Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Do we really want government using global positioning systems to track how many miles we drive and perhaps where we drive?"

If more transportation taxes are needed, put them on gasoline rather than mileage


Fort Worth Star-Telegrm
Copyright 2009

We’ll freely admit it — we don’t get it.

We can’t understand why some members of Congress are enthusiastic about switching from a federal gasoline tax to a "mileage tax" that would tax people based on how many miles they drive.

Imposing a mileage tax might require an expensive investment in equipment and a new state-by-state regulatory bureaucracy, with costs potentially totaling hundreds of dollars per vehicle.

There’s also a privacy question. Do we really want government using global positioning systems to track how many miles we drive and perhaps where we drive?

Even U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who contends that a mileage tax is "the way to go," balks at the thought of a "Big Brother system tracking your every move," according to an Associated Press report.

Her suggested remedy, however, is an honor system in which drivers would certify the number of miles they drive each year.

Yeah, right.

In today’s squeaky-clean world, we undoubtedly can trust each and all to report mileage honestly — just as we can trust everyone not to cheat on their income taxes or engage in fraudulent investment schemes.

We’ll check with Bernard Madoff on what he thinks about Boxer’s idea and get back with you, OK?

With more money needed for transportation funding, a preferable approach would be one that the Star-Telegram Editorial Board has urged for years — raising state and federal gasoline taxes.

The federal tax of 18.4 cents a gallon hasn’t been raised since 1993. Texas’ 20-cent tax hasn’t changed since 1991. Inflation has ravaged the buying power of both.

A higher gas tax encourages people to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles and use public transit, thus reducing reliance on foreign oil and curbing air pollution. The more gas consumed, the more gas tax one pays per mile driven.

But a pure mileage tax on a vehicle driven 15,000 miles a year would be the same for both a big SUV getting only 15 miles per gallon and a little hybrid attaining 45 mpg.

A simple, low-cost and easily administered system is already in place to collect gas taxes. The same can’t be said for the mileage tax.

To help ensure adequate transportation funding, two national commissions have in the past 16 months recommended sizable increases in the federal gas tax (one recently urging raising it 10 cents a gallon, the other recommending in December 2007 that it be upped 25 to 40 cents over five years and indexed for inflation).

Both commissions suggested that a mileage tax could replace a gas tax if the latter is rendered inadequate as a result of greatly improved fuel efficiency and a switch to alternative vehicles such as electric cars.

But those changes are likely to occur over the next several decades.

A mileage tax might (or might not) be a workable long-term alternative, but higher gas taxes are a greatly preferable approach for the foreseeable future. We’ll also need to build some additional toll roads, but Texans have made it clear that they don’t want too many.

With the U.S. economy in tatters, there could be heavy opposition to raising gas taxes now.

But once the economy recovers, elevating gas taxes clearly is preferable to imposing a mileage tax.

© 2009 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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"Why should stimulus dollars be spent on roads that will be tolled?"

Grand Parkway snarl

Use tolls, not stimulus funds


Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2009

Traffic alert: There’s a major collision directly ahead on the Grand Parkway — on an unbuilt portion of Houston’s outer loop, no less.

OK. It’s not a real-life wreck. More of a philosophical pile-up. It’s shaping up over a fundamental question: Should federal stimulus dollars be spent on a portion of the Grand Parkway that is scheduled to operate as a toll road?

We say no. Emphatically.

It seems clear that a toll road should be funded by … tolls.

Fees collected from users should foot the bills for these pay-to-drive roadways, which have come into ever-increasing favor across Texas. Funds to build them should not come from a huge pot of found money such as the stimulus. Those dollars can be put to better use on projects that are equally as necessary as the toll roads but which don’t come equipped with their own built-in revenue stream.

So far, the state of Texas is saying otherwise. Texas is supposed to receive $2.25 billion from the much-anticipated federal stimulus package recently signed into law by President Barack Obama. Of this windfall, approximately 20 percent, or $432 million, has been slated by state transportation officials to be spent in the East Region, which includes the Houston area. More than half of this amount — or $231 million — is scheduled to be spent on construction of toll roads, including a portion of the Grand Parkway to be built in Fort Bend County.

Fort Bend County Commissioner Richard Morrison has rightly objected to this method. We share several of Morrison’s concerns.

Morrison’s straightforward question is: Why should stimulus dollars be spent on roads that will be tolled? Doesn’t that mean Fort Bend taxpayers are being double taxed? These are questions that deserve answers, perhaps from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has pushed toll roads as a solution to the state’s traffic congestion troubles.

Morrison’s specific concern is that tolls collected from a portion of the Grand Parkway in Fort Bend County built with stimulus funds will be used to pay for expansion of the outer loop in other areas where Fort Bend drivers will never go.

That may or may not be entirely the case, but he raises a good point. Fort Bend is one of the nation’s fastest growing areas, with no shortage of deserving projects for stimulus dollars. But, sorry, a toll road isn’t one of them.

The state of Texas should do everything in its power to capture those dollars being offered in the federal stimulus package. We have no shortage of worthy projects.

But we already have a tested way to pay for toll roads. Let’s not mess with that.

© 2009 Houston Chronice:

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"I think frankly the governor is out of control... Blaming TxDOT is really missing the big picture..."

TxDOT Defies Stimulus Stipulations


Austin Chronicle
Copyright 2009

Time waits for no man, and neither does the Texas Department of Transportation.

Last week, brushing aside pleas from environmentalists, anti-tollers, and some legislators to delay and re-evaluate its road plans – and ignoring concerns that it might be violating the law – the Texas Transportation Com­mission, which oversees TxDOT, committed $1.2 billion in federal stimulus money to various roadway projects around the state. This follows previous approval of $500 million in stimulus money for maintenance projects.

It ended a rough week for TxDOT but may have been only the beginning of a rough legis­lative session for the agency, which faces Sunset review this year.

Early in the week, Waco Rep. Jim Dunnam, chair of the House Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding, tore into TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz when the latter admitted that, despite what the Ameri­can Reinvestment and Recovery Act requires, his organization had not considered "economically distressed areas" when prioritizing how to spend the $500 million.

"We are subject to being charged back this money if y'all don't spend it in compliance with statute," Dunnam complained. Later, Houston's Gar­net Coleman read a resolution on the House floor declaring 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." Coleman eventually pulled it down, because some felt the language was a bit much, but the point was made.

To ameliorate the concerns, TxDOT retroactively added 10 projects to the original 266 maintenance items, all in counties meeting the economically distressed area definition. On the new roadway projects, the department added six to the original 23 staff recommendations, four of which are in economically distressed areas.

It was pretty obvious early on how the commission would vote. Local officials pleaded with commissioners to approve projects in their areas, and more than one jokingly were asked by Ted Houghton of El Paso, "So you'd like us to delay this, right?" When environmentalists and anti-toll-roaders went to the mic, Houghton lost his smile and became combative, calling one a "bigot" for objecting to foreign-owned toll roads.

The changes did not mollify Dunnam, and it's not clear if they'll satisfy the feds, either.

"The requirement of the federal act is, before approving any projects, they give priority to economically distressed areas," Dunnam said. "They went in after the fact and added a few for appearances' sake."

Asked the question many have wondered for years – "Is TxDOT out of control?" – Dunnam said: "No, I think frankly the governor is out of control. They report to him, they are really accountable only to him, and he continues to drive this toll-road agenda right down everyone's throat despite overwhelming public opposition, overwhelming opposition in the House and Senate. Blaming TxDOT is really missing the big picture."

© 2009 Austin Chronice:

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'Cintra - Ferrovial' plans to devour itself. Shareholders choke.

Investors oppose possible Cintra, Ferrovial merger


By Raji Menon and Sonya Dowsett
Copyright 2009

LONDON/MADRID - A possible merger between Spanish infrastructure group Ferrovial (FER.MC) and its sister company, toll road firm Cintra (CCIT.MC), would solely benefit Ferrovial, Cintra minority investors said on Wednesday.

Debt-laden Ferrovial, which already owns 67 percent of Cintra, said in December it was studying a possible merger with the company but that there were no agreements in place as yet. Cintra said in January it had agreed to study a possible tie-up.

Disgruntled shareholders representing 4.2 percent of the share capital of Cintra wrote to the board outlining their opposition to any merger with Ferrovial.

"The merger rationale is far from compelling from Cintra's point of view and it seems designed to address the immediate financial challenges of Ferrovial," said Peter Doherty, Managing Director of infrastructure investment mananger CP2 Limited.

Bill Clark, Director of the Division of Investment at the State of New Jersey, representing the New Jersey Pension Fund agreed.

"We are highly concerned with the proposed merger. It is very clear that all benefits from the merger flow to Ferrovial shareholders only," he said.

Ferrovial and Cintra declined to comment on the matter on Wednesday.

Under Spanish law, a parent company must own at least 75 percent of a subsidiary to incorporate it fully into its balance sheet. Cintra's losses would bring tax advantages to Ferrovial.

A merger could also give Ferrovial access to Cintra's high cash levels, about to be boosted by the toll-road firm's sale of car parks and Chilean toll road assets.

"Around 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) in liquidity would be a welcome boost to Ferrovial's balance sheet," Citi analyst Mike Pinkney said at the time.

Ferrovial had debt of 24.1 billion euros at the end of December, dwarfing 2008 sales of 14.1 billion euros. It has put Gatwick airport up for sale and will use the proceeds to pay off debt as it moves to reduce leverage.

The group bought British operator BAA, owner of Gatwick and Heathrow, in 2006 in a deal worth over 10 billion pounds ($13.82 billion).

The four signatories on the letter to Cintra are Britain's Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), Australia's CP2 Limited and Magellan Asset Management and New Jersey Pension Fund.

Together, the investors represent 13 percent of Cintra's share capital not owned by Ferrovial.

Cintra was 2.1 percent higher at 3.4 euros by 1430 GMT. Ferrovial was 1.4 percent

© 2009 Reuters:

Ferrovial faces revolt over Cintra buy-out


ByMark Mulligan in Madrid
Financial Times
Copyright 2009

Ferrovial of Spain faces a shareholder revolt over plans to buy out minority investors in its separately-listed Cintra toll road group.

Institutions representing about 13 per cent of Cintra’s free float have clubbed together to oppose the move which, they claim, has “extremely limited rationale” for the company, with “all the benefits flowing to Ferrovial”.

Ferrovial, which controls UK airports operator BAA, admitted late last year it was considering the purchase of the 32 per cent of Cintra it does not already own. Six weeks ago, Cintra confirmed in a regulatory filing that its four independent board members were studying “a possible merger” with the parent, and that a fairness opinion on a share exchange had been sought. Analysts have suggested a possible exchange ratio of one Ferrovial share for every five of Cintra.

The motorway business was spun off in 2004, when Ferrovial was still largely a construction company. Analysts say Cintra has about €400m in cash and that it is set to raise an additional €600m through the sale of its Spanish car parks and Chilean toll roads.

Apart from giving it full access to this cash, the consolidation of Cintra could provide tax benefits to the heavily-indebted parent group. Ferrovial also argues that Cintra now fits well with the company, after the £16bn acquisition of BAA in 2006 transformed the group into an infrastructure management group.

The rebel Cintra shareholders disagree, saying they invested specifically in the company because it was a toll road manager. They want to be compensated for the “substantially greater risk profile of Ferrovial shares [compared with] Cintra shares”.

The shareholders — Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) of the UK, together with the State of New Jersey, Australian infrastructure fund managers CP2 and Magellan Asset Management — say in a letter to Cintra’s board that the deal would give them “unwanted exposure to operations in new sectors and geographic regions”.

“Since its initial public offering, Cintra has represented a logical investment opportunity for specialist toll road investors,” they say in the letter. “However, the merger transaction that is currently being evaluated by the respective boards would fundamentally change the nature of our investment”.

Ferrovial has been under extreme financial and regulatory pressure since its purchase of BAA. After costly terrorist scares, it is now being forced to break up the business, at a time when acquisition financing is tight. Of five potential bidding consortia for its Gatwick airport in London, for example, two have already pulled out.

The company is also likely to be forced by regulators to sell Stansted airport, and either Edinburgh or Glasgow airport. All this has weighed heavily on its shares, which this week sunk to about a quarter of their historic peak.

Shares in Cintra this week also hit a new low of €3.08, compared with a peak of €14.3. A one-for-five swap with Ferrovial would have valued them on Monday at €3.3 each.

Ferrovial and Cintra have sought to head off shareholder action against the merger. Enrique Diaz Rato, chief executive of Cintra, said recently that any deal would not “go against the interest of minority shareholders”.

However, Warren Low, European fund manager for USS, said this week: “Frankly, I find it difficult to understand how the board will be in a position to recommend any offer, without a significant premium to the current market price.”

© 2009 The Financial Times:

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"An accrued $177 billion toll tax on Texas citizens over the next 23 years. "

Don't let the Legislature take a wrong turn when it comes to transportation


Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

A secret hides in the midst of Texas Road Policy, and it doesn't just stop at money siphoning, conversion of public roads to toll roads or toll taxes. The 2009 Texas Legislature now lingers at a crucial transportation crossroad, as a select few determine the future of Texans' rights to public roadways.

Under former Texas Gov. Pat Neff, the Legislature implemented an efficient, affordable and uniform statewide public road system. Today our public road system is being converted into toll roads for the rich while the Texas Legislature diverts more than $10-12 billion from the building of public roads.

As jobs continue to become scarce and layoffs abound, Americans are cutting back on spending, which includes paying several dollars a day additional toll tax. The toll tax, which amounts to $4-6 per gallon, is actually a double tax and simply not affordable or acceptable for the vast majority of Texans. Toll roads destroy Gov. Pat Neff's ideal program for a uniform highway system that is freely accessible to all citizens regardless of income, status or location.

It is the duty of the state to fund and furnish a freely accessible public road system for all Texas cities. The state has failed. Current public policy is burdening our citizens with the cost of tolls, forcing many Texans to drive through neighborhood streets in an effort to avoid tolls. You may say: who cares? You should. High toll costs and toll avoidance doesn't only affect some, it affects everyone due to pollution, street damage and neighborhood safety is compromised.

The Transportation Commission recently issued a list of 87 proposed new toll roads with a base cost of $59 billion, resulting in an accrued $177 billion toll tax on Texas citizens over the next 23 years. Not only will this unduly burden Texans, but it will also cost more to build these toll roads, due to toll collection installation, than it would to build public roads. What's worse is that Texas continues to convert existing public right-of-ways into toll roads. Even worse is the fact that money that should be going to build and maintain public roads has actually been siphoned off to design and build toll roads. Several reports show that more than $93 million has been diverted from public roads to toll roads thus far.

At one time Texas had the best public roads in the nation using the proven best way to provide uniform, efficient roads: a properly applied gas tax along with vehicle registration. On average, Texans pay a gas tax of 1.6 cents per mile for public roads, compared to 20 cents a mile for toll tax. For a state with as large of a geographic area as Texas, the U. S. Government should return 100 percent of fuel taxes back to Texas for use on public roads; Texas is only receiving 88-92 percent. All gas taxes and financial assistance should exclusively be applied to public roads.

Engineering, construction and bond companies make huge profits from toll roads. Their political contributions promote toll roads.
  • The Texas Legislature needs to regain public trust by correcting errant road policies:
  • BUILD the needed public roads, which are freely accessible to all citizens.
  • QUIT diverting money from public road funds ($10-12 billion to date).
  • STOP converting public right-of-ways into toll roads.
  • SCRAP the fringe policies of toll roads, corporation-run toll roads on public right-of-ways, regional mobility authorities, Trans Texas Corridors and non-traditional funding.
This transportation crossroads will set the course of Texans' indebtedness or freedom as it either denies Texans' rights or empowers our growth and worth.

Texas, it's your roadways; your ill-used money; and your right to drive on freely accessible public roads. Stand up and make your voice heard before our Legislature makes the wrong turn at this crucial crossroad.

Dixon lives in San Antonio.

© 2009 Austin American-Statesman:

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"Levee concerns come as the Corps is also being asked to review a first-of-its-kind plan to put a toll road–10 miles long–inside a river corridor."

Sand finding in Dallas levees raises bridge questions


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

The first Calatrava bridge over the Trinity River could be significantly delayed by a deep layer of sand in the east levees near downtown Dallas, a problem that has sent engineers working on the city's massive Trinity River project scrambling.

The 40-story suspension bridge, with its soaring arches and specially fabricated Italian steel, is slated to open by 2011. But it might lack some access ramps – becoming literally a bridge to nowhere – unless engineers for the state and city can persuade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allow fresh holes to be dug in the east levees, near where the sand was found.

The latest hitch for the already delayed bridge comes as city leaders anxiously await delivery of the steel, which is steaming across the Atlantic Ocean on its way to Houston, and then to Dallas. Designed by famed architect Santiago Calatrava, the bridge has emerged as a powerful symbol of both the promise and the headaches associated with the Trinity River Corridor project, which voters first approved in 1998.

A larger question

It is the effect of the sand on that larger project – on the nearly $2 billion toll road, the lakes and other major features of the multibillion-dollar development – that poses the most vexing questions. Not a single person in City Hall, at the Texas Department of Transportation, or the North Texas Tollway Authority can say for sure how much time and money the sand will add to the Trinity Parkway toll road or other aspects of the Trinity project.

"I don't have one God-blessed answer," Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm said. "I don't know, and it's not in our control to know."

And they won't know until two things happen: Engineers analyze how big a risk the layer of sand could pose to the levees and – equally important – determine how widespread the seam of sand is along the 22-mile levee system. The state transportation engineer leading the bridge project said the sand layer was found throughout the footprint of the bridge and its sprawling infrastructure.

To help answer whether the sand extends beyond that area up and down the levees, the North Texas Tollway Authority is taking soil samples at some 300 spots along six miles of the levees.

If the sand layer turns out to run for miles, the fixes could get extraordinarily complex – and extraordinarily expensive.

Expensive solution

One possible solution floated by the city and by transportation officials would be to build concrete barriers – called diaphragm walls – along the levees where sand is discovered. They would have to be built deep below the ground, in the sand layer, and doing so along the length of the levees could cost more than $1 billion, officials have said.

"What you fear is that you find on the back side of a dam a soft spot where water can percolate up," said Bill Hale, the top engineer in Dallas for the state transportation department, which is overseeing construction of the bridge and is closely involved with planning for the toll road.

It could take weeks or months before officials can assess the sand's full effect on the Trinity project. But the problems it is posing already for the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, which is intended to extend Woodall Rodgers Freeway across the river to Singleton Boulevard, are fast coming into focus.

Crews dug dozens of columns for the bridge between the levees last year, and they will begin working on the span itself once the steel arrives from Italy, probably sometime later this spring. But work on the $67 million access ramps to connect the bridge to roads on either side of the river could soon come to a halt, thanks to concerns raised by the corps.

Oncor must first move utility lines from the path of the new ramps. But the corps has said no new holes can be dug into the levees, not even for something as relatively minor as a transmission tower, until engineers can devise a way to offset the risk posed to the aging, earthen dike.

Hale said teams have submitted possible solutions several times to the corps, but each has been deemed unacceptable. "They are saying, 'Try again,' " he said.

"We're trying to find a fix," Hale said. "There are utility poles dug all up and down the levees, and they've been there for years. So we thought we were okay.

Corps tougher now

"But after what happened down in New Orleans, things have changed. The corps thought they had a solution down there and found out later they didn't. They are afraid the same thing could happen here, and they can't afford to have another catastrophe in a city the size of New Orleans or Dallas."

Hale said he needs to know how to proceed within 60 days, or else taxpayers will have to begin paying compensation to the contractor building the access ramps.

"Within one to two months, this has to be resolved or I am going to have problems with our contractors," he said. "They could file a claim, saying we have impeded their work. My biggest way of losing money or causing problems is by delaying contractors."

David Lott, the transportation department engineer overseeing the bridge project, said work on the access ramps will take less time than construction of the span, so crews could make up some lost time and still meet the opening day deadline in 2011. "But if it is delayed more ..., then the bridge will be impacted. You can't open a bridge without ramps to get on or off."

Moving the utility tower is probably the least of the problems worrying city officials. The levees have failed a five-year inspection by the corps, and only after its final report is issued later this month, will the city begin in earnest to test just how serious the barriers' shortcomings are.

Those levee concerns come even as the corps is also being asked to review a first-of-its-kind plan to put a toll road – in this case 10 miles long – inside a river corridor, for which the agency has formed a special nationwide team of experts to evaluate. Approval rests in the hands of the corps' commander and chief of engineers, a three-star Army general for whom local political pressure is not likely to weigh especially heavily.

"The tollway project is a pretty massive project, and it's challenging from an engineering point of view," said Eric Halpin, the corps' top expert on levee safety.

Complicating all that has been the rigor with which the corps now reviews the thousands of levees for which it is responsible, thanks to the levee failures in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. In communities across the country – including along the Rio Grande in Texas near New Mexico and New Orleans itself – sandy soil has complicated levee repairs and made them more expensive.

For supporters of the controversial toll road and other aspects of the Trinity project, the corps' meticulousness has been frustrating.

"We had one set of rules; [now] we have a new set of rules," said Suhm. "Our first question was what in the Sam-hell is going on here. That's my description. Their description is they have raised the bar. What I hear is new rules, new template, new application, new policy."

For Hale, the concern over the relocation of the utilities has been especially troubling. Utilities have been dug into the levees for generations. And for the past 80 years, the levees – sand and all – have worked fine, he said.

Still both officials said they respect the corps' focus on safety and are working overtime to keep all aspects of the project intact and, they hope, on time. It has not been easy, Suhm said, but then nothing about the Trinity River Corridor has been.

"We've worked through problems in the past," she said. "This is not easy. It never has been easy, [and] it's not going to be easy in the future. But it's a project I think is well worth doing and I think possible to do. But sometimes it's like pushing a rock up the hill, and I hope I live long enough to stand someday on a bank and say to myself, I knew this would work.";

© 2009 Dallas Morning News:

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Some groups question the use of federal stimulus money to construct a toll road, which is what the Grand Parkway is slated to be."

Texas Sierra Club Sues Feds to Safeguard Katy Prairie


Environment News Service (ENS)
Copyright 2009

HOUSTON, Texas- The Sierra Club late Monday filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Houston against the Federal Highway Administration over the environmental impacts of the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E in western Harris County.

"In the rush to push Segment E of the Grand Parkway for the benefit of real estate developers, the Federal Highway Administration conducted a weak environmental review that ignores the project's harm to the Katy Prairie, its potential impact on Houston air quality, and better transportation alternatives," said Brandt Mannchen, air quality chair for the state chapter and Houston group of the Sierra Club.

In remarks to the Harris County Commissioners Court today informing them of the lawsuit. Mannchen said, "The Sierra Club, over the past 25 years, has worked to protect the Katy Prairie and implement transportation alternatives to the proposed Grand Parkway, Segment E. We are now at a point where we did not want to be. Filing a lawsuit is a serious undertaking which requires money, time, and other resources. It is a strategy of last resort, not first resort."

"It is because the Sierra Club feels so strongly about protection of the Katy Prairie and the harmful effects the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E will have on the Katy Prairie, that we have filed this lawsuit," Mannchen said.

According to the Sierra Club, the proposed Grand Parkway project will pave over about 700 acres of the Katy Prairie.

The Sierra Club points out that by facilitating the Bridgelands real estate development in its efforts to construct subdivisions in the area, the Grand Parkway indirectly will destroy another 12,000 acres of the Katy Prairie.

The Katy Prairie lies in the Texas Coastal Plain, and encompasses over 1,000 square miles, bounded by the Brazos River on the southwest, pine-hardwood forest on the north, and the city of Houston on the east.

The Katy Prairie includes agricultural wetlands, depressional wetlands, creek corridors, and coastal grasslands inhabited by hundreds of thousands of geese, ducks, herons, egrets, songbirds, and other wildlife.

In autumn, millions, of migratory birds arrive, especially waterfowl. Some make Katy Prairie is a winter habitat until March, when they return to nesting areas in the upper Midwest and Canada. Others use the prairie as a staging area on their way south.

The Sierra Club notes that the prairie is also a giant sponge that soaks up flood waters and keeps them from flooding down Buffalo Bayou, causing havoc downstream.

Nevertheless, last week the Texas Department of Transportation included the Grand Parkway Segment E in a list of projects to be funded in part with $181 million out of federal economic stimulus funds.

That decision has generated controversy, in part because the project has not secured all the necessary permits to proceed, including a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental permit.

Some groups question the use of federal stimulus money to construct a toll road, which is what the Grand Parkway is slated to be.

The Sierra Club says there are proven transportation alternatives to the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E that will reduce traffic congestion where people live, work, and play.

The group suggests alternatives such as commuter rail along U.S. 290, widening of U.S. 290, the Hempstead Highway toll road, the widening of Katy-Hockley Road, and the connection of Fry and Mason Roads to U.S. 290.

"We need to spend precious taxpayer and toll payer dollars where people live and traffic congestion exists now," said Mannchen, "not use our money to subsidize further traffic-generating growth that clogs our roads and destroys our area's natural heritage."

In its 2008 State of the Prairie report, the Houston-based Katy Prairie Conservancy says, "Land on some parts of the Katy Prairie is being sold for $20,000 an acre despite the temporary softening in the housing market. The prairie, however flood prone it may be, is ripe for development in the eyes of developers and land speculators."

"The Houston region is expected to grow by more than 3.5 million people by 2035. The Katy Area Economic Development Council predicts that the vast majority of undeveloped land on the Katy Prairie will be converted to residential, commercial, and industrial uses by 2035," the report states. "Our time to save the Katy Prairie grows short."

© 2009 Environment News Service (ENS):

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Lawmakers consider raiding Texas Teachers Retirement Fund to finance speculative toll road deals

Pension pirates eyeing teachers' retirement funds

Lawmakers are looking to teachers to pay for new toll roads in the state.

Pirates of Pensions


by Christopher Heath
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN – The state is searching for new streams of income, especially when it comes to building roads, now the main target as lawmakers draw up the budget may be Texas teachers and the billions of dollars in the Texas Teachers Retirement Fund.

With the current gas tax of $0.20 per gallon no longer keeping up, state leaders have been exploring new ways to pay for roads. While some in Austin have suggested raising the gas tax, or at least indexing it to inflation, the idea has had little support especially during a recession.

There is, however, another idea.

On October 14, 2008, Governor Rick Perry delivered the opening remarks at the annual trade show of the Associated General Contractors of Texas saying, “I hope the Legislature will create a Transportation Finance Corporation so that Texas-based investment funds can invest directly in Texas transportation projects.”

A Transportation Finance Corporation would be able to invest state controlled funds into state projects, specifically toll roads. The Corporation would have access to all state pension funds; however, none are as massive as the Teachers Retirement Fund which currently stands at $85 billion. The state could use part of that money to build toll roads and then repay the Retirement Fund with profits from the toll roads.

Supporters of the plan like Senate Finance Chair Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) call the idea a “win-win”, saying that it would give the state the money it needs to build the roads it needs and provide a profit for teachers.

But not everyone at the capitol is convinced that the idea makes sound fiscal sense.

Senator Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler), who also sits on the Senate Finance Committee, had such misgivings about the plan that he included a letter of opposition in the Senate Finance Committee’s Interim Report to the Legislature.

Senator Eltife points out that the TRS (Teachers Retirement System) has had an average rate of return on investments at about 7%. Texas bonds road projects out at about 4%, leaving a 3% gap between free market investments and bonds. The question, according to Senator Eltife, then becomes how does the state make up the difference?

The state could pay more to use the TRS funds, costing the taxpayers an average of 3% more to build roads. Or, the state could simply use the money at 4% and leave the TRS with less of a total return.

Representatives from the Texas Classroom Teachers Association have long been opposed to the idea. The TCTA points out that the TRS already has the option to invest in toll roads, but fund managers have chosen not to.

Critics of the idea also say it creates a very clear conflict of interest for the state. State leaders being able to direct how and where pension funds are invested would be a departure from the current method of fund managers who are obligated by the fund to invest in projects with the greatest rate of return.

At present, the Transportation Finance Corporation plan is still making its way through the halls at the Capitol. Those close to the idea say it does not appear that it will have the necessary support to pass in 2009, especially considering the state of the economy both in Texas and in the US.

© 2009 KENS 5-TV Inc:

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Monday, March 09, 2009

"We wouldn't settle for talking to one of TxDOT's media representatives..."

Toll road billing continues to take its toll on drivers


By: Bob Robuck
News 8 Austin
Copyright 2009

In a continuing "Your News" look into Texas Department of Transportation toll road billing complaints, News 8 asked viewers to e-mail us with their various issues.

We received dozens of e-mails from people complaining they had paid their tolls, only to be billed again with penalties.

Others have issues with their toll tags. Still more complain about customer service and lack of knowledge by representatives.

The complaints were so varied and complicated, we had to break them down into recurring themes.

The complaints most prevalent include: accusations of inaccurate billing, exorbitant administrative fees, inaccurate record keeping and promises made by customer service that were not fulfilled.

To be fair, these claims have yet to be substantiated.

For weeks, News 8 has asked TxDOT to respond to these claims. We were told Turnpike Authority Director Mark Tomlinson was just too busy to talk to us.

We wouldn't settle for talking to one of TxDOT's media representatives because, by their own admission, one of them had already given us inaccurate information.

We took the e-mails to TxDOT to be presented to Tomlinson. News 8's Bob Robuck delivered a packet of e-mails, with names and contact information redacted.

We included a note that we would get in contact later this week.

And, remember Lisa Coleman, who TxDOT billed for nearly $4,000, and Samone Murray, billed for more than $11,000?

A TxDOT spokesperson told us each woman received an offer to have her penalties forgiven as long as she paid the tolls.

Murray said no one made her such a deal and Coleman claims customer service made the offer at the very beginning of her nightmare, when TxDOT couldn't provide documentation that she even owed the tolls.

We hope to get more direct answers to these and other claims very soon.

Several weeks ago, we made an open records request for the total amount currently owed by toll road users, broken down into actual tolls and administrative fees.

TxDOT said it still needs a couple of more days to compile that information.

We still want to hear from you if you have issues with Central Texas toll roads. E-mail us at, call (512) 531-8888 or write to us at News 8 Austin, 1708 Colorado St., Austin, TX 78701.

© 2009 News 8 Austin:

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"The Texas Transportation Commission controlled the stimulus purse....they had a clear preference."

With stimulus, tolls mattered more than traffic counts


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

For those of you who might have been concerned, What's Up with That has not taken the early retirement package offered by the Statesman and is once again ready to take your questions.

Q: I saw that $90 million of federal stimulus money will be used to build four flyover bridges connecting U.S. 290 and U.S. 183. Wouldn't it make more sense to use that money for flyovers at U.S. 183 and Interstate 35, or 290 and MoPac Boulevard? Isn't there more traffic at those places?

A: Well yes, there is more traffic and missing flyovers at several other locations around town. The interstate has almost 250,000 cars a day at U.S. 183, which has 84,000 cars a day there, according to Texas Department of Transportation counts, and there are only two "direct connectors" there. It's the same at MoPac/U.S. 290 — two flyovers — with MoPac having 110,000 cars a day and U.S. 290 with 80,000 cars a day. At 183/290, by contrast, U.S. 183 has 50,000 cars a day and U.S. 290 has 43,000 cars a day.

The key difference: tolls. The 183/290 interchange will be the west entry to and exit from what will be a toll road within three years, and the plan is to charge a 25-cent to 50-cent toll on the flyover bridges. You could put tolls on flyovers at those other two locations, but with free roads on each side, the public outcry could be intense.

The Texas Transportation Commission controlled the stimulus purse and, as evidenced by two-thirds of the $1.2 billion for new roads going to tollways, they had a clear preference. Austin officials will take what they can get.

Q: There is a 38.4 cents per gallon federal and state gas tax in Texas. For income taxes, is any portion of that tax deductible with my other sales tax receipts?

A: Good try, but no. I asked former Austin City Council Member Ronney Reynolds, a tax accountant. You can deduct mileage for business travel — the IRS rate was 50.5 cents a mile through June 30, then 58.5 cents a mile in the last half of 2008 — but not for gas taxes.

Q: What happened with those pedestrian islands on South Congress? There were six, then two, and they're still pylons.

A: The two remaining, by St. Edwards University, will stay and may become permanent concrete islands. The two near Guero's Taco Bar are likely gone for good, and the city is exploring other ways for the many pedestrians there to cross the broad avenue.

Q: Will Capital Metro's Red Line commuter trains really start running March 30?

A: Maybe so, but agency officials in recent days have been sending a lot of signs that there might be a short delay. Mid-April appears more likely now.

More questions about rail? Go to to see a full Q-and-A.

Getting There appears Mondays. For questions, tips or story ideas, contact Getting There at 445-3698 or

© 2009 Austin American-Statesman:

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

"The level of mistrust of TxDOT is as high as it has ever been–thanks to Commissioner Ted Houghton..."

The Week in Review

Fodder for the coming battle over TxDOT's sunset

Houghton: "I'm just going to make sure people know what you and your group really are. you are a bunch of bigots is what you are." (Footage courtesy of "Truth Be Tolled").


Paul Burka
Texas Monthly
Copyright 2009

The transportation stimulus package.

This is one area where the stimulus package can produce real jobs and have real economic benefits. So why is the amount so small–just $2.5 billion overall, and $1.2 billion in the first installment? One of the reasons is that Obama wants to invest in high-speed rail. I think this is a boondoggle.

I’d like to see more of the money go to highways and less to high-speed rail. High-speed rail requires total grade separation.

For rural Texas, it will make the Trans-Texas Corridor battle look like a walk in the park. I ran some numbers back in the early nineties, when the idea of a bullet train was first floated, and to break even on the project’s then $6 billion cost, trains had to run 97% full between Houston and Dallas 24 hours a day.

Like it or not, the most efficient method of getting people from point A to point B is one lane of freeway. In an hour, it carries six times the number of people as rail, and the cost is approximately the same.

Politically, the most important aspect of the transportation funding battle was the continuing hostility between TxDOT and the Legislature.

TxDOT froze lawmakers out of the discussion of which projects should be funded, with the result that 70% of the money will go to toll roads. Legislators did not cover themselves with glory either, as some took the opportunity to lobby for projects in their districts.

The level of mistrust of TxDOT is as high as it has ever been–thanks to Commissioner Ted Houghton, who decided to do a little bomb-throwing of his own at the March 5 meeting of the Texas Highway Commission, calling one of the witnesses and the organization he represents “idiots.” Senator Hegar fired off a letter to Houghton, which included the following observations:
  • I am … compelled to strongly denounce your comments to Mr. Hank Gilbert at the … meeting as completely out of line and wholly unacceptable.
  • Regardless of the criticism you may have received over the last few years in your duties as a commissioner and regardless of your thoughts about Mr. Gilbert or the group he represents, he is a Texas taxpayer, and it is extremely inconsiderate for you to dismiss him and the organization he represents as “idiots.” Anyone who holds the prestigious position of Texas transportation commissioner must take both the good and the bad that comes with that position and treat our fellow citizens with respect; the same respect that he paid you in politely expressing his thoughts and opinions.
  • [I]ncidents like this one only underscore the problems of the past and retard future progress. They certainly do nothing to change the perception of many of my legislative colleagues that TxDOT remains arrogant and unresponsive to the people it serves….

Lots of fodder here for the coming battle over TxDOT sunset.

© 2009 Texas Monthly:

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"Many of my constituents have a deep distrust of government and these actions by the commission only confirm that distrust."


Stop spending tax funds on toll roads


Houston Chronicle

Texas stands to receive $2.25 billion in transportation funding from the federal stimulus program. This funding is critical to maintain and upgrade our transportation infrastructure. It is also critical to stimulate the Texas economy. It will create jobs, from the engineers who design these roads to the construction crews who build them.

The Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, has recommended that the East Region, which includes Beaumont, Bryan, Houston and Lufkin, receive $431,516,770 for transportation projects. Of this amount, more than 53 percent, or $231 million, will be spent on the construction of toll roads.

These recommendations ignore the will of ordinary Texans who are opposed to our tax dollars being spent on toll roads and see these schemes as a type of double taxation. They also ignore the federal law that requires these funds to be spent in economically distressed areas. The small number of projects in economically distressed areas added to the stimulus list on Thursday do not satisfy the federal requirements.

Over the last ten years, Fort Bend County has consistently been one of the fastest growing counties in the country. As a county commissioner in Fort Bend, I am on the front lines of mobility issues on a daily basis. Many of my constituents have a deep distrust of government and these actions by the commission only confirm that distrust. After the commission’s recommendations, I have been asked on numerous occasions why tax dollars will be spent on a road that will then be tolled. This is a valid question that Gov. Rick Perry should be required to answer.

Unfortunately, Gov. Perry has taken the position that the preferred method of financing our public roads in Texas is through tolls. And many of our current mobility projects have been designed according to this policy.

Tolling the Grand Parkway is a prime example of the shortsightedness of the commission and our regional planners. Powerful interests with goals other than mobility have been pushing this “outer-loop” for 30 years and ignoring the other long-term mobility needs of the area. As a result, Segment E of the parkway is one of the few “shovel-ready” projects in the Houston-Galveston area.

Now this shortsightedness is finally bearing fruit. If Segment E is funded from the stimulus money and finally constructed, exorbitant tolls from this segment will be used to finance and construct the remaining segments in Liberty, Montgomery, Brazoria, Chambers and Galveston counties. That means the citizens of Fort Bend County and northwest Harris County will be paying for those segments even though they never drive on them.

From a mobility standpoint, many of these remaining segments are useless. Miles and miles of the remaining pieces will cross open prairie where no one lives, will have little or no effect on traffic and are not needed. When our transportation dollars from Washington are desperately needed to get people to and from our population centers, it only seems reasonable that the federal stimulus money should be spent on mobility projects that are actually needed.

A solution to this ridiculous dilemma over how to pay for road building is for Gov. Perry to show some courage and demand that the Legislature index the gasoline tax to inflation. After all, the gasoline tax is one of the fairer taxes: The more you drive, the more you pay.

Of course, if the Legislature decides to pass this tax, it must also ensure that all of the tax revenue raised from gasoline taxes will be spent on roads. That revenue should no longer be raided for other needs of the state.

Gov. Perry should take a leadership role in making sure this happens. It will take courage, but it is the right thing for Texas.

Morrison, a Democrat elected in 2008, is the county commissioner of Precinct 1 in Fort Bend County. Segment C of the Grand Parkway is proposed to be located in his precinct.

© 2009 Houston Chronicle:

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