Saturday, January 31, 2009

"Many in Texas have encountered the threat of having their property seized for the benefit of a so-called 'public-private partnership.' "


Eminent domain reform needed in Texas


By Harper Huddleston
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

A handful of property owners in the River North District, a newly dubbed area on the northern boundary of downtown San Antonio, attended the January 2008 Planning Commission hearing on whether to approve the newly drafted River North District Master Plan.

We, the property owners, simply asked the Planning Commission for an opportunity to review and comment on the plan in more detail. The commission obliged, and since then we've spent the better part of a year trying to make sense of the River North Master Plan and its intentions.

The Master Plan showed parking garages, parks, schools, roads, markets, cafes and other changes to private property whose owners knew nothing of the intent of the plan to remake their property into something other than what stands there now. Somewhere, somehow, someone made the decision that our property would be better suited for someone else's use and that our use didn't conform to some central planners' idea of how our neighborhood should be.

We learned that every property in the entire River North plan area is vulnerable to eminent domain for economic development — taking our private property for someone else's private gain. We learned that many property owners in communities all over the country and here in Texas have encountered the same threat of having their property seized for the benefit of another private party or a so-called public-private partnership.

Tragically, in the court case Kelo vs. City of New London, the U.S. Supreme Court gave a green light to municipalities nationwide to take private property for public “benefits,” like the mere possibility of creating more jobs and taxes with someone else's land rather than requiring a real public “use” with something the public would own and use, such as a post office or courthouse.

This is a decision the overwhelming majority of people across the nation and here in Texas disagree with and want to see either overturned in court or done away with through reforms in state eminent domain laws. So far, 43 states including Texas have changed their laws, but much more reform is still needed in Texas if homes and small businesses are to be safe from this scourge. As it stands now, all landowners across our great state may find themselves in the same crosshairs of eminent domain abuse as the River North property owners do today.

Gov. Rick Perry and Texas legislators need look no further than footsteps from the Alamo, along the banks of the heralded San Antonio River, for proof that Texans need their private property rights protected and upheld as a right that is fundamental to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Portions © 2009 San Antonio Express-News :

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TxDOT contractor's signs flash 'Zombie Alert' in Austin

Texas Attacked By Zombies


By David Fierce
Eflux Media
Copyright 2009

According to a recent police report, people who were driving their cars in the vicinity of the University of Texas on Monday morning could see two hacked road signs. The two digital indicators warned drivers about “zombies” which were wandering in the area.

It seems that the man, who breached into the control panel of the signs, outputted messages like "Caution! Zombies Ahead." The messages made many motorists slow down and take pictures of the digital signs. Authorities reported that traffic safety was put at risk due to the shock that the messages generated.

In a press conference, local law enforcers stated that they have a suspect list. However, the officials believe that the man who took control of the digital signs must be a computer expert, as the panels are password and encryption protected. Still, it looks like the hacker managed to get through the password protection and managed to input no less than five different messages about zombies.

According to the company that manufactured the digital signs, a tech team will come in the area in order to repair the damage and erase the zombie-related messages. Spokesperson at the company also stressed that they will take all the necessary steps in order to improve the security of the digital road panels.

According to the authorities, no other similar cases have been yet reported in the surrounding areas, but it now seems that some people have just found some toys to play with.

© 2009 Eflux Media:

Austin road sign warns motorists of zombies



The Dallas Morning
Copyright 2009

An Austin road sign meant to warn motorists about road conditions instead read: "The end is near! Caution! Zombies ahead!"

Vandals broke off a lock on the sign in central Austin early Monday and then hacked into the computer to change the words, said Sara Hartley, a city spokeswoman.

When they were done, the sign read: “The end is near! Caution! Zombies ahead! Run for cold climate!”

Before leaving, the vandals reset the password so the city could not easily change the sign. The sign's humorous warning stayed up for several hours before the manufacturer of the computer could reset the password.

Austin officials aren’t taking the spoof lightly, noting it is a criminal act.

“The sign’s content was humorous, but the act of changing it wasn’t,” Hartley said.

Austin police are investigating the situation, and the vandals could face a Class C misdemeanor charge of tampering with a road sign, Hartley said.

It is the first time Hartley said she has had heard of the stunt.

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

Nazi Zombies! Run!!! (TxDOT is Not Amused)

Nazi Zombies


Copyright 2009

The Texas Department of Transportation isn't laughing at the ghoulish warning that appeared on an Austin traffic sign.

Someone altered the digital sign to warn drivers to "run" from the "zombies ahead."

"The end is near!!!!!!!!!" the sign exclaimed. "Caution! Zombies ahead!!!"

"Run for cold climates," the sign instructed motorists.

While some people found it funny, TxDOT says the signs are there to display traffic information.

The department is now trying to figure out who hacked into its digital road sign system.

© 2009 MSNBC:

zombies ahead

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Spanish company Cintra lands first tax-subsidized freeway privatization deal in Dallas

I-35W advocates express backing, hope for North Tarrant Express


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN — Beginning in 2015, drivers could pay as much as $6.50 each way to use four toll lanes that a private developer proposes to open on 13 miles of Loop 820 and Airport Freeway in Northeast Tarrant County.

Yet on adjacent Interstate 35W, which many Fort Worth officials would argue is just as gridlocked and deserving of new lanes, there would likely be no improvements until 2018 or later, according to the $2 billion private contract with Spanish firm Cintra that the Texas Transportation Commission approved Thursday.

It’s a problem that advocates of highway improvements in Tarrant County can’t escape.

Faced with the alternative — no new construction at all in the county — proponents of I -35W expansion stood in unison Thursday to support the so-called North Tarrant Express project. Their argument, in part, is that the state’s unprecedented swim into the waters of highway privatization, using a combination of public and private dollars, will be good for the entire western subregion of Dallas-Fort Worth.

"We’re pushing forward with this, and we support North Tarrant Express," Fort Worth Councilman Jungus Jordan said, as he thanked state officials for their time invested in the project. "And now, we want to know what you’re going to do with I-35W."

Their support is something of a leap of faith that Cintra will not only build the variably priced toll lanes within six years, but will also follow through with plans to rebuild I-35W and add lanes during the second decade of the 20-year plan.

Huge project

Overall, the North Tarrant Express project is a $5 billion effort that will likely be built in phases through 2030. It involves rebuilding aging free lanes on Loop 820, Texas 121/183, widely known as Airport Freeway, and eventually I-35W.

The plan also calls for adding capacity by building toll lanes, mostly in the highway medians.

While free lanes will still be available, trends indicate that they will become far more congested as North Texas continues to grow.

Eventually, toll lanes would be built on I-35W, too.

In the end, Cintra’s promise to take over North Tarrant Express and immediately build the estimated $2 billion first phase was too good to turn down, supporters said.

"We’re getting a $2 billion project for a $600 million investment," Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi said.

Cintra’s proposal was made public shortly after commissioners unanimously took action Thursday, ending a two-year competition that originally involved four bidders. During that time, North Texas officials who wanted a glimpse of the bids had to sign confidentiality agreements.

A competing plan by another Spanish company, OHL Infrastructure, was disqualified because a required security — a type of bond or deposit — wasn’t properly posted, officials said.

But in any case, Transportation Department officials said, Cintra would have beaten OHL head to head. Cintra’s proposal included construction of 169 lane miles, compared with OHL’s offer to build 64 lane miles.
Details of the deal
In addition to $570 million in gas-tax revenue from the Transportation Department, Cintra proposes to contribute $300 million in equity and $1.1 billion in debt, including federal and bank loans and private activity bonds.
Cintra’s offer was conditionally approved Thursday, pending approval from the Federal Highway Administration and the attorney general’s office. A review is expected to take about 60 days.

The tolls will vary, from $1.20 to $6.50 each way, Cintra U.S. President Jose Lopez said. The tolls will rise and fall through the day, with the goal of keeping toll-lane traffic moving at a minimum 50 mph.

Cintra’s proposal charges less than the 75 cents a mile allowed under a managed-lanes plan approved two years ago by the Regional Transportation Council, the Metroplex’s official planning body, Lopez said.

Cintra would build the first phase of North Tarrant Express and publish a master plan for the rest of the 20-year project. New free lanes would be built at state expense when certain congestion levels are reached, no later than 2030, according to the agreement.

I-35W complications

Although anyone who drives on I-35W knows it’s a no-brainer candidate for a makeover, construction is likely still years away, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

Eventually, Morris said, planners hope that the I-35W main lanes can be rebuilt from downtown Fort Worth to Alliance Airport. However, a federally required environmental study isn’t complete, he said.

Even so, members of the Regional Transportation Council will begin searching for public funds to divert to the I-35W project, especially now that private dollars are being injected into the North Tarrant Express project.

Also, the North Texas Tollway Authority is working on a plan to build parts of Southwest Parkway, a proposed toll road in southwest Fort Worth, entirely with debt issued by the Plano-based North Texas Tollway Authority. Such a move, if it is deemed feasible, would free up tens of millions of gas-tax dollars for I-35W.

And, the North Tarrant Express project will have some benefit to I-35W traffic, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley noted. Direct connections will be built from I-35W to the North Tarrant Express toll lanes, which will likely free up space on I-35W’s main lanes.

By including I-35W in the North Tarrant Express master plan, Whitley said, there’s a better chance that it will become more of a regional priority as planners realize the potential for toll revenue from I-35W, Whitley said.

GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

© 2009 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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TNT Sub-Regional Planning Commission submits a formal request that TxDOT recind I-69 TTC DEIS and start over

TNT Committee meets with TxDOT concerning I-69, TTC issues


The Groveton News
Copyright 2009

The Trinity-Neches Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission (TNT) met for the second time with TxDOT last week in Trinity.

TxDOT arrived with a large contingent of representatives. Among them were District Engineer, Dennis Cooley out of Lufkin and two other engineers, Doug Booher, an Environmental Specialist with TxDOT, brought two consultants from PBSJ and Joe Krejci with the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, Texas Division.

TNT also had full representation: the Mayors of Trinity, Corrigan, and Groveton, representatives from the Commission’s Water Suppliers, School Boards, Cattle Ranchers, Members-At-Large and concerned citizens.

TNT gave Mr. Cooley and Mr. Booher a letter formally requesting that TxDOT rescind the I-69 Trans-Texas Corridor Draft Environmental Impact Study and that TxDOT start the entire process over including a study of the existing facilities alternative.

Connie Fogle said that TNT’s legal council, Fred Kelly Grant, Attorney and President of Stewards of the Range, prepared a Legal Analysis that was given to TxDOT, which stated:

“The Administration Must Resolve Objections as to Consistency Raised by the Sub-regional Planning Commission Prior to Issuing a Final EIS for Public Review and Comment”.

Fogle said, “If, in fact the TTC is dead, why waste more time and money sending a document to the Federal Highway Administration for approval of a project they do not intend to build?”

Three TNT Members-At–Large presented information to TxDOT: Dee Dee King gave a presentation on what the I-69 TTC will do to some of our Historical Cemeteries and Archeological Sites, Bill Fogle discussed the noise factor, which will make it un-inhabitable to live within one mile of the Corridor and Craig Whealy discussed numerous environmental issues.

Also on the agenda TNT approved forming a Transportation Planning Committee to study the mobility needs of the three cities that make up the Commission. Each city will have a separate Public Forum in February to gather input.

Fogle feels that TNT is very fortunate to have the guidance of The American Land Foundation and Stewards of the Range helping their Commission through the Coordination process.

© 2009 East Texas News News:

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Dallas police pension fund to invest $50 million in speculative toll road deal

Dallas police pension fund will invest in Tarrant toll road


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

The Dallas Police and Fire Pension System plans to invest up to $50 million in the new North Tarrant Express private toll road, the pension fund's administrator said today.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday selected Cintra, a Spanish company, to build the 13-mile mixed freeway and toll project in Northeast Tarrant County. It would be the first privately built toll road in North Texas.

Cintra will likely invest hundreds of millions of dollars as the lead equity partner in the project, along with two partners.

The Dallas police and fire pension fund expects to contribute 10 percent of the total cash investment, probably about $50 million, said fund administrator Richard Tettamant.

As a return on its investment, Tettamant said, the fund would expect about 10 percent of the profits from the toll road. He acknowledged, however, that profits would be small or nonexistent in the first years of the 52-year toll contract.

The pension fund has about 8,500 members among current and retired Dallas police and firefighters, he said. Its assets total about $2.7 billion, down from about $3 billion before the downturn on Wall Street.

Details of the fund's investment won't be finalized for months, possibly late this year.

Cintra expects to hire 2,000 workers for five to six years to construct the North Tarrant Express, a rebuilding of Tarrant County's busiest traffic corridor.

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

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"I think you could take the template of the TTC and lay it over this plan and the issues would be very much the same."

High Speed Rail System Proposed, Again


by Sara Talbert
Copyright 2009

WACO- It's an old idea, re-vamped and ready for approval. However, some who were against a high speed rail system before say they'll fight it again. Fifteen years ago, the idea of a high speed rail was shot down but the plan was presented to legislators in Austin again Wednesday, much to the surprise of those who were against it many years ago.

Seventy percent of the people who live in Texas would have access to this bullet train, going from Dallas, Fort Worth, through Waco and Austin to San Antonio and it would t-bone in Temple to an east and west line that goes from Fort Hood to Houston.

If constructed, it would be the first of it's kind in the United States. Bill Jones, the Mayor of Temple, is on the executive committee for the non-profit high speed rail project, nicknamed the Texas T-bone. He says something has to be done soon as Texas' population continues to grow.

"We can't build enough highways. We don't want that many cars on the road," said Jones.

At 200 miles per hour, a trip from Dallas to Waco would only be 30 minutes. Not everyone shares Jones enthusiasm for the multi-billion dollar proposal. Ralph Synder is a Bell County landowner with questions and fears.

"Apparently, these high speed rails put out a lot of noise; scream, scream like banshees," said Synder.

Mayor Jones says that's not true.

"They're very quiet. It's an electric train," said Jones.

Gene Hall, with the Texas Farm Bureau says this plan would have a drastic effect on landowners.

"All of the projects seem to be through areas that include some of the best and richest farmland in the state of Texas," said Hall.

The Farm Bureau was against the Trans-Texas Corridor because of it's expected use of private land.

"I think you could take the template of the TTC and lay it over this plan and the issues would be very much the same," said Hall.

Jones admits many of the studies done on the TTC can also be used on the high speed rail system.

"I think the most critical thing in all of this whether, you're talking about the TTC or a high speed rail, is we have to fix eminent domain. The eminent domain in this state are frankly terrible," said Hall.

Jones says if the plan gets the go-ahead, which will likely take years, the hope is to have the high speed rail system in place and working by the year 2020.

© 2009 WorldNow and KXXV:

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"Texans are still very much targets of eminent domain abuse."

Once More With Feeling: Texas to Attempt Meaningful Eminent Domain Reform Again


Castle Watch Daily
(The Official blog of the Castle Coalition)
Copyright 2009

capitol-building.jpgIn 2007, Texas Gov. Rick Perry vetoed House Bill 2006, which would have tightened the state’s definition of “public use” to mean a use that “allows a state, a political subdivision of the state, or the general public of the state to possess, occupy, and enjoy the property.” However, with Susette Kelo standing by his side, Gov. Perry indicated last week that he would like to see eminent domain reform enshrined in the Texas state constitution.

Coincidentally, the Institute for Justice Texas Chapter just released its report for Texas legislators, entitled They Want to Erase Us Out: The Faces of Eminent Domain in Texas, which brings home the point that throughout the state Texans are still very much targets of eminent domain abuse. IJ’s report highlights situations in three of Texas’s major cities: El Paso, San Antonio and Houston.

One of those “faces of eminent domain” is Harper Huddleston, a San Antonio property owner, who had his own plans for developing his property in the city’s River North area. His entirely privately funded development plans were denied by city officials because his plans might conflict with the city’s development plans, which it drafted without public input.

Huddleston describes his experience in today’s San Antonio Express-News:

We, the property owners, simply asked the Planning Commission for an opportunity to review and comment on the plan in more detail. The commission obliged, and since then we’ve spent the better part of a year trying to make sense of the River North Master Plan and its intentions.

The Master Plan showed parking garages, parks, schools, roads, markets, cafes and other changes to private property whose owners knew nothing of the intent of the plan to remake their property into something other than what stands there now. Somewhere, somehow, someone made the decision that our property would be better suited for someone else’s use and that our use didn’t conform to some central planners’ idea of how our neighborhood should be.

We learned that every property in the entire River North plan area is vulnerable to eminent domain for economic development — taking our private property for someone else’s private gain.

So far, the city of San Antonio has tried to back-track on its threat to use eminent domain, but meanwhile, property owners in the River North area are stuck in the usual limbo wondering if their properties will be seized to be handed over to a private developer.

While putting the 2007 reform into the constitution is good thing, the “blight loopholes” in Texas remain the most immediate concern to property owners. The Waco Tribune-Herald sees the threat and at least one legislator is vowing to work to develop substantial eminent domain reform this year, but first he has to find out how many entities in the state have been given the power of eminent domain by the legislature.

© 2009 The Castle Coalition:

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Spanish company Cintra's NTE Mobility Partners picked to build North Tarrant toll road

Private toll lanes, free highways merge first in Tarrant project


The Dallas Morning News
opyright 2009

AUSTIN – Private toll roads are coming to North Texas, and coming fast.

In the first of three deals to be announced over the next two months, the Texas Transportation Commission voted 5-0 Thursday to hire a Spanish toll-road company to rebuild Tarrant County's busiest traffic corridor, adding two new toll lanes in each direction.

The 13-mile project will replace the two free lanes in each direction on Interstate 820 and on State Highway 183 in northeast Tarrant County. Four new toll lanes will run parallel, and drivers used to tolls of about 14 cents a mile will initially pay rates as high as 75 cents a mile.

Construction should begin late next year and be complete by 2015, said a beaming roster of officials from Tarrant County and the Texas Department of Transportation. Final details of the contract will be negotiated over the next 60 days, and lining up lenders for the project could take until the end of this year.

"This is a historic day for mobility in North Texas, and a historic day for the citizens," said TxDOT Commissioner Bill Meadows, a former Fort Worth City Council member. Nearly a dozen mayors, council members and others from the county traveled to Austin to hear the announcement Thursday morning.

For Dallas drivers, Thursday's announcement is a sign of things to come.

Next month, the TxDOT leaders are expected to pick a firm to rebuild the LBJ Freeway. Like the North Tarrant Express, the LBJ project will add no new free lanes, but will add tolled lanes. The six new toll lanes will be half-buried underneath the existing LBJ lanes in what some have called the most ambitious road-engineering project in America, now that Boston's Big Dig is complete.

The LBJ project is expected to begin construction next year and take five years – a significant challenge for the 280,000 drivers who currently use the lanes each day and the hundreds of businesses located along its frontage roads.

TxDOT officials said Wednesday that mitigation efforts with local business along LBJ have been under way for more than a year, though most lanes of traffic will remain open during peak hours throughout the construction period. Phil Russell, assistant executive director at TxDOT, said any contract awarded will include steep fines should the construction crews be forced to close main lanes.

Another project under bid by private toll companies is the DFW Connector in Grapevine, which will involve rebuilding and expanding State Highway 114 and State Highway 121, including interchanges across seven different highways. The 14-mile project will add free lanes and tolled lanes owned by the state along Highway 114.

North Texas drivers are increasingly familiar with toll roads, but they've never driven on lanes like these.

The new concepts that will be at the center of all three of these projects are what are called "managed lanes." Toll rates for these lanes will change 24 hours a day, depending on how much demand for them there is. That demand will be measured by the amount of traffic on the free lanes.

For drivers, that means the more backed-up the traffic on free lanes, the more it will cost to get a quick ride into town on the tolled lanes. Buses will use the tolled lanes free, and motorcyclists and carpoolers will get a discount.

The idea is that by raising the tolls on the toll lanes when traffic is bad, it will keep the traffic down to a manageable level, which in this case is defined as traffic moving at 50 miles per hour or more.

It's a rarely used concept, though drivers in Orange County pay a $1 a mile during rush hour into Los Angeles, and appear happy to do so.

For now, Cintra estimates that the peak-hour rates on the North Tarrant Express will be about $6.50 each way for the 13-mile trip, or about 50 cents per mile. It says tolls during nonpeak periods could be as low as nine cents a mile. By comparison, rates on NTTA roads, which do not change according to traffic levels, are about 14 cents a mile.

The Regional Transportation Council has adopted a policy that sets the maximum rate for the managed-lane tolls at 75 cents per hour for now, but even that cap is a soft cap. If the toll lanes prove so popular that they are getting overcrowded even at 75 cents a mile, the rates can be increased.

Jose Lopez, Cintra's president of American operations, said the managed-lane idea is a new one for his company, and he applauded North Texas leaders for adopting what he called a "modern concept."

It's catching on, however. Toll roads in Virginia headed into Washington, D.C., will use managed-lane toll policies, and so will Houston's rebuilt Katy Freeway, which opened late last year and is expected to begin using fluctuating rates within a few months.

The smiles all around the briefing room in Austin Thursday were in marked contrast with the consternation associated with Cintra's first attempt to build a toll road in North Texas.

Two years ago, the commission awarded the company the rights to Highway 121, only to see an enraged Legislature step in and pave the way for NTTA to successfully bid on the project. This time, however, NTTA has its hands full and did not seek to compete for the road. It will, however, be paid a fee to collect the tolls for Cintra.

"We're very pleased to see the level of support from local officials," Lopez said Thursday.

The team Cintra pulled together to bid on the project includes nearly a dozen firms, including two others who have agreed to put money in as equity investors. One of those is the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund, though neither Lopez nor fund officials would say how much money they are investing.

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

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"TxDOT is in for a shake-up."

Rep. Hughes: "...Abuses Like The Trans Texas Corridor Must Be Stopped"

Never shy about tackling an issue head on, Texas District 5 Representative Bryan Hughes lists his top priorities for the current legislative session.


The Upshur Advocate
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN, TX-- If Rep. Bryan Hughes has his way, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is in for a shake-up.

The Advocate asked Hughes to detail his agenda for the current 81st Legislative session, and he listed fiscal responsibility, education and transportation as his top three items of focus.

On transportation, he noted that along with 26 other agencies, a sunset review of TxDOT was due. The reviews are conducted by the legislature to determine whether agencies should continue to be funded, be abolished, or be reformed.

Regarding the review of TxDOT, Hughes said " of the most hotly contested agency reviews will be of the Texas Department of Transportation. As we review every aspect of TxDOT's operations, my focus will be on providing quality roads while respecting private property rights."

It will be interesting to see if Hughes finds a friend in Governor Perry on that issue. Perry, a strong supporter of the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC), has also highlighted protecting Texas property owners from eminent domain abuse as a focus of this year's session.

TxDOT recently said the TTC project was dead, but announced intentions to move ahead on the concept by breaking it into smaller pieces. Landowner advocates, budget hawks and environmental groups have waged a pitched battle against the project since it's inception.

Regarding that, Hughes went on to say "Our roads should never be sold to foreign companies, and abuses like the Trans Texas Corridor must be stopped. I also support requiring greater transparency at TxDOT, so taxpayers know exactly what road projects cost and the justification for each project."

On Fiscal Responsibility:
"The Comptroller recently announced that the State would have about $9 billion less in revenue than we had two years ago. This means we have to find a way to provide critical services (such as) education, transportation, public safety, human services, to Texans, with less money.

"There are some in the Legislature that would like to make up this gap with increased taxes. I feel strongly that now is not the time to be increasing taxes on Texas families and the Legislature should cut wasteful spending and use tax dollars wisely, cut, simply and reform taxes so that Texas families can keep more of what they earn and businesses can create new jobs, return surplus tax revenues to taxpayers, and spend dedicated funds on their intended purpose.

"Six years ago, the State faced similar budget problems, and we correctly balanced the budget without raising taxes. We can and must do that again."

On Education:
"Texas should be a leader in public education. We will focus our efforts on driving more of our tax dollars into the classroom and away from administrative overhead.

"The Legislature will also look at ways to increase accountability for school districts. We want to reward and recognize when our schools improve student performance. In addition to academic performance, there will be efforts to look at a school district's fiscal health and financial management practices in measuring a school district's overall performance."

Hughes closed by saying "I will also be working on making health care more affordable for Texas families, doing everything in the State's power to secure our border with Mexico, and protecting our State's natural resources and energy supplies."

The Advocate will be asking Hughes for updates throughout the year. Readers are encouraged to post questions and concerns, and we'll include them in our questioning.

© 2009 The Upshur Advocate:

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Toll road dissent is more controversial to San Antonio City Council than 'Vagina Monologues'

City of San Antonio to gag political speech in proposed change to ordinance

Vagina Monologues

City’s hypocrisy seen in “Vagina Monologues” banner being hung, yet it denied toll road/recall banners for being too “controversial”


by Terri Hall
Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom
Copyright 2009

San Antonio, TX-- Today, the San Antonio City Council will consider a change (agenda item #21) that would gag political speech in its street banner ordinance in response to TURF’s lawsuit over the City’s approval then abrupt denial of two street banners.

TURF filed suit against the City in United States District Court on December 2, 2008 for infringing upon its free speech for denying two street banners: one announcing a recall petition drive involving District 8 Councilwoman Diane Cibrian that directed citizens to a recall web site ( and another announcing a web site with non-toll solutions to fix Hwy 281 N.

This proposed change in ordinance is a direct response to the litigation still pending before the court. The City’s Development Services Department brief submitted to the Council for this agenda item by Director Rod Sanchez makes legal claims that remain an open question before the court. Whether or not the space above streets and between utility poles is a traditional public forum or not and whether or not the City can restrict free speech in this forum is not a settled matter. Judge Xavier Rodriguez' ruling even states that the plaintiffs may prevail. “To make changes to the ordinance prior to any final action by the court is beyond the pale. The Judge stated in his first ruling that ‘...There is a distinct possibility that the plaintiffs may ultimately prevail on the claim that the ordinance violates the First Amendment as applied to them...’ so for the City to act now is entirely premature and may invite further First Amendment challenges over the blatant restriction of free speech in this forum.

“Protecting political speech and the right to dissent in a public forum was the primary purpose of the First Amendment. This case has enormous implications for future First Amendment rights over public streets. We’re urging the City to pull this agenda item until the litigation is settled and we ask that Councilwoman Diane Cibrian recuse herself from any action on this agenda item since one of the banners involved a recall of the Councilwoman,” states a concerned Terri Hall, TURF Founder and Director.

Then, in a turn of events that can only be construed as a double standard, the City at this very moment has granted a permit for a banner emblazoned with "Vagina Monologues" (see photo above) that’s hanging above Alamo Street near Durango, yet the same entity denied TURF’s banner about toll roads and a recall campaign for being what it claimed was too “controversial.”

“Isn't ‘Vagina Monologues’ controversial if not more so than toll roads? Some might call it outright offensive or even obscene speech. This unequal application of the ordinance bolsters our claim that the City is discriminating against TURF based on the content of its banner and suggests the City is blatantly suppressing TURF’s message while giving other controversial messages a free pass,” notes Hall.

For background on the case: go here
See complete text of comments submitted to the City Council below:
To be read prior to any vote on Agenda Item #21 regarding changes to the City Code for Street Banners

Submitted by Terri Hall, Founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), a non-profit, all-volunteer grassroots group promoting non-toll transportation solutions
Public comment on First Amendment Street Banner concerns

This agenda item is a direct response to a lawsuit filed by TURF challenging the City Development Services Department’s denial of permits for (2) TURF street banners under the current ordinance which reads: temporary signs “…must advertise or promote a non-commercial, not for private profit event, a charitable community drive, or a community announcement.”

This case is still in litigation and it is beyond the pale to make changes to this ordinance until the case is settled. Whether or not the City can restrict free speech based on content in this forum is an open question before the court that ought to be fully considered prior to any changes in the City code.

United States Judge Xavier Rodriguez states in his initial ruling: "Given the lack of definitions or limiting terms in the Code and the placement of decision-making authority in the director of development services, the ordinance appears to allow virtually unfettered discretion in the director to determine what qualifies as a 'community announcement.' Standing alone, this evidence would suggest that the ordinance is constitutionally problematic because that amount of discretion seems unreasonable in light of the nature of the forum and could permit the director to make decisions based on viewpoint.

"...There is a distinct possibility that the plaintiffs may ultimately prevail on the claim that the ordinance violates the First Amendment as applied to them..."

Whether or not the space above streets and between utility poles is a traditional public forum or not is an open question before the court where the plaintiffs may prevail. In the brief by Mr. Sanchez, he tries to claim the City has consistently shut out political speech. Yet based on the blatantly contradictory testimony in the case, it is NOT clear as to whether or not a consistent application of the ordinance has been applied since the City approved the banners knowing the content only to later deny them after much deliberation and confusion ensued about whether or not the banners were permissible under the code.

When the City denied the banners it stated TURF didn’t meet “the category and definition” only to later claim in court documents that the message of the banners is “controversial,” and therefore the legal basis for its denial. However, the statute gives the City no such authority to deny permits based on content, which violates of the citizens’ First Amendment rights in the U.S. Constitution.

Then, in a turn of events that can only be construed as a double standard, the City at this very moment has granted a permit for a banner emblazoned with "Vagina Monologues" (see photo here) that’s hanging above Alamo Street near Durango, yet the same entity denied TURF’s banner about toll roads and a recall campaign, which the City approved and then later denied for being what it claimed was too controversial! Isn't "Vagina Monologues" controversial if not more so than toll roads?! Some might call it outright offensive or even vulgar and obscene speech. This unequal application of the ordinance bolsters our claim that the City is discriminating against TURF based on the content of its banner and suggests the City is blatantly suppressing TURF’s message while giving other controversial messages a free pass.

The City of San Antonio seems to lack the proper respect for Free Speech and the fair treatment of ALL groups, regardless of their make-up or message. The City denied TURF’s banners simply because it disagrees with the message of toll opponents. We the people own the public right of way, and the First Amendment protects the citizens from government gag orders on speech, particularly political speech.

First, we ask that this agenda be pulled and that any changes to the ordinance occur after the lawsuit is settled and the public is allowed to fully weigh-in on this crucial Free Speech issue. Second, Councilwoman Diane Cibrian should recuse herself from any action relating to this item since one of the banners involves a recall campaign for the councilwoman.

© 2009 TURF:

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

"I don't know where all our money goes for all the taxes we're paying. "Where's all that money going?"

Spanish Company to Build Private Tollroad


By Scott Gordon
Copyright 2009

Drivers frustrated with gridlock along Loop 820 and the Airport Freeway will have a new option by 2015: Two new toll lanes in each direction.

Dubbed "The North Tarrant Express," it will be the first private toll road in North Texas.
Texas Transportation Commissioners on Thursday approved a plan by private investors, led by a company in Spain, to build the 13-mile project. It will run from Interstate 35W to the Highway 121 split and double the current capacity.

"By reaching out to the private sector, we're able to bring these improvements to fruition years if not decades sooner," said Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Peters.
The investors will pay for the construction and hire their own contractors and, in exchange, receive the tolls for the next 52 years.
The new highway will be owned and managed by the Texas Department of Transportation.
In another first, the tolls will vary depending on the time of day or, specifically, the amount of traffic. The minimum toll for driving the entire 13-mile stretch will be $1.20. The maximum will be $6.50. Large trucks will pay even more.
"I don't know where all our money goes for all the taxes we're paying," said Vic Dean, a field service representative who often drives along Loop 820. "Where's all that money going?"

State highway planners say the gas tax, the major source of funding new highways, does not provide enough money to build what is needed.

"By reaching out to the private sector, we can help bridge that funding gap and move these projects forward," Peters said.
Critics say taxpayers will lose money in the long run, while foreign companies make the profits. Texas Rep. Lon Burnam, a Democrat from Fort Worth, said privatizing public projects is a mistake.
"In the end we have been very pennywise and pound foolish," Burnam said. "We need the extra lanes. The way they're going about it is the wrong way."

The $2 billion project is scheduled to begin in late 2010 and be finished by 2015.

Drivers would have the option of taking the current free lanes or pay the toll.

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Apparently these privatization deals aren't sweet enough to sell themselves."

Toll Roads Are Paved With Bad Intentions

Conservatives have stoked hostility toward the state.


The Wall Street Journal
Copyright 2009

Back in the days when the market was a kind of secular god and all the world thrilled to behold the amazing powers of private capital, the idea of privatizing highways and airports and other bits of our transportation infrastructure made a certain kind of sense.

Private businesses did everything better than the state, we were told. And that meant even tasks as inherently public as maintaining bridges and roads.

And so, during the Bush years, promoting these public-private partnerships became one of the great causes of the U.S. Department of Transportation. It was nothing less than a "revolution," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters exclaimed last June on her blog the Fast Lane. It was a "quiet revolution," she wrote, on which the administration planned to "turn up the volume."
The Opinion Journal Widget

But something happened on the road to privatopia, with so many brilliant schemes of the last few decades melting away in this harsh new day of failing banks and plummeting asset prices. Recent events have even pushed the ugly word "nationalization" into the conversation, with our brightest pundits choking over those alien syllables.

Thus was highway privatization stripped of its extremeness. It is no longer one of those things that you need urgently to do because all the cool European kids are doing it.

The thing now is to seem concerned in a vaguely social-democratic way. Ikea is calling on consumers to "Embrace Change." The new Pepsi campaign, shouting "Hope" and "Yes You Can," mirrors the Obama-for-president effort. And a group of infrastructure- privatization boosters, including Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, have recast their project as a sort of "private stimulus." As one of the group's members told The Wall Street Journal last week, private infrastructure investment is "really a perfect fit with Obama's objectives."

How so? Well, state governments are in straitened circumstances these days, scarcely able to afford the upkeep on the roads and bridges they inherited from our statist ancestors. Indeed, one scarcely ever sees the word "infrastructure" without the inevitable qualifier, "crumbling." And few are willing to raise the gasoline taxes which pay for the repairs.

So the thing to do is give up. Lease those roads and bridges out. Let a private company collect the tolls, widen the lanes, and fill the potholes. They can make it work, and when they do, they will create jobs.

Besides, the private-sector group insisted, if we don't take the money, someone else will. It's a harsh, competitive world out there, and governments all over the world are racing one another to turn their infrastructure into investment opportunities. Americans must act "before private funds are attracted elsewhere."

Just to make sure Americans do the right thing, the pro-privatization worthies further suggested, in the words of a Reuters account, that maybe the coming federal stimulus package "should tie stimulus funds to private capital involvement." Apparently these privatization deals aren't sweet enough to sell themselves.

But there's good reason to be reluctant to privatize. It doesn't take an MBA to figure out that we didn't build our Interstate highways in order to create opportunities for venture capitalists. The purpose was public service.

Transferring them to the private sector, at the very least, complicates this mission. At worst it will effectively close those roads to the part of the population that can't afford the revolutionary tolls that private ownership will surely bring. The cost of, well, just about everything will start to rise as more pieces of the transportation system embrace their for-profit destiny and start charging whatever the desperate commuter will bear. Wear and tear on the remaining public-sector roads will certainly increase as traffic is driven off the tollways.

And even if your governor's heart is set on immediately extracting the long-term value of a highway, privatization isn't the cheapest way to do it. Public borrowing is costly these days, true, but interest rates on municipal bonds are still considerably lower than those borne by corporate debt. Allowing a private rather than a public entity to take over your toll road merely means that your tolls will have to be that much higher to cover their more expensive debt.

Perhaps it's best to go back to the ideological beginning. One of the reasons our roads and bridges are falling apart is public hostility to tax increases -- gasoline taxes in particular. This attitude, in turn, is largely the product of the generalized distrust of government that conservatives have stoked for decades.

So we've starved the beast for years, and now the utterly predictable consequences have come to pass. But the ideologues responsible aren't really to blame. Governments have failed not because the right undermined them for decades. They've failed because it is their nature to fail. The answer is to throw ourselves on the mercy of the market -- to embrace this last, worst outsourcing scheme of them all.

And once you've signed on to that, they've got a 99-year lease on a bridge they'd like to sell you.

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© 2009 The Wall Street Journal:

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"The biggest hurdle facing the Trinity toll road has been very low traffic projections."

Trinity Parkway Already Taking Its Toll


By Jim Schutze
The Dallas Observer

The Dallas City Council's Trinity River Corridor Project Committee gets a briefing at 9:30 this morning on hurdles facing the Trinity River toll road project. They'll have people there from the North Texas Tollway Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I really wish they had thought to ask me. I could have whipped together a PowerPoint for them called "Biggest Hurdle: Really Dumb Idea to Begin With." Ah, but there I go again.

At one point this morning, they are supposed to talk about the money. That should be interesting. The real key there is the traffic projections. From the beginning, the biggest hurdle facing the Trinity toll road has been very low traffic projections. It doesn't go where people want to go. Especially with a toll road, that means not enough toll collections to pay off the bonds for the road.

What that means is that in order to do this project, somebody's got to get some free money. I wonder if this is where they're hoping to get a bunch of Obamamoney.

Another thing to watch is the physical design itself. The briefing materials for today's session seem to show the road built as an elevated bridge the length of and parallel to the levees.

Does anybody remember when the city said it was going to pay for the excavation of the lakes by selling the dirt to the tollway authority so the road could be built on a dirt shelf? I don't see a dirt shelf in these graphics. Wow, if this whole thing has to go up on a bridge, that's going to take a trainload of Obamamoney.

And, by the way, that wonderful view of the river they keep saying will spur fancy residential development along the Trinity? Looks like you'll need Superman's X-ray vision to see through the toll road.

I have an idea that might solve that, if anybody would ever invite me to make a presentation. I really want to help. I don't want to give away too much of my idea, because it's not patented yet. But, just as a teaser, I'll tell you this much: It involves giant mirrors on the Oak Cliff side and works on the principle of a periscope.

Plus, it would be coupled with a public education campaign telling people how important it is not to look at the toll road when they look out there. Tell you what, I'll do my own damn briefing. Later. For now, Merten's on his way to City Hall. Poor guy.

© 2009 The Dallas Observer:

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Eminent domain still in Rick Perry's crosshairs

Governor owes it to play fair with Texas property owners


Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2009

Don’t look now, but the gubernatorial matchup expected between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2010 just heated up.

In the cross hairs: The complicated issue of eminent domain.

Our caveat: Look beyond all rhetoric, consider all legislative bills proposed about eminent domain and remember that eminent domain is about more than just the recently redubbed Trans-Texas Corridor.

State officials tell us that 97 percent of land in Texas is privately owned, which means this issue resonates with many. If you have a mere backyard, it ought to resonate.

You can be forgiven for wondering if Perry did a remarkable political conversion the past few days, given his announcement last week that he was fully backing reform of eminent domain laws, despite vetoing legislation providing just that in 2007.

It was legislation, we might add, that won huge bipartisan support from our state lawmakers.

Now Perry says it’s time for a constitutional amendment to ensure the rights of property owners against abuses of eminent domain. The amendment, as proposed by state Sen. Robert Duncan, would prevent private property from being taken for economic and private development.

Perry also backs reforms in another bill authored by Duncan and Rep. Rob Orr.

We salute Perry for his current stand on the issue. But we ask now that Duncan, Orr and the governor go further and consider greater protection of property rights in the eminent domain bill authored by yet another Republican, state Rep. Beverly Woolley, of Houston.

Her bill, despite overwhelming approval in the House and Senate, was killed by Perry at the end of the last session.

Some of Perry’s past supporters — including the Texas Farm Bureau — consider elements of Woolley’s recently refiled bill vital, in that it ensures property owners are fairly compensated for damage to their land when access to remaining property is significantly diminished.

It’s an important point, especially for those who follow conservative principles in property rights. If a piece of your land is taken for, say, a road or electric grid or gas line, you should be paid not only for the land you’ve lost but any drop in value of the land you still retain, especially if ready access to that property and to nearby roads and highways is diminished.

Most lawmakers, led by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, already subscribe to this principle. Sen. Hutchison has signaled she does as well. It remains now only for the governor to jump on the bandwagon and seal the deal, neatly resolving the matter, even as major, land-gobbling projects loom in our future.

© 2009 Waco Tribine-Herald:

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Hutchison: "I did not have an epiphany on private property rights. I've been there since the beginning."

Hutchison weighs in on eminent domain


The Associated Press
Copyrigt 2009

AUSTIN — U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison jumped into the eminent domain battle simmering at the state Capitol on Monday, saying landowners whose access to their remaining property is diminished because of eminent domain should be fairly compensated by the state.

Hutchison, who plans to challenge Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2010, told the Texas Farm Bureau that she's been a longtime ally and that addressing reduced land access is a part of protecting private property rights. Afterward, she told news reporters she "absolutely" believes the state should pay property owners for diminished access caused by eminent domain.

"I think diminished access, that diminishes the use of property, is part of what should be compensated," she said.

That stance, in agreement with the farm bureau, appears to put her at odds with Perry.

The issue came up in a fight two years ago in the Legislature when Perry irritated the farm bureau by vetoing an eminent domain bill that addressed it. At the time of his 2007 veto, Perry said one reason for rejecting the bill was because it would have expanded damages a landowner could recover to include diminished access to property when part of a piece of property or nearby property is condemned.

Last week, Perry said that legislation was loaded up at the last minute with "personal interest legislation" and high costs for taxpayers. "I think I made the right decision then," he said.

Debate over diminished access already is popping up this legislative session, and eminent domain is likely to be an issue in next year's GOP primary for governor.

Perry took a stand for property rights Thursday when he invoked the name of Texas independence fighter Davy Crockett and said he wants to amend the state constitution to further protect private landowners from eminent domain abuses. He didn't directly address the farm bureau's concerns about reduced access.

Perry's spokesman, Katherine Cesinger, said Monday in response to Hutchison's remarks that the law already allows for compensation for diminished access. She said Perry believed the 2007 bill would have taken payments to an "unnecessary level."

Texas Farm Bureau President Kenneth Dierschke said Thursday that Perry needs to sign "a meaningful bill — one that addresses compensation" to help restore his reputation as a defender of property rights.

Dierschke praised the governor's recent comments about eminent domain reform. But he said the farm bureau won't be satisfied with a "half loaf" and said certain property owner protections are needed, such as requirements for good faith negotiations and payment for all factors a buyer and seller would normally consider.

"He has not yet said anything about compensation for lost property value when takings reduce access to a property," Dierschke said.

In an apparent reference to Perry, Hutchison told the farm leaders: "I did not have an epiphany on private property rights. I've been there since the beginning. And I hope that you all will remember that I have been there since the beginning."

Hutchison reiterated her opposition to Perry's proposed Trans-Texas Corridor toll road network. The Texas Department of Transportation recently said it was dropping the name "Trans-Texas Corridor," but Perry and his aides have said parts of the project will continue, including a toll highway planned to run parallel to Interstate 35.

Over the weekend, Hutchison gathered with hundreds of campaign supporters in Austin for a private strategy session on the 2010 governor's race. She released a long list of big-name supporters, but it didn't include any state lawmakers. She said she hasn't asked any state legislators or statewide office holders to take a public position in the race yet.

"They want to be able to do the legislative business without any retribution," she said Monday. Perry has veto power over legislators' bills. "I'm not saying I think that (there would be retribution from Perry) but I don't want to put anyone in a position of jeopardy."

Perry declined to comment on Hutchison's campaign when he made an appearance of his own over the weekend at an anti-abortion rally.

© 2009 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:


Monday, January 26, 2009

"Texas Farm Bureau members are still upset over Perry's 2007 veto of a bill to protect private-property rights."

Kay to Farm Bureau: I'm your friend (and Perry isn't)


Wayne Slater
The Dallas Morning news
Copyright 2009

Kay Bailey Hutchison got a warm reception from the Texas Farm Bureau today, where she served notice she and Rick Perry are on opposite sides when it comes to toll roads and private property rights.

Hutchison told about 400 Farm Bureau members in Austin she'll be their champion on private property rights. Without mentioning Perry by name, Hutchison took aim at the Republican governor's ambitious toll-road initiative.

"I was there from the beginning" in opposition to Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor project, which the state has since scaled back. "It was just taking away so many rights of Texans and turning them over to a foreign corporation. I didn't think it was healthy."

Perry wasn't among the speakers. A Farm Bureau official said members are still upset over his 2007 veto of a bill to protect private-property rights.

Perry said the bill would have sparked too many lawsuits over how much to compensate landowners who claimed "diminished access" when a toll road goes through their property.

Said Hutchison: "I think diminished access, which diminishes the use of their property, is part of what should be compensated."

For his part, Perry has scrambled to make amends with property-rights folks. He announced last week he supports a constitutional amendment to strengthen landowner rights. And he mounted a full-throated defense of his road-building plan in an interview in The Dallas Morning News.

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

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