Saturday, October 25, 2008

"What goes on the Betty King Room is supposed to stay in the Betty King Room."

Texas Senate does too much business in secret, Wentworth says


Jennifer Peebles
Texas Watchdog
Copyright 2008

The Texas Senate does too much of its business in secret, a leading Senate Republican said Friday at an Austin conference on open government issues.

Jeff Wentworth, the six-term Senator from San Antonio and chairman of the Senate Committee on Jurisprudence, said that he was “concerned about the way the Senate does its business,” saying too much deliberation goes on while senators meet in closed-door caucuses in the Capitol’s Betty King Committee Room: “We discuss things that, I believe, should be seen on the floor of the Texas Senate.”

Senators are often briefed on important issues in great detail in those private meetings, and “we get in very hot, emotional debates in the Betty King Room,” Wentworth said.

“In my judgment, it could be a healthier situation than it is.”

Wentworth’s comments were made at the annual conference of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, as the senator was taking part in a roundtable discussion on open government issues in the state.

Wentworth told the group that he was with its members in the belief that “citizens are denied” the ability to hear the Senate deliberate on those issues.

And what goes on the Betty King Room is supposed to stay in the Betty King Room. The Senate has an “unwritten rule,” he said, that what’s discussed there must remain secret, the senator said, or risk being “shunned by your colleagues.”

Senators sometimes speak on an issue one way in the privacy of the Betty King Room, but then take the other side when the matter is discussed publicly on the Senate floor, Wentworth said.

The Betty King Committee Room was formerly known as the Lieutenant Governor’s Committee Room. It was renamed in 2001 in honor of the woman who spent 24 years as secretary of the Senate.

© 2008 Texas Watchdog:

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“Our desire is to work with TxDOT... but they refuse. Instead, they continue to hammer weary commuters with their ‘toll roads or no roads’ club."

Citizens demand fix to 281 NOW


Terri Hall
Texans Uniting for Reform & Freedom (TURF)
Copyright 2008

San Antonio, TX, October 24, 2008 – Concerned citizens with the San Antonio Toll Party and Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas (AGUA) joined District 122 Candidate for State Representative Frances Carnot in a joint press conference to demand the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) work with the citizens to fix the gridlock on US 281 (north of Loop 1604) now. TxDOT and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority are misleading the public into believing NO fix to 281 can move forward for 3-5 years, which is patently false.

The environmental clearance got pulled for the US 281 toll project ONLY. There are provisions in the law that would allow the original gas tax funded 281 overpass and expansion plan ( to move forward in just over 30 days.

Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) and Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas (AGUA), whose lawsuit is still active in federal court despite TxDOT’s announcement to pull the clearance for US 281, have asked for a meeting to discuss an immediate solution with Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi and she’s refused.

“Our desire is to work with TxDOT to alleviate the congestion on US 281 as quickly as possible, but they refuse. Instead, they continue to hammer weary commuters with their stubborn ‘toll roads or no roads’ club,” states an outraged Terri Hall, Founder the San Antonio Toll Party and Texas

“Even with the toll road off the table for the foreseeable future, TxDOT continues to behave like a rogue agency who puts profits over the public good. Politicians for the district, State Representative Frank Corte and Senator Jeff Wentworth, continue to sit idly by and let this crisis fester rather than demonstrate effective leadership and exercise legislative oversight over this out of control agency by getting the overpass plan built NOW,” Hall notes.

“Perhaps the citizens cries for help are being repeatedly ignored because Corte doesn’t even live in District 122? Does he even care what his constituents and the businesses in this corridor are needlessly suffering at the hands of a rogue agency over whom he has oversight?” asks Hall.

The citizens and businesses in the 281 corridor deserve better, and they plan to step-up their efforts with a 5 point plan to get the overpass plan built immediately. Step one: take their anger to the ballot box!

“From day one the citizens have insisted that the least invasive, most affordable solution be built on 281 immediately, and that’s clearly the original gas tax funded overpass plan. It’s one-tenth the price ($170 million versus the $1.3 billion toll project), half the size (10 lanes versus 20 lanes), and would take less than half the time to build (18 months versus 3.8 years). It’s inexcusable abusive government and sheer greed to hold commuters hostage a single day longer,” Hall insists.

© 2008 TURF:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Friday, October 24, 2008

“When you put a toll road or … a CDA out there, it is going to cost that person much more than it would if you raised the gas tax.”

Taxpayer association panel ponders mobility funding methods


by Mark Lavergne
Volume 13, Issue 12
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2008

Rep. Linda Harper-Brown (R-Irving) renewed calls for reform at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) on Oct. 21 at the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association annual membership meeting. The association researches and analyzes the state’s tax and spending policies.

Harper-Brown spoke on a panel that also included TTARA president William Allaway, Fort Worth city council member Jungus Jordan, and Texas Instruments senior vice president Philip J. Ritter, who is also a TTARA officer.

