Friday, March 06, 2009

‘Real-time’ pricing, virtual highway robbery

Pricey trip mulled for Katy Freeway

$4 considered for travel in toll lanes at peak times


Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2009

Harris County officials are considering a complicated plan to charge tolls on the Katy Freeway’s center lanes, with rates varying from $4 for people driving the entire length of the tollway alone during rush hour to $1 for anyone wishing to make that same trip at night and on weekends.

The plan, which would involve two High Occupancy Toll lanes in each direction, would take effect April 18 if it is approved on Tuesday by Harris County Commissioners Court.

The highest charge would apply to solo drivers heading east between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. or west between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., according to a rate schedule prepared by the Harris County Toll Road Authority. The $4 charge would cover the entire trip from Texas 6 to the West Loop or vice versa. The charge would be less for drivers exiting or entering between those points.

Reduced costs

It would cost $2 for solo drivers to make the entire eastbound trip between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., and between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.; or the westbound trip between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. and between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. They would have to pay $1 to use the toll lanes at any other time.

Drivers riding with at least one other person still would be able to use the lanes for free in either direction on weekdays from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. However, they would have to pay a $1 toll at any other time to make the entire trip.

Transit vehicles will use the lanes at no charge.

Raising the rate at peak times is designed to limit congestion on the toll lanes so traffic can flow steadily at 45 miles per hour. LaWanda Howse, spokeswoman for the toll road authority, said agency officials believe the complicated rate system will let them meet that goal while offering some predictability for drivers.

‘Real-time’ pricing

However, the operating plan the agency is asking Commissioners Court to approve would allow the development of a “real-time” pricing system that would adjust rates based on the speed and volume of traffic on all lanes. Under that scenario, the current rate would be displayed on electronic message signs.

The agency would have to ask Commissioners Court for permission to implement that type of system, Howse said. Officials hope the toll schedule they have devised will manage congestion enough to make that unnecessary, she said.

People driving alone would need to have an EZ Tag — an electronic collection system that drivers display on their windshields. Commuters who carpool would not have to use a toll tag during the free hours but would need one at any other time.

During the designated free hours, carpoolers would be required to use the left lane as they pass through tolling stations. Observers would be positioned at each station to look for vehicles with only one passenger, Howse said. They would radio that information to deputy constables so those drivers can be ticketed.

© 2009 Houston Chronicle:

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"Unless the feds step in, TxDOT may just get away with it."

Slow the Mo Joe: Forget Kay, for now

R to L Donna Hoffman (Sierra Club), Linda Stall (, Morris Priest, Linda Curtis (Independent Texans) and Mary Anderson (Texans Against Tolls)-Message to VP Joe Biden


Linda Curtis
Independent Texans
Copyright 2009

If unemployment hadn’t jumped again yesterday, I would be laughing. Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton, who is, so far as I know, a white guy, called Hank Gilbert of Texas TURF — for sure, another white guy — a bigot.

Now, maybe Gilbert could have been a little more politically correct in his reference to “foreign investors” who are buying up American debt as TxDOT is getting set to use stimulus funds for risky “triple taxation” toll roads. Maybe Houghton should take a look into TxDOT’s mirror.

TxDOT was caught earlier this week with its pants down by State Rep. Dunnam of Waco, who chairs the Texas House committee overseeing the stimulus, on apparently ignoring one important stimulus fund requirement that the funds be used in economically distressed areas.

Not surprisingly, TxDOT covered its rear-end yesterday, showing up with 10 new projects in economically distressed areas. Then, of course, they proceeded to ram through a financially risky plan to fund toll roads to no where.

Linda Stall of, gave testimony backed up by her and David Stall’s research outline BELOW this piece — be sure to read this! It gives chilling testimony as to the financial risks TxDOT is taking, alongside mounting evidence that the public-private partnership toll facilities are another financial crisis in the waiting for the American people. Texas is the test ground.

The Mayor of Waco, Virginia DuPuy, spoke to the Commission, and was nice a she could be, asking why TxDOT had left out what could arguably be the most important project in this state — widening IH-35 in McClennan County.

Lest we forget that the justification for the Governor’s attempts to ram the still very much alive Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC-35 segment) on rural residents in the blackland prairie adjacent to TTC-35, was the bottleneck on IH-35.

TxDOT Chair Deidre Delisi (Rick Perry’s controversial appointee) told the good mayor that “if the legislature passes” a package to fund this segment, then TxDOT will do it. Now, isn’t that charitable of Delisi. The problem is that TxDOT can’t promise what the legislature gives. But let’s not quibble.

Here’s the bottom line. As it currently stands, TxDOT will use 70% of the transportation stimulus funds approved yesterday for tollways.

  • One of them, the Grand Parkway (aka porkway) is being heavily criticized by the all volunteer Citizen’s Transportation Coalition, as a developer/road lobby dream for many years. This road project has never been done by the local toll authority because it couldn’t be economically justified since no one lives out there yet, except a flock of birds in one of the country’s best waterfowl sanctuaries.
  • Another controversial project is over the Edwards Aquifer (281 and 1604 in San Antonio). It was recently promised — a promise quickly then broken — to be a free road if stimulus funds were used.
  • And, not to be outdone is the Austin area’s risky and expensive flyover road project from 183 to 290E in Travis County. It doesn’t seem to bother TxDOT that the funding to complete this project — for 290E — is questionable and traffic figures have been flat for years.
Unless federal officials step in, TxDOT may just get away with it because the funds for transportation stimulus are not coming through traditional mechanisms which safeguard against using federal money for toll roads. Someone please tell us this omission by Congress wasn’t intentional.

Tom Johnson, TxDOT's Mysterious Witness

Why would TxDOT push controversial projects when there are more — way more — than enough non-controversial projects that could be done? The answer was perhaps unintentionally given by the second speaker giving “expert” testimony at yesterday’s hearing. TxDOT chair Delisi failed to introduce the man, until a request came from the audience.

Then she only gave his name — Tom Johnson. Thanks to a trusty PDA carried by Linda Stall of who was in touch with husband, David, watching the spectacle on the internet, we got Tom Johnson’s affiliation.

Mr. Johnson is a registered lobbyist for the Association of General Contractors. One could easily surmise that the road lobby is in cahoots with TxDOT to get taxpayers on the hook for projects they start, that we will all be paying to finish to help developers and road contractors reap profits for roads to no where (read: risky developments).

Some are now entreating Kay Bailey Hutchison to jump in as the Texas Governor’s race heats up. Some of us have already tried that dance and, so far, Kay is dancing with other partners.

My bet is on Vice President Joe Biden. Remember when President Obama said in his recent speech to Congress that, “No one messes with Joe”, appointing him to oversee the stimulus funds? You can contact the Vice President at in the “share your story” section. And, of course, don’t forget your local state rep and Senator and your Congressman. Tell them you want real TxDOT reform in this session and they should contact the Vice President along with you. Slow the Mo Joe — and come quick to Texas!

CORRIDOR WATCH ON P3 TOLL - a crisis in the waiting…

For years we have read about citizen complaints regarding Cintra-operated ETR 407, located in Ontario, Canada. The citizen complaints were significant enough that in 2004 the Minister of Transportation appointed a task force to look into the issue.

One of the task force recommendations was that an Ombudsman be appointed to mediate between ETR 407 and the road users. The common complaints included invoices for toll road use for vehicles owned by deceased individuals, invoices based on old license plates not currently on the owner’s car, invoices mailed to the wrong address with late fees and admin charges mounting up, etc.

In these cases it is incumbent on the driver to present evidence that the car was stolen or the plates invalid to Cintra/ETR 407’s satisfaction. Drivers licenses and license plates will not be renewed until these matters are sorted out. One complaint stated that monies owed to ETR407 are exempt from bankruptcy.

We are on the leading of edge of creating the same problems for drivers here in Texas. News 8 Austin reported last week that a recently unemployed administrative assistant received a bill from TxDOT for $358.00 in unpaid electronic tolls. Well beyond the reasonableness of the accumulated tolls is the alarming amount of the administrative fees which total $11,142.00.

In 2003 when Texas HB3588 passed, it dramatically changed Texas transportation planning, financing and law. No longer were open bids required. The bids and the decision weighting are now kept secret (proprietary).

Not surprisingly, the contracts themselves are also confidential until signed. What the private partner looks to the State of Texas for is three-fold: the effective power of eminent domain; non-compete or compete-penalty clauses that create a lucrative monopoly; and, the use of State authority to enforce the collection of their private debt.

To assist in collecting that private toll, and fees, the State will refuse vehicle registration or drivers license renewal.

The State of Texas will force motorists to pay their outstanding toll fees even if that toll is being disputed. Their ability to drive a vehicle will be held hostage. And since this is a contractual term that is considered a civil action citizens are afforded limited rights absent most of the traditional protection of rights.

Only after a PPP contract is executed will the citizens of Texas find out what rights they have lost. Currently these contracts are not subject to review or approval by an elected official.

With the passage of HB3588 in 2003, Texas was on the forefront of public private partnerships for transportation infrastructure development. Texas was heralded by the Federal Highway Administration as leading the way with this innovative funding tool, where all the risk is borne by the private partner.

As the “test-case” for public private partnerships, will we also be the test case for loss of due process and other violations? Will contracts signed in Texas exempt the private partner from bankruptcies? What else will be hidden from view? $11,000.00 in administrative fees on a $348.00 bill would be considered usurious in other industries and such fees would be regulated.

© 2009 Independent Texans:

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Perry's Texas Transportation Commission outmaneuvers Texas Legislature---again

Central Texas gets three road projects in final stimulus list

$107 of stimulus money makes up bulk of $149 million for 290 interchange, I-35 bridge in Buda and widening of FM 1460 in Round Rock.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

The Texas Transportation Commission, shrugging off concerns that it is moving too fast and favoring toll road projects, decided unanimously Thursday to spend $1.2 billion in federal stimulus money on 29 projects around the state.

The list includes three in Central Texas: flyover bridges at U.S. 290 and U.S. 183, a new Interstate 35 bridge in Buda, and the widening of FM 1460 in Round Rock.

With local contributions, about $2.6 billion in road projects would result from the $1.2 billion of federal money, about two-thirds for tollway projects. Most if not all construction would begin by the fall.

The Central Texas projects — the Buda and Round Rock work was not on a list released a week ago — would cost $149 million, with $107 million coming from the stimulus bill, $30 million from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and $12 million from local sources.

U.S. 290/U.S. 183 interchange: This project would be at the U.S. 290 East tollway's west end and involve either three or four flyover bridges, depending on bid amounts. The mobility authority, which would build and operate the project, would get $90 million of stimulus money and borrow $30 million.

The entire tollway project, running more than five miles from U.S. 183 to east of Texas 130, would have been a stimulus candidate, but overall was not deemed "shovel ready."

The flyovers' cost, estimated at $160 million in February, fell to $145 million a week ago, then to $120 million Thursday. Mobility authority director Mike Heiligenstein said the cost estimate changes were a matter of miscommunication. However, Thursday was the first time that any official involved had indicated that fewer than four bridges might be built.

Buda bridge: The $9 million overpass would be built at Main Street and I-35. Of the total, $7 million would come from the commission list, and $2 million would be local money.

FM 1460: Listed earlier as costing $28 million with local governments providing $24 million, the project Thursday was shown as costing $20 million. Local governments would still provide the right of way for widening the road from two lanes to four; $10 million would come from the stimulus, with the remaining $10 million raised locally. A developer has pledged $5 million, officials said.

The list approved Thursday includes $121 million to widen Interstate 35 from four lanes to six lanes between Salado and Belton.

About two-thirds of the stimulus money would go to toll roads, a decision that has sparked criticism. Some legislators urged the commission to delay the decision to give them time to analyze the list and the criteria the Texas Department of Transportation used.

TxDOT officials have said that the provisions of the economic stimulus bill require the agency to move quickly. At least 50 percent of the total $2.25 billion of highway stimulus money allocated to Texas must be ready for bidding by June 30.

© 2009 Austin American-Statesman:

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Gov. Perry's appointees on the Texas Transportation Commission funnel $2/3 Billion of 'stimulus' money into tolled roads

Harris gets hefty share of road cash


Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN — Despite calls for delay from tollway foes and other critics, the Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday allocated $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds on road and bridge construction — including nearly $783.2 million on toll or toll-related projects.

A $181 million slice of the federal pie will help pay for a Harris County toll road to connect the Katy Freeway and U.S. 290 as part of the proposed Grand Parkway, a project that’s a particular target of toll critics and environmentalists.

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack said the Grand Parkway segment “will help the incredible amount of traffic that backs up on 290,” giving people an alternative route and possibly saving commuters up to 20 minutes in drive time.

The Sierra Club called it “highway robbery,” saying the Grand Parkway will destroy “Houston’s beautiful Katy Prairie.”

Toll opponents in general have objected to the large share of stimulus-funded projects that are toll-related. They argue it amounts to paying twice for the same road – with the federal taxpayer funds and with tolls.
Toll road critics snubbed

Texas Department of Transportation officials said the use of several sources of funds allows more construction projects and that the leveraging meets federal requirements.

The $1.2 billion in stimulus funds approved Thursday will be part of $2.6 billion in overall construction, said the agency’s John Barton.

Among other Harris County projects, the state commission approved $50 million for four new ramps connecting the Eastex Freeway and Beltway 8.

The panel, which had delayed action for a week on the $1.2 billion in projects, declined calls for another postponement from toll critics, environmentalists, some lawmakers and officials whose projects didn’t get funded.

“The opinion of this commission, and certainly my opinion, was the more we delayed, the more we were delaying putting Texans to work,” said Deirdre Delisi, commission chairwoman.

The Texas Transportation Commission has approved four projects for Harris County that are financed by federal stimulus money. They are:
  • Grand Parkway: $181 million for a segment connecting the Katy Freeway and U.S. 290.
  • Beltway 8: $50 million for four ramps connecting it to the Eastex Freeway.
  • Interstate 10: $11 million to reconstruct the roadway from the White Oak Bayou Bridge to US 59.
  • Loop 610: $43 million to rebuild the roadway from east of Ella to IH 45.

© 2009 Houston Chronicle:

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“You’re going to get calls from constituents that say, ‘70 percent of these funds were spent on toll roads. Why did you allow that to happen?’ ”

Dunnam pushes resolution critical of state transportation agency on eve of vote for spending federal stimulus road funds


By Tim Woods
Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2009

A resolution co-sponsored by Rep. Jim Dunnam critical of the way state transportation officials are deciding how to spend $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds was withdrawn Wednesday amid criticism that its wording was too harsh.

The action on the floor of the state House came on the eve of an expected vote by the Texas Transportation Commission on disbursement of the federal transportation funds.

Dunnam, D-Waco, and state Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, have led the charge to sway commission members’ opinions and to bring greater transparency to the Texas Department of Transportation’s decision-making.

Since the Feb. 26 announcement of the department’s recommendations for the funds, which did not include any McLennan County projects, the two have sunk their teeth into the issue, speaking with commissioners and decision-makers, chairing hearings and helping introduce House resolutions.

Local officials requested more than $200 million to widen Interstate 35 north of Waco. That request was not granted on the transportation department’s preliminary list, though $121 million was recommended for an I-35 project to the south in Bell County.

Averitt said he has had daily conversations with commissioners and the department about McLennan County’s exclusion.

“While I am not yet satisfied with all of their answers, I recognize that managing our state’s transportation infrastructure is a difficult task, and I am confident that at the end of the process our discussions will be fruitful,” Averitt said.

Dunnam has headed a select committee looking at the disbursements and has criticized the department’s handling of the funds since last week’s announcement of the proposed projects.

On Wednesday, Dunnam co-sponsored a resolution, introduced in the House by Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, that sought more transparency and communication between the department and lawmakers in the department’s decision-making process.

The resolution, HR 709, was criticized by some House members for being too strongly critical of the transportation agency.

“The last line says that the House, by passing this today, declares that the failure of the (Texas Transportation) Commission and (transportation agency) to conduct the people’s business in a fair, open and accountable manner has lost them the confidence of the House and of the people of Texas,” Phil King, R-Weatherford, said at the hearing.

King added, “I’ve been one of the first ones to complain about TxDOT, but is that your intent today, to ask the Texas House to declare as a body that we believe that the commission has lost the confidence of the House and the people of the state of Texas? Is that really where we’re trying to go with this resolution? It’s a strong declaration.”

Dunnam, a lawyer, was delayed by an appeal hearing in Waco, so King’s question was fielded by Coleman, who repeatedly explained that the resolution was meant to improve communication between the House and the transportation department.

A representative asked Coleman and Dunnam, after he arrived, whether they believed the resolution would affect the commission’s vote today. The representative also asked why the vote on the resolution couldn’t be delayed until today so House members could read and discuss the document.

“On Friday, you’re going to get calls from constituents that say, ‘For some members, 70 percent of these funds were spent on toll roads. Why did you allow that to happen?’ ” Dunnam said. “They’re not going to blame TxDOT, they’re going to blame the members of this body. (They’ll ask), ‘Why did you allow them to spend money on projects that didn’t include our district? Or why did you allow them to spend this one-time federal money, 70 percent of it, on toll roads?’ ”

Dunnam added that the resolution was the only mechanism by which legislators could try to influence transportation officials before the meeting. This way, legislators could tell their constituents they tried to do something.

“If the members want to wait, we can wait, but TxDOT will have already voted,” he said.

After further debate, Coleman withdrew the resolution, citing the concern about its wording.

Dunnam said Wednesday that, aside from his concern about McLennan County being left in the cold, he worries the transportation department may not be complying with the stimulus act’s requirement that the funds be used in economically distressed areas.

“Our concern is that they’re not complying with the act, and that is a transparency and accountability issue because we’re going to have to testify to the federal government that we have complied with the recovery act,” Dunnam said. “They’ve received a great deal of criticism for that because it’s jeopardized the funds.”

U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., confirmed Dunnam’s concern Wednesday, sending him a letter that states, “The Recovery Act specifically requires that . . . states give priority to projects that are located in economically distressed areas.”

Dunnam said Wednesday evening that McLennan County is on the U.S. House’s list of economically distressed counties and that Bell County, to which the agency’s staff recommendations allot funds, is not.

Department spokesman Chris Lippincott has said the department has had discussions over several months with metropolitan planning organizations and conducted research into where the funds would be best allocated. The agency had to act quickly once the money was delivered to comply with the act’s requirements, he said.

Dunnam said he hopes the commission will delay today’s scheduled vote on the recommendations or at least strongly consider Oberstar’s words when awarding projects.

© 2009 Waco Tribune-Herald:

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

"Episodes like this explain why TxDOT has lost the confidence of the Legislature, and why the antangonism it generates is not going to go away."

TxDOT under fire


Paul Burka
Texas Monthly
Copyright 2009

Yesterday (Wednesday) was a tough day for TxDOT. After the usual routine of resolutions congratulating this and that, and welcoming these and those, the House session ended with a resolution aimed squarely at the transportation agency.

Dunnam, Coleman, and other lawmakers are unhappy that TxDOT rushed to decide how to use its $1.2 billion in stimulus funding without consulting with the stimulus committee — even though the federal law allows the agency 120 days (until June 17) to obligate half of the money. TxDOT decided on February 26 to use $500 million for maintenance projects and announced its intention to allocate the rest of the money today.

One of the things that has lawmakers upset is that TxDOT plans to use $841 million of the $1.2 billion for toll road projects. Toll roads are not popular, and lawmakers fear that they will feel the heat. By obligating the money immediately, TxDOT was able to cut the Legislature out of the process.

Speaking to the House on Tuesday, Dunnam noted that TxDOT obligated the maintenance money without giving any indication of following the mandates of the federal legislation to consider distressed areas and maximization of new jobs. Coleman ran with his resolution on Wednesday, which ended with a sharp rebuke of TxDOT:

“[The House] declares that the failure of the commission and the department to conduct the people’s business in a fair, open, and accountable manner has lost them the confidence of the House and of the people of Texas.” (Some would say that TxDOT had lost that confidence years ago.)

Phil King and Jim Keffer decided that this was too inflammatory, and Coleman pulled the resolution down.

It wasn’t clear exactly what the lawmakers were trying to accomplish, but TxDOT’s defenders were concerned that what some legislators wanted wasn’t just a slower timetable. It was earmarks: specific transportation projects for their districts. Apparently TxDOT was getting pressure from members. This is bad business–and, to be fair to Coleman, he was the first to say so.

We don’t want to go back to the days when lawmakers assembled local delegations to lobby TxDOT and kiss the ring in hopes of getting pet projects built–as opposed to TxDOT’s taking on projects in the order of their priority and affordability.

TxDOT won the battle, but the big war has yet to be fought. That, of course, is the TxDOT Sunset bill, which poor Isett is going to have to carry (by choice) in the face of a surly House. This episode was one more indication of the considerable antagonism toward TxDOT in the Legislature, which runs deep for reason such as an exchange that took place in the stimulus committee.

Carole Kent asked if a particular project was a toll road, and the TxDOT witness said no. That was not a true answer. The project involved managed lanes–which are tolled. Episodes like this explain why TxDOT has lost the confidence of the Legislature, and why the antangonism it generates is not going to go away.

© 2009 Texas Monthly:

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"Tolled Loops to Nowhere"

TxDOT To Vote On Using Stimulus Funds To Build Toll Roads Thursday


by Vince Leibowitz
Capitol Annex
Copyright 2009

On Thursday, the Texas Transportation Commission will vote on on how to spend $1.2 billion of stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The kicker is that TxDOT’s lengthy staff recommendation includes the construction of toll roads with stimulus funds.

The Houston Chronicle made note of this last week:

The Texas Department of Transportation has set aside more than $700 million in economic stimulus funds for toll road projects across the state, sparking criticism and questions about whether the pay-to-drive roads are an appropriate use of the federal dollars.

The toll roads — including the Grand Parkway in Harris County — are among 21 major projects up for a vote at next week’s meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin. The commission had planned to vote on the list this week but delayed its consideration a week after at least one state legislator complained the money was being spent without enough input.

The delay has given opponents an opportunity to organize a lobbying effort aimed at persuading state leaders to withhold stimulus money from toll road projects.

“It’s a total rip-off,” said Terri Hall, director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, a nonprofit opposed to toll roads. “That’s not how the money is supposed to be used.”

TxDOT leaders and transportation planners defend the projects, saying all of them, including the toll roads, are important to their regions and offer tangible economic and mobility benefits.

Atop each page of the regional breakdown of new construction projects stimulus money will be spent on are the following paragraphs:

Partnership: The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) throughout the state and local leaders have worked in an open and consultative process to identify significant projects that meet the requirements found in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). After weeks of work with local planning partners and TxDOT district offices to narrow choices, agency professionals have recommended these projects to the Commission.

Selection Criteria: Projects that improve the safety of the transportation system • Projects on corridors of statewide significance or regional priority • Projects that leverage or pool resources • Projects that create long term economic benefit to the communities and regions they serve • Projects in areas that are economically distressed • A fair and equitable distribution of projects around the state

All of that is particularly interesting, given some of the projects that the stimulus funding is going to tackle. For example, $42.5 million dollars in stimulus money is earmarked for a phase of the Loop 49 project in Smith County (Tyler). The $42.5 million will fund the leg of the loop between State Highways 31 and 155. The problems? Well, they are numerous.

First and foremost, this leg of Loop 49 meets only one–two at best–of the “selection criteria” set forth for the stimulus projects. For certain, it is a project that leverages or pools resources; it could, perhaps, be considered a project on a corridor or regional priority. It isn’t a project that is in an area that is particularly economically distressed; it is not a project that in and of itself creates any long term economic benefit to the region it serves; and it does not improve the safety of the transportation system.

Why? Because it is a loop to nowhere, at least, until the whole loop is near completion. At present, a mere five to seven or so miles of the loop has actually been constructed.

Too, the segment that TxDOT has slated for funding is actually not a project that TxDOT can begin construction on right away–or even anytime soon. It is actually one segment of the project past the next segment scheduled to undergo construction. All that has been completed of the segment is the design phase. It isn’t even clear whether or not TxDOT has acquired all of the right-of-way and land for that segment of the loop. (You can read more about Loop 49 on its Wikipedia Page that someone with a lot of time on their hands has painstakingly maintained.)

Finally, it is a toll road. Economic stimulus funding is being used to create a leg of a toll road. Worse than that, it is a leg of a toll road that nobody will use until the whole thing is complete. It is a complete waste of stimulus funding because the money won’t be used for road construction for years. It comes nowhere near actually accomplishing what TxDOT’s own spokesperson says the purpose of the stimulus money is:

Lippincott said the goal of the stimulus package is to “put shovels in the dirt and money in American’s pocket briskly. We can meet those goals and still deliver meaningful transportation projects for our state.”

As for how TxDOT managed to prioritize Loop 49 over other projects in the North East Texas region is anyone’s guess. At present, the widening of Highway 69 from Mineola to Lindale is crawling along at a snail’s pace–and that is a road that people actually drive on. It has been under construction since at least 2006.

Too, if you want to talk about safety concerns in that region, then what about State Highway 64 through Smith and Van Zandt Counties (specifically from outside Tyler to Canton)? It is a two-lane death trap that is highly traveled; stimulus funds could have been used to widen this highway. How did TxDOT make the decision that a Loop To Nowhere is, for example, more important than a dangerous section of highway? Or, for that matter, a heavily traveled highway already under construction like Highway 69? Couldn’t economic stimulus funds have been used to actually accellerate the completion of that project?

That is only one example. There are other toll projects in the list of proposed projects. The list of “repair” projects is another puzzlement. Given the fact that 193 bridges under TxDOT’s jurisdiction were structurally deficient as of 2007, I’m wondering why more of those bridges aren’t on the repair list.

Instead of answering that question, TxDOT, through its spokesperson, is spending its time engaging in a pissing contest with State Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco), Chair of the House committee handling stimulus issues. TxDOT’s spokesperson actually was so bold to allege that Dunnam was just too dumb to understand the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He should have been fired as soon as his words were seen in print.

© 2009 Capitol Annex:

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

"The Federal Highway Administration must approve the projects recommended by TxDOT."

US Rep. says state projects could be denied


The Associated Press
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — Roads and bridges projects adopted by the Texas Department of Transportation could be denied federal approval for not giving priority to economically distressed areas as mandated by the massive economic stimulus law, a top federal official said Wednesday.

Lawmakers earlier this week questioned whether the state had complied with the requirement. The agency's executive director, Amadeo Saenz, said economically distressed areas were not a factor in deciding which roads and bridge maintenance projects would get chunks of the $500 million in stimulus money.

In a letter Wednesday, U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minnesota, chairman of the congressional Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said the government must ensure transportation spending meet all requirements, "including giving priority to economically distressed areas."

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said he was confident the agency was complying with all requirements of the economic stimulus bill, including attention to communities that are economically distressed.

The state transportation department is scheduled to approve more projects Thursday receiving the bulk of the state's stimulus money — $1.2 billion. In a list of proposed projects released last week, TxDOT said economic distress was a factor in selecting the remaining projects.

State Rep. Jim Dunnam, chairman of the House Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding, raised the question during a committee hearing this week.

In his letter to Dunnam, Oberstar confirmed the requirement.

"The Recovery Act specifically requires that, in selecting projects ... to be carried out with funds apportioned under the Recovery Act, states give priority to projects that are located in economically distressed areas," as defined by federal law, Oberstar wrote. He said the Federal Highway Administration must approve the projects recommended by TxDOT.

Moments after Dunnam raised the concerns on Monday, Lippincott suggested he did not fully understand the legislation and said the department complied with the law.

"I'm not sure Representative Dunnam understands what the law says," Lippincott said. "Federal law can be complicated."

Federal law defines economically distressed areas as those with a per capita income of 80 percent or less than the national average or an unemployment rate of 1 percent greater than the national average.

About $17 billion of Obama's economic stimulus package is headed for Texas, some of it helping to fill gaps that otherwise would have strained the two-year state budget and its Rainy Day Fund savings account. Officials are still trying to figure out how and where to spend it, but fears of deep cuts and a looming future deficit have all but faded.

In transportation funding, Texas is getting $2.25 billion from the stimulus, but transportation officials say the state's needs are far greater.

© 2009 The Associated Press:

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TxDOT risks losing $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds

Congressman Slaps TxDOT


Forrest Wilder
The Texas Observer
Copyright 2009

TxDOT must give priority to transportation projects in economically-distressed areas or risk losing $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds, according to a letter [.pdf] sent today to Rep. Jim Dunnam from Congressman James Oberstar, the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

This should settle the feud between Dunnam and TxDOT. On Monday, Dunnam said that TxDOT may have violated federal law by “obligating” $500 million for road and bridge maintenance without regard to the requirements in the stimulus bill. Chris Lippincott shot back that maybe Dunnam didn’t understand the law. From the fairly plain language of the letter it appears Lippincott was wrong.

I understand that questions have recently been raised regarding whether the Texas Department of Transportation is in compliance with Federal law regarding implementation of the Recovery Act. The Recovery Act specifically requires that, in selecting projects within the Federal Highway Administration, Highway Infrastructure Investment program to be carried out with funds apportioned under the Recovery Act, States give priority to projects that are located in economically distressed areas as defined by Section 301 of the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965, as amended.

[bolding mine]

Economically distressed areas are defined as places with per capita incomes of 80 percent or less of the national average or an unemployment rate at least 1 percent higher than the national average, according to the Obserstar letter. Among those priority areas, according to a list provided by Oberstar, are border and East Texas counties - Cameron, Hidalgo, El Paso, Maverick, Polk, Newton, Presidio, Starr, Willacy, Zavala, etc - based on unemployment rates. Many more counties qualify under the income criterion - Bastrop, Chambers, Ector, Hays, and McLennan for example.

TxDOT meets tomorrow to vote on the $1.2 billion list of projects. It’s unclear how the Oberstar letter will affect their vote.

Update: TxDOT spokesman Lippincott said he hadn’t seen the letter but was “confident” that TxDOT was in compliance with federal law. The stimulus bill, he noted, requires that the states also take into account geographic diversity, the speed with which projects can be completed, and the amount of economic impact.

“The law does not order those priorities or give guidance as to how or whether the state should weigh those priorities,” Lippincott said. “If economic distress was the controlling factor there would be no spending in Dallas, Tarrant, Harris, Travis, Bexar, Nueces and several other counties.”

© 2009 The Texas Observer:

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"No Stimulus Toll Road."

Groups hit Texas Capitol to oppose spending stimulus money on toll roads


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN — Beverly Branham’s message to lawmakers was neatly summarized in the four-word placard on her bright red hat: "No Stimulus Toll Road."

The Fort Worth grandmother and scores of like-minded Texans fanned out across the state Capitol on Tuesday, demanding that legislators spend not one penny of federal stimulus money to finance toll roads.

"It’s double taxes," Branham said, "and we’re already tax slaves."

The daylong lobbying mission was organized by several transportation watchdog groups, which contend that using federal stimulus money for toll roads essentially represents a double whammy on their pocketbooks: First, through the federal taxes that finance the huge stimulus package, and second, through the fees they will have to pay at the tollbooth.

"Taxpayers should not have to pay for the roads through repayment of stimulus funds and pay tolls to use the highways," according to a statement from the Arlington-based DFW Regional Concerned Citizens.

Branham and Nina Spears, also of Fort Worth, drove to Austin together. They said they are also concerned about foreign companies’ involvement in toll-road projects and the development of a "NAFTA highway" to funnel international shipping through Texas. The groups outlined their priorities in a midmorning news conference and through visits with lawmakers.

"If anybody grins at us, we walk up and talk to them," Branham said.

The groups also demanded that lawmakers clamp down on the Texas Department of Transportation and scrap any vestiges of Gov. Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor, which originally called for a $184 billion network of toll roads.

"TxDOT needs to pull back its horns a little bit," said Jimmy Simmons of Waxahachie, a retired engineer at the General Motors plant in Arlington.

Asked whether he thought lawmakers should ban the use of stimulus money for toll roads, Branham responded: "I wish we wouldn’t take any."

Many of the protesters oppose toll roads in general.

"Generation after generation is going to be paying for these roads," said Bruce Burton of Austin. A woman nearby clutched a sign reading, "Texans Against Tolls."

DAVE MONTGOMERY, 512-476-4294

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"The failure of the commission and the department to conduct the people’s business in a fair, open, and accountable manner..."

House pushes back at TxDOT


By Ben Wear
Austin AmericaN-Statesman
Copyright 2009

The House today considered, but ultimately did not act on, a five-page resolution chastising the Texas Department of Transportation for a “rush to judgment” on how to spend $1.7 billion in federal stimulus funds.

The resolution, HR 709, was sponsored by state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. But the co-sponsors included state Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, who is heading a select committee on the stimulus plan and has been critical of TxDOT’s handling of the stimulus disbursement for about a week now. Joining in as well was state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who chairs the House Transportation Committee and several days ago was defending the process that had produced the list of projects TxDOT wants to build using the federal money.

Pickett said later that the resolution, and the discussion of it before it was pulled down without a vote, gave members a chance to express their unhappiness in cases where their area was shut out on road expansion.

“We need to go forward,” Pickett said. “If we weren’t in session, it wouldn’t be an issue.”

The resolution concluded with the statement that “the failure of the commission and the department to conduct the people’s business in a fair, open, and accountable manner has lost them the confidence of the House and of the people of Texas.” That language was reportedly so strong that it made some House members uncomfortable with voting for the resolution, a factor in the decision to pull it down.

The Texas Transportation Commission, which released a tentative list of 21 projects last week, is scheduled to vote on the $1.2 billion list Thursday. The list, which includes $115 million for four flyover bridges at the west end of the proposed U.S. 290 tollway, is said to be still undergoing tinkering as the vote approaches.

Waco officials in particular have been unhappy that it doesn’t include expansion of Interstate 35 from four lanes to six in a stretch from Waco to West. However, the list does include $121 million (roughly 10 percent of the total package) to expand I-35 from Salado to Belton. That portion of I-35 is within the TxDOT district headquartered in Waco.

© 2009 Austin American-Statesman:

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"The Texas Transportation Commission hardly seems prepared to make the right call at this stage."

Questions about those highway dollars


Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2009

In the Capitol hearing room, state Rep. Jim Dunnam came loaded for bearskin. Texas Department of Transportation officials didn’t have so much as a rug under which to hide.

Dunnam is chairing the select committee on spending Texas’ share of federal stimulus dollars.

TxDOT officials, who’ve made some controversial proposals regarding that money, didn’t have convincing answers for him.

For instance, using the agency’s own matrix for judging projects, Dunnam showed that the expansion of Interstate 35 through Waco was rated higher than a project near Tyler endorsed by the agency. McLennan County would receive virtual goose eggs.

Dunnam hammered TxDOT officials Amadeo Saenz and John Barton over the fact that location in economically distressed areas didn’t factor into the recommendations. In a Trib interview, he said it’s unclear how that would affect Waco’s hopes, but that federal law requires such a consideration.

Dunnam derided the fact that of the $1.2 billion worth of projects up for approval this week, $841 million are “toll-related.”

Thursday the Texas Transportation Commission is supposed to vote on these proposals. From Barton’s and Saenz’s responses to the questions of Dunnam and state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, the commission hardly seems prepared to make the right call at this stage.

TxDOT’s Barton, for instance, said that McLennan County’s concerns about being aced out regarding I-35 money might be met with the “Solomonic” approach of allowing McLennan County to be in a “partnership” with Bell County and get half of the $140 million TxDOT has proposed for I-35 expansion in that area. To this, Dunnam responded that Solomon “didn’t split the baby.”

If sharing Bell County’s dollars is all that we can hope for, then let’s pursue that path. But as Dunnam pointed out, based on need and importance and by the agency’s own criteria, I-35 expansion here outranks others getting the go-ahead.

It is valid to worry that the heavy presence of toll projects, nine out of 21 of those getting the nod for stimulus money, reflects an institutional bias ingrained by Texas’ chief toll road booster, Gov. Rick Perry. Lawmakers have fought back against Perry’s toll-roads-or-no-roads mind-set, last session putting a moratorium on privately operated toll roads.

Texans should be concerned that an agency known for its tunnel vision is now hurtling toward a decision without all the right coordinates. TxDOT should apply the brakes and fully justify where it is headed.

© 2009 Waco Tribune-Herald:

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"Who isn't economically distressed right now? Everybody is economically distressed."

Advocacy groups protest TxDOT stimulus projects


By: Jessica Sondgeroth
News 8 Austin
Copyright 2009

The Texas Department of Transportation will vote Thursday on whether to approve its portion of the federal stimulus package, but not if advocacy groups have anything to say about it.

Activists from across the state convened on the east steps of the Texas Capitol Tuesday to persuade lawmakers to stop TxDOT from passing the $1.2 billion measure.

"TxDOT needs to slow down, and do the right thing with our stimulus money," Citizens' Transportation Coalition's Robin Holzer said.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) allocated $2.25 billion in federal transportation funds to Texas in February, $1.7 billion of which will go to the state's Transportation Commission for highway, road and transit projects.

TxDOT released its list of projects last Wednesday. The list includes a new interchange on the US-281 toll road in San Antonio and a new toll road through the Grand Parkway in Houston.

The organizations criticized the list as containing "roads to nowhere," toll roads in underdeveloped areas and projects destructive to the environment. The groups advocated for more public transit projects to relieve traffic, reduce emissions and decrease dependence on foreign oil.

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said all the projects have been on the table since November, and though the official list was released last Wednesday, he said the projects are nothing new and come highly recommended from the various Metropolitan Planning Organizations across the state.

"There is always room for additional refinement," he said. "But at the very moment that Texans United for Reform and Freedom was holding a presser, President Barack Obama was at the Department of Transportation telling us to put that money to work."

The list assigns $700 million for toll road projects, a proposal that many groups oppose, and one that has already encountered major problems in Central Texas. News 8 recently reported that toll road customers have received outstanding bills as high as $11,000, and TxDOT was unable to explain in detail the workings of the toll road system and third parties involved.

Toll roads produce revenue, Lippincott said, and TxDOT has exceeded "traffic and revenue numbers across the board."

Though the state has 120 days to allocate the funds, TxDOT released its project list last Wednesday and had initially planned to vote on the measure only a day or two later, but extended the vote after lawmakers objected to the lack of time allotted for feedback.

Holzer accused the agency of trying to ram through the spending plan.

Lippincott said the agency wants to get the ball rolling, to begin creating jobs and to keep the economy moving.

Monday House Democratic leader Jim Dunnam said TxDOT did not give priority to economically-distressed areas with regard to maintenance projects.

"Who isn't economically distressed right now?" Lippincott said. "Everybody is economically distressed."

Program Associate Melissa Cubria with the Texas Public Interest Research Group said it's unclear what criteria that TxDOT uses to determine economically-distressed areas.

Lippincott said the agency uses federal criteria and input from local leaders. Federal criteria includes low per capita income and high unemployment rates.

However, Monday Dunnam asked TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz whether economically-distressed areas were taken into consideration. Saenz said they weren't.

© 2009 News 8 Austin:

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"We get a new source of funding through the stimulus funds, and they're still going to come back and toll our roads."

Stimulus pie to fund toll projects

Protesters say it's 'double taxation'


Copyright 2009

AUSTIN (KXAN) - The Texas Department of Transportation is ready to spend its share of the stimulus pie on projects across the state. However, protesters Tuesday morning voiced their concerns about where TxDOT plans to use $1.2 billion of the stimulus money.

Some of the money is expected to fund toll projects , and many protesters said using stimulus money for tolls is a form of double tax. Watchdog groups such as the Sierra Club , Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom and the Citizens Transportation Coalition joined forces and held signs that took jabs at TxDOT and Gov. Rick Perry .

"Here we've been told by Rick Perry all these years that the reason we have to have toll roads is that there's no money for roads," said Terri Hall, with Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. "Now we get a new source of funding through the stimulus funds, and they're still going to come back and toll our roads."

Some legislators are also putting pressure on TxDOT this week because some worry the projects selected for stimulus money do not comply with federal law. Yet, TxDOT denies it.

© 2009 KXAN-TV:

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

"TxDOT is trying to rush through bad projects without a proper vetting process with the public."

Texans Demand Public Review of Stimulus Transport Projects


Environment News Service (ENS)
Coopyright 2009

AUSTIN, Texas- In February, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocated $2.25 billion in federal transportation funds to Texas. The U.S. Department of Transportation will allow states up to one year to decide which projects to build.

The Texas Transportation Commission is poised to approve $1.7 billion of new stimulus-funded projects at their meeting Thursday, but environmental and citizens groups today gathered at the state capitol to protest some of the projects on that list.

A diverse group, the anti-toll road activists, environmentalists, and public transportation activists say they want public review of the projects before they are approved.

"We should use this money to put Texans back to work, but we should be careful to spend it in a way that is consistent with Texan's priorities," said Alejandro Savransky, a field organizer with Environment Texas. "TxDOT is trying to rush through bad projects without a proper vetting process with the public."

Brandt Mannchen, air quality chair with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said his organization is among those opposed to spending economic stimulus money on the Grand Parkway, a proposed 180 mile highway encircling the Greater Houston region. The project has been shown on governmental planning documents since the early 1960s.

"TxDOT's proposal to spend economic stimulus money on the Grand Parkway is highway robbery," said Mannchen. "TxDOT is using money from the federal stimulus package to prop up a project that could not be justified on its own merits. In doing so, it's subverting the intent of the stimulus package to fund needed projects that are truly 'shovel ready.'"

Funding the Grand Parkway is bad public policy because the $181 million expenditure would divert funds from roads, streets, highways, and bridges that need to be rebuilt due to heavy use because they are where people live, the groups say.

It would result in the destruction of at least 12,000 acres of the Katy Prairie and farm and ranch land, paving over the Katy Prairie, which serves as a natural detention basin absorbing excess water during heavy rainfall events that would otherwise flood Houston.

The Grand Parkway would destroy habitat for hundreds of thousands of ducks, geese, songbirds, herons, egrets, bald eagles, hawks, and many other forms of wildlife, Mannchen says.

Further, the groups say, all environmental reviews for the Grand Parkway are not complete. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not received an application for, drafted, or approved a wetlands dredge and fill permit for TxDOT or Harris County.

On February 26, TxDOT approved stimulus funds for 266 roadway and bridge maintenance and rehabilitation projects valued at approximately $505.6 million.

"The projects approved today will serve to preserve the state's investment in our current transportation system," said Texas Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi.

Funding levels for roadway projects were based on population, lane miles, vehicle traffic, and pavement conditions. TxDOT identified the needed projects based on engineering needs and in coordination with local officials, said Delisi.

On February 25, TxDOT staff released a list of projects that could be developed using an additional $1.2 billion in available American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. The Texas Transportation Commission is expected to vote on the staff recommended list during a special meeting on March 5.

The commission says the staff recommendations were created by applying criteria developed by the state's local transportation leaders to an extensive list of projects that met the initial requirements for readiness established in the stimulus bill.

"TXDOT must be reminded that the largest portion of stimulus funds, the portion in the Surface Transportation Program, can be flexed for other uses, including passenger rail," said Melissa Cubria, spokeswoman for Texas Public Interest Research Group. "This has always been the case for STP funds, but this is the first time that the funds can be applied to intercity rail.

"Investing in intercity rail would create long-term, sustainable transportation solutions for Texas," said Cubria. "If TXDOT continues to act hastily, they will miss a great transportation funding opportunity."

"I am worried about the economic, social, and environmental costs of the proposed Grand Parkway," said Jay Crossley, program development director with Houston Tomorrow. "Proponents claim future Houstonians will want to live in carbon-intensive, low density, auto-based residential areas devoid of jobs and services, but the many transportation needs of current Texans take priority over this speculation."

Surveys of Houstonians, such as the Houston Area Survey or Envision Houston Region, have shown they would prefer that the Texas Department of Transportation provide infrastructure for more compact communities in already developed areas rather than building new roads into open green space.

Project lists and more information are available on the TxDOT website,, using the keyword stimulus. People can comment on TxDOT's proposal to implement the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through the website, by e-mail at: or by writing to the department at: 125 East 11th Street, Austin, Texas 78701.

© 2009 Environment News Service (ENS):

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"TxDOT is out of control and has hijacked the federal money."

Citizen groups: Slow down on road spending


The Associated Press
Copyright 2009

A coalition of citizens groups is demanding that the Texas Department of Transportation slow down in selecting road construction projects for federal stimulus money.

The groups say they don't want stimulus money spent on toll roads or highways that tear up environmentally sensitive lands. They said at a Capitol rally Tuesday that the agency should take more time and get citizen input in deciding how to spend much of the $2.25 billion in federal stimulus transportation money Texas is getting.

State transportation officials are set to decide on $1.2 billion in stimulus road projects Thursday.

The activists say the department is out of control and has hijacked the federal money.

© 2009 The Associated Press:

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"In their hurry, TxDOT is pushing through a number of bad, highly controversial projects."

Activists Tell TxDOT to Slow Down


Reeve Hamilton
The Texas Observe
Copyright 2009

A varied coalition of activist groups—including Sierra Club, Citizens’ Transportation Coalition, Independent Texans, Environment Texas, Houston Tomorrow, and Texans United for Reform and Freedom—gathered at the Capitol this morning to encourage TxDOT to take its time with the incoming federal stimulus money.


TxDOT plans to allocate its remaining $1.7 billion in stimulus funding on Thursday.

“There are a lot of good projects on the list,” said Robin Holzer, board chair of CTC. “But, in their hurry, TxDOT is pushing through a number of bad, highly controversial projects. We want TxDOT to slow down, fix it first, and do the right thing with our stimulus money.”

“There should be no money going into toll roads,” said TURF director Terri Hall.

Hall’s sentiment is shared by some members of the select committee examining the stimulus funds. In last night’s committee meeting, chairman Jim Dunnam said, “If we get a toll moratorium on the floor, and I hope we do, I bet you it will pass.”

If TxDOT’s current proposals are passed, $840 million would go toward toll-related projects.

One of the more controversial proposed items on the verge of approval that those assembled addressed is Segment E of Houston’s Grand Parkway project—15.2 miles of highway through environmentally sensitive land with low population density.

Jay Crossley of Houston Tomorrow described the Grand Parkway as “a vision from the 1960’s for a very different Houston” with very little public support.

Holzer said, if unsatisfied by TxDOT’s handling of the funds, the organizations would pressure President Obama to make good on his promise to, upon hearing of agencies wasting stimulus funds, “call them out on it, and put a stop to it.”

“This agency is out of control. It’s been so for years,” said Linda Curtis, director of Independent Texans, who also illustrated some of the variety in the coalition by saying, “We will be neutering some of these legislators if they try to get in our way.”

© 2009 The Texas Observer:

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