Saturday, January 02, 2010

"Hutchison’s promise to kill Governor Perry’s Trans Texas Corridor (TTC) project cannot be taken seriously."

Kay Bailey Hutchison’s transportation plan revives the Trans Texas Corridor


For Immediate Release
Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexasPIRG)
Copyright 2009

Kay Bailey Hutchison calls for some good reforms in her transportation proposal, Putting Texas Transportation Back On The Road to Success. However, her plan falls short in protecting taxpayers and fails to offer a method for financing the state’s transportation system other than continuing to privatize roads and pushing the use of private toll road arrangements called public-private partnerships (PPPs) which are fraught with risk for taxpayers.

Hutchison is correct to demand that the state reform TxDOT’s broken financing system and enact measures that will regain the public’s trust in the very same state agency that made a $1.1 billion accounting error a few years back. She is also correct to insist that data be more transparent and consistent across all regions, especially data that pertains to controversial projects such as private toll roads. She is absolutely justified when she demands that the state ends the diversion of Fund 6 transportation revenue to other programs. In the 2010-2011 state budget, $1.2 billion of dedicated funds were diverted to other purposes. Hutchison also outlines some particularly good ideas for developing both local and statewide outcome-based accountability measures for transportation projects. Finally, we applaud the inclusion of a strategic freight initiative and the emphasis Hutchison places on high speed and commuter rail as alternate types of transportations as well as the emphasis she places on rail relocation for urban freight rail networks—the first step to getting Texans moving on tracks.

However, Hutchison’s promise to kill Governor Perry’s Trans Texas Corridor (TTC) project cannot be taken seriously. Her proposal offers no additional means for financing Texas’ transportation infrastructure other than the very same TTC-style private toll road arrangements that have come to define Governor Perry and TxDOT over the course of the past decade. In her transportation plan, Kay Bailey Hutchison claims that she will kill the TTC once and for all. However, without a new method for funding the multi-modal transportation system she proposes, her plan sounds awfully similar to Governor Perry’s Trans Texas Corridor.

Reviving the unpopular Trans Texas Corridor

The Trans Texas Corridor will not be dead until we rid the state of TTC-style private toll road arrangements such as public-private partnerships (PPPs) which are Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) by another name. These are the same type of road privatization deals Governor Perry used to fund the unbelievably unpopular Trans TTC project. CDAs and PPPs are fraught with problems and characterized by the same leveraging of debt, reckless shifting of risk and conflicts of interest that triggered the recent financial crisis. CDAs and PPPs place transportation policy and planning in the hands of private Wall Street investors seeking reliable returns from rising tolls.

The plan to build Governor Perry’s TTC ran into fierce public opposition and fiscal constraints. Thousands of Texans attended anti-TTC rallies and meetings across the state and continue to voice strong opposition to private toll roads today. Texans worry about the potential government seizure of farmland, the prospect of foreign ownership of state roads, rising tolls and the loss of public control when road policies are dictated by contracts with Wall Street investors. As the recent financial crisis shows, what is good for Wall Street is not always what is good for taxpayers.

Public-Private Partnerships cost taxpayers money

Hutchison’s transportation proposal states, “Public-private partnerships are an important part of a modern transportation system, and can often build roads faster and cheaper than the government could do it working alone.” This statement is grossly misleading. While privatized toll roads offer a hard-to-resist "quick fix" for state politicians, they have major hidden costs and big potential downsides for the public. Private toll road operators seek to maximize their profit through rising tolls. According to testimony given by the Government Accountability Office regarding private toll roads, “there is no ‘free’ money in public-private partnerships” and it is likely that tolls on a privately operated highway will increase to a greater extent than they would on a publicly operated toll road (GAO-08-44).

Hutchison’s plan creates a loophole that will open up future roadways to privatization

Hutchison is correct when she begins to outline public protections against risky road privatization deals in her plan but wrong when she includes a glaring loophole that will enable the state to privately toll future roads and associated structures. She states that “No existing road should be tolled, except to add capacity through new tolled lanes within existing rights of way.” This opens up any future road constructed in Texas to privatization and grants the state the right and power to use private toll road deals to build private toll road interchanges, managed lanes and additional roads adjacent to the state’s “free” roads. TexPIRG does not support new forms of road privatization at all.

Furthermore, upon reading this section of Hutchison’s proposal, thoughts of Senator Nichols’ Senate Bill 17 from last session come to mind. While at first glance, SB 17 acknowledged the need to protect Texans against the dangers of private toll roads, it contained a number of hidden clauses that seriously undermined this goal. SB 17 contained loopholes that would have opened up Texas’ roadways to private investment by permitting TxDOT to avoid upholding the public protections from harmful private toll road deals initially set up. As Governor, if Kay Bailey Hutchison intends to safeguard taxpayers from bad road privatization deals, she should not include loophole language that will unravel these public protections.

Protecting Texas taxpayers once and for all

As Hutchison very accurately states, too often, these “partnerships have given unfair advantages to private parties at public expense.” Therefore, if Hutchison intends to move forward using the same TTC-style road privatization deals to build the multimodal transportation system she puts forth in her proposal (and this is clearly her intention), she must insist on the strongest possible public protections to ensure complete transparency, full value for taxpayers and continued public control of transportation policy. The protections she outlines in this proposal do not go far enough to safeguard Texans from risky road privatization.

In order to protect Texans, Hutchison should strengthen the public safeguards in her proposal by ensuring that the public retain control over decisions about transportation planning and management and that taxpayers receive fair value so future toll revenues are not be sold off at a discount. No future private toll road deals should contain non-compete or compensation clauses nor should any deal last longer than 30 years because of uncertainty over future conditions and because the risks of bad deals grow exponentially over time. Contracts should require state-of-the art maintenance and safety standards instead of statewide minimums and there must be complete transparency to ensure proper public vetting of privatization proposals. For full accountability, the legislature must approve the terms of a final deal, not just approve that a deal be negotiated. And finally, no existing roads should be privatized.

Restructure TxDOT like a corporation?

Hutchison’s transportation plan also veers off track when she bizarrely proposes restructuring TxDOT by giving its Commission “a more rational corporate structure” and CEO. Nothing good can come out of this. By definition, corporations must return a profit to their shareholders which are just that—people who own shares of stock in the company. In the case of public-private partnerships, the shareholders will unfortunately be the private toll road investors not Texas’ taxpayers as Hutchison purports in this section of her transportation plan.

In the same section, Hutchison also proposes two changes to TxDOT’s structure that contradict one another. First she states that she will make the executive director of TxDOT a CEO. A few sentences later she makes a very different claim when she calls for a “bottom-up, grass roots approach that will put the local communities and citizens of Texas first.” So what will TxDOT look like if Hutchison is elected governor? Will Hutchison impose a corporate top-down structure on the agency, one that will prioritize profit over the long-term good of the public? Or will she take the more mindful approach and shake TxDOT down from the bottom up? Right now it is hard to tell.

Transportation will be a big challenge for the next governor of Texas

There is no question that the next governor of Texas will face the very difficult task of fixing the state’s broken transportation financing system. Some state lawmakers have suggested indexing the gas tax. There have also been some murmurs in the state of creating a Vehicle Mileage Tax (VMT) pilot program as the state of Oregon has done. Texas must also stop diverting transportation funds to other programs and ought to invest in more sustainable methods of transportation such as rail that will have greater returns on initial, upfront investments.

However, continuing to push public-private partnerships is not the answer for our state’s roads, interchanges, managed lanes or rail. Pushing these deals will simply mean business as usual at TxDOT. Texans have made it abundantly clear that they do not want private toll roads as part of their transportation infrastructure. It will be the responsibility of the next governor (capitalized?) of Texas to ensure that the public gets what the public wants.

For More Information:
Melissa Cubria

© 2010 TexasPIRG:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Friday, January 01, 2010

Another Act of Bad Faith: Texas Legislature guts eminent domain reform--again

Scurvy Tricks in Texas

Related article: Texas Eminent Domain Reform Weakened Minutes Before Passage


Paul Jacob
Common Sense
Copyright 2010

It should be a truth universally acknowledged that your average crew of incumbent politicians in possession of a reform agenda must be in want of an actual reform.

Last summer, the Texas Legislature got hold of a bill intended to prevent abuse of the state’s eminent domain power. And legislators proceeded to mangle it beyond recognition.

The act of bad faith was quickly reported by the Institute for Justice, an organization that actively combats plundering of private property all around the country. IJ alerted supporters to the bill’s alterations, explaining how that at the very last minute, in a reconciliation conference, lawmakers dramatically weakened the measure.

Note, the weakening occurred after it had passed both houses in a much stronger form.

The bill’s point had been to prevent the use of eminent domain for private redevelopment. But the final language allowed lawmakers to confer eminent domain power to any private entity at any time, regardless of other language in the measure.

In November, voters eager for better protection of their property rights overwhelmingly approved Proposition 11, despite its lax provisions. Whether abuses of eminent domain will actually be curtailed as a result depends on the whims of lawmakers and the courts.

One thing is certain, though, were Texans to possess the right of citizen initiative they could act on their own to bring real reforms to the ballot.

© 2009 Common Sense:

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"The borrow & spend policies of Rick Perry have plunged Texas into unsustainable debt...$12 billion in debt, not counting local debt for toll roads."

New year, new opportunities


Terri Hall

Reflections first...

The year started with the 81st session of the Texas Legislature, often more frenzied and confusing than even highly trained political veterans can cover. So for the grassroots who attempt to watchdog their elected officials while juggling work, family, and daily life, it's quite a hill to climb. But it's a necessary one, one that TURF and its citizen volunteers continue to do in order to protect our freedoms and prevent a total fleecing of the taxpayers, particularly through runaway toll taxes, the most expensive way to fund roads.

With hundreds of transportation bills to follow, this year, the big kahuna was the TxDOT sunset bill. Certain state agencies undergo sunset review every 12 years with the goal of evaluating whether or not we still need the agency, and if so, to get rid of any waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement in order to streamline them and make our state agencies more efficient and effective.

Clearly, TxDOT is an agency rife with all of the above and needs a total house cleaning (read about its $1.1 billion "accounting error" here). The trouble during the session was getting agreement on how to repair it, with the looming elephant in the room always turning to funding - cries of shortfalls, Rick Perry insisting on massive toll road proliferation and hawking our public roads to the highest bidder for quick cash, others claiming we need local tax hikes, and still others pushing for a statewide gas tax hike. Many lawmakers think if we just give TxDOT more money, all their troubles will simply fade away. Hogwash! Just demonstrates the mentality of career politicians who think you solve everything by throwing more money at it.

What fell by the wayside during this political theater was genuine reform of the agency, an audit of TxDOT's books, accountability for the agency's misdeeds, and ending diversions to the gas tax that have habitually raided our transportation dollars for things that don't relate to transportation. Lawmakers fail to grasp that taxpayers will never buy into tax hikes for an agency this broken, who seems to take great pleasure in abusing taxpayers' money, angering the traveling public, railroading unwanted toll roads down Texans' throats (including breaking the law to push its toll agenda, read more here), and overall being tone deaf to the taxpayers who pay their bills.

By the end of the session, legislators loaded-up the sunset bill with just about every transportation bill that went nowhere, and bloated the legislation to over 1,200 pages, which no one had time to read much less digest. In the end, both the sunset bill and the safety net bill (designed to simply continue the agency if the sunset bill didn't pass) failed to pass, largely due to Senator John Carona who threatened to filibuster the sunset bill over its lack of a local option gas tax. So for a few weeks, TxDOT was legally abolished. Needless to say, I didn't cry any crocodile tears over it, even if it was only temporary bliss.

An unsung victory of the regular session was the legislature's failure to re-authorize certain contracts called Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) that effectively sell-off our Texas roads to private corporations in 52 year, monopolistic sweetheart deals. So, Governor Perry called a special session to get a continuation bill passed and to get these CDAs re-authorized, priority number one for Perry in order benefit his cronies in the industry, including firms like UBS where Perry's son, Griffin, is employed, which also happens to be a bidder on the Trans Texas Corridor TTC-69 project that's still alive and well.

With legislators entire focus now on CDAs, without the distraction of 7,000 other bills during the regular session, the grassroots went to work educating members on the horrific anti-taxpayer provisions in these contracts that essentially socialize the losses and privatize the profits. A separate bill pushed by Perry would have raided teacher retirement and public employee retirement funds to finance these risky toll deals, which sent many lawmakers over the edge. Ultimately, this two-day session ended with the CDA bill lacking the votes to even get out of committee! This is our biggest victory to date, for without these deals, most of the planned toll roads will face certain death for lack of financing.

Locally, despite a new Mayor and several new councilmembers being appointed to the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO, local board set-up by federal law for regional transportation planning and to allocate transportation dollars to local projects), the board just approved a long-range plan with 57 toll projects for San Antonio alone. Most communities around the state are in the same boat under a total toll road assault thanks to Perry's policies.

Hope on the Horizon

Many key lawmakers are sounding the drumbeat to end the reliance on tolling as a means to finance roads. Not only is there massive blowback from the traveling public, the state has maxed out its credit card using the borrow and spend policies of Perry that have plunged our state into unsustainable debt (zero debt for roads pre-Perry, under Perry, now $12 BILLION in debt for roads, not counting the local debt for toll roads).

Just this week, the North Texas Toll Authority voiced its concerns about the growing public outcry against the massive number of toll roads being planned in already toll road heavy DFW, citing the public's willingness to pay the tolls as key to paying back the debt. Carona has called a special public hearing February 1 at the Capitol Auditorium in Austin to address road financing with an eye to alternatives to tolling.

In the Governor's race, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina are mounting an offensive against Perry's toll road policies and mismanagement of TxDOT as centerpieces to their campaigns to unseat Perry. The jury's still out on the Democratic ticket with former Houston Mayor Bill White only recently emerging as the candidate for Governor.

In the Legislature, two pro-toll state representatives won't be returning, Carl Isett (Lubbock) and Frank Corte (San Antonio) and one pro-toll state senator, Eliot Shapleigh (El Paso). It's up to the voters to ensure the right people fill those positions.

With anti-toll Lyle Larson running to replace Corte, this could FINALLY put the nail in the coffin for tolling existing freeways 281 and 1604 in that district. All this time, the number one roadblock to KILLING the toll plans for 281 and 1604 is due to the failure of the elected representatives in those corridors, Frank Corte and Jeff Wentworth, to represent the will of the people and stop the freeway to tollway conversions. No matter how loudly the public objects, if your politicians acquiesce, TxDOT and the toll authority (RMA) have all the political cover they need to toll these roads anyway.

Throw the bums out election?

With all the political dissatisfaction and economic woes locally and nationally, 2010 could be a transformational year in politics. Many ordinary citizens who have been apathetic or sitting on the sidelines are becoming politically informed and involved for the first time, some are even running for office. This year could be one of the biggest anti-incumbent, throw the bums out elections in a generation.

Many faithful citizen advocates have been waiting a LONG time to get accountability at the ballot box for their representatives ignoring the public outcry against tolling our existing freeways, the Trans Texas Corridor, and the sale of our Texas roads to foreign companies who then charge 75 cents PER MILE to drive our PUBLIC roads.

Sign-up to be a precinct chair by Monday!

So our attention will turn to providing citizens with our TURF Voter Guide to help inform voters where candidates stand on toll and transportation issues. One thing folks can do immediately is file to become your precinct chair (info/applications available on your local party's county web site). The deadline to file is Monday, January 4. Precinct chairs oversee that precinct's elections as well as the precinct convention that ultimately sets your Party's platform at the state convention next summer. TURF already has several sample resolutions available that can be introduced at your precinct conventions that address these issues.

In 2010 in particular, knowledge and taking action is power. So get informed or get run over. Our next meeting is January 21 at 6:00 PM at BigZ Burgers off 1604 (near Huebner). See you there.

Together, we can get it done!

© 2009

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, like Gov. Rick Perry, embraces tax subsidized corporate toll road monopolies

Hutchison says private toll roads will continue if she is governor

Related article: Kay Bailey Hutchison’s transportation plan revives the Trans Texas Corridor


Michael Lindenberger/Reporter
Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

Note: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison will speak in Dallas this afternoon. Check back here for updates to this post throughout the day, with input from the Rick Perry campaign and more details about Hutchison's proposals. Her full proposal can be found here.

Private toll roads will continue to be a significant part of Texas' transportation solutions should Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison be elected governor in 2010, the candidate said today.

"Public-private partnerships are an important part of a modern transportation system, and can often build roads faster and cheaper than the government could do it working alone," Hutchison said in a new policy paper presented by her campaign, and unveiled at a series of public speeches throughout Texas today.

She is scheduled to speak at her Dallas campaign headquarters today at 3:25 p.m., at 10100 Central Expressway.

Hutchison said Gov. Rick Perry, who has pushed hard for privatization of highways for most of his tenure, has failed to include necessary safeguards in the contracts awarded to private companies who seek to build Texas toll roads, in return for the right to collect tolls there for generations to come.

"Too often, those partnerships have given unfair advantages to private parties at public expense," she said. "Some Comprehensive Development Agreements in Texas contain obscure clauses that limit public rights without the public fully realizing it. Some clauses would prohibit the state from building public roads within a certain distance of the toll road. Others could steer traffic onto toll roads by lowering the speed limit on the public road and raising the speed limit on the toll road."

Still, the campaign was not able to immediately point to those examples. And in recent years as the push back against the Trans Texas Corridor grew louder, the Texas Department of Transportation has instituted rules of its own that largely mirror Hutchison's concerns.

Still, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said even a subtle change in emphasis from the governor's office could mean big changes when it comes to the proliferation of toll roads in North Texas.

"There needs to be a better balance in the system, and I think she is aware of that," Carona said. "Under the current strategy, every new road will be a private toll road. That is bad public policy, and I sense that Sen. Hutchison will attempt a better balance."

On other area, Hutchison's proposals were cautious. While Carona and other transportation leaders in the Legislature have called for higher gas taxes, she instead said she'd appoint a task force to study how efficient TxDOT uses the money it already gets, and then to evaluate whether news funds are needed.

Carona called that "a very conservative approach and a starting point for discussion of the issues."

But he said no amount of efficiencies likely to be found in studying TxDOT's operations will provide the money Texas needs to keep traffic moving in its busiest cities or to keep its massive network of highways and bridges in good repair. "I can't speak to what her intentions would be post campaign, should she be elected. But it's clear that the time for studying is past us now. I applaud her desire to look at the efficiency -- that's a job that is never done -- but efficiency alone won't solve this problem. It's a first step, but by itself it will be no where close to enough."

© 2009 Dallas Morning News:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Sunday, December 27, 2009

"A way to limit traffic on the toll lanes and squeeze more revenue from motorists to pay for roads."

Toll prices in Tarrant will vary based on traffic conditions


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2009

Toll lanes are coming back to the Fort Worth area after more than a three-decade absence, with a few new and expensive wrinkles.

Tarrant County hasn’t had a toll road, unless you count the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport entrance, since the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike was converted into a freeway (now Interstate 30) in 1977.

But more toll lanes are on the way in the western Metroplex within four years. Examples include the high-occupancy vehicle lanes under construction on I-30 in Arlington, Loop 820 in north Fort Worth, Haltom City and North Richland Hills and Texas 114/121 in Grapevine.

Tolls could go as high as 75 cents per mile when congestion is at its worst. That would be more than five times higher than the average 14.5 cents per mile that motorists currently pay on Dallas-area toll roads. It’s a concept called value pricing, a way to limit traffic on the toll lanes and squeeze more revenue from motorists to pay for roads.

Supporters of value pricing, which also drops the price of tolls when traffic is light, say motorists will have a choice — stay on the crowded main lanes, or pay their way out.

"While there will be dynamic pricing, there will still be the general-purpose lanes, and in most places we’re adding frontage roads," said Amanda Wilson, spokeswoman for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

Where the tolls will be

Several years ago, the Regional Transportation Council set a ceiling of 75 cents per mile on variably priced toll lanes.

The lanes would operate electronically, without toll booths. Users could prepay with a TollTag, a windshield-mounted device that sensors read as a car travels on the road. Or, for cars without a TollTag, a camera system would take a picture of the license plate and mail the registered owner a bill.

Examples of projects:

In Arlington, high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Interstate 30 could be converted to toll-managed lanes by 2011. Toll rates haven’t been set.

In 2004, the Federal Highway Administration selected I-30 as a "value pricing pilot project," which allowed it to get around a federal law banning new tolls on interstates. The transportation council was awarded $472,000 in federal funds to plan and design the lanes from Arlington to Dallas. Single-occupant cars would pay the full toll, while carpoolers, motorcyclists and buses could use the lanes free or at a discount.

The lanes currently end at Baird Farm Road/Legends Way in Arlington but eventually would be extended to Oakland Boulevard in east Fort Worth.

In Northeast Tarrant County, a development team led by Spain-based Cintra plans to rebuild Loop 820 and Airport Freeway beginning next year. The work on the North Tarrant Express project is expected to take four years.

Existing lanes would remain free, but tolls on two managed lanes in each direction would range from $1.20 to $6.50 each way for a 13-mile trip — 9 to 50 cents per mile.

In Grapevine, developer NorthGate Constructors plans to rebuild seven highways collectively known as the DFW Connector — including two managed lanes in each direction on Texas 114/121. Exact rates haven’t been disclosed, but drivers can expect to pay an average of 64 cents for a four-mile trip beginning in 2014, and 96 cents by 2029.

Southwest Parkway

In Fort Worth, the North Texas Tollway Authority is developing Southwest Parkway, a 28-mile toll road from downtown to Cleburne. The first eight miles, from I-30 to Dirks Road, are scheduled to be under construction next year.

Although Southwest Parkway won’t be a variable-price road, it is expected that the toll rate will be 20 cents per mile by 2013, compared with the 16 cents motorists are expected to be charged on Dallas-area tollways. The tollway authority approved toll rates this year that will gradually increase through 2018, with Southwest Parkway always 4 cents higher than the standard rate.

Fort Worth officials agreed several years ago to the higher rate on Southwest Parkway to offset the cost of additional bridge work and landscaping, as well as an expected loss of revenue from keeping the speed limit no higher than 50 mph in central Fort Worth.


Value-priced toll roads are increasingly being used by metro areas to limit traffic on toll roads and to generate new revenue sources for roads.

In Houston, local officials recently approved new tiers of pricing on the Katy Freeway toll lanes — $1 each way during light traffic, and $2 to $4 during peak periods.

In Southern California, the 91 Express Lanes project has been around since 1995, allowing travelers on the Riverside Freeway to pay their way around traffic — up to $9.90 for a 10-mile trip during the busiest hour of the week, 4 p.m. Thursdays.

The road has become such a part of the L.A. streetscape that gift cards are even sold on the official Web site,

Can it be long before cards like that are stocking stuffers in Fort Worth?

GORDON DICKSON, 817-390-7796

© 2009 Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

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"Anyone who doubts what activists can get done need only look at the wave of anti-tollinistas spawned by the toll-centric policies of Gov Rick Perry "

A decade in transportation: new tollways and a long wait for rail


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

Think back, if you will, to those last moments of Dec. 31, 1999, when all of us were watching the clock and wondering if time, the lights, our computers, the electrical grid and who knows what else were about to just stop.

Didn't happen, of course. But think about what was about to happen: toll roads and passenger rail in Central Texas (well, passenger rail construction), Rick and Ric turning Texas transportation on its ear, Sal Costello and the Texas Toll Party. A new (bicycle and pedestrian) bridge over the Colorado River. The end of sub-$2-a-gallon gasoline and the American debut of $4-a-gallon gasoline. The advent of texting — and then rampant texting while driving — and now, a new City of Austin ordinance against that.

With the possible exception of the 1960s, when most of the interstate highway system was built, the past decade saw more change in Central Texas transportation than any period since horseback travel phased out a century ago. Most decades bring more of the same. This one brought a whole lot of new, including more miles of tollways than the combined length of Interstate 35 and MoPac Boulevard in Travis County.

Pay as you go

There were Texas toll roads, but not in Central Texas. What Central Texas also lacked, despite years of talk about it, was an eastern bypass for increasingly clogged I-35, or any hope of getting a billion or two dollars to pay for one. Through a series of events too convoluted to repeat here, the Central Texas Turnpike Project was birthed to build that bypass — Texas 130 — along with connecting tollways Texas 45 North and an extension of Loop 1 (MoPac).

The Texas Department of Transportation went out and borrowed a mammoth $2.2 billion on the bond market, borrowed some federal money, kicked in $700 million of its own and got $500 million from local governments and then built a staggering 66 miles of turnpikes between 2003 and 2007 . Meanwhile, a new animal authorized under a fresh state law — the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, essentially a toll road agency — opened shop in 2001 and by 2007 had opened its first toll road as well, 183-A in Cedar Park. TxDOT built a fifth tollway using tax money, Texas 45 Southeast, which opened this spring.

The final toll: almost 78 miles in a connected system.

Well, not final, exactly. TxDOT unveiled a wave of seven more proposed toll roads here in 2004 , and the area's transportation board rushed it through to approval three months later.

Enter Sal Costello

Anyone who doubts what activists can get done, or undone, need only look at the wave of anti-tollinistas spawned by that second Austin toll road plan and the toll-centric policies of Gov. Rick Perry and his alter ego on the Texas Transportation Commission, Ric Williamson . The morning after the July 2004 vote authorizing that Phase 2 toll plan, most people assumed that the 16-7 vote by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board was the end of the story and that Central Texas would have 12 toll roads by the end of the decade.

Not Costello, a graphics designer who had gotten involved in the weeks leading up to the vote. He formed a group called the Austin Toll Party (later expanded statewide), moved to recall three Austin City Council members who had voted for it (with no success) and over the next three years generally made life hard for any public official who didn't disavow tolls. Too hard, some said, citing Costello's willingness to publish on his Web site what were often unsubstantiated or exaggerated charges about officials' private lives.

Other anti-toll groups sprang up in San Antonio and in Fayette County, that last one devoted to bringing down Perry and Williamson's Trans-Texas Corridor plan to crisscross the state with supertollways.

None of that second cohort of Austin-area toll roads has been built, and only one appears likely to happen anytime soon. No toll roads have been built in San Antonio. The Trans-Texas Corridor plan died, and the privately financed and operated toll roads at the heart of it fell into disrepute at the Legislature. Toll roads are a permanent part of the Texas mix now, but only a part rather than the focus, and Texas politicians are talking again about using more traditional ways to raise money for roads.

Costello, who said his own private life had been frayed by his anti-toll obsession, in 2008 moved to a small town in southern Illinois. Williamson died two years ago. Perry is running for office again, so some things don't change.

Another thing that didn't change: the gas tax, locked in since the early 1990s at 20 cents a gallon for the state and 18.4 cents a gallon for the federal government and losing ground to inflation year after year.

In-the-Red Line

Building a light-rail network had been discussed throughout the 1990s, but the concept didn't see a public ballot until November 2000. Voters narrowly rejected that 52-mile, $1.9 billion system. But Capital Metro, having saved up more than $200 million with rail in mind, in 2004 went back to voters with a much more modest proposal — $90 million, they said, deliverable by early 2008 — for a single commuter line on existing track between Leander and downtown Austin.

We're still waiting for the 32-mile Red Line to open, and the agency now says it will cost $105 million, a figure that excludes tens of millions of dollars spent on facilities directly related to the passenger line. That $200 million surplus had all but disappeared by this year as revenue from Capital Metro's principal source of money, a 1 percent sales tax, has been in a 15-month swoon. The transit agency, meanwhile, spent the last half of the decade in near-constant turmoil with its union, endured two short strikes for seeking wage and benefit cuts, and recently fired its rail operations contractor.

Capital Metro's longtime board president, Lee Walker, left in 2008; its longest-serving chief executive officer, Fred Gilliam, retired in the fall. A newly constituted board, ordered up by the Legislature, is about to take office. The rail line, Capital Metro officials say, will open — two years late — sometime before March 31.

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

© 2009 Austin American-Statesman:

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