private entities may be frustrated, governments can exercise eminent domain to compel sales. This is Pickens’ route of choice. But wait, you say, Pickens is not a government entity. How can he use eminent domain? Are you sitting down?

At Pickens’ behest, the Texas legislature changed state law to allow the two residents of an 8-acre parcel of land in Roberts County to vote to create a municipal water district, a government agency with eminent domain powers. Who were the voters? They were Pickens’ wife and the manager of Pickens’ nearby ranch. And who sits on the board of directors of this water district? They are the parcel’s three other non-resident landowners, all Pickens’ employees.

A member of a local water conservation board told Bloomberg News that, “[Pickens has] obtained the right of eminent domain like he was a big city. It’s supposed to be for the public good, not a private company.”

What’s this got to do with Pickens’ wind-power plan? Just as he needs pipelines to sell his water, he also needs transmission lines to sell his wind-generated power. Rights of way for transmission lines are also acquired through eminent domain -- and, once again, the Texas legislature has come to Pickens’ aid.

Earlier this year, Texas changed its law to allow renewable energy projects (like Pickens’ wind farm) to obtain rights-of-way by piggybacking on a water district’s eminent domain power. So Pickens can now use his water district’s authority to also condemn land for his future wind farm’s transmission lines.

Who will pay for the rights-of-way and the transmission lines and pipelines? Thanks to another gift from Texas politicians, Pickens’ water district can sell tax-free, taxpayer-guaranteed municipal bonds to finance the $2.2 billion cost of the water pipeline. And then earlier this month, the Texas legislature voted to spend $4.93 billion for wind farm transmission lines. While Pickens has denied that this money is earmarked for him, he nevertheless is building the largest wind farm in the world.

Despite this legislative largesse, a fly in the ointment remains.

Although Pickens hopes to sell as much as $165 million worth of water annually to Dallas alone, no city in Texas has signed up yet -- partly because they don’t yet need the water and partly because of resentment against water profiteering.

Enter the Sierra Club.

While Green groups support wind power, “the privatization of water is an entirely different thing,” says the Sierra Club. Moreover, the activist group has long opposed further exploitation of the very groundwater Pickens wants to use -- the Ogallala Aquifer.

“The source of drinking water and irrigation for Plains residents from Nebraska to Texas, the Ogallala Aquifer is one of the world's largest -- as well as one of the most rapidly dissipating… If current irrigation practices continue, agribusiness will deplete the Ogallala Aquifer in the next century,” says the Sierra Club.

In March 2002, the Sierra Club opposed the construction of a slaughterhouse in Pampa, Texas, because it would require a mere 275 million gallons per year from the Ogallala Aquifer. Yet Pickens wants to sell 65 billion gallons of water per year -- to Dallas alone. In a 2004 lamentation about local government facilitation of Pickens’ plan for the Ogallala, the Sierra Club slammed Pickens as a “junk bond dealer” who wanted to make “Blue Gold” from the Ogallala.

But while the Sierra Club can’t seem to do anything about Pickens’ influence with state legislators, they do have enough influence to make his water politically unpotable. This opposition may soon abate, however, now that Pickens has buddied up with Sierra Club president Carl Pope.

As noted last week, Pope now flies in Pickens’ private jet and publicly lauds him. The two are newly-minted “friends,” since Pope needs the famous Republican oilman to lend propaganda value to the Sierra Club’s anti-oil agenda and Pickens needs Pope to ease up on the Ogallala water opposition.

This alliance isn’t sitting well with everyone on the Left.

A writer recently observed, “… I am left asking myself why the green media have neglected [the water] aspect of Pickens’ wind-farm plans? Have we been so distracted by the prospect of Texas’ renewable energy portfolio growing by 4000 megawatts that we are willing to overlook some potentially dodgy aspects to the project?”

It shouldn’t sit well with the rest of us either. Pickens has gamed Texas for his own ends, and now he’s trying to game the rest of us, too. Worse, his gamesmanship includes lending his billionaire resources, prominent stature and feudal powers bestowed upon him by the Texas legislature to help the Greens gain control over the U.S. energy supply.

Steven Milloy publishes and He is a junk science expert, and advocate of free enterprise and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

© 2008, Fox News:

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"He runs the political risk of alienating those who need the money, who are out fighting for their political lives."

Gov. Perry raising eyebrows with early fundraising

July 31, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN – Gearing up for an unprecedented fourth term, Gov. Rick Perry is planning about 20 fundraisers between now and December, even though he won't face an election until March 2010.

Some in the GOP are grumbling that the Perry campaign is tapping the same donors who are needed to help Republican candidates in elections just three months away.

"We don't get any sense of that," said spokesman Robert Black, who added that Mr. Perry also has scheduled time to make appearances for other candidates and help raise money for their November contests.

Mr. Black confirmed the number of planned fundraisers, saying "it's a heavy schedule."

Mr. Perry served the two years remaining in George W. Bush's term before winning four-year terms of his own in 2002 and 2006. He will soon become the longest-serving Texas governor, an office with no term limits.

His longevity and relatively low poll numbers – he won his last election with 39 percent of the vote in a field of four major candidates – mean Mr. Perry could face tough competition within his own party. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has indicated that she is considering seeking the office, which could lead to a costly primary battle.

"The governor's a Boy Scout, and he knows you have to be prepared," Mr. Black said. "He's going to be prepared for any contingency."

In their last fundraising reports, at the end of June, Ms. Hutchison listed $8.6 million in the bank, while Mr. Perry had $2.9 million.

The word in GOP circles is that Mr. Perry is "trying to match her by the end of the year," said one Republican strategist working for a candidate on the ballot this fall.

He said the effort is "definitely raising some eyebrows" and chafing candidates who are in the middle of tight battles. "Now is crunch time for them. You have to wonder, what's the hurry for Perry?" he said.

Part of the equation for the governor is that he is prohibited under state ethics law from raising money for about six months, from just before the next legislative session begins until his deadline to sign or veto bills.

Ms. Hutchison, if she chooses, also has those six months to raise money. But as a senator, she is limited by federal law to a contribution cap of $2,300 per person. State officeholders have no contribution limits, and it hasn't been unusual for Mr. Perry to rake in $1 million from a handful of donors.

"There are bears in the woods, and they're coming for the gubernatorial position," said political consultant Bill Miller. "If he's going to try and hold on, he's going to need to load up. The big war chest will ward off the smaller bear, but not the big bears."

He said sophisticated donors would find something to give the governor but continue to contribute to close November contests. But some GOP candidates probably still don't like competing with Mr. Perry for money right now, Mr. Miller said.

"He runs the political risk of alienating those who need the money, who are out fighting for their political lives, and he's asking for money when he's not up" for re-election immediately, he said.

Texas is a big state, and it takes millions to run a competitive race, Mr. Black said.

"To have a full-time operation to reach out to your supporters is a full-time endeavor. He does not go dormant," he said.

© 2008, The Dallas Morning News:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"Small changes in traffic can have a big impact on toll road financing."

Bush Turnpike sees fewer drivers

July 31, 2008

Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

Drivers on the Bush Turnpike can be excused if they thought they had a little more room to maneuver in May and June. Both months brought small decreases in the number of toll payers on the roads, according to numbers released Thursday by the North Texas Tollway Authority.

NTTA officials said the toll road had about 2.3 percent fewer drivers in June than in 2007, and about 1.4 percent fewer in May.

That trend follows reports by federal officials that for the first time in decades, Americans as a group are driving less, even in fast-growing states such as Texas.

Still, the impact on NTTA's roads so far has been slight. Traffic on the Dallas North Tollway was about flat in both months, and up 3 percent for the first six months of the year, compared to the first half of 2007. Counting the new phase 3 section of the DNT, opened in September, traffic on the toll road was up 9 percent ending in June.

NTTA spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt said high gas prices in the past have led to only temporary changes in toll traffic.

Still, even small changes in traffic can have a big impact on toll road financing if the changes become long-term trends. Wary of just that, NTTA officials asked consultants last week whether they should revise traffic estimates for State Highway 161 as the agency considers whether it should pay more than $1 billion to build and operate that Dallas County toll road.

Wilbur Smith Associates' answer? Gas prices at their current levels wouldn't have a big effect on the traffic estimates provided when gas was expected to be much cheaper.

© 2008, The Dallas Morning News:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

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"Although a political backlash has slowed the push in recent years...."

Bush Calls for New Highway Tolls,

More Private Funding of Roads

July 30, 2008

Wall Street Journal
Copyright 2008

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration unveiled a plan to impose new tolls on freeways and encourage more private investment to finance road and mass-transit projects, a move aimed at stirring debate as lawmakers prepare for a major overhaul of transportation policy.

The White House says more tolls and public-private partnerships can solve perhaps the biggest problem confronting the nation's aging infrastructure: There are limited funds available to upgrade transportation networks and too many federal funds are doled out inefficiently through earmarks and pet projects that do little to improve mobility or reduce congestion.

The search for alternative funding sources is ramping up because Americans are driving less and shifting to more fuel-efficient vehicles. That means they will be paying less in gasoline and diesel-fuel taxes, which traditionally have been the biggest source of federal funding for highway and mass-transit construction.

Many states are moving to increase existing tolls. Pennsylvania, for example, is hoping to win federal permission for new tolls on a standing interstate. Meanwhile, several states are turning to business consortiums to finance, build and operate new highways, bridges and tunnels, although a political backlash has slowed the push in recent years.

The administration's proposal comes as Congress gears up to start work later this year on a six-year transportation spending bill that could cost well more than $400 billion. The last multiyear bill, which expires in September 2009, carried a $286 billion tab.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan commission concluded the nation is spending only about 40% of what is needed to reduce congestion, improve safety and spur economic growth. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters served on the commission but dissented from the majority view that gas taxes should more than double in coming years to support a big increase in transportation spending.

Ms. Peters says gas-tax rates should hold steady -- at 18.4 cents a gallon for regular gasoline and 24.4 cents a gallon for diesel, where they have stood for more than a decade -- and private money and toll revenue can address any needed increases in funding. She declined Tuesday to say how much more the U.S. needs to increase its overall spending on transportation infrastructure. Instead, she suggested ways to make transportation spending less wasteful.

"Our federal approach to transportation is broken," she said. "And no amount of tweaking, adjusting or adding new layers on top will make things better."

Many Democrats objected to the administration's plan, saying it could have gone further in identifying ways to raise investment and spur projects that could unclog major choke points. Perhaps the most common complaint centered on the shift in reliance from gas taxes to private-sector dollars.

"It's basically an opportunity for people who have wanted to systematically reduce the federal participation in infrastructure," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D., Ore.), who is spearheading a transportation debate in the House. "It's going to fall with a thud."

The two major presidential candidates haven't released detailed plans on transportation funding, even as the issue is sure to be one of next year's biggest legislative battles. Republican Sen. John McCain has stressed the need to eliminate earmarks and pet projects. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama supports the creation of a $60 billion national infrastructure bank that would fund projects of regional and national significance. The two have also sparred over Mr. McCain's proposal to give consumers a gas-tax holiday this summer.

Write to Christopher Conkey at

© 2008, Wall Street Journal:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"It's killing us."

Gas prices drive motorists away from toll roads, shrink revenue


By Judy Keen,
Copyright 2008

CHICAGO — Record gas prices are prompting drivers to steer clear of some toll roads, bridges and tunnels, causing declines in the revenue that's used for repairs and maintenance.

"It's killing us," says Parrish French, finance director for West Virginia's parkways authority. In June, revenue from passenger car tolls was down 7.3% from June 2007, and tolls paid by commercial drivers on the state's 88 miles of toll roads declined 4%.

Transportation facilities in 34 states collect about $8 billion in tolls a year, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

Those facilities are feeling the effects of high gas prices and a switch to carpooling and mass transit: Americans drove 9.6 billion fewer miles in May 2008 than in May 2007, the Federal Highway Administration says.