Harper-Brown called transportation the most important issue facing the state, because “regardless of what your passion might be, whether it’s healthcare or it’s parks and rec[reation], or whether it’s some other area of government that you’d like to see your resources spent on in taxpayer dollars, without mobility, we limit economic growth, and without economic growth, then that limits the amount of money that we can spend in those areas. So we have to make sure that our infrastructure is improved, that we have the increased mobility throughout the state.”

She encouraged looking at multi-modal solutions, like mass transit, as did Ritter. Harper-Brown also said the state could transition off the gas tax, and start collecting taxes according to miles traveled, if it wanted to. She advocated finding other forms of energy for vehicles.

TxDOT reform

Harper-Brown said “all the stars have aligned” for major reform at TxDOT, since the Legislature is mad at the agency, as are the citizens, and TxDOT is coming under Sunset.

“When you get 28,000 comments on an issue” (Sunset staff’s TxDOT report), “never in the history of the state of Texas have we had that many people comment on something — and let me just say they weren’t glowing comments on TxDOT – it’s time for a change.”

Harper-Brown said TxDOT has “branched out into so many different areas, that they’re not doing anything well,” like contracts with private companies, lobbying the Legislature and Washington for certain policies, on top of their traditional charge of building and maintaining roads, which Harper-Brown said they deal with “in their spare time.”

“We’ve got to determine exactly what this organization’s function is,” she said.

Harper-Brown said that the agency needs to address efficiency concerns before any new appropriations could be discussed, citing that 1,174 engineers or architects work there for $2.5 billion in projects, whereas in Florida, 463 such employees work on a $2.6 billion budget.

The department at TxDOT that pays utility bills used to have 40 employees, Harper-Brown said, actually hand-writing the payments before copying and filing them. Going paperless saved the department $50 million and cut the workforce down to 19, she said, even though employees sent emails saying they feared losing their jobs because of the increased efficiency.

“Take that and expand it throughout the agency and look at the dollars that we could be putting into transportation through mobility,” Harper-Brown said.

Florida as model

While the Texas Legislature gives its agency a lump sum of funds to “spend however you want to, with no accountability and no transparency on the other side,” Florida does it better, she said.

There, the transportation department must present a program to the transportation committee with a list of projects it plans to design and build with the money the lawmakers allocate to them.

In other words, the Florida Department of Transportation tells the lawmakers how much money they need and how they will use it. They include timelines for design, environmental evaluations, right of way, and construction.

“For me, as an appropriator, it tells me exactly where those dollars are going to go,” said Harper-Brown. She said that the private sector would benefit also because they would have a better idea of when they can get ready to put up shop along the finished roadway.

Harper-Brown lambasted TxDOT for saying that such a program could not be done because projects take longer than two years. But Florida has similarly ambitious projects and benefits from the system, she said.

Local option

Jordan, the Fort Worth council member, said Fort Worth intends to ask the Legislature in the coming session to authorize a “local regional approach,” to present a “bond-like package” to identify supplementary sources of revenue, which local voters could approve or dismiss in an election.

The bond would apply only to voters in a nine-county area: Dallas, Tarrant, and neighboring counties.

“[We want] to go to the voters with a specific bond that says, ‘Would you consider allowing us to raise this fee,’ via a registration fee for example, ‘to pay for this project, i.e. a rail line from Dallas to Collin County,’” he said. “… Specific dollar amounts to specific voters where every dollar goes back to the specific jurisdiction where the dollar was paid.”

Ritter and Harper-Brown both spoke favorably of such elections, although Harper-Brown did not yet sign off on the specific proposal.

Rep. John Otto (R-Dayton) asked Jordan how the plan would affect the more rural among the affected counties.

Jordan acknowledged that there would be fewer projects in some areas than others, arguing that that the proposal would not add another layer of government, but simply would provide a “regional means of raising money.”

“It really boils down to a prioritization as opposed to a legislative jurisdiction,” Jordan said.

Harper-Brown said the plan would not use a new sales tax or other tax from outside the nine counties. She, Allaway and Jordan sought to allay fears that implementation of the plan would require a sales tax hike.

She also observed that a local option can go for other modes of mobility, such as rail, or a port in places such as the Houston area.

Revenue sources

Harper-Brown repeated calls to stop diversions from Fund 6 and expand its base, which she touted in August at the Texas Transportation Summit in Irving (see LSR, Aug. 15).

She said indexing the gas tax is better than further proliferation of toll roads of comprehensive development agreements (CDAs). “When you put a toll road or a CDA out there, it costs the individual so much more than if you index the gas tax,” Harper-Brown said. “ … What good is it to build more roads when people can’t afford to drive on them?”

Ritter spoke against busting the sales tax cap. He also touted maximizing existing local revenue sources, such as sales tax revenue, ad valorem property taxes, and other fees.

Harper-Brown said if the gas tax were indexed, “I think it needs to be a local option where the dollars go back to the area that generates the revenue.” She objected to CDAs and toll road projects along those lines, saying that the burden for those projects is often placed on local citizens who do not benefit.

“When you put a toll road or … a CDA out there, it is going to cost that person much more than it would if you raised the gas tax,” Harper-Brown said.

