Thursday, November 19, 2009

“Texans have risen up by the tens of thousands saying no to the sale of roads to private foreign toll operators...Perry continues to be tone deaf ."

New Push for Toll Roads in Texas?

Critics see it in recent comments made by the Governor.


Bill O'Neal
Copyright 2009

There’s no two ways about it—Governor Rick Perry sees trouble ahead.

“One of the problems is we do not have the dollars that we need to build all the transportation infrastructure needs that we have” the Governor said in a recent stop at a school in Dallas, adding “Hopefully, when we come back in 2011, both the citizens and their elected officials will come to a stronger realization that we’re going to have to expand our ability to raise some dollars…”

Perry never used the word “toll” but critics will tell you they can hear it loud and clear.

“Under his watch, it has been these sweetheart deals—50-year deals—that will cost commuters 75-cents a mile to drive Texas highways” said Terri Hall with Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, a group that has stood strongly against toll roads in recent years.

“Texans have risen up by the tens of thousands to tell him (Perry) no both to the Trans-Texas Corridor and to the sale of our Texas roads to these private foreign toll operators—and yet he continues to be tone deaf to what the Texas people have told him they want” Hall added. She said a properly applied gas tax increase would be a much more effective method of raising the needed cash.

© 2009 KTRH:

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"The fate of Interstate 35W expansion in north Fort Worth is now in the hands of a private developer. "

Fort Worth, Dallas fail to bring home highway bacon


Gordon Dickson
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2009

The Texas Transportation Commission declined Thursday to spend part of a $2 billion highway bond fund on the Interstate 35W/Loop 820 interchange in north Fort Worth, despite complaints from North Texas officials that they are being punished for building toll roads.

The five commissioners said they were following the wishes of the state Legislature in spending this batch of Proposition 12 bond funds, approved by voters statewide in 2007, on nontoll projects.

The interchange is one of several projects with toll lanes being planned in Dallas-Fort Worth. Of the $2 billion in Proposition 12 funds authorized, only $126 million is set aside for North Texas — home to about a third of the state’s population and economy. But many other worthwhile projects missed out on funding, too, commissioner Bill Meadows of Fort Worth said, noting that the state received a whopping $9 billion in requests.

Meadows “This exercise is perhaps the most impactful yet on the extreme lack of resources we have available to meet our needs in Texas,” said Meadows, who was unable to persuade other commissioners to spend more of the money in the Metroplex. “We have got to find a way to bring more resources to the table. We will fail in Texas if we don’t do so.”

The Proposition 12 package was approved unanimously, after Meadows was promised that a detailed briefing of how to pay for expansion of the I-35W/Loop 820 interchange in Fort Worth, I-35E in Dallas and U.S. 77 in south Texas would be presented to the commission by January. Last week, Regional Transportation Council officials said the area was being shortchanged for aggressively pursuing toll projects in recent years to make up for a lack of state funds.

“There is a perception of punishment among some elected leaders in Dallas-Fort Worth,” Collin County Commissioner Joe Jaynes told the commission during a meeting in Austin.

But North Texas officials who traveled to Austin Thursday were outnumbered by members of Congress, the Legislature and other public offices who rose one by one to praise the transportation commission for the way it chose projects to be paid for by Proposition 12. The money will be used on expansion of I-35 in the Belton, Hillsboro and Waco areas, and other projects in the Houston and San Antonio metro areas. Some of the funding was awarded to projects that served as statewide connectors, while others were rehabilitation projects. But the biggest chunk of funding went to congestion relief projects in metro areas.

After Thursday’s action, the fate of Interstate 35W expansion in north Fort Worth is now in the hands of a private developer. The I-35W/Loop 820 interchange is part of a massive project the transportation department has dubbed North Tarrant Express. A private consortium led by the U.S. arm of Spain-based Cintra is working on a $2 billion plan to rebuild freeway lanes and add managed toll lanes.

That project includes Loop 820 in Haltom City and North Richland Hills, and Texas 121/183 in Bedford, Euless and Hurst. Negotiations are in high gear with the Cintra-led development group, known as NTE Mobility Partners, to get the I-35W/Loop 820 interchange expanded within just a few years, said John Barton, transportation department assistant executive director. Results will be announced in January. That would be a change from the original timeline by NTE Mobility Partners, which planned to rebuild the $300 million interchange no sooner than 2017.

GORDON DICKSON, 817-390-7796

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"There is a perception among Dallas-Fort Worth leaders that we are being punished for our support of toll roads."

Dallas, Fort Worth get short straw in highway spending plan OKd by state


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN -- Texas transportation officials approved a $1.85 billion plan today to build or improve highways throughout Texas, rejecting protests from Dallas and Fort Worth that nearly all of the money will be spent in Houston and along Interstate 35 near Waco.

Quickly brushing aside those complaints, the Texas Transportation Commission voted 5-0 to accept the spending plan that just one week ago had touched off a firestorm among members of the Regional Transportation Council in Arlington.

The plan steers state money toward widening long stretches of Interstate 35 near Waco -- a project that transportation commissioners and many of the dozens of officials and business leaders present for the commission meeting likened to refurbishing "Main Street Texas."

The plan also calls for spending about $575 million on projects to ease congestion in big cities, but will be concentrated on three projects in Houston and San Antonio.

All the Dallas and Fort Worth districts will get is about $126 million in maintenance work.

That apparent slighting of the greater Dallas area enraged local officials, but their presence was hardly felt today in Austin. Of the dozen or so lawmakers, including three members of Congress from the Houston area, who spoke about the spending plan, none were from North Texas.

Representing the Regional Transportation Council, Fort Worth City Council member Jungus Jordan thanked the commission for its hard work, and rebuked it only mildly for bypassing the region. Afterward, he said in an interview that local officials haven't changed their opinion since last week.

"We're still red-hot," Jordan said. "But we've opted for a strategic repositioning."

He said the region wants to work with the Texas Department of Transportation to make sure critical highway projects are funded through other sources in the future -- something commissioners said they remained committed to doing. The commission instructed staff members to report by January on new funding strategies for developing two major road projects strongly urged by North Texas leaders: a massive expansion of Interstate 35E in Denton County and the interchange between Interstate 35E and Loop 820 near Fort Worth.

Only Collin County Commissioner Joe Jaynes spoke out directly against the commission's decision -- while conceding that his was a "minority report," given the large number of powerful Texas players on hand to support it.

"There is a perception among Dallas-Fort Worth leaders that we are being punished for our support of toll roads," he told the commissioners. Echoing arguments made last week in Arlington by regional transportation director Michael Morris, who was not at today's meeting, Jaynes urged commissioners to award future bond proceeds by the same formula that state law provides for distribution of most of gasoline-tax revenues collected in Texas.

State law forbids the transportation department from reducing the amount of road money a region gets because it has embraced tolling. Some North Texas officials said Dallas was snubbed this time only because the region's coffers are still full of money paid by North Texas Tollway Authority for the right to build State Highway 121.

But top TxDOT officials testified that that simply was not the case.

In any case, it was clear almost immediately that the anger expressed last week had failed to turn into an effective campaign to change the funding decision.

Even the one member of the Transportation Commission who is from North Texas, former Fort Worth City Council member Bill Meadows, strongly defended the plan as proposed by transportation staff members.

"I absolutely favor the staff recommendation," he told a packed room at the Art Deco-inspired Greer Building across the street from the Texas Capitol, where the 12,000-employee Texas Department of Transportation is headquartered.

He said Dallas and Fort Worth have received big shares of previous allocations, including larger-than-average awards from the federal stimulus package, and is certain to receive its fair share in the future.

He said complaints raised in North Texas last week that the commission was violating the law by not awarding the funds by formula were wholly without merit.

"That was something I asked myself immediately," he said. "But I am not a lawyer. So I asked, and I got a very specific answer on that question and am fully convinced that the commission is free to use its discretion to award these ... funds. We're violating neither the spirit nor the letter of the law."

Still, Morris was not alone in arguing that the department should award more of its funds -- whether derived from taxes or borrowing -- by a formula that shifts to local planning agencies like the Regional Transportation Council the discretion to decide which projects get built. Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has vowed to renew legislative efforts in 2011 to would strip TxDOT of much of its discretionary role.

Several lawmakers present today, however, said they'd fight hard to keep the transportation department strong, arguing that Texas needs an entity charged with creating a statewide approach to setting priorities.

Commissioner Ted Houghton of El Paso noted that it would take decades to find the funds to widen Interstate 35 if all of the funds made available by the Legislature were awarded by existing formulas.

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"The public isn’t likely to fall for this charade."

Goldman’s $500 Million Is Day Late, Dollar Short


Mark Gilbert
Copyright 2009

So now we know the value Goldman Sachs Group Inc. places on salving its conscience for screwing up what Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein called “God’s work.” It seems that $500 million is all it takes to compensate the world for Goldman’s role in creating the credit crunch.

Goldman said yesterday it’s setting up a “10,000 Small Businesses Initiative.” It will shell out $200 million to educational institutions to help guide business owners, with a further $300 million invested for lending and philanthropy aimed at community development groups. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. is the largest Goldman shareholder, is joining the initiative.

Here’s another way of looking at this sudden burst of supposed generosity. Goldman has $16.7 billion stashed in its bonus pot from the record profit earned in the first nine months of the year, which works out at $527,192 per staffer.

That means those 10,000 small businesses the securities firm says it wants to help are worth the equivalent of about 1,000 Goldman employees. Alternatively, a Goldmanite’s average contribution to society is pitched at the equivalent of 10 small enterprises, based on that bonus-versus-charity calculation.

False Gods

Even at the Stakhanovite work rates the firm legendarily squeezes out of its staff, that’s quite a stretch. The idea that one banker is worth 10 businesses is the kind of math that got us into this mess, with finance falsely elevated until it became an end in itself, rather than a means to providing services to the real economy.

The public isn’t likely to fall for this charade. The financial community has already spent too many years parading its charitable contributions to help divert attention from its risk-taking adventures.

Tax-deductible gestures are no longer sufficient to comfort those who have seen their pension pots devastated by the credit crisis; even with this year’s rallies, the total value of the major global stock exchanges is still a bit less than $45 trillion, down from a peak of almost $62 trillion at the end of 2007, before the subprime meltdown wrecked the global economy.

Potentially more valuable than the charity fig-leaf is the apology Blankfein made yesterday. “We participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret,” Blankfein, 55, said at a conference in New York hosted by a magazine called Directorship. It would be nice to think that banking chiefs truly -- albeit very belatedly -- recognize that their reckless propagation of alchemical securities must never be repeated.

Fawning Adoration

Blankfein’s apology might ring truer, however, if he hadn’t been named CEO of the year by the magazine whose conference he was gracing with his presence. The fawning adoration for the multimillionaires who run the banking industry has only been diminished, not destroyed, by the damage their actions wrought.

If he worked for anyone other than Goldman Sachs, Blankfein would probably be out of a job by now. His remark earlier this month to the Sunday Times magazine that bankers are “doing God’s work” is the kind of indiscretion that loses you the key to the executive bathroom at most public companies.

No matter how many charitable donations it makes, Goldman will struggle to shake off the moniker bestowed on it by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year. Taibbi described the firm as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Goldman and its peers need to practice humility and contriteness for an extended period, rather than seeking image-buffing headlines with token gestures.

(Mark Gilbert is the London bureau chief and a columnist for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

© 2009 Bloomberg:

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Perry flies high in jet of Corridor Contractor

Perry rings up pricey 2009 travel bill

Governor takes on role of 'world traveler'


The Associated Press
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN - Republican Gov. Rick Perry, seeking re-election with a down-home Texas message, took on the role of world traveler this year, making a dozen cross-country or international trips and ringing up tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded security costs.

Perry's travels — a meeting with film executives in Los Angeles, a gathering with GOP leaders in Aspen, Colo., a visit to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — were outlined in interviews with his aides and in documents examined by The Associated Press. But a detailed financial accounting of each trip is not easily accessible, and is in some cases off limits.
Out-of-state travel is part of Perry's job, his aides said.

"As governor and CEO of a state that's the 12th-largest economy in the world, it's important that he continue to promote Texas as the best place for business, both nationally and internationally," said Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle.

Perry visited Iraq on U.S. Defense Department trips in January and July. In August, he went to Israel on a trip organized and partially paid for by one of his campaign donors and by the investment firm Doheny Global Group. He also visited California, New York, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Colorado, Florida and Mississippi in 2009.

Perry isn't alone among big-state governors in his far-flung travel. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger frequently jet around the country and the world. And, Perry has traveled plenty before this year, having taken assorted national and international trips since becoming governor in December 2000. Former Texas governors George W. Bush and Ann Richards also earned their share of frequent flier miles.

But an open government advocate questions whether there's enough information available about the Texas governor's trips.
"Are we getting the full story?" said Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. "Any time you have the head of government, especially the governor ... taxpayers and voters are interested in that."
Texans should be able to easily find out what business the governor is doing and whom he's doing it with, Elkins said. He cited a recent KTVT television report he said revealed new details about Perry's Israel trip: documents showing the Perry family members and friends who went along as well as the state officials who oversee energy policy who went, plus the information that Perry's security officers stayed at the swanky King David Hotel at a cost of $17,000 to the state. Perry's travel is typically paid by a patchwork of sources including his campaign, private donors and the economic development non-profit group TexasOne. Much of his 2009 travel cannot yet be viewed on state disclosure reports.
State-paid Department of Public Safety officers travel with Perry to provide security, but specifics of those costs are closed to the public, thanks to a bill passed in this year's legislative session. Only summaries of the security costs can be obtained. A summary by DPS showed that security for the Israel trip cost $58,775 for the officers' air fare, lodging, meals and other expenses and $15,609 for overtime pay.
The Doheny group organized and paid for Perry's stay in Israel and for First Lady Anita Perry's commercial flight to the country, the governor's office said.
Perry flew to Israel aboard the private plane of Texas campaign donor Doug Pitcock, head of Williams Brothers Construction, a round-trip charter flight donated to TexasOne and valued at $180,000, Castle said. Anita Perry joined him for the trip home.

Doheny Global Group managing director Irwin G. Katsof, describing himself as a rabbi and a concerned Jew, said in an e-mail to the AP that he has been taking American political leaders of both major political parties to Israel for more than 15 years. He did not respond to a question about the cost of the trip.

"I care deeply about Israel and believe these trips help foster a better understanding of the cultural, economic and social bonds that our countries share," Katsof wrote.
Perry's most recent out-of-state trips were to New York City, where he visited NASDAQ and held four private meetings with campaign donors, and to Las Vegas, where he met with Nevada Republican governor candidate Brian Sandoval.

Meanwhile, Perry's Republican rival, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, frequently travels between Texas and Washington, D.C. Her only government or campaign trip this year outside of those two places was to Iraq with a Defense Department delegation, her aides said.

Perry's campaign said Hutchison's trips around Texas should be scrutinized. Perry spokesman Mark Miner suggested that Hutchison slips in campaign stops while in Texas on government-funded travel. He also said she should fly commercial, instead of the charter flights she sometimes takes that can cost $5,000 or more.

"Southwest (Airlines) flies almost everywhere in the state," Miner said. "In this economy when tax dollars are tight, is it really necessary for a U.S. senator to be flying around the state on charter airplanes that are paid for by the taxpayers?"

Hutchison spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said sometimes charters are the only way Hutchison can get to the events where she needs to be. The campaign is diligent about making sure campaign events are paid with campaign money, not federal funds, Baker said, disputing Miner's contention that campaign stops are mixed into her itinerary.

Baker said Perry is the one with the transparency problem. "If the governor is traveling in his official capacity as governor, which he was elected to do by the people, by the citizens of Texas, then they deserve to know who is paying for the trips and what he's doing on the trips," she said.

© 2009 Associated Press:

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