Friday, February 06, 2009

“In 20 years, we'll have a cash flow that everybody will envy.”

Details offered on bus, toll agency


By Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

Details in the latest version of a plan to merge the city's bus and toll-road agencies, aired at a public hearing Thursday, have VIA Metropolitan Transit doing the swallowing.

And a firewall that only voters could dismantle would prevent the super agency from using sales tax funds and bus fares to subsidize any of some 70 miles of planned toll roads now on the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority's books.

But if the fused agencies ever build a toll road and pay back the bonds, ongoing toll fees could then help pay for light rail or other transit projects without a public vote.

“We will find a way to build a (toll) road,” Alamo RMA Chairman Bill Thornton said at a joint meeting of the two boards prior to the hearing. “In 20 years, we'll have a cash flow that everybody will envy.”

VIA board member James Lifshutz said he wants to make sure the sales tax and bus fares aren't raided to foot some of the costs for toll roads.

“At the end of the day, toll roads need to finance transit and not the other way around,” said Lifshutz, an advocate for developing light rail.

No need to worry about that, Thornton said, because transit never generates surpluses.

“Twenty years from now, transit will still be subsidized,” he said. “The revenue box is going to be subsidized forever.”

Meshing the agencies also won't guarantee a public vote on toll roads as officials had said in December, when the idea was to pull them into an Advanced Transportation District passed by voters in 2004. Campaign promises at the time forbid ATD spending on tolls or rail without such votes.

Under VIA's umbrella, a toll-road vote would be needed only if local sources such as a sales tax were used, not any state money, said attorney Tim Tuggey, who's drafting state legislation to merge the agencies.

“That (promise) was tied to the ATD vote and ATD money,” said Tuggey, a former VIA and ATD chairman who now advises the Alamo RMA.

The ATD, with a board membership identical to VIA's, would also be blended into the overarching agency.

The ATD collects a quarter-cent per dollar sales tax, with 1/8-cent spent on city streets and state highways and the rest on buses, while VIA oversees a half-cent for buses.

The super agency might also get a chance to ask voters to enact other local taxes and fees. A city-county Transportation Task Force last week called for a change in state law to make it happen, and in coming months might recommend an election to raise the sales tax.

Ballot language, not yet written, could tag those new funds to help pay for projects ranging from light rail to toll roads.

Three speakers at the hearing supported the proposal to merge the agencies while two voiced doubts. Among concerns is that a draft bill still isn't publicly available.

“What are we supposed to comment on,” toll critic Terri Hall of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom said later. “It's insane.”

Just before the hearing, Tuggey outlined what the legislation would do, saying:

The 11-member VIA board would pick up two more seats, with the new members initially coming from the board of the subsumed Alamo RMA.

The city and county would each appoint an extra member to the board, six and four, respectively. Suburban cities would continue seating two.

Other board rules would stay the same — two-year terms, eight-year cap on service and ethics obligations.

The VIA, ATD and Alamo RMA boards, San Antonio City Council, Bexar County Commissioners Court and the Texas Department of Transportation would all have to agree.

© 2009 San Antonio Express-News :

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"I think a lot of those voters wouldn’t mind a do-over."

Stuck in Park: Dallas’ Trinity Parkway has a budget deficit of a billion dollars. Seriously.


By Matt Pulle
Texas Watchdog
Copyright 2009

It’s exceedingly rare in politics for one side in a campaign to be proven right so quickly, but that’s what’s happened in Dallas’ Trinity River debate.

In November 2007, voters here chose to construct a $1.8 billion toll road on top of the levees as part of the city’s decade-long Trinity River Project. And now, a year and a half later, I think a lot of those voters wouldn’t mind a do-over.

Throughout the campaign, opponents of the highway—a scattered coalition of fiscal conservatives, young progressives and East Dallas neighborhood types–brought up two main points: One, there wasn’t nearly enough funding to build the road. Two, it would be impossible, if not dangerous, to build a toll road in a floodplain with downtown Dallas in the path of that flood.

Today, the Dallas Morning News, which endorsed the plan to build the highway, reported that “the Trinity Parkway could cost close to $1 billion more than the North Texas Tollway Authority can afford to pay to build it.” That’s because the toll road will simply not generate enough in user fees to pay for its construction.

Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, another major proponent of the toll road with egg on his face, said that there may be other sources the city can dip into, but a billion dollar deficit won’t exactly be covered by a few creative grants. This project, which has already been delayed countless times, is in serious trouble, which you can read about here and here.

The second point the opponents of the road made was that the highway would require an engineering marvel the likes of which would be revered for centuries thereafter the way we now look at the pyramids or the coliseum. I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the point. In any case, in the same Morning News story about the billion-dollar deficit, we learn that the opponents are almost certainly right about their second bone of contention.

“A project like the Trinity Parkway is different than anything we have ever done before,” said Gene Rice, the Trinity project manager for the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] Fort Worth office. “It’s got its own learning curve for everybody. It is such an unusual use of the flood plain inside a federal flood-control project.”

Now Rice is optimistic the tricky highway can be built. … if, of course, the sky is the limit:

“I honestly believe there is an engineering solution to everything,” Rice said. “But it’s just a matter of how much money and time you want to spend to solve it.”

That’s reassuring.

© 2009 Texas Watchdog:

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"Every single thing Angela Hunt told voters before that election is turning out to be true..."

But, See, You Already Knew the Trinity River Toll Road Was a Billion Dollars Over Budget


By Jim Schutze
The Dallas Observer
Copyright 2009

trinity boondoggle Toll roads are expensive! But pretty pictures? They cost ya nothing.

I guess I read The Dallas Morning News every morning just to make sure my bile ducts are still working. Today we have a story by Michael Lindenberger proving that, with the right editors, you can make even a good reporter look like a fool.

I am talking about Lindenberger's story "revealing" that the Trinity River toll road is a billion dollars over budget, even before they design the thing, and that the North Texas Tollway Authority ain't gonna make up the difference. Problem? Well, what reveal?

Lindenberger knew all of this before the November 2007 referendum on the toll road, as as I reported in the paper version of Unfair Park at the time. The News sat on the story until after the votes were counted. But Lindenberger had been told by top NTTA officials weeks before the election that they were not going to be able to pay for the road, in spite of Mayor Tom Leppert's repeated promises to voters that he had the NTTA's commitment.

As Angela Hunt says way down deep in the jump of Lindeberger's story, none of this is news. All of this has been said over and over again by critics of the project. The only thing that has changed is that now The News can't find a way out of reporting it.

The story in the paper this morning should have been this: Every single thing Angela Hunt told voters before that election is turning out to be true, and every single thing Tom Leppert and The News editorial page said was a lie. Fat chance of ever seeing that story in Izvestia.

But it goes on throughout today's paper. The News has a story on national job losses on Page One next to a story about a job fair in Dallas where way more people showed up than could find jobs. What isn't in paper today is the amazingly good-news part of this same story that was on WFAA-Channel 8 last night: In the face of all this gloom and doom, the Dallas Inland Port is enjoying phenomenal counter-cyclical success, adding major new tenants and hundreds of jobs in recent months. Why wouldn't a story like that be on Page One?

Well, I have already written way too much about this, but the official party line at The News is anti-inland port and pro-Perot Alliance Airport. Which is in Fort Worth.

Believe me. I've been in the newspaper business a long time. I think I know how story judgment goes. Some editor has got to have said in some meeting, "Jeez, I've got a story that in spite of all this gloom and doom, that inland port thing is going and blowing. They've brought more jobs to Dallas in the middle of this crisis than we were getting in the same time period during good times. What do you think? Do you want it for Page One?" And somebody in that meeting had to say no. Go figure.

My column in the paper next week is a different story about the toll road project -- why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has turned chilly on it. This thing is not going to happen. When it finally dies, Unfair Park has got to publish a rogue's gallery -- head shots of the people who pushed for it for years. It should run beneath the headline, "Scientists Say Biggest Idiots on Planet Discovered in Texas City."

© 2009 The Dallas Observer:

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Leppert bent and twisted the truth as he saw fit, claiming that the NTTA would be picking up the majority of the bill for the $1.4 billion road."

Before the Trinity River Toll Road Referendum, Mayor Tom Leppert Promised the NTTA Would Kick In a Billion. Whoopsie.


By Sam Merten
The Dallas Observer
Copyright 2009

This mailer was sent to thousands of voters prior to the 2007 Trinity toll road referendum by the Vote No! campaign.

As Jim pointed out earlier, transportation writer Michael Lindenberger came up short yet again in today's Dallas Morning News regarding the Trinity Turnpike. Lindenberger's biggest blunder was exposed shortly after the November 2007 vote, and he made another when he reported the price tag of the road at $1.8 billion without explaining that the cost was a 40 percent increase from the previous number released by the North Texas Tollway Authority.

But his biggest omission in today's story was not mentioning the promises made by Mayor Tom Leppert regarding the funding of the road.

Throughout the toll road debates, Leppert made it crystal clear that the NTTA would be picking up a billion dollars of the cost of the road. This was, to put it nicely, extremely misleading, as I wrote in an October 2007 story that proved the NTTA made no financial commitment to the project. But Leppert and the Vote No'ers kept with their story, even using it in a mailer claiming, "Don't let Angela Hunt send more than $1 billion down the river..."

In an op-ed in The News before the vote, I wrote: "The opposition will tell you the cost is not important because only $84 million in taxpayer money is going into this project and the North Texas Tollway Authority will pay for the majority of the road. However, the NTTA hasn't made a commitment on funding."

So despite Lindenberger reporting a gap in the financing of the $1.8 billion road of nearly a billion dollars and knowing Leppert was telling anyone who would listen more than a year ago that the NTTA would be kicking in a billion dollars, Leppert's name was only mentioned in his article to get a reaction on the funding gap. And when Leppert told him there are a lot of buckets of funding to dip into, apparently Lindenberger didn't bother asking where these buckets are or how much cash is in them.

After the jump, we go back in time and provide you with audio and a transcript from October 2007 when Leppert assured me that the NTTA would indeed be kicking in a billion bucks for this sucker.

Update: I asked Mayor Leppert for a comment regarding his previous statements and what the buckets of funding are that he mentioned in the DMN story, along with the amount of funding in each "bucket." When pressed for answers, the mayor's chief of staff, Chris Heinbaugh, replied, "We won't have any comment."

Shortly after finding out that NTTA had no firm financial commitment to the project, I asked Leppert about it after a October 22, 2007, Vote No! gathering at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. The audio is below followed by a transcript.

Me: Can you explain how the $1.3 billion breaks down? Who's paying for what because you say 90 percent...

Mayor Leppert: "Sure. The $1.3 billion has roughly about $300 million worth of contingencies in it. The city pays the $84 million number that Ron [Natinsky] played with. Then you've got miscellaneous monies that I haven't added up that are probably, when it all gets totaled, probably about $30 or $40 million. The rest of it is financed through the Tollway Authority. The Tollway Authority goes out, raises bonds, the bonds are what pays for it, and then the revenues from the tolls are what pay for it. There's nothing different to that. That's what's being done all over the world today. It's a very straightforward, straightforward proposition."

Me: So roughly a billion you're saying from the NTTA?

Mayor Leppert: "Yeah. Yeah. And the other thing, go, if you want to, and I know there's a lot of things I've asked folks to do that they haven't done, but if you want to go look at the roads, the road projects, that TxDOT or that you see in this region are doing, eight out of 10 of them are over a billion dollars. That's what it costs for doing roads."

Me: Here's what I want to get at as far as you're saying the NTTA is going to commit a billion, now what I have done is I talked to the NTTA and they said they're not on the line for anything. They're not committing to anything.

Mayor Leppert: "Well...would you commit if you had this referendum sitting in front of you?"

Me: But don't you think to say...

Mayor Leppert: "I feel comfortable. They have told me and I've asked them the question. Where we're going, if we can go forward, is this viable? Can you finance the bonds? Yes. And the answer is yes."

Me:They've told you...

Mayor Leppert: "Yes."

Me:They can finance...

Mayor Leppert: "Yes."

Me: A billion dollars worth of bonds?

Mayor Leppert:
"Yes. That they can make this thing work. That's what it is. Yes."

In a July 2008 op-ed in The News, I wrote: "Topping Mr. Leppert's list of so-called accomplishments is his leadership to defeat a referendum that would have removed a toll road from Trinity Park. But at several debates, Mr. Leppert bent and twisted the truth as he saw fit, claiming that the North Texas Tollway Authority would be picking up the majority of the bill for the $1.4 billion road. However, the NTTA refused to make any public claims about its financial commitment."

Despite allowing me to tie Leppert's claim to the NTTA's inability to fund the road twice (my only two bylines in The News, by the way), somehow, in more than a year since the election, the paper itself continues to fail to do so.

© 2009 The Dallas Observer:

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

"While we are making headway in getting some of our issues addressed, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels."

TTC issue far from finished


By Staff Reports
The Nueces County Record Star
Copyright 2009

The Texas Department of Transportation's change of heart on the concept of the Trans-Texas Corridor came as good news for most Texans, but the issue is far from resolved, a Nueces County Farm Bureau representative said.

Farm Bureau president Jim Massey IV said there is still more work to be done to address transportation needs around the state.

"Until the legislation is changed to remove the statutes authorizing the Trans-Texas Corridor, we still have work ahead of us," he said. "There is a need for new roads and infrastructure in Texas, but the original Trans-Texas Corridor plans were not the way to go about it."

Some of the highlights Massey noted in the new proposal include breaking major corridor projects into smaller segments and the Texas Department of Transportation seeking local input for the development of each segment.

"It is important that community needs are considered, and that impacted landowners be actively involved in the planning process," Massey said.

Some parts of the TTC concepts still remain intact, such as toll roads, development agreements and issues revolving around eminent domain. But Farm Bureau leaders at all levels are working with lawmakers to address those concerns, Massey said.

"While we are making headway in getting some of our issues addressed, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels," he said. "The time for reform is now."

The Nueces County Record Star:

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Craddick hacks sanitize computer files

On Craddick's last day, computers wiped clean

Former speaker followed procedures, staffer says.


By Jay Root
Copyright 2009

Before the Texas House voted Tom Craddick out of the speaker's post, state officials wiped his computers clean and deleted scores of electronic files, raising concerns that public records might have been destroyed.

Files on one shared computer network drive were saved, but unless Craddick specifically requested them, computer hard drives and electronic records associated with individual employees were deleted, officials said.

It was not clear Wednesday night whether the deleted files were backed up on other computers. A spokeswoman for Craddick said the speaker followed standard procedures for deleting computer files and retained paper files, which were sent into storage.

Craddick left the speaker's office on Jan. 13, returning to the state House as a rank-and-file member with a smaller staff. The computers were removed from the speaker's office to be wiped clean at 5 p.m. Jan. 12, said Anne Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the Texas Legislative Council. Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, was sworn in as speaker at noon the following day.

But before Craddick gave up the gavel to Straus, the Legislative Counsel, which oversees computer issues for the Legislature, let him take what he wanted and deleted everything else, officials told The Associated Press. Billingsley said the computers from Craddick's office were recycled and that Straus got his own computer systems that did not have the old files on them.

Milton Rister, the executive director of the Legislative Council, said that an attorney general's opinion has said a lawmaker's records belong to him or her.

He said Craddick's records were handled the same as they would have been for any other member.

Billingsley said that the computers from Craddick's office were recycled and that Straus got his own computer systems that did not have old files on them.

"Everything that Speaker Craddick had on his computers as far as data and records, he was allowed to take with him into his (state representative's) office," Billingsley said. "As far as the computers go, they took all the computers for the speaker's office, and they got wiped."

Deleting computer files from hard drives follows standard legislative procedures, said Craddick's chief of staff Kate Huddleston.

But it's not clear what files were deleted, setting off alarms among government watchdogs.

Fred Lewis, an independent government watchdog, called the deletions "outrageous."

"If it's on a state computer, it's a state record. They're not his records. They belong to the people of Texas," Lewis said. “I think there should be an investigation on whether or not he illegally destroyed state records.”

Huddleston said a shared network drive that all employees and the speaker could access was retained and taken to Craddick’s new office in the Capitol. The former speaker took some files off hard drives and a network drive that employees were able to independently access. But Huddleston said she wasn’t sure what was kept and what was not.

“I’d love to tell you we have all of it,” Huddleston said. “But if he didn’t want them ... they were deleted.”

Huddleston noted that paper files were retained and sent into storage.

A call placed by the AP to Straus' office was not immediately returned late Wednesday.

© 2009 Associated Press:

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"I think we have to clamp down on Governor Perry. I think the legislature has given Governor Perry too much power."

Is the Corridor Really Dead?


By Roger Gray
Copyright 2009

In 2002, Governor Rick Perry recommended a veritable 4000-mile spider-web of toll roads all built by and making money for private contractors overseas.

Now though, everyone says the idea is dead, but is it?

"There are a lot more people against the Trans Texas Corridor concept than there are for it," said Corridor critic, and Whitehouse rancher Hank Gilbert.

$175 billion dollars was the price tag for the Governor's vision, the Trans-Texas Corridor; part of a north south behemoth of a highway from Canada to Mexico.

It would have run down Interstate 35, and here in East Texas, down Interstate 59. And it would have been the largest eminent domain land acquisition in state history.

"Closer to a million acres by the time you take in non-accessible land."

That's the equivalent of condemning 90% of Rhode Island," Gilbert said.

It was based on a cherished political mantra, "the private sector always does it better and cheaper."

But, deregulation in higher education and the power industry have sent costs in those two sectors heading steadily toward low-earth-orbit. Other state privatization schemes all ended up costing more. So, the logical question is, what are you thinking?

Lauren Reinlie, of Texans for Public Justice, said the wheels for the corridor were greased with money.

"The Governor received $3.4 million from the companies who later landed contracts under the TTC plan," Reinlie told us. "And those same companies spent $6.1 million for lobbyists. It's tough for grass roots people to stop money."

Hank Gilbert pointed out that Rick Perry's former press secretary, former chief of staff and his legislative director all lobbied for contractors in the project.

"Now it's such an intermingled cast between these public/private partnership contractors and the Governor's office," according to Gilbert.

"We see that in a lot of cases,' Reinlie replied. "That people who have been working for the Governor then leave the governor's office to go to work for private companies and those companies are often given contracts."

And the Texas Department of Transportation was virtually unstoppable.

Gilbert said, "TxDOT in its current state is run by a five member commission. Those five men are appointed by the Governor."

"TxDOT and the companies even went so far as to sue the Attorney General to keep the contracts secret," Reinlie revealed.

And then it all fell apart. In town hall meetings across the state the virtually unanimous response was a loud and emphatic "No."

"When you had over 30,000 people comment against this project, it got their attention," Gilbert observed.

It got the attention of legislators like Tommy Merritt.

"I think we have to clamp down on Governor Perry," Merritt told us. "I think the legislature has given Governor Perry too much power."

So, now, TXDOT says the Trans-Texas Corridor is dead, but is it really?

"It's kind of like setting a hog trap out there in the pasture and you catch that big old sow. Do you really think your pasture's not going to get rooted up anymore? Don't bet on it," concluded Gilbert.

The lesson here is that public opinion really does matter. It's worth remembering when the next big idea out of Austin or Washington heads down the corridor toward your wallet.


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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Do you think Rick Perry supports property rights? Think again.

Perry hurts property owners


Letters to the editor
The Herald-Zeitung
Copyright 2009

This letter is in response to Gov. Perry preaching private property rights.

Rick Perry wants to get your votes. Before you support him, check his property rights history.

He was the primary person pushing Texas House Bill 3588, the Trans Texas Corridor. Under eminent domain, you would stand a chance of getting a fair payment for your property.

House Bill 3588 replaces eminent domain with “Declaration of Taking.” A property owner under Declaration of Taking wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell.

Check it out. Do an Internet search for Texas 130, the toll road from Georgetown to Seguin, which is part of the Trans-Texas Corridor. You’re looking for the contract for construction.

In the Technical Requirements section, you can read exactly what the property owner is facing under Declaration of Taking.

In 61 days, the contractor could have the property. No chance of having a Special Commissioners Hearing on property values. Property owners will not have enough time to get one scheduled.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office will be backing the contractor. Your eyes won’t believe what you’re reading in all respects of lost property rights.

House Bill 3588 is the law of land for Texas, no thanks to Perry.

Dave Pieper,

New Braunfels

© 2009 The Herald-Zeitung:

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TTC Land Grab meets Bridge to Nowhere: Sarah Palin joins forces with Rick Perry

Sarah Palin endorses Texas Gov. Rick Perry for re-election



The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN – Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has endorsed Rick Perry for re-election, calling him the "true conservative" in a primary election showdown with fellow Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Palin, who electrified the GOP base as the party's vice presidential nominee last year, has strong support among the party's social conservatives. Her endorsement appeared aimed at undercutting Hutchison's appeal with GOP women. Both groups will be important in picking the party's nominee in next year's Republican primary.

In a letter to "Texas Republican women" distributed by the Perry campaign, Palin touts the Texas governor's conservative credentials.

"He walks the walk of a true conservative. And he sticks by his guns – and you know how I feel about guns," she said.

Palin cited one of the Perry campaign's top issues – opposition to federal financial bailouts. And she singled out Perry's opposition to abortion rights.

"Not every child is born into ideal circumstances, but every life is sacred," Palin said in the mail appeal. "Rick Perry knows this – it is at the core of his being."

Hutchison supports abortion rights, although with restrictions, including parental notification and a ban on certain late-term procedures.

The GOP primary draws a large number of social conservatives for whom abortion and gay marriage are litmus-test issues. And in recent weeks, Perry has made high-profile appeals to abortion opponents.

Perry spokesman Mark Miner called Palin, seen as a potential future GOP presidential nominee, "a star of the Republican Party." Hutchison spokesman Todd Olsen said the senator has broad support among Texas Republicans "who know what is going on in Texas," adding: "We look forward to having the [Alaska] governor's support after the primary."

According to the Perry campaign, the letter went to 10,500 members of the Texas Federation of Republican Women, an influential organization whose members have been an important part of Hutchison's political base. The letter does not mention Hutchison by name.

Taffy Goldsmith of Dallas, a past president of Texas Federation of Republican Women and a Hutchison supporter, said Monday that she doesn't think the endorsement will have much effect.

"There is a lot of admiration for Governor Palin and what she has done both in her own state and to energize the party," Goldsmith said. "But women in this organization are so state-oriented and so well-grounded they will base their decisions on what they know, not what somebody else recommends."

As Republican governors, Perry and Palin have both been strong advocates of domestic drilling for oil and energy issues. Perry served last year as head of the Republican Governors Association and introduced Palin when she spoke to the group.

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

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Another 'Caronafiasco' in the works

Carona lays out his priorities in Senate


Michael Lindenberger
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

The oracle has spoken. Dallas' Sen. John Carona, transportation chairman, has set out his priorities in a highly anticipated letter to his colleagues.

The Quorum Report is calling it a Caronafesto, and it is rather thorough.

In it, he says he wants to pass a Constitutional Amendment to "end or begin systematic reduction" of the diversion of gas tax dollars for non-transportation uses. This is something he will have significant support for from the governor and leaders of the two houses of the Legislature. The trick will be how much of the $1.5 billion that is diverted every two years they will be able to restore in this session. A bill filed already in the Senate would restore just $150 million a year -- not much.

Carona set out several other options for more transportation funding, too. He wants TxDOT to scale back its 14,000-plus workforce, and wants to "modestly index" the gas tax to inflation, and wants to issue all the debt the agency can -- in that order.

But he also wants to continue the "less desirable" alternatives, too. Those include traditional toll roads and private toll roads -- and the long-term toll contracts that make the latter option work.

"Given our enormous funding needs, I do not believe we should eliminate this last set of mechanisms unless we are prepared to replace their revenue streams by materially increasing the gas tax. Even though my committee received frequent testimony in support of that option, along with newspaper editorials in favor from across the state, seeking a significant gas tax increase this session (beyond indexing) is a bridge too far."

He also gave support, in a general way, for the concept of local governments holding elections to raise local funds to cover transportation costs -- a key part of the Rail North Texas plan that is being pushed by leaders throughout this region. But Carona is also a realist: He knows the economy is working against the Big Fix.

"What is the potential for passage of all these? Better than any session before, but still mixed. We cannot have that debate in a vacuum, where each option stands or falls on its own as if one has no implications for others. ..."
© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

"Uh, put the levee at risk? Is that important?"

Just Another Boring Trinity Story

trinity sailboats
You wanted sailboats on the Trinity River? You got sailboats on the Trinity River.


By Jim Schutze
The Dallas Observer
Copyright 2009

It's the tale of two cities:

In this Dallas Morning News story, today's closed-door meeting between staffs of the City of Dallas and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is all about irritating bureaucratic delays in the Trinity River toll road project.

In this WFAA-Channel 8 story, we learn that the meeting really is about dealing with problems that could cause a Katrina-like disaster in downtown Dallas.

Little bitta diff'rence.

Rudy Bush at The News tells us that the Corps for the third time has turned down requests to bore a bunch of holes in the levees -- those big dirt mounds along the river that keep downtown from flooding. Bush says that's bad because "the setback stands to further delay the project if it isn't resolved in a hastily scheduled meeting today of engineers from the Corps, the North Texas Tollway Authority and the city of Dallas."

Well, yeah, that. Over at WFAA, reporter Brad Watson hits that point high up in his story too, but Watson also mentions that "Gene Rice, with the Corps, said the latest NTTA plan put the levee at risk." Uh, put the levee at risk? Is that important?

Well, the equivalent story, if Dallas were on the slopes of Mount Washington, would be, "Drilling Risks Eruption." If this were Amarillo in the 1970s, the equivalent story would be, "Drilling at A-Bomb Plant Risks Explosion."

Yeah. Important.

The News version does get around to mentioning the danger-to-the-levees factor, but only at the bottom -- and then only by quoting city council member Angela Hunt, described as, "Angela Hunt, who has long opposed construction of the toll road inside the floodway." If this were New Orleans in early August 2005, just before Katrina hit, that would be, "Angela Hunt, this big worry-wart who thinks there's actually going to be like a flood or something in New Orleans, oh, sure."

© 2009 The Dallas Observer:

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"The Army Corps of Engineers isn't supposed to be cooperating with the city politicians..."

Trinity toll road delays continue


Copyright 2009

DALLAS — The North Texas Tollway Authority is still waiting for approval to start important soil tests needed to keep the Trinity River toll road on schedule.

An NTTA contractor bored for soil samples in the Trinity River floodway on Tuesday, but not along the east levee.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is not yet satisfied that NTTA has a safe plan. "We want to make sure that they're doing it correctly so they don't leave any weak spots in the levees," explained Gene Rice, the Corps' project manager.

NTTA must drill hundreds of holes in the levee for the toll road design that the Dallas City Council wants delivered to the Corps by May 1.

More than 10 years of delays have increased the highway's projected price tag to $1.8 billion.

NTTA met with the Corps on Tuesday with the hope of winning the agency's approval to begin drilling by next Monday at the latest.

But that date it may be too late to meet the May deadline, according to NTTA spokesman Dan Chapman. "Until we actually get in and start doing this drilling in the levee and see what results we get from that, it's really premature to make any kind of forecast of how that's going to be impacted," he said.

The Corps' fear of water entering the levee from drill holes is not unfounded. Sections of the levees can slide when the soil becomes soaked.

A section giving way during high water would be catastrophic.

That's why toll road critic and city council member Angela Hunt doesn't like any city pressure on the Corps to meet the 2014 deadline to finish.

"The Corps isn't supposed to be cooperating with the city," Hunt said. "The Corps is supposed to be evaluating the safety of our levee system to protect the citizens of Dallas."

Each day of delay increases the highway's cost about $333,000.


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"The Corps is not there to support this toll road [and get it ] built as quickly as possible. They are there to protect the citizens of Dallas..."

Corps of Engineers again rejects plan on Trinity levee soil testing


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

For a third time since December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has rejected a plan to test soil in the Trinity River levees a critical step in designing the long-planned toll road inside the floodway.

The setback stands to further delay the project if it isn't resolved in a hastily scheduled meeting today of engineers from the Corps, the North Texas Tollway Authority and the city of Dallas.

Gene Rice, project manager for the Corps of Engineers in Fort Worth, said he believes that problems with the third plan submitted by the NTTA can be overcome quickly and that drilling can begin soon.

NTTA officials, who are eager to bore hundreds of sample holes into the levees, are "cautiously optimistic" their fourth plan will be accepted, a spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, the latest denial from the Corps has brought to the surface long-simmering frustrations from toll road backers who want to see the project completed by 2014 – an aggressive, and increasingly difficult, schedule laid out by Mayor Tom Leppert.

Craig Holcomb, executive director of the Trinity Commons Foundation, gave voice Monday to things that have recently been said only in private at City Hall.

"I think, at the top, the Corps is in favor of the whole project. I do not think it is being communicated effectively to the people actually doing the work, and I think their response to any problem is to simply ask for more studies. More studies mean more time and more money. Eventually, we will run out of both," he said.

In December, Holcomb wrote a pointed letter to top Corps leaders in Dallas and Fort Worth in which he voiced concern that "a pattern of noncooperation is emerging."

Rice declined to comment on the letter Monday but said the Corps is doing its best to cooperate with local officials on the project's schedule.

He added, however, that the Corps' priority is to the levees and flood control in Dallas.

"While we are not an advocate of the project, we are not an opponent of it," he said.

If the Corps does approve the levee testing plan that is expected to be proposed today, drilling could begin quickly and the toll road project would not be thrown off schedule, said Rebecca Dugger, director of Dallas' Trinity River Corridor project.

Last week, Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan said the delay would surely put the project off schedule. But Dugger said Monday that a few days' delay could be made up later.

Still, the 2014 schedule has come under increasing scrutiny recently.

Last week, a top NTTA engineer twice told city officials that the agency is "hanging on by our fingernails" to remain on pace to complete 30 percent of the road's design by May.

That date is crucial because only when 30 percent of the design is complete can a federal environmental impact study begin. That study will largely determine whether the Corps permits the road to be built as designed inside the floodway.

Council member Dave Neumann, who is heading up the council's Trinity committee, said he intends to continue to pressure all parties, including the Corps, to keep the project on schedule.

"I'm not going to relent. I'm not the type of guy to give up," he said.

But council member Angela Hunt, who has long opposed construction of the toll road inside the floodway, questioned whether the 2014 schedule has ever been realistic.

And she added that she's troubled the Corps is facing pressure from local officials to hasten safety reviews of work on the levees.

"I really am concerned with the way that City Hall may be looking at the Corps' position in this process. The Corps is not there to support this toll road. They're not there to get this toll road built as quickly as possible. They are there to protect the citizens of Dallas from a catastrophic levee breach," she said.

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“It did not meet the requirement we need to show they could drill safely in the levees and not damage their integrity."

Drilling denial may mean Trinity River toll road delays


Copyright 2009

DALLAS - Time is literally money in the planning and building of the Trinity River toll road.

The project is slated to cost $1.8 billion, and each month of delay adds $10 million to the price tag.

But as of Monday night, the North Texas Tollway Authority has yet to get approval for some tests that could force the project to miss a critical deadline.

Sunday night, the Army Corps of Engineers told the NTTA it cannot drill yet in the levee to do important soil tests. The tests are required for the roadway design that's due May 1 in order for the project to stay on schedule.

For the third time, the Corps of Engineers said it denied permission to NTTA to drill down about 70 feet through the east levee for soil samples.

The city has been pushing the NTTA to finish the boring.

"[It's a] terrible disappointment," said city council member Mitchell Rasansky.

Gene Rice, with the Corps, said the latest NTTA plan put the levee at risk.

“It did not meet the requirement we need to show they could drill safely in the levees and not damage their integrity," he said.

However, TxDOT won approval from the Corps to get soil samples for the new Interstate 30 bridge.

“We can get approval; we just haven't been able to get it yet," said Sherita Coffelt, an NTTA spokesperson. "A lot of time these processes commonly require a bit of back and forth.”

The city said it hopes the Corps approves a drilling plan this week and thinks the May 1 deadline can be still be met for turning over the road design to the Corps.

"Like I say, a couple of days I feel like we can make that time up in some way,” said Rebecca Dugger, who leads the Trinity River Corridor Project office.

But, that's not what the city said a week ago when Jill Jordan, the assistant city manager and Dugger's boss, discusses what would happen if the Corps didn't approve the soil sample drilling immediately.

"It is something the Corps needs to do this week, otherwise it will throw us behind,” Jordan said.

With the city paying millions for the design work, delay is money for the project first approved by voters in 1998.

The city, Corps and NTTA will meet Tuesday to try and agree on a drilling plan.

The toll road is scheduled for completion in late 2013.


© 2009 WFAA:

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Monday, February 02, 2009

"More than once Gov. Rick Perry has hoodwinked Texans."

Governor Rick Perry Still the "Flim-Flam" Man


Peter Stern
The Wilson County News
Copyright 2009

Gov. Perry is still scamming Texans.

Several years ago Perry "galloped" around the state pushing to deregulate higher education tuition under the guise that it would make tuition competitive and ultimately lower costs for Texas students. He got what he wanted, but Texans did NOT. Tuition has been escalating dramatically for the past 2 years.

Then Perry pushed to deregulate costs of electricity, promising Texans that competition would encourage lower monthly bills. Well, Perry got what he wanted, but again, Texans are paying higher costs for their electricity.

Still pushing legislation for his special interests, Perry then pushed for a law to eliminate "frivolous" medical malpractice lawsuits telling Texans that it would lower health care and medical costs. Perry got the law passed, but health care premiums and other medical costs continue to escalate in Texas.

Perry says the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) is dead, but he continues to push for new toll roads that bear significant resemblance to portions of the old plans for the TTC.

More than once Gov. Rick Perry has hoodwinked Texans.

Now with reelection pending and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison "breathing down his neck" in the race for governor, Perry is trying to fool voters again, this time that he is pushing for stronger "Eminent Domain" legislation and telling Texans that he wants to protect their property rights. Nothing is further from the truth.

Let's look at some history. In 2005 Perry signed the legislation for "Eminent Domain" designed to protect the private property of Texans. In 2007 Perry VETOED House Bill 2006 offering additional compensation requiring eminent domain commissioners to consider "loss of access" when determining dollar amounts. The bill also provided for recovery of damages, e.g., changes to traffic patterns and visibility of remaining property from the road.

Now Perry again is "foaming at the mouth" about providing Texans with more property protection, when in reality, Perry simply wants to protect the state from being forced to pay Texans fair market value for their seized property.

Texans must NOT be fooled again by Gov. Perry.

© 2009 The Wilson County News:

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"If we’re going to amend the constitution, let’s get it right."

EMINENT DOMAIN: Time to get property rights right


Roy Shockey
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2009

As things heat up in the 81st session of the Texas Legislature, no topic is likely to get more attention than private property rights. Gov. Rick Perry has come down in favor of a constitutional amendment to address the subject that will doubtless be a touchstone in the impending dogfight between the governor and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison for the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary.

The hoopla stems from a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kelo vs. City of New London, Conn., which cleared the way for government agencies to seize private land for commercial development if such development is in the public interest. In essence, a city can legally take the land your house sits on and let someone else build a mini-mall on it if the mini-mall will generate more revenue for the city, thereby establishing public interest.

We’ve seen examples of such seizures in our own back yard. The city of Hurst used eminent domain to oust more than 100 homeowners to expand North East Mall. More recently, Arlington did the same to acquire the land for the new Cowboys stadium.

No one suggests that Hurst or Arlington, or any government agency, seizes private property without compensating landowners. The term used whenever compensation comes up is "fair market value." But, answer this: How does one establish fair market value when you have a governmental agency on one side with full police and condemnation powers and a private property owner who doesn’t want to sell on the other?

In defense of our lawmakers in Austin, they responded to the Kelo decision by passing legislation, but the law has loopholes any first-year law student could maneuver through with ease.

One exception says that private property can still be taken for economic development if the development eliminates "blight." Who’s going to define blight? Would you turn a pack of lawyers with a dictionary loose on your private property rights?

Another concern is the issue of diminished access to one’s property, which often applies if only a portion of an owner’s land is seized as when expanding or acquiring right of way for roads.

The governor’s plan doesn’t call for addressing this point in a constitutional amendment. Texas’ 400,000-plus farm families may be adversely affected if this is left open for future interpretation. After all, how does one determine fair market value for a strip of right of way? What if loss of that strip reduces the usefulness of the entire piece of property?

Speaking of right of way, there’s the added issue of private companies building toll roads on a for-profit basis. How will land for those projects be acquired and how will the property owners be protected and compensated?

An amendment to the Texas Constitution should plug loopholes, answer questions and protect the rights of Texas property owners. But if we’re going to amend the constitution, let’s get it right.

  • Let’s clearly define what is meant by the term public use and spell it out in writing.
  • Let’s eliminate the "blight" exception that enables the wealthiest to prey on those who have the least.
  • Let’s establish guidelines for compensation whenever property is seized for legitimate public use under the new statute.
  • Let’s address the issue of diminished access so our retained property values and access will be protected.
  • Let’s put the burden of proof in "public use and necessity" disputes on the back of government instead of where it is now — on the shoulders of private citizens whose property is being targeted.

Davy Crockett, in a letter dated January 1836, two months before the Alamo, wrote that Texas has "the best land and the best prospects for health I ever saw." What was obvious then is still true today.

Those fortunate enough to own a piece of Texas deserve to have their property rights protected by its laws.

Roy Shockey of Keller is a member of the Star-Telegram’s 2009 Community Columnist Panel.

© 2009 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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"Toll roads and privatization suck mud."

Senate leader ranks higher gas taxes over more tolling


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas, sized up the Legislature's milieu of transportation options this session and has decided that toll roads and privatization suck mud.
John Carona

In a two-page letter he sent to fellow lawmakers today, Carona ranked the choices, starting with the most desirable:

1. Stop diverting gas-tax funds and other driving fees to non-transportation uses.

2. Scrub the Texas Department of Transportation and cut jobs.

3. Index the 20-cent per gallon gas tax to inflation.

4. Issue all allowable debt, such as $5 billion in road bonds approved by voters in 2007.

Those options have widespread support, including an endorsement by the Texas Metro Chambers, which represents businesses in the state's eight largest cities, to raise the gas tax and scuttle the diversions, Carona said.

Such measures would also reduce reliance on, though not eliminate the need for, less efficient and unpopular:

5. Toll roads.

6. Private investments.

7. Leasing toll roads to private firms.

"The obvious solution, therefore, is to fix the glaring transportation problems we face with those most workable approaches so that the benefits they provide can be realized and not lost," Carona said in his letter.

Carona also cast a wary eye on proposals to let toll rates rise and fall with congestion levels, use gas-tax dollars to guarantee toll bonds and invest state pension funds into road building.

He gave nods to letting local governments ask voters to increase their own taxes and fees for transportation, and embracing new technologies in energy and mass transit.

The main thing, he said, is that the options weave together, each affecting the others. So it makes sense to integrate this session's transportation legislation.

"In truth, none of these options is easy, but failure to act demonstrates mismanagement," the senator said.


© 2009 San Antonio Express-News:

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"Our unsolicited advice to the Texans is: be careful. Be very careful."

What In the World Is Going On in Texas?


Gideon's Trumpet
Copyright 2009

We are ever mindful of our meager intellectual resources when dealing with the doings of our betters. Like that Texas thing, for example.

It seems that in 2007, reacting to the wretched U.S. Supreme Court’s Kelo decision, legislation was introduced in the Texas legislature to tighten the “blight” loophole in the redevelopment law, and to limit the public uses for which property may be taken by eminent domain to actual public uses.

All that sounds reasonable to us, and it evidently sounded reasonable to the Texas Legislature which passed this legislation by a vote of 225 to 25 in the State House of Representatives, and unanimousky in the State Senate. But guess what? The Texas Governor vetoed that legislation.

So you’d think that His Governorship is opposed to eminent domain reform. Right?

Well, not exactly.

We now learn that he has called for a state constititional convention, no less, to close the loopholes in eminent domain law and to better protect property owners.

Huh? Say what?

We had trouble believing our eyes as we read these dispatches, but that’s what they say. The same Governor who was opposed to eminent domain reform last year has been born again, and is for it now.

Hmmm. Wonder why.

Our unsolicited advice to the Texans is: be careful. Be very careful.

Out here in California, the league of cities also sponsored eminent domain “reform” in the form of a state constitutional amendment that was so weasel-worded that while seeming to ban the taking of family homes for private uses, it actually strengthened the government’s taking power.

See our blog entitled California Proposition 99 Is as Phony as a Three-Dollar Bill, May 28, 2008.

We don’t know the details of what the Texas Governor has in mind, and we sure as shootin’ don’t know diddly about Texas politics. But just the same, we are very suspicious and we hope so are the folks in Texas.

© 2009 Gideon's Trumpet:

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