"Everyone's talking about increasing tolls" for the first time since 1981 to ensure that maintenance needs are met, French says. Cars pay $3.75 to drive the full length of West Virginia's toll road; 18-wheel trucks pay $12.75.


• Revenue is off 3.5% or $17.6 million for the period from July 2007 to March 2008 on Florida's 600 miles of toll roads and bridges, says Christa Deason of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise.

"It has the possibility to affect our upcoming work program," which totals $1 billion, Deason says.

• Traffic on the Mackinac Bridge, which connects Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas, was down 11.2% in June compared with a year ago but revenue is up 6.8% for the year because of toll hikes, says Bob Sweeney of the Mackinac Bridge Authority.

Still, the authority is considering ways to extend the life of the bridge deck so a $200 million deck replacement project can be delayed.

• The Maine Turnpike saw a 4% drop in traffic in June.

• Traffic on the Indiana Toll Road was down about 5% in the first quarter of the year, spokesman Matt Pierce says.

• Traffic is down slightly on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, says Kris Kolluri, Turnpike Authority chairman and transportation commissioner. Tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike declined 4.8% in June compared to a year earlier and the parkway's drop was 4.3%.

Mass-transit ridership is up 4-5% and traffic is steady on the Atlantic City Expressway, which suggests that the gambling mecca is a vacation destination for residents who decided to stay closer to home, Kolluri says.

• Traffic is down less than 1% on the Illinois Tollway, probably because most of its 1.4 million daily users are commuters, says spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis.

© 2008, USA Today:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"This is highway robbery. This is bureaucracy at its worst. I’ll never use that road again."

The electronic toll road system breaks down when the bill gets mailed to the wrong address


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

HURST — More North Texans are coming forward with complaints that a collection agency hired by the Texas Department of Transportation is unfairly demanding large past-due payments for driving on the Texas 121 toll road in Denton and Collin counties.

"This is highway robbery," said Brian Wilson of Hurst, who two weeks ago received a bill for $76.60 for a $1.60 toll he incurred on a boating trip to Lake Texoma in June 2007. "This is bureaucracy at its worst. I’ll never use that road again."

Texas 121 is the region’s first all-electronic toll road.Toll payments can be made either by an automatic account such as a TollTag or by standard mail. For those paying by mail, the common practice is to wait until the Transportation Department’s Texas Tollways office sends a bill and then send a payment.

But that system doesn’t work when the bill gets mailed to the wrong address.

On Monday, the Star-Telegram published a story about Norma Bartholomew of Fort Worth, who had been contacted by a collection agency for a past-due toll that the Transportation Department had sent to an address where she hasn’t lived since 2004.

She had traveled on the road in February 2007, but never received the original bill for $1.90 in tolls, and a few weeks ago was shocked to learn that the state now wanted $109.90, including $100 in fees.

A Transportation Department official said it was a rare incident. The woman’s account was eventually cleared after she lodged complaints with the Texas Tollways office and state elected leaders.

But since then, four other readers have contacted the Star-Telegram to complain that the Transportation Department sent bills to their old addresses and — in all but one case — turned them over to a collection agency, too.

In each case, the readers felt the Transportation Department ought to know their correct address. All said they had submitted address changes to the department after moving, and are currently receiving auto registration renewal notices in the mail.

Wilson’s case

Wilson and his wife, Sharilyn, traveled on Texas 121 in June 2007, using their pickup to tow the family boat to Lake Texoma.

A few weeks after the vacation, they received — and promptly paid — a bill for $3.40 in tolls, charged to the account of their boat trailer.

But at the time they didn’t realize that the camera system on the road had captured not only an image of the license number on their trailer, but also on their pickup. While the bill for the boat trailer toll was sent to their current address, the toll for the pickup — another $1.60 — was sent to Brian Wilson’s old address. Wilson said he never saw the original pickup bill.

Two weeks ago, Wilson opened his mail and found a collection letter demanding $76.60 for that unpaid toll.

Wilson called the Texas Tollways customer service line, but the call taker was unsympathetic, he said. The call taker did, however, offer to cut the bill almost in half to $39, if Wilson would agree to open a TxTag account so that his tolls could be collected automatically.

Wilson reluctantly agreed, even though opening the TxTag account cost him an additional $20, so he paid the $59 to avoid letting the whole affair smudge his credit rating.

But now he wants his money back. "I felt like my arm was put behind my back and twisted," he said during an interview at his home, where the unused TxTag remains in its envelope on his kitchen counter.


In addition to Wilson, the Star-Telegram also spoke to or exchanged e-mails with:

Richard LaChance of Fort Worth, who received a collection notice for nearly $700. He agreed to open a TxTag account in exchange for cutting the late fees in half. But he later called again to complain about the original toll bills, which were mailed to an address he hadn’t used in nearly five years, and persuaded Texas Tollways to rescind the charges. "The whole time I was wondering how many other people were treated this way," he wrote.

Steven Maas of Fort Worth, who was billed for $125 in fees. Maas has since signed up for a TollTag, another form of automatic toll collection operated by the North Texas Tollway Authority, to prevent the problem in future transactions. But Texas Tollways considers the TollTag a competitor to its TxTag and won’t waive his fees.

When Maas complained to Texas Tollways, a call taker confirmed that his original toll bills had been returned to the Austin office, stamped "Return to sender." But apparently no one investigated whether his address had changed.

"Yet they still invoked . . . the fees. That’s just ludicrous and completely preying on people."

Joseph Rivera, a former Fort Worth resident now living in Plano, who was told he owes $12 for a 90-cent toll accrued on Texas 121 on Christmas Day 2007. The bill was originally sent to his old Fort Worth address, where he hasn’t lived in nearly three years. "When I talked to them they were very standoffish," he said.

Don’t let it linger

Transportation Department officials say they’ll work with people on a case-by-case basis, and remove fees deemed improper. But spokesman Christopher Lippincott urged motorists who have used the Texas 121 toll road to avoid problems now by updating their vehicle registration information, rather than waiting for a collection agency to find them.

"There is no substitute for Texas drivers ensuring that their registration information is correct and up-to-date," he said.

What you can do

Since April 4, tolls collected electronically on Texas 121 in Denton and Collin counties are billed through the North Texas Tollway Authority, not the Transportation Department. However, there is still the potential for bills being sent to an old address, because the tollway authority gets its vehicle registration data from the Transportation Department.

Steps to take to avoid getting slapped with late fees:

Visit your county tax office and make sure your vehicle registration information is current. Check all three address fields in the database: the vehicle owner’s address, the renewal recipient address and the vehicle location address.

Call the Transportation Department’s vehicle titles and registration division regional office. In the Fort Worth area, call 817-649-5938.

If you suspect you owe a toll but haven’t received a bill, call the Texas Tollways customer service line toll-free at 888-468-9824 and ask for your vehicle information.

If you believe you’ve been erroneously charged late fees and the call-taker won’t budge, ask to speak with a supervisor. If that doesn’t work, consider complaining to a state senator or representative.

Car owners are responsible for tolls, even if the toll is accrued by someone else. However, if you get a bill for tolls on a car that was sold or stolen, you may download a toll violation defense form at

Consider signing up for a TollTag, a windshield-mounted transponder that makes it possible to pay tolls automatically. TollTag accounts are usually backed by a credit card. The North Texas Tollway Authority administers the accounts and may be reached at or toll-free at 877-991-0033.

The Transportation Department offers a TxTag, which is similar to a TollTag. For information visit or call toll-free 888-468-9824. TollTags and TxTags work on tolls roads in Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and Houston.
GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

© 2008, Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"The reason the Trans-Texas Corridor is a dirty word in Taylor and Texas is because the people see the TTC for what it is..."

Citizens disagree with pro-Corridor column

Related link: A Case for the TTC?


Letters to the editor
The Taylor Daily Press
Copyright 2008

‘True Texans’ value heritage over TTC

To the Editor:

Concerning “A Case for the Trans Texas Corridor,” which appeared in your paper July 22, I applaud Philip Jankowski’s effort to make the case for the corridor. I think presenting both sides of the argument is healthy, but I’d suggest Philip check his facts before proceeding.

1. Rapid growth of surrounding communities is due to their proximity to Austin. Their toll roads were built as a result of the rapid growth, not vice-versa.

2. (According to TxDOT) 116,000 acres will be lost to TTC-35. In most cases, landowners will not receive market value for their land. Texas eminent domain law is based on “Hubenak vs. San Jacinto Gas,” which says any low ball offer qualifies as “just compensation.”

3. The “incredibly valuable commercial property” that Philip refers to will be inside the toll road fence and must be leased from the Spaniards. The adjoining landowners outside the fence will suffer from decreased value due to lack of access and air, noise and sight pollution.

4. The avid TTC opponent who showed Philip the possible path told Philip that his land would not be taken by the corridor. But I guess that doesn’t make as good a story as getting “run over.”

5. Philip says Taylor should forget its past, embrace the corridor and hope for rapid growth to come. The fact is Taylor’s history is one of its greatest assets. Controlled growth is the key to a good place to live. True Texans value their heritage and value their lifestyle.

Ralph Snyder


Landowners want to protect Texans from Corridor

To the Editor:

I just finished reading the article, “A case for the Trans Texas Corridor,” written by Philip Jankowski and would like to respond to some of the inaccuracies in the article.

Mr. Jankowski seems to think that the landowners in the Taylor area are eager to sell the property that, for some, has been in their families for five generations. What is it he doesn’t understand about Texans and their love of the land ... a love so big and so deep and so strong, they will fight to the last breath to keep it? They don’t want to sell it to TxDOT or anyone else.

They are where they are because that is exactly where they want to be and no amount of money could entice them to sell. And, it (is) not just about the farm and ranch land around Taylor. These folks are concerned about a 1,200-foot wide swath of farm land from the South Texas border to the North Texas border; farm land that can never be replaced at any price.

Mr. Jankowski must also believe that the entire city of Taylor detests their current lifestyle and history and is just hanging by a thread waiting to be the next Georgetown. He might be surprised to find out that the residents of Taylor are proud of their history and enjoy their friendly small city and have no desire to have it turned into a concrete shopping plaza for out-of-state retirees.

He mentions Leander, Cedar Park and Liberty Hill as three cities expanding due to a “toll road.” The toll road has only been there a year or so, but Austin has been there for decades. Doesn’t it seem more plausible that these cities are growing due to the urban sprawl of the ever spreading city of Austin?

As far as a super toll road putting Taylor on the map, he was dead wrong there, too.

This toll road would destroy Taylor, just like it would every other small town.

The TTC plans show no access roads to be built, so a driver can only enter and exit the TTC at designated on and off ramps that will be miles apart. All crossovers to be built for county roads will be built at county expense at about $18 million apiece. So how are these “drivers” going to stop off in Taylor to spend their money, when there are few exits and no access roads on the TTC?

The land one mile on either side of the TTC will be unfit for human or animal habitation due to fumes and noise pollution. Looks like Mr. Jankowski’s plan for an increase in the price of land next to this huge toll road doesn’t pan out either as that land will be worthless.

If being “fundamentally opposed” to the TTC makes me, as Mr. Jankowski charges, backward thinking and self-destructive, then he is totally uninformed as to the nature and effect the TTC will have. Not only on Taylor, but on every small town it comes near.

Mr. Jankowski mentions nothing about the school districts that will be severed. Or the police and fire departments nightmares of trying to do their jobs around this monstrosity. Or the church congregations that will be divided by it. Or by the small water districts running their line under it.

Or the farmers trying to tend to their land on both sides of it. Or the counties losing tax money on the seized land. Or the lost Blackland Prairie dirt that brought the first farmers to Texas in the first place.

Mr. Jankowski, the reason the TTC is a dirty word in Taylor is because the people in Taylor and in Texas see the TTC for what it is and are fighting with everything they can muster to stop it before it destroys an entire way of life for the folks in rural Texas. We don’t want it or need it.

Cynthia Ross

Pride in land, heritage not for sale

To the Editor:

Not everything is about money, Mr. Jankowski. Farming and the small town way of life are rapidly disappearing and a lot of us don’t want it to. My family has been in Williamson County for seven generations.

Our pride in the land and the farming lifestyle are not for sale at any price. The Trans Texas Corridor would take land away from people who have farmed it for generation(s). People who want to look at nothing but asphalt, Home Depots and Chili’s are more than welcome to go live in all the so-called prosperous places you mention in your article, as are you.

The fact that you feel these cities’ over-expansive, out-of-control growth is successful tells me you cannot possibly understand the history and pride of the farming lifestyle. No one in any of these towns knows their neighbors or even cares to.

In my opinion, the true measure of success is the people, of which our area has some of the very best. Embrace a slow death? I plan to … while sitting in my rocking chair on my porch looking out at nothing but pasture land as far as I can see.

Janna Hafernik


TTC designed to bypass, not help small towns

To the Editor:

The recent story written by Philip Jankowski was filled with such a total lack of regard for facts that it would have been deeply troubling were it simply written by an uniformed citizen.

The realization that Mr. Jankowski is a writer for your paper makes it all the more shocking! How can he not know that the intention of these roads is to deliberately bypass all towns, not bring us new customers. There would be no Taylor exit, and if there were, state contractors would own the businesses along the tollway.

Taylor would get the exhaust fumes and the noise, no new commerce. And the cost would be trampling the property rights of a good many citizens while destroying our charming, serene surroundings and reducing our property values at the same time.

I came to Taylor because it is beautiful. We have quiet streets and clean air. These things are not the enemy, nor are they trivial or outdated as Mr. Jankowski implies. These are quality of life issues ... and, really, Hutto is his example of what we should strive for? Thoughtless, out of control growth? They have 25,000 more people and a toll road but no grocery store! Gas is $4 a gallon and they have to get on a toll road to go grocery shopping.

Thanks, I’ll take Taylor any day.

Angela Kopit


© 2008, Taylor Daily Press:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Monday, July 28, 2008

Roads less traveled create 'funding crisis' for sprawling development

Driving less could hurt the roads

July 28, 2008

By Ted Oberg
KTRK-TV (Houston)
Copyright 2008

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- If you've thought there are less cars on the road, you are right.

Staggering numbers show we're driving far fewer miles, due mostly to high fuel costs. It's a big drop and it could have a big impact on all roads.

It makes sense now that gas costs more. We cut back. It's a real trend that is more pronounced than the last gas price spike in the 1970's. There have been seven months in a row of mileage decreases.

We found Lisa Cervantes in the middle of a two and a half hour one way commute on a METRO bus.

"I am not driving, I can barely make it so I am riding METRO," she told us.

The high price of gas forced her out of the car.

"I still own it, but it's parked," she said.

She is one of millions of Americans driving less. For the seventh month in a row, Americans drove fewer miles than the year before. There have been 29.8 billion fewer miles logged since January than the same time period in 2007.

METRO ridership is up 16% this year, but it's not just that, there's evidence we're cutting back on optional trips. Many of us even now drive more fuel efficient cars like the Toyota Prius. It is great for conservation, but believe it or not, it's awful for our highways.

"It is a funding crisis," said HCAG Transportation Planner Pat Waskowiak.

Out of every gallon of gas you buy, 38 and a half cents of it goes to the federal or state government in gas taxes. Most of that money is used to build or maintain our highways. So the less you drive, the less gas you buy and the less money the government has to spend on our roads.

"It's a problem," Cervantes said.

It sure is. Our region is growing, highways were planned to expand, but don't count on that money. The feds are already scaling back telling the state it needs to cut hundreds of millions this year alone.

"In real terms that's $650 million for the State of Texas that we were counting on receiving that we did not get," Waskowiak said.

But fear not, the government will get its money. And if you don't fund roads with the gas tax, you'll fund them with toll roads which is an option that doesn't depend on the gas tax. That is of course unless gas prices drop and drivers start driving more.

Cervantes says she would pick up her keys again if gas prices came down under $3 a gallon, but she is not sure that will ever happen again.

The gas tax shortfalls will bankrupt the federal highway fund next year and the state of Texas isn't doing much better. One of the immediate impacts is the Highway 290 reconstruction. It was going to be a huge project. The hundreds of millions in cut backs will scale that project way back.

Two other ride share programs, NuRide and Vanpooling are also up this year. The programs save millions of miles from being driven on area roads each year.

© 2008, KTRK-TV:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Sunday, July 27, 2008

"I don’t want this on my credit report."

Keep tabs on your toll-road balance


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

If you drove on the all-electronic Texas 121 toll road north of Grapevine but haven’t gotten a bill in the mail, don’t assume everything is OK.

Norma Bartholomew, a Fort Worth resident and a research associate at Texas Christian University, drove the road in Denton and Collin counties one day in February 2007.

Like many other drivers, she doesn’t have a TollTag, so she expected the Texas Department of Transportation to photograph her license plate and mail her an invoice.

From what she had read, that’s how electronic toll roads work.

But the bill never came.

Then a few weeks ago, a collection agency called on behalf of the Transportation Department.

The caller accused her of ignoring 14 attempts to collect $1.90 in tolls during the past 15 months.

Bartholomew was told she owed the state $101.90, including $100 in administrative and late fees.

This month, she finally cleared up the matter.

The Transportation Department realized it had made a mistake and mailed the bills to the wrong address.

The department waived all but $2.90 — her original toll plus a $1 administrative fee.

But getting her name cleared and most of the fees waived took weeks of stressful calls to several department offices.

She also wrote to Fort Worth lawmakers Rep. Charlie Geren and Sen. Kim Brimer, each of whom called the department on her behalf.

Bartholomew also contacted the Star-Telegram.

"I have a feeling I may not be the only person this has happened to," she said. "I don’t want this on my credit report."

What went wrong

Department officials eventually figured out that they had been mailing her toll bills to an old address.

Bartholomew moved from one part of Fort Worth to another in June 2004.

She changed the address on her vehicle registration in April 2005, when her sticker expired, and since then she has renewed her registration annually by mail.

So, as far as she knew, the Transportation Department had her current address.

But it turns out that the department keeps more than one data field of addresses for registered car owners.

And, for whatever reason, Bartholomew’s address was never changed on the data field that the department uses for toll billing.

"This was a very rare occurrence," department spokesman Christopher Lippincott said. "We’ve been in contact with Ms. Bartholomew and . . . as of today she has a balance of zero. Certainly I know it was frustrating for Ms. Bartholomew. Like any business, we run into technical glitches. It’s certainly our hope that this was resolved to her satisfaction."

Bartholomew hasn’t checked any credit reports to see whether the incident was reported.

But Lippincott said that if such problems surface, the department will work with her to get them fixed.

What you can do

If you suspect you owe a toll but haven’t received a bill, call the Texas Tollways customer service line toll-free at 888-468-9824 and ask for your vehicle information.

If you’re billed for tolls you don’t believe you owe, don’t let the problem linger. A collection agency will eventually be assigned to the case, and any past-due tolls could count against your credit record. Try resolving the matter through the Texas Tollways customer service office. If that doesn’t work call your state representative or senator.

Car owners are responsible for tolls, even if the toll is accrued by someone else. However, if you get a bill for tolls on a car that was sold or stolen, you may download a toll violation defense form at

Consider signing up for a TollTag, a windshield-mounted transponder that makes it possible to pay tolls automatically. TollTag accounts are usually backed by a credit card. The North Texas Tollway Authority administers the accounts and may be reached at or toll-free at 877-991-0033.

The Transportation Department offers a TxTag, which is similar to a TollTag. For information visit or call toll-free 888-468-9824. TollTags and TxTags work on tolls roads in Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and Houston.

© 2008, Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE