Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Saddle up and tighten the surcingle for another bumpy ride."

Trans Texas Corridor: Here We Go Again


by Kelly Holt
The New American
Copyright 2011

Battle-weary Texans who spent much of the last decade working to defeat the proposed — and hugely unpopular — gigantic north-south highway through Texas up to Canada, known as the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC), are being called to take a deep breath and gather forces once again. New bills have been introduced in the biennial Texas Legislature that would revive the old conflicts for sovereignty.

A June 2007 article in The New American dubbed the Corridor the modern El Camino Real, or King’s Highway, an ancient network of trails used by 17th-century Spanish explorers to transport goods and missionaries from Mexico to the new colony. Many Texans believe such an appellation doesn’t seem too far off at all.

The TTC was proclaimed dead two years ago by nearly every public official; however, Texas Governor Rick Perry declared at the time, "We'll build it, but we'll just change the name." Now the Corridor, which has always been the cynosure of Perry's transportation policy, is getting a new push.

State Representative Larry Phillips has introduced H.B. 3789, one of several related bills affecting infrastructure — a reincarnation of the old legislation that enabled the Corridor projects, but without the old name.

Though the history of the Trans Texas Corridor has been well-documented by The New American, and activists in the state are already putting up a fierce struggle, a refresher course doesn’t hurt. The multi-modal, 4000-mile network of highways and toll roads, which would have required over 500,000 Texas acres, gained national attention when Texans learned the real agenda behind the project and sounded the alarm. Even Oklahoma stepped up and enacted its own legislation to prevent the road from jumping the Red River — the Texas/Oklahoma state line.

In January of 2009, Texas Department of Transportation official Amadeo Saenz issued a statement for Governor Perry that declared the TTC dead; in August of that year, the Legislature refused to extend authority for the Texas Department of Transportation to contract with private firms — specifically CINTRA, a publicly-held company headquartered in Spain.

But Governor Perry has never given up. Because with budget shortfalls and a growing population, public funding isn’t enough to fund road projects, Perry turned once again to Public Private Partnerships (PPPs). And with a new legislature, he went to work again on the Corridor. According to Michael Lindenberger of the Dallas Morning News,

"Immediately after the last session adjourned, Perry's chief transportation aide promised a hard push to restore the authority to enter into so-called comprehensive development agreements in 2011. And in an interview with The Dallas Morning News just before his re-election in November, Perry said he would ask lawmakers to renew authority for the state to partner with private toll firms. "

“The fact of the matter is that we don't really care what name they attach to building infrastructure in the state of Texas. The key is that we have to go forward and build the infrastructure so that the state of Texas and our economy can continue to grow." He noted that the most important part of the plan to him, its reliance on private capital to help finance toll roads, remains a key priority and an approach he expects will be continued: "We'll continue to use all the tools available to build the infrastructure.”

The new bills serve to reauthorize the old enabling legislation and the dangerous PPP. For Texas this means that existing roadways will be converted to toll roads, and that everything even touching the roads will be under the authority of the tolling entity. Terri Hall, founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), explains:

It would grant the private toll road developers control of not only the toll lanes/road, but also non-toll lanes, frontage roads, buildings on the tollway, parking areas, rest stops, ancillary facilities, etc. It’s eminent domain for private gain all over again, which is what caused a Texas-sized backlash against the TTC in earnest in 2007, when a moratorium on PPPs was put in place.

The bill would also allow contracts to be negotiated confidentially and not be revealed to the public until late in the game. The conversion of existing roads to toll roads would burden Texas drivers with excessive tolls; furthermore, if events proceed as previously, there will be no free road alternatives, property will be seized for the project through fraudulent eminent domain procedures, non-compete clauses will be in place, and Texans will have no recourse. Through the PPP’s toll revenues the coffers of the private partners will be filled, and with partial ownership goes control of the project.

The main focus of this new transportation agenda will be the I-69 plan. Two years ago, this project was forced to keep a lower profile and reduce its footprint; however, H.B. 3789 will renew attention to that corridor.

All of this pales when one knows the bigger picture. The Trans Texas Corridor, a portion of which is in operation and funded by taxpayers (the tolls are really only a tax), serves as part of a national system of corridors designed to facilitate the movement of a gigantic amount of goods coming from foreign countries. The TTC was intended to be the Texas portion of the NAFTA Superhighway, commencing on the west coast of Mexico, and ending up in Canada. Ultimately, the integration of Canada, Mexico and the United States into a North American Union (NAU) must have infrastructure. And these corridors are intended to link the countries.

Texans flat-out do not want the corridors. The imposition of tolls on Lone Star drivers is enough to anger them, but the taking of private property for the roads, and the surrender of control over their right to travel — not to mention the surrender of state sovereignty — is completely unacceptable. Opposition to the TTC at every session of the Texas Legislature in recent years has made clear their hearty disapproval. And once Americans in other states have understood the threat to national sovereignty posed by such corridors, they have also expressed their outrage.

It is understood that when it comes to NAFTA, as Texas goes, so goes the nation.

So saddle up and tighten the surcingle for another bumpy ride.

© 2011 The New American:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

SLAPP Happy: Dallas developer Hiram Walker Royall, outed as a land-grabbing bully, ties up Texas courts with friviolous lawsuits.

Author Engaged in Legal Tussle With HP Developer Tired of Being SLAPP'd Around


By Robert Wilonsky
The Dallas Observer
Copyright 2011

We've written a few times in recent years about author Carla Main, who remains locked in a legal tussle with Highland Park developer Hiram Walker Royall over Main's '07 book Bulldozed: "Kelo," Eminent Domain and the American Lust for Land, which chronicles the brouhaha over land grabbed from a family shrimping business in Freeport to make way for a marina development. Royall, at the center of the dust-up, sued not only Main but most anyone who'd ever touched the book, including those who'd reviewed and blurbed the tome that had received little attention till Royall made a case of it in Dallas County District Court.

The case remains alive and well in the Fifth Court of Appeals, which heard oral arguments from both sides in September after Judge Carlos Cortez denied Main's request for summary judgment. And yesterday it was very much the center of attention in front of the Texas House Committee on Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence, where Main appeared in support of House Bill 2973, also known as the Citizen Participation Act, which would "[encourage] public participation by citizens by protecting a person 's right to petition, right of free speech, and right of association from meritless lawsuits arising from actions taken in furtherance of those rights." Combined with Senate Bill 1565, they comprise the state's pending -- and bi-partisan -- anti-SLAPP legislation, which more than half the states already have.

On the other side is Main's testimony offered to the House committee, which was forwarded to Unfair Park by her attorneys at the Institute for Justice's Texas Center in Austin.
My name is Carla Main. I live in New Jersey, and I have traveled to Austin to support the Citizens Participation Act. I am a journalist. Before I became a journalist, I practiced law in New York City for many years. So I come to this issue with an understanding of the legal system as well as the importance of the first amendment and free speech.

I'm interested in this bill because I wrote a book, called Bulldozed, about eminent domain and a small city in East Texas -- Freeport -- and after the book came out I was sued in a Texas court for libel.

Back in 2005, I was writing about eminent domain and following the Kelo case as it made its way to the Supreme Court. I wanted to see how the case would affect American communities and write a book about it. I became aware of a controversy involving eminent domain in Freeport over the building of a marina. A business owner was fighting, with everything he had, against the town he loved. He was fighting the town, his neighbors, and a real estate developer.

The book, Bulldozed, came out in 2007. It was reviewed in newspapers and magazines all over the country. It won a political science writing award.

A year after it was published, I got a call from my publisher, telling me I was being sued by a real estate developer I wrote about in the book. -- and not just me. He was also suing my publisher-- Encounter books -- a small non-profit funded by the Bradley Foundation that publishes serious, intellectual books.

He also sued a professor who wrote a blurb on the back of the book.

But that wasn't all. He also sued a small community newspaper in Galveston and a freelance writer who wrote a review of Bulldozed for that paper.

By suing a small Texas paper and a Texas freelancer, the developer made it impossible for my publisher and me to remove the case to federal court where we could have moved to dismiss the case immediately. That is precisely the type of remedy that would have been available to us if the Citizens Participation Act had been on the books when Encounter and I were sued in 2008. Exactly one week and day after the time ran out to remove, or transfer, the case to federal court, the developer settled out of court with the community newspaper and the reviewer.

The case has now been pending for two and a half years. This case never should have progressed this far -- through discovery and motion practice and now on appeal. I am very fortunate to have pro bono counsel. Nonetheless, the stress and anxiety have taken an enormous toll on my emotionally and physically.

© 2011 The Dallas Observer:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Monday, March 28, 2011

"Either way, residents and businesses lose while a foreign company profits."

Australians accused of 'highway robbery'

Macquarie loo

Simon Mann, Washington
The Sydney Morning Herald
Copyright 2011

AUSTRALIAN investors are being accused of highway robbery by motorists in Virginia, who blame the Macquarie Group for what they say are exorbitant road tolls.

The complaints have been taken up by a member of Congress and Virginia's transport authorities, which have agreed to set up a local committee to look at ways of making the 22 kilometre Dulles Greenway "more user-friendly".

But the prospect for lower tolls is poor.

The road, one of the most expensive in the US, charges up to $US5.25 for car journeys, but has not paid a dividend to its owner, Australia's Macquarie Group, for the past three years.

Some residents and local companies have boycotted the road - choosing gridlock on alternative routes - with week-day traffic volumes falling by 3 per cent in 2010. Despite this, toll increases helped lift income by 1.8 per cent.

"Either way, residents and businesses lose while a foreign company profits," charges Congressman Frank Wolf. "It is my hope that this advisory committee will introduce TRIP II [the Macquarie-owned local operator] to the concept of being accountable to the people it claims to serve."

The road rage is being reflected in online postings, too. "The only way to affect the way the Aussies conduct business is to NOT USE THE GREENWAY," urged one motorist.

But the man who runs the road responds: "We are a toll road and, sure, people don't like to pay tolls and there's probably very little we can do to put lipstick on that pig, so to speak."

Built in the mid-1990s, the Dulles Greenway stretches west from Washington's international airport (named after 1950s secretary of state John Foster Dulles) to Leesburg, coursing through Virginia's fast-growing Loudon County. It connects with the state-owned Dulles Toll Road that runs east to the US capital, which levies tolls at much lower rates.

Revenue from that road is being used to subsidise the cost of constructing a rail link from Washington to the airport, with tolls expected to rise over time. Together, the two roads form State Route 267.

Macquarie acquired the Greenway in 2005, subsequently spending big amounts on improvements in return for tolling proceeds until 2056. Its interest in the road is divided 50-50 between two of its managed funds, Macquarie Atlas Roads and Macquarie Infrastructure Partners. Other Macquarie assets include toll roads in Chicago and Indiana, as well as private roads in Britain and Europe. The locals' anti-Australian sentiment has not been confined to Macquarie.

Australia's Transurban group, part of a consortium building so-called HOT lanes (high occupancy toll lanes) on Washington's "beltway" and on interstate highways 95 and 395, has also been caught up in local politics, with councils and residents wary of government dealings over the projects.

So incensed were Arlington County officials that at one point they filed a lawsuit claiming the I95 and I395 legs of the Transurban project were "racist" because they stood to benefit "more affluent, largely Caucasian citizens".

Bemoaning a lack of transparency and suspected government subsidies for the road builders, one local editorial observed sharply: "Under current market conditions, the private sector would never finance such a risky, uneconomic concept. That means Virginia taxpayers likely will pay a $US250 million subsidy for the privilege of being tolled by Australians."

The sniping comes as cash-strapped states battle to balance budgets that have been crippled by America's economic slump.

The downturn, along with petrol prices pushed beyond $US1 a litre by Middle East tensions, is also hurting toll road operators nationwide.

But a prime criticism of the Dulles Greenway is that it does not incorporate distance pricing that would allow it to charge less for short trips. In some cases, travelling barely two kilometres invites the maximum toll. The road has few electronic tag readers and relies heavily on cash collection points.

Tom Sines, chief executive of TRIP II (Toll Road Investors Partnership II), argues that adding more electronic toll points would cost an estimated $US6.5 million, while distance tolling could ultimately hurt revenue. He says the company might be interested if local authorities pitched in up-front and were willing also to "backstop against any lost revenue".

But Congressman Wolf says this attitude reveals a loyalty to the operator's foreign masters and that TRIP II is not interested in "protecting current users or attracting new users" of the road. The community advisory committee would aim to "make the road more user friendly and potentially provide [toll] relief".

However, tolls on the road are set, ultimately, by Virginia's State Corporation Commission, which must approve any increase. They were last raised at the beginning of 2010.

Mr Sines is frustrated by the attacks on the six-lane divided roadway, which pays state property tax, leasing charges and is a big donor to community projects. It also pays $US700,000 a year for police patrols.

"We're a business, and Congressman Wolf has to realise we're a business," he says. "We're not a public entity."

Last year, the Greenway reported average week-day traffic of 55,698 vehicles (down from 57,492 previously), but daily revenue rose to $US177,949 (from $US174,747). The maximum peak hour toll is $US5.25.

After meeting interest payments on its bonds, TRIP II has been unable to pay a dividend to the Macquarie funds since the US was plunged into recession in 2008 by the Global Financial Crisis.

"We are currently in financial lock-up because we have not met our coverage ratios for our bonds,'' says Mr Sines.

''But we have paid our bonds and we have paid our bills and whatever access money that's left over goes into reserve for future bond payments''.

He cannot say how long Macquarie might tolerate the current situation, but adds: "I'm sure they understand that this road has great value, it has great potential. Loudon County is still one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation''.

© 2011 The Sydney Morning Herald:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Sunday, March 27, 2011

"HB 3789 is a blanket re-authorization of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) and resurrects the Trans Texas Corridor."

Phillips’ bill resurrects the Trans Texas Corridor



by Terri Hall
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2011

The Trans Texas Corridor (TTC) just won’t die.

State Representative Larry Phillips has introduced HB 3789 which resurrects the TTC, without the reviled name attached. It’s a betrayal of Texans who were promised by nearly every elected official in the state that the TTC was DEAD. I didn’t believe it, but many Texans did and voted to re-elect Rick Perry.

A little history is in order. The Trans Texas Corridor as originally envisioned was a 1,200 foot wide, 4,000 mile network of toll roads that would have criss-crossed the state. It was multi-modal including tollways, trucks lanes, commuter rail, freight rail, power transmission lines, telecommunications, pipelines of all sorts…a terrorist’s dream. It would have displaced one million Texans for just the first corridor alone. The concessionaire would also have the exclusive right to develop all the restaurants, hotels, and gas stations along its tollway.

The TTC was to heist 580,000 acres of land from Texas landowners and hand them over to private, for-profit global toll concessionaires in sweetheart deals that amount to government-sanctioned monopolies for a half century. Hence, that’s why it was dubbed the biggest land grab in Texas history, if not in the entire United States.

Now back to the 82nd legislative session we find ourselves in. First, the bill to supposedly repeal the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC), HB 1201, got hitched with a bad amendment to enrich the coffers of the Spanish-based company, Cintra, that is currently building the first leg of the Trans Texas Corridor TTC-35 project, called SH 130 segments 5 & 6.

This amendment allows TxDOT to raise the speed limit on Cintra’s tollway beyond the current legal limit up to 85 MPH for which TxDOT gets a bigger pay-off from Cintra (the theory is it would incentivize more traffic to take the high speed tollway so Cintra’s willing to pay the highway department for the anticipated bump in toll revenue).

The higher the speed limit, the greater the share of the toll revenues TxDOT splits with the foreign company, too (view Ex. 7 of the PPP contract with Cintra here). HB 1201 passed out of committee a few weeks ago. So even the repeal bill had to be tainted by the lobbyists.

Within days of hearing HB 1201, Phillips filed HB 3789 which is a blanket re-authorization of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) and resurrects the Trans Texas Corridor. It would grant the private toll road developers control of not only the toll lanes/road, but also non-toll lanes, frontage roads, buildings on the tollway, parking areas, rest stops, ancillary facilities, etc. It’s eminent domain for private gain all over again, which is what caused a Texas-sized backlash against the TTC in earnest in 2007, when a moratorium on PPPs was put in place. With the exception of a few projects, the contracts expired in August of 2009.

The bill would allow these PPP contracts to be negotiated and signed in SECRET, without financial disclosures (like toll rates, whether or not it contains a non-compete clause that prohibits or penalizes the expansion of free roads, or public subsidies), and it grants sole authority to TxDOT or a toll entity to negotiate the contract removing oversight by the Attorney General, Legislative Budget Board, or any elected officials. The bill re-authorizes these PPPs and this time with NO sunset provision, so the authority is indefinite.

Phillips was appointed by Speaker Joe Straus to Chair the House Transportation Committee. Since the bill is authored by the Chair of the committee, it’s almost certain to pass the committee, unless Texans REVOLT! This bill will be heard on Wednesday.

Call Larry Phillips at (512) 463-0297 to oppose the bill and contact Speaker Joe Straus at (512) 463-3000 or (210) 828-4411 to ask him to bury the Trans Texas Corridor re-tread bill, HB 3789 and ensure the bill to actually repeal the TTC FINALLY becomes law.

© 2011 The San Antonio Express-News:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE