Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Environmental Stewardship - Bush Administration lists Trinity Parkway as Priority!

From US Federal Government Websites
President Bush issued Executive Order 13274 on September 18, 2002 to enhance environmental stewardship and streamline the decision-making process in connection with major transportation projects. Visit the Environmental Stewardship and Transportation Infrastructure Project Reviews web site to find out more about the implementation of Executive Order 13274.

Department of Transportation Priority Project List
1. Interstate 5 North Coast - California. The I-5 North Coast Project will construct additional general-purpose lanes, a HOV/Managed Lane facility, and operational improvements on I-5 from San Diego to Oceanside. In addition to those 26 miles of improvements, the project also will include a two-mile segment of Interstate 805 in San Diego.

2. Route 11 Extension - Connecticut. This project will complete the Route 11 freeway, a distance of 8.5 miles. The project will extend the freeway from Salem to Interstate 95 in East Lyme/Waterford. The construction of Route 11 started in the 1970s, but a lack of funding prevented its completion. The project was reinitiated in 1997.

3. US Route 411 Connector - Georgia. The purpose of the proposed US 411 Connector is to improve connectivity by providing a more direct link between US 411 and I-75. The project will separate through traffic from locally generated traffic, reducing congestion in the corridor. US 411 is a critical link in Georgia's portion of the Atlanta to Memphis Highway.

4. Interstate Highway 66 - Kentucky. The proposed project is a segment of the TransAmerica Corridor (Future I-66) extending from KY 80 east of Somerset, to I-75 near London, Kentucky. When completed, I-66 will improve accessibility throughout southern Kentucky to jobs, industry, urban centers, educational facilities, tourism and recreational facilities.

5. US 93 corridor - Montana. The Montana US 93 corridor is roughly 288 miles long and approximately 26-30 projects are at various stages of development throughout its length. The project is important to the transportation needs of the northern Rocky Mountain region.

6. Philadelphia International Airport Improvements - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This project consists of major airfield improvements at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) through the construction of new runways and related taxiways. PHL is a major east coast airport and has substantial capacity needs. To accommodate those capacity needs, the airport proposes to add a runway.

7. Interstate 69 (I-69) Corridor - Texas. This is a major grouping of projects - on the entire length of I-69 in Texas, representing 13 Environmental Impact Statements based on a FHWA decision to break I-69 Texas Corridor into 13 Segments of Independent Utility (SIU). Despite a high level of coordination and cooperation to date, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is concerned about Federal agency future positions on pre-NEPA decisions and on how to address cumulative and indirect environmental impacts.

8. Trinity River Parkway - Texas. The Trinity Parkway project is a new ten-mile road along the Trinity River corridor. The purpose of the project is to relieve serious congestion on I-35, I-30, and other major transportation facilities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Trinity River Parkway - Dallas, Texas
The Trinity Parkway project is a proposed ten-mile, six-lane, controlled-access toll road along the Trinity River corridor. The purpose of the project is to relieve serious congestion on I-35, I-30, and other major transportation facilities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Various alignments are being considered for the Parkway, which would include 10 miles of roadway, one main lane toll plaza, 14 ramp toll plazas, and multiple interchanges. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also conducting a study of potential multipurpose projects in the immediate vicinity of the proposed Parkway, including ecosystem restoration, flood damage reduction, and recreation development. The Army Corps of Engineers and the North Texas Toll Authority, the sponsors of the Trinity Parkway project, are coordinating their studies.

For more information, please visit the project website.

New U.S. DOT Rule Allows States Flexibility to Build Roads and Bridges Faster

FHWA - Thursday, August 16, 2007WASHINGTON - States will have more flexibility to build roads and bridges faster under a new rule that will allow design work and environmental reviews to occur concurrently, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters.

The final rule amends Federal Highway Administration regulations to allow states to use various innovative contracting methods ranging from basic design-build contracts to long-term concession agreements while simultaneously pursuing federal environmental approvals. The rule also increases the opportunity for smaller projects to use design-build contracts by eliminating a required dollar amount for projects.

"This new flexibility will help states build needed roads and bridges faster, while at the same time protecting the environment," Secretary Peters said.

The rule allows certain design work to begin while the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process is under way, still ensuring that the full range of alternatives is considered. Using this process, states are able to expedite the contract award process and start preliminary design while ensuring the objectivity of the NEPA decision-making process.

"Innovative contracting leads to speedier project delivery. The new rule will help to mainstream the approach and reduce the costs for states wishing to enter into public-private partnerships," said Federal Highway Administrator J. Richard Capka.

Capka added that a quicker process will save taxpayers time and money. Overall, design-build has been proven a successful contracting tool, reducing average project delivery time by 14 percent.

The rule,
was open for public comment before publication.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Lebanon Road Bridge in Frisco Opens to Traffic

NTTA - August 27, 2007Plano, TX – The Lebanon Road bridge over the Tollway opened to traffic on Saturday, Aug. 25.

“Motorists will no longer be forced to detour to Stonebrook Parkway or John Hickman Parkway in order to cross the Tollway at Lebanon Road,” said Rick Herrington, NTTA’s Deputy Executive Director. “Opening the Lebanon Road bridge will improve mobility and save time for the motorists in this area, especially as the school year gets started.”

The Lebanon Road bridge was initially closed in September of 2006 shortly after opening the new Stonebrook Parkway bridge. The two crossings were alternately closed as a way to speed up the construction of the main lanes and bridges and to reduce overall congestion in Frisco, which would have occurred if the two crossings were restricted simultaneously for staged bridge construction.

“The opening of Lebanon Road marks another important step towards the completion of the northward extension of the Tollway from State Highway 121 to U.S. 380,” said Herrington.


Office of Nick Lampson - May 11, 2007
WASHINGTON, D.C. - During a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing today, Congressman Nick Lampson (D-Stafford) strongly questioned U.S. Department of Transportation ("DOT") Secretary Mary Peters regarding DOT's interference with a bill passed by the Texas state legislature concerning public control of state toll roads. The Texas Department of Transportation ("TxDOT") had recently coordinated with the DOT"s Federal Highway Administration ("FHWA"), resulting in policy letters to TxDOT that highlighted certain policy disagreements with the state legislature's bill, H.B. 1892, as passed. The bill now awaits a publicly acknowledged, forthcoming veto by Texas Governor Rick Perry.
WASHINGTON, D.C. - During a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing today, Congressman Nick Lampson (D-Stafford) strongly questioned U.S. Department of Transportation ("DOT") Secretary Mary Peters regarding DOT's interference with a bill passed by the Texas state legislature concerning public control of state toll roads. The Texas Department of Transportation ("TxDOT") had recently coordinated with the DOT"s Federal Highway Administration ("FHWA"), resulting in policy letters to TxDOT that highlighted certain policy disagreements with the state legislature's bill, H.B. 1892, as passed. The bill now awaits a publicly acknowledged, forthcoming veto by Texas Governor Rick Perry.

"The federal government should not be interfering with Texas counties' control over their own toll roads, and more importantly, should not be interfering with any state issue, period," said Congressman Lampson. "I am pleased to be working with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison on this issue so that we can protect matters that are rightfully within the jurisdiction of the Texas state legislature."

H.B. 1892, as originally passed, would allow for the North Texas Tollway Authority to bid on the development of toll roads on State Highway 121, located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. This legislation, and FHWA's subsequent letters, have major implications for several major toll roads throughout Texas, including Harris County. At today's Committee hearing, Congressman Lampson questioned Secretary Peters as to why the DOT issued multiple letters highlighting its views on this particular state legislature issue. These letters, in no uncertain terms, threatened to block federal highway funding for state roads if H.B. 1892 is implemented in its current form as passed.

"County officials are rightfully upset about the actions of Governor Perry, TxDOT, and the FHWA, and I will continue to work with them and my Texan colleagues in Congress to address their concerns in the future," added Congressman Lampson.

Non-toll Solutions - A&M Study says no need to raise gas tax or impose tolls

A&M expert: Don’t need to raise gas tax at all
See the Texas Monthly blog entry by reporter Paul Burka here.
See Burka’s His Way or the Highway article blasting privatizing our public highways and the non-competes in these CDA contracts here
Also, to view the video of David Ellis, of the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M, giving this testimony before the Study Commission on Transportation Financing. The Commission’s co-presiding officers are Senator Carona and Representative Krusee. The entire hearing can be viewed here. Ellis flat out says we don’t need to raise the gas tax nor do we need this shift to toll financing, view condensed testimony here.

Link to TTI report for the Governor’s Business Council directly here.

By Paul Burka - Texas Monthly blog - TUESDAY, DECEMBER 05, 2006

Few things are duller than a committee meeting in the interim between legislative sessions. Witnesses drone on about policy choices involving arcane issues. Some of the committees exist only for a short duration and will vanish once the legislative session begins in January. The media almost never shows up for these meetings, which explains why the November 28 meeting of the Study Commission on Transportation Financing received virtually no attention. But a few minutes into the hearing, David Ellis, a co-author of a report by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A&M, dropped a bombshell on the commission. He said that Texas could finance its highway needs without toll roads. The headline for this post is based on Ellis’s testimony. I have not come across any mainstream media reports of Ellis’s remarks.

Ellis provided the committee with some background on transportation policy. The demand for new and expanded roads in the state’s eight largest metro areas is increasing much faster than TxDot can build them. Over the next 25 years, the population of these areas is projected to increase by 2.8% per year, employment by by 2.3%, vehicles by 2.7%, and daily miles drive by 3%. Over the same period, the number of lane miles that can be built with currently available funding will increase by just .25% per year. Tx-Dot estimates that the state will need an additional $68 billion over the next 25 years to improve mobility. The TTI’s estimate is slightly lower, $66.2 billion. Two-thirds of the needed new construction will be in the state road system, or some $44+ billion; the remainder represents improvements to local roads.

The money for highway construction comes from three sources: vehicle registration fees, the state gasoline (more properly, motor fuels) tax, and reimbursements from the federal gasoline tax, of which Texas sends more revenue to Washington than it gets back. Of these sources, the one that matters the most is the motor fuels tax. But the tax has been losing ground to inflation in recent years.

Now, here is the crucial part of Ellis’s testimony: There are scenarios under which roads can be financed:

1. Raise the motor fuels tax, currently 20 cents per gallon, to 51 cents. Interestingly, a Tx-Dot engineer had previously told the committee that the motor fuels tax would have to be raised to $1.40 per gallon to pay for the needed new construction. Needless to say, the Legislature is not going to raise the tax by 31 cents, much less a buck twenty.

2. Raise the motor fuels tax by 8 cents and index it to inflation, using not the consumer price index, but a special highway construction index. The rate of inflation has been 1/2% to 1 1/2 percent per year.

3. Don’t raise the gasoline tax at all. Instead, index it and put the incremental revenue in the mobility fund, where it can be used to pay off bonds. And here’s the bombshell: “Under this scenario,” Ellis said, ” it wouldn’t be necessary to toll as a means of financing, although that’s certainly an option.”

The cat is out of the bag now. Tolls aren’t the only way to pay for new roads. Will the Legislature allow Tx-Dot to go forward with its mammoth toll road plan, or will lawmakers devise a solution that will allow revenue to be used to build free roads?

Despite threats from the feds, TxDOT forced to abandon Cintra bid for Hwy 121

by Terri Hall - T.U.R.F. - Saturday, 25 August 2007
Link to article here.
[NOTE BY FAITH CHATHAM - The author of the Toll Roads News article has close ties with international toll interest and consistently writes biased reports favoring Cintra.]
State Highway 121 was wrested from the grip of a foreign company, Cintra, and it's now in the hands of the North Texas Toll Authority (NTTA), despite threats of sanctions from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Talk about brazen! However, 16 miles of this 26 mile project are already built and PAID FOR WITH GAS TAXES (it's INEXCUSABLE that it's now converted to a toll road!). To make things worse, SB 792 allows even our public tolling entities to charge the HIGHEST POSSIBLE TOLLS! The FHWA's behavior, repeated threat letters of withholding our federal highway revenue, then backing off thanks to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, then threats of sanctions, it's clear the Bush Administration is a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporate hogs at the trough!

The FHWA is charged with protecting the public interest, and not only have they flouted that responsibility, they rabidly PROMOTED a foreign interest OVER the public's, ON OUR DIME! James Rae at the FHWA let the cat out of the bag a few months ago, that the FHWA, Texas Transportation Commission, Perry, and Bush truly believe in state run capitalism (which is really fascism). This is beyond appalling...this has to be a criminal dereliction of duty!

Texas officials say they were forced to abort the Cintra concession
Toll Road News - August 23, 2007
Texas officials have revealed that in the past few days they discussed with the FHWA canceling the past approval of NTTA taking over SH121, together with canceling the Cintra concession. They got an assurance the cancelations would get Texas back in compliance with federal procurement law. They have sent us copies of two letters on the SH121 crisis both dated Tuesday Aug 21 TxDOT-FHWA, and FHWA-TxDOT.The first TxDOT-FHWA letter responds to Richard Capka's blistering Aug 16 attack on Texas' handling of the SH121 procurement which he cited as clear violations of federal law and regulations. See report.

Addressed to Janice Brown, FHWA rep in Austin TX the letter is signed by TxDOT deputy Amadeo Saenz and foreshadows actions taken today by the governing Texas Transportation Commission (TTC). It says they will consider canceling the Cintra procurement and canceling the decision (called a minute order) previously approving NTTA for SH121.

The letter then says: "We request FHWA concurrence that (these) actions...will be sufficient to bring TxDOT into compliance with federal law and not be subject to (sanctions)..."

The letter adds that further FHWA action on environmental clearance of SH121 is "critically needed" to move forward on SH121. See TxDOT-FHWA letter here.

The response from FHWA rep Brown to TxDOT's Saenz says that the two proposed cancellations would indeed bring TxDOT into compliance with federal law and remove the basis for federal sanctions. It also says FHWA is working for "timely completion" of the environmental review. See FHWA's Brown's letter here.

TxDOT unpersuaded NTTA bid better but decision was local

Texas officials say it was their assessment Cintra provided the sounder proposal but that they had agreed to devolve responsibility to the Dallas-Ft Worth area council of governments' Regional Transportation Council (RTC) which preferred the late proposal by the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA). Under Texas law SB792 they say they are required to defer to the RTC despite their doubts about the choice of NTTA's proposal.

At the Texas Transportation Council meeting today the two cancellations were made:

Agenda item 8a passed as a new minute order notes that a RFQ for SH121 was issued March 2005 and after shortlisting a formal RFP was issued mid Aug 2006. Feb 28 the commission "conditionally awarded" the concession or comprehensive development agreement to Cintra.

However the instructions to proposers authorized TxDOT to suspend or terminate concession contract negotiations at any time - providing for cancellation of the procurement.

The resolution passed today says simply: "The commission has determined that it is in the best interest of the state to terminate the CDA negotiations with Cintra..." and "It is therefore ordered that the procurement... is canceled." See text of 8a here.

Agenda item 8b outlines the origins of the NTTA move with the RTC asking on Mar 26 if NTTA wanted to top the Cintra bid. NTTA submitted a huge document (almost entirely fluff and puff - TRnews) May 18, but the RTC accepted it. June 28 the TTC set the RTC to negotiate some substance with NTTA giving them 60 days to produce a project agreement plus another 45 days for financial close. Text of 8b here.

Today's minute order cancels those requirements giving the parties more time, saying environmental clearance is likely to take longer than the 60 days. The department has to come back to the commission with additional agreements to enable NTTA to take over SH121 for a period of up to 50 years.

Deal not done until the money arrives

Texas officials say the deal is far from done yet. One official said he has doubts that NTTA can come through with the financing promised the RTC. They think NTTA has stretched its borrowing power to, and perhaps beyond, prudent limits.

But caught between FHWA protests and the RTC-NTTA, and the requirements of SB792 they say they had no other alternative.

The officials say the RTC has taken a gamble with NTTA now that the Cintra procurement has been cancelled.

"If the NTTA doesn't come through it is back to square one. We have to start a procurement all over again."

We were given the bids by the three finalists in the procurement won by Cintra in February, socalled Form Ks. Cintra's offer more than doubled the next from Skanska with Macquarie a bit further behind in third place. See table nearby.

Cintra says accept TTC decision
José Lopez, Cintra’s Austin-based director issued a statement after the Commission meeting:

"While we believe our proposal – with its guarantee of $7.3 billion in new and additional revenue to the Metroplex for SH121 and other transportation projects – was the better option for the state and Dallas-Fort Worth, we respect the commission’s decision.

We want to thank the commissioners and the staff at TxDOT for the time and consideration they have devoted to this issue. We know they are working diligently to address the serious mobility challenges facing Texans, and we wish them, NTTA and the Regional Transportation Council only the best as they move forward with SH 121 for North Texas drivers.

"...we look forward to continuing our work in Texas, the U.S. and around the world assisting officials meet the increasing demands on infrastructure by improving roadways, relieving congestion and enhancing driver safety in the most cost-effective and efficient ways possible."

Agreement reached NTTA, Regional Council and Dallas District TxDOT

NTTA, the regional council and Dallas District of TxDOT say they have finalized an interagency project agreement for SH121. Jorge Figueredo the new executive director of NTTA signed the draft agreement and submitted it to TxDOT. After it is signed by the executive director of TxDOT NTTA will have 45 days to financial close and delivery to TxDOT of over $3.3b - $2,500m plus $833m representing 49 future annual payments. In return they get a 50 year lease of SH121 and the rights to the toll proceeds in a kind of public sector concession.

Bill Hale of TxDOT Dallas office and Michael Morris of the RTC said in statements today that fuel tax funds are not doing the job of generating revenues needed. They see monetization of toll projects like SH121 as the only way to build needed new roads.

SH121 is 42km (26mi) long running northeast-southwest in the northern part of the greater Dallas area from US75 toward Dallas Ft Worth Airport. It crosses the Dallas North Tollway at about its midpoint and somewhat parallels the Pres Geo Bush Turnpike some miles to its north. It runs through Collin, Denton and Dallas counties.

SH121 is being built as a 12 lane highway with 2x3 toll lanes in the center as expressway and a pair of 3-lane one-way frontage roadways on either side which hit cross streets at signals. Slip lanes will connect the toll expressway roadways with the frontage roadways for access and egress from the tolled lanes in a common Texas configuration.

Tolling will be all-electronic at highway speed - no cash collection.

The vast passions and political energy invested in controlling SH121 should give it a place in tollroad history.

TxDOT uses gas tax money to lobby for toll roads

by Terri Hall - T.U.R.F. - Saturday, 25 August 2007

Texas Department of Transportation Uses Gas Tax Money to Lobby for Toll Roads
Activists urge investigation of Texas Department of Transportation lobbying on behalf of toll roads.
The Newspaper.com - August 24, 2007
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has been spending millions on a public relations project designed to lobby the public and the legislature on the benefits of toll roads. The San Antonio Express News reported Monday that an internal TxDOT memo entitled "Keep Texas Moving: Tolling and Trans-Texas Corridor Outreach" suggested the agency would spend $7-9 million promoting the tolling concept. In February, the state auditor's office chided TxDOT for hiding lobbying expenses behind other, legitimate expenses.

"A total of $4.5 million associated with the 21 invoices described above was charged to the incorrect activity," the audit report stated (view excerpt). "For example, $52,000 of a $628,000 invoice that was charged to engineering was actually for public relations expenses."
Read more in the San Antonio Express News

The multi-million dollar public relations campaign began in June with paid advertisements and a slick website called Keep Texas Moving, which promotes the 4000-mile Trans-Texas Corridor proposal. Expected to be up to 1200 feet wide, the toll road will cost between $145 and $183 billion to construct and require acquisition of 9000 square miles of land. Terri Hall, founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, opposes the Trans-Texas Corridor and today sent a letter to Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle urging him to open an investigation.

"It's not only an inappropriate and wasteful use of our gas tax dollars by an agency perpetually claiming it's out of money for roads, but it's illegal for a public agency to take a policy position and use the public's tax money to sell them something using an under-handed PR campaign," Hall wrote.

Don't like toll roads? TxDOT is talking to you
Peggy Fikac - Express-News Austin Bureau - 08/20/2007
AUSTIN — The Texas Department of Transportation, which complains about chronic underfunding, has launched a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign that promotes the divisive Trans-Texas Corridor plan and toll roads.
The campaign is anticipated to cost $7 million to $9 million, according to a memorandum titled "Keep Texas Moving: Tolling and Trans-Texas Corridor Outreach" sent to transportation officials by Coby Chase, director of the agency's government and public affairs division Such use of state highway fund dollars is drawing concern and questions from some. Others, including the department, say it's an important effort to educate and engage Texans.

Put Rep. Warren Chisum, chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, in the first category.

"I wonder what for? So people wouldn't hate 'em so bad?" he said of the campaign. "It's a waste of money, and they have no business out there trying to get public opinion to be in their favor."

The money would be better spent fixing roads, Chisum, R-Pampa, added: "It would probably take care of three or four potholes."

But Rep. Mike Krusee, House Transportation Committee chairman, said the campaign addresses lawmakers' concerns by explaining new financing methods.

"The Legislature has been beating TxDOT over the head for two years, telling them they need to explain what the Trans-Texas Corridor is and why it is necessary to the public. They've been telling TxDOT they are moving too fast — they are moving before the public and the Legislature has the chance to understand what they are doing and why," said Krusee, R-Round Rock. "I think it is the Legislature that has pressured TxDOT to do this sort of program."

If the outreach is effective, Krusee said, it could save money in the long run.

"Texas is losing money for roads by the hundreds of millions of dollars every year simply due to delay, because the Legislature and the public doesn't understand the need to move to a new finance method. And so an expenditure of a few million dollars could literally save hundreds of millions of dollars per year," Krusee said.

The agency's budget is more than $7 billion for fiscal year 2007 and more than $8 billion for fiscal year 2008.

The Trans-Texas Corridor — an ambitious transportation network — and toll roads have been championed by Gov. Rick Perry and others as necessary in the face of congestion and of gas tax revenues that can't keep up with huge transportation needs.

But the initiative has drawn widespread criticism over the potential route and the state partnering with private companies to run toll roads. Lawmakers this year sought to rein in new private toll projects.

The new campaign, as outlined in the memorandum obtained by the San Antonio Express-News, started June 1 with television, radio, print, billboard and Internet advertising meant to push people to the Keep Texas Moving Web site ( www.keeptexasmoving.com).

That site compares the Trans-Texas Corridor to "Eisenhower's Interstate System." Its toll road section lists a slew of benefits including "A Choice to Go Faster" and "More Roads, More Choices, More Time."

The campaign also will include direct mail pieces on Trans-Texas Corridor segments known as TTC-35 (parallel to Interstate 35) and TTC-69 (from East Texas to Mexico); training for agency representatives to appear on talk radio; and ads, events and guest editorials surrounding hearings on TTC-69.

Sal Costello, who founded the TexasTollParty.com group because of anger over the way tollways were being planned under Perry, said, "I just don't think an agency that has been ignoring the public and ignoring our representatives for years should be able to take our tax dollars intended for freeways and spend one dime on lobbying and selling their unaccountable schemes."

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said the aim of the campaign is to address concerns that the agency hasn't done enough outreach and the public hasn't had enough input. State law allows the agency to spend money on marketing toll roads, he said.

"The clearest and most often repeated criticism of the department during the legislative session was that we needed to do a better job of engaging the public. We heard that message loud and clear, and we're acting on it," he said. "You're going to see us expanding the way we talk with people instead of at people. We think that's really important."

Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, which tracks money in politics, said the campaign appears to go beyond providing information, which he said isn't right although he knows of no law to prevent it.

"The tone of their public relations campaign seems to be to sell Texans on a very unpopular transportation scheme," he said. "That is, they are using our money to make us happy about spending money for every mile we drive through tolls."

Feds threaten sanctions if Hwy 121isn't given back to Cintra! - Federal highway administrator sent blistering letter to Texas on SH121

Toll Road News - August 23, 2007
Richard Capka federal highway administrator has sent a blistering letter to Texas authorities saying the US Government will subject it to extra scrutiny for a period of two years - read: long delays - if it persists with procurement on SH121 in violation of federal contracting laws. FHWA legal counsel Robert Rae several weeks ago made criticisms of the proposed cancellation of the toll concession with Cintra in favor of the North Texas Tollway pointing out the legal problems posed. But Capka's new letter turns up the heat substantially threatening serious sanctions against Texas.

Texas DOT's procurement for the 121 project in accordance with Texas law SB792 "violates federal law" the letter says bluntly.

The letter dated Aug 16 spells out two breaches of federal law involved in the state's handling of SH121:
- acceptance
acceptance of the NTTA bid after the competitive procurement process had selected Cinta

- acceptance of a public sector bid in competition with private bids

TxDOT's procurement process in SH121 "works against the very foundation" of federal provisions for competitive procurement, Capka writes. This is because NTTA was permitted to bid after the terms of Cintra's bid had been public released - at the time TxDOT said it had selected Cintra.

"Allowing a bid submission after closure of a project's selection is an egregious violation of the basic requirements of a fair and competitive process. Here the final bid submitted by Cintra, along with many other proprietary details of Cintra's submission had been disclosed and were publicly available at the time NTTA submitted its proposal."

This contravenes 23USC112.

The letter accuses of TxDOT in its implementation of SB792 of having introduced "uncertainty and doubt" into the procurement process.

TxDOT's second violation of federal law, the Capka letter says is allowing a public entity to bid against a private entity: "Federal regulations specifically prohibit a public entity from bidding again a private entity," says Capka citing 23CFR636.112

FHWA regulations do not allow federal aid funds to participate in any violation of federal law, therefore a variety of sanctions will be imposed.

The letter announces:

- withdrawal of the special exceptions program (SEP-15) waiver granted to expedite SH121 and two other unnamed highway projects for accelerated environmental clearance

- withdrawal of approvals for TIFIA federal loan and Private Activity Bonds support

- a request for reimbursement of the US Government for its expenses in incurred in considering and evaluating the TIFIA loan associated with SH121

- no future federal funds for SH121

- additional oversight and approval requirements for future Texas applications so long as Texas breach of federal law is not remedied

- more "far reaching compliance measures" if Texas violates federal law again The letter ends on a conciliatory note saying that FHWA believes that TxDOT can come into compliance with federal law even at this late date - an apparent allusion to the Texas Transportation Commission not having signed off on the NTTA deal for SH121. The letter appears to be saying Texas can still be in compliance with federal law if it calls off aborting the Cintra procurement, and rejects the proposed long term lease to the NTTA.

That very subject is up for discussion at the Texas Transportation Commission today.

The letter leaked in Texas and is the subject of a Texas newspaper report this morning.

OPINION: Help wanted: sound transportation policy

By William Lutz - Lone Star Report - August 27, 2007
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) says it needs to spend $9 million in taxpayer money to sell its vision of transportation policy to the public.

Maybe if TxDOT pursued rational transportation policies, the public support would follow, and it could spend that $9 million building and maintaining roads.

Listening to the state's transportation officials, including Gov. Rick Perry and Commissioner of Transportation Ric Williamson, talk is like reading a cheap imitation of a George Orwell novel.

Borrowing money and deficit spending are called "innovative financing techniques." The term "public-private partnerships" is used to describe mortgaging public property. Tax hikes are called "market-based" or "value-based" tolling or "market valuations." Government-sanctioned monopolies are referred to as "introducing competition to transportation financing."

Here's why Texans ought to be concerned.

Borrowing carries a price tag. The Texas Constitution has traditionally eschewed deficit spending and required existing revenue to pay for existing spending. Now, the state wants to build most of its roads by borrowing, either publicly or by getting a private firm to agree to borrow money, build a road, and collect tolls.

There's no such thing as free money, and often bond lawyers request concessions in exchange for the money fronted to the state. Many of these private financing arrangements prohibit the state from building free roads near a toll road, or require it to pay a stiff penalty if it builds a competing free road or wants out of the deal.

A 2005 transportation bill exempts draft copies of many road deals from public disclosure - even in the face of criminal subpoenas.

Prior to 2007, the terms of these deals weren't even public until after the contracts were signed, and the terms set in stone. In 2007, the Legislature provided some additional transparency, but more sunshine is still needed to ensure informed consent from the public.

No checks and balances. The ability of TxDOT to rent state highways to private vendors without a legislative appropriation basically gives TxDOT a license to print money, without going though the usual appropriations process. The Constitution wisely gives the Legislature the power of the purse, and state assets should be pledged only in response to a public legislative appropriation.

The state also takes some highway spending "off-budget" by allowing the creation of regional mobility authorities to build state highways. Even the state auditor cannot precisely calculate how much the state spends on roads.

No fiscal restraint. TxDOT officials often claim that it would require a $1.20 increase in the gasoline tax to build needed infrastructure without tolling. This figure is a cost estimate of every project that a region might want to build in the next few years. Both the Governor's Business Council and the State Auditor have taken issue with TxDOT's calculations.

It also shows a lack of priorities at the agency. Most Americans would love a longer vacation, a fancier home, and a nicer car. But their wallets get in the way. Every day, Texans take their limited resources and differentiate between wants and needs. The government should do so also.

Tax hikes. Remember when Bill Clinton referred to taxes paid by the well-to-do as "contributions," as if payment of taxes were somehow voluntary? Remember how much fun Republicans had lampooning all the rhetorical games Clinton played to avoid referring to his "deficit reduction" plan as a tax hike?

Well, it's happening again. In the 2007 transportation compromise, Perry insisted on "market-based tolling," whereby the tolls for new highways are set above the cost to build and maintain the road. Perhaps one could call a toll a "user fee" if the amount of the toll reflected the cost of building and maintaining the road (though even that's debatable). But when money is taken from a government-sanctioned toll road monopoly and used to build other free roads, that's a tax.

Simply stated, Perry is raising taxes.

These bad transportation policies are being promoted not only here but also by the U.S. Department of Transportation and in other states like Indiana, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. But just because George W. Bush likes something doesn't make it right or conservative.

There is a better alternative. It starts with the recognition that building roads is a legitimate function for government, as recognized by the U.S. and Texas constitutions.
Further, user-based fees such as gasoline taxes and auto registration fees are appropriate ways to fund that service, provided that all revenue from those fees goes to roads.

Then, the state should do for transportation what it is already doing in health, education, and welfare policies - look at costs. Why has the cost of building roads increased so quickly? Is this legitimate? Are there ways to reduce these increases?

Registration fees should be adjusted so that overweight trucks pay their fair share. The relationship between damage to a road and weight is exponential, and the registration fees and taxes should reflect that. The gas tax should be adjusted to acknowledge that, on a per-car basis, the gas tax has declined due to improved fuel economy in cars and trucks.

Once the state has gone though that process, then and only then should discussion of tolling begin.

It's time to stop pushing public policies that primarily benefit a select few highway contractors and investment bankers at the expense of the motoring public.Instead, let's put a spirit of public service back into TxDOT and enact transportation policies that provide accountability and frugality. Those policies wouldn't take a $9 million PR campaign to sell to Texas voters.

Lobby firms, businessmen, colleagues have plenty riding on Texas House speaker vote

By R.G. RATCLIFFE - Jan. 7, 2007 - Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — Far more is at stake in the race for Texas House speaker than just whose hand will wield the oversized pecan gavel used to bring the unruly chamber to order.

There also is influence. And there is the ability to implement laws that could affect billions of dollars in business profits or state spending.

Lobby firms whose members vacation with incumbent Speaker Tom Craddick or help him get an appointment with the pope stand to lose influence if he is ousted. So do tort reformers and businessmen Bob Perry of Houston and James Leininger of San Antonio.

If Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts prevails in his challenge, Democratic legislators and personal injury trial lawyers could gain a seat at the legislative negotiating table. Proponents of more state spending on public education or children's health programs may gain clout as well.

Winners and losers in the legislative balance of power will be determined Tuesday, the opening day of the legislative session, as House members choose between the two Republicans to lead them.

"The decision on who is going to be speaker of the House will have enormous pocketbook impact on all Texans," said Tom Smith of Public Citizen, a consumer group.

"The decisions the next speaker makes on who to appoint as committee chairs and what legislation comes to the floor and what is in tax and appropriations bills is going to affect each and every one of us."

Aligned with Craddick is a pair of powerful lobby firms — Hillco Partners and the Texas Capitol Group — which collect more than $1 million a year each in fees to represent a who's-who of business clients before the Legislature.

Texas Capitol Group lobbyist Bill Messer vacations with Craddick and his family. Messer's brother, Joe Cox, is a key researcher on Craddick's speaker staff. Mike Toomey, another lobbyist at the firm, helped Craddick win the speakership in 2003.

Hillco partner Bill Miller often serves as Craddick's political spokesman. He also arranged for the Catholic politician to have an audience with the pope at the Vatican.

Democratic political consultant Glenn Smith said the biggest loser in a Craddick defeat would be Gov. Rick Perry. Smith said Perry has been dependent in the past on Craddick to push his agenda through the Legislature.

Highway funding
William Lutz, managing editor of the conservative Lone Star Report, said the governor also could find opposition from Pitts to the centerpiece of his administration: expanding the state highways and building the Trans-Texas Corridor.

"Jim Pitts is not a friend of TxDOT (the Texas Department of Transportation)," Lutz said. "If Jim Pitts is speaker, the governor might get a few bills sent to his desk that he doesn't like."

Smith said other major losers would be Hillco and the Texas Capitol Group. Smith said the lobbyists relied on Perry to serve as a veto block on legislation they opposed and relied on Craddick to push what they wanted through the House.

"Their empire has been dependent on this speaker and the financial backing of Bob Perry," Smith said.

In the past five years, Bob Perry, no relation to Gov. Perry, has donated $915,000 to the Hillco PAC, about 43 percent of all the PAC's fundraising. The money was then donated to legislators.

Ethics advocate Fred Lewis said he thinks the money was not just meant to sway legislators but also to keep Craddick in power by financing lawmakers who support him. (Since Craddick was elected speaker in 2003, he has received $25,000 from Hillco and $35,000 from Bob Perry.)

Lewis said he also thinks a state law prohibiting lobbyists from influencing a speaker's race may have been violated when Hillco's Miller served as Craddick's spokesman in the early stages of the campaign last month. He said Craddick also should have reported Miller's services as an expense on his speaker's race financial disclosure statements.

"It is clear Bill Miller is providing professional services to Speaker Craddick, and they are not reported," Lewis said.

Forming relationships
Miller said his activities as a friend of Craddick's have nothing to do with his work at Hillco. Miller said he was friends with Craddick years ago when Craddick had no power in the House because Craddick had gotten crossways with former Speaker Pete Laney.

"My relationship with Craddick preceded Hillco. It goes back to when he was poison," Miller said. "We have a lot of clients. Do you think we'd subvert our clients for one member of the Legislature?"

Miller said he took reporters' calls during the holidays only because official spokeswoman Alexis DeLee was on vacation. He said he did it as a favor to the reporters and to Craddick.

Other potential losers in a Craddick defeat include Houston homebuilder Perry and San Antonio investor Leininger, both of whom are major Republican donors.

Under Craddick, the House approved creation of the Texas Residential Construction Commission, which protects homebuilders from lawsuits.

And Craddick pushed for a floor vote in 2005 on doomed private school voucher legislation, Leininger's top legislative goal. Leininger's mostly unsuccessful funding of efforts to unseat Republican incumbents who voted against that bill is partly responsible for the current rebellion of House members against Craddick.

Perry spokesman Anthony Holm said Perry makes political donations to both Democrats and Republicans who support a business-friendly agenda. Holm said that will not change if there is a new speaker.

Perry was Pitts' largest donor last year, giving him $15,000.

Leininger spokesman Ken Hoagland said the businessman accepts that trying to create a majority for vouchers by funding legislative campaigns was a mistake. Hoagland said Leininger has "apologized for excesses" and is working to persuade lawmakers he once opposed that vouchers would be good for the school children.

Variety of interests
As for Pitts, the Waxahachie lawmaker comes to the speaker's race with his own set of encumbrances.

Though he was the 10th-largest fundraiser among House members in 2006, his donations came from a broad array of interests. His brother, John, and nephew, John Jr., are lobbyists whose clients mostly include charter schools and businesses associated with the low-income-housing industry.

What worries some conservatives is Pitts' legislative history and the alliances he is making in the speaker's race.

In 2004, Pitts pushed legislation supported by the governor to legalize video slot machines at racetracks. Pitts' contributions last year included $7,500 from the political committee of Houston-based Maxxam Inc., a company interested in passage of such legislation.

To win the speakership, Pitts is putting together a coalition of Democratic and Republican lawmakers. He has promised to be more open than Craddick and give all sides of an issue a seat at negotiations on bills.

To conservatives, that means Pitts could be more willing to give in to Democratic demands on spending, social issues and lawsuit-reform legislation.

"That means our conservative agenda would be endangered if not DOA," said Cathie Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum.

'Tail wagging the dog'
Jim Cardle, president of the conservative Texas Citizens Action Network, said state government spending grew 19 percent with Pitts as Appropriations chairman during times when state revenue was tight. Cardle said he is worried about what will happen if Pitts is speaker and has to satisfy Democrats who helped elect him.

"Democrats would win. If Pitts wins, you've got the tail wagging the dog," Cardle said.

There also are political risks involved for House members in how they decide to vote.

Democrats who back Craddick could face retribution from their party in next year's primaries.

Republicans who bolt to Pitts face the similar possibility.

Smith said he does not think the Republican members need to worry. He said three of the five Republican incumbents targeted for defeat by Leininger last year survived.

Cardle agreed. He said Craddick Democrats have more to worry about, and he noted that the party defeated state Reps. Ron Wilson and Al Edwards of Houston and the late state Sen. Frank Madla of San Antonio in the primaries based on party-loyalty votes.

"The Democrats have a better enforcement mechanism than the Republicans do," Cardle said.

Money flows from lobbyists
Hillco and the Texas Capitol Group may be the most high-profile lobby firms with vested interests in a Craddick speakership, but they are not alone.

Through June 30, Craddick raised $1.2 million from lobbyists and business interests for his campaign, even though he faced no re-election challenge. He had $3 million in political cash in the bank.

Pitts raised $812,000 last year, but he also faced challenges in both the GOP primary and general election. His reports cover all but the last two months of 2006. He had $484,334 in political cash in his bank account.

Craddick's report for the second half of 2006 and a final tally on Pitts will not be available until after the speaker's race.

Because state law prohibits fundraising during a regular legislative session, if Pitts wins, lobby interests will be unable to make so-called late train donations to him until 20 days after the session ends.
Read more in the Houston Chronicle

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Pennsylvania Political War Over Planned Tolls on I-80

By SEAN D. HAMILL - The New York Times -August 26, 2007
BROOKVILLE, Pa., Aug. 23 — Anthony Foote spends a lot of time driving his Kenworth T-600 truck on Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania. He prefers it to the state’s other east-west highway, the Interstate 76 turnpike, which can cost him $140 in tolls.

So the news that the state plans to impose tolls on I-80 was as upsetting to Mr. Foote as finding an ugly scratch in the purple paint on his rig.

“I hate paying tolls,” he said. “It eats up my profit. If this goes through, you’ll have a lot of truckers avoiding Pennsylvania — including me.”

Pennsylvania officials plan to build up to 10 toll areas along the 311-mile stretch of Interstate 80 in the next three years to help pay for road, bridge and mass transit projects and subsidies.

The move has sparked a political war between the bipartisan coalition of state legislators who approved the plan and two Republican congressmen who say it is a “shell game,” taking revenue from rural Pennsylvania to bail out the state’s urban areas.

“It’s absolutely horrendous for my district,” said one of them, Representative John E. Peterson, whose Fifth Congressional District covers about half of I-80 in north central Pennsylvania. “Every major bill like this should be measured by whether this will make people less likely to come here. And if this stays active, we’ll never get another distribution center or similar business again in my district.”

Paying for new roads with tolls, or adding tolls to sections of older urban roads, is common across the country. But experts say that imposing tolls on an entire interstate highway that had been free may be unprecedented, in part because the federal government typically bans tolls on highways paid for with federal money, as I-80 was.

“I haven’t heard of another one,” said Bernard Weinstein, director of the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas, which has done a half dozen studies on the impact of toll roads. “But I think most states will eventually have to move to the user principle. Tolls are going to be the wave of the future.”

Pennsylvania’s plan is to generate about $950 million a year through the sale of bonds backed by tollway revenue and other state sources over the first 10 years, with about $500 million going to road and bridge projects throughout the state, and the remaining $450 million going to subsidize mass transit in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other cities.

State officials say that about 70 percent of the 21 million vehicles that travel I-80 annually are from out of state, and 40 percent are commercial trucks.

After the State Legislature and Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, included the toll plan in their July budget deal, Mr. Peterson and Representative Phil English surprised state officials on July 24 by quietly slipping an amendment into the House’s version of the federal transportation bill to prevent it.

But hardly anyone outside of Mr. English and Mr. Peterson’s offices believe it will still be there after the House-Senate conference committee meets on the transportation bill. Pennsylvania’s senators, Bob Casey and Arlen Specter, have both said they do not want to interfere in the state’s decision-making and will not help the two congressmen.

Even so, Mr. English and Mr. Peterson are not giving up, and they believe they have public opinion, and federal law, on their side.

The plan requires the approval of the Federal Highway Administration, a process that state officials hope will be completed in a year. Under a program called the Interstate System Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Pilot Program, states can add tolls to interstates paid for with federal money.

“It will fly only if the Federal Highway Administration decides it will fly,” said Mr. English, whose Third Congressional District covers about 30 miles of the western edge of I-80. “And this plan doesn’t fit the pilot program as proposed by Congress.”

Mr. English argues that the pilot program was intended to let states use new toll revenue for road maintenance and improvements, not mass transit.

But Joseph G. Brimmeier, chief executive for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, said he was confident Pennsylvania’s program would pass muster.

“We put together a package that helps solve the funding crisis in Pennsylvania for the next 50 years,” he said. “It solves the crisis without raising one cent of taxes. And here we are four weeks into this debate, and I don’t hear any plans from them to help solve these problems.”

Both Mr. English and Mr. Peterson said they liked the financing idea that Governor Rendell first proposed: leasing Interstate 76 to a private company to generate revenue. But state officials could not garner support for it, and the tolling plan, which includes raising rates on the rest of the existing tollway system as well, was approved instead.

Mr. Brimmeier said what upsets him the most about the representative’s efforts is that they “try to pit one part of Pennsylvania against another.”

When asked about the toll plan, many drivers on I-80 sounded resigned.

“I’d have to pay it, and I’d still go on 80, but I wouldn’t be happy about it,” said Dawn Toporcer, a fourth-grade teacher from Lordstown, Ohio, who was shopping with her two daughters for school at the Prime Outlets at Grove City, a regional outlet mall on Interstate 79, about three miles south of I-80.

Grove City was specifically chosen as the site for the mall 15 years ago because of its location near the intersection of the two interstates, said Michelle Czerwinski, a mall spokeswoman. The mall attracts millions of customers who get there by traveling I-80, and imposing tolls on the highway would hurt, she said.

“It’s just going to be a negative,” Ms. Czerwinski said. “Any kind of toll plan would slow down the traffic.”

See photos and map in THE NEW YORK TIMES

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