Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Taraborelli is ready to make landowners an offer they can't refuse.

Beginning of road bond projects still months away


Howard Roden
The Courier
Copyright 2005

With Christmas less than two days away, most of the buildings and businesses in downtown Conroe were closed Friday. However, there was activity - and a sense of urgency - in the offices of the Montgomery County Transportation Program.

Located in a renovated bank drive-through across from Conroe City Hall, the Montgomery County Transportation Program is the formal designation given to the five "major" road construction projects local voters approved during the $160 million bond election in September. Jennie Taraborelli, of Houston-based Pate Engineers, is the MCTP program manager, and it is her task to find a way to expedite those projects.

To that end, Taraborelli has established what she considers a "very aggressive," four-year construction schedule. That timetable is roughly half of what it would take the Texas Department of Transportation to complete the same list of projects, she said.

"We will only move this thing forward by setting aggressive expectations," Taraborelli said.
There was hope the much-needed expansion of FM 1488 might begin by the end of this year. July is now the anticipated start of construction of the section between Texas 242 and FM 2978.

While campaigning for the bonds' passage in September, Precinct 2 Commissioner Craig Doyal said bulldozers would be "on the ground" working on FM 1488 before the end of the year if the voters approved funding through the innovative "pass-through" financing. He admits now that was a "very optimistic" timeline.

"I guarantee you that nobody is dragging any heels on this end," said Doyal, who attended an MCTP staff meeting Friday morning. "It takes time to get the pieces in place and make progress. But it is taking more time than any of us had hoped it would. Then again, there's not a project that has moved as quickly as I would like."

According to Taraborelli, FM 1488's nemesis remains the very thing that has dogged it since the project's initial funding in 2001 - right-of-way acquisition. There are some landowners along the highway who believe "this is their moment to capitalize," she said.

The time may soon arrive when the solution may be to use eminent domain and start condemnation proceedings, she said.

"We want the people to receive fair value for their land, but we can't have the project continue on forever," Taraborelli said. "Our plan is to get the 1488 right of way in hand so we can bid the clearing contract in March."

Work on the section of FM 1488 between Interstate 45 and Texas 242 won't begin until the summer of 2007, but it has to do primarily with the habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Areas of Jones State Park along the highway were cleared last summer to encourage the bird to relocate to an "improved habitat" farther away from road traffic, Taraborelli said. TxDOT agreed in a state environmental assessment in January 2005 to withhold construction for two of the bird's breeding seasons.

"It will be faster for us to become TxDOT's surrogate in this matter rather than starting the process all over again," she said.

During the interim, focus will shift to the stretch of FM 1488 between Texas 242 and FM 2978. As the primary contractor for the MCTP, Pate Engineers isn't restricted by TxDOT philosophy.
"TxDOT tends to think in linear terms," Taraborelli said. "Our plan is to run the projects concurrently, so we can make progress. Eight years is too long for these projects. It's our plan to give the local entities control of the projects after four years. TxDOT would look at this schedule and say there is no way this can be done."

Taraborelli, who currently oversees a staff of eight, said Pate Engineers would not receive a bonus for achieving its accelerated timeline. Reputation is the company's primary motivation.
"Everybody in the state is looking at this project. We pride ourselves on doing good, quality work," she said. "We're not cutting steps. We're shuffling resources into the right places to make it happen."

Howard Roden can be reached at

©Houston Community Newspapers Online 2005


Two Spanish Firms Compete for Dallas Toll Road Contracts

Ferrovial, ACS compete for 2.1 bln eur Texas motorway contracts -report


AFX News Limited
Copyright 2005

MADRID (AFX) - Grupo Ferrovial SA and Actividades de Construccion y Servicios SA ACS are competing for contracts to build and operate motorways in the US state of Texas worth 2.1 bln eur, Cinco Dias reported without citing a source.

According to Cinco Dias, Ferrovial's Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte SA unit will be competing against ACS' Dragados construction unit for the construction and operation of a 1.5 bln usd motorway linking Dallas with Fort Worth.

The two groups will also be competing to build and operate the planned 1 bln usd Dallas ring road in a public-private partnership, the newspaper said.

Cinco Dias said that Cintra appears to have an advantage thanks to its existing status as strategic partner of the State of Texas in the development of its 29-36 bln usd Trans Texas Corridor project over the next 50 years.

When Cintra announced the contract in a consortium with Texan builder Zachry in December 2004, it said its expected to develop 6 bln usd of motorway projects over the next five years as part of the project.

The newspaper noted, however, that Zachry is bidding with ACS and not Cintra for the motorway contracts.

© 2005 AFX News Limited.


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"This condemnation effort threatens private-property rights and poses dire risks to free-market conservation as practiced by the Conservancy"

South Padre Island Preserve deserves our protection

The attempt to condemn 1,500 acres threatens rights

Dec. 27, 2005

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2005

THE Nature Conservancy of Texas was recently surprised and alarmed to learn that, without even contacting us, Willacy County and the Willacy County Navigation District are proposing to condemn and acquire by rule of eminent domain the Conservancy's 1,500-acre nature preserve on South Padre Island, an attack on both the sanctity of private-property rights and private conservation efforts.

In 2000, the Nature Conservancy purchased more than 24,500 acres on South Padre Island from Westbrook South Padre, L.P., a private developer, with the intention of conveying much of that land to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge when federal funds to acquire the land eventually became available. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison led the effort to provide federal funding for that conveyance, and in 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired about 23,000 acres from the Conservancy to add to the wildlife refuge.

The Conservancy retained about 1,500 acres of its original purchase to create the South Padre Island Preserve on the northern tip of the island. Since then, we had several informal discussions with the Willacy County Navigation District on possible conservation-compatible public access to the island, which could entail such managed activities as environmental education for school children, guided ecotourism, nature study, wildlife photography and other nature-based forms of recreation. We continue to be willing to explore these possibilities.

At the same time, safeguarding the conservation value of the land requires us to protect this delicate ecosystem.

Since our relationship with both Willacy County and the Navigation District had always been cordial, we were shocked to learn of this attempt to seize our private property and nature preserve from a local newspaper reporter. We do not understand why Willacy County or the Navigation District would want to try to condemn a nature preserve owned and operated for the public good. The Conservancy is a contributing member of this community, and we pay our share of property taxes on this land.

We also would like to emphasize that in no way does the Nature Conservancy restrict access to the beaches on our preserve. Public access to Texas beaches is provided through the Texas Open Beaches Act, with which we fully comply.

South Padre Island is a critical part of the longest barrier island system in the world, stretching for 250 miles from Corpus Christi Bay into Mexico. Sheltered between these barrier islands and the mainland, the Laguna Madre is one of only five hypersaline lagoons in the world and provides a nursery for 60 percent of the fish in the Gulf of Mexico. This barrier island system is a crucial economic generator for the nature tourism and sport-fishing industries of South Texas. Additionally, the near-pristine natural condition of the islands helps protect the Texas coastline from the ravages of tropical storms and hurricanes.

Along with its tremendous economic value, South Padre Island provides habitat for such rare and endangered species as the Kemp's Ridley sea turtle, the most endangered sea turtle in the world, rare piping plovers and brown pelicans. The island is the world's most important staging area for rare peregrine falcons in migration, and the Laguna Madre is the winter home to 80 percent of the Earth's redhead ducks.

To uphold our mission to conserve this rich and beautiful resource for the benefit of both wildlife and people, the Nature Conservancy of Texas will vigorously oppose any attempt to condemn South Padre Island Preserve. This condemnation effort threatens private-property rights and poses dire risks to free-market conservation as practiced by the Conservancy and other land trusts, and many individual Texas landowners.

Smith is Texas State Director for the Nature Conservancy and is based in San Antonio. He represented the nonprofit organization in the purchase of the South Padre Island land, most of which was added to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and a part became South Padre Island Preserve.

© 2005 Houston Chronicle:


Cintra emerges from under the radar in Niagra Falls

National security issues cloud airport takeover

By Mike Hudson


The Niagra Falls Reporter
Copyright 2005

Congressman John LaFalce (D-Niagara Falls) fired back this week against critics who have complained about his investigation into a proposed deal between a multinational corporation and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority for the Niagara Falls International Airport.

"I've raised some questions and, as far as I'm concerned, they are very valid questions," LaFalce said. "You've got to make sure you don't give away the keys to the kingdom."

Under the proposed deal, Cintra, which operates airports and other enterprises in Mexico, Colombia, Spain and Canada, would lease the Niagara Falls facility for a period of 99 years.

Cintra is not yet incorporated in New York State, and LaFalce said he began asking questions about the company and the deal itself when details first became public this past January. Particularly disturbing, he said, is the fact that the company isn't required to make any commitments to Niagara Falls in exchange for what he characterized as a sweetheart deal.

"This isn't a lease, it's a sale, and Cintra isn't bound to any real set of performance standards," he said. "I never wanted to kill the deal, but I want to make sure that it's a good deal for Niagara Falls."

Thus far, probes into Cintra have not revealed who the company's principals are or where it would get the $10 million called for under the terms of the NFTA lease. These issues have national security implications, LaFalce said, since the airport is home to the Air Force's 914th Tactical Airlift Wing and the Air National Guard's 107th Air Refueling Wing.

"We need to be very clear on the nature of the legal relationship between the NFTA and the U.S. Air Force," he said. "And if Cintra comes in, what will be their relationship with the Air Force? Will they be the landlords? And if they are, is it Cintra Spain? Cintra Mexico? Nobody seems to be able to say."

LaFalce has been the major proponent of the Air Force presence in Niagara County. Currently, more than 3,000 people work at the air base, including active duty military personnel.

"I can tell you that I've talked with a number of people in the Air Force who are very pleased with the questions I've been asking," he said.

But the questions have thus far resulted in few answers, he added.

"I've received totally inconsistent and contradictory explanations," LaFalce said. "They run seven airports in Mexico, one in Colombia and one in either Peru or Mexico, but at this point we're not even sure whether the Cintra that runs the airports is the same Cintra that owns the Mexican airlines."

That corporation, Cintra S.A., is a holding company that controls Mexico's two principal airlines, AeroMexico and Mexicana. Formed in 1996 by creditors of the airlines, Cintra S.A. reportedly owns three regional carriers, an airfreight handler, ground support services and an engine maintenance company.

The Mexican government owns a 63 percent stake in the company, which is based in Mexico City. Its board of directors is made up almost entirely of Mexican government officials and bankers.

"This gets to the whole heart of the problem," LaFalce said. "If this isn't the same company, and they haven't said it is, then who are we dealing with?"

LaFalce, who said he was stunned when NFTA officials announced the lease-signing was "imminent," said the Federal Aviation Administration will not sign off on the deal until a lengthy series of questions are answered by the company.

The questions were submitted to Cintra in written form and, thus far, there has been no response, he said.

In addition to the national security concerns and questions about the company's finances and management, the FAA wants to see Cintra's business plan for the airport, as well as the actual lease agreement. Furthermore, LaFalce said he wants to know what the tax status of the company will be.

"They've already talked about buying property adjacent to the airport and I think it's important to know in advance whether that property will be taken off of the tax rolls," he said. "Are they going to make payments in lieu of taxes? Again, no one seems to be able to say."

Until the questions are answered, LaFalce said FAA approval of the deal is unlikely, and he chided the NFTA for its apparent eagerness to push the deal through.

"These are threshold questions," he said. "Either (NFTA officials) are unaware of what's going on or they are misleading the public."

©2005 The Niagara Falls Reporter


Monday, December 26, 2005

2005 in Rear View Mirror: Legislature allows governor to "toll away."

2005: End of the open road

December 26, 2005

Ben Wear
Austin American-Stateman
Copyright 2005

Say goodbye to 2005, the last toll-free year you'll ever see on Central Texas roads.

If 2004 was about deciding what to do about transportation — toll roads and, less wrenchingly, commuter rail — 2005 was about the doing.

It appears that 2006 will be more of the same: construction on four or perhaps five toll roads and planning for Capital Metro's Leander-to-downtown-Austin commuter line.

However, 2006 also will be the year that all or part of three of the toll roads under construction will open, probably sometime in the fall. You'll begin to see a marketing push for electronic toll tags months before that.

But enough about what's to come. Here's a quick look back at what made transportation news in 2005:

The Lege: Toll-speed ahead. After the toll road earthquakes of 2004 in Austin and elsewhere, one might have expected some sort of retrenchment by the Legislature this spring. Didn't happen.

Instead, legislators tweaked Gov. Rick Perry's toll road policy around the edges, guarding rural interests as the governor moves toward building the first leg of his Trans-Texas Corridor network of supertollways and requiring a public election to change a free road into a toll road. But the underlying message — toll away, governor — was a confirmation of the new direction for financing roads.

Lawmakers' handling of the gasoline tax brought it all into focus. Separate efforts to allow the 20-cent-a-gallon levy (frozen since 1991) to grow with inflation and to allow local areas to tack on a few cents for use in their region both died. And this despite House Speaker Tom Craddick's public support of indexing the tax to inflation.

So, given the growth in the state and snarled metropolitan traffic, tolls remain the only option for the burgeoning need.

The Legislature also proposed a constitutional amendment, which voters approved in November, to create a "rail relocation and improvement fund." Lawmakers will have to decide in 2007 how big to make it and how to pay for it.

Republicans in the Legislature, showing their silly side, snuffed out a move to name the future Texas 130 tollway after the notoriously Democratic Willie Nelson. Nelson allowed as how he didn't much want his name attached to a pay-to-drive road anyway.

Pork this! Their big siblings in Washington, meanwhile, finally found a way after two years to pass transportation reauthorization legislation. Congress in July settled on $286.4 billion in road and transit spending over the next five years, including about $24 billion of so-called earmarks designated for specific projects that lawmakers wanted done.

For Texas, which habitually gets a raw deal by having to send about $10 in federal gas taxes to Washington for every $9 it gets back in transportation funds, the measure marginally improved that to 92 percent by 2008. But, with overall spending going up, the state's annual take in federal transportation money will go up about 38 percent anyway.

It might have been more, but President Bush made it clear that he would not sign a bill that raised the 18.4 cent-a-gallon federal gas tax.

Wanna used SUV, cheap? The Republicans in control in Washington and Austin probably would have left gas taxes alone anyway. But exploding gasoline prices through the middle of the year made even a small increase a political moonshot.

Regular unleaded, still in its first year in $2 a gallon territory, barreled on past $3 a gallon in some parts of the country (not here, not quite), leading a lot of people to re-evaluate the hunka-hunka-burnin'-gas in their driveway. After the hurricanes finally stopped blowing in off the Atlantic late in the fall and all the refineries got back online, gas prices plummeted back to 2004 levels.

Velvet crown of toll roads. Construction on the four toll-roads-to-be in Central Texas moved briskly this year, a pace brought on by the promise of revenue when the roads open and bond buyers, who lent the state more than $2 billion to build them, waiting to get their money back.

Work on all or parts of the three roads under construction by the Texas Department of Transportation — Loop 1 North, Texas 45 North and Texas 130 — is well ahead of schedule. Some sections will be ready early next year, but the agency probably will wait to open any of them until drivers can go seamlessly from downtown Austin on MoPac Boulevard to the Loop 1 tollway just north of Parmer Lane, thence to Texas 45 North and on to Interstate 35 in Round Rock.

Parts of Texas 130 on the metro area's eastern edge could open next year, as well, most likely the part between U.S. 79 and U.S. 290 East.

Meanwhile, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, sort of a TxDOT Jr., broke ground in the spring on U.S. 183-A in the northwest part of the metro area. The 11.6-mile tollway in Cedar Park and Leander — the northern seven miles will be frontage roads only for now and will be free to drivers — is only slightly behind schedule and should open in the spring of 2007.

There are hitches elsewhere, however. Texas 45 Southeast, which will connect the south end of Texas 130 to I-35, has been hung up by a lawsuit (construction was to have begun this year), and ground won't be broken until midyear at the earliest. And several other projects in the controversial second phase of toll roads are on hold pending the result of a study instigated at the behest of Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken.

Metro capital. The local transit agency, having found the electoral pot of gold in 2004 when voters approved the commuter rail project, this year found the pot deficient of greenbacks to make it all work in the long run. The reasons for the tightening belt vary, depending on who's talking. But the immediate effect was a management proposal to pay newly hired drivers on a lower scale and a resulting (and ongoing) deadlock with the union that represents those drivers.

The agency, looking at a long roll of federal red tape for transit grants, decided not to pursue $30 million in federal funds for the $90 million-plus rail project. And with rail supporters already talking about other, much more expensive projects, the agency's heretofore bountiful 1 percent sales tax suddenly looks insufficient.

Planning work on the rail project, meanwhile, continued behind the scenes. The agency has arranged to buy six rail cars for more than $30 million and will have to borrow the money for that purchase. And it has cut from its plans, at least initially, one of the nine stations advertised to the public during the 2004 election.

So if you want to get off at Highland Mall when the line opens in 2008, better start practicing your drop and roll move.

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

© 2005 Austin American-Statesman:


Sunday, December 25, 2005

Texas road building giant uses front companies to circumvent federal law

Road builder fined for using minority fronts

Giant contractor Williams Brothers to pay $3 million

Dec. 24, 2005

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2005

Williams Brothers Construction Co., one of the largest road builders in Texas and the United States, has agreed to pay a $3 million penalty for using puppet companies to meet affirmative action goals.

The Federal Highway Administration has pursued the Houston-based company off and on for more than 20 years for the way it arranged small firms to supply it with concrete.

The allegation was that the firms were not independent of Williams Brothers and couldn't survive without its patronage.

In 2002, major cement suppliers sued Williams Brothers for the bad debt of one of the companies, using the same rationale. It said the firm was Williams Brothers' "alter-ego."

Attorneys for one of those suppliers, TXI of Dallas, wrote, "Instead of serving the community as the program was meant to do by forcing contractors to subcontract a certain percent of their work to firms owned by minorities and women, (the subcontractor) was used as a front for Williams Brothers to avoid increased costs and loss of control by subcontracting to a more independent third-party subcontractor."

That case still is pending in a Montgomery County district court. Richard Schellhammer, an attorney for TXI, said Friday he had no idea the federal government had been pursuing Williams Brothers recently on the same grounds.

Federal officials were not available Friday to elaborate on when they restarted their investigation of Williams Brothers or what triggered it.

Williams Brothers and its owner and chief executive, James D. "Doug" Pitcock Jr., are Texas construction legends. Formed 50 years ago to take advantage of the new Interstate Highway Act, the company has built and rebuilt virtually every freeway in Houston and had more than $400 million in revenues in 2004, virtually all from the Texas Department of Transportation.

The state transportation department started its program for "historically underutilized businesses" in 1983.

Anyone receiving federal highway dollars would have to make sure a percentage was subcontracted to women and minorities, later changed by court cases to anyone who could prove a disadvantaged background.

According to FHWA case files and depositions, Pitcock asked two of his Hispanic workers if they would like to become a company.

Williams Brothers sold the men equipment it had been using to mix concrete, loaned them part of the money for the purchase and co-signed on loans for the rest. The men did business exclusively with Williams Brothers.

The FHWA and state transportation department both argued the subcontractor wasn't independent enough, and the state eventually decided to "graduate" it from the affirmative action program for exceeding the program's cap of annual business.

The company folded soon thereafter.

The federal penalty concerns a second and third subcontractor.

Williams Brothers sold the equipment from the defunct subcontractor to a man who in turn leased it to his wife. She sold concrete back to Williams Brothers.

In a 2002 interview with the Houston Chronicle, the couple said Williams Brothers got them prices on cement and limestone and then faxed the information for them to "bid."

When that subcontractor got into financial trouble, Williams Brothers again took back the equipment and a third company was formed by a female and Hispanic employee of the second company.

Pitcock declined comment this week through a spokesman but in the past said he saw no problem with helping people get set up in business.

He felt especially burned by what he considered poor business practices of the second firm.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the FHWA said in a statement that Williams Brothers has resolved administrative claims that it "knowingly violated" the rules of the disadvantaged business program concerning the second and third companies, DDS Aggregates and ANT Enterprises.

It also agreed to hire a "compliance monitor" for disadvantaged business contracts and volunteer to assist the state disadvantaged business program.

"Contractors are not free to ignore their obligations," said Chuck Rosenberg, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, in a written statement.

© 2005 Houston Chronicle: