Saturday, December 13, 2008

NTTA not ready to commit to building Trinity Parkway toll road

Trinity Parkway toll road's design moves ahead, but questions about project remain


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

Development of the Trinity Parkway toll road remains on schedule, despite a series of new obstacles facing the North Texas Tollway Authority, toll officials and others said this week.
NTTA is poised to award roughly $30 million in contracts next week to begin designing the 9-mile toll road and its route through the Trinity River Corridor.

The preliminary design work should be completed by spring, and NTTA officials hope to have two key approvals for the project soon thereafter. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration must approve the project, and both remain at least months away from doing so.

Until those decisions are made in Washington, even the most basic facts about the Trinity Parkway remain all but impossible to state with certainty. How much will the road cost? What is the value of the toll revenue it will produce? Will it be completed by late 2013, as Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert has insisted?

An even more fundamental question – who will build the road, once it is approved – has yet to be answered with certainty, as well. NTTA has been shepherding the project through its early phases for years, but its leadership repeated again this week that until it knows how much the road will cost, and how much revenue it can expect from tolls there, it cannot commit to building it.

"This is not our project," NTTA board chairman Paul Wageman said. "Not officially, and not yet."

If the road is finally approved by the federal government, and NTTA ends up, as expected, building it, it will almost certainly need considerable help from regional partners, NTTA leaders said this week. "We are not going to be able to build this by ourselves," said Janice Davis, NTTA's interim executive director.

NTTA has always said it would need some help from the state or other players to build the road – help beyond the $84 million the city of Dallas has pledged to contribute. The Regional Transportation Council has held in reserve more than $200 million in state gas tax dollars to contribute, if necessary, once the project wins federal approvals.

But whether those funds will be enough to cover the gap between what NTTA can afford to pay and what the project will cost is another question whose answer must wait until at least the middle of 2009.

Mr. Wageman said the authority expects to use whatever it can borrow against the Trinity Parkway toll revenues, as well as millions more dollars secured against profits on its existing toll roads, to pay for the project. But with a rough price tag already set at $1.8 billion, Mr. Wageman said the project could cost even more than those totals could provide.

If that has always been the case, it will only be more likely in 2009. Already, NTTA has revised its revenue forecast for 2009 downward by about $25 million to account for modest declines in traffic on its toll roads. If the economy slows in Texas, drivers may begin avoiding toll roads in greater numbers. Federal statistics released Friday show that American drivers continue to drive less and less each month.
In addition, the municipal bond market has yet to fully recover from its collapse earlier this year, and many kinds of loans that were once available to NTTA no longer are – making financing for multi-billion-dollar public works projects more expensive, and in some cases impossible.

Still, TxDOT officials said the situation is far from critical. If the NTTA needs money to finance the Trinity, then the state will do what it can to provide it.
"This is the critical piece," said Bob Brown, TxDOT's deputy engineer in the Dallas District. "We'd find the money we need to get it built."

NTTA is expected to take one of its most visible steps toward doing just that next week, when it awards the preliminary design contracts. That work is critical because the Army Corps of Engineers, which must agree that the toll road won't impact its flood control efforts, has said it won't make a decision until engineers design at least 30 percent of the project.

The contracts probably would have been awarded last month, but questions raised by Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price over NTTA's commitment to use black subcontractors prompted the authority to review its procedures.

"I don't want to hold it up. I know the mayor wants to move forward. But what do we do?" Mr. Price asked. "We always hear the same such nonsense. 'We're working on deadline. We'll do it next time.' It's always a deadline when it comes to us."

NTTA says it took a month to review its bidding procedures and is comfortable with the way the design contracts have been handled.

Mr. Price has promised to keep watching as contracts for the rest of the work, some worth hundreds of millions of dollars, come on line.

Staff writer Rudolph Bush contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News:

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President-Elect Obama should reconsider former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk as a candidate for Secretary of Transportation

A Texan in King Obama's Court

December 13, 2008

Peter Stern
Capitol Hill Blue
Copyright 2008

Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk Next U.S. Transportation Chief?

Bad move!

I just heard that President-Elect Obama is considering hiring former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk as the new U.S. Transportation Chief. I am writing to provide your organization [Obama's staff] with accurate information that Kirk would be a terrible selection for this position.

Dallas is an area that has implemented many toll roads that have cost Texans billions in new toll taxes. These roads have created a cost-ineffective method of raising taxes for building and maintaining Texas roadways that have created more noise and air pollution.

In addition 80 percent of all tolls collected go to the management organization of the toll roads. In addition, many of the roads have been paid-off in toll revenue, but the roads remain tolled instead of being open to vehicles free of charge.

Furthermore, throughout Texas the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is being investigated for fraudulent and illegal activities in the management of and expenditures for roadways.

Mr. Kirk has been a pro-toll road supporter for many years and what Americans need is NOT for Congress to agree to develop and implement more toll roads.

We need government funding for public works projects to build and maintain roadways that are driven free by all members of our society. We do NOT need privatized toll roads that become private roadways for the wealthy who can afford to drive on them.

President-Elect Obama needs to reconsider the selection of former mayor Ron Kirk for Transportation Chief. Certainly there is someone who is more capable, ethical and better suited for the position.

I recently read in a Dallas newspaper that,

"Mr. Kirk said that he never sought anything for his support of Mr. Obama.

He's a partner at Vinson & Elkins law firm, where he's a lobbyist who has worked for deregulation of electricity markets."

Right there is a damn good reason NOT to consider Kirk. It is the lobbyists and legislators like Kirk who pushed the legislation to deregulate the electric industry, which ensured higher costs of electricity for all Texans.

