Saturday, December 20, 2008

“Having a single commissioner in effect puts the transportation department in a legislative conservatorship.”

TxDOT could see changes in 2009


By ASHLEY TOMPKINS, Managing Editor
The Sealy News
Copyright 2008

In a 7-5 vote this week, members of the Sunset Advisory Commission voted to recommend replacing the five-member appointed Texas Transportation Commission with a single commissioner.

State Sen. Glenn Hegar, who serves as vice-chair of the advisory commission, and member State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, were two of the seven who voted in favor of the change, which still has to win approval by both the Senate and House during the 81st session.

Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said the recommended change is a way to restore the public’s trust in the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

“I believe that the Texas Department of Transportation has gone through some tough times and is in need of change. We’ve heard the outcry by the people,” she said.

If approved by the full Texas Legislature, the appointed commissioner must seek Senate approval every two years.

Hegar, who pushed to make the change happen, said he thought long and hard on how to handle the situation. He said there has been a disconnect between TxDOT, its staff, and the five-member commission.

“There’s a disconnect often between the three. Sometimes, the three go in different directions. That’s not good,” he said.

Hegar noted staying with a five-member commission wouldn’t solve the problem.

Several senators voted against the proposal during this week’s two-day commission meeting, raising questions of whether the idea will gain much support in the Senate.

TxDOT is up for Sunset review, along with several other commissions and departments, in the coming session. The periodic review allows lawmakers to determine whether a state agency should continue operation and if changes need to be made.

The massive transportation agency has come under fire in recent years from the public, and legislators, over toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor highway system, along with recent financial woes and accountability.

“Having a single commissioner in effect puts the transportation department in a legislative conservatorship,” said Kolkhorst, “and gives the Legislature some more control back over this agency that has seemingly spun in a different direction than what our constituents want it to be.”

The public no longer trusts TxDOT, according to a Sunset report, she said, and the same goes for the Legislature.

“The report talked a lot about trust. There is no trust in the Texas Department of Transportation. In order to build that trust back up, we have to make changes,” Kolkhorst explained. “The people of Texas deserve a well functioning transportation department. Right now we’re not there.”

Kolkhorst was quick to point out staff in the districts are not the problem.

“They are doing a great job. They are the soldiers out there in the field,” she said. “It’s the highest level, the administrative level in Austin that is the problem. That’s what we’re trying to push through.”

She said the Texas Transportation Commission, which pushed the Trans Texas Corridor, despite opposition from representatives like Kolkhorst and senators, is partially to blame for that trust being lost.

Members repeatedly would not listen to those who didn’t support the super highway, she said.

“When the original document came out and (the TTC) kept that contract secret from everyone, that gives the perception that they’re hiding something, and then the public loses faith in that agency,” she said. “Transparency is the key.”

The proposed bill would require there be an outside audit and management firm to go in and assess TxDOT. The governor would appoint the single commissioner. After four years, TxDOT goes back to the Sunset review and the five commissioners could be put back in. The bill makes it mandatory for the comptroller and attorney general to sign off on big development agreements.

“We’re asking for a top to bottom, bottom to top approach,” Kolkhorst said.

The proposal still has a long way to go before it’s approved.

The Legislature convenes Jan. 13.

“Having one single commissioner who also functions as the executive director, all rolled into one, at the end of the day there is accountability there. If there is an accounting error that is $1.2 million dollars, somebody needs to be accountable for not connecting the dots from the left hand to the right hand,” Hegar said. “With one person, we’ll know who is accountable.”

He acknowledged the change might not be the “silver bullet” that fixes the problem, but said it is a step in the right direction.

“Out of all the options I had, I felt like this was the best one,” he said.

© 2008 The Sealey News:

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"TxDOT built the HOV lanes despite warnings from its own engineers that the design could be dangerous."

Top lawmaker demands HOV safety fix


WFAA-TV (Dallas, TX)
Copyright 2008

A top Texas lawmaker says there are obvious safety problems with the HOV lanes on North Central Expressway.

Sen. John Carona, who heads of the Senate Transportation Committee, says the Texas Department of Transportation must fix the problems now.

Carona's demand comes in response to a series of reports by News 8 that show a dramatic increase in crashes and fatalities on Central — a freeway traveled by 250,000 motorists every day.

"It is an urgent public safety matter and it absolutely a priority," Carona said.

Carona wants TxDOT to explain why it built the HOV lanes despite warnings from its own engineers that the design could be dangerous.

"I will be meeting directly with TxDOT; I'll be meeting myself as well as bringing up to speed our committee," Carona said. "Hopefully this is an issue we can begin resolution on before the legislative session begins." .

News 8 found the City of Richardson pressured TxDOT to approve an HOV design that the city preferred. That's a concern for Sen. Carona.

"Officials within TxDOT, despite an awareness of potential public safety issues, really just caved in to local political interests, and that's bad," Carona said. "We can't run a transportation agency that way."

TxDOT blames HOV safety problems on Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which operates the lanes. TxDOT says DART is not replacing broken lane-marking pylons fast enough and says the agency's police force is not writing enough tickets to violators.

DART Police Chief James Spiller disagrees.

"The root cause of the problem, we would look at and say, it's the design," Spiller said.

Carona sees it that way, too. "It's obviously a design issue," he said.

Sen. Carona, who represents parts of Dallas and the Park Cities, says he's not just worried about the design of the HOV lanes on Central. He wants to double-check all of TxDOT's HOV work in North Texas.

"I'm not averse to the idea of having to go and re-do all of it, if ultimately that's what it taes to make sure the roads are safer," he said.


© 2008 WFAA-TV:

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"Sluggish traffic raises questions about whether some roads will be able to pay the decades of debt remaining without tapping tax money."

Central Texas tollway traffic slows to near-idle

Summer gas-price spike, economic downtown raise long-term revenue questions.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Satesman
Copyright 2008

The combination of sky-high gas prices this summer and then a plunging economy this fall has caused toll road use in Central Texas to stagnate, tollway officials say, and many tollways across the country have seen falling traffic. The sluggish traffic raises questions about whether some roads will be able to pay the decades of debt remaining without tapping tax money.

In the Austin area, although traffic on all four tollways (three run by the state, one by a local authority) is at or above levels of a year ago, two of the toll roads are bringing in less revenue than was projected when money was borrowed to build them. Revenue on Loop 1 for September through November was about 2 percent less than for the same period of 2007.

The overall performance of the three Texas Department of Transportation tollways — traffic has been essentially flat since May — and the lagging development picture in Central Texas suggest that the system of roads could struggle to meet projections of revenue increasing more than 60 percent over the next two years.
"It's going to be very difficult for (TxDOT) to reach their projections if the region's population doesn't grow the way they projected," said Peter Samuel , who edits and has followed the turnpike industry for 15 years. "I think (Texas) 130 is obviously the most vulnerable of those roads to a downturn because it's more in a developing area."

Mark Tomlinson , director of TxDOT's turnpike division, said Texas 130 traffic could see a boost next year when the Texas 45 Southeast tollway is opened and allows drivers to get back to Interstate 35 without stopping.

And he said he took comfort in the continuing revenue growth of what is called the Central Texas Turnpike System, made up of Texas 130, Loop 1 and Texas 45 North. For the September through November period, the three roads brought in $14.1 million , 13 percent above projections.

"Just looking at the trend, the system looks good for the year," Tomlinson said.

However, the numbers indicate that all of the heavy lifting financially is being done by Texas 45 North, an east-west tollway that connects to Loop 1, Texas 130 and 183-A (operated by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority).

That road's quarterly revenue was 45 percent above projections and 7 percent above the same period last year, but monthly income has been more or less unchanged since April.

\• Loop 1, which lies at the north end of free-to-drive MoPac Boulevard, was 10 percent below projections and 2 percent under the same period in 2007 .

\• The 49-mile-long Texas 130 tollway had 65 percent more revenue than last year, when one 11.5-mile section had just opened and another 8.7-mile piece was not yet open. But its September-November revenue of $5.8 million is 9 percent below projections.

\• Traffic and revenue projections, first made in 2002 when TxDOT borrowed $2.2 billion to build the three roads and later updated, show rapidly increasing revenue in the early years. For instance, revenue in 2008 was expected to be about $42.4 million , going to $79.4 million by 2010 and almost $101 million by 2012 .

\• Actual revenue for the year that ended Sept. 1 was $48.9 million , meaning it will have to grow 61 percent in two years and more than double over the next four years to hit the target marks.
And even if revenue reaches these rapidly growing projections, TxDOT will still have to pump tax money into the system: Those original estimates show "commission support" — money from TxDOT's tax-and-fee-fed general fund — of $7.2 million in 2010 , and continuing subsidy of the system through 2025 .

Traffic has fallen on many toll roads beyond Texas borders, Samuel said.
"Around the country, you've many of them 4 percent to 5 percent below last year," Samuel said. "California is the worst of all, 10 to 15 percent. And (tolled) border crossings into Canada are the worst of all.
"There's no doubt the toll roads have suffered more than the free roads," Samuel said, saying toll roads have lost about twice as much traffic in general.

Officials with the North Texas Tollway Authority, which operates three toll roads in the Dallas area, this month lowered their revenue projections for 2009 by 7 percent . And traffic on the President George Bush Turnpike was 8 percent lower in November than in November 2007.
"When the high gas prices hit, some people began using alternative forms of transportation," tollway authority spokeswoman Susan Slupecki said Friday, "and we just haven't seen that ridership return."

Aside from any financial troubles existing roads might experience, does this tepid revenue mean that toll authorities in Austin might have trouble securing loans for the five other roads approved last year?

"I don't think so," said Michael Walton , who holds the Ernest H. Cockrell chair in engineering at the University of Texas and is a transportation consultant. "I don't believe it's a significant long-term problem because we're in the early stages of development on those roads. As they become more of the economic fabric, then utilization will continue to grow."

© 2008 Austin American Statesman:

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Oberstar hails Obama's pick for Secretary of Transportation

Transportation policy: Obama picks Illinois Rep. LaHood as Transportation Secretary

Oberstar praises decision, noting LaHood will get all major transportation stakeholders to work together on pertinent tasks


Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
Logistics Management
Copyright 2008

WASHINGTON—President-elect Barack Obama has selected Ray LaHood, a Republican Congressman from Illinois, as Secretary of Transportation, according to various media reports, which indicated the nomination will be made official in the coming days.

LaHood has served in Congress for the last 14 years and is retiring from his position. He is the second Republican to be named to President-elect Obama’s cabinet, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates remaining in his position for at least the first year of Obama’s term. LaHood is likely to play a key role in the new administration, with infrastructure development being viewed as a major driver for re-building the economy and creating and saving jobs.

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, December 6, Obama said that rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure is a major driver for saving or creating at least two and a half million jobs. And he vowed that his commitment to infrastructure will be the single, largest new investment in national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system under President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s. And yesterday it was reported that Obama’s economic team is drafting an economic stimulus plan that is likely to exceed $800 billion.

Some of the myriad challenges LaHood will face in his new role, including: continuing the capital infusion of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) at a time when the HTF recently required an $8 billion infusion from the General Trust Fund to remain solvent and sinking revenues due to the lack of a gas tax increase since 1993; the upcoming reauthorization of he Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), the surface transportation authorization law, provides roughly $286.4 billion guaranteed for funding highways and public transportation; the potential for railroad re-regulation, and the future of public-private partnerships; Coast Guard and Federal Aviation Administration (including the air traffic controllers contract situation) restructuring; and tolling, among others.

A former member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee for six years, LaHood is said to have a close relationship with Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, according to a Chicago Tribune report, which also noted “he has not shied away from criticizing the Bush administration and has a reputation for working with leaders of both political parties.”

Obama’s choice of LaHood was widely praised by various domestic transportation officials.

In a conference call with the media, House T&I Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar lauded the selection of LaHood as Transportation Secretary as “superb.”

What the Transportation Secretary position needs more than anything, said Oberstar, is a high level of effective management to get all major stakeholders working together, with the Secretary getting all the federal modal administrators talking to each other, which he said will be a key component of the next transportation bill.

“Intermodalism has not happened at the DOT in a long time, and we need to start it and sustain it in order for this agency to work well,” said Oberstar. “There has to be deliverability, and we have to cut through the time it takes issue permits and rulemakings, and deliver services to the public…and [LaHood] is the kind of person to do that.”

When asked how LaHood will address the country’s needs for improved transportation infrastructure and the commitment “to get America moving again,” Oberstar said LaHood clearly understands the costs of congestion and will be ready to work with the House T&I Committee to draft its proposed $85 billion legislation proposal (that is currently being finalized with the House Appropriations Committee and House Speaker of which $48 billion is allocated towards the transporation sector) and be ready to introduce it before the incoming Obama administration has its economic stimulus proposal officially completed.

Edward R. Hamberger, President and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, also praised Obama’s selection of Hood, noting in a statement that as the nation faces enormous transportation challenges, capacity is an issue across all modes of transportation as is the need to maintain and improve existing infrastructure.

“Accomplishing all this while simultaneously reducing transportation's carbon footprint will require a bi-partisan approach,” said Hamberger. “Rep. LaHood is respected by members on both sides of the aisle and has a demonstrated ability to work with both Democrats and Republicans. His experience as a key member of the House Appropriations Committee will be invaluable, especially in these difficult economic times. This background makes Ray LaHood uniquely qualified to lead the Department of Transportation at a time when transportation challenges have never been greater.”

© 2008 Logistics Management:

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"Many lawmakers believe [TxDOT] has all but ignored their frustrations over toll roads and the highly controversial Trans-Texas Corridor."

Houghton: Sunset not yet for Texas Transportation Commission

"The legislative process will work, we'll go through the process, and in May we'll see what we end up with." -- Ted Houghton, member of the Texas Transportation Commission.


by Sito Negron
Newspaper Tree (El Paso, TX)
Copyright 2008

Ted Houghton, one of five members of the Texas Transportation Commission, said following Tuesday's news that the state's Sunset Commission voted 7-5 to abolish the body that there is a long legislative session to go before anything is decided.

Houghton, whose term is up in February, said he thinks the commission in its present form "benefits the state of Texas and it benefits El Paso. That's (neither) here nor there. That's their assessment. The legislative process will work, we'll go through the process, and in May we'll see what we end up with."

Houghton, of El Paso, said "it's the governor's prerogative" as to whether to reappoint him. "I enjoy it but if he wants to move on that's fine with me too."

When asked important it is to El Paso to have a commissioner, he said, "I think you get a seat at the table. When you have a seat at the table it benefits the community instead of not having a seat at the table."

The Sunset Commission recommended replacing the TTC with one commissioner who reports to the legislature, the Dallas Morning News reported this week. [link]

The newspaper reported that "The single new commissioner would be appointed by the governor but subject to approval by the Senate every two years. Most important, he or she would answer to a new legislative oversight committee that would be granted sweeping powers to transform the transportation department, including reducing its nearly 15,000-member staff and streamlining the building of highways.

"Even among those voting no, sentiment was clearly in favor of making big changes at an agency many lawmakers believe has all but ignored their frustrations over toll roads and the highly controversial Trans-Texas Corridor."

© 2008 Newspaper Tree:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"Seen in a political light, the new estimates represent a throwing down of the gauntlet by a beleaguered department..."

Panel estimates road needs at $313 billion by 2030


Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

The price tag to keep Texas moving apparently keeps getting bigger.

A panel of business and civic leaders appointed by the state Transportation Department issued a report Wednesday that says Texas will need to spend $313 billion by 2030 to keep its roads in good repair and prevent traffic from getting worse in its major cities.

The staggering numbers – which would easily triple TxDOT's yearly spending on new projects – come just weeks before the start of a new legislative session, during which lawmakers are expected to battle fiercely over everything related to transportation, including toll roads, taxes and the future of the sprawling department itself.

Seen in a political light, the new estimates represent a throwing down of the gauntlet by a beleaguered department that has been warning for years that Texas spends far too little on transportation – even as soaring costs of maintaining the nation's largest network of highways and bridges are quickly canceling its ability to build roads to ease congestion in cities like Dallas.

Senior lawmakers have said for months that they will provide TxDOT with new money during the coming session. But they have shown no appetite for anything close to the $14 billion a year the department would need to meet the needs outlined in Wednesday's report.

Instead, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and other top leaders have encouraged the department to issue as much as $8 billion in new debt to meet immediate needs and pledged to find money to help cover the debt service.

But others in Austin said the eye-popping totals could galvanize support for efforts to end what TxDOT and many other observers call a chronically underfunded state highway trust fund. Sen. John Carona's bill to increase state gasoline taxes by indexing the 20-cents-per-gallon rate to inflation is sure to be at the center of any debate. Mr. Carona, a Dallas Republican, is chairman of the Senate transportation panel.

That idea has failed in the past, as tax-loathing legislators refused to increase rates. But this year, with gas prices dipping, Mr. Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry, in interviews with The News, have promised to avoid working against such a bill. Both men said they'd sign it if it passes.

Steven Polunsky, a top aide to Mr. Carona, welcomed the estimates. But he said it's just one step in what will be a complicated dance come January.

"There is no questions that the needs are there, and that they are large," he said.

The numbers

TxDOT's many critics are likely to see bias in any set of numbers, especially ones presented so close to the start of the Legislature. But TxDOT chairwoman Deirdre Delisi defended the estimates and the panel Wednesday.

"Anyone who has traveled to Dallas or been to Houston doesn't need to wonder about how real these numbers are," Ms. Delisi said Wednesday in announcing the panel's conclusions. "They are what they are. The needs are real. And I think it's important to recognize that these numbers are put together by outside experts."

Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said judging by the cost of projects needed in North Texas, the statewide figures appear reasonable.

"Those numbers sound fair to me," Mr. Morris said. "I think it is better to make sure the Legislature knows what the costs are. It's better to tell them, even if the numbers are so huge they will never be able to address them in a single legislative session. It is important for them to know what the shortfall is."

North Texas alone, he said, expects to need nearly $130 billion by 2030.

Other issues

Still, there are factors the numbers did not address. With a recession gathering strength, some projections of population growth may be decreased in the coming years. No attempt to adjust for that was made in the estimation of Texas' transportation needs, said Dr. C. Michael Walton, the University of Texas at Austin engineering professor who led the panel.

And the panel did not look into whether a decline in U.S. driving that appears to have begun a few years ago will develop into a long-term trend that could act as a brake on traffic in areas like Dallas and Houston.

Phil Russell, an executive at TxDOT, said such declines have proved temporary.

But whether the total will be $313 billion or some smaller number, Mr. Morris said, the focus should be on the need for more funds.

Still, he said, there's no reason that all the money needs to come from the Legislature.

A federal transportation bill is due in 2009, and transportation experts and state officials from across America have demanded that the bill include a huge increase in federal support for highways. They are also calling for transit and other initiatives that would potentially decrease the need for some of the highway projects scheduled for 2020 and beyond.

"We need to remind everyone [that] this Legislature is not being asked to meet all these needs, some are congressional responsibilities and some are local," Mr. Morris said. "We just want to make sure the Legislature understands the magnitude of our needs."

© 2008 The Dalas Morning News:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Driven by ideology: Outgoing Bush Administration pushes 'market based tolling' nationwide after disastrous results in Texas

Bush road rule takes effect in January- Department of Transportation

For more articles on "market based" tolling, click [HERE]


by Lisa Lambert
Copyright 2008

WASHINGTON- The Bush administration will finalize changes on toll road regulations on Friday that it says will make privatizing infrastructure more efficient, counter to the view of leading Congressional Democrats that it will rob states of revenue and drive up tolls.

A Department of Transportation spokesman told Reuters on Thursday that details of the rule will be published in the Federal Register and will go into effect on Jan. 18.

The rule will require states to charge public toll authorities fair market value to lease roads built with federal assistance, in the hopes of making the authorities equal competitors with members of the private sector, said Doug Hecox.

"When a company wants to come in and bid for the work, they need to have some idea as to what the value of that would be," Hecox said. The transportation department worked with states on the regulation changes, he said.

"In some states they may give the first pick or first chance to public agencies before they give it out to the private sector. In that case, it's a little risky because there's no guarantee they're going to be choosing the fair market value," he said.

In a letter sent to Transportation Secretary on Monday, Reps. James Oberstar and Peter DeFazio said that relying on fair market values would push up the fees to drive on those roads and that the values "bear no relation to the true financing, construction, operating and maintenance costs of the facility."

Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, chairs the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation Committee, and DeFazio, a California Democrat, chairs its Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

A committee spokesman said they had no comment on the finalization of the rule, which was proposed Oct. 8.

The representatives have said that changes to how toll roads are valued should be made in the upcoming transportation bill, to be written in 2009. But Hecox said the administration is concerned that might delay establishing a standard when the appetite for public-private partnerships is growing and states are looking into alternatives to fund infrastructure projects.

In most of the partnerships, also called "P3s," a corporation leases a road from a state and then recoups its losses through levying tolls. The leases extend for decades so the companies may also deduct depreciation costs from their taxes, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Because the partnerships are fairly new in the United States, the GAO, the nonpartisan congressional investigative office, has not been able to quantify how many exist in the country.

The rule change will provide consistency for the corporations bidding for the contracts in different states, Hecox said.

"The businesses that...are waiting to compete for this kind of work can do so from a position of a level playing field, rather than having to be the best friend of the governor in this state or the best friend of the mayor in that state," he said.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert) Keywords: MUNIS ROADS/

(; +1-202-898-8328; Reuters Messaging:

© 2008 Thomson Reuters:

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"The projections and estimations provided by TxDOT have fallen far short of the level of credibility we'd like to see, and that the taxpayers deserve"

Huge bill is seen coming down road


By Peggy Fikac
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — An eye-popping $313 billion will be needed to meet Texas' transportation needs through 2030, according to a preliminary report that one top lawmaker said may prompt another look at the perpetually unpopular idea of raising the gasoline tax.

The tally released Wednesday by the 2030 Committee — composed of civic and business leaders appointed by Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi — amounts to $14.2 billion a year.

“The only time I've ever seen numbers like this is when we're trying to sign a baseball pitcher,” cracked Drayton McLane Jr., chief executive officer of the Houston Astros and a 2030 Committee member.

He and others on the committee, however, emphasized that failing to keep a proper transportation system would deliver an economic blow to Texas that would dwarf the cost of maintaining the system and relieving congestion.

“It's time for Texas leaders to make sure we continue to have the great transportation infrastructure ... we need to have a good quality of life,” said Ken Allen of San Antonio, a senior vice president with H-E-B who's on the 2030 Committee.

He called population increases “staggering” and noted the large amount of freight trucked through Texas.

Allen said he and others would rather pay taxes up front to maintain roads than pay the increased vehicle maintenance costs that result from bad roads.

Transportation needs identified by the 2030 Committee include pavement and bridge maintenance, urban mobility projects and rural mobility and safety projects. In computing the cost, the panel used plans from local planning organizations.

The precise size of the gap between expected revenue and needs through 2030 hasn't yet been calculated, but the Texas Department of Transportation hopes to have an estimate next month, when lawmakers begin meeting in regular session.

TxDOT's entire budget is about $8 billion a year, but transportation officials must take into account factors such as local funding, which typically picks up one-third of the cost of urban mobility projects.

Still, officials acknowledge they're looking at a big challenge.

“Holy smokes,” said Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, House Appropriations Committee chairman. “There's not that kind of money out there. There's not that kind of credit out there for the state, and most of us don't want to go into debt that far.”

Chisum said projects must be prioritized, but he also said lawmakers likely will have to look at revenue sources, including an increase in the 20-cent-a-gallon state gasoline tax and a miles-traveled tax on fuel-efficient cars.

“I think the gasoline tax is probably what we're going to have to look at,” Chisum said — but he quickly added, “I'm not saying I'm the one who's going to carry it.”

Efforts to increase the gasoline tax have gone nowhere in recent times; it hasn't been raised since 1991.

Gov. Rick Perry separately cautioned lawmakers Wednesday against raising taxes.

Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle, however, said Perry has said if lawmakers approve indexing the gasoline tax to inflation, and if the idea is put on a statewide ballot for voter approval, he wouldn't stand in its way.

Castle said Perry prefers tolls as a fairer funding choice.

The 2030 Committee didn't include revenue sources for meeting the needs it identified.

The report was taken with a grain of salt by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, a member of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which is reviewing TxDOT.

“In my observations ... the projections and estimations provided by TxDOT have fallen far short of the level of credibility we would like to see, and that the taxpayers deserve,” McClendon said.

The periodic Sunset review is being conducted in the wake of questions about TxDOT's finances and controversy over its handling of planned public-private partnerships on toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor.

The Sunset panel has recommended creation of a legislative oversight panel for TxDOT.

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

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Texas AG gives Collin County tollers a 'Nightmare Before Christmas'

$2.6 Billion from State Highway 121 locked up by Attorney General


By Bill Baumbach
The Collin County Observer
Copyright 2008

Will Collin County ever get it's $900 million from the sale of the Highway 121 concession?

"We conclude that section 228.012 of the Transportation Code does not provide authority for the Texas Department of Transportation to transfer monies held in trust in a particular subaccount of the state highway fund to a regional transportation authority." -- Attorney General Greg Abbott in opinion GA-0687

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled Wednesday (PDF) that the Texas Department of Transportation may not release the $2.6 billion deposited by the NTTA as a concession fee for constructing and operating SH 121.

After citing the state law that permits the RTC to allocate the funds, the AG opinion then launched into a legal discussion of the difference between "allocate" and "distribute".

Abbott then concludes that the RTC may allocate the money, but it does not have the authority to distribute it.

In other words, the RTC can promise Collin County $900 million, but can't give it to them. The AG expressed no opinion as to who does have the authority to distribute the money, which would appear to leave it to the next Texas Legislature or the courts to decide the future of Collin County's road projects.

In November of 2007, the NTTA deposited the $2.6 Billion in "excess toll revenue" with TxDOT. The funds were the "concession fee" from the sale of the concession to collect tolls from highway 121 for the next 50 years.

TxDOT had promised to hold the money for distribution by the RTC (Regional Transportation Council).

Since then, the RTC has allocated the funds to several counties in the region. Collin County's share was $1.5 billion, of which $600 million was earmarked for SH 121 construction. The balance was to be used for local projects, including major improvements to Central Expressway.

The RTC recently approved much of the county's project list. However TxDOT, which has been sitting on the entire $2.6 billion, refused to release any of the funds and in June asked Attorney General Abbott (PDF) if it had the legal authority to release the funds to the RTC for distribution to the counties.

Now, according to Abbott, it could be only the Texas Legislature who can actually distribute the monies.

Leaving this question to the Legislature was the Collin County Commissioners' worst fear - and it appears their nightmare has begun.

The legislature is notorious for grabbing whatever money it can find to meet the competing priorities of State Government in a way that members can go home and say they did not raise taxes.

Late night, last minute committee deals frequently change entire spending bills, which are rushed to a vote before many legislators have an opportunity to analyze them. A last minute bill that sped through the final days of the session is the source of the "allocate" language used by Abbott to freeze up the money.

The legislature had passed a transportation bill that, in effect, killed the funding for the Trans Texas Corridor and most future toll road construction. After Governor Rick Perry vetoed it, the wheelers and dealers at the Statehouse put together a end-of-session compromise that allowed the highway 121 project. But it seems these legislators either pulled a fast one or just screwed up the bill in not granting the RTC the authority to actually distribute the funds.

Once the 81st Legislature is in session in January, Collin, Denton and the other counties in the SH 121 distribution will have to fight tooth and nail to preserve as much as they can from the NTTA deposit.

It remains to be seen how much they will get when the battles are over.

© 2008 The Collin County Observer:

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Obama picks Rep. Ray LaHood for Secretary of Transportation

Obama reportedly picking LaHood for transportation chief

Retiring Peoria lawmaker is 2nd Republican chosen for Cabinet


By Mike Dorning | Washington Bureau
The Chicago Tribune
Copyright 2008

WASHINGTON — Peoria Republican Rep. Ray LaHood has been chosen as Barack Obama's transportation secretary, placing him in a key role in an administration that has signaled plans for an ambitious public works program, according to Democratic and Republican officials.

A spokesman for the Obama transition declined to comment Wednesday, and reached by telephone, LaHood also declined to comment. But a Democratic official said Obama intends to announce LaHood's selection in the coming days.

LaHood would fulfill a pledge Obama made to name a Republican to his Cabinet, with an ideological moderate who has a reputation for bipartisanship and a deep network of relationships with members of Congress from both parties. Obama has asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to remain in the Cabinet; Gates is a registered independent, though he has said he considers himself a Republican.

There is precedent for using the transportation post to reach across party lines. President George W. Bush appointed Democrat Norman Mineta to the job.

© 2008 The Chicago Tribune:

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"The decision would strip Gov. Rick Perry of his power to appoint the five members of the current Texas Transportation Commission"

Texas Panel OKs End to Texas Transportation Commission

Action Adds Fuel to Road-Funding Fire


By Richard Williamson
The Bond Buyer
Copyright 2008

DALLAS - A Sunset Advisory Commission vote to abolish the Texas Transportation Commission - the largest issuer of state debt in Texas - sets up another legislative showdown over highway funding when lawmakers convene in Austin next month.

The Sunset Advisory Commission, made up of state legislators, voted 7 to 5 on Tuesday to replace the TTC with a single commissioner who would answer to a special legislative oversight committee.

The commission made the decision as part of a review to determine whether to eliminate the Texas Department of Transportation under the sunset law.

The decision would strip Gov. Rick Perry of his power to appoint the five members of the current TTC from different regions of the state and shift more authority to the Legislature. Although the governor would still appoint the single commissioner, he or she would have to be approved by the Legislature every two years.

The move comes after a 2007 session in which several legislators called for the abolition of TxDOT, which operates on an $8.3 billion budget managed by the TTC. The battle over TxDOT in the 2007 session echoed in this week's Sunset Commission meeting.

"We have to send a really dramatic message to the public," said Rep. Ruth McClendon, D-San Antonio, a member of the commission.

The TTC annually prices billions of dollars of bonds for TxDOT. Since 2005, the TTC has issued nearly $5 billion of general obligation bonds and $2.3 billion of bonds backed by the state fuel tax. If the commission is eliminated, it is unclear under what name highway bonds would be issued.

In the session starting Jan. 15, legislators will reconsider models for funding highways while a two-year moratorium on privately financed toll roads comes to an end. Legislators have expressed anger at TxDOT for encouraging private toll roads and for failing to tap bond authority granted by lawmakers.

"Our goal is to move this agency forward and to make significant changes," commission co-chairman Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock said after the vote. "We all now know that there is a long legislative process ahead of us on these issues."

Under the staff recommendation, the Legislature would review TxDOT again in four years to decide whether to eliminate the agency that some have criticized as a bloated bureaucracy that is unresponsive to public opinion.

"The Sunset review of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) occurred against a backdrop of distrust and frustration with the department and the demand for more transparency, accountability, and responsiveness," according to a Sunset Advisory Commission staff report.

"Many expressed concerns that TxDOT was 'out of control,' advancing its own agenda against objections of both the Legislature and the public," the report said. "Sunset staff found that this atmosphere of distrust permeated most of TxDOT's actions and determined that it could not be an effective state transportation agency if trust and confidence were not restored. Significant changes are needed to begin this restoration; tweaking the status quo is simply not enough."

The commission also approved hiring a consultant to conduct what would amount to a management audit of the agency. Four divisions of TxDOT, including vehicle licensing and its motor carrier office, would be broken off into a new Texas Department of Motor Vehicles.

The single new commissioner would be granted broad power to streamline TxDOT by reducing its nearly 15,000-member staff and reducing administrative obstacles to building of highways.

"As the professionals who design transportation infrastructure in Texas and around the country, our members believe that TxDOT's current project delivery practices must be improved and modernized," said Steve Stagner, president of Texas Council of Engineering Companies. "Regardless of any possible funding relief that may be recommended to the next Legislature, it is imperative that the commission insist that TxDOT focus on the execution of transparent business plans that provide predictability and accountability."

Amadeo Saenz, executive director of TxDOT, offered a sanguine response to the Sunset decision.

"Undergoing sunset review has been a highly productive process for this agency," Saenz said in a prepared statement. "The dedicated employees of TxDOT have worked hard over the last six months to implement several of the commission's recommendations. I look forward to working with the Legislature during the course of the session and remain committed to the continued improvement of the department's transparency and efficiency over the coming months."

Since the Sunset Commission staff report came out, TxDOT has taken a number of actions, including a new outreach effort where members of the commission and administration travel to various cities around the state to hold town hall meetings with local elected officials, members of the media, and the citizens of that area of the state.

TxDOT also plans to collect data on other forms of citizen contact for more analysis of comments from citizens. The agency also hired a consultant to help coordinate major marketing campaigns.

In addition to issuing debt under its own name, the TTC has become a backstop insurer for the North Texas Tollway Authority's $1.1 billion State Highway 161 project. Loan guarantees from the TTC allow the NTTA to build the project without seeking bond insurance or risking its credit rating amid a downturn in tolls.

TTC chairwoman Deirdre Delisi is Perry's former chief of staff, replacing the late Ric Williamson, who shared Perry's enthusiasm for privately financed toll roads and the mammoth Trans Texas Corridor toll project that has stirred widespread opposition in the state.

TxDOT suffered an embarrassing financial blow last summer as it sought to defend itself against critics. The state auditor's office issued a report that "ineffective internal communication, a complex reporting structure, and misunderstanding of reported data led the Department of Transportation to erroneously schedule $1.1 billion in planned contract awards for fiscal year 2008."

The accounting error, for which Saenz apologized before legislative committees, came in 2007 when TxDOT counted $581 million in Proposition 14 bond proceeds twice when developing the fiscal 2008 contract award schedule.

© 2008 The Bond Buyer:

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"The nation may be wasting scarce transportation dollars on unneeded roads."

American drivers might be tapped out


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

There may be a limit to how much Americans will drive, and they may have reached it, a new report says.

(Brookings Institution)

Volatile gas prices got top billing for curtailing traffic on U.S. roads since last year, but the trend to drive less actually began emerging years ago when gas was still cheap, says "The Road Less Traveled," released Tuesday by the Brookings Institution.

Driving fever began cooling in 2004 and dropped in 2007, the report says.

And the historic drop, the fourth since World War II, was buffered by population growth. Miles driven per person reached a plateau years sooner, after the tech bubble burst in 2000, and slid down after 2005.

The average San Antonian, traveling 17.7 miles a day on major highways in 2006, bucked the trend and is king of the road in large Texas cities.

Driving per capita in San Antonio went up 12.9 percent from 2002 to 2006, but dipped 0.8 percent in Dallas-Fort Worth, dropped 5.2 percent in Houston and dived 12.3 percent in Austin.

There are many reasons for an overall downturn, according to the Brookings report and others.

Baby Boomers now nestling into retirement don't commute as much, women entering the workforce has leveled off after several decades, and urban living with access to public transit has been rebounding the past 20 years.

Then there are rickety gas prices, which peaked above $4 a gallon last summer and then plunged. Where they go next, no one knows for sure.

And now there's the sluggish economy, which looks to be digging in for a long siege.

The Brookings report warns that government agencies may still be flying high with assumptions that traffic growth can't be tamed with current revenues. But for five years, through 2006, increases in U.S. road lanes outpaced driving.

"The nation may be wasting scarce transportation dollars dollars on unneeded roads," the report says.

On the other hand, less driving further strangles gas taxes that already lag more than a decade behind inflation.

Then again, less motoring is good for the environment.

Taken together, the nation is at a pivotal point.

"Policy opportunities are unprecedented," the report concludes.


© 2008 San Antonio Express-News:

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"The response has been to raise toll severely."

Toll Road Values Plunge

Macquarie Bank announces its toll road portfolio lost a quarter of its value in six months.

Copyright 2008

One of the world's largest toll road operators admitted for the first time a fundamental weakness in the public-private partnership model it championed.

Australia's Macquarie Bank yesterday admitted the toll road portfolio of the company's infrastructure group is worth 25 percent less today than it was worth as recently as July.

Macquarie runs the the South Bay Expressway in California, the Dulles Greenway in Virginia, the Chicago Skyway in Illinois and the Indiana Toll Road in addition to a number of other toll roads in Europe and Australia.

"This outcome has been affected by changes to asset discount rates reflecting the current market environment, lower forecast traffic volumes driven by the recessionary environment in the Northern Hemisphere, higher assumed financing costs across the portfolio, and the impact of macroeconomic factors such as long term inflationary expectations and foreign exchange rates," the company explained in a statement.

Macquarie's 2008 Annual Report, released at the end of June, stated the company's eleven toll roads were worth a total of A$8.6 billion. The company's calculation of this value is defined as, "in today's terms the cash the toll road is expected to generate over the life of the concession (the period over which the right to levy tolls is given)." As of yesterday, that total value had slumped to just A$6.5 billion.

For several years, tolling advocates had pointed to Macquarie as the model of success. So many executives became rich at the company that it even became known as a "millionaire factory." With easy credit and cheap financing the company was able to create the appearance of growth through continual acquisition of public assets. Now the severe tightening of the credit market over the past year has removed that option. The company faces traffic slumps of between three and twenty-three percent, depending on the road.

"The subdued traffic results across Macquarie Infrastructure Group's portfolio were a consequence of the slowing global economy and a combination of other factors including higher petrol prices, adverse weather conditions in Toronto, improvements to free road alternatives," the company stated.

The response has been to raise toll severely. As of January 1, 2009, motorists on the Greenway will pay 33 percent more to travel to and from work each day as a result of a toll hike labeled, "congestion management pricing."

Other toll hikes across the network beyond the rate of inflation ensured an operating revenue growth of 3 percent. Despite reporting A$10.3 billion in debt, backed by just A$6.5 billion in assets, the company announced a 10 cent dividend for shareholders funded by this debt.

© 2008

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Toll money down the toilet: NTTA continues to pay former executive director's $260,000 salary with commuters' toll taxes--even after his resignation.

N. Texas Tollway Boss Quits But Still Gets Paid

Jorge Figueredo Still Drawing $260,000 Salary


Jack Fink
CBS 11 News (Dallas, TX)
Copyright 2008

How would like to make tens of thousands of dollars a month? What if that were possible without having a job? CBS 11 News has learned the North Texas Tollway Authority is continuing to pay its former executive director, with your toll money, despite the fact he suddenly resigned earlier this month for family reasons.

Times are tight at the NTTA, but not tight enough to keep the agency from paying its former boss a generous severance package. Jorge Figueredo is set to be paid for up to a year, or until he gets a new job.

Like thousands of other drivers, Carolyn Speese says she and her family spend hundreds of dollars each year driving the area's toll roads. She's not happy after hearing the NTTA is continuing to pay nearly $22,000 a month in salary to Figueredo.

"I think I'd like to have a job like that," Speese told CBS 11 News. "That's unbelievable. I don't understand in this economy how we can be throwing money down the toilet like that."

In his resignation statement, Figueredo said, "The difficulties encountered over this period as a result of being separated from my family in Florida have been more of a burden on me than I ever anticipated, and have convinced me that this is the course of action I must take at this time."

Figueredo's contract calls for a 90-day written notice -- which he did not provide. Despite not following proper procedure, the NTTA board is still paying Figueredo his salary of $260,000 a year. Plus they paid him an additional $22,000 for accrued vacation days.

The contract concerns Michael Q. Sullivan, with Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, who called the continuing payments 'troubling'.

Sullivan says executives with public agencies like the NTTA, which operates the large network of North Texas toll roads, should realize "If they voluntarily depart, they understand the paycheck ends. That didn't happen in this case which raises red flags to us."

CBS 11 News tried asking NTTA Board Chairman Paul Wageman why the agency is still paying Figueredo with your money if he voluntarily left for family reasons. Since Wageman wouldn't make himself available and wouldn't return calls to explain, those questions haven't been answered.

The move to continue paying the six-figure salary comes at a time when the NTTA is hurting. The credit crisis has hit the NTTA hard as it tries to finance new toll roads and projected revenues are down by $25 million.

"I think its incumbent on the board to explain the situation… to address the situation. Why are they paying the guy $22,000 a month for doing nothing," Sullivan questioned.

NTTA officials acknowledge Figueredo is receiving severance pay, even though he quit on his own.

In a statement, the agency said, "Figueredo was concerned about the effects of his working in North Texas while separated from his family in Florida and the board of directors was very receptive toward those concerns."

Figueredo's contract says the board will continue compensating him if he's terminated for "lack of performance, failing to meet board goals and objectives, or other reasons."

NTTA officials said "in light of the board's sympathy for Figueredo's situation and the latitude implied by the 'or other reasons' phrase in the contract, the board felt that providing the severance package was reasonable and justified..."

But remember, Figueredo was not terminated, he resigned.

Sullivan says, "The board needs to come clean in this case."

By granting the severance, the board also changed provisions in Figueredo's contract after the fact.

They waived the required 90 day notice.

The board also added two months of temporary housing allowance to the six months in his contract for a total of $20,000.

They also provided two round trip tickets to Figueredo for each of the first six months he was employed. NTTA also offered his wife two round-trip tickets, but she never used them.

Driver Paul Lac says he uses the toll road everyday, and is outraged. "I would like my toll road money back. If that's the case, we should spend the money improving the roads."

CBS 11 News left a message for Figueredo at his Florida home, but he never called back.

The NTTA board meets Wednesday morning and CBS 11 News will be there to ask board members more questions about their decision to continue paying Figueredo with your money.

-3 year contract
-$260,000 annual salary ($21,666 monthly)
-$20,538.55 in additional 401 K payments for 2007 and 2008
-$22,345 in accrued vacation days as part of severance payment
-20 vacation days each year
-20 sick days each year
-$2,500 monthly for temporary housing allowance for first 8 months (*two more than in contract, but later approved by Board)
-$2,522 in relocation expenses
-health insurance
-two round-trip coach plane tickets monthly for first six months
-two round-trip coach plane tickets total for his wife, but not used
-$781.25 monthly car allowance - $12,500 for 16 months
-$150 monthly cell phone stipend

© 2008 CBS Broadcasting Inc.:

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"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must approve the road, because it is being built inside a floodway."

Toll road authority set to award Trinity Parkway contracts today


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

After years of debate, the first real signs of progress by the North Texas Tollway Authority on the Trinity Parkway are expected to take shape this morning. The NTTA board is set to award nearly $35 million in contracts for a variety of design and other services related to the controversial toll road.

Most of the money, about $30 million, will be spent to hire about eight firms that together will oversee the preliminary design of the Trinity Parkway. The road, about 9 miles long, will begin as a four-lane toll road through the Trinity River Corridor.

The firms will bring the proposed road to a "design threshold" of about 30 percent – an important milestone, given that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said it won't evaluate the project until it sees at least that much of its design complete. The Army Corps must approve the road, because it is being built inside a floodway.

Perhaps even more important than the design work, which is expected to be completed by spring, is a contract for about $200,000 with Wilbur Smith Associates, a national firm specializing in projecting toll revenues and traffic.

That money will cover a preliminary traffic and revenue study, a necessary first step for NTTA to decide whether it wants to make the project one of its own toll roads or hand it off to the state once the preliminary design and other early work are completed.

NTTA has long promised to push forward the road, but has stopped short of committing to build it, noting that the estimated price tag of $1.8 billion could easily rise, depending on when, and whether, the federal government approves its course through the levees.

Without a solid understanding of how much in tolls the road would generate, the agency cannot determine how much it can afford to borrow to build the road.

The board meeting will be at NTTA's Plano headquarters, 5900 West Plano Parkway.

The contracts will probably be awarded shortly after 9:15 a.m.

© 2008 The Dalas Morning News:

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"Not all of the problems reside in the cavernous halls of the Texas Department of Transportation. A lot of them reside in the state Capitol."

Texas Department of Transportaton's highway fiefdom

December 17, 2008

The Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2008

Last session the Legislature clashed with the Texas Department of Transportation on issues ranging from toll roads to poor accounting, getting only partial satisfaction. This time lawmakers have the agency right where they want it:

It’s time for sunset review.

That’s what happens with agencies each 12 years. The state requires each to justify its existence and looks at ways to do things better.

A lot of things could be done differently in how Texas meets its transportation needs. Not all of the problems reside in the cavernous halls of the department. A lot of them reside in the state Capitol.

That said, one of the key objectives of sunset review should be to make the agency less insular and more responsive to taxpayers.

The process of financing highways and budgeting needs to have less intrigue, and fewer surprises, like the $1.1 billion accounting error last year that threw the state for a loop.

The transportation department has been a fiefdom in which too much power is vested in the governor and the chairman he appoints.

The five-member, governor-appointed commission is a dinosaur construct. It results in too little action and too much control by the governor.

Is the state’s toll-roads-or-no-roads approach an expression of the public will? Or is it simply the governor exercising his prerogative? State highway policymaking should be a dialogue, not a monologue.

Structurally, the whole approach of the agency is a recipe for gridlock. What the state needs is something more nimble and results-oriented: “We give you this much money. Tell us what you’ll accomplish with it this year and we’ll check back.”

Of course, money is a big reason why the agency can’t do all that Texas needs.

One major issue is that big chunks of highway appropriations — $800 million annually — are siphoned off to nonhighway purposes such as the Department of Public Safety. That’s lawmakers’ fault.

Another key issue likely to come up is local-regional funding.

There’s no reason why any metro area shouldn’t be able to assess extra auto registration fees or have a sales tax increment to address pressing transportation needs.

Indeed, the state needs to shift away from highway governance that’s gargantuan and monolithic to one that’s more regional and quick-footed.

Entities involved in highway construction contrast Texas’ plodding approach, with a huge bureaucracy that does everything from strategic planning to construction, with Florida’s. The latter has a much smaller highway department that makes the plans and seeks out innovations, but lets private contractors do the work. It operates more on a performance-based business model than does Texas. Let’s try it.

© 2008 The Wac Tribune-Herald:

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