Trans Texas Corruption, eminent domain abuse, and the Texas Toll Road Rebellion (1999-2011)
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Rick Perry's unaccountable appointees at NTTA boost toll taxes by 32%, then lock in 6% automatic toll tax increases every 2 years.
North Texas Tollway Authority OKs rate hike
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER The Dallas Morning News Copyright 2009
Tolls will jump about 32 percent on North Texas Tollway Authority toll roads Sept. 1, thanks to a 8-1 vote this morning by board members.
The new rates will be about 14.5 cents per mile on the President George Bush Turnpike, State Highway 121, now known as the Sam Rayburn Tollway, and the Dallas North Tollway.
In imposing the increase, the board turned aside, by a 7-2 vote, a proposal by board member Bob Day, a Dallas County appointee. Day wanted the increase to be phased in over time. Day voted against the increase.
The new rates will boost NTTA revenues about $14 million this year, and $43.5 million in 2010, and a steadily rising amount in every year beyond.
Director Dave Denison said he was concerned that the rate was in response to temporary conditions caused by the current recession, and will bring in more than is necessary to meet the agency's obligations.
"I'm not absolutely fully convinced" that the 14.5 cent rate is necessary, Denison said.
"If we come out of the recession and are going great guns we may not need all this money," he said.
Some board members also initially seemed opposed to wording in the new rate policy that nows sets an automatic toll rate increase every two years. Every two years from now on, rates will jump nearly 6 percent, without the need for a board vote.
The increase is necessary, CFO Janice Davis said, because NTTA's revenues are no longer enough to meet obligations to creditors to whom NTTA owes about $6 billion. Bond convenants require NTTA revenues to be at least 1.5 times its debt payments. Without the increases, the agency would likely not meet that obligation in the next couple years.
The automatic increases are necessary, too, or else NTTA's ability to borrow more money to build new roads will be constrained, staff and financial advisors said. Previously, toll rates were reviewed only every five years.
NTTA's financial squeeze is due to a combination of factors: while total traffic numbers are up, they are lower than expected; collections from drivers without toll tags have been less successful than expected; and fewer drivers on the new Sam Rayburn Tollway have signed up for toll tags.
"The only challenge facing Goldman in completing the merger is trying to figure out which parts of the Treasury Deptartment they don't already own."
Satire Goldman Sachs in Talks to Acquire Treasury Department Sister Entities to Share Employees, Money
Andy Borowitz Borowitz Report Copyright 2009
In what some on Wall Street are calling the biggest blockbuster deal in the history of the financial sector, Goldman Sachs confirmed today that it was in talks to acquire the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
According to Goldman spokesperson Jonathan Hestron, the merger between Goldman and the Treasury Department is "a good fit" because "they're in the business of printing money and so are we."
The Goldman spokesman said that the merger would create efficiencies for both entities: "We already have so many employees and so much money flowing back and forth, this would just streamline things."
Mr. Hestron said the only challenge facing Goldman in completing the merger "is trying to figure out which parts of the Treasury Dept. we don't already own."
Goldman recently celebrated record earnings by roasting a suckling pig over a bonfire of hundred-dollar bills.
Elsewhere, conspiracy theorists celebrated the 40th anniversary of NASA faking the moon landing.
And in South Carolina, Gov. Mark Sanford gave his wife a new diamond ring, while his wife gave him an electronic ankle bracelet.
NTTA pushes 32% toll increase amid soaring debts from SH 121 toll road conversion payoffs and falling traffic
NTTA Sets $1.7B of Debt, With Big Chunk of Build America Bonds
By Richard Williamson The Bond Buyer Copyright 2009
The North Texas Tollway Authority is assembling a roughly $1.7 billion bond package that will kick off next month with $790 million of taxable Build America Bonds and $530 million of tax-exempt debt in a deal that will test the market's appetite for paper in the low A-rated category.
The NTTA's board is scheduled to approve the plan on Thursday with a pricing likely the week of Aug. 3.
Goldman, Sachs & Co. will be senior manager on the senior-lien BABs, which will carry 40-year maturities, no call provisions, and are expected to earn yields equivalent to 30-year Treasuries plus 275 basis points, according to Doug Hartman, managing director at financial adviser RBC [Royal Bank of Canada] Capital Markets.
Along with the BABs, the NTTA will issue $530 million of fixed-rate senior-lien debt with Morgan Stanley as senior manager. With maturities between 2022 and 2039, the tax-exempt revenue bonds are expected to bear yields of 6.1% to 6.5%, Hartman said. The bonds will have a 10-year call provision.
In addition, the authority plans to issue a $360 million tranche of tax-exempt bonds in September with Siebert Brandford Shank as senior manager.
Credit ratings are critically important to the agency, which is preparing to raise tolls to maintain debt coverage levels while cutting costs to accommodate declining revenue. The NTTA is not planning to insure the debt and has not arranged for a letter of credit, a spokeswoman said.
In its last rating action, Standard & Poor's assigned an A-minus to the NTTA's senior-lien toll revenue bonds and a BBB-plus to the subordinate-lien debt, with a stable outlook on both. Moody's Investors Service rates the senior bonds A2 and the subordinate bonds A3 with a stable outlook.
NTTA board chairman Paul Wageman led a team to visit Standard & Poor's and Moody's in New York last week to make the case that the toll road agency is committed to maintaining coverage levels for its rising debt in a down economy.
"We think we've got a good case that the board has taken the steps needed to keep NTTA on solid ground," Hartman told board members last week.
The authority's finance and audit committee, made up of board members, last week took the big step of imposing a 32% toll hike on the Dallas North Tollway and President George Bush Turnpike. Tolls will rise from the current 11 cents per mile to 14.5 cents, growing further to 15.3 cents in 2011 and rising annually at a compounded rate of 2.75% through 2017, when they would hit 18.01 cents per mile.
The full board is expected to approve the increase on Thursday. Only board member Bob Day voted against the toll hike on the finance committee last week, saying he wanted to bring his own proposal before the board.
The higher tolls come as revenues are falling due to less traffic and the failure of scofflaws to pay tolls that are now monitored electronically. Drivers who lack toll tags are sent bills in the mail based on photos of their cars' license plates, but the authority admits that collections have proven difficult.
"We realize these are difficult economic times to raise rates," said NTTA chief financial officer Janice Davis, speaking to board members, "but this is the prudent decision that will help maintain the quality of existing roads, fulfill NTTA's debt service obligations, and meet regional commitmentsto finance and build much-needed road construction projects."
The vote to raise tolls comes a month after the authority trimmed its budget by $108 million after reporting a 10.9% decrease in projected revenue for 2009. The reductions were based on revenue in the first four months of the year.
"We will continue to monitor the situation and make adjustments where necessary," said NTTA executive director Allen Clemson.
The cutbacks are also affecting bankers, advisers and other professionals working on bond issues.
The finance committee last week approved a 25% cut in fees for RBC's project team in New York that is working on an upcoming State Highway 161 toll financing. If the bond deal closes by next February, the RBC team will earn $75,000 rather than $100,000. But if the deal closes by October, the team will earn back the $25,000, officials said.
Despite questions about how much RBC was earning per hour and spending on travel, board member Victor Vandergriff praised its work for the authority.
"They've put in long, hard hours analyzing the financial information in an ever-changing world," he said. "They're putting in the hours."
Hartman at Royal Bank of Canada is also working on an NTTA bond issue for the first time, replacing managing director Rebecca Heflin, who is on leave. Hartman moved to RBC from Citi last month. Before working in Citi's Dallas office, he worked eight years with First Southwest Co. as senior vice president. He also previously worked as a senior managing consultant with Public Financial Management in Austin.
In addition to next month's financing for new-money and refunding commercial paper, the NTTA will be looking for opportunities to refund 1997 and 1998 bonds for current savings, according to Hartman. The authority also wants to refund its Series 2005C bonds to eliminate swaps and faces a mandatory refunding of $335 million of put bonds in January.
Despite a soaring debt load fueled by $3.5 billion of bonds sold in 2008 for State Highway 121, the toll increase will allow the NTTA to maintain debt service ratios of about 1.5 times.
"Is the bottom line that we meet our targeted coverage ratios?" board member Kenneth Barr asked CFO Davis in a discussion of the toll hike.
$3.2 million in tolls produces $58.4 million in fines for the toll tax bureaucracy
TxDOT may forgive tens of millions in toll fines
Proposed 'amnesty' would offer forgiveness of most accummulated fees and fines, but scofflaws would have to pay the overdue tolls and get a TxTag.
By Ben Wear Austin American-Statesman Copyright 2009
Central Texas toll scofflaws could get a pass on paying much of $56.1 million in late fees and fines under a still-in-the-works "amnesty" policy set for a vote July 30 by the Texas Transportation Commission.
The partial break on the surcharges, which can reach almost $450 per toll, probably would be tied to nonpayers' signing up for a TxTag, the electronic device affixed to windshields that allows a motorist to be charged instantly for tolls. The tardy tolls would still be due in full.
On Monday, Texas Department of Transportation officials were not yet ready to reveal the exact extent of the fine discounts under the amnesty.
Mark Tomlinson, TxDOT's turnpike division director, said that nonpayers would be asked to pay only a "small percentage" of the accumulated fees and fines. Experience with other toll agencies has shown that it takes a substantial reduction to entice violators to come forward, Tomlinson said. And he said the agency already offers nonpayers 50 percent off fees if they pay their tolls in full and sign up for a TxTag.
The amnesty period, which would apply to TxDOT's four Austin tollways and one in Tyler, would last one to two months, officials said. According to TxDOT, 140,000 "accounts" — individual vehicle owners — have failed to pay $2.1 million in toll charges, for a total of $3.2 million in unpaid tolls. The potential fees and fines associated with those charges, the amount subject to the amnesty: $58.4 million.
Those figures include the Tyler toll road, which has about $60,000 of unpaid tolls and $2.3 million in pending fees and fines. TxDOT's uncollected money is overwhelmingly from the Central Texas toll roads.
Tomlinson said the agency probably would begin referring some of the cases, those involving chronic nonpayers, to local justice of the peace courts shortly after the amnesty period ends. What about people who might assume that yet another amnesty is down the road and continue to ignore toll bills?
"It would be an absolute mistake for anyone to think in those terms," Tomlinson said. "Our administration has made it absolutely clear that this will be a one-time offer."
The first three of TxDOT's four Austin-area toll roads — Loop 1, Texas 45 North and Texas 130 — opened in November 2006, and the agency began charging motorists in January 2007. The first violators were eligible for referral to court almost two years ago.
TxDOT's other area road, Texas 45 Southeast, which opened this spring, began charging customers only last month and thus would not yet have any violators teed up for a court appearance.
The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which opened Austin's fifth toll road, 183-A, in March 2007, began justice of the peace referrals in January and so far has taken 47 of its worst offenders to court.
Why has it taken so long for TxDOT to begin using the court system for unpaid tolls?
Spokeswoman Karen Amacker said the agency focused initially on its invoicing and collections efforts, which are handled by an outside contractor, the Washington Group, and then on helping the mobility authority begin referring toll cases to court. In addition, she said, TxDOT has to work with several justice of the peace offices — rather than just one, as the mobility authority does — because its 66 miles of Central Texas toll roads extend over a much larger area.
In addition, Tomlinson said, "We've tried to operate with the philosophy of making good toll-paying customers, and we've tried to avoid having to take big violation fees. Certainly, taking people to court is the last resort."
TxDOT's turnpike division has fewer than 40 employees and has seen significant turnover at the top over the past year or so. Tomlinson replaced longtime tollway chief Phil Russell about a year ago at roughly the same time as toll operations director David Powell left for a private sector job. Powell's position has not been filled. In addition, TxDOT has undergone a tumultuous two years because of a $1.1 billion accounting error and opposition to its use of private toll road leases, creating an inauspicious political environment for taking citizens to court over unpaid tolls. The fees and fines for a single toll can be substantial.People who go through a tolling point on a TxDOT road without a TxTag or without stopping to pay with cash would get two invoices within 45 days, each carrying a $1 administrative fee. Failure to pay after 75 days raises the fee to $5. Then at day 112 the unpaid toll goes to a collection agency, and the fee jumps to $25.
Going to a justice of the peace court, which would occur at the 200-day mark when TxDOT begins to refer unpaid tolls, could cost a nonpayer almost $450 for each toll.
By Heather Menzies Bay City Tribune Copyright 2009
The Chamber of Commerce filled a room in the Civic Center Thursday afternoon for a luncheon with featured speaker Sen. Glenn Hegar (R).
Hegar joined the Bay City Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture members Thursday to give his legislative report.
Rep. Randy Weber, Matagorda County Judge Nate McDonald, Bay City Mayor Richard Knapik and many other local officials and business leaders attended the luncheon to hear Hegar's report.
He focused his speech on some of the disappointments of the latest legislative session and included a highlight, especially valuable to Matagorda County residents as well.
Hegar, a farmer and landowner in Katy, said the biggest disappointment from the session was not passing eminent domain reforms."I will say from this last legislative session, one of my biggest disappointments and something I've worked on for almost four years and that was reforming eminent domain," said Hegar."When you put that much time and effort into trying to get the land owner a true ability to have a much higher standard of property rights, you work on something for four years now and it doesn't happen - it's really disappointing."
He also spoke about bringing accountability to the Texas Department of Transportation as vice chairman of the Sunset Review Commission."It's important these agencies go under sunset review," he said.
"With TXDOT it's amazing. They had gotten 100,000 complaints a year from people about road conditions and other issues."
Hegar said one of the main problems is that the department didn't track the complaints."If I were to ask them what roads in the district are having the most complaints, they would say we have no idea."
According to Hegar, the problems with the department of transportation began at the ones in leadership."It starts at the top and the problem with that agency is that you had arrogance and arrogance," he said.
"So it's not the men and women out on the streets that are the problem.""And so what we need to get back to is about accountability, transparency and building and maintaining roads.""And so we didn't get the reforms there and that's another reason I was very disappointed in this last session."
Hegar said he was glad that the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association reforms were passed.
"Ike left the windstorm insurance broke and we had to reform that," said Hegar.
"We were fortunate enough to be able to get that accomplished by the end of the last day."
Hegar said he fought to get the surcharges and fees on the TWIA policies taken off.
"I told them to add those on there would be like taking a stick and sticking it in their eye and then taking it out and beating the devil out of them with it," he said.
"You just can't do that to my constituents."
"Ultimately, I think we have something the Texas coast can live by."
He also said he was proud of the fiscally strong budget legislators passed.
"We passed a state budget that will increase less than the cost of living increases and inflation over the next two years," he said.
"Why? Because Texans have to live within their means during this time and government should too."
"Local governments and private investors are signing CDA's right up until the [August 31 expiration] deadline."
Sheffield says Trans-Texas Corridor dead
by Carroll Wilson | Managing Editor Temple Daily Telegram Copyright 2009
The Trans-Texas Corridor and its offspring along Interstate 35 are dead, Temple’s state representative said last week.
Ralph Sheffield, a first-term Republican, had just returned from a brief special session called by Gov. Rick Perry specifically to deal with ways to finance the TTC and similar projects.
Powerful opponents have been against the plan ever since it was presented by Perry to cut a 1,200-foot-wide swath up the state’s spine to carry cars, trucks, trains, utilities and oil.
“Especially in rural areas, there’s been a lot of opposition to it,” Sheffield said.
But, Temple Mayor Bill Jones III said it’s ludicrous to believe that Texas can thrive over the next few decades without a massive overhaul of the rail and highway systems.
The state itself declared the TTC dead last January, offering a replacement plan called the Innovative Connectivity in Texas/Vision 2009 program.
The I-35 corridor envisioned in TTC’s scaled-down version would be 600 feet wide and would follow the interstate from the border through the Temple area to Dallas and on up. While TTC and ICT are both ready for the undertaker, Sheffield said the same might not be true for a corridor planned to follow what would be I-69 from Brownsville through Victoria and Houston and Nacogdoches to the east.
The Legislature killed the I-35-related projects during the two-day session earlier this month.They refused to consider a proposal to extend the life of so-called “comprehensive development agreements” that have allowed for the state to join in private partnerships to raise money to finance highway systems.The state’s authority to use the agreements plays out in August.
Sheffield did not express optimism that the funding mechanism would be approved even during the next regular session, which is two years away.
“Then what is your solution for highways?” Jones asked rhetorically, during an interview. “Texas’ population is projected to double in 35 years, and in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Austin mega-area, it’s projected to go from 16 million to 38 million or 150 percent increase. We’re going to have that kind of growth and not build any highways? That’s ludicrous.”
Jones is an advocate for high-speed rail, particularly the Texas T-Bone, a two-rail system that would link Dallas with Houston and San Antonio and Austin, coming right through Central Texas.
Meanwhile, though, local governments and private investors are signing agreements right up until the deadline.Earlier this month the attorney general of Texas cleared the way for TxDOT and a team of private developers led by Spain-based Cintra’s U.S. office to fund the North Tarrant Express. Construction could begin next year on the express, which includes new toll and nontoll lanes on Northeast Loop 820, Texas 121/183 and eventually I-35W north of Fort Worth’s downtown, according to a report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
About $570 million in public money is being committed to the $2 billion North Tarrant Express, the Star-Telegram reported. NTE Mobility Partners has agreed to put up $300 million in equity and $1.1 billion in debt in return for the right to build the project and collect tolls on express lanes for 52 years.
"There is no end to the mischief that government can impose upon the people with this system."
Government control goes that extra mile
Henry Lamb WorldNetDaily Copyright 2009
Sara was late for work. The alarm clock didn't alarm, the kids were unusually slow getting ready for school, and nothing went right. She finally got to her car – a brand new 2020 Chevy Adventure.
She touched the finger-print secured start button. Nothing. It wouldn't start. She touched it again. Nothing.
Furious, she banged the steering wheel with her fist. Then she noticed the paper hanging from the receipt printer on the dash."Your designated visa account rejected your Road Use Tax in the amount of $87.32 for the month of June, 2020. You must insert a valid account card to activate your automobile."
It's coming. With a $16 million grant from the federal government, the University of Iowa is developing a Global Positioning Satellite system that can measure the mileage, apply a variable tax rate that will increase during rush hours and in high-traffic areas, calculate the total, charge a designated account card, and shut down your automobile if unpaid when due. Some 2,700 automobiles in five states will be used in the test.
The system has been under development for more than a decade. The concept was proven in a similar, but smaller test in Oregon two years ago. The new tax system is being designed to replace the outdated by-the-gallon tax. Government mandated higher-mileage requirements result in less tax revenue for all governments. Hybrid and all-electric cars contribute little or nothing to road tax revenues.
The new by-the-mile tax system will give government much more than a new tax collection mechanism; it will give government much greater control over everyone. The new GM – Government Motors – can install this new system in all of its vehicles. All that's needed is an instruction from the car czar. Automakers that have not yet been taken over by the government can be required to install the system quite easily, by regulation or legislation. With such a system in every vehicle, the government can have virtual control over the population.
Purchase of a vehicle will give the government a database containing the name and residence location of every automobile owner. Since the system has the ability to record and track the geographic location of the vehicle at every moment of the day or night – only for the purpose of applying the correct tax rate, of course – government can know where your vehicle is at any moment.
Frightened yet? This is not hocus-pocus conspiracy-theory nonsense. The National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission has unanimously endorsed the scheme. A past president of the Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials says several states have considered not waiting for the federal government and will implement this system within their states. It is on the horizon and currently targeted for implementation by 2020.
This system will give the government the power to know your every movement. Where does the Constitution authorize the government to exercise this power? How does the exercise of this power square with the Constitution's Fourth Amendment guarantee of a right to privacy? Does anybody care?
Privacy concerns have kept the project out of the public spotlight, but not out of the lab. As the project matures, there will be the obligatory lip-service to "prohibiting" the government from using the capability to invade individual privacy.
"Assurances" will be mouthed, from both the administration and the Congress, that the rights of individuals will be protected. And the program will move forward.
Imagine this scenario: a police station in Podunk, New Jersey gets a silent alarm that a bank robbery is in progress at the corner of 4th Avenue and Main Street. The chief radios the regional Road Tax Monitoring Center, and immediately, every vehicle in the vicinity is disabled. The police arrive at the scene to find the robbers sitting in their vehicle banging on the steering wheel of an automobile that won't start. The press lauds this wonderful new technology.
Now imagine this scenario: a detective knocks on your door. "Your vehicle was parked on 2nd Avenue Saturday evening between 10:32 and 11:15 pm. Why?""It's none of your business," you protest.You are informed that there was a crime committed in the neighborhood and until you can explain why you were there, you are a suspect. You are in the position of having to prove your innocence rather than the state having to prove your guilt.There is no end to the mischief that government can impose upon the people with this system. Government could control when and where people go simply by adjusting the tax rate. Government could force people to use public transportation, by adjusting the tax rate. Government could deactivate vehicles as a form of punishment for unpaid speeding or parking tickets. Government could easily dictate the type of vehicle you drive, simply by adjusting the tax rate on GM vehicles.
Those who think these scenarios are far-fetched have not been watching what the federal government has been doing, especially since the new Democratic socialists have taken control of Washington. It's going to take more than tea parties to prevent this "change" that is being imposed. It's going to take a determined electorate to throw the bums out!
"It's up to the taxpayers to remain vigilant...CDAs are the more expensive tool in the toolbox. But that’s the one they keep reaching for."
CDAs ‘not dead yet’ opponents, supporters say
Bring out your dead [CDAs]!
by Andy Hogue DallasBlog Copyright 2009
Two billion dollars and another two years of life isn’t a bad deal for the Texas Department of Transportation, is it?It depends on with whom you speak.
Besides losing the ability to continue transportation comprehensive development agreements (CDAs), the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Perry administration also lost a great deal of political capital and bargaining power after the special legislative session.
The Legislature renewed TxDOT without much in terms of reforms, but did not approve a bill continuing a list of 13 CDAs — effectively calling a time-out on a six-year expansion of toll roads.
This raises a few questions as to where things are going next with transportation.
Surely, $2 billion in recently released Proposition 12 funds won’t last forever in building freeways. So the next two-to-four years are still anyone’s game, and both sides in the toll road debate agree that CDAs aren’t dead — nor is TxDOT giving in.What projects were stopped?
At least two CDA toll projects will be preserved through 2011 under SB 792 from the 80th session — Highway 161 in Dallas and the Grand Parkway loop around Houston. While forging a deal on those projects may continue, most other CDAs will expire Sept. 1.
A lifeline was cast to 13 projects during the special session as part of SB 3, which would have extended their CDAs on a project-by-project basis. There was not enough legislative will to see the whole list through (LSR, July 3), but members attempted to compromise with a short list — only those projects already agreed to by the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), namely managed lanes on I-35 East, Highway 183 and I-30 in the DFW area.
Bill Noble, executive director of the pro-CDA Texans for Safe and Reliable Transportation, said CDAs made Highway 130 bypass around Austin possible, for example. Projects like I-69 were casualties.
There were 87 toll road projects implemented in Texas, per discussion during the 80th legislative session in 2007. According to committee testimony during the 80th interim, about 400 toll projects were being considered. So is it possible that, by the Legislature’s not continuing CDAs, that nearly 300 would-be toll roads were prevented? Terri Hall of Texans United for Reform and Freedom (TURF), a TxDOT watchdog, thinks so (at least for now).
"I do think that they [toll road lobbyists] are going to keep trying to bring CDAs back up, as there’s so much money behind them. So it’s up to the taxpayers to remain vigilant," she said. "CDAs are the more expensive tool in the toolbox. But that’s the one they keep reaching for."Does TxDOT have any clout left?
Hall claims the support of a large movement of taxpayers who oppose the expansion of toll roads and accumulation of debt from CDA agreements. Noble said he’s certain toll roads remain a popular transportation option among voters as a "tool" in the aforementioned toolbox.
"We want all the tools — and that includes gas tax and indexing," Noble said. "But we don’t believe that a massive gas tax would be politically viable, and that’s what would be required if you didn’t have the option of toll roads."
Hall said allowing international conglomerates (such as Cintra of Spain) to own and manage toll roads in private, behind-closed-doors contracts is less politically viable than proposing upping the gas tax.
TxDOT declined to comment.
Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman) thinks there’s plenty of room left for TxDOT to negotiate its future — as well as an extra session in which to debate meaty issues.
"We will need to build roads in the future, and I think that will be the debate over the next two sessions on how we build those roads," Phillips said.
One option to continue CDAs in the future is to give the Legislature oversight over each individual project — a method Phillips said might prove burdensome.
Phillips called for a greater role of toll authorities, such as NTTA and the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA), in the approval process, as a check on TxDOT.
"Conventional wisdom is that projects may be approved on a case-by-case basis rather than a blanket authority through TxDOT," Noble said. "But that’s a cumbersome process … at the end of the day, Texans are going to realize that roads are not going to get better unless all options are on the table, including toll roads."
Noble said TxDOT’s overall standing has been lowered since mid-decade, but there has been some rebound under the leadership of TTC Chair Deirdre Delisi.
"We did some polling when I first got involved, and back then TxDOT was a highly credible entity. And Texans really had a high opinion — far greater than lawmakers,’" Noble said. "And some of that has come down, especially with leadership. But under the leadership of Delisi and Amadeo Saenz, we’ve seen a sea change — that being, they appreciate the openness, the responsiveness, and the efforts to work with Legislature to find solutions. And you look at it in what the Legislature could have done as far as radical changes in Sunset, all that really didn’t happen."
At least until 2011, TxDOT continues to have a friend in the Governor—most recently exemplified by a veto of HB 2142, which would have prevented TxDOT from advertising the use of toll roads.
"Marketing toll roads as a user-fee-based alternative to congested highways is important to relieving congestion on other state roads and keeping Texas moving," Gov. Rick Perry said in his veto proclamation, echoing TxDOT’s ad campaign slogan "Keep Texas Moving."
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, likely Perry’s biggest major challenger in the GOP primary for Texas Governor, called for federal legislation to ban tolls on federally owned roadways — a sign that transportation will be a key issue in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Will anti-toll road movements keep on?
Noble said anti-toll-road activists, now that they have their way for at least another two years, are going to have to provide solutions — solutions that may not prove popular with their own volunteers. "The only other way to relieve congestion is a massive gas tax increase," he said. "Opponents of toll roads are slowly beginning to trickle out when faced with the question of ‘what’s your answer?’"
Many conservative opponents of toll roads were leery of Sen. John Carona’s (R-Dallas) solution in the form of the Local Option Transportation Plan – most vocal were concerns that the gas tax would be raised in large communities.
True, a motor fuels tax increase (or index to inflation) won’t be popular with some conservatives, Hall said. But there are more issues at stake in her organization than just the CDAs vs. the gas tax debate, such as transparency in contracts. "Our legislators often don’t have a clue what’s in these contracts — they have no idea what they’re selling off," Hall said, noting that a Cintra contract for the North Tarrant Express near Fort Worth had a charge of 75 cents per mile at peak hours. "We’re all in favor of a motor fuels tax increase," she said. "But you have to end [Fund 6] diversions before we give you more money. Also, we’ve got to reform TxDOT — getting into the books, looking into the finances, and basically gutting the agency … Until they change the culture at TxDOT, they will continue to have problems and blowback from the public."
What message was sent by the 81st?
A simple message was sent by the refusal of the Legislature to approve CDAs in the 81st regular and special sessions: CDAs are still highly suspect. Whether or not the Legislature’s inaction on CDAs was a referendum on their viability as a transportation solution is debatable.
"I don’t think the special session was specifically that," Phillips said. "I think that referendum occurred during the regular session on the Sunset bill. And it’s pretty clear that the Legislature wants us to have a transparent process, and that it becomes understandable to the public on how roads are being built … and how MPOs interact with the state, environmental studies are conducted, etc. … It’s fairly difficult in such a short time frame to hash these things out and discuss them [CDAs]. The question was in 2007 can we slow down and take some time in the interim to look at it. So tapping on the brake is not such a bad thing for now."
Noble, who said there has been a "thoroughly inadequate hearing on CDAs" in recent sessions, agreed there is room to haggle. "I think it’s a clean slate for us — we know where we stand now, and for a few years," Noble said.
"I don’t see that CDAs are dead," Phillips said, "as long as we make sure they’re approved by a local community."
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