Saturday, December 06, 2008

McCracken for mayor? Austin toller has a "reputation for changing his mind on issues abruptly and for political gain."

McCracken to run for Austin mayor

Two-term council member set to announce candidacy on Monday.


By Sarah Coppola
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken , whose interest in becoming mayor has been an open secret for more than a year, will formally announce Monday that he'll run for the job this spring.

The announcement is set for noon at the Austin photovoltaic company Heliovolt — a nod to McCracken's interest in renewable energy.

Currently serving his second three -year term, McCracken, 42 , joins a crowded list of possible contenders to replace Mayor Will Wynn , whose term ends in June .

Austin City Council Member Lee Leffing-well , former Austin mayor and Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and retired Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy have also expressed interest in the job, but none has officially announced a candidacy.

Through a spokesman, McCracken declined to comment for this story, saying he wants to roll out his mayoral platform on Monday .

Strayhorn didn't return a phone call. Levy's only comments were that he wishes McCracken well and that he's still exploring a possible mayoral bid. Leffingwell said McCracken "will be a strong candidate and worthy opponent."

Leffingwell declined to comment on McCracken's record but said of his own: "My strengths are maturity and a steady hand, someone who may be appropriate in a leadership role during the tough times ahead."

In the coming months, the City Council will have to cut more from the 2009 city budget — it has already slashed $25 million — if sales tax revenue continues to fall. It could be tough to find money for grand ideas that McCracken has championed, such as rail lines, downtown development and green-energy programs, amid the scramble to pay for basic services such as police officers and library hours.

A Corpus Christi native and a lawyer by trade, McCracken lost a 2002 council race, then was elected to Place 5 in 2003 . He won re-election in 2006 with 72 percent of the vote.

On and off the dais, McCracken is energetic and talkative — sometimes excessively so, say critics, who call him an avid self-promoter whose energy can be frenetic and unfocused.

He has a self-taught interest in New Urbanism — creating dense, walkable areas where people can live, work and shop — and has led three major land-use initiatives.

He worked with residents, developers and business groups for more than two years to write design rules for new shopping centers. He also helped write incentives to encourage developers to build projects with a dense mix of housing, shops and offices on major roads.

And he led the 2006 effort to enact the controversial "McMansion ordinance," which limits the size of new or renovated homes in older, central-city neighborhoods.

McCracken has been a vocal critic of cost increases in public safety contracts, saying they drain money away from other crucial needs, such as parks and libraries. And last year he pushed for, then backed away from, a ban on roadside panhandling, saying the city should first gather more data on panhandlers.

He sits on two transportation boards and has backed Wynn's idea to have a public vote on building a Central Austin passenger rail system that would connect the airport, downtown, the University of Texas and other areas.

And McCracken recently helped form the Pecan Street Project, a group that aims to draw renewable energy experts to Austin to develop a new electrical grid.

Austin political consultant Mike Blizzard said McCracken is a high-energy campaigner who will draw strong support from business professionals, who tend to donate generously to city campaigns.

But Blizzard said key groups such as environmentalists, city unions and Democratic clubs are more apt to back Leffingwell — a former commercial pilot who was a longtime member of a pilots' union and who chaired the city's environmental board.

David Butts , a longtime Austin political consultant who supports Leffingwell, said McCracken "is youthful and energetic, and that will be very attractive to the Austin electorate." But, he said, voters might seek a steadier, less flashy figure if the economy continues to tank.

Observers say McCracken will also have to overcome his reputation for changing his mind on issues abruptly and for political gain.

In 2004, for example, he and two other council members voted for a plan for seven toll roads, prompting a citizens' group to start a petition effort to try to recall all three. McCracken then actively criticized and questioned the plan, and the group removed him as a target. Late last year, when a toned-down version of the plan with five toll roads was introduced, McCracken voted for it.

Because of term limits, McCracken could not seek re-election to his council seat unless he obtains thousands of petition signatures.

McCracken has a 4 -year-old son, Ford, with ex-wife Mindy Montford, who lost a bid for Travis County district attorney this year. Last month, he married Sarah Groos, a program manager at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation.

Two other people have filed campaign-treasurer forms, indicating that they plan to run for mayor: perennial council candidate Jennifer Gale and Austin resident Josiah Ingalls.

Strayhorn and McCracken have also filed those forms, which allow them to start raising money.; 912-2939

© 2008 Austin American-Statesman:

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More Dallas commuters avoid toll road cash traps, choosing mass transit instead

Where have all the drivers gone?


By David Schechter
WFAA-TV (Dallas)
Copyright 2008

Tolls are out; mass transit is in.

The North Texas Tollway Authority says fewer drivers are using its pay-as-you-go highways. As a result, the agency is anticipating a $24 million shortfall while thrifty commuters are flocking to cheaper public transit options.

The NTTA says it has already identified about 7 percent in cuts to its operations to compensate for reduced revenes, but adds that long-term construction plans are not affected.

The $24 million shortfall is equivilent to roughly seven million trips; that's a lot of quarters.

When gas prices spiked earlier this year, the NTTA says the number of motorists using its network of tollways sagged.

So now that gas is relatively cheap again, where are the cars?

"We haven't seen the ridership return," said NTTA spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt.

Traffic on the President George Bush Turnpike is down 6 percent; there's been a 3 dip on the Dallas North Tollway.

NTTA says the cuts will come primarily from a hiring freeze on open positions. It will also delay opening new offices in Dallas and Fort Worth.

"Service levels are going to stay the same," Coffelt said, adding: "We were able to do these budget cuts without doing any layoffs."

While NTTA suffers, DART celebrates. The Dallas transit agency says bus ridership is up 7 percent; trains are seeing a 12-percent spike; and high occupancy vehicle lanes are 40 percent busier.

Light rail commuter Todd Ghristensen of Garland thinks travelers who made the switch to mass transit will stick with it.

"Why wouldn't they? It's so much easier," he said. "Once people see how convenient it is and so easy and they see how much they're saving — and not just in the gas, but parking and the stress you don't have to go through — I think people will stay with it."

NTTA, however, is counting on those drivers getting back in their cars. In the long run, it needs that $24 million in revenue to sustain its ambitious expansion plans.


© 2008 WFAA-TV:

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Friday, December 05, 2008

"NTTA has borrowed billions of dollars against more aggressive than usual traffic forecasts."

NTTA likely will see slumping revenues in 2009


Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

The worsening U.S. recession will likely prompt fewer North Texas drivers to splurge on time-saving tolls, according to financial experts who urged the North Texas Tollway Authority to prepare for slumping revenues in the new year.

Michael Copeland of Wilbur Smith Associates, the national consulting firm upon whom NTTA and its bondholders rely for revenue forecasts, warned the authority today that its total revenue for 2009 could be $25 million, or nearly 7 percent, less than what had been anticipated in a preliminary 2009 budget presented in October.

Slumping traffic on NTTA's toll roads were seen as temporary and likely to rebound once gas prices decreased. That hasn't happened, he said.

"Now that we have actual toll receipts from September and October, we can see that traffic has not resumed as quickly as we thought as a result of lower gas prices," Mr. Copeland said. "We also didn't previously believe that North Texas would feel the brunt of the economic slowdown. Since then, we've seen articles and other reports that have convinced us that that's not the case."

As a result, the NTTA staff is recommending the board revise the 2009 budget downward, cutting $6 million from its operating budget and another $5.5 million in other expenses, including maintenance reserves and capital investments.

That won't entirely make up for the budget shortfall, but officials expressed confidence the cuts would be adequate. That's true in part because the agency expects to save about $18 million in debt service in 2009 because two major toll projects -- the Chisolm Trail and Southwest Parkway in Tarrant County -- are expected to get underway about six months later than previously expected.

If approved at its Dec. 17 board meeting, the new operating budget will be $92 million, instead of the $98 million NTTA had expected just weeks ago. No workers are expected to be fired, said NTTA spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt. But performance bonuses for workers and managers have been canceled for 2008, and a not-yet-specified number of vacant jobs will go unfilled, she said.

The toll authority's revenue is almost entirely derived from tolls on its quickly expanding network of highways and bridges.

As new roads come on to the system, total NTTA revenues are going up. For instance, even after the downward revision to the 2009 budget, the agency expects to collect nearly $50 million in Highway 121 tolls, up from $14 million from this year.

But to build those roads, NTTA has borrowed billions of dollars against more aggressive than usual traffic forecasts.

In 2009, Wilbur Smith is projecting that revenue will fall most steeply on the President George Bush Turnpike, which the firm now predicts will $111 million, nearly $10 million less than the road has produced in 2008.

As layoffs are ordered at businesses across North Texas, those workers who had been among the authority's best customers -- daily commuters eager to by pass traffic jams -- are no longer on the road 5 mornings a week. Instead, they are unemployed and looking for work.

Board member Gary Base, a Collin County banker, questioned the sharply changed predictions by Wilbur Smith, stressing just how subjective such predictions can be.

Others on the board were eager to cut expenses ahead of financial news that only seems to get bleaker each week.

"I think we are facing something that is unusual and unprecedented," said board member Dave Denison of Denton County. "I think this is very conservative and rightfully so."

Still others have kept their jobs but are simply looking at ways to reduce household expenses. As toll roads have proliferated in North Texas, many drivers have scarcely noticed, thanks in part of the authority's successful conversion to all-electronic tolling.

But with incomes stagnant, and worries about job security widespread, those extra costs are being tracked more vigorously.

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News:

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Texas voters increasingly see Republicans as "arrogant, corrupt, angry and unwelcoming."

Survey: Texas voters increasingly unhappy with GOP


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN – Texas voters are increasingly dissatisfied with the state's Republican leaders and are open to the idea of electing a Democrat as governor in the next election, according to a new survey by an established GOP pollster.

The survey, conducted by David Hill, raises questions about whether the Republican Party might be in trouble after a decade of political dominance in Texas.

"The poll results challenge the conventional wisdom that Texas is a solidly red state," said Mr. Hill. "This shows that the Republican Party's image, even among Anglos and conservatives and self-professed Republicans, is often not what we would like it to be."

Texas voters don't think the GOP is delivering government that is low-cost, in-touch or devoted to the common good, the poll shows.

Mr. Hill said he found that perceptions of Republicans as arrogant, corrupt, angry and unwelcoming jeopardize the party's dominance. The GOP currently holds every statewide office and controls the Legislature.

The poll is good news for Democrats, who have seen steady but modest gains in the Legislature over the last six years, and a warning to top GOP officeholders, including Gov. Rick Perry, who plans to seek re-election in 2010. Polls of attitudes about parties don't necessarily predict how specific candidates would do, however, especially with two years until the next statewide election.

"Polls can say anything," said Perry communications chief Mark Minor. "When the time comes, people are going to vote for someone who puts forward the best ideas and the best leadership."

The poll is the most extensive survey of voter opinion in Texas since the November elections. Republican John McCain won, as did the few statewide GOP candidates on the ballot, but Democrats advanced in some local and legislative races. Among the findings:
  • When asked if they were likely to vote for Republicans or Democrats for governor or the Legislature in the next election, without a specific name attached, 45 percent said Democrats and 31 percent said Republican.
  • Fewer than half (45 percent) of voters say they approve of the job Texans are doing in state government. When asked whether they think Republican elected officials in the state have done well enough to deserve re-election, only 32 percent of voters said yes, while 54 percent were open to giving Democrats a chance in office.
  • The conservative GOP base – 21 percent of the overall electorate – is significantly concerned with the issues of illegal immigration and protecting traditional values. But Mr. Hill found that the party's potential for growth lies in focusing more on pocketbook issues, including property-tax cuts and reductions in state spending.
  • Voters overwhelmingly cite dismay with President George W. Bush as a factor in the GOP's image problem but also blame state leaders for failing to connect with younger voters and Hispanics.
The statewide survey of 636 active, registered voters was conducted Nov. 15-17. The margin of error is 3.9 percentage points, meaning results can vary by that much in either direction.

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News:

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

"I think we will see a lot of forward motion to remove the Trans Texas Corridor from our landscape."

Bill Would Abolish Trans Texas Corridor

Little support for ambitious toll roads seen in Legislature


By Jim Forsyth
Q101.9 FM (San Antonio)
Copyright 2008

A measure introduced by San Antonio State Representative David Liebowitz would abolish the ambitious Trans Texas Corridor toll road network first proposed by Gov. Perry six years ago, 1200 WOAI news reports.

Liebowitz' measure would prohibit the state from acquiring land, selling bonds, or letting contracts to build any portion of the Corridor.

"We think that it is a scar on the landscape that needs to be removed," said David Stall of the group Corridor Watch, which has fought the corridor for years.

The Trans Texas Corridor, which 1t $180 billion would cost far more than the entire Interstate Highway System, was envisioned to be a quarter mile wide network of pipelines, rail lines, telephone and fiber optic cables, and ten lane tolled superhighways which would criss cross the state, bypassing urban areas and taking the pressure of through traffic off of badly choked roads like Interstate 35 between Laredo and Dallas.

But the corridor was controversial from the day it was proposed, especially among farmers and ranchers who didn't want to see their ranch land bypassed by a limited access, quarter mile wide highway system. They complained that they would have to drive a mile or more to find a way to go over, or under the road.

The Trans Texas Corridor also got right into the middle of the controversy over toll roads, and over allowing concession contracts to build highway projects. The Late Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson proposed allowing a Spanish firm, Cintra, to have the major contract to build the corridor, along with ownership rights for fifty years, and the right to set the tolls and keep the majority of the toll revenue.

"One of the biggest issues we have with the Trans Texas Corridor is that it was done in a vacuum, without public input," Stall said.

In fact, in dozens of hearings across the state, comments from the public were almost universally against the Corridor.

House Speaker Tom Craddick said several months ago that he thought the Trans Texas Corridor project was 'dead.' Stall hopes he's right.

"I think the sentiment is wide in the House and the Senate, and I think we will see a lot of forward motion to remove the Trans Texas Corridor from our landscape.

Liebowitz' bill does not call for the elimination of any other toll road projects, but many state lawmakers, moved by mismanagement of the toll issue by TxDOT, have indicated they feel lawmakers will move to abolish all but certain toll road projects in the upcoming session.

© 2008 Q101.9:

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Trinity River Toll Road: " irresponsible idea that the Army Corps of Engineers will never be able to sign off on."

Is the Trinity River Toll Road on a "Fast Track" to Completion? Um, No


Jim Schutze
The Dallas Observer
Copyright 2008

Rudy Bush had a good story in The Dallas Morning News yesterday about the new Trinity River "overlook" unveiled by the city on Wednesday and how handy it is if you want to go down and marvel at the lack of progress. Basically, as Bush points out, it's a vantage point at the corner of Beckley and Commerce Streets looking out on the same old swampy river bottom that has always been and will always be.

Mayor Tom Leppert and council member Dave Neumann keep telling people they have the Trinity River toll road on a "fast track" for completion. Fast track my ass. Fat-head track, maybe.

Fast track wasn't what I heard Tuesday at a meeting of the city council's Trinity River Committee, chaired by Neumann. Neumann asked Dan Chapman of HNTB -- there representing the North Texas Tollway Authority for some reason -- if he was sure the NTTA was going to keep to its fast-track schedule. Chapman told him something that sounded a whole lot to me like, Hell, no.

In order to stay on track, NTTA has to have all of its design work complete by May 1, 2009. That's when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it must see the design in order to keep to its own part of the deal. The Corps still has to rule on whether anybody can build a road out there in the middle of the river bottom without exposing downtown Dallas to catastrophic flood damage.

Apparently NTTA was on track until its board meeting last month, when Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price showed up and told them they needed to hire more minorities for the design job, which is underway and was supposed to be halfway to completion. A tad late to tinker, one would think.

Chapman, the HNTB guy, told Neumann that Price's appearance at the NTTA board meeting had delayed the NTTA design process by at least a month. He said the delay was going to be a big hurdle.

"It certainly represents a major major challenge," Chapman said. "We basically lost 20 percent of our time to deliver that submittal May 1. I feel the design plan from the highway/bridge side of it, making that deliverable, is something we can readily accomplish. It's the geotechnical services that are weather-dependent. We can keep all our fingers crossed and hope that we get very minimal rain over the next few months. But that is the major challenge. The geotechnical needs to be 80 to 90 percent by that May 1 deadline, and that is going to be a challenge. All I can tell you is that we are managing every bit of the process we can."

Translation? Hell, no. No way.

And if the May 1 deadline to get it to the Corps slips, then the Corps is released from its promise to finish its own review in a year's time. The city is now spending $15 million for the design alone -- no construction. Just design. And guess what? This sucker ain't never gonna be built, because it's an irresponsible idea that the Corps will never be able to sign off on.

© 2008 The Dallas Observer:

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"An alleged Ponzi-style scheme that's now choking world banking."

'Ponzi Scheme' at Citi

Suit Slams Rubin


The New York Post
Copyright 2008

A new Citigroup scandal is engulfing Robert Rubin and his former disciple Chuck Prince for their roles in an alleged Ponzi-style scheme that's now choking world banking.

Director Rubin and ousted CEO Prince - and their lieutenants over the past five years - are named in a federal lawsuit for an alleged complex cover-up of toxic securities that spread across the globe, wiping out trillions of dollars in their destructive paths.

Investor-plaintiffs in the suit accuse Citi management of overseeing the repackaging of unmarketable collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that no one wanted - and then reselling them to Citi and hiding the poisonous exposure off the books in shell entities.

The lawsuit said that when the bottom fell out of the shaky assets in the past year, Citi's stock collapsed, wiping out more than $122 billion of shareholder value.
However, Rubin and other top insiders were able to keep Citi shares afloat until they could cash out more than $150 million for themselves in "suspicious" stock sales "calculated to maximize the personal benefits from undisclosed inside information," the lawsuit said.

The latest troubles for Rubin, Prince and others emerged in a 500-page investigation by Citigroup investors represented by law firm Kirby McInerney.

The probe was used to amend and add new details to a blanket investor lawsuit filed against Citigroup a year ago. The amended suit called the actions of Citi leaders "a quasi-Ponzi scheme" to hide troubles - and keep Citi stock afloat while insiders unloaded about 3 million shares between Jan. 1, 2004 and Feb. 22, 2008 for huge profits.

In addition to Citigroup, Rubin and Prince, the complaint names Vice Chairman Lewis Kaden, ex-CFO Sallie Krawcheck and her successor CFO Gary Crittenden.
Rubin cleared $30.6 million on his stock sales, while Prince got $26.5 million, former COO Robert Druskin got nearly $32 million and former Global Wealth Management unit chief Todd Thomson got $25.7 million, the suit said.
Citi denied the allegations and said it "will defend against it vigorously."

© 2008 The New York Post:

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SAMPO pushes to assimilate Comal County and New Braunfels

City, county tepid on joining MPO


The Herald-Zeitung (New Braunfels & Comal County)
By Chris Cobb
Copyright 2008

The San Antonio/Bexar County Metropolitan Planning Organization has begun formal efforts to persuade Comal County and New Braunfels to join the transportation authority.

Both County Judge Danny Scheel and Mayor Bruce Boyer received official invitations in late November to come under San Antonio’s highway planning umbrella from Sheila McNeil, chair of the MPO’s transportation policy board.

The move would make them members of one of the largest transportation planning organizations in Texas, but the local leaders say they would prefer that the city and county be free to fend for themselves for the time being.

“We’re in the middle of our own planning,” Boyer said. “Until federal regulations require that we set up our own MPO or join another one, I think we need to keep our own interests first.”

MPOs are federally mandated entities required to map out urban growth. They lobby for and allocate federal and state transportation money in cities with at least 50,000 residents.

Although New Braunfels’ population is already above that plateau, it won’t be official until the results of the 2010 census are available, which could come as late as 2012. Since both local governments have to consent to join, neither would be required to form a new MPO or merge into San Antonio’s until then.

Much of the apprehension about the area’s inclusion stems from fears that it would hurt the county’s chances to receive transportation dollars for local projects.

“We would have one member on a 20-seat board,” Scheel said. “When we’re competing against projects in Bexar County, how much money do you think we’re going to receive?”

Scheel said he also is afraid that joining San Antonio’s MPO would leave local governments powerless to fight possible toll roads running through Comal County.

“We worked long and hard with the Texas Department of Transportation not to have toll roads in Comal County, and I want to keep it that way,” he said.

San Antonio MPO Director Isidro “Sid” Martinez said the organization is not looking to “expand and toll” but is primarily looking to grow because its boundaries are currently too small to meet federal standards and should already include New Braunfels and much of Comal County.

He added that the absorption would open up new funding sources to the city and county and help everyone solve transportation issues from a regional perspective.

“Our problems don’t stop at the county line,” Martinez said. “People live and work between these two areas, so if we’re looking at transportation from a holistic view, then we should be talking to each other and sitting at the same table.”

The possible expansion also would seek to include Guadalupe County and the city of Seguin. Guadalupe County Judge Mike Wiggins echoed Scheel’s reservations about joining up with San Antonio.

“We’re the little fish in a big pond over there,” he said. “I’m not going to say that we would never consider joining up with them, but it’s not my first choice.”

Both he and Scheel said they’d prefer to form their own MPOs in the future or join counties to form an MPO separate from San Antonio.

Doing that could be difficult, said Martinez, as both the state and federal governments typically don’t approve of MPOs that are so close to one another. He cited Austin’s MPO as a good example, which includes Round Rock and the city of San Marcos.

The SAMPO’s transportation board voted to approach local governments about an expansion in October. After notifying local officials, the next step in the process would be a formal presentation to city and county boards and a vote on whether to join.

“We would love for them to be part of the group,” Martinez said. “If they say no, then that’s the answer.”

© 2008 Herald Zeitung:

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Delays in taxpayer funded Trinity Park Toll Road boondoggle "unacceptable" to Dallas Councilmember

Trinity toll road delays could be costly


Copyright 2008

DALLAS - The already tight Trinity toll road planning and construction schedule may be slipping again, which could mean millions of dollars in higher costs.

The Dallas City Council got the news Tuesday.

Construction on the toll road is set to start July 2010, providing the highway's design is turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers in time next year. But Tuesday, the North Texas Tollway Authority would not commit to the deadline being met.

No dirt's been turned yet to build the toll road inside the Trinity River levees.

The mention that construction could be delayed further didn't go over well at city hall.

“I don't want to be talking about in March or April about, 'Oops, we're not going to make the deadline,'" said City Councilmember Dave Neumann, who chairs the Trinity River Corridor Project Committee. "That will not be acceptable.”

The NTTA plans to design and build the $1.4 billion highway.

The NTTA board hoped to approve design contracts in October, but they delayed the decision after questions came up about the selection process for minority contractors. The NTTA said that could delay turning over design work to the federal government for approval by the May 1 deadline set to keep the project on schedule.

“... That is going to be a challenge," said Dan Chapman, with the NTTA. "All I can tell you is that we're managing every bit of the process we can to help achieve that goal.”

The NTTA said it must take core samples of the soil in the east levee and the floodway.

And while they could start in January if the NTTA board approves the design contracts in two weeks, the wet weather could also wash away the deadline.

“If we keep all of our fingers crossed and hope that we get minimal rain over the next few months, but that is the major challenge," Chapman said.

Despite the possible delay, the committee recommended giving NTTA $4.5 million to continue planning.

“The city is stepping forward and funding with taxpayer dollars each step of the way," Neumann said. "NTTA needs to pull up their bootstraps and deliver that product by May 1.”

Any delay is not just politically unpopular. Every additional month costs the NTTA $10 million more.


© 2008 WFAA-TV:

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"With all due respect to the highway lobby, this MPO board is a public board. I think public focus should always have priority over private interests"

Transportation board denies seat to industry firm


Patick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

HNTB Corp., good enough to hire for advice on the planned U.S. 281 toll road, has been thwarted from filling a "citizen" seat on a local transportation board.

The non-voting position on the Metropolitan Planning Organization board has been coveted by toll-road critics in recent years but they failed to get an invite.

Industry officials, though, have had better luck.

As controversy raged over MPO toll plans, the board appointed, in order, a bicycle advocate, a Union Pacific official and a traffic engineer to the ex-officio seat. The engineer, Pape-Dawson Vice President Steve Bonnette, stepped into the post a few months ago and will serve through the end of next year.

On Monday, an MPO committee recommended the board appoint HNTB's San Antonio director, Kevin Young, as the 2010 "citizen" member. HNTB, an international consulting firm, advises the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority and helped the Texas Department of Transportation put together the latest U.S. 281 environmental study.

Agenda item

Board member and toll critic Tommy Adkisson wouldn't have it, and after some speechifying was able to get everybody else, including the three selection committee members, to agree to consider someone else for the seat.

But he put his foot down as gently as possible.

"With all due respect to my very dear friends who are in the highway lobby, I think that this MPO board is a public board and I think public focus should always have priority over private interests," he said.

The committee will report back next month, but with three top picks instead of just one.

© 2008 San Antonio Express-news:

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CAMPO backs CTRMA's 'innovative financing' plan

Vote frees NE Austin tollway project to move ahead in 2009

Tranportation officials approve financial pairing of U.S. 290, 183-A.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

Transportation officials decided to create a financial marriage between two toll roads Monday, a move that could allow the U.S. 290 East tollway project to break ground sometime next year.

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board voted 15-3 to create a tollway system made up of the existing, and profitable, 183-A toll road in Cedar Park and U.S. 290 East, which based on projections will not have sufficient revenue to persuade investors to lend more than a half billion dollars to build it. The existing tollway, which opened in March 2007 and is making a profit of about $5 million a year, will in effect act as a co-signer for the new project.

The U.S. 290 East project would cost $623.5 million, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority says. It involves expanding 6.2 miles of the existing four-lane, divided highway between U.S. 183 in Northeast Austin and Parmer Lane just west of Manor. It would have six toll lanes and six free-to-drive frontage road lanes alongside.

Some CAMPO members objected to the financial partnership Monday, saying it violates the intent of policies adopted in October 2007, when the board approved the U.S. 290 East project and four other potential toll roads. At that time, the board agreed that excess toll revenue from the five roads would be spent first in the general area of each road rather than being used for improvements far afield.

That will still be the case, according to the mobility authority, which operates 183-A and will build and operate U.S. 290 East. Given 183-A's profitable status, they say, no money would need to go from U.S. 290 East to 183-A.

In fact, mobility authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein said no money is likely to go either direction. The authority says that preliminary traffic and revenue studies show that U.S. 290 East will be able to meet its debt payments and operating costs without any transfer of money from 183-A.

However, investors normally require that toll road revenues be well beyond projected costs. A summary of the traffic analysis released Monday shows that, based on charging 20 cents a mile for U.S. 290 East, the road would make about a 30 percent profit — which Heiligenstein said was not high enough for the mobility authority to borrow the full amount needed to build U.S. 290 East without riding on the back of 183-A.

Voting against the plan were Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, Sunset Valley Mayor Jeff Mills and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez.

Heiligenstein said Monday's vote was necessary to sustain engineering work and keep the project on schedule. Officials expect to get federal environmental clearance for the road in the first half of 2009, borrow the money on the bond market later in the year and begin construction soon after that.; 445-3851

© 2008 Austin American-Statesman:

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"Do we want the Alamo RMA, which was created for the sole purpose of selling toll roads, to conduct an 'impartial environmental assessment?' "

Time for a new participant in toll-road controversy: AACOG


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

Amazing how an already long tale keeps growing, all because we refuse to deal with the reality of our drinking water.

Commuters who drive into town via U.S. 281 know all about long morning waits. Of course, that's because they moved into the city's then-unincorporated northern reaches, where they could have expansive yards, be away from the city's hustle and bustle and. initially at least, pay no city taxes.

The problem is they weren't alone.

Over the past five years, more than half of all new “San Antonio” homes have been in unincorporated areas of the city's northern extraterritorial jurisdiction, and the impact has been significant. Especially along the U.S. 281 corridor, where every morning tens of thousands of cars pour onto the highway in a southerly migration.

But much of the congestion is around the light-controlled intersections, where arterial roads pour thousands of additional cars into the flow.

The Texas Department of Transportation proposed an absurd plan to deal with it all: Instead of building overpasses over the congested intersections that would allow southbound drivers to cruise over them, the agency proposed toll roads along the route, and along the northern reaches of Loop 1604, so a foreign-owned company could excise tolls from all those who wanted to get into town quickly.

Two minor problems arose.
  • First, the Legislature ordered that no toll roads replace existing highway lanes, which in essence required TxDOT to double the highway lanes on 281 so they could toll them.
  • The other problem was that the entire area lies over the most sensitive areas of the recharge and contributing zones of the Edwards Aquifer, our sole water source, and, because the project requires federal money, federal laws apply, so they had to take environmental concerns into account.

TxDOT's “outside contractor” for the “environmental assessment” — a lightweight appraisal of the environmental impact — turned out to be a company for which a TxDOT employee's husband worked. It found that a U.S. 281 toll road over the most sensitive part of the aquifer's recharge zone would have no significant impact.

Bill Bunch, lead attorney for Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, took TxDOT to court, not once but twice — and won twice.

“We've beat them twice, and both times, each time, before ever going to trial,” Bunch says with a chuckle.

But the next step is nothing to laugh about.

A news release from the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority states: “County Judge (Nelson) Wolff requested the Alamo RMA take the lead role in developing a new environmental document for 281 ...”

Now, honestly, do we want the Regional Mobility Authority, which was created for the sole purpose of selling toll roads, to conduct an “impartial environmental assessment of a new toll road route” now?

Annalisa Peace, head of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, a coalition of 45-plus water activist groups, had this to say: “I think that the Alamo Area Council of Governments would be the appropriate agency to conduct the (environmental impact statement) for 281 and all tolling projects within the San Antonio area. AACOG is the agency tasked with addressing our air quality compliance, certainly an important issue for an EIS to address. And the many small municipalities and county governments that will be impacted by these projects are members of AACOG.

“The sooner we can begin to address transportation issues on a regional basis, the better. The EIS process for 281 is an excellent opportunity to begin doing this.”

Makes sense to me.

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

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"Selling something to yourself ... tends to create suspicion among even the least cynical of observers."

Macquarie road ploy holds a gun to Transurban's head


Ian Verrender
Sydney Morning Herald
Copyright 2008

It's a wonderful thing to behold that, even after the almost complete collapse of the global financial system, our very own home-grown investment bank, Macquarie, just can't help itself when it comes to paper shuffling.

The reputation of investment bankers and highly geared infrastructure funds may have been tarnished somewhat in recent times, but those trend-bucking bods up at the Silver Doughnut obviously believe it is best to stick to what you know.

The deal in question relates to Macquarie Infrastructure Group's decision to sell its half share in the Westlink M7 for $805 million.

There's nothing wrong with selling an asset for a decent price in these cash-strapped times, even if it is at a discount.

The main problem, however, is the mechanism. Selling something to yourself in any sort of environment usually leaves a sour taste in the mouth of everyone involved. And it generally tends to create suspicion among even the least cynical of observers.

So it was yesterday, when Macquarie Infrastructure Group boldly announced it would sell its half share in the toll road to the newly formed Western Sydney Roads Group, a company jointly owned by Macquarie Infrastructure Group. And the other half? Well, MIG wasn't letting on the identity of the other party. But make no mistake, it's a really big institution with impeccable credentials.

So under the deal announced yesterday, MIG really is selling only half its half share in the M7 and will pick up $402.5 million.

Why engage in this kind of half-arsed behaviour? The answer is that Macquarie is desperate to raise cash and this is a none-too-clever attempt to force Transurban, which owns the other half share in the toll road, into bidding for the lot.

Essentially, it has put a non-negotiable price on its stake.

Under the partnership agreement, both MIG and Transurban have pre-emptive rights. So if one party decides to sell, the other has first right to override any deal and buy the stake at the agreed price.

MIG's announcement that it was selling will trigger those rights. And if Transurban decides to bid, it will have to offer $805 million for MIG's half share.

In doing this MIG, which has stated its objective to raise cash and sell assets before Christmas, has decided to put a gun to the head of Chris Lynch at Transurban.

While it is clear MIG can't find a buyer elsewhere, in pulling this kind of stunt it has denied Lynch any opportunity for setting his own price on the M7 if indeed he had been considering taking advantage of the weaker market for infrastructure to wrap up full control of the Westlink.

Let's take a look at the price.

According to MIG's accounts, its half share of the road was valued at $844 million at June 30. So the sale price is a 5 per cent discount to Macquarie Infrastructure Group's valuation.

That means any sale at this price will crystalise a loss and in theory would suggest MIG is being generous and taking a haircut on the deal.

But given international asset prices have crashed in recent months, and remembering most infrastructure groups took every opportunity to bump up values during the boom so they could borrow more money, it is something of a surprise the M7 values have held up so well. Or have they?

A casual observer might believe that Macquarie Infrastructure Group is using whatever means possible to obtain the best possible price or maybe something even better than the best possible price. Only Transurban is in a position to determine this. Given it owns the other half share, it is the group best placed to extract any efficiencies from buying the stake.

Not only that, if Transurban doesn't act now, it will be more difficult for it to wrap up control at some stage in the future. At the moment, it only has to deal with MIG.

If it doesn't exercise its rights now and buy out MIG, in future it would have to deal with Macquarie and its mystery partner in Western Sydney Road Group. Just imagine it; clandestine meetings in telephone booths, false moustaches, dark sunglasses.

MIG needs the cash to fund its share buy-back program so it can prop up its sagging unit price. The parent company, Macquarie Group, has poured vast amounts of cash into MIG this year precisely for that aim. What will Chris Lynch at Transurban do? This is the ultimate game of corporate chicken.

© 2008 Sydney Morning Herald:

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Monday, December 01, 2008

After the Bailout: Citi's New Road to Perdition

Citi Buys Highway After Exiting Road to Ruin


Laurie Kulikowski
Copyright 2008

Citigroup's of a Spanish highway operator may come as a surprise to investors expecting the struggling banking titan to scale back in the wake of a government bailout last month.

Spanish construction company Sacyr Vallehermoso said Monday it has agreed to sell its highway-operating unit, Itinere, to alternative investment unit Citi Infrastructure Investors in a deal valued at nearly 7.9 billion euros ($10 billion).

The sale involves 2.87 billion euros in cash and 5 billion euros in assumed debt. Citi will offer to buy all of Itinere's stock at 3.96 euros ($5.04) a share, the Spanish construction company said.

It will first sell Citi a 42.8% stake in Itinere, and once this is complete, another 11.6% stake, Sacyr Vallehermoso said.

Sacyr Vallehermoso has been hard hit by the collapse of Spain's real estate bubble and is eager to ease its debt load.

Citi Infrastructure Investors is focused on long-term investments in core infrastructure, largely in developed countries. The fund, less than two years old, "is seeking to establish a small number of best-in-class infrastructure platforms for growth and long-term investment, and so we are delighted to be able to announce this investment in Itinere -- undeniably a global leader in toll roads and consistent with our strategy," said Juan Béjar, co-head and partner of Citi Infrastructure Investors, in a release.

But the move is somewhat curious, given Citigroup has been vocal about its strategy to pare down non-core businesses and assets. Critics' call to break up of the financial institution, either through a sale or spinoff of certain businesses, grew louder after the Treasury bailed out the big New York bank by investing an additional $20 billion through Troubled Asset Relief Program, on top of the $25 billion it had already been granted through the TARP plan.

A Citi spokesman in London declined to comment further on the Itinere deal.

Citi CFO Gary Crittenden said in a recent interview with Business Week that the company has so far cut $300 billion of "relatively low-returning assets." Still, Crittenden defended Citi's decision to keep its universal banking model intact, noting how "monoline" finance companies like mortgage lenders, consumer finance firms and investment banks "have morphed one by one to have deposit funding."

"[Y]ou have to ask yourself a very sober question about splitting up Citi: If we spun off a standalone wholesale business, would it have the ability to fund itself wholesale in today's environment?" asked Crittenden. "The universal bank model also is the predominant model in the developing world. We think about options and alternatives in the context of the fundamental strategy that [CEO] Vikram Pandit laid out."

As Citi's stock price plunged 60% in one week last month, Citi was rumored to be considering auctioning off pieces of the company or a sale.

The bailout was a dramatic change in events for Citi, which just last month was engaged in a bitter legal battle over the ownership of Wachovia. Citi had agreed to purchase Wachovia's banking operations, with federal assistance to offset anticipated losses in the Charlotte lender's portfolio. But Wells Fargo in with a better offer, one that did not require federal assistance, to seal a deal for Wachovia.

Crittenden didn't address the possibility of a sale of one of Citi's businesses.

Separately, media reports over the weekend said that Citi plans to sell its Japanese trust banking unit.

The bank plans to begin tender offers next week to determine the buyer of NikkoCiti Trust and Banking, its trust banking operation in Japan, for about 40 billion yen ($416.7 million), the Nikkei business newspaper reported.

Citi also plans to cut jobs through early retirements at its Japanese brokerage unit Nikko Cordial Securities, and to further trim its Japan operations, the Nikkei said. The bank said earlier this month it planned to cut 53,000 jobs, on top of 22,000 cuts previously announced.

A Citi spokeswoman declined to comment on the Japanese unit sale on Monday.

© 2008 Inc:

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"Texas Farm Bureau members believe common sense needs to be brought into the process..."

Texas Farm Bureau praises TTC report

Dec 1, 2008 9:56 AM

Southwest Farm Press
Copyright 2008

A citizens’ advisory committee appointed to advise the Texas Transportation Commission agrees with Texas Farm Bureau that the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) concept needs to be scrapped and new avenues explored to meet the Lone Star State's transportation needs, according to TFB President Kenneth Dierschke. “This advisory committee does not support the TTC concept,” A Citizens’ Report on the Current and Future Needs of the I-35 Corridor, issued Nov. 12, stated. “Instead we recommend a more inclusive solution that respects local communities and private property rights while addressing statewide and local transportation needs.”

Dierschke said the state’s largest farm organization agrees with many of the report recommendations, especially as they relate to minimizing the impact of the proposed transportation project on rural Texas.
“We all recognize the need to address the future transportation concerns of a growing state,” Dierschke said. “However, Texas Farm Bureau members believe common sense needs to be brought into the process and that a healthy respect must be maintained for the rights of private property owners.”

The report said existing rights of way, wherever possible, should be considered first when determining the transportation needs of Texans. When additional right of way is necessary, acquisition should be limited in nature, it said. For new alignments, the report suggested local elected officials be able to fully consider alternatives and decisions so that the “best choices are made for the benefits of all users of I-35.”

“Of great importance to all Texas citizens is the acknowledgement by the committee that all efforts should be made to minimize the impact to private property owners,” Dierschke said. “That’s something Farm Bureau has been preaching from the beginning.”

Specifically, the report recommended that the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) should coordinate with “Texas Farm Bureau and other agricultural groups on how to minimize the impacts on the farming and ranching community, as well as improve safety.” The report also recommended that farmers and ranchers, whose land will be divided by a transportation project, be consulted early when determining placement and cost of agricultural crossings to ensure adequate spacing and minimum inconvenience.

The committee is one of two citizens’ advisory committees, representing a cross-section of community and business leaders, land owners, local transportation experts and other interested parties, appointed to advise the Texas Transportation Commission on the planning of the I-35 and I-69 corridors. The I-35 report cites impacts of corridor development, including economic, political, societal and other concerns. A report by the I-69 committee is expected in the next few weeks.

© 2008 Southwest Farm Press:

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"There is no transparency the way the CTRMA is running things, yet Sen. Watson seems to support them and whatever toll road 'system' they propose."

Texas Toll Roads : Feds Must Take Lead

Texas Sen. Kirk Watson at public meeting on toll roads in Austin, September, 2007. Photo by Kelly West, Austin American-Statesman.


By Roger Baker
The Rag Blog
Copyright 2008

There are a number of questionable assertions in the op ed piece by Texas senators John Corona and Kirk Watson, [CLICK HERE], and also some good ones. The devil is in the details.

In essence the article says we need to change our transportation policy, which is true. But the editorial misses its target in one important respect; in light of energy (oil supply and climate-related) constraints and credit market constraints, the change is going to have to be deeper and more dramatic than portrayed here, and should properly be initiated at the national level. A bankrupt Detroit and a frozen bond lending market signify anything but business as usual.

The feds need to take the lead, rather than Texas politicians, who will predictably do too little, too late. We can muddle through at the Texas level, apply band aids, talk about these problems, and anticipate needed changes.

Our national transportation infrastructure crisis is now so serious and the funds are so short of the scale of the problem that it is absolutely going to take a comprehensive federal approach rather than a state approach to get anywhere. A more comprehensive approach which is likely to be coming, in some form, from our new Congress and the new Democratic Administration, whether we like it or not.

On to some details:

The DPS helps keep the big roads safe (everyone passes you on IH 35 if you only drive 5 MPH over the 70 MPH speed limit). What is bad about using our gas tax rather than the general revenue to keep the big roads safe? We end up paying the same no matter where it comes from. Let’s focus on how many dollars we really need rather than which taxpayer pocket it comes from.

We cannot afford to solve congestion problems by building big new toll roads. Especially if we say, as the editorial does, that we are going to reduce car dependence. We need entirely different and financially constrained planning strategies; at least Detroit can't afford to call the shots so much anymore.

There is certainly no transparency the way the CTRMA is running things, yet Sen. Watson seems to support them and whatever toll road "system" they have in mind in regard to US 290 E, and the other roads they propose.

"Regional financing tools" seems to mean more local bonding authority, but the credit market to supply long range speculative toll road debt has largely collapsed. What then are these tools?

Indexing the gas tax to inflation would have little effect unless it were increased a whole lot, like maybe doubled, which would be VERY unpopular.

"Explore new alternatives" is commendable -- but it should not mean CAMPO-proposed sprawl growth as usual, with roads or even using rail. We can't afford to provide publicly funded infrastructure out to low density suburbs and wherever the land speculators have bought land.

We need to shift to either more compact urban growth or perhaps clustered growth along whatever passenger rail corridors we can actually afford, while increasing rail service with the urban area too. The "rail relocation fund" may not be affordable or make sense in light of current finances. I believe it was proposed to move rail hubs out of the urban areas which might not be wise. We need to preserve our rail lines and restructure its uses, since new rails will not be cheap.

Reforming TxDOT is another good goal. But does that mean supporting the specific TxDOT reforms outlined by the Sunset Commission report on TxDOT or what?

For those who have not seen them yet , here are some additional comments of mine that apply more specifically to the proposed policy changes on US 290 E and the "system" of other Austin-area toll roads initiated by the CTRMA. Changes which CAMPO will consider and perhaps vote on this coming Monday: [CLICK HERE]

© 2008 The Rag Blog

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"The mobility authority has confined itself to a 'unimodal' system consisting exclusively of toll roads."

Central Texans must take the long view of local transit


Sarah Eckhardt, Travis County Commissioner
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

'What the heck is a 'multimodal transportation system'?" It's a system that includes a coordinated mix of roads, rail, bus, bike and pedestrian infrastructure moving people and goods through and within a region. We need one of them multimodal jobbies for many reasons.

First, everybody from former national security advisers to hockey moms from Alaska have been scaring the daylights out of us with the fact that we are dependent on oil produced by people who don't like us very much. Now combine that with the inconvenient truth about our copious energy consumption threatening our planetary ecosystem.

If scary geopolitical and environmental facts don't do it for you, let's try state demographics. People in Texas are condensing around urban metropolitan areas. The Texas State Demographer has a lovely set of maps illustrating the undeniable march of Texans out of the rural east and west and into a corridor stretching from north of Dallas to Laredo. We in Central Texas are at the 50-yard line of that corridor.

If state demographics aren't your bag, let's try your wallet. We can't afford the roads necessary to support our habit of suburban single-occupant car commuting. The major highways in our 30-year transportation plan are so expensive that we plan to toll them to the max and take out 40-year loans backed by those expected tolls to pay for construction. Construction will cost us, our children and our children's children billions of dollars. According to the 2007 estimates, just seven miles of U.S. 290 East will cost at least $623 million. Seven miles of U.S. 183 South will cost at least $490 million. One two-mile interchange at "the Y" in Oak Hill will cost at least $500 million.

In contrast, 32 miles of Capital Metro's Red Line from Leander to Austin is expected to cost less than $200 million for the initial build and the proposed Phase 2 expansion. Twenty-eight miles of Capital Metro's proposed Green Line, stretching from Austin through Manor to Elgin, is expected to cost less than $200 million. The City of Austin is proposing an urban rail network to connect downtown to the University of Texas, the Mueller redevelopment, the Long Center, the Seaholm redevelopment and the airport for less than it will cost to do the proposed toll projects along U.S. 183 South and Texas 71 East. Rapid bus, high occupant vehicle incentives, grade-separated bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks are even cheaper. Roads will play a vital role in the multimodal system we need, but we must integrate these other modes into our system of roads now, not later.

The major metropolitan areas of Texas are begging for this kind of regional multimodal system. The Legislature responded by creating entities like the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to develop multimodal systems including toll roads, rail, rapid bus and HOV lanes. But the mobility authority has confined itself to a "unimodal" system consisting exclusively of toll roads. The CTRMA system, which began with the tolled lanes of U.S. 183A, is pursuing inclusion of tolled lanes on U.S. 290 East and intends to include tolled lanes on U.S. 183 South, Texas 71 East, U.S. 290 West/Texas 71 West and Texas 45. The CTRMA system will cost billions of dollars, include nothing but rubber tire infrastructure and support sprawl development as far as your tank will take you.

We must not allow all of our capacity for transportation financing to go to toll roads. A system made up exclusively of toll roads has and will continue to choke out all other modes of transportation. Instead, combine the fortunes of toll roads, rail, rapid bus and HOV incentives. Demand the inclusion of rail, rapid bus, HOV incentives and other methods of reducing vehicle miles traveled in every major road project. Do it for your wallet, your state, your nation and your planet.

© 2008 Austin American-Statesman:

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