Saturday, January 03, 2009

“I think we’re on our way to change.”

GOP bloc backs Joe Straus to topple House Speaker Tom Craddick


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — Joe Straus of San Antonio emerged late Friday as the consensus candidate for key House Republicans who say he has the best chance at building a winning, bipartisan coalition to topple three-term House Speaker Tom Craddick.

Emerging from a 2 1/2-hour meeting at a legislator’s home, Straus said he hopes to let the “paralyzed” House make a “fresh start” to get past the bitterness that he believes Craddick has cultivated in the chamber. “Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t have to fight every day,” he said. “We can disagree, but we shouldn’t have to fight.”

He vowed to help members, regardless of party, “get things done for their people back home.”

A bloc of 10 other Republicans — many declared speaker candidates themselves — threw their support behind Straus, who is likely to work throughout the weekend to shore up the support of colleagues for the Jan. 13 speaker’s race.

“I look forward to hearing what he sees as his goals for the session,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Jim Dunnam of Waco, adding that he hadn’t talked to Straus yet. “I think we’re on our way to change.”

Craddick said Friday evening that he is confident that he will keep his post.

“There are great challenges facing the state, and there are clear differences in experience and philosophy between Mr. Straus and myself,” he said. “I am confident that I will be re-elected speaker.”

Straus, who has been a lawmaker for only three years and is far down on the seniority list, said he hopes to have the race tied up before Jan. 13.

Although Friday’s announcement is a step forward for the so-called insurgency, it is by no means a guarantee that Craddick will lose the post he has held for six years.

A GOP first

A 40-year legislative veteran, Craddick was rewarded for his longtime campaign to bring a GOP majority to the House in 2003 when he became the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction.

Craddick immediately led his new-found majority to push a conservative agenda, including midterm redistricting, lawsuit limits, abortion restrictions and a failed bid to give vouchers for school children to use in private schools. He sometimes crafted legislation in his back office, insisted on party loyalty and often excluded Democrats from deliberations, dismissing their objections.

The contentious style led to the Democrats famously fleeing to Oklahoma to break a quorum and to prevent a GOP redistricting plan from being pushed through during the 2003 regular session. Eventually — after three special sessions — the plan passed.

Conservatives have hailed Craddick as a breach-no-compromise leader. But over the past two election cycles, his GOP majority has been decimated, and he currently faces a House with a thinly divided 76-74 majority of Republicans.

Many of the Republicans who huddled Friday have vowed for a return of bipartisanship in the House and an end to Craddick’s autocratic style.

In a session that promises to deal with dwindling state revenues, toll roads, homeowner’s insurance and higher education tuition, the person who presides over the House and names its committees will have tremendous sway over state policy. The speaker also controls the success of individual House members, and so the politics of toppling a politically skilled incumbent is fraught with danger for the insurgents.

Other contenders

There are other contenders. Republicans Dan Gattis of Georgetown and John Smithee of Amarillo, who are outside the so-called consensus group, are still considered viable. And five Democrats are formal candidates for the post that is decided by members of the House.

Straus is seen as even-handed and smart and someone who has worked with members on both sides of the aisle. He also is seen as a newcomer, which might cause some members to balk at elevating him.

“There’s a lot of experience, a lot of talent in the House,” Straus said. “I think that judgment doesn’t come from just years. Good judgment comes from knowing who to listen to, who to reach out to, and I think I’ve been pretty good at that.”

Republicans who form “the Group of 11” are trusting that their number, coupled with 64 Democrats who have signed a pledge not to vote for Craddick under any circumstances, will prove a momentum and a math that is hard to overcome: 75 out of 150 House members oppose Craddick’s re-election as speaker.

Busy weekend

Those 64 Democrats, presumably, will be hearing from Straus over the weekend.

“I do know from observing him during the session that he’s a thoughtful person who is a person of his word,” said Dunnam, contacted by phone after the meeting. “Those are good traits. I haven’t talked to him, and I imagine every Republican and Democrat is going to want to visit with him.”

Barring some of Craddick’s supporters splitting off — or some currently uncommitted Republicans going public — the 11 will need to show quick support from the Democratic bloc.

The announcement came as Craddick allies prepare to meet in Austin on Sunday to discuss strategy, count votes and decide whether and how to proceed with his increasingly challenging bid for a fourth term.

Group of 11

Increasingly known as the “Group of 11,” the following House Republicans met Friday to decide their consensus candidate to run against House Speaker Tom Craddick:

Byron Cook, Corsicana
Rob Eissler, The Woodlands
Charlie Geren, Fort Worth
Delwin Jones, Lubbock
James Keffer, Eastland
Edmund Kuempel, Seguin
Brian McCall, Plano
Tommy Merritt, Longview
Jim Pitts, Waxahachie
Burt Solomons, Carrollton
Joe Straus, San Antonio

Joe Straus

Birthdate: Sept. 1, 1959
Occupation: Insurance and investments
Elected to House: 2005 special election
Represents: northeast San Antonio, including Alamo Heights
Education: Vanderbilt University, bachelor’s degree in political science
Other positions held: In George Bush’s administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, deputy director of business liaison; in Ronald Reagan’s administration, executive assistant to the commissioner of customs

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

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Friday, January 02, 2009

"We were very lucky with our timing."

Kickoff close for first (and only?) private tollway

Extension of Texas 130, to be built and run by a Cintra-led consortium, should kick off this summer and be open by 2012.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

Based on the years-long furor over privatized tollways and the Trans-Texas Corridor, Texans could be forgiven for thinking the state is crisscrossed with thousand-foot-wide, foreign-run toll roads.

In fact, there aren't any. None are even under construction.

That will begin to change this summer, however, when a Spanish - Australian - American consortium breaks ground on a 40-mile extension of the Texas 130 tollway southeast of Austin. Once the SH 130 Concession Co. completes the four-lane toll road, probably by sometime in 2012, the 50-year clock on its lease with the Texas Department of Transportation will begin.

At that point, Gov. Rick Perry — or perhaps ex-Gov. Perry by then — will have his first public-private toll road, culminating a political push Perry began in 2004 that in many ways has come to define his long tenure in office. But it might well be the last such tollway for a while.

Environmental clearance on the Interstate 35 portion of Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor plan is still several years away, and a second corridor project called I-69, running from the Rio Grande Valley to Texarkana, is even earlier in the development process.

So the Central Texas tollway, which will extend the 49-mile stretch of Texas 130 built east of Austin and operated by TxDOT, will stand for a while as a singular experiment.

The privatized part of the road (TxDOT determined in 2002 it could not afford to build the southern 40 miles) will begin near Mustang Ridge, overlay U.S. 183 to the north side of Lockhart, loop west around Lockhart and then run south until intersecting Interstate 10 east of Seguin. Although toll rates won't be set until shortly before the road opens, based on the state's contract with the concession company, the trip should cost about $6 per car.

Driving the entire 89-mile length of Texas 130, including the TxDOT-run section, by then would cost about $12.

"We are very excited about it," said Lockhart Mayor James "Jimmy" Bertram. "We think it's going to be great for economic development for us. ... Whenever you can get public and private together, it's a good deal."

That the almost 1,100-page Texas 130 agreement between the partnership and TxDOT is a good deal is not a universal opinion. That contract — and state Sen. Robert Nichols' concerns about certain provisions of it — were the matches that lit the legislative fire last session about private toll road leases and led to a partial ban on them. Nichols, a Jacksonville Republican, served on the Texas Transportation Commission when TxDOT first agreed in 2004 to let Spanish tollway builder Cintra and its partners build a tollway twin to I-35 from San Antonio to Oklahoma.

The separate Texas 130 contract, completed after Nichols left the commission, was birthed by that umbrella Trans-Texas Corridor agreement between TxDOT and Cintra, and so far it is the only piece of the proposed 300-mile corridor tollway to come close to fruition.

Nichols' view of the contract hasn't changed; he still says he doesn't like that the state might have to pay millions if it wants to buy out the Cintra consortium to prematurely end the lease, and that expanding other nearby state roads might trigger payments to the company. But he said he's happy construction will begin in a few months.

"I'm glad the road is going to be built, and it's going to be good for drivers," Nichols said. "I wish them well."

Good timing

Engineers for SH 130 Concession Co., a partnership between Cintra, Zachry Construction from San Antonio and Hastings Funds Management of Australia, have been busy planning the road in a North Austin office complex for the past couple of years. Jose Labarra, the company's chief executive officer, said final designs are almost done. The company has already bought about 15 percent of the 322 parcels of land it needs (1 percent of that through the state's condemnation powers) and has offers out on an additional 70 percent. About 9 percent is going through condemnation.

The state, which will hold title on the land the company is buying, will own a swath ranging from 350 feet wide to as much as 500 feet on Texas 130, Labarra said.

The company, getting in ahead of the credit crunch that has gripped the worldwide economy since early fall, nailed down financing for the $1.35 billion project in March. It will invest $210 million of its own money, borrow $686 million from banks and get a $476 million loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"We were very lucky with our timing," Labarra said.

The company's contract with TxDOT requires it to break ground on the road by August. Given the fragmented situation with right of way, the typical approach for construction is to begin work on "usable segments" where significant, continuous stretches of land are secured. Labarra said the company is still deciding on a construction plan.

"We are pushing very hard to be able to do it before the spring," Labarra said.

So what can drivers expect?

The tollway will have two lanes on each side, with room to expand to three on each side in the years to come, and free frontage roads for the northern 15 miles or so. There will be major interchanges, with flyover bridges, at each end and near Lockhart.

Like most toll roads built from now on, Texas 130 will be "all-electronic," meaning there will be no way to pay with cash. The toll rate would probably be about 15 cents a mile for two-axle vehicles, more for multi-axle trucks. And the speed limit could be 80 mph or more, a departure from most state highways that could boost traffic and the state's take.

Gentle windfall

Perry and the late Ric Williamson, who Perry made chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, in pushing for public-private toll roads, had emphasized the idea that such long-term leases could mean upfront bonanzas for the state. That won't be the case with this section of Texas 130 — the initial payment to TxDOT was just $25 million — and cash flow to the state is likely to be modest for the foreseeable future.

The contract stipulates that if the speed limit stays at 70 mph, the state will get 4.65 percent of revenue up to certain thresholds, which increase yearly. That percentage for the state doubles to 9.3 percent if revenue tops that threshold, and goes to 50 percent if the road does really big business. An 80 mph speed limit would double those first two percentages for the state to about 9 percent and 18 percent.

At the beginning, that first threshold (which rises quickly as the years go by) is about $20 million of total toll revenue, which is about what the northern 49 miles of Texas 130 will make this year. Based on that volume of traffic, and the 70 mph speed limit, TxDOT would make about $1 million a year from the road initially.

At current construction prices, that much money would build about a thousand feet of one highway lane, or cover at most 10 percent of the cost of a single flyover bridge., 445-3698

© 2008 Austin American-Statesman:

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Agenda-driven 'conservative' think tanks continue to push pricey retail toll roads and 'Big Brother' tax-by-mile tracking technology

Panel wants fuel taxes hiked to fund highways


Associated Press
Copyright 2008

WASHINGTON -- A 50 percent increase in gasoline and diesel fuel taxes is being urged by a federal commission to finance highway construction and repair until the government devises another way for motorists to pay for using public roads.

The National Commission on Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing, a 15-member panel created by Congress, is the second group in a year to call for higher fuel taxes.

With motorists driving less and buying less fuel, the current 18.4 cents a gallon gas tax and 24.4 cents a gallon diesel tax fail to raise enough to keep pace with the cost of road, bridge and transit programs.

In a report expected in late January, members of the infrastructure financing commission say they will urge Congress to raise the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon and the diesel fuel tax by 12 to 15 cents a gallon. At the same time, the commission will recommend tying the fuel tax rates to inflation.

The commission will also recommend that states raise their fuel taxes and make greater use of toll roads and fees for rush-hour driving.

A tax increase on this order would be politically treacherous for Democratic leaders in Congress - a gas tax hike was one of the reasons they lost control of the House and Senate in the 1994 elections. President-elect Barack Obama has expressed concern about raising gas taxes in the current economic climate. But commission members said the government must find the money somewhere.

"I'm not excited about a gas tax increase, but the reality is our current gas tax doesn't pay for upkeep of the system we have now," said Adrian Moore, vice president of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank in Los Angeles, and a member of the highway revenue commission. "We can either let the roads go to hell or we can pay more."

The dilemma for Congress is that highway and transit programs are dependent for revenue on fuel taxes that are not sustainable. Many Americans are driving less and switching to more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, and a shift to new fuels and technologies like plug-in hybrid electric cars will further erode gasoline sales.

According to a draft of the financing commission's recommendations, the nation needs to move to a new system that taxes motorists according to how much they use roads.

"Most if not all of the commissioners have a strong belief and commitment that we need a fundamental transformation of the current system," said commission chairman Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a technology policy think tank in Washington.

A study by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies estimated that the annual gap between revenues and the investment needed to improve highway and transit systems was about $105 billion in 2007, and will increase to $134 billion in 2017 under current trends.

Projected shortfalls in revenue led the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, in a report issued in January 2008, to call for an increase of as much as 40 cents a gallon in the gas tax, phased in over five years.

Charles Whittington, chairman of the American Trucking Associations, which supports a fuel tax increase as long as the money goes to highway projects, said Congress may decide to disguise a fuel tax hike as a surcharge to combat climate change.

Transportation is responsible for about a third of all U.S. carbon emissions created by burning fossil fuels. Traffic congestion wastes an estimated 2.9 billion gallons of fuel a year. Less congestion would reduce greenhouse gases and dependence on foreign oil.

"Instead of calling it a gas tax, call it a carbon tax," Whittington said. "As long as we label it as something else we may have the momentum and acceptance to move forward."

Bottlenecks around the nation cost the trucking industry about 243 million lost truck hours and about $7.8 billion per year, according to the commission.

The financing commission thinks the long-term solution is a mileage-based revenue system. While details have not been worked out, such a system would mean equipping every car and truck with a device that uses global positioning satellites and transponders to record how many miles the vehicle has been driven, the type of roads and time of day. Creation and installation of such a system would take about 10 years.

Moore said commission members were initially concerned that using technology to track driving might violate drivers' privacy, but they've been assured that such a system could be designed to prevent vehicles from being "tracked in some big brotherish way."

© 2008 The Associated Press:

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"Truth Be Tolled: TTC Special Edition" appears on YouTube in its entirety.

Trans-Texas Corridor
Special Edition

(Part 1 of 12)
As a holiday surprise and an educational public service, Storm Pictures has provided links to the film,"Truth Be Tolled: TTC Special Edition" in its entirety. Of course, YouTube does not accurately represent the true image and sound quality of the film.

The YouTube version is divided into twelve parts; part one is shown above.

All twelve can be found [HERE]

Please consider donating to the nonprofit organizations mentioned in the movie, and/or purchasing a DVD.

© 2008 Truth Be Tolled:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Legislative report on private participation in toll projects oversells privatization while downplaying government financing and non-toll solutions.

Toll-road privatization study fails to mend tattered debate

View the full report in .pdf format [HERE]


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

Last year's legislative clash over how to go about privatizing Texas toll roads promises to spill into the 2009 lawmaking session, a report released today indicates.

After a year of probing, a task force of legislators and experts couldn't resolve some key issues such as local vs. state turf battles, whether private firms consistently outperform public agencies or even if toll rates are being set high enough.

There was consensus on many topics but "irreconcilable disagreement" on others, said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, in a letter accompanying the report.

"This debate will need to be continued and the consequences of any actions fully considered as legislation is developed," they wrote.

Williams and Smith co-sponsored Senate Bill 792 last year, slapping a two-year moratorium on leasing toll roads to private firms, to give lawmakers time rethink potential benefits and pitfalls. The bill exempted 21 projects, including Loop 1604 in San Antonio, but kept dozens of others off the for-rent list.

The rethinking produced the Report of the Legislative Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Projects.

The 128-page report concludes:
  • Texas can't afford to turn down private financing. State transportation officials say they need another $11.2 billion a year to keep up with growing traffic and aging roads, and global investors have hundreds of billions of dollars they're willing to sink into infrastructure in hopes of reaping steady cash flows.
  • A central agency or government-owned company should be created to advise state and local officials on how to put together privatization deals.
  • A process that forces state and local agencies to negotiate toll rates should be scrapped in favor of setting a threshold for profits and giving private companies a chance to come up with something better.
  • Tempting up-front lease payments of millions or billions of dollars offered by private firms increase the risk of tollways failing. Government should instead take a cut of earnings annually. Such sharing would also cap any windfall profits that go to private purses.

Since only a handful of planned toll projects in Texas could pay for themselves, and just another 30 would be viable with help from public subsidies, there's no danger that tolling and privatization will "take over the state," the report says.

Nevertheless, the report argues, tolling and private capital are necessary to climb out of a highway funding hole.

"The primary advantage to tolling is that it brings new revenue streams beyond the gas tax into the system," it states.

The average Texas motorist pays about 2-1/2 cents a mile in state and federal gas taxes, about $300 a year, according to the report. They end up paying more than that to repair autos damaged by bad roads.

Raising fuel taxes and stopping highway-fund diversions to non-transportation uses would help the road funding crisis but would be far too little, the report says.

Williams and Smith felt the report oversold privatization and downplayed government financing and non-toll solutions. They also said the report casts doubt on local control of toll projects, and assumes public agencies bow too much to political pressure and set toll rates too low.

Task force member Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who previously served on the Texas Transportation Commission, voiced similar concerns in a separate letter.

"The private equity model should be an option, but only after all publicly owned options have been exhausted," he wrote.

Another study committee member, Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, which advocates free markets and limited government, said the report didn't go far enough to extol private help.

Private cash and bonds will pay for all of the $1.3 billion Texas 130 tollway from Seguin to Austin, more than twice what government bonds could have raised, he said in his own letter.

"One of the important advantages of the long-term toll concession model is that it can often raise larger sums for a new toll road," he stated.

In all, six of the nine task force members submitted letters to take issue with some of the report's points or suggest plugs for what they saw as holes.

© 2008 San Antonio Express-News:

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"The only solution that is presented is that the state must embrace private finance to close the funding shortfall.”

Mixed verdict on public-private partnerships


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

A task force assigned by the Legislature to examine private toll road leases has issued it verdict, making the surprising observation that large up-front concession payments to the state might actually be a bad thing.

But perhaps the most notable aspect of the 128-page report — and something that doesn’t auger well for smooth legislative handling of the issue this spring — was the divided nature of the nine-member team’s report. No less than six of those members submitted what amount to dissents from at least some of what the report itself has to say.

The task force, with three House members, three senators and three private citizens appointed by Gov. Perry, was mandated by a law passed during the 2007 session. The question of whether the state should reach long-term contracts with private companies for toll roads dominated transportation debate during the session. And this time around lawmakers will have to deal with it again, because authority for TxDOT to enter into such agreements will expire (with a handful of exceptions) on Sept. 1, 2009.

Among the conclusions in the report:
  • Although the transportation money crunch could be help through some “conventional” ways to raise funding — raising the gas tax and then indexing it inflation, ending or reducing “diversions” of gas tax money to other state uses, getting more of Texas’ federal gas taxes returned to the state — some use of private toll road contracts will be necessary.
  • However, very few road projects are 100 percent “toll viable” — meaning, profitable and thus enticing to the private sector — so “toll roads and (public-private partnerships) will not take over the state.”
  • Private toll roads are more likely to be done on-time and on budget, and are more likely to be managed more efficiently once they open.
  • So-called “non-compete” clauses, which trigger payments to private companies when government expands roads nearby and thus cut toll road traffic, are necessary in order to enable toll road operators to borrow money to build them.
  • Setting an up-front amount for the state to buy back a profitable toll road might diminish or eliminate the private sector’s interest in Texas tollways.
  • Large up-front payments to the state “can over-leverage a project and set it up for failure … revenue sharing mitigates these problems and is a more financially sound option.”

That last conclusion is particularly interesting, given the history of the debate. Perhaps the primary argument advanced by proponents of private toll roads in Texas over the past few years, especially by the late Ric Williamson when he led the Texas Transportation Commission, was that the state could score billions of immediately spendable dollars by reaching such agreements.

View the full report in .pdf format [HERE]

State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, submitted a joint letter talking the committee’s “irreconcilable disagreement on some matters.” The report’s tone, they wrote, could be interpreted to say that because measures such as raising the gas tax and ending funding diversions would not solve the entire funding problem, “they should be deemphasized. The only solution that is presented is that the state must embrace private finance to close the funding shortfall.”

Furthermore, Williams and Smith wrote, the report “appears to overstate the advantages of private finance” and unfairly characterizes aspects of government-run toll road operations.

Williams and Smith carried the main toll road legislation in the 2007 session.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, a former member of the Texas Transportation Commission, also had problems with parts of the report. His three-page letter said that the report implied that giving local toll authorities first-shot at toll road projects (known as “primacy” in the debate) is a bad thing. He disagrees. Furthermore, Nichols said, the report is incorrect in arguing that private toll road operators would do a better job of maintaining roads.

© 2008 Austin American-Statesman:

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Has Texas toll road rage subsided? Not so much.

Texas lawmakers to focus on transportation politics


The Associated Press
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN, Texas — If anyone wondered whether Texas toll road rage had subsided or lawmakers' irritation at the Texas Department of Transportation had eased, those questions got answered a few days before Christmas: Not so much.

Denouncing the massive transportation agency as dysfunctional and out of control, a group of lawmakers reviewing the department said it will be intensely debated in the legislative session that begins Jan. 13.

"This is a big agency that is a mess," said Rep. Carl Isett, a Lubbock Republican and one of the leaders of the Sunset Advisory Commission that periodically examines state agencies. He said it may take several legislative sessions to repair Texas transportation.

Though legislators agree there are problems, they don't always agree on how to fix them.

Lawmakers are still reeling from the 2007 legislative session and their public feuds with the late transportation commission chairman Ric Williamson, a friend of Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed him to shepherd Perry's vision for Texas highway construction. New commission chair Deirdre Delisi, another longtime Perry associate, has been trying for months to ease tension between lawmakers and the agency.

"We've been working very hard to improve our communications and make what we do as an agency much more understandable to the public and the Legislature," Delisi said in a recent interview. "I think our efforts have been paying off."

But frustration continues over Perry's proposed Trans-Texas Corridor road network that threatens to overtake private farm land, and legislators keep bringing up the agency's $1 billion bookkeeping mistake. They are calling for more transparency and accountability.

Perry will be watching the Legislature's actions closely. Road-building is a cornerstone of his administration and is certain to be an issue in his 2010 re-election bid. Potential primary opponent Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison also has said transportation should be one of the state's top priorities.

For years Perry has said the major north-south highway Interstate 35 and other Texas roads are so choked with traffic they can't handle the state's population growth and commerce.

His proposed Trans-Texas Corridor — envisioned as a huge set of highways, rail and utility lines crisscrossing the state — has been under fire almost since its inception. Some lawmakers are pledging to try to abolish it. Perry's advisers acknowledge the corridor may not need to be as extensive as initially planned.

But they say the part of the corridor that will parallel I-35 is essential to alleviate traffic and that Interstate 69, proposed to run through East Texas and into South Texas, is an important trade route.

Delisi said since taking the helm at the transportation commission last April she has tried to work with legislators to figure out ways to leverage limited money to build and improve roads.

"We've got billions and billions and billions of dollars of state needs," she said.

In mid-December, a citizen's committee made up of Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane and other business leaders outlined for the commission $313 billion in road and bridge needs between now and 2030. While some spoke about the astronomical dollar figure, Delisi asked, "What's the cost to the state of not doing it?"

Meanwhile, lawmakers on the sunset panel recommended in a narrow vote to do away with the existing five-person commission that oversees the transportation department and replace it with one commissioner named by the governor — much like the insurance commissioner operates. That transportation head would have to be reconfirmed by the state Senate every two years, and there would be more legislative oversight of the agency.

Isett and several senators disagreed with the one-commissioner structure, so dissent over the recommendation could erupt in the full Legislature. Isett argues that representation from several regions of the state is essential.

Other House members want an even bigger overhaul.

"The commissioner's office is where the buck ought to stop," said Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, a San Antonio Democrat, who wants to abolish the five-member transportation commission and replace it with an elected commissioner, similar to the role of the elected state agriculture commissioner. "The public pulse favors an elected commissioner."

Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, an Irving Republican who has been outspoken about problems at the agency, said she may work with McClendon on her proposal during the session.

Traditionally, the governor has appointed powerful, well-connected business people to the commission.

Displaying some gallows humor over the legislative proposal to abolish the panel, commissioner Fred Underwood recently quipped that he feels like he's done more for the transportation department "than the Titanic did for the cruise business."

Delisi has not waded into the debate over how the agency should be governed and is putting her attention on funding.

Some quick turnaround projects have been identified and submitted to the federal government in hopes of getting economic stimulus package money.

For their part, Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick announced that they are united on three transportation fronts in the 2009 legislative session:

  • Ending the practice of diverting $1.2 billion in gas taxes every two years to the Department of Public Safety and using the money instead for road construction
  • Creating a transportation finance entity to encouraged Texas-based investment funds to put money into road projects, and
  • Passing legislation authorizing use of bonds approved by voters for road projects in 2007.

© 2008 The Associated Press:

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"Accidents more than doubled at the Houston, Texas intersections where red light cameras are installed."

Houston Red Light Camera Report Undermines TxDOT Camera Study

Copyright 2008

Accidents more than doubled at the Houston, Texas intersections where red light cameras are installed, according to a study released Monday by Rice University and the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI).

This result posed a dilemma for TTI and the city of Houston which had requested the study.

Houston Mayor Bill White was furious when he saw the report's draft text in August. He banned the document from publication and ordered a re-writing of the text that would reflect a more positive result. To accomplish this task, White was able to turn to the study's primary author, Rice University Urban Politics Professor Robert Stein. Stein's wife, Marty, is employed by the city of Houston as a top aide to the mayor.

Stein's newly revised report now concludes that "red light cameras are mitigating a general, more severe increase in collisions."

That left the Texas Transportation Institute with its own difficulty. Last month TTI coauthored another study with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) intended to support photo enforcement on a statewide basis. This report drew its conclusions from an examination of 56 intersections, 31 of which were found in Houston.

The TxDOT-TTI study received wide publicity for the reported claim that red light cameras reduced accidents at camera intersections by 30 percent

( PDF File view study in 1mb PDF format).

"The TxDOT-TTI results are impossible to square with Houston's results," Houston attorney Randall L. Kallinen told TheNewspaper. Kallinen and attorney Paul Kubosh have filed a lawsuit to force Houston to disclose the August draft of the Rice-TTI study under state freedom of information laws.

Publicity over the lawsuit likely forced the city finally to release the final report during a holiday week. The revised report's data tell a much different story than that presented in the conclusions.

Houston currently tickets motorists at seventy intersections, but the Rice-TTI report examined the first fifty where the most accident data were available. Beginning in September 2006, Houston commissioned American Traffic Solutions to install the machines in groups of ten per month.

The Rice-TTI study compared 24 months of pre-installation data to between 13 and 21 months of post-installation data for each of the five groups. According to TheNewspaper's analysis of overall accident data found in the appendices, the average number of monthly collisions went from an average of 15.4 collisions per month in the two years prior to camera enforcement to 58.3 accidents per month in the post-installation period. Although this figure is not reported in the study itself, the general fact is briefly acknowledged.

"The absolute number of collisions at camera-monitored intersection approaches is not decreasing," the study admitted.

To achieve the appearance of success, the study divided red light camera intersections into "non-monitored" approaches -- the directions of travel at the intersection where the red light camera is not looking -- and the "monitored" approaches where ticketing took place.

There was a 132 percent increase in collisions at the non-monitored approaches of the intersection where red light cameras were installed and a non-significant 9 percent increase at the monitored approaches.

The study treated these increases in both rear end and T-bone collisions as unrelated to the red light camera as long as the accident happened outside of the camera's view.

The study concluded that because the accidents went up at the non-monitored approaches of red light camera intersections, but effectively stayed the same at the monitored approaches, that the red light cameras were responsible for the "benefit" (a smaller increase) at one part of the red light camera intersection, but not the increase in acccidents at the other.

This line of thought would suggest that the increased accidents at the non-monitored approaches of red light camera intersections reflected an increase in accidents at the other city intersections that had no red light cameras at all.

The study admits this implication is untrue. "Currently, conclusions on a general increase in collisions across the city are not supportable with available data," the study states.

The Rice-TTI dataset also throws doubt on the conclusions of the TxDOT-TTI study. Increases in Houston collisions documented by Rice-TTI mysteriously became decreases in collisions in the TxDOT-TTI report, as follows:
  • Monroe at Gulf Freeway East Service Road: a 913% increase became a 41.7% decrease
  • Hollister at Northwest Freeway: a 747% increase became a 60.5% decrease
  • FM1960 West at Tomball Parkway: a 307% increase became a 44% decrease
  • Richmond at Dunvale: a 103% increase became no change
  • South Sam Houston Freeway at Telephone Road: a 164% increase became a 19.3% decrease
  • East Freeway North Service Road at Normandy: a 52% increase became a 25% decrease
  • North Freeway West Service Road at West Rankin Road: a 18% increase became a 32.7% decrease
In other cases, decreases became more pronounced and increases lessened. To cite just one example, a 217 percent increase in accidents in the red light camera approach of Scott Street at South Loop East North Service Road in the Rice-TTI report became a 50.1 increase in the TxDOT-TTI report. In general, far fewer collisions were reflected in the data used in the TxDOT-TTI report. Since Houston's results comprised more than one-half of the statewide results, it is unclear how TxDOT and TTI could have concluded a statewide reduction in accidents without data manipulation in at least one of the TTI reports. A full copy of the final Houston report is available in a 400k PDF at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Evaluation of the City of Houston Digital Automated Red Light Camera Program (Rice Univeristy, Texas Transportation Institute, 12/28/2008)

© 2008

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Indiana Fire Departments get hosed by ITR operators Cintra and Macquarie

Fire departments want private Toll Road operators to pay


The Associated Press
Copyright 2008

INDIANAPOLIS - The private operators of the Indiana Toll Road would have to pay fire departments that respond to collisions that occur along the northern Indiana interstate under a bill proposed by two state senators.

State Sen. Joe Zakas, R-Granger, said it is unfair that highway operator ITR Concession Co. is making money off the roadway, but not paying property taxes.

"Homeowners and businesses pay for fire protection by paying property taxes. It doesn't seem fair for Hoosiers paying property taxes to cover emergency services on the Toll Road, thereby increasing profits for the Toll Road operation and bolstering pension funds in Australia," he said.

Zakas is co-sponsoring the bill with state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, R-Howe.

In June 2006, the state agreed to lease the 157-mile-long highway to a consortium of Spanish company Cintra and Australia's Macquarie Infrastructure Group for $3.8 billion for 75 years.

ITR Concession spokesman Matt Pierce said instead of charging the Toll Road, the fire departments should bill the person who caused the collision.

"When an accident happens on any roadway, the responsible parties should pay for the services they receive," he said.

Clay Township Fire Chief Timm Schabbel in South Bend, though, said that's a difficult task for small fire departments.

"We don't have the resources to be able to do those types of things," he said.

Schabbel said his financially strapped department is called to accidents on the Toll Road several times a month. Because of the limited access to the Toll Road, Clay Township must call in off-duty personnel to man the fire station when the department responds to calls on the highway.

"We have to do that to make sure the 44,000 people in our community are protected," he said.

Schabbel said the Toll Road stopped paying fire departments for responding to accidents several years before it went private.

The schedule of charges recommended by the State Fire Marshal provides for a $250 fee per response vehicle or $100 for a control vehicle for an initial response. Other recommendations include the actual replacement cost for expendable materials, such as absorption materials and other agents used in cleanup operations.

That reimbursement would help fire departments, Schabbel said.

"We're just trying to recover out costs," he said.

Pierce said he could not comment on what ITR would do if the legislation passed because he has not yet had a chance to read it.

© 2008 The Associated Press:

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"Some of our elected officials are undermining our constitutional rights in the name of big business and campaign contributions."

Begging for Billionaires

The Attack on Property Rights in America

© 2008 Begging For Billionaires:

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"Texas law allows the condemnation of almost any property for nearly any plausible-seeming reason presented by government officials."

A Tale of Texas Takings


The Volokh Conspiracy
Copyright 2008

The Houston Chronicle has an interesting story about an ongoing eminent domain case where the city of Houston is seeking to condemn property for the benefit of a politically influential developer [HT: Instapundit]:

When finished, the .09-acre patch of land near the Galleria will be the city's smallest park. Too small even for a basketball court, Post Oak Lane Park might be big enough for a game of horseshoes, a few benches and greenery.

Using its power of eminent domain, the city of Houston seized the land for the park from brothers James and Jock Collins last year. Officials claimed there was a "public necessity" for the park in the Uptown area, despite the fact that a much larger one — the 4.7-acre Grady Park — is just two blocks away.

What will the new "pocket park" be used for? That's hard to say. The city has yet to draw up any plans for the land at the corner of Post Oak Lane and San Felipe. In fact, city parks director Joe Turner testified in a sworn deposition last month that his department did not come up with the idea for the park and that he opposed using condemnation powers for its creation.

What the park will provide is a landscaped gateway to an upscale development planned next door, called BLVD Place.

Mayor Bill White and council members insist they condemned the land last year as a matter of good faith to taxpayers. The city needed some of the land to widen San Felipe and will turn the rest into the park.

But documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle show the move also helped BLVD Place developer Ed Wulfe, a major donor to White, seal the deal on a $12.5 million land sale related to his ambitious mixed-use development.

If the Chronicle's description is accurate, this is a typical case of the use of eminent domain for the benefit of private interest groups under a thin veneer of advancing the public interest. The landowners are trying to fight the taking in court. But, as the Chronicle points out, they face an uphill legal struggle because "[p]roving abuse of eminent domain authority could be difficult, legal experts said." I agree with the unnamed experts consulted by the Chronicle reporters. Texas law allows the condemnation of almost any property for nearly any plausible-seeming reason presented by government officials.

You may wonder how this could be. After all, Texas is one of 43 states that adopted a new eminent domain reform law in the wake of the massive public backlash after the Supreme Court's hugely unpopular decision in Kelo v. City of New London.

The answer is that Texas' 2005 law is one of many that purports to constrain eminent domain without actually doing so. Although the new statute forbids takings that transfer property to private parties for "economic development," it allows essentially identical condemnations that promote "community development;" under the new law, virtually any real or imagined benefit to the public can be portrayed as facilitating "community development."

The new statute also perpetuates previous laws allowing state and local governments to declare almost any area "blighted," thereby making it eligible for condemnation in order to facilitate alleviation of the supposed "blight." I discuss Texas' bogus post-Kelo "reform" law on pp. 31-33 of this article, which also analyzes similarly ineffective reforms in many other states.

UPDATE: I suppose I should reiterate that, unlike, in Kelo, much of the condemned land here may end up as part of a publicly-owned facility: a city park. However, some will apparently be used as a "landscaped gateway" for a privately owned development project. If that happens, there would effectively be a transfer of at least some of the condemned land to a private entity, even if the city might continue to own the "gateway" on paper.

© 2008 The Volokh Conspiracy:

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Monday, December 29, 2008

"Lock up your wallets and barricade your doors."

Texas Legislature is talk of the town again


By: Harvey Kronberg
News 8 Austin
Copyright 208

COMMENTARY -- Lock up your wallets and barricade your doors. In just two weeks, the Texas Legislature will convene bringing its own unique brand of merriment back to Austin. Other than political writers like me, only restaurants and hotels are looking forward to the next five months.

Every session has its own unique challenges and this one is no different. Among those challenges are a declining economy, college tuition deregulation six years ago, a safety net system in tatters just a few years after granting the governor more power in those matters and, of course, a toll road system that may not be paying for itself. These are just a few of the issues facing lawmakers when they come back.

But before anything else happens, the Texas House of Representatives must decide the fate of incumbent speaker Tom Craddick. With only a one vote majority, enough Republicans have publicly abandoned Mr. Craddick so that his re-election depends entirely on his ability to entice enough Democrats to cross over and support him.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Jim Dunnam says that only 10 of the 74 Democrats have refused to sign a pledge to vote against Craddick. Yet the speaker tells his allies he has pledges from fifteen Democrats.

Ten crossover Democrats and Mr. Craddick is history. Fifteen crossover Democrats and he may hang on yet another term.

But even if he does win, it seems doubtful that the nearly evenly divided House will grant him the discretion to simply silence his opponents next session.

Meanwhile, the Senate has two new freshmen. Both are women; one is a Democrat and one is a Republican.

Each session, some try to change the Senate rule that allows one third of the members to prevent consideration of the bill. The so-called two-thirds rule protects minorities like Democrats and rural Republicans who would be otherwise at the mercy of suburban Republican senators.

The two-thirds rule is also a daily check on the power of the Lt. Governor who presides over the Senate only with the permission of the senators.

Two years ago, Speaker Craddick faced a public revolt when he refused to recognize a motion to remove him. Less well known is that Dewhurst faced a similar, but more private revolt when senators thought he abused his discretionary powers.

You may love them, you may hate them. But there is no denying that the Texas Legislature always has been and always will be the best show in town.

That's what's on the agenda. I'm Harvey Kronberg and you can find me at

© 2008 TWEAN News Channel of Austin:

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