Tuesday, February 16, 2010

'Record of Decision' on TTC-35? : "...if Perry is re-elected, he could easily change back to a 'build' alternative and they’re in business."

TURF releases Voter Guide on transportation issues


Terri Hall
Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom
Copyright 2010

Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom released its primary election Voter Guide today.

The Guide reflects the candidatesʼ positions on transportation issues like the best way to fund roads as well as positions on toll roads, public private partnerships (where private corporations gain control of public infrastructure, called CDAs in Texas), and the Trans Texas Corridor.

Candidates are still returning surveys, so TURF expects to update its guide prior to election day, March 2. Itʼs also posted on its web site under “Important Info.”

Is the Trans Texas Corridor still alive?

Confusion persists about whether or not the Trans Texas Corridor is truly “dead” as Rick Perryʼs transportation department announced last year. On February 1, 2010, in a Joint Senate and House Transportation Committee hearing, Senator John Carona directly asked TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz if TxDOT decided tomorrow that it wants to build the Trans Texas Corridor after all, does it still have the statutory authority to do so? Saenz answered: “Yes.” Watch it here.

At a Transportation Commission work session on August 26, 2009 (scroll down to the end of the transcript), Commissioner Ned Holmes essentially asked that the master development plan CDA for TTC-69 be expedited. For TTC-35, they’re planning to advance a “no build” alternative at this time. Such a move is UNPRECEDENTED. If a project is killed, all they have to do is send a letter to the Federal Highway Administration to notify them they’re withdrawing the project. End of story.

Instead, they’re seeking a Record of Decision on the “no action” alternative. Once they get a Record of Decision from the Federal Highway Administration, the law allows them to change their preferred “alternative” at any time. So if Perry is re-elected, he could easily change back to a “build” alternative and they’re in business. In addition, Ports to Plains and La Entrada de Pacifico are two TTC corridors moving forward unabated.

Tolling existing freeways legal or not?

Thereʼs also questions about whether or not it is legal to convert free highway lanes into toll lanes in the state of Texas, despite Governor Rick Perryʼs claim that it is illegal during the January 29 Republican gubernatorial debate. In an article in the Dallas Morning News February 1, TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott stated:

“ʼThe department has made it clear that we have no interest in tolling existing lanes,ʼ Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Chris Lippincott said this afternoon, when told of the Obama budget provision. ʻWhether we are prohibited from doing so in federal law is irrelevant,ʼ he said.

The article goes on to say…

“And it wouldn’t be easy, even if the state’s Transportation Commission didn’t have a policy in place that effectively abides by the moratorium. To turn a freeway (or even a single lane of existing roadway) into a toll road, TEXDOT would need a waiver from the Federal Highway Administration. These are granted only rarely. Then, state law requires approval from the county commissioners and then from a county’s voters.”

Terri Hall, Founder of Texas TURF counters, “Not only is TxDOT planning to toll existing lanes, they’re lying about it. The feds are not only aware of the plans for US 281 in San Antonio in particular, it had already granted clearance until we sued to stop them. So rare or not, the feds granted it.”

Perry’s greatest fib of the January 29 debate was his insistence that the Texas legislature passed a bill in 2005 prohibiting the conversion of free lanes to toll lanes. However, the bill, HB 2702, tells precisely how TxDOT can LEGALLY convert existing highway lanes into toll lanes through 6 exceptions, one that allows a conversion of free lanes by simply downgrading the free lanes to access roads adjacent to the tollway.

Though the language doesnʼt specifically use the term “access roads” to refer to the relocating of free lanes adjacent to the tollway, TxDOT has consistently interpreted the law to mean it has the authority to downgrade freeway lanes to access roads without triggering a public vote based on HB 2702. See the two-part discussion of this law before the Sunset Commission in 2008 here and here. Part-two shows TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz stating TxDOTʼs interpretation of HB 2702 allows highway lanes to be downgraded to access roads.

The bill also contains a gaping grandfather clause that exempts virtually all the toll projects currently on the table (because they were designated as toll roads in MPO plans prior to September of 2005), so no public vote would be triggered for the dozens of grandfathered toll projects.

“Perry’s elitist ʻyou can eat cakeʼ attitude is this: if you can’t afford the toll lanes, you can sit in congestion on the stop-light ridden access roads. He thinks replacing free highway lanes with access roads is acceptable and his highway department is doing it all over Texas,” says Hall.

The citizensʼ fight to stop the conversion of existing FREEway lanes into toll lanes on US 281 and Loop 1604 in San Antonio, 290 West in Austin, and Hwy 59 in East Texas (part of Trans Texas Corridor TTC-69 thatʼs still alive and well), has languished precisely because of the loopholes in HB 2702.

TURF worked 24/7 in the last session to fix these loopholes. Rep. David Leibowitz of San Antonio introduced a bill to do so and got it attached to the TxDOT sunset bill (but it was stripped in the Senate).

“Texans deserve protection from the DOUBLE TAXATION of converting freeways into tollways. Perry was dead wrong to imply Texans are protected in state law. Theyʼre not, especially for the exempted Trans Texas Corridors, like TTC-69, that will ʻupgradeʼ existing freeways (like Hwy 59) into tollways at the hands of foreign companies,” Hall emphasized.

See detailed proof of the freeway to tollway conversion plans for US 281 on this web site: http://www.281overpassesnow.com.

Portion of HB 2702 that addresses converting existing highways into toll roads –

SECTION 2.36. Chapter 228, Transportation Code, is amended by adding Subchapter E to read as follows: SUBCHAPTER E. LIMITATION ON TOLL FACILITY DETERMINATION; CONVERSION OF NONTOLLED STATE HIGHWAY Sec. 228.201. LIMITATION ON TOLL FACILITY DESIGNATION. Except as provided by Section 228.2015, the department may not operate a nontolled state highway or a segment of a nontolled state highway as a toll project, and may not transfer a highway or segment to another entity for operation as a toll project, unless: (1) the commission by order designated the highway or segment as a toll project before the contract to construct the highway or segment was awarded; (2) the highway or segment was open to traffic as a turnpike project on or before September 1, 2005; (3) the project was designated as a toll project in a plan or program of a metropolitan planning organization on or before September 1, 2005; (4) the highway or segment is reconstructed so that the number of nontolled lanes on the highway or segment is greater than or equal to the number in existence before the reconstruction; (5) a facility is constructed adjacent to the highway or segment so that the number of nontolled lanes on the converted highway or segment and the adjacent facility together is greater than or equal to the number in existence on the converted highway or segment before the conversion; or (6) the commission converts the highway or segment to a toll facility by: (A) making the determination required by Section 228.202; (B) conducting the hearing required by Section 228.203; and (C) obtaining county and voter approval as required by Sections 228.207 and 228.208.

Sec. 228.2015. LIMITATION TRANSITION. (a) Notwithstanding Section 228.201, the department may operate a nontolled state highway or a segment of a nontolled state highway as a toll project if: (1) a construction contract was awarded for the highway or segment before September 1, 2005; (2) the highway or segment had not at any time before September 1, 2005, been open to traffic; and (3) the commission designated the highway or segment as a toll project before the earlier of: (A) the date the highway or segment is opened to traffic; or (B) September 1, 2005. (b) This section expires September 1, 2006.

SECTION 2.37. Section 362.0041, Transportation Code, is transferred to Subchapter E, Chapter 228, Transportation Code, redesignated as Sections 228.202-228.208, and amended to read as follows: Sec. 228.202 [362.0041 ]. COMMISSION DETERMINATION [CONVERSION OF PROJECTS ]. The [(a) Except as provided in Subsections (d) and (g), the ] commission may by order convert a nontolled state highway or a segment of a nontolled state highway [the free state highway system ] to a toll project [facility ] if it determines that the conversion will improve overall mobility in the region or is the most feasible and economic means to accomplish necessary expansion, improvements, or extensions to that segment of the state highway system.

Sec. 228.203. PUBLIC HEARING. [(b) ] Prior to converting a state highway or a segment of a[the ] state highway [ system ] under this subchapter [section ], the commission shall conduct a public hearing for the purpose of receiving comments from interested

persons concerning the proposed conversion [transfer ]. Notice of the hearing shall be published in the Texas Register, one or more newspapers of general circulation, and a newspaper, if any, published in the county or counties in which the involved highway is located. Sec. 228.204. RULES. [(c) ] The commission shall adopt rules implementing this subchapter [section ], including criteria and guidelines for the approval of a conversion of a highway. Sec. 228.205. QUEEN ISABELLA CAUSEWAY. [(d) ] The commission may not convert the Queen Isabella Causeway in Cameron County to a toll project [facility ].

Sec. 228.206. TOLL REVENUE. [(e) Subchapter G, Chapter 361, applies to a highway converted to a toll facility under this section. [(f) ] Toll revenue collected under this section: (1) shall be deposited in the state highway fund;

(2) may be used by the department to finance the improvement, extension, expansion, or operation of the converted segment of highway and may not be collected except for those purposes; and (3) is exempt from the application of Section 403.095, Government Code.

Sec. 228.207. COUNTY AND VOTER APPROVAL. [(g) ] The commission may only convert a state highway or a segment of a[the ] state highway [ system ] under this subchapter [section ] if the conversion is approved by : (1) the commissioners court of each county within which the highway or segment is located ; and (2) the qualified voters who vote in an election under Section 228.208 and who reside in the limits of: (A) a county if any part of the highway or segment to be converted is located in an unincorporated area of the county; or (B) a municipality in which the highway or segment to be converted is wholly located .

Sec. 228.208. ELECTION TO APPROVE CONVERSION. (a) If notified by the department of the proposed conversion of a highway or segment under this subchapter, and after approval of the conversion by the appropriate commissioners courts as required by Section 228.207(1), the commissioners court of each county described by Section 228.207(2)(A) or the governing body of a municipality described by Section 228.207(2)(B), as applicable, shall call an election for the approval or disapproval of the conversion. (b) If a county or municipality orders an election, the county or municipality shall publish notice of the election in a newspaper of general circulation published in the county or municipality at least once each week for three consecutive weeks, with the first publication occurring at least 21 days before the date of the election. (c) An order or resolution ordering an election and the election notice required by Subsection (b) must show, in addition to the requirements of the Election Code, the location of each polling place and the hours that the polls will be open. (d) The proposition submitted in the election must distinctly state the highway or segment proposed to be converted and the limits of that highway or segment. (e) At an election ordered under this section, the ballots shall be printed to permit voting for or against the proposition: “The conversion of (highway) from (beginning location) to (ending location) to a toll project.” (f) A proposed conversion is approved only if it is approved by a majority of the votes cast. (g) A notice of the election and a certified copy of the order canvassing the election results shall be sent to the commission.

© 2010 TURF: www.texasturf.org

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Monday, February 15, 2010

"It tells me that 20 percent like toll roads, but 80 percent don't like them."

Poll: Texas voters would cut highway funding first


Associated Press
Copyright 2010

Forty-one percent of Texas voters chose highway funding in a poll asking what they would cut to deal with a projected state budget shortfall as high as $16 billion next year.

About one in five surveyed in the poll said they would raise taxes or fees, and fewer said they would cut spending on education or health care for the poor.

The Feb. 2-10 telephone survey of 1,508 registered voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Blum & Weprin Associates Inc. conducted the poll for the Austin-American Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News.

Asked where to get money for roads, voters were even more ambivalent. Given five widely debated options, toll roads ranked the highest. Twenty-one percent of respondents chose that option.

"It tells me that 20 percent like toll roads, but 80 percent don't like them," said Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayer and Research Association, a nonpartisan research group.

The results come amid the high-profile Republican gubernatorial primary between Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Debra Medina is also in the race.

Perry has made transportation a high priority in his campaign leading to the March 2 vote, while Hutchison has been critical of toll roads, including a Perry-backed plan called the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Craymer said the poll shows that in times of budgetary duress, concrete-and-steel projects that are costly and take years to complete are the first to go in the minds of voters.

"It's not so much an indicator that people are willing to tolerate the traffic as much as it is recognition about the cost of fixing it," Craymer said. "You can throw billions at the problem and not make a dent."

While 38 percent of Texas voters said illegal immigrants should be deported, a combined majority picked two options that would allow them to stay. A path to citizenship was favored by 29 percent of voters, and 23 percent said they support giving immigrants work visas.

"There is a plurality for deporting them and the path to citizenship is not wildly popular in the state except among a few groups — minorities and the young," said the pollster, Mickey Blum.

The economy and jobs was a prevalent worry for many of those interviewed, especially coupled with the looming state deficit.

Most said they believed offering incentives for businesses to move to Texas was the best way to create jobs. Only 16 percent said the state should spend money on public projects as a way to put Texans back to work.

© 2010 Dallas Morning News: www.dallasnews.com

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Sunday, February 14, 2010

"TxDOT last year set a record when it awarded $9.4 billion in contracts, and it has about $4.5 million available annually this year and next..."

This TxDOT idea might make too much sense to happen


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2010

Scan the Texas State Directory and you won't see very many engineers among the 181 members of the Legislature. There are five, to be exact.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, 65, a Republican now in his fourth year representing Jacksonville , is on that short list. And that helps explain why his legislative style sometimes comes off as quirky in the insular world of the Capitol. Nichols seems to have this crazy idea that if there's a problem and you find a rational solution to it, well, then maybe that ought to become the law.

Take the looming fiscal train wreck for transportation.

The Texas Department of Transportation last year set a record when it awarded $9.4 billion in contracts, and it has about $4.5 million available annually this year and next, still a healthy amount historically. But then comes trouble, with the department pretty much borrowed out (facing close to a billion dollars in annual debt payments) and the federal stimulus largesse gone.

The rhetorical response to that from most legislators (and gubernatorial candidates, both incumbent and challengers) has been along these lines: Don't raise the gas tax, don't build too many toll roads and don't let the private sector get involved much (Gov. Rick Perry's views on those last two are a conspicuous exception). Instead, most Texas politicians say, let's cut waste at TxDOT (always a handy and safely vague suggestion) and end the "diversion" of gas taxes and vehicle registration fees from transportation to the state's general spending.

Problem is, no one can really put a dollar figure on that presumed TxDOT waste. And even throwing into the transportation kitty the remaining $1.2 billion of diversions every two years would make only a tiny dent in what's needed to stem urban traffic congestion, maintain existing roads and fulfill ambitious high-speed and urban rail plans.

Enter Nichols.

At a recent joint hearing of the House and Senate transportation committees, Nichols had a suggestion. The state's 6.25 percent sales tax on vehicle sales generates almost $3 billion a year , money that now goes to general state spending. You could call it a diversion as well. Why don't we put that money into transportation, Nichols asked.

"I'd be willing to run with it, if you think it's a good idea," Nichols said.

Metaphorically speaking, you could hear the crickets chirping at that point.

The problem is that the rest of state government has its own money problems, too. That $6 billion every two years would blow a big hole in the overall budget, one that might have to be filled with higher taxes or fees. Yet, can anyone really argue that selling a F-150 pickup has anything to do with education, or prisons, or social services?

But what does Nichols know? He's only an engineer.

For questions, tips or story ideas, contact Getting There at 445-3698 or bwear@statesman.com.

© 2010 Austin American-Statesman: www.statesman.com

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"Killing it [The Trans Texas Corridor] 'once and for all' has become a battle cry for Perry's opponents on both sides of the aisle."

Transportation strategies mapped out


By Josh Baugh
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2010

Eight years ago, Gov. Rick Perry unveiled a plan for a 4,000-mile network of transportation corridors that he said would cut air pollution and unclog roadways in a state once known for its superior highway system.

Composed of toll roads, rail and utility lines, the Trans-Texas Corridor was supposed to cut 1,200-foot-wide swaths through private property across the state, costing $175 billion to build over a half-century. It became one of Perry's most ambitious and important political issues.

Now, as Perry seeks an unprecedented third term as governor, it's his biggest liability.

After waging war for years against the plan and its would-be agents — Perry and the Texas Department of Transportation — outraged activists brought the Trans-Texas Corridor to its knees. During a recently televised GOP gubernatorial debate, Perry said his plans for the corridor are dead.

But it still does exist, if only in state law.

Killing it “once and for all” has become a battle cry for Perry's opponents on both sides of the aisle.

Republican challengers Debra Medina and Kay Bailey Hutchison and Democratic hopefuls Bill White and Farouk Shami have said they would repeal the provisions in state law that give TxDOT the ability to build the Trans-Texas Corridor.

“The whole philosophy of the Trans-Texas Corridor is still alive and well,” Hutchison said during the same debate that Perry declared the plan dead. “TxDOT says to local officials, ‘You have to have a toll road if you want state money.' That's how they're dolling out state money.”

Perry defends his support for the plan.

“I don't think it was a mistake at all to have a vision of how to move people and produce safely and expeditiously in the state of Texas,” he said during the debate. “Unfortunately, for too many years we had legislatures and governors who kicked the can down the road, if you will, and Texas highways became congested.”

Funding debate

Perry's idea was to negotiate “exclusive development agreements” with private-sector companies to build and operate toll roads.

Proponents say it's a way to finance the construction of much-needed infrastructure when the state can't afford it. Opponents say it's the most expensive way to build roads, and that it's merely selling off the state's infrastructure to the highest bidder.

Those deals, generally known now as “comprehensive development agreements,” or CDAs, have a tenuous future. The authority to use one kind of CDA expired last year, and another is set to expire in 2011.

Perry unsuccessfully sought to extend CDA authority during a special legislative session in July, when TxDOT officials said they're a necessary financing tool for building new roads.

Hutchison said public-private partnerships have a place in highway construction. But she opposes how they've been structured in the past, saying they take local governments' rights to improve nearby freeways or increase speed limits on those roads.

“I think toll roads have a place,” Hutchison said. “I think they have been vastly overused, and with a heavy hand in Gov. Perry's nine years, with his appointees to the highway commission. Toll roads with local initiative, as we have in Houston, I think can be productive.”

In her transportation policy, Hutchison also calls for giving communities the right to choose whether they want toll roads, and for developing high-speed commuter rail service in Texas.

Perry's campaign has attacked Hutchison's transportation policy as lacking a way to pay for her plan.

Mark Miner, Perry's spokesman, said the governor's plan is TxDOT's.

“TxDOT is implementing a plan that it is paying for, and you're not going to see the governor come out there with a transportation plan just to get through an election,” Miner said. “He has TxDOT, they're implementing a plan, and it's working.”

Miner said the governor worked to end diversions from the gas tax during the 2009 Legislature, returning $300 million back to the highway coffers. The state has road priorities, he said, and Perry is addressing them.

“Texas has built more roadways than any other state. And (Perry) also realizes and understands that more work needs to be done to meet our infrastructure needs,” Miner said.

TxDOT has said that by 2012, the agency will have no money for new roads, and within two to three years, its maintenance budget won't be enough to maintain Texas' existing roadway network. But some officials have speculated that TxDOT's doomsday projections have been inflated to underscore the need for Perry's push for privatized toll roads.

Recently, some leaders have called for increasing and indexing the state gas tax, which hasn't been adjusted since 1991.

However, some lawmakers have questioned whether TxDOT actually is in the dire straits it claims, or if the agency has exaggerated its dim future to underscore the need for more privatized toll roads.

Hutchison and Medina question the validity of TxDOT's claims, saying the agency lacks transparency and public trust.

“My first priority is going to be to restore the integrity of TxDOT, and I want an audit of TxDOT,” Hutchison said.

Medina, a conservative activist from Wharton, said she wants to stop sending federal gas tax collected at Texas pumps to Washington, D.C.

Cash for roads

In 2008, when Texas received its 2006 gas tax revenue from the federal government, it got 82.2 cents for every dollar sent, and 8.5 cents of that is dedicated to mass transit.

Medina said she would address Texas' shortfall in road-construction funds — if there is one — by keeping Texas' gas tax dollars in the state.

“The fuel tax dollars flow through the comptroller's office,” Medina said. “I think they ought to stop in the comptroller's office. I don't think they ought to go to Washington, D.C., and I think we ought to be prepared to take that fight.”

She also said she would reprogram the transit funds to highway construction and accused Hutchison's transportation plan — with its multimodal focus — of being similar to Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor.

In the Democratic primary, former Houston Mayor Bill White said he would phase out diversions from the gas tax. He also wants to decentralize TxDOT and give more planning authority to TxDOT's district offices, along with local governments.

White wants to end the use of public-private partnerships for building big highway projects. He's not outright against tolling, though he said he's against TxDOT imposing tolls on communities that don't want them.

“I think each local community should decide on its own what kind of financing they want,” he said.

Hair-product magnate Farouk Shami is the only candidate campaigning on increasing and indexing the state's gas tax. It's a far more affordable way to build roads than by tolling them, according to his campaign.

He also advocates restructuring the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT. Currently, the governor appoints the five-member panel. Shami has suggested that it would function better if it were a 14-member elected board.

Hutchison also advocates growing the size of the commission, though she would retain her ability to appoint members.

© 2010 San Antonio Express-News: www.mysanantonio.com

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE