Saturday, April 04, 2009

"For two years now we have held TxDOT at bay. There’s no Corridor through our jurisdiction. We put a 30-mile-hole through the Corridor."

Dan Byfield on "391" Commissions, TTC


Susan Rigdway Garry
Anti-Corridor/Rail Expansion (ACRE)
Copyright 2008

At its March 30 meeting, the Coupland Civic Organization heard a presentation from Dan Byfield, president of the American Land Foundation, a national property rights organization. Along with his wife Margaret, who founded another property rights group Stewards of the Range, Byfield was instrumental in forming the “391 Commissions” in Texas to fight the Trans-Texas Corridor.

The first “391” was founded in 2007 in Bell County—the East Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission (ECTSRPC). One of its members is the City of Holland, and also speaking at the meeting were Mae Smith, mayor of Holland and president of the ECTSRPC, and Ralph Snyder, a Holland businessman and a director of the ECTSRPC. Snyder and his wife Marcia helped found the ECTSRPC.


Byfield recounted that two-and-a-half years ago, he discovered a requirement in a Texas statute that TxDOT and other state agencies must “coordinate” their planning with local planning commissions. The requirement is in Chapter 391 of the Texas Local Government Code, hence, the name “391 Commissions.” He said, “I told Ralph we needed to start a commission. Ralph started meeting with officials in his area [eastern Bell County], formed the commission, and state agencies started coordinating with this commission.”

There must be two incorporated cities, two counties, or one city and one county to start a “391,” and then other entities such as school districts can join. The ECTSRPC began with Holland, Bartlett, Little River-Academy, and Rogers and then added their school districts.

TxDOT at bay--environmental process

Byfield said, “For two years now we have held TxDOT at bay. There’s no Corridor through our jurisdiction. We put a 30-mile-hole through the Corridor; they’re not going to build a road with a 30-mile gap.” The ECTRPC and Buckholts residents became concerned that TxDOT might bypass Bell County by going farther east through Buckholts, so Buckholts joined the ECTRPC, thus gaining its protection.

The ECTSRPC has stopped the Corridor through the environmental process. TxDOT cannot proceed until the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for Tier 1 is out. Snyder said, “There were 26 items that TxDOT was obligated to do that they didn’t do. We asked for a supplement to cover these items.”

The ECTSRPC made a formal demand that TxDOT stop the development of the Corridor and restudy it in a supplemental environmental study. The FEIS is still at the Federal Highway Administration, and Snyder says, “If they don’t approve it in the next couple of months, they have to start over.”

Mayor Smith and Ralph Snyder on Texas T-bone high-speed rail

Mayor Smith asked, “Why destroy the Blackland that you cannot replace? Stand up for your land! A statute is on the books that they have to listen to us. When we call, they come to Holland, Texas. We are 45 percent of Bell County.”

She also is concerned about the latest high-speed rail proposal, which is called the Texas T-Bone. A line will run through the state north to south, with a line coming toward it from Bryan that “T’s” into the north-south line in the Temple area. This line would damage the rural areas of Bell County represented by the ECTSRPC.

About high-speed rail, Snyder asked, “Who gets to pay for the planning, for the studies, for the state’s loan to foreign companies, for the decreased value of land on each side of it? We do!”

The ECTSRPC asked for our support in their fight against high-speed rail. They appreciated that the Coupland area had fought the previous high-speed rail proposal, and also that we were among the early opponents of the Corridor.

Legislative attempts to abolish "391's"

About possible attempts in the Legislature to abolish the “391’s,” Byfield said, “There is coordination language in federal statute as well. The National Environmental Policy Act has coordination in it.” Also, he believes the state “can’t do away with the statute because the COG’s [Councils of Government] were created under it.”

To form a Sub-Regional Planning Commission, the cities and counties must be in the same Council of Government. Williamson is not in the COG with Bell County; it is in the Capital Area COG, along with the counties of Bastrop, Blanco, Burnet, Caldwell, Fayette, Hays, Lee, Llano, and Travis.

Eminent domain

Regarding eminent domain in this legislative session, Byfield said there are eight bills and three constitutional amendments filed. He said there are some “good bills, supported by the Texas Farm Bureau, but they aren’t supported by the governor. We don’t know that we will see good legislation. This session is very important for rural Texas.”

Supporting "391's"

The speakers were asked, since Coupland is not incorporated, how we can participate in the Sub-Regional Planning Commission process. Snyder mentioned supporting the American Land Foundation and Stewards of the Range: “These two foundations operate on donations.” Mayor Smith added, “Support the commissions that are out there.” Currently, there are nine in Texas. News and descriptions of all of them are at

Attendees were given copies of Standing Ground, the publication of Stewards of the Range and American Land Foundation. You can view it online at The site of American Land Foundation is

© 2009 ACRE:

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Friday, April 03, 2009

"If anything the restrictions on TxDOT’s behavior will get tougher, not easier, when the budget goes to the House..."

Texas Senate: Transportation Budget


Will Lutz
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2009

The budget does little to reduce the diversions of gas tax money from road construction and maintenance. The great bulk of money for new construction in the budget is in bonding authority (i.e., borrowing money). The amount of construction in this budget is less than in the last few budgets.

Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas), during debate, questioned the increasing reliance on bonding. He also estimated the reduction in diversions from the gas tax at a mere $21 million. Carona has long been a proponent of indexing the gas tax to inflation.

One area where the budget has made substantial progress is in TxDOT’s transparency and accountability. For example, one rider requires TxDOT to report to each senator any eminent domain proceedings in that Senate district. The provision from 2007 requiring Legislative Budget Board approval before spending public funds on a Comprehensive Development Agreement is retained. A comprehensive development agreement rents state right-of-way to a private company, which builds and operates a toll road during the term of the lease.

Another rider requires Legislative Budget Board approval to spend concession fee money from a comprehensive development agreement. Yet another rider expressly bans using state funds on comprehensive development agreements with non-compete clauses (provisions that penalize the state for building roads that compete with the toll road).

The budget also requires Legislative Budget Board approval to spend additional funds received during a biennium. This rider is a direct reaction to the Texas Department of Transportation spending money from the federal stimulus package without legislative direction.

If anything the restrictions on TxDOT’s behavior will get tougher, not easier, when the budget goes to the House, whose chief budget writer, Rep. Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie), has long-standing disagreements with the agency and its Trans-Texas Corridor project. The corridor was slated to go through his district before the agency, under political pressure, declared the TTC dead.

© Copyright 2009, The Lone Star Report:

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Clock ticks towards another eminent domain fiasco in Texas

Clock ticking on eminent domain reform


Texas Farm Bureau
Copyright 2009

As the Texas Legislature passes the halfway point of the 81st session, the critical element facing eminent domain reform is time, according to Regan Beck, associate legislative director with the Texas Farm Bureau.

“The clock’s winding down. The pressure is on to get a bill out as quickly as possible so the legislature has time to override a possible veto by Governor Perry,” Beck said.

Last session, Gov. Rick Perry raised the ire of groups supporting eminent domain reform when he vetoed HB 2006 which was overwhelmingly passed by both the House and Senate. HB 2006 would have given Texas one of the strongest “takings” laws in terms of private property rights and proper compensation.

The House Land and Resource Management Committee heard three joint resolutions and eight bills which address eminent domain reform on March 25. The Senate State Affairs Committee also heard two bills on March 30. Texas Farm Bureau State Director Richard Cortese testified on behalf of the state’s largest farm organization at both hearings.

“Texas Farm Bureau believes that the private ownership of property is one of the cornerstones of our nation’s freedoms,” Cortese testified. “It is what helped build our nation and our state. The changes we seek are needed to strengthen this basic right and to protect the rights of property owners.”

Texas Farm Bureau supports HB 1483 by Rep. Jim Pitts and SB 18 by Sen. Craig Estes. Although other bills address critical aspects of eminent domain reform, HB 1483 and SB 18 are comprehensive in scope and address what the organization considers the three pillars of eminent domain reform: a good faith offer by the taking entity; compensation, including diminished access; and a clear definition of public use.

According to TFB Legislative Director Steve Pringle, testimony surfaced in the House Land and Resource Management Committee that shows the abuse of eminent domain power is much more than a rural problem. It’s an issue that affects the private property rights of all Texans, he said.

“There have been significant problems with oil and gas issues (pipelines) in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area,” Pringle said. “The attorney for the city of Arlington was on the witness stand for what seemed like an eternity. The poster child for abuse in that area is and will be the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium. There was significant scrutiny about policies and procedures surrounding leases or other arrangements with entities involving economic development as opposed to a ‘public use.’”

Learn more about Texas eminent domain, follow us at,, and

© Copyright 2009, Texas Farm Bureau:

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

"Enough is enough."

Legislators Challenge Governor's Veto Power


Ben Philpott
KUT Radio
Copyright 2009

DALLAS, TX -Because Texas lawmakers pass the majority of their bill during the final days of the legislative session, the session is over before the governor vetoes legislation. Houston Republican Gary Elkins says that means lawmakers have no chance for an override.

Elkins: "I just want to bring the power back to the people we represent. The Constitution gives us the right to override governor vetoes. But as a practical matter, we're never here and never get the opportunity."

Elkins' Constitutional amendment would allow lawmakers to request a veto override, and with a majority of their colleagues in agreement, lawmakers would get called back to Austin.

Will Lutz edits the Lone Star Report, a conservative political newsletter. He says the bill is a response to what some lawmakers view as an excessive amount of vetoes by Governor Perry.

Lutz: "The governor has vetoed local bills over larger policy disputes - over things like the Trans-Texas Corridor. He's vetoed things that even Republican legislators got a lot of grief from their constituents over like a property rights bill that protected people from eminent domain. And I think the legislators in the House have decided enough is enough."

This is the second time around for this amendment. It passed the House last year and fell flat in the Senate. A companion bill there this time around is still waiting for a committee hearing.