“… What good does it do to build toll roads … if no one can afford to drive on them?”

© 2008 The Lone Star Report:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


U.S. Secretary of Transportation leaves "blueprint" for next administration to continue Bush legacy of pushing privatized toll roads

Transportation Secretary "Future for Toll Roads"


BJ Austin
Copyright 2008

DALLAS, TX --The U.S. Secretary of Transportation, in Dallas today, says she's leaving the next Administration a blueprint for reform, including new ways to pay for much-needed highways. KERA's BJ Austin says TOLL ROADS figure prominently.

Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters on a tour of DART's Deep Ellum Rail Station under construction revealed new driving numbers. Through August of this year, Americans drove 15 BILLION fewer miles than during the same time a year ago that has resulted in gasoline tax revenues taking a nose dive. Peters sees another Highway Trust Fund shortfall that will trickle down to Texas.

Peters: State governments, local governments are going to have fewer of those dollars that they depended on in the past, and so new financing mechanisms to attract new capital that might not otherwise be there, I think we could see a marriage of opportunity in the future.

Secretary Peters wants to lift the prohibition of tolls on federally-funded highways, allowing the state or private contractor to collect tolls to pay for that road and other projects. Her proposal also calls for a pilot program that would allow up to five states to OPT OUT of the Federal-Aid Highway Program. Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison has already called for Texas to do just that.

© 2008 KERA:

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

"We don't think the law and regulations were followed..."

EPA In Corrigan To Hear Concerns About I-69 TTC


By Christel Phillips
Copyright 2008

CORRIGAN, TX - A draft environmental impact statement prepared by TxDOT is at the heart of the I-69 Trans Texas Corridor debate. Members of the Trinity Neches Sub-Regional Planning Committee want to send TxDOT back to the drawing board.

Bob Dickens, President of the Trinity Neches Sub-Regional Planning Committee says, "We don't think the law and regulations were followed and we do not think TxDOT has taken into consideration the impact of the environment, our wildlife, our water districts, our cities, our school districts, and in essence, our way of life."

That's why the Sub-Regional Planning Committee met with the Environmental Protection Agency. The committee wants the EPA to use thier expertise to persuade TxDOT to do a better job in researching the projected highway building area.

Cathy Gilmore, Chief of the EPA Office Planning and Coordination says, "Our place is really to look at the environmental aspects of the project and whether or not they've addressed our concerns."

Pennington Water District services about 900 customers in East Texas, they told the EPA that the TTC would come straight through their water line causing a serious problems for residents.

Bill Wagner, Represenative for Pennington Water District says, "From what we hear there will be no on and off ramps to access the customers. It will stop service to new customers, it will stop maintenence, it's going to have a major impact on us."

Bottom line, the committee wants to TxDOT to redraft their environmental impact statement and address their concerns in the revision.

"We hope we presented adequate information where they will study it, re-think it and go with the I-59 Corridor," says Wagner.

The planning committee hopes that TxDOT will be able to meet with them next month so they can address today's concerns to them as well.

© 2008 KTRE-TV:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"The modern world caught up with state lawmakers..."

Texas politicians' disclosures hit the Internet


Associated Press
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN, Texas — For years the Texas Legislature has resisted calls to publish politicians' personal financial information on the Internet. But the modern world caught up with state lawmakers when a fledgling watchdog group posted the disclosures online.

Texas Watchdog, a nonpartisan organization that uses public records to pull back the curtain on state government, obtained scanned copies of the financial disclosures for the major state officeholders and published them on their Web site Wednesday.

Before the forms were only available on paper at the state Ethics Commission in Austin.

"If the public can't easily get at these records, they don't do voters and taxpayers much good," said Trent Seibert, editor of Texas Watchdog. "Through this site, Texas residents will be able to keep a close eye on public officials and sound the alarm if they spot a conflict of interest."

The ethics commission, which collects the data, was all but barred from publishing the information on its Web site.

The law required that state lawmakers have access to the name and address of any person that requests their financial information, so it was impossible to put the disclosures online and make them available anonymously, said Tim Sorrells, the ethics commission's deputy general counsel.

Critics have said the requirement allowed lawmakers to intimidate people seeking their disclosure reports, which contain information such as business investments, sources of income and business relationships they have before state agencies or with registered lobbyists.

But Sorrells said nothing bars Texas Watchdog from requesting the files and then posting them online.

It published an interactive map giving the public access to the most recent forms, allowing Texans to click on their part of the state and get a glimpse of the personal holdings of their government representatives.

But Texans still might find it difficult to identify potential conflicts of interest or get an accurate picture of lawmakers' wealth.

The Associated Press has reported recently on the obscure personal finances of several top lawmakers. Among them are House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who acknowledges a business relationship with a registered lobbyist but won't say who. The law doesn't require it.

The presiding officer of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, also has major business holdings — including cattle ranches, private bank investments, a luxury condo and various stock investments — that are not individually on his forms. Dewhurst denies any wrongdoing.


