Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Why does this porcine process continue?"

Toll road idea full of pork


Kathy Williams, Assistant City Editor
Sherman Denison Hearld Democrat
Copyright 2009

OK, I'm going to say it, "I'm fed up with pork."

That word's been thrown around a lot lately. And I'm on record saying that spending on projects that create jobs, give more people pay checks right now when our consumer economy needs a boost, is a good thing.

But, I define pork as public money used for projects that benefit a limited number of influential people. And further, pork is public money used contrary to the needs and priorities of the majority of people who pay those taxes. If it addressed common needs and dreams, it would not be fat, it would be investment.

Tuesday morning I read that public officials, volunteers and paid, had used their influence with state officials to secure $10 million worth of our resources to study bringing a toll road through largely unpopulated areas of Grayson County. Not only that, but they plan to use a loophole in the law -- one the Legislature is considering closing -- to replace part of a free road with the toll road.

Grayson, Texas and U.S. taxpayers already are paying to build, widen, improve and extend State Highway 289 north of SH 56 and up to near Pottsboro. TxDOT, the Grayson County Regional Mobility Authority (none of them people you and I voted for) and Grayson County Commissioners Court, have decided this should become a toll road.

Grayson County has issued $63 million in bonds to pay for SH 289. TxDOT agreed to pay us back through "pass through tolls;" that means reimburse us per car once the road is ready. Now that it'll be a toll road, meaning drivers will pay to drive on it, who will repay us and where will any extra revenues go?

All that depends. Commissioners project they will have about $7 million left over from bonds, once they split what's left over with the company that's supervising the building. But Grayson County ponied up millions of dollars in right-of-way payments and has incurred untold expenses like time from salaried staff who have worked on the project. The county will be paying about 5 percent of the debt service for building SH 289. In the end, it's a state highway, under state control.

The faces of those who have worked to "secure the funding" for a toll road are hidden from us. Of course there are open sessions where elected officials have voted. But we never even hear the names of those who speak one-on-one with RMA or Texas Transportation (TxDOT) commissioners. They are accountable only to the governor.

We are not privy to what they tell our local elected officials. There is no public on-the-record discussion. We will never learn what promises were made, what we got or gave up in the "negotiations." We only know the official ayes and nays. Why does this porcine process continue? There are better ways.

The city of Sherman just completed its draft of a Comprehensive Master Plan. The federal government's long-and short-range transportation planning process involves local elected officials and is submitted for public scrutiny and comment on its priorities.

This year, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (federal-local planners) updated priorities. This was particularly urgent work because of federal stimulus money that might come to the area. It sounds like a darn good idea to me -- identify the projects most needed to prevent traffic deaths and injury and promote smooth traffic flow.

For it to work, we have to pay attention. That means you and me. To be clear: Sherman, the Sherman-Denison MPO and TxDOT personnel have spent hundreds of thousands of our taxpayer dollars in planning public services. A Grayson County toll road appears as the least priority of 15 unfunded projects in the new draft MPO plan.

Priorities 2-5 would reverse the on and off ramp in front of Sherman Town Center; fix the roads that back up traffic to Travis Street behind Town Center; construct turn lanes from Travis to the U.S. 82 frontage road; and widen the bridge over U.S. 75 at Loy Lake. The first priority is to widen FM 691 at U.S. 75. That will be completed under the stimulus package.

If you've sat forever or feared for your life around Sherman Town Center and along Travis either side of U.S. 82, understand that completing projects 2-5 would cost $9.668 million. And the money to widen Travis Street is not on TxDOT's radar. That will have to be done with city or county funds.

The other down side to this big ol' ham of a project is that it will open up sparsely populated areas to sprawling growth -- the worst kind of growth you can get. It benefits only those who know where the roads are going and buy up the land for a sea of gaudy franchises, billboards and two-acre ranchettes. Who's going to pay for extending utilities, roads, law enforcement and fire fighting into those growth areas?

Sherman has done a stellar job in planning for its growth for the next 20 or so years. Consultants and everyday residents, business owners, developers all took part in developing the draft plan -- conservative and smart. It looks at not just preserving but elevating the quality of life aspects of a town that knows who it is and honors its history.

So how did the state loopholes get gotten through for $10 million to study building a road that won't be needed for 30 years or so -- a road that takes travelers away from Sherman's retail heart? The State Senate smiled on private toll roads Monday, refusing to let the law allowing them -- and the public protections in that allowance -- expire. The bill is still alive in the House and could stop there. TxDOT admits it can't afford to maintain existing roads and is turning that responsibility over to local taxpayers. There's a bill for that, too.

A Grayson County toll road is a 20th century solution to a mid-21st century issue, so fight the fat and call your state legislators.

KATHY WILLIAMS is assistant city editor of the Herald Democrat.

© 2009 Sherman Denison Hearld Democrat:

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