Saturday, September 19, 2009

Hutchison: "Once again, Rick Perry is putting political gamesmanship above the needs of Texas."

Congress Renews Ban on Texas Toll Roads

Federal transportation appropriations legislation renews prohibition on new toll roads in Texas.

Copyright 2009

The US Senate on Thursday voted to renew a prohibition on the tolling of existing freeways in the state of Texas. The measure was adopted as part of a larger $123 billion transportation appropriations bill for fiscal year 2010, which passed the House in July.

"None of the funds made available... by this act shall be used to approve or otherwise authorize the imposition of any toll on any segment of highway located on the federal-aid system in the state of Texas," HR 3288 states.

The ban is not complete. It includes exceptions for new construction, continued tolling on existing toll roads as well as the conversion of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. Under congressional rules, funding prohibitions placed on appropriations bills must be renewed every two years. The toll road ban was last enacted in 2007.

Because the provision was championed by Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the issue has taken on a sharper political angle. Hutchison is looking to snatch away the Republican nomination from Governor Rick Perry, feeding on public opposition to tolling. Perry's campaign took shots at Hutchison for attempting to thwart the governor's plans to toll existing freeways and for inserting earmarks for state transportation projects into the bill. Hutchison's campaign fired back.

"Once again, Rick Perry is putting political gamesmanship above the needs of Texas," Hutchison's campaign responded. "Hutchison voted to ban toll roads and the double taxation of Texans on federally funded roads. This vote also increases the amount of federal tax dollars that come back to Texas for transportation needs, including much needed money to relieve traffic congestion."

Differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill must be worked out before it is sent to the president. Both chambers approved the anti-tolling measure.

Article Excerpt:

Excerpt from HR 3288

Sec. 125. (a) In General- Except as provided in subsection (b), none of the funds made available, limited, or otherwise affected by this Act shall be used to approve or otherwise authorize the imposition of any toll on any segment of highway located on the Federal-aid system in the State of Texas that--

(1) as of the date of enactment of this Act, is not tolled;

(2) is constructed with Federal assistance provided under title 23, United States Code; and

(3) is in actual operation as of the date of enactment of this Act.

(b) Exceptions-

(1) NUMBER OF TOLL LANES- Subsection (a) shall not apply to any segment of highway on the Federal-aid system described in that subsection that, as of the date on which a toll is imposed on the segment, will have the same number of non-toll lanes as were in existence prior to that date.

(2) HIGH-OCCUPANCY VEHICLE LANES- A high-occupancy vehicle lane that is converted to a toll lane shall not be subject to this section, and shall not be considered to be a non-toll lane for purposes of determining whether a highway will have fewer non-toll lanes than prior to the date of imposition of the toll, if--

(A) high-occupancy vehicles occupied by the number of passengers specified by the entity operating the toll lane may use the toll lane without paying a toll, unless otherwise specified by the appropriate county, town, municipal or other local government entity, or public toll road or transit authority; or

(B) each high-occupancy vehicle lane that was converted to a toll lane was constructed as a temporary lane to be replaced by a toll lane under a plan approved by the appropriate county, town, municipal or other local government entity, or public toll road or transit authority.

© 2009 /

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"This scheme is speculation at best, and public thievery at its worst...the public approved these bonds thinking they were for non-toll roads."

Taxpayers' hoodwinked: freeway bonds steered to toll roads

Bait and switch


Terri Hall
Copyright 2009

Rick Perry's Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is about to launch Texans headlong into a similar financial crisis that caused the mortgage disaster - multi-leveraging debt. Except this time, it's being applied to toll roads. One of the reasons the mortgage crisis came about was this notion of using debt as collateral for other loans.

TxDOT is not only planning to use debt as collateral for yet more toll road debt, they want to leverage that debt multiple times in risky financing schemes Perry calls "innovative," but it's code for house of cards and spells financial DISASTER for Texas taxpayers.

Texans voted to approve $5 billion in bonds for building new highways by passing Proposition 12 in November of 2007. They did so under the auspices that the bonds would be used to build freeways, not toll roads. Last July, the Texas Legislature authorized $2 billion of the Prop 12 bonds. One billion in these bonds, which are taxpayer-backed borrowed money, would be leveraged again to use as collateral to get more borrowed money.

The idea is to pull cash out of the deal up front to build more toll roads built with yet more borrowed money. Think of it as taking out a second, third, and even fourth (or more) mortgage on your house, and we as the borrowers don't get a say on the terms or the level of risk, yet we will be obligated to pay it.

One of the intense battles during the special session called by Perry in July, involved the proposed creation of a "revolving fund" that would have leveraged debt multiple times over with the intention of raiding public pension funds, among other funds, in order to subsidize toll projects that can't pay for themselves.

Taxpayer hero Rep. David Leibowitz, Rep. Warren Chisum and others, at the loud urging of grassroots groups like TURF, helped us kill the revolving fund. Many lawmakers are very concerned about this multi-leveraging of borrowed money, so they put one billion of the bonds into the State Infrastructure Bank instead, thinking it would prevent multi-leveraging. However, TxDOT has telegraphed it intends to do it anyway!

Fast forward to last Thursday's House Transportation Committee hearing. TxDOT announced its intentions to leverage the bond debt multiple times in order build as many toll roads as possible. As an example, Chairman of the House Transportation Committee Joe Pickett warned the following could be a scenario - a tolling authority could leverage $1 billion in bonds to get $1.8 billion up front and bundle it, like investors did with mortgage loans, to turn around and sell a new package of loans in the amount of $1.5 billion.

Even worse, the committee determining the rules for how the State Infrastructure Bank loans of Prop 12 bonds will be used are the very tolling entities who will benefit from multi-leveraging the bonds for their own toll roads projects (Alamo RMA, Central Texas RMA, Harris County Toll Road Authority, North Texas Tollway Authority, the Water Development Board, for its experience with multi-leveraging, Texas Association of Counties, and Texas Municipal League...not one of them elected). Calling it the fox guarding the hen house is an understatement!

Another battle during the special session was over whether these bonds backed by general taxes ought to be used to fund toll roads that will, essentially, tax the taxpayers again, and with more interest, on the same money. Rep. Leibowitz offered an amendment to prevent the bonds from going to toll roads, but Rep. Larry Phillips and Rep. Linda Harper-Brown outflanked him so that half the bonds can be used for tolled managed lanes.

So to help you follow the money, one billion of the $2 billion in bonds the Legislature authorized to build highways, will get dumped into the State Infrastructure Bank that will loan taxpayer-backed borrowed money to toll authorities. The toll entities will then leverage that money yet again to borrow against future anticipated surplus toll road revenue in order to pull out cash up front to go spend on yet more debt to build more toll roads (before the "surplus revenue" is even in hand).

This scheme is speculation at best, and public thievery at its worst. The shame of it all is that the public approved these bonds thinking they were for non-toll roads, now half of the $2 billion currently on the table will most certainly be going to toll roads since many local governments have no way to pay back a loan other than through tolling. Wake-up, folks. The fiscal malfeasance occurring under the Perry administration on the state level is every bit as bad as it is on the federal level, for which Perry hypocritically criticizes every chance he gets.

Take action, protect the integrity of our financial system

TxDOT has not yet made the rules for these funds final, so the grassroots MUST contact their state lawmakers IMMEDIATELY to say "NO WAY" to multi-leveraging debt for such risky financing schemes. Find your state representatives here.

With a new constitutional amendment election coming up this November, it's good to remind ourselves of what our politicians have sold us in the past before we buy into what they're trying to sell us this time around. Buyer beware! More on the Constitutional ballot propositions to come...

© 2009

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"We will follow the lead of Harris County to see what they come up with in terms of a private partnership.”

County studies local option for Grand Parkway segment


Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2009

The Grand Parkway, also known as Texas 99, is a proposed third loop around the Houston region. The $5.1 billion project is broken up into 11 segments, and several counties are considering local options to control the project at the local level. Following are the segments of the road and their locations.

Montgomery County Commissioners Court approved a local option to study whether to design and build a segment of the Grand Parkway within its boundaries at the local level.

Montgomery County is one of several counties in the region that is expected to vote on a local options for construction of the 170-mile, third loop around the Houston region. The county option also was adopted in Fort Bend County and is expected to be considered by the Commissioners Courts in Harris and Brazoria counties this week.

“We're buying time today for two years to study the feasibility of the project,” said Montgomery County Judge Alan B. Sadler. “We're not committing substantial money to the project; we have projects with much higher priorities. We will follow the lead of Harris County to see what they come up with in terms of a private partnership.”

At stake in this process is the control over the funding and operations of the proposed roadway. The project could be built and controlled by each county or by the Texas Department of Transportation.

“Whether the counties or the state does it, it won't change the roadway,” said David Gornet, executive director of the Grand Parkway Association. “It is over who will operate and control it.

The Grand Parkway, also known as Texas 99, would traverse Harris, Montgomery, Liberty , Chambers, Galveston and Brazoria counties about 25 to 30 miles outside downtown Houston. The project, which originated in 1984, was to be built in 11 segments and would cost $5.1 billion. The segment in Montgomery County runs from Interstate 45 to US. 59.

Montgomery County has dedicated no funding for the project or for a study, pending the outcome of a study by the city of Houston to identify future funding options for the project. Harris County has applied for federal stimulus funds for a segment in its county and also is examining private funding for the roadway.

County sets contract for FM 1488 segment

In another transportation project, Montgomery County Commissioners Court awarded a $23.6 million contract to W.W. Webber LLC to build the last segment of the FM 1488 widening project between FM 2978 and Mostyn Road, near Magnolia High School. The 5.6 miles project will be an extension of the current widening of the road between I-45 and FM 2978.

The project is expected to take about two years to complete and may start as early as next month. During construction, motorists will drive on existing roadway and be switched to new pavements when sections are complete, said Jeff Johnson, transportation manager for the Montgomery County Department of Engineering.

The expansion of FM 1488 is one of five projects being funded through a unique financing arrangement with the Texas Department of Transportation. Under the pass through toll program, Montgomery County will pay the cost of building new roads upfront and will be reimbursed by the state based on the number of motorists that use the new roadways. The $100 initiative was part of $160 million road bond approved by voters in 2005.

Grand Parkway
  • Segment A: Texas 146 to Interstate 45 South
  • Segment B: Interstate 45 to Texas 288
  • Segment C: U.S. 59 South To Texas 288
  • Segment D: U.S. 59 South to Interstate 10 West
  • Segment E: Interstate 10 West to US 290
  • Segment F-1: U.S. 290 to Texas 249
  • Segment F-2: Texas 249 to Interstate 45 North
  • Segment G: Interstate 45 North to US 59 North
  • Segment H and I-1: U.S. 59 North to Interstate 10 East
  • Segment I-2: Interstate 10 East to Texas 146
Source: Grand Parkway Association

© 2009 Houston Chronicle:

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Monday, September 14, 2009

"Once again, in 2009, nothing has been done by the Texas Legislature to stop the largest land grab in American history. "

Super Highway Standstill

391 flag

September 2009

Executive Editors: Dan and Margaret Byfield
Standing Ground
Copyright 2009

We now have gone through three full legislative sessions in Texas since 2003, when the Legislature created the Trans-Texas Corridor, the quarter-of-a-mile wide superhighway designed to connect Mexican ports to Canada by creating an international highway through America.

Once again, in 2009, nothing has been done by the Texas Legislature to stop the largest land grab in American history.

In fact, the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT), the lead agency for the project, was up for sunset, a review process that determines whether the agency remains in existence, and if so, whether the agency is restructured. Although the Sunset Committee proposed several changes to the governance of the department, none of the changes were enacted. Instead, the Texas Legislature extended TXDOT for two more years and made a $2 billion appropriation for the state agency.

Although opponents of the TTC would have liked to have seen the superhighway killed by the legislative body, so too would the governor and TXDOT have liked to have enacted some necessary authorizations to continue the project, but neither happened. The 2009 Session was a critical stalemate for the TTC, providing some welcomed opportunities for local governments using coordination to stop the international highway.

The Session began with an announcement by Amadeo Saenz, the executive director of TXDOT, that the Trans-Texas Corridor was “dead.” The reality is that these projects were just renamed to the “Innovative Connectivity in Texas/Vision 2009” and are to move forward segment by segment.

Even Governor Rick Perry announced that “the days of the Trans-Texas Corridor are over,” but later said, “We really don’t care what name they attach to building infrastructure in the state of Texas. The key is we have to go forward and build it.” A significant number of road builders and businesses betting on the corridor have contributed to his campaign, so it is easy to understand why his comments indicate that the change is not much more than a public relations campaign. The TTC is alive and well.

As the 2009 Regular Session opened, controversial transportation legislation was filed and the battle began in earnest. The one bill introduced by David Leibowitz from San Antonio that actually killed the TTC was buried in committee. HB 300 became the vehicle upon which every amendment and wish list for the transportation department was attached.

In one overnight session, the bill ballooned to over 1,000 pages and was attempted to be voted on within 24 hours. Fortunately, it died on the last day of the Regular Session when the grassroots and rural folks opposed the effort.

In reality, nothing changed regarding TXDOT or the Trans-Texas Corridor. All the work and effort to kill it died on the floor of the House and Senate, but that also meant that everything TXDOT and the governor wanted died as well.

Remember, TXDOT was up for sunset. In other words, they had to be reauthorized statutorily by the Legislature or they would be extinguished. For several hours, many hoped TXDOT was gone, but the governor called a special session to deal specifically with transportation and approximately 20 other state agencies that remained unauthorized at the end of the Regular Session.

Special Session Gets Interesting

What occurred during the Special Session was nothing short of miraculous. Several bills were filed. SB 2 reauthorized TXDOT and all the other state agencies. The governor attempted to reauthorize TXDOT for four years, but the grassroots opposition were able to hold the legislators to only two years. TXDOT will once again be sunset in 2011 and the Legislature will again have to consider how to restructure TXDOT.

The other bill was HB 1, relating to funding of highways and transportation projects in Texas. It passed, allowing $2 billion worth of bonds to pay for highway con- struction and improvements, but removed any ability of TXDOT to use the funds for conversion of existing highways to toll roads and to build any new toll roads. So, that was a miraculous victory that no one expected. It showed how, when the only issue was transportation, the legislators weren’t willing to stick their necks out on such a controversial issue as toll roads.

The most interesting battle during the Special Session came from SB 3 and HB 4, filed at the governor’s and TXDOT’s request to reauthorize Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) that would allow public/private partnerships (foreign companies) the ability to contract with the state to build toll roads.

During the Regular Session, no future CDAs were authorized, which were necessary for TXDOT to build the individual segments of the Trans-Texas Corridor, as well as other toll projects. Senator John Carona, Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, had also tried to pass legislation in the Regular Session that allowed local authorities to place on local ballots a referendum to raise taxes for highway construction.

That one amendment turned most legislators against HB 300, killing the bill in the Regular Session. When Governor Perry called the Special Session, he did not place Carona’s local tax bill on the Call. Senator Carona was furious, and he took out his revenge on the governor during the special session seeing to it that the Governor’s bills, SB 3 & HB 4, were killed. Carona wouldn’t allow SB 3 out of the Senate unless the governor placed his pet bill for taxes on the Call.

The dispute became a classic political standoff where members of the same party devoured their own. The end result: no additional CDAs were authorized, paving the way for the argument to be made that the Texas Legislature did not authorize the necessary segment contracts that would allow the building of the Trans-Texas Corridor. Therefore, whether deliberate or not, they in essence denied the continuation of the TTC project.

A Return To Local Control

The fight that took place in the Regular and Special Sessions and the reason TXDOT has not yet begun to build the Trans-Texas Corridor can be traced back to the stand taken at the local level by five 391 sub-regional planning commissions. Two years ago, American Stewards helped form the first 391 commission, which began requiring TXDOT to coordinate with local governments.

Since the beginning of these efforts, TXDOT has had to change their top down management approach to the project. When we first notified them they were required to coordinate with the Eastern Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission (ECTSRPC), they quickly changed their internal rules to include “coordinating” with local units of government.

Then, they formed Regional Advisory Segments and Councils where they appointed their own “local” people to “advise and coordinate” with the state on transportation issues. They then began forming Rural Planning Organizations (RPOs) in conjunction with Councils of Government and told them funding would come during the 2009 Legislative Session to finance the effort. It all failed when HB 300 died, but the point is, they formed these RPO’s specifically to combat the 391 commissions that over time sprang up in nine locations across the state. They needed a similar group to claim that “local” people wanted their vision of transportation, not the 391 version.

Then, the first announcement came in the summer of 2008 that one of the two major new corridor TTC routes planned, TTC-69, was dead and instead they would be using existing roads as the path for the superhighway. Several months later, and strategically timed immediately before the start of the 2009 Legislative Session, TXDOT’s executive director made his famous announcement that the entire Trans-Texas Corridor project was dead (renamed “Innovative Connectivity”). Both claims are absolutely false, but politically calculated to soften the opposition going into the legislative session.

The 391 commissions continue to press forward, ensuring the project, by any name, is coordinated at the local level. Last June, at the end of the regular session, the ECTSRPC again raised the issue before the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), filing a second petition, this time requesting the entire environmental study be rejected.
The 27-page petition illustrates why TXDOT has lost all credibility to prepare a valid environmental study, that the time has expired for them to complete the study under the Texas Administrative Code, that the Texas Legislature specifically denied passing authorization for segment building contracts (CDAs) for the TTC, and that the entire project, by their own admission, has changed significantly making the current TTC environmental study obsolete.

The FHA responded to the commission [ECTSRPC] with a letter, giving the local government petition the same weight as a public comment. In response, the commission [ECTSRPC] immediately sent a short, pointed letter to Janice Brown, FHA Administrator for the Texas Division, copied to the Department of Justice, as well as the Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, stating:

“We will not have our complaints, based on fact and law, passed off as though they were mere comments. Our issues and the issues of thousands of Texans are with you and your agency within your federal obligation of oversight of TXDOT.
Mr. Jackson’s letter will be exhibit 1 in whatever action we take, as an admission of your continued complicity with an agency which the Texas legislature again rejected in the Special Session. We could not believe that the “brush off” as a mere public comment was sent with your knowledge and understanding of the consequences which we made clear in our Petition. This is your chance to tell us whether you intend to answer the questions posed in behalf of the citizens of this Planning Commission, or whether you desire to be the defendant in one or more of the above actions for refusal to even consider the merits of valid complaints based on factual legal violations of federal law.”

The letter was sent June 16, and the commission is waiting for Federal Highway’s response while preparing for the next step. In the interim, the environmental studies for the two TTC segments have not been finalized. In a coordination meeting held in October 2007, TXDOT informed the ECTSRPC that the I-35 study would be finalized in January 2008. That still has not taken place, and the only reasonable conclusion is that local governments initiated coordination on the project whereby they have brought to the agencies attention issues that should have been addressed in the study, and can be challenged in a court of law.

Through this process, local governments have met with not only TXDOT, but also other state and federal agencies connected with the project. In these government-to-government meetings, and through follow up letters, the commission has pointed out numerous violations of law made by TXDOT. They have also received commitments and omissions from the agencies that would be damaging to TXDOT if the issue moved to a court of law.

Local governments, through coordination, have been the only viable opposition to the once fast-tracked project. It’s now at a standstill as TXDOT and the Federal Highway Administration determine which direction to head, given the illegalities of the environmental study. Another key element of this decision will be the importance the new President places on the NAFTA trade corridor, of which the TTC is the first leg.

Delay of the project was the commission’s first goal, hoping that over time the financiers behind the superhighway would lose interest while the devastation of the agenda to America became more public.

Now, it seems, that may be occurring. Cintra, the Spanish-owned Corporation in line to build the TTC, if approved, is also a major investor in an Indiana toll road that cost $4.8 billion to build and is now estimated to be worth a fraction of that expense at $405 million. Toll roads everywhere are proving to be a bad investment. One could hope that good business sense will take hold, and not a political agenda, when deciding whether to move forward with the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Finally, A Rural Transportation Plan

In tandem with fighting the illegalities of the environmental study, the ECTSRPC has also been developing a transportation plan for the area covering their jurisdiction, the eastern half of Bell County and western half of Milam County. The Bartlett-to-Buckholts Rural Transportation Plan was finalized this spring and is the first transportation plan in the state prepared entirely from the rural perspective. A copy was sent to all the affected state and local agencies, including TXDOT, as well as, the Commissioners of Bell and Milam Counties.

Two of the Bell County Commissioners met with the ECTSRPC at their regular monthly meeting in June. The meeting was another coordination success for the commission. A key issue addressed in the plan was the numerous roads that remain unpaved, resulting in increased wear and tear on the five school district’s buses. The Commissioners agreed to increase the miles allotted for paving these roads and agreed to prioritize those roads identified by the school districts.

Another positive response to the plan came directly from TXDOT’s executive director, Amadeo Saenz, in a letter dated June 12, 2009: “Thank you for providing the Texas Department of Transportation with a copy of the Bartlett-to-Buckholts Rural Transportation Plan. I appreciate your research and coordination efforts related to the factors affecting the complex movement of people and goods in central Texas. We will use this information as we go forward with our planning efforts. We also look forward to continued coordination with your commission, along with the many partners that are involved in transportation-related issues in Williamson, Milam and Bell counties.”

It’s no secret that in the beginning the agency and certainly the governor did not relish the idea of coordinating with the now five unpaid mayors and their school districts that make up the ECTSRPC Commission. They did so and continue to do so because refusing would place them in violation of the law. Two years into the process, they appear to be honoring that commitment, not only to the ECTSRPC, but to the five other working Commissions in the state as well.

The ultimate conclusion to the TTC project is still unknown. But what is known is that the superhighway would have been half paved by now and over 500,000 private acres of land would be in line for condemnation proceedings if these courageous local leaders had passed up the opportunity to use the coordination process available to all local governments.

Instead, they took a critical stand and today continue to carve out a path for local governments to follow.

No longer does the TTC buck stop at the Texas Governor’s office. It stops in eastern Bell County.

© 2009 Standing Ground:

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"Bexar County residents deserve to know whether something more than incompetence on the part of the state's transportation authorities is to blame."

Answers needed on TxDOT report


San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

At first glance, it seems like a joke.

The Texas Department of Transportation compiles a list of the 100 most congested road sections in the state, and what is widely believed to be the most congested road section in Bexar County doesn't even make the list: U.S. 281 from Loop 1604 to the Comal County line.

Eight roadways in Bexar County did make the list, including multiple segments of Interstate 35 and Interstate 10. The worst-ranked section locally — 10th on the statewide list — is a portion of Interstate 35 from U.S. 90 West on the Southwest Side to U.S. 281 north of downtown.

A TxDOT explanation of the congestion on this stretch of Interstate 35 notes: “A trip that takes 20 minutes in free-flow conditions will take approximately 33 minutes during rush hour.”

While that may be bad, many commuters can attest that the rush-hour congestion on U.S. 281 north of Loop 1604 is much worse. So how is it possible that TxDOT failed to place it on the list?

The TxDOT methodology describes a multistep process of compiling a statewide database of major roadways, review by “transportation staff familiar with the local road network” and the calculation of congestion measures by the Texas Transportation Institute.

Perhaps the initial database was deeply flawed and failed to identify U.S. 281 north of Loop 1604 for congestion problems. Even if this were the case, TxDOT experts who have familiarity with Bexar County roadways should have caught this glaring error as part of their review.

Either way, TxDOT — not the Texas Transportation Institute — flubbed the process. And the result is much worse than a joke.

Highway funds will naturally flow to the worst congested roadways in the state. Assuming the legal and environmental hurdles for construction on U.S. 281 are ever surpassed, it's not even on the list of priority projects.

Local leaders should be outraged at the TxDOT report. Bexar County residents who suffer through bumper-to-bumper commutes on U.S. 281 deserve to know whether something more than incompetence on the part of the state's transportation authorities is to blame.

© 2009 San Antonio Express-News:

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