Is this the sort of politician we want again in the White House?

© 2008 Capitol Hill Blue:

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"All over the country, privatization deals are falling apart due to a lack of capital."

Recession Slows the Rush to Privatize


Melissa del Bosque
The Texas Observer
Copyright 2008

For a decade, Texas’ penchant for privatizing everything from the building of roadways to administering food stamps was growing as fast as the national debt. These days, however, the nation’s financial crisis is putting a damper on Texas’ love affair with privatization, according to government accountability advocates.

Private companies are finding it difficult to raise the amount of cash that used to woo government officials to sign over their publicly owned infrastructure, says Melissa Cubria, a policy advocate with the nonprofit Texas Public Interest Research Group.

“Texas still has a somewhat sound economy, but no states are going to be jumping into big privatization deals like before,” Cubria says. “Investment banks just don’t have the kind of money they used to have.”

All over the country, privatization deals are falling apart due to a lack of capital. In Pennsylvania, government leaders quashed the idea of privatizing a turnpike after a private company said it could only raise $10 billion instead of $30 billion for the project. In Missouri, a plan to privatize bridge repairs fell through after the private company said it would have to rely on more public money than previously planned.

In Texas, the nation’s economic instability has not yet affected any privatization projects, Cubria says, but it has government officials thinking twice about going forward with large projects like the Trans-Texas Corridor. Cubria warns that the financial crisis illustrates that private companies are not always better equipped to manage financial risk.

“Financially troubled private toll operators might neglect maintenance and demand a bailout from taxpayers,” she wrote in a recent policy paper for state leaders. “The state would be required to hire expensive lawyers to recoup its losses.”

While the struggling economy puts the brakes on some privatization projects, cash-strapped officials may still be willing to take the bait, says Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Investment banks like Goldman Sachs will continue sending envoys to cash-strapped states in an effort to ink privatization deals, Baxandall says, because investment in public infrastructure is still considered a safe investment during these financially murky times.

“Private companies are less able to provide a lot of cash, but then states are more desperate and more likely to take a bad deal these days,” Baxandall says, “which will more than likely end as a bad deal for the public.”

© 2008 The Texas Observer:

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Former Dallas mayor, a Vinson & Elkins deregulation lobbyist, is being considered for Obama's Secretary of Transportation

Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk may be up for job in Obama's Cabinet


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk is being vetted by President-elect Barack Obama's transition team for a position within the administration, possibly secretary of transportation, education, housing and urban development or some other Cabinet-level post.

"It's my understanding that he's being considered for either the Department of Transportation or HUD," Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, said Thursday night as a group gathered Thursday night to celebrate her birthday. "I would rather see him get the transportation appointment."

Mr. Kirk confirmed Thursday that he was being vetted for a job with the Obama administration but declined to discuss specifics.

He has met several times with Mr. Obama's transition team, including Tuesday and last weekend.

"It's true that I'm being vetted," Mr. Kirk said, adding that it would be an honor to work with Mr. Obama, though he was happy living in Dallas.

Some Texas Democrats have said they received calls from the FBI about Mr. Kirk.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Kirk have grown close through the years, sharing the common bond of running as black candidates for the overwhelmingly white U.S. Senate.

After becoming the first black mayor of Dallas in 1995, Mr. Kirk lost a Senate bid in 2002 to Republican John Cornyn. During an interview with The Dallas Morning News in the summer of 2004, Mr. Obama said he monitored Mr. Kirk's contest before his successful Senate bid two years later in Illinois. And Mr. Obama's communications director for his Senate race, soon-to-be White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, was a spokesman for Mr. Kirk's Senate bid.

For the presidential race, Mr. Kirk was Mr. Obama's point man in Texas and did surrogate work for the campaign in several states, including North Carolina.

Mr. Obama stunned Republican John McCain by winning North Carolina, the first Democratic victory there since 1976.

Fellow Democrats say that as a former Texas secretary of state and big-city mayor, Mr. Kirk would bring expertise to any of those positions and other roles that may be carved for him by Mr. Obama.

"That would be good news," said Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, an early supporter of Mr. Obama. "Ron Kirk would do a good job in his administration."

Mr. Kirk said that he never sought anything for his support of Mr. Obama.

He's a partner at Vinson & Elkins law firm, where he's a lobbyist who has worked for deregulation of electricity markets.

"I'm happy where I am," Mr. Kirk said. "But if the president says he needs me, that's something I would have to consider."

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News:

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Vinson & Elkins lobbyist is one of Obama's two finalists for Secretary of Transportation

Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk a finalist to be transportation secretary


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

WASHINGTON — Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk is a finalist to be secretary of transportation in the Obama administration, the Star-Telegram has learned.

Speaking from his Dallas law office Thursday evening, Kirk confirmed in an interview that he was under consideration and said he was filling out a final vetting form for President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team.

"Yes, I am being vetted. I’ve met with the transition team," said Kirk, the first African-American mayor of Dallas. "I’m honored. I got into this interesting relationship with Sen. Obama. I’m honored that my name would even be mentioned."

Kirk, a partner with Houston-based Vinson & Elkins, was an early supporter of Obama’s for president.

A Texas Democratic source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the Obama transition team said that Kirk was one of two finalists for the position.

Former Democratic Rep. Martin Frost said: "I have thought from the beginning that he would be a logical pick for the Cabinet. He has urban experience as mayor, and he’s a person of real substance."

"It would be nice to have somebody in the Cabinet from Texas," Frost added.

The other finalist, according to sources, is California's Steve Heminger, executive director of the San Francisco Bay area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Heminger is being promoted for the transportation post by the California congressional delegation, especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Pelosi named Heminger to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.

So far, Obama’s Cabinet choices haven’t included a Texan.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, a Kirk friend, said: "If he is chosen, he’ll do a great job as transportation secretary. He’s been one of the greatest mayors of Dallas. Ron provided the vision for what will be one of the most comprehensive public works projects in the history of Dallas, the Trinity River project."

The network of parks, recreation areas, highways and bridges is being built in the Trinity River floodplain.

Kirk, who was Texas secretary of state under Gov. Ann Richards, served as Dallas mayor from 1995 to 2001, when he resigned to run for the U.S. Senate.

He lost to John Cornyn in 2002.

Kirk has practiced law and stayed active in politics.

He said that if a call came to resume public service, he would do so but that he had to take financial considerations into account.

"Opportunity has no sense of timing," he said. "After having been in public office for 10 years, I’ve finally got my footing financially."

Kirk said he has a child with an "Ivy League tuition" and another finishing high school.

But "if the president says, 'You’ve got the talent and skills for the job to do it,’ you do it," he said.

© 2008 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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Chicken Hawk Down!

A Change in the Pecking Order

December 12, 2008

Melissa del Bosque
The Texas Observer
Copyright 2008

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

The nation’s financial crisis has already taken down Lehman Brothers, AIG, and Washington Mutual. Now one of Texas’ most influential tycoons has hit hard times. Pilgrim’s Pride—the country’s largest chicken producer, owned by East Texas chicken magnate Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim—filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Dec. 1.

Besides massive chicken feedlots, Bo Pilgrim is famous for his financial largesse when it comes to funding Republican candidates and lobbying for legislation that favors his poultry business.

In 1989, the silver-haired millionaire infamously handed out $10,000 checks directly to lawmakers on the floor of the Texas Senate to smooth the passage of a workers’ comp bill. The incident spurred the creation of the Texas Ethics Commission in 1991 and led to new ethics rules, including a ban on lobbyists talking with lawmakers on the Senate and House floors.

More recently, Pilgrim gave $100,000 to Gov. Rick Perry and the Republican Governors Association to push through a federal waiver on corn ethanol production, which Pilgrim believes is causing higher grain costs.

The high cost of grain has hurt the Pittsburg, Texas-based Pilgrim’s Pride. Also contributing to the company’s financial problems were the illegal immigration crackdown, a glut of chicken on the world market, and Pilgrim’s $1.5 billion takeover of competitor Gold Kist Inc. in 2007.

Pilgrim’s Pride filed for bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, claiming $3.7 billion in assets and $2.72 billion in debts. Clint Rivers, president and chief executive officer of Pilgrim’s Pride, tried to put a positive spin on the bankruptcy in a press release. He said that the company’s board determined that a Chapter 11 filing was the best way to continue financing regular operations. “We expect to emerge from this restructuring a stronger, more competitive company that is well positioned for growth and enhanced profitability,” Rivers said in the release.

Pilgrim’s financial woes have other chicken producers ready to, um, pluck the company from its depths. Several business journals have reported that the nation’s No. 2 and No. 3 chicken producers, Sanderson Farms and Tyson Foods, are both considering a buyout of the nation’s top producer.

While Pilgrim’s business may be in the doldrums, the millionaire—and his personal fortune—shouldn’t be counted out yet as a political player, says Craig McDonald, executive director of the nonprofit Texans for Public Justice. “Despite Pilgrim’s financial troubles, I don’t think it will lessen his political clout around the statehouse,” McDonald says. “He’ll still be spreading his chicken feed around the capitol.”

© 2008 The Texas Observer:

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

"The fact that our primary environmental agency isn't involved in the planning stages of the EIS is unbelievable."

Agency not part of corridor planning


Country World News
Copyright 2008

The state's environmental agency told a sub-regional planning group recently that it has not been involved with the planning process of the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) and does not plan to get involved until the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is released.

Clyde Bohmfalk, a program specialist with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), told the East Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission that the agency signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) in 2002 specifically for transportation issues, but that TCEQ has not been involved with the planning process up to this point.

The memorandum between TCEQ and TxDOT states that "TxDOT is committed to performing early identification efforts to assess potential environmental concern related to proposed transportation projects, and initiating coordination with TNRCC (now TCEQ) during the early planning stages of these projects."

Mae Smith, president of the Eastern Central Texas planning commission, said the commission had a good meeting with TCEQ, but she was disappointed to find out that the environmental agency has not been involved with the planning process for the TTC.

"We were prepared with dozens of questions regarding air quality, water runoff, flooding, erosion and concerns about the Trinity Aquifer, but TCEQ said they weren't sure if they had even seen the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the TTC," Smith said. "It's hard to imagine the state's leading environmental agency didn't have a larger role in the planning stages of such a huge project, but that's been how TxDOT has operated from the beginning of the whole process."

If TCEQ waits until the final EIS is released, it will be too late for the agency to have a say in whether or not the TTC gets built, she added.

"TCEQ keeps saying 'Phase II, Phase II, but that's too late," she said. "By Phase II, it will already be decided that the TTC will be built. This is the largest transportation project in the history of our state and the fact that our primary environmental agency isn't involved in the planning stages of the EIS is unbelievable."

The Environmental Impact Study is currently awaiting final approval from the Federal Highway Administration.

Gov. Rick Perry first proposed the Trans-Texas Corridor in 2002, as a series of six-lane highways, each one as wide as 1,200 feet, with separate lanes for cars and commercial trucks, high-speed rail lines and utility corridors. Perry, TxDOT and others have touted the TTC as a way to relieve traffic congestion on the state's highways.

Rural towns, agriculture producers and the Texas Farm Bureau have opposed the TTC from its inception. The opposition led to the formation of sub-regional planning groups that formed under the Texas Local Government Code, Chapter 391, which requires state agencies "to the greatest extent feasible" to coordinate with local commissions to "ensure effective and orderly implementation of state programs at the regional level." There are now nine such sub-regional planning commissions in the state, of which the Eastern Central Texas group was the first.

The Eastern Central Texas commission is made up of representatives of the cities of Bartlett, Buckholts, Holland, Little River-Academy, Rogers and their respective independent school districts.

Smith said the commission's primary complaint against the TTC has been that it will take about 6,000 acres of prime farmland out of production and that a large chunk of land will be taken out of local school districts' tax bases and given to the state forever.

"Right now, our planning commission knows more about the environmental issues in our jurisdiction than TxDOT and it's our hope we can get TCEQ to assist by holding TxDOT's feet to the fire," she added.

In other news related to the Trans-Texas Corridor, a citizen's advisory group has issued a report rejecting the concept of TTC-35. The report, issued last month, recommends a "more inclusive solution that respects local communities and private property rights while addressing statewide and local transportation needs."

The committee, one of two citizens' advisory committees appointed to advise the Texas Transportation Commission on planning issues in the I-35 and I-69 corridors, recommends that TxDOT coordinate with Texas Farm Bureau and other agriculture groups to minimize the impacts on farmers and ranchers. A report from the I-69 citizens' committee is expected soon.

© 2008 Country World news

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Two Spanish firms, Cintra's NTE Mobility Partners and OHL Infrastructure, compete for Loop 820 tolling concessions

Northeast Loop 820 expansion gets environmental clearance


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

FORT WORTH — The proposed expansion of Northeast Loop 820 and the 820/Interstate 35W interchange has been environmentally cleared by the federal government, and area officials say they’re optimistic dirt will soon turn on the long-awaited project.

"With luck, we will be under construction in late 2009," state transportation Commissioner Bill Meadows of Fort Worth told political and business leaders at a 35W Coalition meeting Wednesday.

Last week, the Federal Highway Administration issued a finding of no significant impact for the proposed expansion of four-lane Loop 820 to six nontoll and four toll/carpool lanes from North East Mall to I-35W.

The finding clears the way for the Texas Department of Transportation to begin the work, once the necessary funding is in place.

The Loop 820 expansion is part of a broader plan known as North Tarrant Express, which is expected to cost more than $1 billion. It includes expansion of Loop 820, I-35W from Meacham to Alliance airports in Fort Worth, and Airport Freeway (Texas 121/183) in Bedford, Euless and Hurst.

However, Meadows said, transportation officials will focus on building the Loop 820 portion before starting the other sections of North Tarrant Express.

Loop 820 in Northeast Tarrant County has not been expanded since it was built in the mid-1960s. But during that time Tarrant County’s population has more than tripled to nearly 1.8 million people.

Portions of Loop 820 are essentially gridlocked from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. at certain points, including westbound traffic at Holiday Lane in North Richland Hills, and eastbound traffic at U.S. 377 in Haltom City. Congestion is also common at ramps leading to and from I-35W.

Two teams of private companies are competing for the right to develop North Tarrant Express and collect tolls on the toll/carpool lanes for years to come. Both teams are expected to bring private development money to the table to offset a lack of gas-tax-supported public funding.

But it’s unknown whether either proposal, which by law are being kept confidential until the Texas Transportation Commission selects a best value in January, will bring enough money to build the entire corridor. The Loop 820 portion of the project alone is expected to cost more than $600 million.

Details about how the lanes would be built — and how long construction would take — also won’t be disclosed until January at the earliest, officials said.
The two competitors vying to develop Loop 820 are both led by Spanish companies from Madrid: NTE Mobility Partners and OHL Infrastructure.

Additionally, the state transportation department has pledged $600 million in gas-tax-supported public funds for the entire North Tarrant Express project.

Mayor Mike Moncrief called on business leaders in the 35W Coalition to keep pushing for speedier construction on Loop 820 and I-35W, and to generally put more pressure on the Legislature to increase funding for overdue road and rail projects. Transportation is expected to be one of the most high-profile issues in the upcoming legislative session, which begins next month, he said.

"This is the time to make sure our transportation priorities take top billing," Moncrief told the 35W Coalition during a meeting at Coors of Fort Worth near I-35W and Meacham Boulevard. "If we don’t do it this session, it’ll be a cold day in May before the opportunity arises again. Without it, this incredible economic engine will be crushed like a beer can."

GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

© 2008 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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Dallas City Council pushes city-owned hotel and Trinity Toll Road boondoggles forward

Dallas City council moves convention center hotel plan forward


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

During its last and possibly busiest meeting of 2008, the Dallas City Council pushed forward Wednesday a plan to build a city-owned hotel next to the downtown convention center.

The council authorized City Manager Mary Suhm and her staff to finalize details of a development agreement with Matthews Southwest, the Dallas firm chosen to design and build the hotel at Market and Lamar streets.

Under the proposed agreement, the city's cost for constructing the hotel will be capped at $356 million.

A majority of the council has determined that the hotel is critical to the viability of the convention center, a view that received a boost Wednesday from Phillip Jones, president of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Addressing the council, Mr. Jones said that bookings at the center are up 20 percent to 25 percent over last year on word of progress on the hotel.

Two council members, Vonciel Jones Hill and Angela Hunt, voted against the authorization because of concerns that the cost of covering debt to build it could fall back on taxpayers if the hotel is not as profitable as city officials predict.

Trinity proposal

The council also approved spending an additional $4.5 million for work associated with the proposed Trinity toll road.

The city has pledged $84 million to the toll road, which will be constructed and operated by the North Texas Tollway Authority.

Including the $4.5 million approved Wednesday, the city has paid $14.5 million for toll road design and engineering work.

Council member Dave Neumann urged the council to pressure its partners to complete their work by a May 1 deadline. That date is critical because it marks the anticipated start of an environmental impact study by the U.S. Corps of Engineers that will ultimately determine whether the toll road can be built.

NTTA contractors have warned the council that it will be challenging to meet that deadline.

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News:

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“The so-called managed lane project is the largest of its kind in the United States.”

Bids delayed on huge LBJ Freeway rebuilding project


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

Bids on the massive reconstruction of the LBJ Freeway will not be submitted to the state by Monday as planned, a state transportation department official said today.

Instead, the deadline for a proposal to rebuild the eight lanes that currently comprise LBJ Freeway, plus six new toll lanes, has been pushed to Jan. 21, said John Hudspeth, LBJ project manager for TxDOT.

Construction on the project, which is expected to take five years, should still begin by mid-summer, he said. “Both teams needed more time,” he said, declining to provide the firms’ separate reasons for being behind schedule.

The project will be unlike any other in Dallas history. LBJ Freeway currently has three main lanes plus an HOV lane in each direction, and is among the most congested corridors in the United States.

The new project will replace those four main lanes with new lanes, but will not add any additional free lanes — despite traffic demand that suggests the state could build a total of 16 lanes in each direction just to satisfy current traffic demand. Instead, the firm that wins the contract will dig six toll lanes in the trench between the free lanes, and in part dig them underneath the free lanes. Those paid lanes will be the most expensive in North Texas, with rates during peaks times as high as 75 cents per mile, or more. The rates will rise and fall depending on how congested the eight free lanes are. During periods of heavy traffic, the paid lanes will be more expensive, with rates rising as high as necessary to keep traffic on the paid lanes light enough to avoid congestion.

The so-called managed lane project is the largest of its kind in the United States, and mirrors similar, though, smaller efforts, in Orange County, Calif. — where peak rates are $1 per mile — and the recently reopened Katy Freeway in Houston. The Houston toll road will operate similarly to the LBJ Freeway, though it only has two paid lanes in each direction. Rates for those lanes have not yet been set.

The project will cost at least $1.5 billion, Mr. Hudspeth said. TxDOT has asked the firms to submit bids that require no more than $700 million of state tax money to complete the project. The firms are expected to sink at least $800 million of their own money, or that of their partners, to complete the project. In return, the winning firm will own the right to the toll revenues for at least 52 years.

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News:

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“Pay me now, or pay me later.”

Highways are stimulus-plus

December 11, 2008

Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2008

Just about everyone in Washington agrees that another major economic stimulus plan is needed in the face of one of the gloomiest economies in recent history.

This time, with a new president in the wings, a new and welcome philosophy appears ready to come into play.
Democrats in Congress are talking of a public works bill that could range from $500 billion to $1 trillion, from which Texas could get as much as $7.9 billion.

This is aimed at creating jobs and sending out a wide economic ripple affect. It’s also aimed at crucial infrastructure needs. Call it stimulus plus.

Over the last eight years, the definition of an economic stimulus plan has been tax rebates to taxpayers in dribs and drabs. The most recent such package came and went, yet the economy continued to track downward.

Meanwhile, federal and state obligations have languished and America’s infrastructure has continued to take a beating.

In this corner we consistently point out the problem of a ballooning federal deficit. We have criticized unnecessary tax cuts and deficit spending alike. America faces a national debt of $11 trillion and growing.

However, if we are going to borrow to heat up the economy with hopes of resulting tax revenue, it makes the most sense to spend the money on what we need and on needs that will only get more expensive as we postpone action. Highways are the definition of such an obligation.
One debate in Washington is over which types of infrastructure works to fund. The debate is between “ready-to-go” projects, which could spend the money quickly, or long-range strategic projects, which would take longer but have deeper impact.

Waco and interests along Interstate 35 need to step forward and promote this strategic corridor, which is central to Texas’ long-range transportation needs.
Waco has been told that the only way it can expect a widening of the interstate through town is with toll roads. That would be rather dubious suggestion unless Waco reached the kind of gridlock experienced in Austin that would make people pay for such a contrivance.

I-35, connecting Mexico with the heartland, is as crucial a stretch of highway as this nation has.
Other crucial Waco-area needs were put on ice when the Texas Department of Transportation cut $225 million in projects for the Waco after the department discovered a $1.1 billion accounting error.

Neither Texas nor the country is keeping pace with a growing population in dealing with key infrastructure needs.

If the federal government is to borrow further, it should be toward meeting the proviso of the old oil-filter commercial:

“Pay me now, or pay me later.”

© 2008 Waco Tribune-Herald:

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"If you're going to undertake something that is in excess of $1 billion, you better go and figure out what is this thing."

County awards Texas 288 toll project to Houston firm

$5.5 million deal is the start of a project expected to cost about $1.2 billion


Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2008

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday took the first steps toward adding toll lanes to Texas 288, naming a Houston design firm to manage the project and devise what those lanes may one day look like.

The commissioners awarded a $5.5 million contract to the Houston-based firm, TCB Inc., to push forward with designs and other elements of the proposed 26-mile project.

"If we don't start now, it just takes too long to get it under way," County Judge Ed Emmett said.

"The U.S. 290 corridor may be the most congested highway in the state, and in the last year we've noticed that 288 is getting right up there."

The project, at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion, calls for adding toll lanes from the Southwest Freeway to the proposed Grand Parkway in Brazoria County, explained Peter Key, deputy director of the Harris County Toll Road Authority. Existing lanes would not be converted to toll lanes, he said.

'Still a concept'

The TCB contract, Key said, will flesh out what toll lanes along the Texas 288 corridor might entail. The firm, he added, will come up with plans on how the lanes will flow into downtown and the Texas Medical Center.

"It's still a concept," he said. "Who knows what will happen years from now, whether Harris County wants to go and undertake this project?

"But, if you're going to undertake something that is in excess of $1 billion, you better go and figure out what is this thing."

If the county proceeds with the project, actual construction remains several years away.

No federal funds

The Texas Department of Transportation's environmental assessment remains pending and may take a couple of years to complete said Raquelle Lewis, a TxDOT spokeswoman.

It also would require an OK by the Federal Highway Administration.

No federal funds are anticipated for the project, Emmett said.

The Texas 288 toll road project is just one of six Harris County has in the works. The other projects include completion of Beltway 8; extension of the Hardy Toll Road to downtown and turning the Hempstead Highway into a toll road.

Last year, Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill into law that set a two-year moratorium on toll roads built by private companies through contracts with the Texas Department of Transportation.

The law also gave county toll road authorities first right of refusal to build the toll projects.

© 2008 The Houston Chronicle:

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Paying to play: Illinois Governor Blagojevich's "Green Lanes" have a familiar ring in Texas

Illinois Governor Blagojevich Saw Personal Green in Toll Lane Idea

Illinois governor arrested for approving a toll lane project in return for campaign cash.

Copyright 2008

The green in Governor Rod R. Blagojevich's "Green Lane" tolling proposal was headed to the pocket of the Illinois Democrat, according to charges filed this weekend.

Most of the attention drawn to yesterday's arrest of Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, has centered on the governor's reported attempt to sell the US Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Barack Obama (D).

Blagojevich's "Tomorrow's Transportation Today" scheme to impose new tolls on motorists for the enrichment of his personal campaign contributors has received less scrutiny. Blagojevich took office in 2003 after his predecessor, George Ryan (R) was similarly arrested for corruption.

"If (Illinois) isn't the most corrupt state, it's one hell of a competitor," Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Special Agent-in-Charge Robert D. Grant said yesterday. "Even the most cynical agents in our shop were shocked."

According to the indictment, a wealthy contractor promised on October 6 to make a $500,000 donation to the Friends of Blagojevich campaign account. Nine days later, the governor announced the $1.8 billion program whose centerpiece was the addition of High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes to the Illinois Tollway -- an extra layer of toll collection on existing lanes within the already tolled roadway. The beauty of the Tomorrow's Transportation Today concept was that it could be easily expanded to other parts of the state transportation network.

"I could have made a larger announcement but wanted to see how they perform by the end of the year," Blagojevich said in private conversation. "If they don't perform, [expletive] 'em."

According to the most recent campaign disclosures filed, Blagojevich had raised $1.9 million for his campaign in the first six months of 2008. FBI agents seized the campaign ledgers and suggested that Blagojevich's goal was to reach $2.5 million by the end of the year.

After bugging the Blagojevich campaign office, agents intercepted a phone call where the governor emphasized to contractors the need to raise the additional campaign money before January 1, 2009. On that date, a new ethics law designed to stop "Pay for Play" will prohibit companies with state contracts worth more than $50,000 from making donations to officials that approve contracts.

Green Lane construction is not scheduled to begin until 2010. Under the current plans, contractors would be given $400 million in taxpayer money to install extra tolling infrastructure on the existing, already tolled lanes on 41 miles of Interstate 294 -- the Green Lanes would not create any new capacity. The extra tolls imposed on drivers would would then be handed to contractors to build expensive interchange replacement projects for the benefit of campaign donors with ties to the concrete industry.

This is not the first scandal involving HOT lanes.
  • In 2002, the Orange County, California Transportation Authority paid the contractors who built the 91 Express Lanes $207.5 million to get out from under a cleverly written non-compete contract. The lanes only cost $139 million to build.
  • Earlier this year, an Australian tolling contractor admitted it had made $177,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Virginia Governor Tim Kaine (D) and members of both parties in the General Assembly. Contractors that run HOT lanes stand to pocket millions even from legitimate deals because tolling by its nature is inherently inefficient.
The best run toll roads in the country spend an average of 22 percent of the tolls collected from drivers on nothing but toll collection overhead (details).

Blagojevich and Harris are charged with solicitation of bribery and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Both face 20 years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines.

A full copy of the indictment is available in a 650k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Criminal Complaint for US v. Blagojevich (US District Court, Northern District of Illinois, 12/9/2008)

© 2008

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"Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, and Tom Craddick will get more toll roads even if they have to kill Texas taxpayers / drivers financially to do it."

Toll Roads: Do We Really Need Them?


Peter Stern
Waxahachie Daily Blog
Copyright 2008

Texas and Other States on the Road for Tolls

Here in Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Tom Craddick will get more toll roads even if they have to kill Texas taxpayers / drivers financially to do it.

They are trying to finance toll roads from a new, ‘creative’ approach in taking tax dollars and retirement funds to ensure that their special interests make a fortune from toll roads.

This sort of "creative thinking" is a force throughout the U.S.

The number one fact about toll roads remains that they are NOT cost-effective over time and they generate long-term debt to the state, drivers and taxpayers. Furthermore, toll roads often create other problems.

There are other reasons governments push for toll roads. Some governments throughout the world "have introduced tolls in pursuit of a general policy to increase the extent of "use related payment" or with the goal of reducing road use and internalizing the negative effects of road usage (for example, congestion related prices). This is central to a ‘sustainable’ transport policy. In the Netherlands tolls are levied with the express intention of directing road users to other means of transport, both to ease road traffic conditions and to encourage use of the railways and inland waterways."

In addition, there is little accountability re: toll costs and revenue of the toll roads once they are built. Representative Mark Strama’s (who supports toll interests) bill highlights both the concerns he cites, but also the ones he isn’t mentioning.

Furthermore, most of the time, toll roads throughout the nation are infinite forms of taxation and costs of the tolls frequently are raised and/or manipulated by the toll management.

Raising toll costs has occurred frequently in the past; consequently, it will happen more often with future toll roads.

The rationale for toll roads is that there is a need by governments to remove themselves from providing means of transportation. They cannot management and operate such systems professionally as can private industry.

Government does not have an endless financial resource to continue providing transportation unless it markets or leases from private industry.

A transportation system based on a pay for use plan continues to be the mold of the future.

Now that the bail-outs of various financial institutions is in vogue, the government is sure to push harder for toll roads as its holding of our tax dollars dwindles — but don’t believe it!

It is another ploy along with the push to privatize various government programs and services, e.g., Social Security, Veterans Administration, Medicare and Medicaid, etc.

In truth, there are other methods of building roadways that must be researched which are more cost-effective. We as a nation must think "out of the box" when it comes to future transportation needs; however, currently toll roadways are NOT the solution — they remain part of the problem.

Peter Stern of Driftwood, Texas, a former director of information services, university professor and public school administrator, is a political writer well-known and published frequently throughout the Texas community and nationwide. He is a disabled Vietnam veteran and holds three post-graduate degrees. You may contact him at

© 2008 Waxahachie Daily Blog:

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

“Waller is not off the map.”

Katy will mull joining sub-regional planning group


The Katy Sun
Copyright 2008

The city of Katy will wait before they make a decision to join the Waller County Sub-Regional Planning Commission.

The commission was formed to fight against the Trans-Texas Corridor, in it's original representation that would cut through rural areas of the greater Houston region. Even though most rural areas appear safe, the sub-regional planning commission exists to help coordinate projects across all levels of government.

“The purpose [of the commission] requires state and federal officials to coordinate activities that effect local communities,” Don Garrett, a member of the commission, said.

Texas created laws in 1965 and 2001 to help strengthen local communities and empower them to have a say in projects funded by the state and federal government.

While the Texas Department of Transportation said in June it would explore highways that already existed to create the Trans-Texas Corridor, Garrett said “Waller is not off the map.”

Garrett said if Katy joined they would be able to find out state and federal projects being planned that would impact the community. There is no cost to join the sub-regional planning commission.

The commission is a “protective and coordinating mechanism so we are not left out in the process,” Garrett said. It's “very worthwhile.”

City council voted Monday to wait until their January meeting to make a final decision on joining the planning commission.

© 2008 The Katy Sun:

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Perry vs Hutchison: Clash of the Cheerleaders

Perry vs. Hutchison, clash of heavyweights


Mark Davis
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

So the rodeo's on.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has formed an exploratory committee, the first step toward challenging Rick Perry for the Texas governor's mansion in 2010. Democratic and Republican lines are already forming for the vacancy she would create upon resigning from the Senate.

She doesn't have to. Her term expires in 2012, and there are strong arguments for staying put. First, continued national stature is probably a campaign plus, especially as part of a heroic remaining Republican contingent fighting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Obama era.

Second, combing Texas during a gubernatorial campaign would surely give her a bond with voters that would serve her well for the remainder of her Senate term, if she were to lose.

Would anyone gripe about such divided attention? Maybe, but they're probably not her voters anyway. Her many admirers are bound to embrace whatever she chooses to do. You will recall that George W. Bush bolted from his freshly won second gubernatorial term to run for president, annoying virtually no one.

For his part, former Comptroller John Sharp says he will seek the Democratic nomination for the Hutchison seat, even if he has to wait four years. One assumes other contenders are banking on 2010, including fellow Democrat Bill White, the mayor of Houston, who is weighing both the Senate vacancy and the gubernatorial battle.

On the Republican side, while questions simmer as to the interest of Texas' U.S. House delegation, two strong state-level candidates are up and running.

Tasked with fending off disaster in a state that may be turning purple, Texas Victory 2008 Chairman Roger Williams announced an exploratory committee this week. His connections and fundraising acumen are vast, with political chops that reach back to his service as Texas secretary of state and people skills gleaned from selling countless cars in Weatherford.

State Sen. Florence Shapiro's committee, formed in July, is buoyed by early success attracting both money and endorsements from Senate colleagues.

But all of this intrigue is taking place in the wings. The current focus is on the titanic contest that looms between one of Texas history's most distinguished U.S. senators and its longest-serving governor (a title Mr. Perry will inherit next week when his days of service outnumber twice-elected Bill Clements).

Mr. Perry was in full campaign mode as a special guest at a recent event for state Rep. Ken Paxton in McKinney, offering enthusiastic support for his host and making sure the gathered Republicans heard the story of how well Texas is doing against the backdrop of a struggling country.

Governors overseeing such a record are usually tough to topple, and I would assert that even with the recent increased volume of Republican grumbling, Mr. Perry would easily dispatch any challenger of lower wattage than Ms. Hutchison in the primary and general elections.

But it looks like she's in, and with a reaction louder than the cricket chirps that accompanied the idea in 2005. Then, the overwhelming opinion of Texas Republicans was to leave well enough alone, with him in Austin and her in Washington.

Now, with enough GOP voters willing to at least entertain her challenge, the news is about her.

But the primary 15 months from now will be about him.

It will be a referendum on what will then be the 10th year of the Perry governorship. If he has amassed enough good will to outweigh concerns even his own voters have developed about issues from the borders to the Trans-Texas Corridor, he will survive this most daunting of tests. If not, he won't. It's that simple.

The Hutchison campaign's first task will be intriguing, as she seeks to find and exploit whatever true differences she has with a governor whose voters almost unanimously supported her as well.

Mark Davis is heard weekdays from 8:30 to 11 a.m. on WBAP-AM, News/Talk 820. His e-mail address is

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News:

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Monday, December 08, 2008

81st Legislature: More of the same, with "fewer rhetorical fireworks."

Lege v. TxDOT rematch might be quieter this time


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

Transportation wasn't supposed to be a big deal during the 2007 Texas legislative session. Then it was.

The Senate transportation chairman stirred the waters in January, calling on Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson to step down. Then a rookie senator who had served on the Texas Department of Transportation's governing board came out against private toll road deals, calling for a moratorium. Dallas and Houston folks told state transportation officials to keep their hands off our toll roads.

It was a session-long brouhaha that left TxDOT's powers and its reputation diminished. Later that year, the agency, buffeted already by federal funding cuts, discovered it had made a billion-dollar accounting error. Then Williamson, only 55, died on Dec. 30.

So, as the Legislature gets set to gather in five weeks, what now?

Expect another big transportation session, but with a chastened TxDOT and fewer rhetorical fireworks. Here's what's in the works:
  • TxDOT on the griddle. The agency is taking its 12-year turn before the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, with a final report expected Dec. 16 and legislation to follow. This could result in abolition or reconfiguration of the five-member, gubernatorially appointed Transportation Commission, and more formal legislative oversight of the agency. Meanwhile, the Senate will be deciding whether to confirm Williamson's replacement, Deirdre Delisi.
  • Local bucks. With TxDOT strapped, a coalition of local governments, business groups and mass transit advocates is pushing for metro areas to get authority to impose new fees locally for transportation. The plans percolating include increased vehicle registration and inspection fees, additional local sales taxes on car purchases and maybe even a "newcomer" tax. In all cases, there'd have to be a local election to approve the new levies.
  • Money matters. The Lege will consider stopping the "diversion" of about $800 million annually in transportation money to other state needs. Additionally, lawmakers will consider using general state funds to back $5 billion in highway borrowing authorized by voters in 2007's Proposition 12. If Congress sends some stimulus money this way, that will help TxDOT's bottom line as well. What about that hardy perennial, raising the state's 20-cents-a-gallon gas tax and/or allowing it to increase with inflation? Not likely. Again.
  • More-atorium? A two-year brake on private toll road deals (with a dozen or so exceptions) expires Sept. 1. But so does legal authority to do long-term leases for toll roads on state highways (again, with those exceptions). So the Legislature will have to do something with this. Just what, though, isn't clear.
  • This-and-that. Will the state put money in the Rail Relocation Fund voters authorized in 2005? With state finances tight, this remains a tough sell. And look for a bill removing the requirement that Capital Metro get voter approval before expanding its rail system, unless doing so requires taking on long-term debt.
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"If anyone is likely to suffer... it would be Perry's exposure as a wastrel — of time, money and TxDOT resources — in pushing the TTC."

Looking forward to Hutchison


The Nacodoches Daily Sentinel
Copyright 2008

Thumbs up to U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison for taking the first step toward seeking the Texas governorship. After years of hints, speculation and deliberation, she first formal step Thursday by establishing a gubernatorial exploratory committee.

Thumbs down to the response from Gov. Rick Perry's staff for the graceless and unnecessarily contentious response to the news. "Kay Bailout has been talking about running for governor and passing legislation for years an neither has ever happened, said Perry spokesman Mark Miner, in an Associated Press story. "Today she continues her streak of indecision."

Such vitriol against a member of one's own party, and less than an hour after Hutchison's announcement, smacks of desperation \— almost frantic attempt to scare Bailey away from the race.

It's not surprising that Perry's staff would employ taunts, jeers and threats, not as a last resort, but as the first line of defense. The list of accomplishments attributable to Perry's leadership is neither lengthy, nor impressive. In addition, Perry's push for the Trans-Texas Corridor inspired an incredible amount of antipathy, not just here in East Texas, but in other areas of the state.

If anyone is likely to suffer from "exposure," it isn't likely to be Hutchison, for the "liberal that she is," as one of Perry's longtime pollsters, Mike Baselice, warned in an AP story Thursday.

More likely, it would be Perry's exposure as a wastrel — of time, money and Texas Department of Transportation resources — in pushing the TTC.

It's likely, too, that it would be Perry, not Hutchison who would be first in line for a "dose of reality" from voters — especially here in East Texas, where Hutchison has been highly effective — and supportive.

Having Kay Bailey Hutchison in the governor's mansion would be a decided plus for the entire state, in our opinion, but most especially for East Texas and Nacogdoches, where she has ties through friendships and family.

Hutchison's campaign consultant, Todd Olsen, said in a Friday AP story that forming an exploratory committee would allow the senator to work on the logistics of campaign travel and staff. Another adviser also refuted the claim that Hutchison is "undecided," saying she is expected to make a formal announcement next year.

We look forward to that announcement with eager anticipation.

© 2008 Nacodoches Daily Sentinel:

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