© Copyright 2009, KERA :

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Senate Bill would pull the plug on TxDOT's $9 million 'Keep Texas Moving' toll road marketing campaign

No more ads praising toll roads

Keep Taxes Moving


Terrence Stutz
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

Texas senators on Thursday said they no longer want to see state money spent on commercials extolling the virtues of toll roads. The bill by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said the Texas Deparment of Transportation can no longer engage in "marketing, advertising or other activities for the purpose of influencing public opinion about the use of toll roads or the use of tolls as a financial mechanism" to build highways.

Carona's bill, which now goes to the House, was sparked by the $4.5 million Keep Texas Moving campaign that promoted toll roads across Texas - despite their unpopularity among many lawmakers and residents in the path of proposed toll roads. The campaign, funded by the transportation department, was originally supposed to receive up to $9 million for ads and other promotional materials.

If the bill passes the House, the agency could only spend money on advertising and marketing to provide information on the status of pending or ongoing toll projects.

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

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"The status quo is not acceptable.”

Fixing TxDOT before dusk. Isett possible?

TxDOT's sunset bill to be Picketted apart in committee.


Ben Wright
The Newspaper Tree
Copyright 2009

House Bill 300 is a big deal for both the Texas Department of Transportation and Texas.

According to it's author state Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, it would “change the agency from top to bottom” creating a “whole new paradigm” that would allow localities to “chart their own destinies” when it came to transportation planning.

“Our vision for this bill is to transform this agency (TxDOT) from one that now acts as the final arbitrator … to one that acts as a partner with our local communities,” Isett told reporters after a public hearing for the bill yesterday.

The Lubbock representative added the bill would make TxDOT more transparent by creating an online reporting system to show the progress of projects.

“Every Texan will be able to get online and look at their project and see the process,” he said.
The most obvious and potentially controversial provision of HB 300 would do away with the five-member Texas Transportation Commission, which El Pasoan Ted Houghton currently sits on, and replace it with a single commissioner appointed by the Governor. Another provision would create a Transportation Legislative Oversight Committee consisting of six appointed state reps and senators.

TxDOT would be headed by a single administrator while the committee would be there to ensure accountability.

The bill represents several years of work and research into TxDOT, one of the state agencies up for review and possible elimination this session by the Sunset Advisory Commission. According to Sunset’s website, the commission's staff produces a report with recommendations on agencies under review. The report then goes to the commission, made up of members of the Texas House, Senate and members of the general public. (See document below.)

The commission, which votes on its decisions, can accept or reject any aspects of the staff report in crafting legislative recommendations. HB 300 represents “verbatim the recommendations of the commission,” Isett said. As such, the author does not agree with everything his bill would do, particularly the downsizing of the Texas Transportation Commission from five commissioners to one. “I personally don’t support that. I know that the Senate does not support it so we’ll just have to see how that plays out,” said Isett, who believes more commissioners means more input from different parts of Texas in TxDOT decisions.

“Multiple commissioners give El Paso a commissioner. They give Lubbock a commissioner. They give Central Texas a commissioner,” Isett said.

Furthermore, Isett believes only having one commissioner could jeopardize TxDOT’s transparency. Because the transportation commission has five members, it is subject to the Texas Open Meetings Act, and its decisions are made, “in the light of day,” Isett said.

But the five-member commission has hardly been transparent, argues Terri Hall, representing the group, “Texas Turf” at Tuesday’s hearing. Hall wants to see the five-member TTC replaced by a single elected commissioner.

“I think an agency is more accountable, more efficient and more streamlined when you have elected leadership,” Hall said after the hearing. She also called HB 300 “woefully inadequate” and questioned whether the bill truly represented the Sunset Commission’s recommendations. “I’m hearing from people on that commission that ‘this is not the bill we wanted. … It’s Isett’s bill, not necessarily the commission’s bill,’ ” Hall said.

Hall’s testimony at the hearing raised concerns about how the Bill. Texas TURF concerned about a clause which would require TxDOT to maximize alternate (private) sources of investment in road building. “How is the agency supposed to do that without toll roads?” Hall said, arguing that toll roads are “taxation without representation” and make TxDOT a “de facto taxing agency.”

Hall said if private entities want to build toll roads fairly, they should offer landowners market rate for rights-of-way, finance the deals themselves, and recoup their investment through toll revenue.

But according to Hall. That is not what happens.

Because TxDOT has become the “arm of private toll operators,” such companies are able (through TxDOT) to use eminent domain to take the land, pay for nothing and run roads for profit.

“That is not only un-Texan. It is an outrage,” said Hall.

The bill will now be worked on by the House Transportation Committee, chaired by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. On Tuesday, testifying witnesses and committee members all agreed that, as-is, HB 300 isn’t a done deal.

“In my opinion, the bill needs to address a lot of the questions brought up here today,” Pickett said.

But the key to fixing TxDOT may have nothing to do with the number of people on the TTC, how many private contracts are doled out, or the number of toll roads that get built.

Pickett wants to roll his own bill, HB 2589,, into HB 300, to change formula funding and hand more decisions on spending transportation dollars to local communities. In essence, that would mean more money would come to the local MPOs and less would go to TxDOT’s discretionary pot.

By putting controversial decisions like toll roads and private contracts in the hands of the local communities, Pickett thinks that many of the problems associated with TxDOT would be eliminated.

