"There is a business case to be made. But there is a political element to this too..."
NTTA: No toll planned for Highway 161 stretch
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER The Dallas Morning News Copyright 2010
North Texas Tollway Authority Chairman Victor Vandergriff says his agency will not seek permission to charge tolls on a segment of free highway in Irving, as a plan floated Thursday by NTTA Executive Director Allen Clemson had suggested.
"There is no support for that," Vandergriff said late Thursday night. "It is not on our legislative agenda and hasn't been brought to the board. It will not happen."
Just hours before, Clemson had told members of a subcommittee of the Regional Transportation Council about discussions with state transportation officials about a three-mile non-tolled stretch of State Highway 161 in Irving.
The segment was built years ago as a four-lane free highway but now connects to newer toll roads at both its northern and southern ends. Traffic exiting the six-lane President George Bush Turnpike often stalls as it enters the free portion of Highway 161, Clemson had explained.
After three miles of the free four-lane road, traffic moves onto the NTTA's new Highway 161 toll road.
Adding tolls to the middle, free segment would allow the NTTA to expand and rebuild that segment more quickly than the Texas Department of Transportation has promised to do so and would enable the NTTA to cover the $75 million in construction costs that the Transportation Department will otherwise have to spend.
But the mere discussion of such a plan, one that would require legislative approval, promised to be controversial.
When asked about it Thursday, Gov. Rick Perry said he is dead set against creating an exception for the NTTA to toll the existing free highway.
Having just returned from Austin late Thursday night, Vandergriff said he became aware of the proposal only through reports of that afternoon's RTC meeting. He called The Dallas Morning News to say Clemson had acted prematurely and the board would not support the idea.
"Allen was looking at this issue from the perspective of making a business case" for tolling the free segment, Vandergriff said. "And there is a business case to be made. But there is a political element to this too, and the board simply was not aware that this was being brought forward.
“We want these RMAs to go away. They're a big waste of money and a second-tier bureaucracy.”
Transit agency given loan extension
By Josh Baugh San Antonio Express-News Copyright 2010
The City Council on Thursday agreed to give the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority — the agency that would build toll roads in San Antonio — another year to make good on a $500,000 loan that it can't afford to repay.
Toll-road opponents, including members of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, decried the move, saying it was essentially a vote in support of toll roads.
TURF founder Terri Hall, who wasn't at the meeting, said extending the term of the five-year-old loan allows the RMA to continue to exist. She and her group are lobbying state lawmakers to repeal the law that allows regional mobility authorities to exist.
“We want these RMAs to go away,” she said. “They're a big waste of money and a second-tier bureaucracy.”
Last month, City Manager Sheryl Sculley sent a letter to RMA Executive Director Terry Brechtel asking the agency to make good on its $500,000 loan — plus interest — that was due Sept. 1. The RMA now owes $582,814.
About a week later, Brechtel sent Sculley a written response requesting an indefinite extension because the RMA has no revenue stream. Regional mobility authorities typically use toll revenue to cover their operating expenses.
“The original intent behind the loan from the City to the RMA was to provide funds ‘until such time as the Alamo RMA can obtain sufficient revenues to fund its own operations internally,'” Brechtel wrote. “At the current time, this is not possible.”
The council decided to extend the loan, but not indefinitely. It'll come due in September 2011.
Councilman Reed Williams, who has opposed toll roads, said the RMA's request wasn't unreasonable.
“I don't really think this is about tolling or no tolling,” he said of the loan extension. “This is about a bigger issue.”
Williams said he expects “the transportation structure in Texas will be radically changed in the next year,” which will give some time to find some clarity around funding issues.
The RMA also has $750,000 in loans from the county, which have compounded with interest to $883,268. Those loans, however, don't have a maturity date.
The RMA's funding comes largely from grants and loans from the Texas Department of Transportation. It's yet to build a toll project, which would produce a revenue stream, and is currently working on a couple of non-toll projects, including the superstreet on U.S. 281 and a partial interchange at Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 on the city's far North Side.
Brechtel defended the value of the RMA, saying it can use methods other agencies can't.
“We use a design-build tool that other agencies don't have available to them to advance the projects,” she said. “The best example I can think of is the interchange. We had a budget of $140 million, and through our design-build process, the interchange is being delivered to this community for $130 million.”
Anything is possible. Colllin County is advertising for companies interested in developing and tolling a portion of the Outer Loop project across the county's northern tier. It would be a CDA (comprehensive development agreement), the likes of which the Spanish company Cintra almost had to build and toll SH 121 in Collin and Denton counties.
Here's the irony: Some of the roughest criticism of the Cintra deal three years ago came from Collin County. The argument was that the region should "keep the toll revenue here" by steering the deal to NTTA and not "let it go to Spain" under a long-term tolling deal. NTTA won, Spanish lost. It was a rough fight that spilled into the Legislature in Austin.
Now, acting as the Collin County Toll Road Authority, county commissioners have out a request for qualifications on the Outer Loop project. It was approved in August, and preliminary expressions of interest are due today.
It would be a surprise if any big international outfit got in on the loop at this stage of the game. The deal initially would call for building a three-lane road stretching 14 miles west of US 75. That's a lot of work to draw toll revenue for only three lanes initially.
But maybe there's a game-changer in dishing off development rights of some kind.
Today, the political spin is not keeping the money from Spain; it's keeping the money from getting away to Austin or to NTTA's Southwest Parkway project in Tarrant County.
What's worse -- letting money get away to Fort Worth or to foreigners? Or is that the same thing in this side of North Texas?
Another irony: Cintra and a host of other investors make up groups now developing the LBJ project in Dallas County and the North Tarrant Express project to the west. (See the LBJ Express page on Facebook.)
Stay tuned. The Outer Loop adventure sets Collin County on a collision course with NTTA's well-connected supporters in a battle in the Legislature next year over who has rights to any new toll road.
“These people are calling us unpatriotic, scum of the earth...I’d say over 90 percent have cussed me out.”
Oklahoma draws ire for toll-road policy that would bill McKinney soldier's funeral procession
By NOAH BUNN The Dallas Morning News Copyright 2010
On Saturday, the 300-car funeral procession for Cody A. Board will make its way over the Oklahoma prairie to the 19-year-old McKinney soldier’s gravesite. The procession will cover 50 miles of tollway and rack up a bill of nearly $400.
That toll tab, usually passed along to families, has sparked an outcry in Texas and elsewhere. It’s prompted one Oklahoma legislator to vow to seek a change in the state’s policy.
In the meantime, Oklahoma Turnpike Authority officials promised to pick up the tab for Board’s funeral procession — but not before the agency’s spokesman, Doug Damrill, fielded more than 150 angry calls in the wake of media reports about the toll policy.
“These people are calling us unpatriotic, scum of the earth,” he said. “I’d say over 90 percent have cussed me out.”
Damrill said the authority’s hands are tied by Oklahoma statutes and the agency’s agreement with its bondholders. Under the rules, tolls can only be waived for emergency vehicles and state troopers.
The authority’s practice is to bill funeral homes directly for tolls incurred by funeral processions. Those costs are then typically passed along to families.
Board, a first class private in the Army, was a 2009 graduate of McKinney North High School. He was killed Oct. 4 in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device. His body was returned from Afghanistan this week. He’s being buried with military honors at Fort Sill National Cemetery in Elgin, Okla.
Mike Lambert, a representative of the Patriot Guard, a motorcycle group that provides funeral escorts for fallen soldiers, was one who took exception to the Oklahoma toll policy. He acknowledged that his e-mail plea for support spread beyond its intended audience.
“When this got put on the Internet, it got away from the Patriot Guard,” he said. “That’s when the weirdos jumped on it.”
Lambert said Oklahoma Rep. Mike Reynolds called him this morning to offer support. He said the Republican lawmaker promised to help find a solution — possibly using special toll tags and a fund that would cover the cost of tolls for funeral processions.
Damrill, the turnpike authority spokesman, said the state’s toll roads carry about 10 processions a year.
“The average, car-wise, is 25 or 30,” he said. Board’s funeral procession, on the other hand, is expected to include about 300 vehicles, “so this is very unusual.”
Lambert said he was pleased with the turnpike authority’s responsiveness in the case of Board. But he hopes that permanent policy changes are made.
“They know now for sure that this touches a nerve all over the United States,” he said.
A memorial service for Board will be at 9 a.m. Saturday at Our Savior Lutheran Church in McKinney. Graveside military services will follow at 3:30 p.m. at Fort Sill.
Hall: "The idea of overturning the law the people fought so hard to put in place is an affront to taxpayers."
NTTA plans to toll stretch of State Highway 161 in Irving
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER The Dallas Morning News Copyright 2010
Under a plan floated this week by the North Texas Tollway Authority,a three-mile stretch of free highway in Irving could soon be tolled, if lawmakers agree to make an exception to state law that bars tolls on existing free highways.
The short segment of State Highway 161 in question was built with tax dollars years ago, but it now connects to President George Bush Turnpike to the north and to the Highway 161 toll lanes to its south. Traffic backs up as it leaves the Bush Turnpike, and the state has promised to widen and reconstruct the segment.
To speed up those improvements, NTTA is offering to pay for the reconstruction itself, if the Legislature will change the law to allow it to toll the segment.
The proposal will be met with opposition from at least one fixture in the Capitol, however.
"They can't do that," Gov. Rick Perry said in an interview Thursday. Perry said he'll speak against any change to state law to allow NTTA to do so. "They better find a way to get around me."
NTTA executive director Alan Clemson said there is at least one other small stretch of road in North Texas that could be a candidate for a similar conversion, though it isn't posing the problems NTTA is encountering with the 161 segment. Still, any legislative change NTTA seeks would probably give it flexibility to address similar roads in the future, he said.
State law currently sets firm guidelines for how existing roads can be converted to tolled lanes, and the process is a lengthy one involving approval by county officials, voter approval and more.
Doing so would also require the Regional Transportation Council to amend its long-standing rules, said Michael Morris, staff director for the council.
"I don't think this is a good idea," Morris said.
He said that regardless of whether the changes make sense, the public reaction, and that of the Legislature, would probably be negative.
"We could be looking at Trans Texas Corridor-like reaction here," he said.
But others say the idea makes sense, given that the three-mile stretch is sandwiched between two toll roads. Dallas City Council member Ron Natinsky, chairman of the RTC, said the idea was worth pursuing with lawmakers for two reasons.
"First, it costs us nothing to take it up with the legislators. We might as well ask," said Natinsky, who represents Far North Dallas.
Besides, he said, the Highway 161 segment could be a good candidate for an exception to the state law. It was built ahead of the toll roads to ease congestion near Irving, but area planners always anticipated that the roads to its north and south would be tolled.
"I don't think we want to be in a position where we are being punished for doing a good deed," Natinsky said. "We don't want to build a road to address the needs that are out there, and then find our hands cuffed."
Even so, Morris said he's concerned that if public outcry to the idea is sufficient, it could prompt a renewed backlash against toll roads in general. That, in turn, could derail the region's efforts to persuade lawmakers to restore legal authority to the state to enter into long-term contracts with private firms who agree to build, finance and maintain toll roads.
That's a well-founded fear, judging by the reaction from one of the state's most vocal toll road opponents, Terri Hall of the San Antonio-based advocacy group Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.
"There's a reason why converting existing freeways into toll roads started a massive taxpayer revolt across Texas: It's a double tax, like asking taxpayers to buy back what's already theirs," Hall said. "That's why existing law prohibits such action. Even uttering the idea of overturning the law the people fought so hard to put in place is an affront to taxpayers."
Clemson said discussions are ongoing and noted that his agency is simply making a proposal that would relieve TxDOT and the region of at least $75 million in expense.
Spokesman Chris Lippincott of the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin declined to say whether the agency would agree to swap responsibility for the segment if legal obstacles were cleared.
"We don't have any comment on this proposal," Lippincott said. "We do not negotiate with our transportation partners through the newspaper."
By Jack Linden The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise Copyright 2010
There are some Texans who are wondering how many governors they have. There is some concern as to whether the current governor is only one person or several.
Even though he is running for governor on the Republican ticket, he is campaigning like he is running for a national office. During the primary campaign, he lambasted his Republican opponent, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, for her big spending and following the will of the party. He chastised her for bringing federal money to Texas. Prior to the onset of the primary election campaign, he lauded the Senator for all the good that she had done.
In his current campaign, he is espousing the virtues of the Texas educational system. Last year, facing a budget deficit, he accepted over $3 billion of federal stimulus money designated for education. Did he use it for that purpose? No, he did not; instead he used the money to balance the budget. This year, he has refused federal money for education claiming that Texans know best how to educate their children.
The federal money rejected had the stipulation in the finance bill that the money was not to supplant the money from the state but rather to supplement the state education budget. By not applying for the money and signing as stipulated, he is defying all the major school districts in the state begging for more money.
The current governor talks incessantly about how well Texans look after Texans. No federal money he claims. All we need to examine is the amount of federal money that came to the state in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Federal money was used to supplement the funds expended by the state. Again, he accepted federal dollars but is still continuing to criticize the federal budget and “pork.”
Even while he is condemning “pork,” he has asked the Federal Emergency Management Administration for $7 million to give aid to 13 counties who recently suffered flood damage. Is it not logical that if he believes that Texans take care of Texans, he would use some of the “rainy day fund” that he brags about to help those poor souls?
He has certainly learned a lesson from the half-term governor of Alaska. Remember the money for the “bridge to nowhere.” She claimed she did not take the money for the bridge. She did take the same amount of money and used it for a highway. The Texas governor has learned well.
The governor talks about the need for local control and for the government to stay out of the lives of everyday citizens. How can we possibly believe him?
He is the one who was advocating government control of over 600,000 acres of Texas land for his Trans-Texas Corridor. Only after a large revolt among the people and the state legislature did he withdraw his plan. That plan also included the awarding of foreign contractors part of the income from the building and, maintenance of, and fees for the road. Is this a man who believes in getting the government off our back and keeping Texas for Texans?
There is much about this governor that we do not know. While demanding that his opponent reveal his income tax returns, he maintains a “blind trust” of his finances. We know he keeps two schedules of his daily activities, one for the Governorship and one for his personal schedule. We know he has control over two major sources of money intended to bring businesses to Texas. We do not know how those spending decisions are made.
Overall, we would like to know how many governors we have. Is there one or many? Is there one that talks about small government and another that talks about increasing the size of the governor’s office? Some of us would really like to know the answer.
Jack Linden is a retired history professor and a contributor to the Gazette Enterprise editorial page.
Texans' gas taxes bankroll Rick Perry's self-promotion, foreign travel, and body guards
$1 million for Perrys' security over 7 years
By PEGGY FIKAC AUSTIN BUREAU Houston Chronicle Copyright 2010
AUSTIN — Taxpayers spent close to $1 million in security costs for 23 foreign trips by GOP Gov. Rick Perry and his wife over seven years, according to records obtained under the Public Information Act by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News.
The actual security tab for 2004-2010 is higher than the $928,477.71 listed in records provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which includes the Executive Protection Bureau, for trips made by the Perrys, together or separately.
The security cost for five additional foreign trips made in 2006-2007 by Perry or his wife, Anita, could not be obtained. DPS said it routinely destroys travel records after three years. Expenses for older trips included in the tally previously had been obtained by the Chronicle and Express-News.
The newspapers submitted their latest request for information on trip expenses Aug. 23, but did not receive the records until Wednesday.
The state does not pay for many of the governor's direct travel costs. The cost of the security detail, however, is paid primarily from the state highway fund, which is fueled by the state gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees.
Perry, Texas' longest-serving governor, has made far more foreign trips than his predecessors. Former governors George W. Bush and the late Ann Richards traveled to Mexico. Bush also made a much noted trip to Israel, preceded by a stop in Italy, before launching his presidential campaign.
Political analysts said it is not unusual for governors to travel outside the country, particularly for economic development. Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said it is an important part of the job. Security details, however, are a "relatively new thing," Jillson said.
"There are lots of Texans who are suffering economic hardships. The state budget is out of whack. One way that a governor might show a sensitivity to this and awareness of it, and a determination to resolve it, is to pull in the purse-strings a little bit on his own staff and his own travel budget and the size of his security detail," Jillson said.
Bill White attacks
Democratic candidate for governor Bill White's campaign has zeroed in on Perry's travel as part of its storyline that Perry is a part-time governor who does not spend enough time attending to Texas' business.
"He's broken records for foreign travel. The question is, what are we really getting out of this? What's in it for taxpayers? Rick Perry likes to fly around the country and fly around the world promoting himself," White spokeswoman Katy Bacon said.
Perry's deputy chief of staff, Kathy Walt, said the value of the travel is clear.
"Texas jobs depend on selling Texas-made goods and services to the world. It makes good business sense for state and local government and business leaders to travel to foreign markets in an effort to further expand business opportunity and create more jobs in Texas," Walt said
She call Anita Perry a "strong ambassador for the state."
Where they have traveled
University of Texas at Austin political scientist Bruce Buchanan did not see a major issue for Perry in the matter, particularly since most of the trips were for economic development.
"The governor can't be expected to avoid all trips that might require some security coverage just because he's governor," Buchanan said. "Bottom line, this particular category does not look to me like a major violation of any kind of ethical code."
The Perrys have traveled together to the Bahamas, Italy, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, Grand Cayman, Israel twice - once in conjunction with a trip to Jordan - France and Sweden, and China.
Perry also has traveled to Mexico five times, Iraq three times, Afghanistan, Turkey, and to Taiwan and Korea in conjunction with the China trip. Mrs. Perry has traveled to England three times, once in conjunction with a trip to Slovakia, Mexico, Japan twice, Germany twice, Malta, Italy and France, the Czech Republic, Azerbaijan (after France and Sweden with Perry), Canada, Spain, and Brazil and Argentina.
The governor's office cited several purposes for the trips, including business recruitment, promoting trade and investment, promoting Texas as a tourist destination or attending official functions, such as Mexican presidential inauguration activities. Most trips fell into such categories.
The 2006 Grand Cayman trip was a vacation; Perry went to Turkey for the Bilderberg conference; and he received awards and met with dignitaries on the two trips to Israel. The much-reported 2004 trip to the Bahamas with campaign donors was described as an "education policy retreat."
Not all details disclosed
Perry's trips to Iraq and Afghanistan were to visit troops. They did not carry state security costs because the secret service did the job, according to DPS.
The DPS releases security expense totals in broad categories, including base pay for officers, overtime, airfare, hotels, car rental and other ground transportation, and meals or other expenses.
Citing security concerns, DPS does not release travel vouchers with spending details or the number of officers on particular trips.
Hearst Newspapers and Cox Texas Newspapers have sued for access to the vouchers, saying they are public information and their release would not be a security threat. Lower courts have ruled for the newspapers and the case is before the Texas Supreme Court.
Direct expenses for Perry on the trips largely have been covered by his campaign or a non-profit corporation that gets funding from corporations, organizations and individuals and works with Perry's office to promote economic development. Other entities, such as the travel industry, another government or a company, sometimes pick up the tab. Walt said tourism co-operative fees, which she said are paid voluntarily by communities to promote themselves as travel destinations, mostly have paid for Mrs. Perry's tourism promotion travel.
Of some $340,246.79 in direct travel expenses for the Perrys, just $3,539.41 was paid by the state.
“Texas was working with us until five or six years ago when they said ‘no we want to building this new Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC)' "
Texas approval brings I-69 closer to reality
Written by Jim Potts Bossier Press-Tribune Thursday, 14 October 2010
Construction of the I-69 corridor looms closer as Texas transportation awareness groups, once opposed to construction of a similar highway, approve of the proposed national thoroughfare.
Once constructed, the I-69 Corridor will create a transportation artery from Canada to Mexico crossing through southern Texas and eastern Michigan. The preferred route for Bossier Parish takes the highway around Haughton, near the eastern edge of Barksdale Air Force Base and through the Port of Shreveport-Bossier continuing south through Mansfield. The corridor divides into 32 Segments of Independent Utilities (SIU) — 16 SIU’s are in Texas and require support from state officials before construction can begin.
“Texas was working with us until five or six years ago when they said ‘no we want to building this new Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC),’ something completely different and they were not interested in working with us anymore,” said Bossier City Mayor Lorenz “Lo” Walker. “When it went through a decision process, the people of Texas soundly rejected it. Now we must get them back into the fold because we cannot get an I-69 Corridor from Canada to Mexico without going through Texas.”
One of the progenitors of the TTC rejection was David Stall, co-founder of the Texas transportation advocacy group Corridor Watch. Stall said Texas legislators first approved the TTC, but rejected it after TTC plans revealed the superhighway was a massive, glorified toll road.
“[TTC] planners had put in place all new highway construction was for toll first. A lot of those things were rejected by the Texas legislature. There was not a public vote, but there was public outcry,” said Stall.
Stall said Corridor Watch opposed the TTC because the highway focused on revenue generating and not economic development. Stall also mentioned in pursuit to generate revenue TTC planners proposed seizing private property similar to railroad barons from the 1800’s. Stall also stated TTC developers did not go through a public process to let citizens decide if they wanted the highway.
“We never opposed I-69. That whole corridor from Brownsville to Laredo have been horribly underserved they do not have the quality of highway there that the rest of the state had let alone the rest of the nation,” said Stall. “We are a proponent for I-69, we are a proponent for it being built where there is a traffic demand for it and where communities want and need it.”
With Texans backing the new corridor only one other issue hampers plans for construction.
The preferred I-69 route cuts through the Louisiana State University Agriculture Center’s Pecan Research Station. LSU AgCenter officials believe the highway would destroy the research station.
“About two years ago, we began to get push back from this Pecan Research Center because we were destroying their research station. Our feelings were this had a minimal impact and it had already been coordinated,” said Walker.
Walker said LSU Ag Center officials asked to have the route of I-69 shifted three and a half miles from the preferred location.
“That is a very unwise thing to do because it will cost millions of millions more dollars and add several years to the process to get it approved,” said Walker.
Walker said the current route would cut through the old growth portions of the research center. As a form of a compromise Walker said the corridor coalition could vote to slightly shift the route to go through the new growth portions.
“We could build a wall there to help protect it and we would get land to replace the new trees that would be grown long before we ever start construction,” said Walker. “A few pecan trees are all that is holding this up.”
Walker will meet with LSU Ag Center officials Nov. 10 at the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development headquarters in Baton Rouge and see to see if they can come up with a compromise.
“Hopefully when we come out of that meeting in November we will have a satisfactory resolution to that,” said Walker.
"At some point, I think we need to test the idea with some legislators, and see if it’s going be an idea that will float."
Existing freeways could be tolled
October 14, 2010
Gordon Dickson Fort Worth Star-Telegram Copyright 2010
Tolls could someday be placed on portions of Texas 360 in south Arlington and Texas 161 in west Irving that are currently free.
The Regional Transportation Council by its own rules is not allowed to put tolls on existing free lanes. In many cases state and federal law prohibits the conversion of free lanes to toll lanes as well.
But members of the RTC, the Metroplex's federally-recognized official planning body, are weighing whether to go to Austin and ask for permission from state officials to convert a couple miles of freeway into toll roads on Texas 360 south of Interstate 20, and Texas 161 from Texas 183 to the President George Bush Turnpike.
"Would the public fully understand or would we lose the support we have now, in ... converting free lanes into toll lanes?" said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
Morris wanted to bring the issue up for debate, but cautioned that it may not be wise to ask legislators for permission to increase the use of toll roads in the region at a time when the state is dealing with straining issues such as an $18 billion budget shortfall, immigration and redistricting. One train of thought is to wait until the 2013 legislative session, instead of pushing the idea during the 2011 session that is scheduled to begin in January.
"As a staff person, I am very nervous," Morris said. "Maybe we can hold off on this, and maybe put it into another legislative session. It could be like the Trans Texas Corridor, where once the opposition started you couldn't have a conversation about it."
But Dallas Councilman Ron Natinsky said the idea merits further discussion.
"At some point, I think we need to test the idea with some legislators, and see if it’s going be an idea that will float," Natinsky said. "I think we need to do our homework on that."
On Texas 161, the North Texas Tollway Authority could remove the state of a $74 million commitment to rebuild a two- to three-mile section of the four-lane freeway and expand it to six lanes in exchange for the right to convert the road into a part of the Bush Turnpike, tollway authority executive director Allen Clemson told an RTC committee Thursday. That road is already bumpy -- a stark contrast from the smooth pavement on the adjacent turnpike -- and needs to be rebuilt by 2019, officials said.
On Texas 360, the need is further down the road, maybe 10 years or longer. But the tollway authority also is probing the possibility of converting a two- or three-mile portion of the nontoll road near Southeast Green Oaks Boulevard into a toll road. While that news may be unsettling for residents of south Arlington and Mansfield, the tollway authority is already responsible for planning a southern extension of Texas 360 into the Mansfield area, so the question is really just how far north should the tollway authority's jurisdiction be allowed to reach.
Red Light Camera firm ATS attempts to rig election referendum in Baytown, Texas
Texas: Traffic Camera Firm Boosts Anti-Referendum Spending American Traffic Solutions spends 125 percent more against camera referendum in Baytown, Texas than it in College Station.
theNewspaper.com Copyright 2010
Red light camera operator American Traffic Solutions (ATS) dramatically increased spending on an effort to thwart a November 2 referendum that would outlaw the use of photo enforcement in Baytown, Texas.
After losing a similar referendum vote in College Station last year, the company is not taking chances and has boosted spending on its front group, Safety Cameras for a Safer Baytown, by 125 percent over what was spent in College Station, a city of about equal size.
In its prior effort, ATS had used subcontractors and business associates to contribute a total of $71,240 to the Keep College Station Safe political action committee, which was run by the company.
This time, ATS has dropped the pretense of others being interested in supporting the use of red light cameras. ATS listed itself as the sole donor of $160,000 to the effort to save red light cameras in Baytown in a campaign disclosure document filed last week.
Before the November 2009 election, ATS was confident that by significantly outspending the shoestring-budget effort of residents opposed to cameras it would emerge victorious.
"In a scientific opinion survey conducted by a reputable Texas research firm, we learned that the overwhelming majority of registered voters in College Station support the use of red-light cameras in Aggieland," ATS General Counsel George Hittner boasted in an open letter to city residents a month before the vote. "Red-light camera opponents have garnered a lot of attention, but the fact remains that they are a vocal minority."
The vocal minority turned out to be an electoral majority. This time, the firm spent the majority of the cash, $137,657.01 on "legal services" -- primarily the unsuccessful effort to block the vote in court by labeling opponents of automated ticketing machines as racists. The rest of the cash went to accountants and the lobbying firm Begala McGrath. A total of $8,356.32 went to the Baytown Sun newspaper.
Early voting on Proposition 1 begins next Monday. A copy of the latest financial disclosure is available in a 650k PDF file at the source link below.
Texas DPS chief says drivers owe state $1.1 billion in surcharges.
Texas drivers with fines pending may owe less under amnesty
By Mike Ward American-Statesman Copyright 2010
Facing more than $1.1 billion in uncollected fines from errant Texas motorists who are driving illegally without licenses, state officials are poised to approve an amnesty program to try to get some of them legal again.
Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security on Wednesday that two changes expected to be approved soon will allow scofflaws to pay off their fines at big discounts.
Drivers who pay during an amnesty period starting in December could get off by paying 10 percent of their fine, up to $250, and drivers who can prove they are legally indigent can get a similar deal starting in April, officials said.
"There are $1.1 billion in surcharges that, at present, have not been paid," McCraw said. "If everyone paid under this plan, about $17 million would be collected."
At issue are more than 1.2 million Texas drivers in the Driver Responsibility Program, which the Legislature approved in 2004 as a way to toughen up enforcement of traffic laws and to curb drunken driving. It was passed into law as part of legislation concerning the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor project and has been the subject of complaints almost ever since.
Under the law, motorists who get caught driving drunk, without a license or without proper insurance can incur surcharges of up to $1,000 a year for up to three years, for a first offense, and $1,500 a year for three years for subsequent violations. If the surcharges are not paid, their licenses are suspended.
The Texas Public Safety Commission is expected to discuss and likely will approve the amnesty plans at an Oct. 22 meeting in Austin.
State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, a frequent critic of the program who tried unsuccessfully in 2009 to ease surcharges against economically disadvantaged drivers, said as many as one in nine drivers in El Paso owe unpaid surcharges — meaning they are driving without licenses.
Many drivers are forced to do so, he said, "because it's difficult to get to work if you can't drive." And if you can't work, you can't earn money to afford rent and other living expenses, he told the committee.
"When you have 10 percent of your work force in this program, that's a problem," Shapleigh said.
But Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said the "easiest way to stay out of it is to obey the law."
"The program doesn't work," Shapleigh responded. "The question is: How do we make it work?"
Witnesses told the committee Wednesday that instead of forcing drivers to comply with the state laws, it has triggered an increase in unlicensed drivers on Texas roads and forced prosecutors and judges to avoid convicting many drivers of driving while intoxicated, because it will trigger suspension of a driver's license.
McCraw said the state only has a 40 percent collection rate. Though 60 percent pay the surcharges, most of those are for smaller amounts related to traffic-ticket points and lesser offenses.
McCraw said other states are facing similar problems with similar license suspension programs, including New Jersey, which Texas used as a model for its law. New Jersey collects only 37 percent of the fines it levies, officials said.
Former Harris County Judge Mark Atkins told the committee that under state law, there are 22 ways to lose your driver's license in Texas in 101 sections of law.
"People are trying to find a way not to get a sentence for DWI and prosecutors and judges are using more pre-trial diversion programs," he told the committee.
Wednesday's hearing was the latest of three in recent months to explore the growing complaints and issues — from drivers, police, judges and prosecutors — concerning Texas' DWI enforcement laws.
Witnesses who testified at the earlier hearings have called for sweeping changes to streamline the laws, lowering or doing away with the surcharges, and enhancing diversion and treatment programs for first offenders. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo recently advocated consideration of a plan to create a lesser DWI offense to catch some drivers who are impaired behind the wheel but not legally drunk.
“Why should we, the taxpayers, forgive a loan to the Alamo RMA ... because they want to turn everything into a toll road?”
Having no toll roads, Alamo RMA seeks loan extension
By Jeorge Zarazua San Antonio Express -News Copyright 2010
Unable to earn money on its own, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority is asking the city of San Antonio for more time to repay a $500,000 loan it received five years ago.
And although City Manager Sheryl Sculley initially asked the RMA to settle the loan, which she said was due last month, city staff Thursday will ask the City Council to extend the term of repayment until Sept. 1, 2011.
“An alternative ... would require the City to seek repayment of the outstanding debt immediately creating a financial hardship on the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority as they are currently unable to repay the loan,” according to a document that Public Works Director Majed Al-Ghafry and Assistant City Manager Sharon De La Garza prepared for the council.
City administrators said interest on the loan would continue to accrue until it's paid off. But the RMA's inability to repay the loan underscores concerns that Terri Hall, founder of the anti-toll Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, said she has about the agency, which she argues was created solely to establish toll roads in Bexar County.
Hall said without toll roads, the RMA isn't able to earn the money it needs to pay off the city loan.
“Why should we, the taxpayers, forgive a loan to the RMA ... because they want to turn everything into a toll road?”Hall asked.
Late Tuesday, Hall sent out a notice to her supporters, encouraging them to contact the City Council and object to a loan extension, referring to it as “an RMA bailout.”
“A vote to extend is a vote FOR toll roads,” she wrote.
But Leroy Alloway, an RMA spokesman, rejected claims that his agency has failed to pay off the loan on time. Alloway said the loan is considered flexible.
In a letter from Terry Brechtel, executive director of the Alamo RMA, to Sculley, Brechtel said the original intent behind the loan was to provide the agency with funds “until such time as the Alamo RMA can obtain sufficient revenues to fund its own operations.”
“At the current time this is not possible,” Brechtel wrote.
The Alamo RMA had anticipated it would be collecting revenue from a toll road in Bexar County by now, according to Alloway. But, because of various setbacks and obstacles — including lawsuits that delayed construction on widening U.S. 281 near Loop 1604 — the agency has yet to collect any toll money.
Alloway said the purpose of a payment due date is so the loan cannot be indefinitely held if the agency has money. He also said the agency had asked for a longer extension.
“We do not anticipate having a revenue stream in place within a year,” Alloway wrote in an e-mail, adding that environmental impact studies are ongoing on U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 and that no determination had been made on how construction for the road improvement projects were to be financed.
Al-Ghafry said hopefully the RMA will be able to find other sources of funds to pay off the loan within a year.
Alloway said unless the Texas Legislature identifies additional revenue streams for the RMA, that's not going to happen.
City officials declined to discuss what would occur if the RMA failed to pay off the loan by Sept. 1, 1011.
“What happens after that is speculation,” Al-Ghafry said.
MORE taxpayer dollars funneled to Rick Perry campaign donors. Surprised?---NOT
Perry donor's start-up firm got $4.5M without regional board's OK
By STEVE McGONIGLE, JAMES DREW and RYAN McNEILL The Dallas Morning News Copyright 2010
Gov. Rick Perry approved a $4.5 million award from the state's technology fund to a company founded by a major campaign donor despite the company's failure to win the endorsement of a regional screening board, The Dallas Morning News has learned.
The money was awarded in August to Convergen Lifesciences Inc., founded by Perry contributor David G. Nance. Convergen was allowed to bypass a key part of the Texas Emerging Technology Fund's extensive process for vetting applications, and to proceed for approval to a statewide advisory board appointed by Perry.
A spokeswoman for Perry said Tuesday that the money was properly awarded to Convergen because the law establishing the tech fund allows applicants to appeal decisions by regional reviewers.
However, the law makes no mention of such appeals.
The chairman of the regional board in Houston, one of the state's largest, told The News he had never heard of an appeals process. Walter Ulrich, also a former member of the tech fund's statewide advisory committee, said approval by regional boards is mandatory.
"It cannot go to the state without our board's approval," he said. "I've never seen that happen."
Walt Trybula, a nanotechnology expert at Texas State University who reviews tech fund applications for the Austin regional board, said the ability to appeal would undermine the process.
"If you've got a way to go around a review committee," he said, "why do you have a review committee?"
And the chairman of the state House committee that oversees the tech fund said the "extraordinary" process that awarded the money to Nance's firm shows that reforms are needed. "This is the most troubling case that I've seen come through" on the fund, said Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin.
The tech fund, which invests taxpayers' dollars in promising start-up firms, is administered by the governor's office. The legislature created it in 2005 at Perry's direction. So far, $173 million has been given to 120 companies, with an additional $161 million going to universities.
The fund is a pillar of the economic development program that Perry routinely cites as one of the proudest accomplishments of his nine years as governor. He is running for re-election against Democrat Bill White.
The News reported this month that more than $16 million in tech fund awards have gone to companies whose investors or officers were large campaign donors to Perry. Nance has contributed $80,000 to Perry since 2000, according to Texas Ethics Commission records.
Nance's ties to the governor go beyond campaign contributions. He has taken Perry hunting. Perry's son, Griffin, owned stock in Nance's former biotech company.
Nance, whom the governor has appointed three times to technology commissions, did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment.
Months after his previous biotech company declared bankruptcy, he launched Convergen, which proposes to develop gene-based therapies for lung cancer.
Perry has said repeatedly that tech fund money to Nance's companies – an additional $2 million has been awarded to a nonprofit firm co-founded by Nance – had nothing to do with friendships or contributions.
In addition, Perry and his supporters have said that the tech fund's extensive application process keeps political influences out of awards. Applicants must pass through one of seven regional boards, and then receive approval by the 17-member statewide advisory committee.
After that, Perry must approve the award. The lieutenant governor and House speaker also must OK it.
Neither Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst nor House Speaker Joe Straus would agree to be interviewed about the award to Convergen.
Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger confirmed to The News that Convergen did not receive a favorable recommendation from the regional board in Austin. The application failed to win approval in October 2009, Cesinger wrote in an e-mail, because of "conflicting legal opinions related to an intellectual property matter."
Matt Winkler, who has reviewed life science proposals for the Austin regional board, said he considered Convergen's application as a member of a panel that decided against giving Nance's company a favorable recommendation. "His company did not seem terribly exceptional," he said.
An Austin entrepreneur, Walter Kalmans, said his drug company made a pitch for a tech fund award at the same time as Nance and was not able to proceed beyond the regional level.
At no point, Kalmans said, was he told he could apply directly to the 17-member statewide advisory committee. "I didn't realize an appeal process was possible," he said.
Cesinger said that Nance made his appeal by contacting Alan Kirchhoff, who was then the tech fund's director. Kirchhoff, who is now a private consultant, could not be reached for comment.
Convergen's application came before a subcommittee of the statewide advisory panel. Cesinger said this was allowed by the state law establishing the tech fund. She did not cite a specific section, and the law does not delineate such procedures.
The governor's office said it does not maintain a list of tech fund applicants who have been turned down by regional boards.
The statewide advisory committee's vice chairman, Bob Pearson, said he saw nothing improper about Convergen being permitted to appeal its failure to win approval.
"We want to make sure we see the best deals, period," he said. "That's it. That's our only criteria. If someone really believes passionately about a deal, there is nothing wrong with [the committee] seeing it."
But he added, "You should not think you can get turned down, and you can just come and show up [at the state committee]. It's not like that. That would be chaos."
Pearson formerly was on the board at Introgen Therapeutics Inc., a pharmaceutical company where Nance was chief executive officer. Introgen declared bankruptcy in 2008.
Because of his prior relationship with Nance, Pearson said he recused himself from the committee's review of Convergen.
He said he has not seen a rule that permits the appeal of a regional board's decision. Pearson said it was an accepted practice but could not recall a case other than Nance's.
Pearson said committee members were aware of legal questions concerning Convergen's intellectual property. Aside from those issues, the Austin regional board told the statewide committee it liked Convergen, he said. "The committee was quite bullish on the company," he said.
Strama, the Austin lawmaker who is chairman of the House Technology, Economic Development and Workforce Committee, became aware of the Convergen application when he was reviewing it for the House speaker.
He said his concerns centered on what he was told were conflicting legal opinions about whether Convergen's intellectual property was protected. He said he was told he could not see the opinions because of attorney-client privilege.
Whether a company has properly protected its intellectual property, or creations, is a critical element of any application because it affects the investment's value.
Pearson said the judge hearing Introgen's bankruptcy ruled sometime after the advisory committee made its recommendation for funding that Convergen had clear title to some of the patents owned previously by Introgen. Cesinger also cited the court order.
Online records show multiple sales of Introgen assets, including patents, authorized by a bankruptcy court judge between August and December 2009. Some assets were claimed as property of a company owned by Rodney Varner, a longtime Nance attorney who was the registered agent for Convergen.
Strama said he was unaware of any court ruling on Convergen's intellectual property rights. He said no one ever cited anything but the dueling legal opinions.
He also disputed a contention by Cesinger that he ultimately recommended to the House speaker that the award to Convergen be approved.
"I just don't know whether the company should have received the grant or not," he said.
Glass to Rick Perry: "That is not leadership - to run away like a scared little boy from someone who just wants to engage you in debate."
Glass tries to confront Perry on debating
Texas Politics Houston Chronicle Copyright 2010
HUMBLE - With a dash for the door after delivering a speech, Gov. Rick Perry avoided a confrontation with Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Kathie Glass. Glass had said she was going to confront Perry over not debating her and other candidates for governor. But she waited until Perry finished his speech to the Texas Conservative Coalition 10th Amendment Town Hall meeting at the Humble Civic Center. Seated front row center, Glass raised a finger into the air and charged in Perry's direction.But he was off the stage in an instant. Event organizers and the Department of Public Safety security detail had created a wall that kept Glass from getting close to Perry. Men stepped in her way as she came forward. The closest she got was about five feet from the governor. "If you can't stand up to Kathie Glass, how can you stand up to the federal government?" Glass shouted after Perry as he exited the room.
Glass afterward said she believes Perry is afraid of defending his record in office. "That is not leadership - to run away like a scared little boy from someone who just wants to engage you in debate," Glass said. Glass said Perry is hoping few Texans pay attention when the other candidates engage in a televised debate on Oct. 19."He is afraid to debate because he knows he will not show well," she said.
Perry earlier told reporters Democrat Bill White is to blame for there being no debate. Perry said the voting public does not gain much from a televised debate when the candidates are answering reporters' questions across Texas. He suggested voters will learn more from a live interview he is doing Friday with Evan Smith of the online Texas Tribune than they would from him appearing on a debate.
Perry said there would have been a debate if White had met his stipulation that White must first release his income tax returns for the years when he was a deputy secretary of energy under President Clinton. White has refused but admitted he owed no personal income taxes in 1995 because of business investments.
"I wish you all in the media were as interested in what he's hiding with his personal income tax as you are with whether there will be a debate," Perry said.
"Are the people of the state of Texas going to be greatly dis-serviced when for an hour two people sit upon the stage and discuss the issues that two or three moderators come up with?" Perry said.
Perry said voters do not come up to him clamoring for a debate. He said they want to know how the state is going to keep the economy going or have good public schools.
"That's what's on people's minds, not three moderators sitting there with a couple of presidential, excuse me, gubernatorial candidates talking about who was the first governor of Texas or some of the other questions that get asked in the debates that, frankly, are not of great importance to the people of Texas."
Perry said he will not debate Glass or Green Party candidate Deb Shafto. He said the news media should ask them questions and make their positions known to the public.
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