On the Net:

© 2008 The Associated Press:

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“They're predetermining that it's always going to be a toll road.”

Agency eyes doing toll study


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

To make sure a redo of an environmental study for the U.S. 281 toll road is done right, a local agency decided Wednesday they'd better do it themselves.

The catch is that the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority has to get the Texas Department of Transportation, which dropped the ball on the last environmental study, to agree.

“It's an opportunity for us to go back and put us in the position to try and get it done right this time,” authority board member Reynaldo Diaz said.

The Federal Highway Administration earlier this month pulled the project's environmental clearance after TxDOT, as part of a federal lawsuit, found problems with contracts to study endangered species.

The lawsuit was the second in 2 1/2 years that toll critics and environmentalists filed to demand a full impact study rather than the less intensive assessments that were done.

Mobility authority board members now agree it's time to do the detailed environmental study, which could last three to four years — one to two years longer than a less detailed assessment.

A full study would “give us a final resolution and a deep thought about what should occur,” board member Jim Reed said.

The board voted to let Director Terry Brechtel negotiate a deal with TxDOT and federal highway officials, which she'll bring back to the board next month for approval.

Brechtel also will seek permission to take over environmental studies for adding toll lanes to Loop 1604 and Interstate 35. Since the agency doesn't have any tolls or other revenues to collect yet, she'll also have to ask TxDOT to provide another $21.4 million to pay for the studies.

TxDOT is willing to craft some sort of an agreement to keep the projects moving forward, department spokesman Chris Lippincott said.

“We believe local leaders play an essential role in meeting local transportation goals,” he said in an e-mail.

Toll critics remain leery, saying an agency relying on future tolls as a funding stream can't be trusted to seriously consider alternatives to toll lanes.

“They're predetermining that it's always going to be a toll road,” said Terri Hall of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, which co-filed the latest lawsuit. “They refuse to take the toll road off the table.”

Hall again called for TxDOT to reinstate its 2002 plan to build non-toll overpasses at Stone Oak Parkway, Evans Road and Borgfeld Road to bypass traffic signals.

Mobility Authority board member Bob Thompson said that wouldn't be enough for growing traffic.

“Those overpasses don't function after you get past a certain capacity,” he said.

Meanwhile, the authority also will ask TxDOT for help to add or extend turn lanes on U.S. 281 at Evans Road and Stone Oak Parkway, and add lanes to eastbound Evans Road at 281. But until another environmental study is finished, only so much can be done.

“I want to be real clear,” Brechtel told the board. “A congestion relief project will not be allowed.”

© 2008 The San Antonio Express-News:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"Republican leaders must acknowledge that they are to blame..."

McCaig: Tom Craddick must step down as speaker of the Texas House


Mark McCaig, State Republican Executive Committe Member
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

With Election Day quickly approaching, it has become clear to many conservatives that a Democratic takeover of the Texas House of Representatives is a very real possibility. What was once a 26-seat Republican majority in 2003 has dwindled to an eight-seat majority today, and that number will almost certainly shrink again this year. The Republican Party simply cannot afford any more losses in the Legislature, let alone a return to Democratic control.

The only way to prevent further erosion of the Republican majority in the Texas House is for Tom Craddick to immediately announce that he will not seek another term as speaker.

Republican leaders must acknowledge that they are to blame for squandering their legislative majority instead of blaming others or pretending nothing is wrong. New Republican leadership would go a long way to repair the tarnished image of the party in the minds of traditionally Republican voters who have become disenchanted with politics in Austin.

In addition to his failed leadership, Craddick has abandoned the conservative principles he was elected on and promoted a lobby-driven agenda at the expense of issues important to ordinary Texans.

Fiscal conservatives have had little to celebrate under Craddick's tenure. State spending has increased by more than 40 percent since 2003, and the most recent state budget included millions of dollars in so-called special items for Craddick's Midland-area district. Additionally, bills filed by conservative legislators to reduce property appraisal caps and limit state spending were sent by Craddick to committees where they faced certain death. Craddick also supported the oppressive business margins tax, which will likely come under scrutiny during next legislative session because of the adverse impact it has had on small businesses.

Craddick's legislative failures are not limited to fiscal issues. He was instrumental in passing special interest bills protecting influential industries such as homebuilders, pharmaceutical manufacturers and insurance companies at the expense of consumers and injured individuals. At the same time, bills important to conservatives on issues such as illegal immigration and gun rights died because of opposition from the business lobby. He has also remained steadfastly opposed to changes in the tuition deregulation law he helped pass that has resulted in skyrocketing tuition rates across the state.

An ethical cloud also surrounds Craddick because of his close ties to lobbyists. Last year, Craddick and a prominent lobbyist were sued by a tour company after a dispute over a fishing trip to Brazil that Craddick and the lobbyist had canceled. Financial disclosure forms filed by Craddick also show a business relationship with a lobbyist whose identity he refuses to disclose. In light of recent scandals, grass-roots Republicans must demand that their leaders act in a manner that is beyond reproach.

In nearly 40 years in the Legislature, Craddick helped build the Republican Party and the conservative movement in Texas. Unfortunately, his recent actions have cast a shadow on years of public service, and he must recognize that the best way to promote the Republican Party and the conservative values he claims to represent is to allow a new speaker to serve.

McCaig represents state Senate District 18, which includes Bastrop and Caldwell counties, on the committee.

© 2008 Austin American-Statesman:

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"We are making a difference, but if Mr. Craddick and others who voted for the TTC get back into office, nothing will change and the TTC will live on.”

More on Craddick says TTC is "dead"


Susan Rigdway Garry
Anti-Corridor/Rail Expansion (ACRE)
Copyright 2008

The ACRE message about the quote from House Speaker Craddick that the Trans-Texas Corridor was “dead” has prompted interesting comments. Some commenters were concerned that people would think because Craddick said the Corridor was “dead” we didn’t have to struggle against it anymore. This is not the case; we do need to continue our efforts.

The quote is significant because Craddick had never said anything like this about the Corridor before. It is significant that so many politicians, including Craddick, in this campaign season think it is necessary for them to oppose the Corridor in order to get elected. This is a big change. When we started fighting against the Corridor, politicians weren’t saying this. This means that we are making progress.

We can’t say that the Corridor is dead until it is officially killed legislatively. So we all need to continue working toward this end, but I think it is encouraging that more and more politicians are coming out against it in their campaigns.

Here are comments from representatives of some of the organizations that have been in the forefront of the fight against the Corridor.

DAN BYFIELD, American Land Foundation:

“Don't believe that the TTC is dead. Politicians will say anything to get re-elected. Mr. Craddick had the opportunity the past two sessions to kill this, but why would he now reveal that it's dead? The Legislature is the only body capable of ‘killing’ the TTC, but they're not in session.

What is very revealing about this statement is his need, like so many other politicians running for office, to say anything about the Trans-Texas Corridor - especially something this negative. He realizes it is a hot button issue with his constituents and fellow House members (who will be voting for him for Speaker), otherwise he would never have mentioned it on the campaign stump.

We are making a difference, but if Mr. Craddick and others who voted for the TTC get back into office, nothing will change and the TTC will live on.”

AGNES VOGES, Blackland Coalition:

“I doubt seriously that Craddick has the truth in this matter. Granted, TTC may have hit a snag or two, but one way or the other, it is still happening. Again, the LAW has to be changed before this thing is dead. If not, then there is nothing that will keep it from being resuscitated at any time they can get their fingers on some money.”

LINDA STALL, Corridor Watch

“The law creating TTC remains and it should be changed . . . and some oversight legislation for PPPs put in place. We are hearing from a few people around the state that their Counties are getting into strangely oversized road projects, and we are concerned that the push will shift to developing ‘County projects’ that then are shifted to TxDOT and linked together . . . TTC under the radar.

“It is nice to hear that Craddick realizes it’s in his interest to say the Corridor is dead. I am always leery when a leadership official says something like that, just in case he's trying to get people to stop speaking out . . . and to undermine his opposition candidate's ability to make political mileage out of the Corridor as an issue.”

TERRI HALL, San Antonio Toll Party and TURF:

“Craddick's comments are no more true than saying the sun won't rise tomorrow. This is an election year, period. NO law has been changed or policies reversed to prove this statement correct. In fact, they've gone underground and are cheating in how they're supplementing the environmental record to make it appear they'll use existing right of way for TTC-69 using clever language rife with get of jail free cards. Also, TTC-35 is barreling forward unabated.

“It's huge he [Craddick] even feels the need to say it to get re-elected!”

© 2008 ACRE:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Monday, October 20, 2008

The Trans-Texas Corridor's demise is greatly exaggerated

Top leader says Trans-Texas Corridor is dead

October 20, 2008

Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

In a debate last night, Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick tried to put a gaping chasm between him and the governor's prized Trans-Texas Corridor and went on to say the project's dead, a television station reported.

"I want to clear this up. I did not vote for the Trans-Texas Corridor and you're welcome to look at the voting records," he said in a broadcast by KXAN in Austin.

Then Craddick, a Republican who was debating his Democratic opponent, Bill Dingus, in Midland, stuck a fork in the Trans-Texas Corridor and declared the ambitious plan done, according to KXAN.

"Everybody in Austin knows it's dead," he said. "Everybody across the state knows it's dead. It's just something to be talking about."

The broad network of toll lanes, rail lines and utility corridors was unveiled by Perry, also Republican, six years ago as the state's 21st Century map for new pathways. A strategy to fund it with private financing was hailed by free marketers nationwide and jeered by a spectrum of naysayers such as farmers and environmentalists.

View the KXAN broadcast: [HERE]

© 2008 The San Antonio Express-News:

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House Transportation Chairman Mike Krusee formally charged with DWI

Rep. Krusee in Court for Drunk Driving Charge


Fox News Austin
Copyright 2008

State Representative Mike Krusee was in court Monday to be formally charged with drunk driving. Krusee was stopped by a state trooper back in April in Williamson County. FOX 7's Rudy Koski reports that Krusee is fighting the DWI charge saying he had only one glass wine.

© 2008 Fox Television Stations, Inc:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"At the 11th-and-a-half hour, I still don’t have an understanding of this agency’s cash flow needs."

The Road Warrior: Worries abound over tollway commitments


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

Arlington businessman Victor Vandergriff worries that the North Texas Tollway Authority has already bitten off more than it can chew.

Last week, the tollway authority worked out a deal with the Texas Department of Transportation to keep the Texas 161 project financially afloat. The tollway authority will be allowed to use the state’s gas tax-supported highway fund as collateral in loans needed to build the $1.44 billion toll road, parallel to Texas 360 east of Arlington.

The move became necessary after the global credit market collapsed, making it next to impossible to borrow money using traditional bond market tools.

Vandergriff is a tollway board member, and along with the other eight directors he voted in favor of the deal — reluctantly.

Before the vote, Vandergriff asked Executive Director Jorge Figueredo how much money the authority would need to build the projects it has already promised during the next 12 months.

Figueredo did some quick math and responded that $312 million would be needed for construction of the President George Bush Turnpike eastern extension, Texas 121 Tollway, Lake Lewisville bridge and other ongoing capital improvements.

Another $130 million must be borrowed for two new projects: Texas 161, and the Southwest Parkway/Chisholm Trail from downtown Fort Worth to Cleburne.

That adds up to a $442 million gap. Tollway officials can only hope and pray the credit market gets its legs back — quickly. If it doesn’t, the tollway authority could be forced to swallow its pride and shut down some projects midjob.

Vandergriff warned that he had an uneasy feeling about pressing ahead.

"The whole government approach is to keep spending and worry about where the money will come from later," Vandergriff said. "I’m disappointed that at the 11th-and-a-half hour, I still don’t have an understanding of this agency’s cash flow needs."

GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

© 2008 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Sunday, October 19, 2008

"Behind all of these toll road agreements, both public and private, is billions upon billions in debt."

With upfront payments, toll operators gamble on more money down the road

October 19, 2008

Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

Profit now, pay later. That is the familiar Wall Street mantra behind the push for toll roads that has swept Texas and other states in recent years.

Private companies and public agencies have paid billions for the chance to collect your tolls. States have used that cash to build new roads. And road operators hope to cash in on built-in rate hikes and increased traffic over time.

For politicians, the easy money is more palatable than the alternative: raising fuel taxes, the traditional source for transportation funding.

"Everyone wants those big numbers upfront," said toll road expert Jonathan Peters of the College of Staten Island.

The North Texas Tollway Authority agreed on Wednesday to pay the state more than $1 billion for tolls on State Highway 161. Last year, the agency shelled out more than $3 billion for State Highway 121. Private firms have cinched similar agreements and hope for more.

But even as lawmakers and experts agree that toll roads will play a role in helping budget-strapped states keep pace with highway needs, they caution that the strategy is hardly a panacea.

The deals – built on the idea that one road pays for many – are forcing some toll road commuters to pay more than their fair share, some critics say.

"Basically, we're saying, 'We are going to try to make one set of toll road users pay for the roads of everybody else,' " said Jose Gomez-Ibanez, a professor of planning and policy at Harvard University.

The implosion of the credit markets also raises questions about the financing behind the big upfront payments.

At their core, these new deals are a tool to borrow more money than ever before in the road-building business, a potentially hazardous strategy with the global economy in freefall.

Toll road operators are gambling billions that your tolls will lead to long-term profits. But if operators fail to meet aggressive traffic and revenue goals, experts say, the bubble could burst, leading to a landscape of bankrupt highways.

In addition, because these deals are so highly dependent upon debt, the highways face a far greater risk of financial failure than traditional toll roads.

Supporters assert that payouts fulfill one of America's biggest looming challenges: closing an estimated $2 trillion shortfall to build new and better roads, from California to the Carolinas.

"You're never going to solve it jacking up gas taxes and borrowing a bunch of money," contended Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who helped pioneer the approach in America.

Instant cash infusion

No one knows exactly how much state and federal fuel taxes would have to increase to generate enough cash for all the new roads Texas needs.

Fuel levies generated $3 billion in state revenue last year, but transportation officials say they need much more.

The toll road concept is hardly new. But only recently have states begun leveraging tolls to drum up cash payments far beyond the cost of the road itself.

Experts say such payouts are a modified version of an approach used in Europe and elsewhere since at least the 1970s.

Private firms agree to build and maintain several roads in exchange for toll collections on the most lucrative road of the bunch, a strategy supported by Gov. Rick Perry's and President Bush's administrations.

In some cases, the public and private sectors share toll profits. Other times, private firms agree to give an upfront payout and a share of profits.

Two overseas firms working together, Cintra of Spain and Macquarie of Australia, started the trend in the U.S. when they took over two existing highways: the Chicago Skyway in 2005 and the Indiana Toll Road in 2006. The deals combined generated more than $5.6 billion for Indiana and Illinois.

Using that private model as a guide, the North Texas Tollway Authority won the right last year to collect tolls on Highway 121 for the next half-century. In exchange, the agency paid the region more than $3 billion.

For states, the instant cash is a godsend as transportation to-do lists are long and construction costs are rising. Critics say politicians also reap the benefits of the upfront payment while avoiding the fallout of toll increases in the distant future.

"You're seeing people mortgage the future in return for instant cash today," said Jere Thompson, a former NTTA chairman and privatization critic.

Deals' appeal for states

Private deals are particularly enticing to states because outside firms can inject their own money into the equation, absorb some of the risk and, in most cases, outbid the public sector.

Wall Street experts say states such as Texas can generally get some of the lowest interest rates on their debt. But privatization supporters say that firms such as Cintra have the ability to take out bigger, and often riskier, loans than the government.

The Bush administration also has opened up public financing tools such as low-interest loans to the private sector, a move that negates the advantages of government borrowing.

For road operators, both public and private, the chief reward is years of toll collections.

"These transactions can be boiled down to: 'I'll give you money today and you will pay it back over time,' " said Tom Paolicelli, a senior analyst at Moody's Investor Service.

Private firms are tight-lipped about how profitable they think these roads are. But experts assume the returns are high.

The Indiana Toll Road, for instance, generates about $160 million a year in revenue, a total that will only grow as traffic and toll rates go up. The NTTA expects to generate perhaps $5 billion or more on Highway 121 over the next several decades.

In the last few years alone, NTTA and private operators collectively have paid or promised more than $21 billion, on the hunch that U.S. toll roads will develop into long-term cash cows.

Down the road

Yet behind all of these toll road agreements, both public and private, is billions upon billions in debt.

Cintra and Macquarie put up $1.6 billion upfront in Illinois and Indiana, records show. The companies also took out $4 billion in debt. NTTA financed its payment for Highway 121 entirely with loans.

Nearly all large-scale public projects, from roads and airports to the new Dallas Cowboys stadium, are financed with debt.

But in recent toll road deals, operators are borrowing more than road projects cost to build, then making up the difference by charging higher tolls.

While states are using the extra money to build other roads, experts say the added debt puts much more pressure on the roads to turn a profit.

Also at issue is the nature of the debt. Cintra and Macquarie have deferred much of their toll road debt over the next two decades, federal records show. The goal is to glean profits now and delay payments to a time when the roads' toll rates and traffic counts are higher.

"They are kicking the can down the road," Mr. Paolicelli said.

The trade-off is higher borrowing costs and greater risk: Cintra and Macquarie, in part, use balloon-style loans that get dramatically more expensive over time.

That debt appears even more vulnerable now. The unstable economy has made lenders think twice about issuing risky debt to any company, even to those with seemingly stalwart finances. Should their lenders pull back, road operators could be in trouble.

Unlike private companies, the NTTA does not have shareholders to satisfy, but it faces many of the same financing hurdles.

The agency borrowed against several roads, including the Dallas North Tollway and the Bush Turnpike, to generate the massive upfront payment for Highway 121. The agency will need to borrow even more against those revenues in the future.

Bond agencies lowered the NTTA's debt rating last year, concluding that the authority had stretched itself too thin. The NTTA's rating, which sets its borrowing costs, remains at investment grade.

NTTA chairman Paul Wageman said his agency remains on sound footing. His competitors disagree.

Jose Maria Lopez de Fuentes, Cintra's U.S. director, pointed out that the NTTA relies on a handful of local highways for revenues.

Cintra, by contrast, maintains highways and other assets worth tens of billions of dollars worldwide. The diversification, he argued, allows Cintra to absorb more debt and withstand economic downturns.

"The infrastructure is safer with us than with the public sector," he said.

Toll hikes add up

Toll roads have failed before on a smaller scale. But no one knows what might happen if one of these billion-dollar road deals went bust.

Should Cintra and Macquarie fold their operations in the Midwest, the consortium would be forced to return the Chicago Skyway and Indiana Toll Road to the public. Illinois and Indiana also would keep the upfront payments.

The setup looks good on paper, but such a handover could end up in bankruptcy court, where a judge could require that the state pay back bondholders for the upfront payment.

Less certain is what might happen if a public agency such as NTTA became insolvent – an extreme case. Scenarios range from a state takeover of both the road and the agency to bondholders demanding a toll increase.

Succeed or fail, experts say, motorists and/or taxpayers are likely to hold the bill.

In the case of Highway 121, toll rates are certain to put pressure on drivers' wallets down the road.

While the agreements regulate the amount that tolls can go up each year, the increases add up.

For instance, Highway 121 motorists driving between McKinney and Coppell will eventually pay $14 in tolls, or nearly 60 cents a mile. Motorists will not start feeling that pain for several decades.

For policymakers, balancing those downsides with the prospect of billions in new road projects has proven difficult.

The Highway 121 deal, for instance, will pay for a collection of projects planned for years that might not otherwise get built, said Michael Morris, director of the Regional Transportation Council.

All sides predict that drivers will one day revolt if the number of toll roads continues to proliferate. That has prompted policymakers to consider alternatives such as pegging fuel taxes to inflation or even tapping public pension funds.

"For some projects, the only way to get this done is a toll road," said James M. Bass, finance director for the Texas Department of Transportation. "But you can only do that so many times."

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News:

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"They are taking our power of taxation, tolling, and they are making money off of it."

After privatization, Indiana Toll Road's biggest difference is the price

October 19, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

ELKHART, Ind. – The welcome signs still say "Indiana." The truck stops sell the same greasy hamburgers. And the road still carries thousands of drivers daily across the far northern part of the state between Ohio and Illinois.

But motorists on the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road have noticed one big difference since it came into private hands: They are paying higher tolls for the first time since 1985.

Fees for cash-paying car motorists who drive the whole road nearly doubled recently. Truckers pay even more. Toll rates, which the state partially regulates, are expected to double again within 10 years.

"The American trucker would like to thank Indiana for raising our tolls," Bruce Mansavage, a 51-year-old trucker from Pine City, Minn., said sarcastically during a recent stop in Indiana.

Texans need look no further than the Hoosier State for a glimpse at what private toll roads might mean for them.

While the models are different, the concept is the same. Texas is looking at private firms to build and run new roads, while Indiana privatized a highway that opened in the 1950s. But both states are outsourcing toll roads in exchange for upfront cash, using that money to build new highways.

Profit vs. maintenance

Indiana became the first state to privatize a major highway in 2006, when it handed over the toll road's operation and profits to an overseas consortium through 2081.

The firms, Cintra of Spain and Macquarie of Australia, gave Indiana $3.8 billion, which the state is using for roads.

The deal drew fire from critics who believed the firms would value profits over maintenance. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said the road eventually will be "dramatically better." Supporters in Texas have used the same argument.

Mr. Daniels, a Republican, said his state would never have been able to generate nearly as much cash if the operation had stayed public. The Indiana Toll Road has not made a significant profit since the 1950s, Mr. Daniels said.

The governor believes lawmakers did not have the resolve to pass regular toll increases. Privatization will, in effect, outsource that problem, he said.

Roger Skurski, a retired economics professor at the University of Notre Dame, dismisses that argument.

"It took a lot of political will to come up with" privatization, Mr. Skurski said.

Indiana's Democratic House speaker, B. Patrick Bauer, an outspoken critic of both the road deal and the governor, said the road was never intended to turn a profit. Tolls were kept low and used only to subsidize the road's operation.

"They are taking our power of taxation, tolling, and they are making money off of it," Mr. Bauer said of the consortium.

No clear advantage

The few visible changes on the road have diminished arguments that either the private or public sector has an advantage in road maintenance.

The road carries more than 50,000 vehicles daily on its busiest sections and has neither crumbled into ruin nor gotten substantially better in the consortium's first years.

The state requires the companies to repave rough patches and make other upgrades as part of a maintenance agreement.

Crews have resurfaced long stretches. And aging, full-service rest stops also are slated for a redo.

"If you see work being done, patrons in general are more likely to accept [toll] increases," said Matt Pierce, an Indiana Toll Road spokesman.

Fears that the consortium would fire many of the toll road's 550 employees also appear unfounded, though the firm has trimmed jobs through attrition.

The first two years have seen some setbacks. When the consortium took over, it installed barriers at median turnabouts to discourage U-turns, causing some motorist confusion. And the consortium had trouble clearing the road of snow after storms in early 2007.

Mr. Pierce acknowledged a few early hiccups but rejected suggestions that the consortium has not lived up to its side of the bargain.

"If [the private operators] don't maintain it, guess what? They lose it," he said.

'Not there yet'

Tolls – and tollbooths – have undergone major changes, however.

The consortium has spent $40 million upgrading the tollbooths, which now have more lanes and pay-without-stopping technology.

Rates for motorists who pay cash and drive the whole road rose to $8 from $4.65. Tolls for semitrailers are $27.25, up from $14.55 in 2006.

The contract also allows the consortium to raise rates slightly every year, starting in 2010. Those increases could average 2 percent to 5 percent annually.

Indiana is subsidizing prices for some motorists through 2016, at a cost of $190 million.

The new toll rates have doubled the road's revenue to about $160 million a year.

Tom Martin, 65, a retired sales executive who lives in the Milwaukee suburbs, questions whether the improvements are worth higher tolls.

"That was technology that was coming, regardless of who owns this thing," said Mr. Martin, who stopped recently at a service area here.

Ronald Hopkins, a 55-year-old bus driver, said he enjoys traveling on the adjacent Ohio Turnpike more. Tolls on that publicly run road are slightly lower, and the road is in better condition, he noted.

He cares little about who's running the Indiana Toll Road, as long as tolls are reasonable and he gets something in return.

The road "is not there yet, but it's better than it was," he said.

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News:

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