Friday, June 26, 2009

"We have got a hellacious mess on our hands."

Special session may not be enough to keep road projects going


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN – For Dallas drivers, the governor's decision to summon lawmakers back to the Capitol next week to keep the Transportation Department in business will do little to keep traffic moving in North Texas or reduce its dependence on an ever-increasing number of toll roads.

Gov. Rick Perry wants lawmakers to extend the life of the Texas Department of Transportation, which will be shuttered in 2010 if no action is taken. He also wants new legislation that will let the agency borrow $2 billion more for road building and to extend Texas' ability to enter long-term contracts with private toll road developers.

But at public meetings this week, Texas' highway chiefs said even if lawmakers do all three things, the state faces a severe cash crisis that will probably stop nearly all new road building by 2012.

With a recession, Texans, like other Americans, are driving less. That means entities like the North Texas Tollway Authority are collecting fewer tolls, and it means that state departments of transportation are getting fewer dollars to build roads the old-fashioned way.

On Wednesday, chief financial officer James Bass told the Texas Transportation Commission that gas-tax receipts are down, even as debt payments are headed up. Since September, receipts are down $49 million, about 2.5 percent. In April alone, they were down 8 percent, or $15 million. The department's budget had anticipated a 1.5 percent increase.

Federal fund

The federal highway fund is in even worse shape, and Texas is almost certainly going to face reduced federal payments while Congress decides how to keep the fund solvent, Texas officials said this week.

Compounding the problem here, Texas lawmakers have in recent years provided just two new tools to build new roads: private toll-road agreements and permission to borrow. In both cases, the department has responded with gusto, but Bass said it may not be able to do so indefinitely.

Borrowing billions

By 2011, the state will be paying more than $1.6 billion every two years just to make debt payments, an amount that Bass said will escalate in future years. Given those concerns, he told commissioners this week that he was reluctant to authorize additional debt until he received new direction from them.

The commissioners' response? Full steam ahead, and borrow every penny available.

"Our obligation is to consistently and clearly communicate to the Legislature what our [financial] situation is," said Deirdre Delisi, chairwoman of the five-member commission. "As long as we are very clear with lawmakers, then our obligation is to use the tolls the Legislature has provided and build roads."

"Message received," Bass said, and the department will immediately begin the process of borrowing $2.9 billion. If lawmakers heed Perry's call next week, the agency will take steps to borrow another $2 billion.

Lawmakers could make the department's money problems go away, should they shower it with huge funding increases in 2011. If they don't, the agency says it will have to stop building most new roads by 2012.

The impact on North Texas would be significant, even though North Texas is far better off than Texas' other major metropolitan areas. Most of the $3.2 billion that the NTTA paid for the State Highway 121 project remains unspent, and construction crews will be drinking from that fountain of money for several years.

Trinity toll road

But North Texas nevertheless is counting on billions of dollars from the state to make many of its top-priority projects a reality.

Regional officials are desperate to build the Trinity toll road, although problems with the Trinity River levees have delayed construction for at least 20 months, and probably more.

NTTA says tolls on the 10-mile road probably will support no more than $450 million in debt. And faced with financial pressures of its own, authority chairman Paul Wageman said last week that the city should not expect any additional contributions from the authority.

Another big project that will likely require a nine-digit investment by the state is the so-called Pegasus Project that would rebuild the aging interstates that cut through downtown Dallas.

North Texas officials had hoped to avoid such scenarios when they pushed a local-option tax bill during the regular session of the 2009 Legislature. But lawmakers rejected the proposal, and resurrecting it in the special session seems unlikely, though its supporters may try.

Looking to Congress

Some area leaders now say the best bet is for North Texas to look to Washington for help, especially given plans in Congress to pass a new six-year transportation bill that many predict will have hundreds of billions of dollars of new money in it.

But on Thursday, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation James Burnley, who served under President Ronald Reagan, said in an interview that such hopes are misplaced – at least anytime soon.

The federal system, which also depends on gas-tax receipts, is in even worse shape than Texas. And there is "absolutely" no way a transportation bill will pass this year, he said, noting President Barack Obama's focus on health care.

"There is no solution in the next two years," said Burnley, now a Washington lawyer whose firm is heavily involved in transportation. "We have got a hellacious mess on our hands."

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

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"On July 1, Ray Sullivan will whip through the proverbial revolving door and re-enter government as Gov. Rick Perry’s new chief of staff."

The Governor’s Lobbyist

hntb revolving door

Related Link: HNTB is lead consultant for Trans-Texas Corridor


Dave Mann
The Texas Observer
Copyright 2009

Ray Sullivan is a lobbyist who represents energy, transportation and development companies. He will represent these clients for another six days. On July 1, he will whip through the proverbial revolving door and re-enter government as Gov. Rick Perry’s new chief of staff.

When he joins the governor’s office, Sullivan plans to shutter his lobby business and terminate all his remaining lobby contracts, said Allison Castle in the governor’s press office. That elevates him to a slightly higher ethical level than the last high-profile lobbyist-turned Perry chief of staff, Mike “the knife” Toomey, who kept his lobby shop in business during his tour in the gov’s office. Toomey ostensibly handed his business off to a partner, but he returned to the lobby game — and a similar set of clients — a few years later.

The coverage so far of the Sullivan hiring has focused on the political angle: Perry bringing in an experienced political hand — Sullivan served as a Perry aide until joining the lobby in 2002, and he once served Bush during the Florida recount in 2000 — to run the governor’s office during a sure-to-be-fierce campaign year.

But we’re more interested in his business connections. Sullivan was a prominent advocate of energy deregulation and red-light cameras this session.

You can find the full list of Sullivan’s lobby clients here (you’ll have to scroll down a ways).

He had a lobby contract with the energy company Exelon Power Texas (a contract worth as much as $50,000 this year). Sullivan also was a spokesperson for an energy industry group called Texas Competitive Power Advocates. He was quoted in several news stories this session arguing the pro-industry position that electricity deregulation is working in Texas despite increasing electric rates in the deregulated parts of the state. Sullivan’s group has fought efforts by consumer advocates to re-regulate the market.

Sullivan also lobbied for Redflex Traffic Systems, one of the nation’s biggest purveyors of red light cameras. The company has contracts with 40 counties and municipalities in Texas, according to its Web site. The Legislature nearly did away with red light cameras this session — an effort Sullivan fought every step. On the other hand, the TxDOT sunset bill at one point contained a provision that would have allowed highway-side cameras to record license plate numbers of passing cars. Redflex — Sullivan’s soon-to-be former client — might be interested in that contract, if the provision ever becomes law.

Another Sullivan client was the construction services firm HNTB Corp., which consulted for TxDOT on the Trans-Texas Corridor — Perry’s now-widely-unpopular massive toll road project. If and when another TxDOT sunset bill makes its way through the Legislature, HNTB will likely fight any further restrictions on toll-road building.

Just a few business interests to keep in mind as Sullivan begins his new gig.

© 2009 The Texas Observer:

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Perry and special interest groups rally to salvage private toll road monopolies [CDA's] in Special Legislative Session

Toll Road Expansion Tops Special Session Agenda

session set to begin on Wednesday

Spanish toll road monopoly deal


By Jim Forsyth
KQXT-FM Q101.9
Copyright 2009

Transportation and toll roads will be front and center next week, in a Special Session of the Texas Legislature which Governor Rick Perry today ordered to begin on Wednesday, 1200 WOAI news reports.

All three items on the governor's 'call' deal with transportation. Perry said today he expects the session to be brief, possibly ending July 3.

"I talked to Joe Straus this morning, David (Dewhurst) last night, and they both feel that their members are committed to getting in here, and addressing the issues at hand," Perry said today.

One of the items calls on lawmakers to extend the authority of the Texas Department of Transportation and local Regional Mobility Authorities to use 'comprehensive development agreements' to design, finance, build, and maintain 'transportation infrastructure.'

CDA's are the vehicle that the state uses to invite private companies to build and operate toll projects. The only five CDA's entered into so far involve toll projects, including a contract with the international partnership of Cintra Zachry to build State Highway 130, and an agreement with ZAI/ACS to build what is now called TTC-69, a tollway to run from the Rio Grande Valley to east Texas.

"I am calling a special session to extend the operation of five critical agencies and help reduce gridlock by continuing to provide options for financing our state's highways," Perry said.

In his vetoes of measures passed by the regular session last week, one of the key vetoes was a measure which would have prohibited TxDOT from using taxpayer money to promote toll roads.

Perry also called on lawmakers to extend the life of TxDOT and four other state agencies which were set to go out of existence under the state's Sunset Law.

Another measure on the table will be to allow TxDOT to issue $2 billion in general obligation bonds to pay for transportation projects. Lawmakers can discuss only the items submitted to it by the governor.

The length of a Special Session, unlike the length of a Regular Session, is indefinite.

© 2009 KQXT-FM Q101.9:

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"The governor wants to avoid a protracted, brutal fight over toll roads, which he has championed..."

Gov. Rick Perry calls for special legislative session

Duck and Cover


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry has called for a special legislative session starting next Wednesday to tackle three major unresolved issues that failed to make it through the 140-day regular session that ended on June 1.

In special sessions, which can only last up to 30 days, lawmakers are restricted to consider a legislative agenda set by the governor.

In this case, Perry has tried to narrowly define the topics for the session to begin July 1.

For instance, five large agencies – including transportation and the department of insurance, must be reconstituted by the Legislature by September in order to survive. Both agencies have vocal detractors who want major changes in tollways and how highways are funded, as well as greater regulation of insurance companies that have handed Texas homeowners the highest premiums in the nation.

Perry has tried to narrowly draw the topics for consideration, saying that lawmakers should only pass legislation to continue the agencies until the next regular session in 2011 or beyond.

The governor, looking at a stiff primary fight from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, wants to avoid a protracted, brutal fight over toll roads, which he has championed, and consumer insurance rights.

On the agenda, Perry has placed continuation and revising the sunset review process for the departments of transportation and insurance, as well as the Texas Racing Commission, Office of Public Insurance Counsel and Texas State Affordable Housing Corporation.

In addition, he is asking lawmakers to authorize $2 billion in voter-approved highway bonds to be issued next year.

And he wants the Legislature to extend the authority of TxDOT to work with regional mobility authorities. Together the groups currently hammer out agreements on how to prioritize, finance and build roadways.

“I think they’ll be in and out in three to four days and we’ll be gone – and everybody can enjoy their summer,” Perry told a lunch meeting of Austin commercial real estate developers.

After his speech, he described the special session’s agenda as “tightly crafted.”

Asked if he might add voter ID to the agenda after the special session gets under way, Perry said, “No, people pretty much know what we’re going to be dealing [with] and that’s, you saw the call. And that’s what it’s going to be.”

Although some GOP loyalists very much want Perry to make lawmakers try again on voter ID, the governor said the transportation and insurance matters are too important to jeopardize with another partisan brawl. Last month, House Democrats killed a Senate-passed bill to tighten voter-ID requirements by staging a five-day talk-a-thon.

“We’re talking about people’s lives and livelihoods here when you’re talking about the Department of Insurance and you’re talking about TxDOT,” Perry said. “These are important agencies that did not get [extended], so I want those employees to understand that we’re going to get this bill passed and we’re not going to take a chance on … any legislative mischief from some other piece of legislation.”

Information was also provided by staff writer Robert T. Garrett.

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

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"Every eminent domain law proposed in Texas has been destroyed by non-principled Republicans and moderate to liberal Democrats since Kelo v New London

Imminent Domain


Staff Opinion
Ellis County Press
Copyright 2009

Gov. Rick Perry, despite the misinformation circulating in Texas, did not sign into law any sweeping eminent domain protections. He did, however, sign a state House resolution supporting the need for the voters to decide a Constitutional amendment on the subject.

The entire New London, Conn. U.S. Supreme Court case spurred this flurry of eminent domain-protection legislation trend.

The New London City Council wrongly determined that because a private economic developer would create jobs and in turn, produce sales taxes to benefit the community, that was in line with the "takings" clause - in essence, the 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court basically said it was okay for cities to hand over people’s property and homes to benefit private developers.

The sheer outrage over that loss of monumental Constitutional tradition that said only people who receive just compensation for their land for public uses such as roads, streets, water lines, etc. prompted all the states to pass eminent domain laws to protect people from a New London-type city council.

Every single eminent domain law proposed in Texas has been destroyed by non-principled Republicans and moderate to liberal Democrats since the Kelo v. New London decision.

However, should any meaningful legislation finally break through the 150-member state House or the 31-member state Senate, the citizens living in the direct path of the 12-lane Loop 9 toll road won’t be included.

That’s because state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, sponsored an amendment a legislative session ago that sought to include half a dozen transportation projects on an "immunity" list — basically, Loop 9’s status as a project of the Trans-Texas Corridor was not to be touched by any toll road moratorium bill legislation that sought to protect individuals or landowners.

When the people in Glenn Heights, Ovilla, Oak Leaf, Cedar Hill, DeSoto and Lancaster find out about this West amendment, there could be civil unrest.

Landowners in the Loop 9 path face an August deadline of convincing local city councils and state transportation officials to change course and bypass subdivisions, homes, properties and businesses.

In Cedar Hill, housing prices started falling once word that mainly residential zoned areas were changed to light industrial designations because of the Loop 9 project.

Amy Self, a recent transplant to Glenn Heights, is preparing to sue a real estate company because they failed to disclose that her new house sits in one of those 12 lanes of soon-to-be oncoming traffic. If we do not act now, the government will seize property, and it will be imminent. We must fight this and we must fight for the Constitution before it’s too late.

© 2009 The Ellis County Press:

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"The mantra in Austin is 'The sky is falling, we have no money for roads,' yet we have money to pay losing bidders who won't even build any roads?"

Texas Governor Saves Toll Road Promotional Campaigns

Texas governor vetoes bill reining in taxpayer funding of toll road lobbyists, signs bill paying losing bidders for toll contracts.

Copyright 2009

Taxpayers will foot the bill for efforts to promote the tolling of roads throughout Texas after Governor Rick Perry (R) vetoed legislation that would have reined in public relations efforts at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Only one member of the entire legislature voted against the proposed bill that would have amended existing law to clarify that pro-tolling advertising campaigns could no longer be bankrolled with state funds.

"This section does not authorize the department to 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," House Bill 2142 stated.

In one year, TxDOT spent $10.5 million on 130 public relations and government affairs staff, including a full-time lobbyist. The agency also created a special report designed to convince the US Congress to hand TxDOT the authority to toll existing freeways (view report). The group Texans United for Reform and Freedom (TURF) found the lobbying campaign so outrageous that it filed a lawsuit to stop the effort. The suit was put on hold after it appeared that the legislature had addressed the issue.

Governor Perry, however, stood by his plan to promote tolling Texas roads.

"Marketing toll roads as a user-fee-based alternative to congested highways is important to relieving congestion on other state roads and keeping Texas moving," Perry explained in his veto message.

Also on Friday, Governor Perry signed Senate Bill 882 into law. This measure allows TxDOT to pay amounts "in excess of $250,000" to design-build firms that submit unsuccessful bids for major toll road projects.

"The mantra in Austin is 'The sky is falling, we have no money for roads,' yet we have money to pay losing bidders who won't even build any roads?" Texas TURF Founder Terri Hall said. "Wouldn't every other industry that bids on government contracts love this goodie?"

US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) is using Perry's support for tolling as a campaign issue in her bid to unseat the governor. Last month she introduced legislation that prohibits the imposition of tolls on existing free highways, bridges or tunnels built with federal funding. The Republican primary will be held in March, and as of May a Rasmussen Reports poll showed the race was "essentially tied."

Copies of House Bill 2142 and Senate Bill 882 are available in a 80k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File House Bill 2142 and Senate Bill 882 (Texas State Legislature, 5/28/2009)

© 2009

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Spanish company receives $570 million in start-up tax subsidies to build North Tarrant Express toll road

Cintra Obtains $570M Public Investment For Texas Road Project


By Christopher Bjork, Dow Jones Newswires
The Wall Street Journal
Copyright 2009

MADRID (Dow Jones)--Spanish toll-road and parking operator Cintra SA (CIN.MC) has obtained $570 million in state investment from the Texas Department of Transportation as part of the development the North Tarrant Express highway, the department said in a release Tuesday.

A Cintra-led group was in late January conditionally awarded the deal, which covers about 13 miles of the planned North Tarrant Expressway outside Fort Worth.

Cintra and partners have agreed to put up the rest of the roughly $2 billion investment for the development of the stretch, as well as $450 million to operate and maintain the facilities over the next 52 years.

Construction is expected to begin late next year and the highway will open to traffic in 2015.

© 2009 The Wall Street Journal:

Tarrant toll road moving forward after payout concerns


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN – Texas transportation officials have received an all-clear signal from Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose concerns earlier this month about the constitutionality of a major toll road contract in Tarrant County had stalled the project.