“I believe if we use and strengthen the language I‘ve got in (HB) 2589, then a lot of the other issues we’ve got become a moot point.” Pickett said.

Isett seemed open to that idea Tuesday. Regarding HB 2589 and HB 300 he said, “we have to make sure all the pieces fit together.”

But Hall remains cautionary. While believing HB 2589 could go a long way to improving HB 300, she was keen to stress elected leadership as the solution for TxDOT.

“We’re trying to make it very clear that the status quo is not acceptable,” said Hall. “We’re already at the point where we would like to see TxDOT scrapped completely. They are a king on a high throne and they don't answer to anybody."

Link: Sunset's Jan 09 report on TxDOT

© 2009 The Newspaper Tree:

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

"Dallas has been massively and deliberately misled by its dominant news source."

If only The Dallas Morning News had attacked its Trinity River reporting with the same punch it attacked us.

The Dallas Morning News has floated all its hopes and credibility on a rosy view of the Trinity River project.
The Dallas Morning News has floated all its hopes and credibility on a rosy view of the Trinity River project.


By Jim Schutze
The Dallas Observer
Copyright 2009

Let's begin with the assumption that you, as reader and citizen, do give a damn what's going to happen along the Trinity River through downtown, where the biggest public works campaign in the city's history seems to have become a big mess.

Let's also assume you do not care too much which newspaper in town beat which other newspaper on some particular aspect of this story.

Here's my argument: You can't figure out what should happen next if you don't have some idea what went wrong. And what went wrong is, in fact, a story that involves the Dallas Observer and The Dallas Morning News.

We're talking about a multibillion-dollar project to rebuild the river through downtown, improve flood protection, create lakes and parks, and build a multilane, limited-access, high-speed toll road. It's big. It's complicated.

Over the 10-year stretch since voters approved the project, the Observer has worked to cover the story at a fundamental level, reaching outside Dallas to national experts for context, challenging core assertions of the proponents of the project and endeavoring always to put the important underlying questions out in plain view so readers can make their own appraisal. In instance after instance, the News has done just the opposite, while sniping at us for being sensationalistic or polemical.

I'm writing about this now, frankly, in response to an accusation made March 26 by News managing editor George Rodrigue on his blog, "Ask the Editor."

"Hurling accusations based on intuition or personal belief is not journalism," he wrote. "It's more like propaganda, or polemicism. Which can be just fine. Sometimes a good polemic is a great public pick-me-up. But we don't write propaganda, and it's crazy, in my personal opinion, that people who do should criticize us for trying to be fairer, more careful and more precise than they are."

Let's count it out. On January 22, 1998, the Observer published an overview of the Trinity River project telling readers that the basic design of the project flew in the face of national flood-control policy. The criticisms raised in that story—not by the Observer but by recognized authorities in the field—are at the heart now of all that has gone wrong with the project.

The problem is too much stuff piled into too small a space along a river that floods. The proposed project would create enormous pressure on the dirt berms that protect downtown from disaster. That's been the nut of the story from the beginning, a story News has never explained to readers.

Our story, published more than a decade ago, reported on a then-recently completed study commissioned by the White House saying that communities should never do the two main things at the heart of the Trinity River Project: 1) build new levees to protect land not already protected by levees, 2) allow major new construction close to rivers in ways that would constrict the rivers.

Ron Flanagan, a flood-control expert quoted in that story, spoke specifically to Dallas' proposal. "It's so passé," he said. "It uses the government's money to put people at risk and then bail them out again, while private landowners reap the profit. Dallas is so far behind the curve, it's almost a joke."

In fact, the basic rationale of the Trinity River project—to promote real estate development along the levees—is a violation of national flood-control policy. Flood-control money is supposed to be spent on flood control, not real estate speculation.

The News did do some superficial coverage in 2000 of a decision by the George W. Bush White House to remove the Trinity from the White House budget as an unworthy project. But the News' coverage never explained why the project had been removed—because the White House suspected the original need for the project had been faked—and never brought home that the project ever afterward had to be funded entirely by congressional earmarks.

This chapter of the Trinity story is one where the heavy boot of the News' ownership was easy to see on the necks of the professional journalists at the paper. On September 20, 2005, the News editorial page inveighed against earmarks generally, saying they should be reined in, and added, "Several that are dear to Dallas' heart, such as funds for signature bridges across the Trinity River, should be included. This would be one more way Dallas can extend the right hand of fellowship to its neighbors."

Sounded pretty good.

But in a second editorial the very next day, the News tried to gobble back its own words: "It is now apparent to us that this was a poor example to cite," it said, going on to say that signature bridges were well worth the earmarks it took to fund them.

The turnaround was so dramatic that I called News editorial page editor Keven Ann Willey and asked her why. With admirable candor, Willey told me, "This was largely a miscommunication. The publisher was out of town, frankly, and had not been aware of our thinking or our intent on this. When the publisher saw the editorial, he wasn't particularly happy with it, shall we say."

Back in 1998 we began to report on an issue that is perhaps closer to the heart of the whole debate than any other—the arcane question of "valley storage." The term actually refers to watersheds, not valleys. It should be called watershed storage. Valley storage is the amount of rainfall that the whole watershed can hold before it runs off into the river.

Valley storage is everything. It's the reason this project was ever launched. Valley storage has greatly decreased in our watershed, we are told, which means more water in the river and greater flood danger for downtown. And that's why, we are told, the levees downtown need to be raised higher.

In 1998 the Observer reported that a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that the Trinity River project, when completed, will make the valley storage problem worse, not better. In a subsequent story the Observer reported verbatim an exchange between city council members and a top member of the city staff in which the staff member lied to the faces of the council members on this issue.

The council members wanted to know if what they had read in the Observer was true—that the city, in order to do the project, was seeking a special exemption from a federal court order on valley storage. The staff member said, "No." Later the staff sought and won the exemption.

The News has written about this issue, but here we get to the heart of the matter. The News has never set forth in plain terms that this multibillion-dollar flood-control project may actually make flooding worse. In the name of Rodrigue's "objectivity," the News typically reports what Person A has said, and then it reports what Person B said back. But it never says what they're talking about.

The News does what I call "technically correct" coverage. So much the better if a story doesn't make sense to the average person. Less trouble from the Great Unwashed that way.

And sometimes the News just doesn't tell us anything. Former Mayor Ron Kirk sold this project in black Dallas as environmental reparation—flood protection that previously had been denied to black South Dallas. But when maps were published showing precisely what areas the project will protect, I drove those streets and found very few black residential areas protected. Instead, what the new levee will protect is mainly commercial property prime for redevelopment.

From the News on that little matter? Radio silence.

When promoters of the project decided to add on a series of enormously expensive make-believe suspension bridges by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the council was informed that all of the existing bridges over the Trinity were slated for demolition anyway and would have to be replaced soon.

They're sort of old. Might as well toss them. It just didn't sound right.

It took the Observer months of legal demands for documents and calling around, but finally the truth was found. Michelle Releford, a spokeswoman for the Dallas region of the Texas Department of Transportation, said flatly that the bridges in question are "not on any kind of maintenance replacement list."

The News never covered that story.

In fact I could go on with this list. The stunning lack of transportation data to back up any of the extravagant claims made for the toll road; the many sleights of hand with money; the soaring costs for the inside-the-levee route for the toll road. On each of these stories Sam Merten, myself and other Observer staffers have worked hard to get to the truth.

That means digging, pushing, fighting for it. George Rodrigue would have you believe that the News has a more dignified approach. Maybe it is more dignified. But it amounts to waiting until a story bumps you in the head so hard it can no longer be ignored.

And sometimes it amounts to sitting on the story even then. The worst case, in my opinion, was one that might have turned the 2007 referendum on the project and saved us all a lot of time, money and misery.

Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and council member Mitchell Rasansky had been promising voters that Dallas taxpayers would never be asked to pay another nickel for the toll road. Weeks before the election, the chairman of the board of the toll road authority told News reporter Michael Lindenberger that the road might cost more than the authority could pay and the city might have to chip in.

Even though the News had that story weeks before the election and even though that story might have been a deal-breaker in the election, the News did not publish that story until the day after the votes had been counted and the toll road saved.

The biggest loser in this project is always the toll road. Even if the Corps buckles to pressure and gives the city permission to build unsafe levees, the toll road is still a billion bucks in the red.

That it got this far is not the fault of the community. Not yet. For 10 long years the community has been massively and deliberately misled by its dominant news source.

This only becomes the community's fault and sin to live with forever if the community keeps believing the News.

© 2009 The Dallas Observer:

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"Long-term threats to the public interest"

US road privatization may hurt states -report


By Tom Ryan
Copyright 2009

NEW YORK- U.S. states considering road privatization as a way to close budget deficits risk losing billions of dollars in long-term toll revenue while ceding too much control to shareholder-focused private investors, a report said on Wednesday.

There were 15 roads in 10 states in private hands at end 2008, and 25 states are considering privatizing another 80 roads, according to the report by the Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, a Boston-based public advocacy group.

'Though these privatization deals seem to offer state officials a 'quick fix,' they often pose long-term threats to the public interest,' said Phineas Baxandall, chief author of the report.

The top five states that have privatized roads are Alabama, California, Virginia, Florida and Texas.

The key risks of privatization include bankruptcy, the report said.

'If these business models prove unsustainable, the public may be left with a road operator in bankruptcy who will not invest in maintenance and upkeep, or who will collapse at an untimely moment,' said Baxandall.

Between 1994 and 2006, private companies paid $21 billion for 43 highways using various public-private partnerships.

These deals typically involve long-term leases for new or existing roads that private companies run and collect tolls on. States in return get upfront cash -- but these payments are often too small, the report said.

'The economics of these deals are such that the upfront concession payments are unlikely to match the long-term value of the higher tolls that will be paid by future generations and not collected for public uses,' it said.

For example, Spain's Cintra and Australia's Macquarie will recoup their investment in Chicago's Skyway highway in less than 20 years but collect toll revenue for 99 years, said Baxandall, citing a separate report by NW Financial, a New Jersey investment bank.

Private investors prefer contracts that are at least 50 years long so they can qualify for large tax subsidies. However, the length of such contracts is also risky in that most firms finance the transactions with debt.

A large portion of toll road contracts occurred prior to the credit crisis that struck almost two years ago. Some of the biggest deals were financed with loans that have teaser rates, similar to the risky mortgages that spawned the crisis.

'Some of the biggest deals are financed with interest rates that start low and balloon upwards over time,' the report said.

If private investors are unable to make interest payments, the state can be left with the financial burden.

Meanwhile, putting public roads in private hands could lead to a more 'fragmented road network' and reduce the ability of state governments to prevent highway traffic from being diverted into local communities.

Furthermore, the contracts often require states to compensate private operators for actions that reduce traffic on the road, such as building or upgrading a nearby competing transportation facility, said the report.

Texas had the nation's biggest road privatization program until a public backlash prompted the legislature to enact a two-year moratorium on such deals that expires this spring.

Road privatization efforts failed in New Jersey and Pennsylvania due to similar fears that taxpayers were being shortchanged.

Some states do not allow privatizations, including New York, which has a governor-appointed panel studying the issue.

(Additional reporting by Joan Gralla; editing by Leslie Adler)

© 2009 Thomson Reuters:

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Texas House: Still mud wrestling in their HB 3588 money pit (6 years and 3 sessions later)


TxDOT bill would dump five-member transportation commission

Proposal would create legislative oversight committee and state motor vehicle agency.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyriht 2009

The Legislature, which spent the 2007 session wrestling a feisty Texas Department of Transportation to the ground, on Tuesday began righting the chastened agency.

The 173-page vehicle for that effort is House Bill 300, which would continue TxDOT under the sunset law requiring state agencies to justify their existence every 12 years. The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, led by state Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, spent the time between sessions studying the agency and formulating proposed changes. HB 300, the fruit of that effort, came before the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday for its first hearing.

The committee, likely to tinker with complex legislation, did not act on it Tuesday.

The bill's most striking proposal is the suggested abolition of the five-member Texas Transportation Commission — to be replaced by a single commissioner who, like the current panel, would be appointed by the governor. However, even Isett, the bill's sponsor, opposes that proposal.

Having one commissioner, which would end monthly meetings where TxDOT policies are discussed and voted on publicly, seems to run counter to widespread calls for more openness and accountability.

Isett said his bill represents the commission's consensus rather than his position.

The Transportation Committee heard four other bills Tuesday that also would obliterate the Transportation Commission. Several contemplate a single elected transportation commissioner, similar to the state's land and agriculture commissioners. One bill would create a 15-member commission, with 14 members elected by geographic districts around the state and the other elected statewide.
HB 300 would also:
  • Create a legislative oversight committee made up of six lawmakers, including the leaders of the House and Senate transportation committees. The oversight committee, among other duties, would hire a consulting firm to analyze TxDOT's structure and management and make recommendations.
  • Bring TxDOT up for sunset review again in four years.
  • Require TxDOT to create a "comprehensive, transparent and easily understandable" system to track the planning and execution of road projects. Legislators and the public have said the processes are impossible for civilians to follow.
  • Move vehicle titling, vehicle registration and oversight of trucking to a new Texas Department of Motor Vehicles.
  • Strengthen prohibitions in law against TxDOT lobbying the Legislature or the public on policy. The bill would make it a firing offense for any TxDOT employee to lobby on the state level. Entreaties to Congress for more money would remain OK.
  • Establish a rail division in TxDOT to expand the agency's now-limited focus on freight rail and passenger rail.; 445-3698

© 2009 Austin American-Statesman:

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"This is horrific public policy and it needs to be fixed. "

Nichols' bill creates new loophole to toll existing freeways


Terri Hall, Founder of TURF
Hill Country Times
Copyright 2009

Senator Robert Nichols' claims his bill, SB 220, prevents tolls on existing roads, when in reality it actually opens a NEW loophole that would allow existing highway lanes to be tolled and the free lanes to be downgraded to access roads.

This bill would legalize freeway to tollway conversions of several highways already in the pipeline: US 281 and Loop 1604 in Bexar County, portions of Hwy 290, Hwy 59 (to be expanded as the Trans Texas Corridor TTC-69), and elsewhere if the bill becomes law.

The wording of this bill leaves a number of loopholes for TxDOT to leap through.

It allows the Texas Transportation Commission to convert any freeway as long as they do it before it awards a contract.

The new language added by Nichols permits a freeway to tollway conversion if a highway lane has a "control device" (ie - stoplight) prior to the conversion.

The existing highway lanes can be tolled and the free lanes subsequently downgraded to access roads with permanent stoplights and slower speed limits.

For instance, SB 220 would enable TxDOT to convert existing highway lanes on Hwy 59 (that has stoplights when it traverses through small towns) into a toll road. Then those toll lanes would come under the control of a Spain-based company, ACS, which has the development rights to the TTC-69 corridor, leaving access roads as the only non-toll lanes.

Hank Gilbert, on the Board of TURF, directly questioned TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz about this at the 2008 TxDOT press conference promising to use existing highways for the footprint on TTC-69, and Saenz failed to give a definitive answer.

Many new highways are built as "divided" highways that eventually need stoplights at the crossovers. The stoplights make it no less a highway than before it had stoplights, but it certainly slows the thru traffic. Then, TxDOT usually upgrades to a controlled access highway by building flyovers over the stoplights and adding access roads where needed. So TxDOT has been exploiting this all over the state by turning freeways with stoplights (which are naturally congested by having to stop) into tollways, instead of just building flyovers and keeping those lanes toll-free.

If you watched the Sunset Commission hearings last July, you saw legislators awaken to the fact that TxDOT was NOT following the legislative intent of its previous attempt to outlaw converting existing freeways into toll roads.

The original bill, which Nichols' help write when he was a Transportation Commissioner,had loopholes that unleashed a slew of toll projects that would convert existing freeways into tollways.

This is wrong and unacceptable.

By leaving SB 220 as is, it's legalizing theft, period. If TxDOT can slap a stoplight on a highway as a license to double tax motorists to get to work, then that's exactly what they'll do to get easy access to our wallets. This is horrific public policy and it needs to be fixed.

SB 220 now goes to the Texas House where three bills have been filed to prevent tolls on existing freeways.

Contact your State Representative to ensure the right bill becomes law in order to finally rid Texans of the threat of tolls on existing roads.

Terri Hall is the Founder of Texas TURF. TURF is a non-partisan grassroots group of citizens concerned about toll road policy and the Trans Texas Corridor. TURF promotes non-toll transportation solutions. For more information, please visit their web site at:

© 2009 Hill Country Times:

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"It is wrong for our highway department to politicize inftrastructure needs...This is a nightmare for the taxpayer."


© 2009 281 OVERPASSES NOW:

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"It is bad public policy to allow corporations, who are accountable to their shareholders and not the public, to control our roads.”

Study of Private Roads Shows Signs for Caution

States Vulnerable to Make Bad Deals, Call for Public Protections


Houston Style Magazine

Copyright 2009

A major new report released today identifies problems in a national trend toward private toll roads. The study entitled Public Roads, Private Costs: The Facts About Toll Road Privatization and How to Protect the Public <> examines 15 completed private road projects and 79 others that are proposed or underway.

“How we fund, finance, and choose our transportation investments is top-of-mind for many policymakers throughout the nation,” said Robert Puentes at the Brookings Institution. “This report is a major contribution to that important discussion and will be valuable for those sorting through the right mix of public and private investments and partnerships.”

A growing number of states are considering arrangements in which a private operator provides an up-front payoff or builds a new road in return for decades of escalating toll receipts. The report assesses these deals and identifies a number of problems:

  • Private toll roads typically require greater toll hikes to generate the same upfront payment that could be generated without privation.
  • Private deals lead to serious loss of public control that hinders future transportation planning and typically force public payments to compensate private companies if policies reduce toll traffic.

  • Deals are often conducted with inadequate public disclosure or input.
  • States generally lack the capacity to oversee or enforce private road agreements
  • Problems are compounded by the fact that contracts typically extend 50-plus years in order to obtain large federal tax subsidies.

“Public officials need to consider the full range of potential problems,” said Phineas Baxandall, Senior Analyst for Tax and Budget Policy at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “No matter how desperate they are for short-term cash, states shouldn’t sign bad deals that will hurt the public over the long term.”

Some states have seen a backlash against this trend. Strong public resistance in New Jersey and Pennsylvania turned back proposed privatization deals in 2007 and 2008.

In Texas, where Governor Perry has aggressively pushed for private toll roads, a bill> advancing in both houses of the legislature would place strong public safeguards against bad deals.

As Texas State Rep. Jim Dunnam, Chair of the Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding said, “Private toll road projects can have long-term, negative affects on the public and often result in private entities unfairly driving the process. This means Texans will have to foot the bill of the roads they use at a far higher cost than is reasonable.”

One of the most outspoken legislators on toll roads, Texas Rep. Garnet Coleman, similarly said, “Private toll roads are raking in billions in profits on the backs of hardworking Texans. It is bad public policy to allow corporations, who are accountable to their shareholders and not the public, to control our roads.”

This issue will likely become more heated in coming months as Congress considers how to finance reauthorization of the six-year transportation bill which expires in September. “Many of the same banks and investment firms responsible for the mortgage market meltdown are lobbying hard for deals to finance America’s infrastructure,” said Baxandall.

The U.S. PIRG report also documents numerous public opinion surveys showing strong and consistent public opposition to private toll roads.

U.S. PIRG’s report can be found at
The report’s appendix with analysis of 94 private road projects can be found here:

Texas SB 17, its companion House bill, and official bill analysis are found here:

© 2009 Houston Style Magazine:

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Self-dealing deadbeat developer and tolling authority chair Bob Tesch leaves CTRMA

Tesch leaving behind well-oiled toll agency


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

You may not have heard that Bob Tesch is stepping down.

As a matter of fact, you may not have any idea who Tesch is.

For someone who for the past six years has been the titular leader of a Central Texas toll road agency, being little known is probably not such a bad thing. There are top officials at Capital Metro, for instance, who would probably prefer that their identity factor was way lower about now.

Tesch, a Cedar Park developer, announced he won't seek another two-year appointment from Gov. Rick Perry as board chairman for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. Actually, he said this right after Perry's office had submitted his name to the Texas Senate for another term, then quickly pulled it down. The decision had more to do with the geopolitics of Central Texas than it did Tesch.

The authority umbrella includes Travis and Williamson counties, you see, with a seven-member board consisting of three appointees from each county and a gubernatorial- appointed chair. The Republican governor, with the agency's first road to be built in Republican Williamson County, appointed Tesch in January 2003 to head the two-month-old agency.

People familiar with the inner workings said there was always an understanding that Travis County would get its turn in the majority. And the next five tollways on the authority's plate are in Travis. A change at the top was overdue, they say, and Perry's office was made to understand that.

But the awkward turn of events takes away nothing from Tesch and what has occurred with him holding the gavel.

When he chaired his first meeting, the agency had no staff, no written policies, no money and no offices. It was basically a couple of consultants. What it did have was powerful politicians supporting it, a clear mission to build the 183-A toll road in Cedar Park (along with the right of way bought long ago and advanced engineering plans) and the vast resources of its big brother, TxDOT. Those advantages can't be overstated.

But Tesch and the board still could have screwed up. They didn't.

With a staff in place that seems to run the agency professionally, and within four years and two months of that first meeting, 183-A opened precisely when officials, more than two years earlier, said it would. Contrast that with 24-year-old Capital Metro, which four years and five months after the election authorizing commuter rail — and after four postponements — cannot say for sure when MetroRail will open.

The toll authority has had some bobbles, including an ill-advised tolling setup on 183-A that confused drivers, but that was quickly rectified. And the toll road is making a profit.

"We had to build the engine, then we had to drive it," Tesch said. "We know how to get things done."

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

© 2009 Austin American-Statesman:

Read more about Robert Tesch and the CTRMA:

From Eye On Williamson: "The Crooked Get Richer"

From The Muckraker: Related posts about Bob Tesch

From TTC News Archives: CTRMA Toll Road Schemes on the Verge of Implosion

Related Articles from TTC News Archives: [HERE]

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Four bills filed to abolish Governor Perry's appointed Texas Transportation Commission

Four Bills To Make Transportation Commission Elected Officers Before House Committee


by Vince Leibowitz
Capitol Annex
Copyright 2009

Four separate bills that would abolish the appointed Texas Transportation Commission and create either one elected Commissioner of Transportation or a full slate of elected transportation commissioners will be before the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday for consideration.

Three of the bills are very similar and would replace the Texas Transportation Commission–which runs the TxDOT and is responsible for such disasters as the Trans-Texas Corridor–with a single, elected Commissioner of Transportation. Those bills are HB 2701 by State Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco), HB 641 by State Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), and HB 565 by State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio).

A forth bill, HB 12 by State Rep. David Leibowitz (D-San Antonio) would require that the Texas Transportation Commission be expanded to 15 members and that 14 of those members be elected from 14 equally apportioned districts across the state and that one member be elected by voters statewide. We covered this bill back when it was filed.

© 2009 Capitol Annex:

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

"And you thought the scammers were all on Wall Street."

SB 220: Texas Senate Gets Punked


Half Empty
Copyright 2009

When the Texas Senate sat down to consider Senate Bill 220, a bill “relating to the conversion of a nontolled state highway or segment of the state highway system to a toll project” you have to wonder what they were thinking.

Clearly from the wording, this bill seeks to create toll roads out of roads that were built with taxpayer dollars, and used by the taxpayers for free.

But that’s not what its author, Texas State Senator Robert Nichols claimed.

In fact, Nichols claimed the bill would do just the opposite, which would allay the fears of Texans that “the roads they drive on this year will not have toll booths on them next year.”

Not true, says TURF, or Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. a non-profit organization whose mission is to educate the public on Texas’s new shift to tolling. TURF is one of the organizations that stood up and educated the public on the evils of the Trans Texas Corridor, a project that has since been killed by an almost universal public loathing from folks of any political stripe.

From TURF’s website:

“SB 220 authored by Senator Robert Nichols actually opens a NEW loophole that would allow existing highway lanes to be tolled and the free lanes to be subsequently downgraded to access roads. This bill would legalize the conversions of at least three highways: 281 N and 1604 in Bexar County and 290 E in Travis County. SB 220 passed the Senate 31-0 despite citizen concerns, TURF testimony, and our action alert notifying EVERY single senator of this problem.”

“‘It's an outrage that the author of this bill, Senator Nichols, is out there touting that he's ended the tolling of existing highways, and he knows his bill does just the opposite! He's an ex-Transportation Commissioner who not only was involved in writing the first bill to address tolls on existing highways that had the original loopholes back in 2005 (SB 2702), but also he was present when Governor Perry signed the contract with Cintra for the Trans Texas Corridor, and he has plenty of ties to and funding from the highway lobby. He knows exactly what he's doing. The leopard is showing his spots,’ explains Terri Hall TURF Founder.”

So all 31 state senators swallowed Nichols’s story hook, line and sinker and voted for it after having considered it for all of 2 minutes.

And you thought the scammers were all on Wall Street.

© 2009 Half Empty:

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