Abbott had refused to attest to the "legal sufficiency" of the contract between Texas and the Spanish toll road company Cintra, as required by state law. Cintra has agreed to build the North Tarrant Express toll road with a mixture of state and private funds.

The North Texas Tollway Authority will operate the toll road, but the tolls will go to Cintra for 52 years.

But wording changes in the contract have resolved those concerns, and the Texas Department of Transportation said this week that the contract has been signed. A similar contract is set to be signed, also with Cintra, to rebuild LBJ Freeway in Dallas. Existing lanes will be rebuilt and remain free, but Cintra will add six tolled lanes.

On the contract signed this week, Texas will pay $570 million to fund part of the $2 billion project. Cintra and its partners will provide the rest through a mixture of equity and debt. In addition, TxDOT officials say the company's obligation to maintain the roads for 52 years will save Texas $450 million.

The North Tarrant Express will run 13 miles along Northeast Loop 820 and State Highway 121, from Interstate 35W to the State Highway 121 split in Tarrant County. The project will be a mix of free lanes and new tolled lanes.

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"A contrived ceremony and a dubious track record."

Photo op doesn't alter Perry's track record


San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

What was it that Gov. Rick Perry signed in a very photogenic event in front of the Alamo last week? The Express-News, working with information from the governor's office, originally reported it was legislation that would allow Texans to vote on a constitutional amendment limiting the circumstances in which state and local government can exercise eminent domain.

That legislation, however, was a joint resolution authored by Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio. Joint resolutions proposing amendments to the Texas Constitution require two-thirds support in each chamber for adoption.

As the Texas Legislature Online notes, “Joint resolutions passed by the Legislature are not submitted to the governor for signing but are filed directly with the secretary of state.” Then voters consider the amendment in the next general election. But the governor has no role in the process.

Perry's office later clarified to the newspaper that the signing was indeed ceremonial, meant to highlight “priority issues.”

Being a visible supporter of eminent-domain reform may be a priority issue for Perry now. He faces a prospective challenge from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the GOP primary in 2010.

But it notably was not a priority for him over the years that he championed the Trans Texas Corridor. In 2007, Perry actually did use his pen to veto an eminent-domain reform bill that addressed the hot-button issue of diminished access to roadways.

One of the specific objectives of House Joint Resolution 14 is to prohibit state and local government from exercising eminent domain for purposes that would benefit private entities — say, for instance, private toll road operators.

Politicians will always try to manage their images. And the Alamo provides an impressive backdrop. But not even the venerable old mission can obscure the difference between a contrived ceremony and a dubious track record.

© 2009 San Antonio Express-News:

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Sham eminent domain signing ceremony is nothing for Perry to tweet about

Governor feeds a Twitter, and other interesting facts

land gobbler


Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN — When Gov. Rick Perry broke his collarbone in a mountain-biking accident, some may have been surprised to hear he takes to the trail near his rented home.

Some other things you may not know about the GOP governor: He’s a dog fan who documented on Twitter the birth of nine Lab puppies born to his son’s dog, Belle.

He maintains what’s billed as a personal Twitter feed that includes everything from those precious pups to a snapshot of GOP Sen. Dan Patrick (taken when Perry chatted on the Houston lawmaker’s KSEV radio show) to touts of bill signings.

Oh, and there’s this item, recently shoved into the spotlight: Perry enjoys signing measures he doesn’t legally have a reason to sign. Notably, he recently signed a proposal to allow voters to decide whether to enshrine property rights protections in the constitution.

Perry’s signature means nothing, legally, on a proposed constitutional amendment. It heads to voters if approved by two-thirds of the House and Senate.

But Perry put out a media notice saying he was going to sign the proposal, signaling nothing of its purely ceremonial nature to those who didn’t know. He visited the Alamo to do it.

A number of news accounts (including one in the San Antonio Express-News, duly corrected) reported it as though it mattered.

And it did matter — just not in the way it was portrayed.

It mattered to Perry because he wants to keep his job, some say, while Perry’s staff suggested it highlighted an issue he sees as important.

Bitter over Twitter

Critics have questioned Perry’s dedication to property rights because he pushed the Trans-Texas Corridor, portrayed as a land gobbler, and because he vetoed a bill in 2007 that backers said would have strengthened property rights protection.

Facing what’s expected to be a tough primary challenge from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Perry put himself in the spotlight as a property rights defender with the extraneous signing ceremony.

Hutchison’s campaign was quick to label the signing hypocritical and meaningless.

Perry’s office not only defended the ceremony but put out a list of a half-dozen other times he’s had ceremonial signings for proposed constitutional amendments.

“Every one of these issues has been a legislative priority for the governor,” Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said.

True enough, but a tough campaign puts a spotlight on the intersection of policy and politics, allowing voters to decide whether an event is spreading the property rights message or something else.

The campaign trail is a tough road that can be treacherous for candidates and those covering them alike. As Perry told Patrick about his fall from the bike: “It was a very good ride until the end.”

Look for the latest news in Texas politics each Monday from Austin Bureau Chief Peggy Fikac.

© 2009 Houston Chronicle:

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"Political corruption involving roads in Texas is a matter of long tradition..."

Transportation Politics and the Austin Road Lobby (Part II)

Texas transportation politics, the developers and those pesky populist reformers

I-35 in downtown Austin. Photo by noname 77065.


By Roger Baker
The Rag Blog
Copyright 2009

The Author has been an observer of transportation politics in Austin since about 1979, beginning as a transit advocate, and then observing the sad failure of the Austin Tomorrow Plan; this is still official Austin growth policy but is mostly ignored due to the political influence of special interests tied to land development. While it is convenient to use the term "Road Lobby", in many ways locally it is actually a land development lobby.

How it got to be that way

Given the strong historical role of real estate in Texas politics, it was almost inevitable that a politically powerful road lobby would evolve. Political corruption involving roads in Texas is a matter of long tradition, dating back to the period soon after the Texas Highway Department was established in 1916. After Texas Gov. James "Pa" Ferguson was impeached for corruption in 1918, his wife "Ma" Ferguson ran and won in 1924 and she became Texas' first woman Governor. Subsequently, road contracting scandals kept her from being reelected in 1926. Here are some details about these early days of Texas road politics:
"...Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the department remained a focal point of Texas politics. The 1924 gubernatorial election of Miriam Amanda Ferguson placed the state road agency in a politically precarious situation, since control of construction and maintenance contracts meant potentially lucrative patronage to Ferguson supporters. A legislative enactment passed a year before Ma Ferguson's election staggered the terms of the highway commissioners, and she appointed all three members of the reorganized highway commission. Her appointees soon took political and monetary advantage of a vulnerable road program..."
Later, the road scandals and a relative lack of road money during the depression years caused the Texas Highway Dept to clean up its political act. Dewitt Greer, a celebrated TxDOT director, kept TxDOT politics clean for decades.

The 1950s saw easy federal money for new interstate highways under President Eisenhower, and lots of new road contracts; roads were apparently a permanent growth industry. With the advent of the federal highway trust fund, roads came to be considered a sort of permanent land developer entitlement. See the Texas Monthly link to Griffin Smith's story in Part 1 of this series.

Increasingly since the Carter Administration, notably under Reagan, and up until only a few years ago, most of the federal “social economic and environmental” regulations governing roads became increasingly lax and weakly enforced. As one telling example, CAMPO is self-certified; the feds let CAMPO vote to proclaim they are complying with all the federal law. In effect the foxes get to vote on whether they steal chickens.

Road privatization plus easy credit under lax rules led to new suburban roads being generously proposed to meet future land development projections supplied by the developers themselves. The road lobby thus flourished as a special interest coalition with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of real estate loans at stake. Increasingly TxDOT formed political alliances with the interests that benefited from road-based growth. Rarely if ever have TxDOT Commissioners been appointed on the basis of transportation expertise rather than political or business connections. Meanwhile, in the mid-1980's, public transportation got only about 1% of TxDOT's funds.

The fading of the Sharpstown era building bubble in Houston sent a lot of cash trapped in Texas by intrastate banking law to Austin. The Savings and Loan bubble especially contributed to making Austin a hot growth area in the mid-1980s. It seemed easy to recruit an endless supply of high tech jobs. Some of the land development politics of that era is detailed in Harvy Katz's book Shadow on the Alamo.

These factors all helped to stimulate a big new development boom in the Austin area. Developer lobbyist Ed Wendler Sr. was notably active in lining up political support and votes on the ATS for the "Outer Loop,” or SH 45, a giant ring road proposed to circle Austin. The SH 45 ring road was favored by an influential group of suburban land developers. Soon the road ran into trouble as part of the fallout after the Texas Savings and Loan bust killed off the construction boom. Key developers who had promised to donate free right of way for the Outer Loop went broke in numbers sufficient to delay its construction. Here is how the author reported the situation in July 1986. The end of the mid-1980s Austin growth boom caught nearly everyone who benefited from it completely by surprise. Go here, here, here, and here.

Austin has since seen several boom and bust cycles. Here is how the Austin region land development lobby, tied closely to roads, looked to the author in 1994, in terms of regional growth policy:

Not a lot has changed since the mid-1980s in the way the politics operates, except nowadays the road lobby is now much better organized to resist populist meddling in the affairs of those promoting roads. And the public money is running out fast.

Now, almost a quarter century later, this same Outer Loop, SH 45, has been largely built as pieces under different names. The west side of the loop was always to be the existing Ranch Road 620 and US 71. The east side of the Outer Loop has been constructed as the SH 130 toll road. Two more sections, SH 45 N and SH 45 SE are now open as toll roads. Meanwhile, the road lobby is still trying to build a remaining portion of the loop, SH 45 SW, as a new road over the Edwards Aquifer, but nobody knows where to get the money to build it. Travel demand on the existing segment of SH 45 SW is about flat, but the road lobby hasn't given up. Here is the business media pitch to encourage this SH 45 SW in January 2009, which still assumes the politics can overcome the money problem.

The Austin road lobby now

Texas transportation infrastructure is obviously of key importance to the Texas economy and the TxDOT budget reflects that. TxDOT had learned to depend on a continually growing budget of about $8 billion a year, but that is shrinking and TxDOT is under broad political attack. The major road building decisions in Texas are in essence almost totally political. This is because the governor appoints the TxDOT board that then channels most of the state and federal gas tax money down to the local level; predictably, TxDOT Commission appointments by the Governor have become a traditional political reward.

Meanwhile, TxDOT's gas tax dollars have been falling increasingly short of traditional expectations for more than a decade. TxDOT now usually requires new roads to be "leveraged" by seeking local matching contributions including toll road bonds from those who seek roads. Given this situation, it is understandable that transportation lobbying has become an important part of Texas politics.

Local Austin area lobby groups revolving around real estate now complement TxDOT's old traditional state level allies tied to state road contracts. Between sporadic populist uprisings opposing toll roads, etc., CAMPO's Austin meetings tend to be dominated by well-dressed businessmen representing the many interests that stand to benefit from roads.

The road lobby, sometimes called the highway establishment, is a sort of constellation of allied special interests, with TxDOT at the center. A leading example of a powerful statewide TxDOT-associated lobby is Associated General Contractors, or AGC, a politically active coalition, with many offices across the state.

Texas Good Roads Association. Spend more on roads.

The Texas Good Roads Association tends to focus more on organizing local Texas political support among community leaders and politicians to support spending on roads. It has not been too difficult for a powerful state agency like TxDOT to have its friends line up political support for spending on local roads. Since road funding is a discretionary political decision of the TTC, local governments have learned to either play ball with TxDOT, or lose favor and get no roads:

Always politically active in the background, but ordinarily trying to keep a low profile is the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. When exploring groups like this, one should study the memberships of the various boards and committees and subcommittees. Then google the important individuals to get an idea of the many common ties among the lobby groups, hinting at the political dynamics below the surface.

The Real Estate Council of Austin, RECA, has long been active in promoting roads, generally to the exclusion of rail. Dependable and profitable new home construction has been thriving in the suburbs, with the help of publicly funded roads, for the last thirty years in the Austin area. It is how much of the private money is and has been made in the Austin area. As a group representing many of those who depend on and closely represent suburban sprawl growth beneficiaries, RECA can be depended on to turn out its realtors and home builders for contentious road hearings at CAMPO to weigh in on the side of lots of public funds money for roads and toll roads to serve future sprawl development.

There are sometimes road lobby efforts that seem to arise from nowhere. "Take on Traffic" is a local road lobby group funded by none other than the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, as you can see from the fine print at the bottom of the following link. This site closely reflects the recent position taken by Sen. Watson in the current legislative session, to support a local option (ten cent gas tax) funding. This is thought to be the best of the politically unpopular options as the state money runs out. What this potential local revenue is intended for is not clear:
"...With troubling news of shortfalls from the federal government and the Texas Department of Transportation, the time has come to allow communities the option to generate additional funding locally for transportation projects to help meet our increasing mobility needs."
The Capital Area Transportation Coalition, pronounced "kat-see,” is a primarily road lobby headed by Bruce Byron who comes to nearly every CAMPO meeting, often to urge more road funds. CATC, like the other branches of the road lobby, actively promotes roads that serve suburban real estate interests, often with the help of the drowning-in-traffic argument:
…More cars, more driving. Right now, there are about four cars for every five people in Central Texas. In five years, there will be at least another 130,000 cars on the road. And those cars are driving farther and longer as the region expands into the surrounding counties. Right now, Central Texans are spending nearly an hour every week -- 51 hours a year -- stuck in traffic, and that figure is rising. And our roads are becoming less safe. Our rate of traffic fatalities is 45% above the national average...
The local business press works hard to perpetuate the ever-increasing-traffic myth, usually also focusing on roads. The Austin Statesman newspaper has had an obvious incentive to be supportive of car-centric transportation solutions, since a large portion of its ad money has historically come from cars and suburban real estate. The local business press like Neighborhood Impact News and the Austin Business Journal have been historically supportive of spending public money on roads to serve proposed low density development.

Here is another example:
...Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) calculates travel delay (the amount of extra time spent traveling due to congestion) in Austin at an index of 1.22, meaning peak hour travel takes an average of 22 percent longer than free flow travel as of June 2004. Today, Central Texas residents spend an additional 52 hours each year in their vehicles because of congestion on our jam-packed roadways. That extra time in our cars, trucks and SUVs costs each of the travelers about $1,000 during the year, which is a higher cost than those commuters in Seattle, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Denver, Phoenix and San Antonio -- all cities much larger in square mile and in population than we are -- endure. We are stuck like Chuck in traffic, and the motors are all running...
Recently, while conspicuously avoiding the funding shortfalls, a common position of the Austin area business press is trending increasingly toward advocating BOTH roads and rail:

Money Problems

Until about 2006, with the help of leveraging such as Texas Mobility Fund borrowing, the road contracting money flowed freely, and TxDOT kept building. Under TxDOT Commission Chair Ric Williamson, TxDOT got pretty sloppy about its finances. Due largely to the Trans Texas Corridor, TxDOT had gotten a reputation for arrogance from rural landowners who saw no benefit from a huge new $185 billion network of roads a quarter mile wide crisscrossing the state. Then TxDOT got wide and unfavorable attention for double counting over a billion dollars in revenue.

District 14 of TxDOT, which handles the Austin area, finally had to admit to CAMPO in late 2007 that its accumulated Austin area road commitments were so great that it was being forced to turn over responsibility for building a bundle of promised new toll roads to the CTRMA, and henceforth concentrate on maintenance.

As Texas Transportation chair Ric Williamson said in May, 2004: "It's either toll roads, slow roads or no roads." TxDOT coordinated closely to help the CTRMA to contract and build its first and only toll road, US 183A. In fact, Regional Mobility Authorities like the CTRMA were being actively promoted and groomed by TxDOT statewide to shoulder the responsibility of funding and building regional toll roads without being subject to the usual state and federal laws applying to TxDOT.

In the case of Austin, TxDOT has used a TxDOT subagency called the Texas Turnpike Authority to build a group of toll roads including SH 130, SH 45 N and SW, and MoPac North. This raises the following question. If TxDOT can build and operate these existing toll roads, then why can't they also build the same ones that they are now expecting the CTRMA to build? Probably this is because the CTRMA can wheel and deal on financing and avoid a lot of existing state law that TxDOT finds burdensome. In fact, the CTRMA appears to coordinate closely with TxDOT on projects like US 290 E. The CTRMA offers legal advantages plus a financial firewall that protects the big dog with deep pockets in the road game, which is TxDOT, from bond holders.

Trains (literally) arrive in Austin.

Rail becomes a factor

Recently, local business interests and politicians (previously anti-rail former Rep. Mike Krusee being one example) have begun to recognize that roads alone cannot meet the anticipated future travel demand, leading them to now support passenger rail. Dallas-area support for expanded rail transit through Sen. Carona was one of the main reasons for Texas Senate support of the local option transportation tax, which failed when HB 300 died in the Texas legislature.

The Central Texas transportation lobby is not a pure road lobby anymore. The ASA rail lobby group now has the favor of key elements of the Austin-San Antonio political establishment, although they don't have much money because TxDOT, under the Texas Constitution, and due to the road lobby, has to spend most of its gas tax money on roads. Furthermore, ASA lives under the thumb of TxDOT, which now regulates rail. ASA managed to get about $8.7 million in new rail planning money from the Texas legislature to keep the doors open, but this is far short of the $1.8 billion or so it will take to move rail freight to the east of IH 35 and unclog the existing line UP line for passenger service.

Nowadays, there is even an Austin-area wing of the political establishment supporting transit; the Alliance for Public Transportation or A4PT (here and here), has joined forces with the road lobby as we can see below. A4PT chair Joe Coffee, is also the Elgin city planner. He was appointed by Sen. Kirk Watson, incidentally an Elgin Frontier Bank co-owner, to CAMPO's Transit Working Group. The Green line is meant to serve transit oriented development in the Elgin area. Coffee seeks to promote rail projects like the Green line to Elgin.
"CATC and RECA have joined with the Austin Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Austin Alliance, and the Alliance for Public Transportation for something more important than the old ‘road verse rail’ battle lines… more local funding and the chance to fight over that later."
Pesky Persistent Populist Reformers

Austin has always had a lot of environmentalists and they decided pretty early, through the Austin Tomorrow Plan, that they did not want any new roads over the Edwards Aquifer. By about 1980 CAMPO's earlier incarnation, the Austin Transportation Study (ATS), had already become a focus of the developer versus environmentalist conflict. When (later Governor) Ann Richards became Travis County Commissioner, she publicly sided with the environmentalists fighting to keep TxDOT, and interested land developers like Gary Bradley, from making MoPac into a second crowded version of the IH 35 now leading to the Edwards Aquifer. Since that era there has been a more or less constant string of battles going on between environmentalists and the increasingly organized road lobby, trying to keep building roads to serve expanding rings of sprawl development.

The road lobby and TxDOT have always been more than happy to blame environmentalists for stopping roads. The truth is that any fair appraisal of the Austin area situation would show that over-optimistic road planning, blind to funding limits, has been a much more important factor. Road opposition has now widened from the early liberal environmentalists, even Earth First! in the early 1990s, to a much broader political spectrum of transportation reform advocates, now active statewide. Everyone can see the existing system is corrupt and badly needs reform, although not everyone can agree on how to fix it.

There is even a documentary video, "Truth Be Tolled.” Lots of rural conservative Republican property owners, Libertarians, and grass roots environmentalists opposed the Trans-Texas Corridor, largely on the basis of opposition organized and supported by web activists David and Linda Stall.

In Austin there is still a strong anti-toll road coalition, partly due to reform politics and Libertarian influence. Muckraker/anti-toll road and skilled media activist Sal Costello played a major role in organizing Austin toll road opposition in 2006 and 2007.

Currently, Terri Hall's TURF group in San Antonio is probably the most active group fighting TxDOT, the road lobby, road taxes, and toll roads:

And the environmentalists remain active, especially in the Austin San Antonio area. As one example, SH 45 SW has been actively promoted as a new road over the Edwards Aquifer to serve new commuters in Hays County who face a lot of congestion getting onto Southern MoPac. But roads like this to serve development over the Edwards Aquifer have always attracted strong opposition from Austin environmentalists. As of now, SH 45 SW is on hold, remaining a magnet for environmentalist opposition, and without a plausible funding source.

Likewise, US 290 W at the "Y" at Oak Hill in Austin is stalled partly by some federally required studies, but more seriously from a lack of money from the CTRMA that has accepted responsibility for rebuilding this road as a toll road. This road is now on the back burner. Likewise the CTRMA's US 290 E toll road is under attack from a swarm of activists. TxDOT approved stimulus funds for building an interchange at US 183, but this toll road would cost about $620 million and most of the funds to build this road are hypothetical. Actual travel demand on both these roads has been flat for years.

Statewide, the opposition to the Trans Texas Corridor became heated enough to make the TransTexas Corridor a campaign issue for former Comptroller Carol Strayhorn. She also wrote an exposé about the politics behind the CTRMA.

Now Perry's big TTC toll road network has even become a prime political target for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who is expected to run for governor. United citizen opposition to TxDOT's traditionally heavy handed policies have thus taken a heavy political toll on that agency. TxDOT is now widely unpopular across the state,

In fact, TxDOT came under heavy political attack in the recent session of the legislature, and TxDOT got abolished as a state agency, although a special session will fix that. And they are out of money, unable to issue the $5 billion in bonds authorized by voters. Sen. Carona, promoting a local option fuel tax as part of the ill fated HB 300, held a press conference announcing that TxDOT may have to quit building ALL new roads by 2013. But it gets worse. Austin and San Antonio are both strapped for transportation cash. There is the matter of $5 billion in unissued bonds authorized by Texas voters, That amount was shrunk to $2 billion to make it more politically appealing, but even this did not pass the Texas legislature. Lots more problens detailed here.

The bad news for TxDOT just keeps on coming, and with it much of the future that The Texas road lobby had mapped out before the recent legislative session, much of which was tied to HB 300. If there is any good news for TxDOT and the road lobby, it is probably that Gov. Rick Perry has called a special session of the legislature to save TxDOT from being permanently "sunsetted" into oblivion. Also TxDOT's political clout in the legislature prevented serious reforms called for by the Texas Sunset Commission, like an elected transportation Commission, from being passed with strong support from the Texas House of Representatives. See the Sunset Advisory Commission Staff Report, here:

TxDOT is at this point quite unlikely to regain anything like its former political clout. This is because it is now so politically unpopular, together with the fact that it is essentially broke. Locally the CTRMA's toll road bonds are almost certain to default within a decade or so, due to rising fuel prices due to peak oil.

If the problem facing TxDOT was peak oil alone, it would be bad enough, but now the United States faces complex interacting economic factors tied to peak oil (see here, and here; trying to solve one problem only tends to worsens others, like reducing the strength of the dollar.

See Part 1 of this series: Roger Baker: Austin Drowning in Traffic Growth? Think Again by Roger Baker / The Rag Blog / June 7, 2009

See Roger Baker's earlier Rag Blog articles on Austin transportation here, here, and here.

© 2009 The Rag Blog:

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"Perry chooses to stick his thumb in Texans' eyes rather than protect citizens from the abuses of taxpayer-funded lobbying."

Perry vetoes bill to halt taxpayer-funded lobbying for toll roads

Perry veto ensures citizen lawsuit to stop TxDOT's taxpayer-funded lobbying will continue


Terri Hall
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

Friday, Governor Rick Perry vetoed HB 2142 (authored by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon), which could have settled the issue of the Texas Department of Transportation's (TxDOT) misuse of taxpayer money to attempt to sway public opinion in favor of toll roads, particularly privatized toll roads, and the Trans Texas Corridor.

Governor Perry prefers to pour salt in the wound instead of allow meaningful reform of his highway department that's run amok and lost the trust of many Texans. The wholesale outrage over TxDOT's propaganda campaign from taxpayers and lawmakers alike prompted the Legislature to act, and, as is his usual course of action, Perry instead chooses to stick his thumb in Texans' eyes rather than protect citizens from the abuses of taxpayer-funded lobbying.

"Losers" still get paid
To further demonstrate the Governor's (and Legislature's) total disregard for fiscal responsibility when it comes to toll roads, he also signed SB 882 (authored by Sen. John Carona) that EXPANDS payments to LOSING bidders by Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs) to design-build contracts and allows those payments to exceed $250,000 (which was the cap placed on losing bidders on Comprehensive Developments Agreements)!

The mantra in Austin is "the sky is falling, we have no money for roads," yet we have money to pay LOSING BIDDERS who won't even build any roads? Wouldn't every other industry that bids on government contracts love this goodie? They didn't pass a bill to continue TxDOT or the Department of Insurance, but they were sure to pass this one.

SB 882 also repeals the prohibitions on RMA Board members and RMA Directors from receiving gifts and contributions, which clearly takes a step backwards and allows conflicts of interest to abound.

Keep Texas Moving dubbed propaganda campaign
Lawmakers studied TxDOT's ad campaign in-depth in the interim between the 2007 and 2009 legislative sessions where even the Director of the Government and Public Affairs Division (GPA), Coby Chase admitted in testimony before the State Affairs Committee that "maybe we did overdo it." Both chambers overwhelmingly passed this bill to send a clear message that TxDOT can only provide public information not crossover into public persuasion on the taxpayers' dime. As a result of its overreach, the TxDOT sunset bill, HB 300, had the GPA division report directly to the Legislature.

In 2007, TxDOT raised eyebrows when it waged an ad campaign called Keep Texas Moving that clearly tried to change public opinion in favor of Perry's toll road policies, including hiring registered lobbyists (in excess of $100,000 a month) to get buy-in from local elected officials for the Trans Texas Corridor and persuade members of Congress to allow TxDOT to buy-back existing interstates for the purpose of tolling them. (Read more here.)

TURF vs. TxDOT before the Appeals Court
TURF appeared before the Third District Court of Appeals April 24, 2009, in its lawsuit (TURF vs. Texas Department of Transportation or TxDOT) to halt the misuse of taxpayer money for attempting to sell the public on toll roads. Justices demonstrated they were monitoring the actions of the lawmakers in regards to legislation pertaining to the case and noted that the Legislature had acted. TURF attorney, Charles Riley, pointed out that the public cannot be assured TxDOT has been restrained by proposed legislation since the Governor could still veto it. Unfortunately, Riley was proven right by Perry's veto Friday. Perry's veto all but ensures the case will continue.

The lawsuit was brought in September 2007 pursuant to § 37, Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. TURF believes the law clearly prohibits TxDOT's expenditure of public funds for the Keep Texas Moving pro-toll, pro-Trans Texas Corridor propaganda campaign.

TxDOT has violated § 556.004 of the Texas Government Code by directing the expenditure of public funds for political advocacy in support of toll roads and the Trans Texas Corridor, and have directly lobbied the United States Congress in favor of additional toll road programs as evidenced in its report, Forward Momentum.

Not a license to lobby the public and elected officials
TxDOT claims it has the authority to advertise and promote toll roads citing Chapter 228.004 of the Transportation Code. However, lawmakers have stated they never intended that law to give license to TxDOT to lobby the public in favor of toll road policy, but rather advertising more akin to "get your Toll Tag here." Rep. Lois Kolkhorst said in an Express-News article in September 2007, "The Legislature did not tell TxDOT to go on a media campaign explaining the pros of the Trans-Texas Corridor and private equity investment (in toll roads)."

TxDOT is still waging a one-sided political campaign designed to sway public opinion in favor of the policy that puts money in TxDOT's own coffers. TxDOT may have ceased hiring outside consultants, but by its own admission, it has instead hired an in-house lobbyist, and its Keep Texas Moving web site and use of Department resources continue to attempt to get buy-in for toll roads from lawmakers and the public alike.

On August 22, 2007, TURF filed a formal complaint with Travis County District Attorney to investigate TxDOT's illegal lobbying and asked him to prosecute TxDOT for criminal wrongdoing. See the formal complaint here. TURF's petition seeks to stop TxDOT's misuse of taxpayer money in a civil proceeding.

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 San Antonio Express-News:

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