Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Even Stone Oak commuters taking the bus to lower transportation costs

Link to article here.

Now if this doesn't wake-up the politicians and the pro-toll crowd, they're simply paid to be blind to the economic realities our families face. The median income in the zip code where this Via Express Bus route begins is $90,000 a year. If "those people" who make so much money are clamoring for ways to reduce their gas bill, what makes the tollers think "those people" have the discretionary income to pay tolls on top of their already too expensive commutes? They don't.

When you consider the expensive homes and the property tax and energy bills on those homes, the car payments, and higher grocery bills for growing families in Stone Oak, that $90,000 may sound like a lot but it doesn't go as far as it did when "those people" moved to Stone Oak. No matter what income level, the taxpayers don't have endless amounts of money to spend on transportation, though politicians enact tax policy as though they're a well that never runs dry.

Ken Rodriguez: Stone Oak residents are filling up buses
It's 7:45 a.m. Tuesday, and Connie Casanova is waiting for a ride to work.

She has lots of company.

In the far northern reaches of San Antonio, a crowd is growing around a bench at the lone bus stop in Stone Oak.

Men with briefcases, women in professional attire — all are headed downtown on VIA Express Route No. 6.“These are my friends,” Casanova says from a Wal-Mart parking lot at Loop 1604 and U.S. 281, filled with trucks, SUVs and minivans. “More and more people are riding. It's amazing.”

Casanova and many of her friends live in ZIP code 78258, where the median household income exceeds $90,000.

The Stone Oak community ranks among the city's most affluent, but residents are still trying to combat rising fuel costs.

That's one reason the No. 6 Express set a record last month with 12,515 riders.

From April '07 to April '08, VIA Metropolitan Transit ridership rose 15.6 percent across the city. In Stone Oak, ridership jumped 23 percent.

Casanova is no newcomer. She started taking the No. 6 Express more than two years ago. At the time, the route was carrying 5,513 passengers a month, and Casanova could buy a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline for about $2.10.

Around the corner from her home today, a gallon of regular has soared to $3.69.

Casanova says it costs $55 to fill her Acura Legend with gas. A monthly bus pass costs $25 — but Casanova gets it for $15 through a discount at work.

“I save at least $250 a month in gas and parking,” she says, “plus all the wear and tear on my car.”

There are other benefits. Casanova enjoys a stress-free commute to the office. She can read the newspaper. She can chat with friends.

“I'm a true believer,” she says. “You wouldn't know how beneficial it is unless you ride it.”

Casanova, 55, works in external affairs for AT&T Inc. The way she raves about the No. 6 Express, you'd think she worked in public affairs for VIA.

She says she feels sorry for people who ride to work alone, wasting time and gas.

Then she says, “You should take a ride. Really, you should.”

I rode the No. 6 Express for a column in May 2006. I described the commute as cool, clean and convenient. The bus dropped me off two blocks from the Express-News.

There's much to like about the public transportation. My only problem with the VIA system is mobility after I get to the office.

How am I supposed to get to a breaking story across town?

Or how am I going to meet a source who only wants to share critical information at some out-of-the-way location?

Other riders shared similar problems. Some said they only take the bus on days they have no appointments outside the office.

Connie Casanova doesn't have that issue. But she has a backup plan in case of an emergency: Taxi vouchers. Casanova bought four of them for $5 through a VIA Care Program.

She used one the other day to help a fellow passenger get to his wife after he passed out.

Like other buses, the No. 6 Express gives riders options. The first one pulls out of Wal-Mart at 5:39 a.m.

I showed up at 5:45 a.m. Tuesday and found a number of riders waiting for the next bus beneath a full moon.

Two hours later, Casanova was extolling the virtues of VIA when the No. 6 Express arrived.

By the time she finished, it was almost standing room only.

Delisi tapped for new Chair has ZERO transportation experience

Link to article here.

Love the quote about the appointment of Deirdre Delisi as the new Transportation Commission Chair from our friend Sal Costello in Austin, Founder of the Texas Toll Party:

"She has zero transportation experience. Maybe she drives to work, but that's about it...This is an agency that deals with billions of our tax dollars for transportation, and this person has no experience. That's frightening. What she does bring to the table is she's Gov. Perry's highway henchwoman."

It would be funny if it weren't so painfully true.

May 18, 2008
Diplomacy key for transportation chair
Perry appointee already scrutinized by lawmakers
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau


• Age : 35• Education : Duke University, bachelor's degree in political science, 1994; Stanford University, master's degree in international policy studies, 1995.

• Family : Husband, Ted, political consultant; two children, twins Will and David, nearly 1.


• Chief of staff, Gov. Rick Perry, 2004-07• Deputy chief of staff, Gov. Rick Perry, 2000-01,


• Campaign manager, Texans for Rick Perry,


• Bush for President,


• Special assistant, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, 1998-99

• Texans for Rick Perry (lieutenant governor's race), 1997-98

• Legislative assistant, Sen. Bill Ratliff, 1996-97

• Texas Department of Commerce, 1996

• Lamar Alexander for President, 1995-96

AUSTIN — Deirdre Delisi once aspired to be a diplomat, and Gov. Rick Perry may have finally granted her wish.

As head of the Texas Transportation Commission, Perry's former chief of staff will test her diplomatic skills in an emotion-filled arena in which a state senator has already called her a "political hack."

In an early sign of her peacemaking potential, the 35-year-old Delisi scheduled one of her first meetings as chair with that senator, Transportation and Homeland Security Committee Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas.

"I was left with the impression that she genuinely wants a new and fresh start for the commission, and I can tell you the Legislature wants that, too," said Carona, who publicly tangled with the former chairman, the late Ric Williamson, as Williamson pushed Perry's vision of private investment in public tollways as a key to meeting mobility needs.

Department under review

The Texas Department of Transportation is under review by lawmakers who've sought to rein in new privately run toll roads and are distrustful of the agency's funding figures. There's also an outcry from many Texans incensed over toll proposals and the possible route of the Perry-pushed Trans-Texas Corridor."Drinking from the fire hydrant," is how Delisi described her first days on the job, with months to serve before the Senate next year decides on confirming her appointment.

Focused on meeting huge transportation needs, she describes private investment in toll roads as a tool, noting lawmakers are considering others. She's quick to emphasize the need to work with local officials.

Asked what role a gas-tax increase might play in the mobility picture, she gives an answer that may be diplomatic enough to please lawmakers who felt that Williamson pushed Perry's wishes too hard at the expense of their own.

"That's a decision that the Legislature is going to make," she said. "I don't get a vote."

'Whatever it takes'

Delisi was born in Montreal, grew up in Nashville, Tenn., became a U.S. citizen at 17 and wanted a diplomatic career after getting degrees at Duke and Stanford.When a U.S. Foreign Service hiring freeze turned her interest to politics, she joined the GOP presidential campaign of Lamar Alexander and met the man who'd lure her to Texas, now-husband Ted Delisi.

Other jobs included a stint on George W. Bush's first presidential campaign, but since late 1997 she has mostly had political and policy roles with Perry, including managing his notoriously tough 2002 race for governor against Laredo Democrat Tony Sanchez.

Delisi resigned as Perry's chief of staff last summer when she had twins, born 10 weeks early and weighing less than 3 pounds each. They're healthy and nearly 1 now.

"I think it would be great for my children to grow up in that environment of understanding what the value of public service is," she said.

Ted, a political consultant, is juggling other complications in addition to being what he calls Mr. Mom when her schedule takes her away. To avoid the appearance of conflict, he ended a joint venture with Hillco Partners because the lobbying firm handles transportation issues, though he said he hadn't done such work himself.

"Any job that takes 95 percent of your time and pays $15,000 a year always makes for an interesting conversation inside the household," he deadpanned of the appointment. (The job pays her $15,914 per year.) "But it's an honor. She believes strongly in public service, and I think she feels strongly there is some new and needed enthusiasm and ... diplomacy."

The new chairwoman quickly plunged in with visits to transportation officials and lawmakers from Dallas to El Paso.

Delisi also will continue to advise Perry and do consulting with her husband through Delisi Communications. She doesn't know how many hours the commission job will take: "Whatever it takes," she said.

Long days aren't new to Delisi, a veteran of campaigns and legislative sessions, including last year's when, pregnant, she rebuffed her doctor's orders to stop work: "We still had a week of session, plus the whole veto-sign period," she said.

Will and David were born after the session adjourned.

"The governor called me and said, 'How's my girl?' " said Delisi's friend Jennifer Lustina, another 30-something political veteran. "I said, 'Governor, how do you think your girl's doing? She's doing how you know she's doing. She's just steady.' "

That's her hallmark, Lustina added: "Nothing rattles Deirdre. ... You can say she's tough. You can say maybe she's overly driven once she starts really pushing on something. But you can't say she's a hack. She's smart as hell."

'Highway henchwoman'

It's that other hallmark — her long history with Perry — that troubles critics."She has zero transportation experience. Maybe she drives to work, but that's about it," said Sal Costello, who founded TexasTollParty.com to oppose the way tollways were planned under Perry.

"This is an agency that deals with billions of our tax dollars for transportation, and this person has no experience. That's frightening. What she does bring to the table is she's Gov. Perry's highway henchwoman."

Delisi calls her strongest asset her knowledge of the Legislature, though lawmakers' views on her run the gamut.

Some said they don't know her, and Carona (before their meeting) said she was known as difficult to work with. Others offered praise, including Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, House Ways and Means Committee chair, who said she's focused, capable and "no nonsense."

Politics may be an asset

As Delisi's home senator, Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a TxDOT critic, could have blocked her appointment. He said he didn't know her before, but she impressed him with her intelligence and support for more local decision-making and more TxDOT accountability."Some people have said she's too political. I frankly think that that ought to be one of her assets," Watson said. "She will be smart enough to know it ain't working right now."

Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, vice chair of the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission reviewing TxDOT, heard from Delisi after dubbing her "a political 'yes man.' " They met, and "wait and see" is his mantra.

"Some people have suggested ... Delisi is the one person that can get the governor to change his mind," he said. "I don't know the answer to that."

Allard: Why does the Lone Star State tolerate TxDOT’s failures?

Link to column here.

Once again, Ken Allard's poignant humor hits the nail on the head. Why do we tolerate TxDOT's failures? Where are the indictments and heads rolling? Short of TURF's lawsuit to stop their illegal lobbying and ad campaign, NO ONE in state law enforcement is doing didly-squat to prosecute or reform this agency. Our great hope is the Sunset Commission. God bless Senator Glenn Hegar who gets it!

Ken Allard: Why does the Lone Star State allow TxDOT's bureaucratic arrogance?
San Antonio Express-News

The headlines might have read, “No Hope, No More,” but we have been on a collision course over the future of TxDOT ever since Gov. Perry's dismissal last week of interim commissioner Hope Andrade.

She succeeded chairman Rick Williamson, whose last wish was that his embattled agency might engage in a creative dialogue with its critics. He even reached out to ask for my help in connecting the agency with “some of the best minds at UTSA,” but his untimely passing prevented those possibilities.

The widely respected Andrade tried to continue his initiative, but certain fundamentals have emerged. Among them: to the extent that it can be controlled at all, TxDOT answers only to its political masters — and then only to some of them. When hauled before the Texas Senate earlier this year, agency leaders had no good explanations for some outrageous failings, including a billion-dollar accounting error and millions more wasted on lobbying for dubious pet projects.

Had a similar situation occurred in Washington, indictments might well have followed. But not in Texas. Sen. Glenn Hegar recently wrote that lawmakers' “concerns about the Trans-Texas Corridor, the agency's policies, funding schemes, budget and construction priorities have (often) been met with contempt and disdain by TxDOT officials.” The mystery is why such bureaucratic arrogance is tolerated in the state that produced the legendary “Lonesome Dove” figures of Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae.

But if you think the agency isn't listening to your concerns, don't feel too badly. They don't listen to the Texas Legislature, either. In an interesting twist, Sen. Hegar also sits on a sunset committee charged with identifying “waste, duplication and inefficiency” among state agencies. Ironically, TxDOT's turn for review comes up this year. Can you think of some issues the sunset commissioners might want to look into? What kinds of minds produced the “My Favorite Martian” School of highway design, bewildering tourists and locals alike as they try to escape from the San Antonio airport? Even more interesting: Why is there apparently a requirement that all TxDOT engineers be Aggies?

There are, of course, far larger issues because if TxDOT and toll roads are the only answers, we're probably not asking the right questions. County Judge Nelson Wolff recently raised the possibility of light rail. Until recently, there was the assumption that toll roads were the only alternative or, according to Sen. Hegar, “selling our highway infrastructure to the highest bidder, usually a foreign-owned company.”

Like a mule's first kick, paying $4 for a gallon of gas is an educational opportunity that ought not to be missed. So, too, are the unmistakable signs that the real poverty in this area begins with our thinking. Simply go out U.S. 281 to the areas around Evans and Bulverde Roads to glimpse urban sprawl at its ugliest, a spectacular failure of zoning, planning and land use but, most of all, of common sense.

Forget the obvious threats to the aquifer, to the environment, and even to public safety if the sprawl zones ever had to be evacuated. It is as if the developers had abandoned all thought of San Antonio and were busily building the new and glorious Newark-Upon-the-Guadalupe.

As a wide-eyed schoolboy back east, I learned Texas history from afar, especially that part about lines being drawn in the sand. With the governor, the bureaucrats and the developers now on one side of that line, what a joy, what an honor it is to be here and on the other!

Retired Col. Ken Allard is an executive-in-residence at UTSA.

Hegar: Delisi doesn’t have my support

Link to article here.

Hegar: To gain my support, Delisi must prove me wrong
State Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, TEXAS SENATE
Tuesday, May 06, 2008

On Wednesday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced he had appointed Deirdre Delisi, his former chief of staff, chairwoman of the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation. As of today, I will not vote to confirm her appointment in the next legislative session.

Ask almost any Texan, especially those who have the need to travel frequently on Interstate 35, about our Texas transportation system and they will tell you that many of our roads have extreme congestion, while other construction projects have experienced significant cost overruns. Last year, TxDOT notified the public that it had experienced a billion-dollar accounting error, spent millions of dollars in an effort to persuade Texans that we need to pursue the proposed Tran-Texas Corridor even though the legislature had just passed a two-year moratorium on public-private agreements. The next legislative session will be a critical time as we work to ensure that TxDOT can regain the trust of Texans and to overcome the low opinion of what was once the most respected highway department in the nation.

In the Legislature, relations with TxDOT are also at an all-time low. Lawmakers' questions and concerns about the Trans-Texas Corridor, the agency's policies, funding schemes, budget and construction priorities have often been met with contempt and disdain by TxDOT officials. The result is that many legislators, including me, have lost confidence that TxDOT and its policies are working in the best interests of Texas taxpayers.

That is why I had high hopes that the governor would use the vacancy created by the untimely passing of former Transportation Chairman Ric Williamson as an opportunity to appoint someone who would work to change the status quo, reach out to lawmakers and work with the Legislature to address the concerns of the citizens we represent.

I view Delisi's appointment as a squandered opportunity. Rather than choose someone to head the commission who will reach out and work cooperatively with legislators, the governor instead has chosen a political "yes woman" with little or no practical experience involving transportation issues other than carrying out Perry's myopic vision that relies solely on building more toll roads and selling our highway infrastructure to the highest bidder, usually a foreign-owned company.

I serve as the vice chairman of the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission. In 1977, the Legislature created the commission to identify and eliminate waste, duplication and inefficiency in government agencies. The 12-member commission is a legislative body that reviews the policies and programs of more than 150 government agencies every 12 years. The commission questions the need for each agency, looks for potential duplication of other public services or programs and considers changes to improve each agency's operations and activities. Currently, the Texas Department of Transportation is undergoing its 12-year Sunset review.

I also serve as a member of the Senate Nominations Committee, the panel that will have to vote to confirm Delisi's appointment when the legislature reconvenes in January 2009. One might expect that the governor and Delisi would have contacted all members of these key committees to discuss their plans for TxDOT and to ask for our vote in the upcoming nomination process. Unfortunately, like most of my colleagues, I learned about the appointment from the news media.

The governor can certainly appoint anyone whom he sees fit, but as a state senator who takes his constitutional "advise and consent" responsibilities seriously, I would have hoped Perry would have sought out the advice of legislators before asking for our consent at this critical juncture in Texas history.

TxDOT's vision statement says that the agency will work to:

"Promote a higher quality of life through partnerships with the citizens of Texas and all branches of government by being receptive, responsible and cooperative."

Perry's and Delisi's recent actions with regard to this appointment are not in keeping with that statement but instead reflect a vision of non-cooperation and non-responsiveness to lawmakers and the constituents they serve.

I certainly hope that Delisi will prove me wrong. Likewise, I hope that between now and her Senate confirmation hearing next January she will attempt to change my perception that she will not be an agent of the status quo at TxDOT. If so, she may still have an opportunity to earn my confidence and my vote, and the taxpayers of our state and those who use and depend on our vast transportation system will be well served.

Hegar represents District 18.

Lone Star Report: Time to reform TxDOT and the revolving door at the Governor’s office

As usual, Will Lutz of the Lone Star Report speaks for the interests of taxpayers with clarity and conviction. His assessment is exactly right. The Legislature can take the power over TxDOT from the Governor and slap him with new ethics laws on his revolving door Cintra-fest. We need courageous, genuine leadership in the Legislature. It's obvious that it won't just emerge, we must demand it!

Will new commissioners improve TxDOT?
by William Lutz
Lone Star Report

Gov. Rick Perry appointed two new members of the Texas Transportation Commission April 30, his former chief of staff, Deirdre Delisi of Austin and William Meadows of Fort Worth, a member of the North Texas Tollway Authority Board.

The appointment of a former Perry staffer to a key government post is consistent with Perry's appointment pattern, which isn't always well-received at the Capitol.

Some Capitol hands view Delisi's appointment as a sign the Legislature can expect more of the same from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas), chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, even tried to discourage Perry appointing her.

Both appointments are subject to Senate confirmation, but in the past, some GOP senators - despite talking a good, independent game early in the session - don't seem to have much stomach for a fight with the Governor in mid-May of session years. Therefore, Delisi's confirmation is likely.

Still, the agency has an opportunity here. Its reputation with legislators and grass-roots conservatives has nowhere to go but up. And it will need some credibility because its authority to sign comprehensive development agreements expires in 2009.

(A comprehensive development agreement is a contract whereby the state rents right-of-way to a private company and gives it the exclusive right to build and operate a toll road.) Here are some areas the new commissioners need to address, if the commission wishes to improve its reputation.

Current transportation policy was sold to lawmakers under false pretenses. That is, the omnibus transportation bill of 2003 was promoted to lawmakers as "local control" and "more tools in the toolbox." Lawmakers thought they passed a bill that let local leaders use new financing tools if they wanted to for building local highways faster.

But that's a far cry from what was delivered. No one told lawmakers in 2003 or 2005 that the Texas Department of Transportation was going to try to shake down the Harris County Toll Road Authority for cash when it wanted to build new toll roads. Nor did anyone tell them the transportation commission would favor private contractors over local non-profit toll authorities for the right to build and maintain roads. Nor did anyone mention that the primary driver behind building toll roads was the desire to raise tolls artificially high to generate cash that could be siphoned off to other roads that can't be built with tolls. The bills passed in 2007 were an attempt by the Legislature to fix all of these problems.

Had the agency let local leaders help decide how much revenue to extract from local motorists, the issue wouldn't get as much blow-back at the Capitol.

The public doesn't understand the state's transportation dilemma and doesn't trust TxDOT. Lawmakers and others have pointed this fact out repeatedly to the agency. Yet its response was to run a political PR campaign promoting privatized toll roads.

There's a difference between being transparent and building trust and using government resources for political purposes. Lawmakers wanted the former. TxDOT provided the latter.

The clarity and transparency of the agency's explanations of the state's financial situation could use improvement. There is also a need for the agency to explain and justify the fact that construction costs have risen dramatically faster than inflation.

The agency and its supporters have shown flagrant disregard for the public's right-to-know. If these comprehensive development agreements are really so great - as Perry claims - then why is the agency afraid to let the public see them before they are a done deal and the state is stuck with them for 50 years?

A provision was quietly slipped into a transportation bill in 2005 that exempts any part of any proposal for a comprehensive development agreement from public disclosure - even under criminal subpoena. This blanket secrecy provision, found in section 223.204 of the Transportation Code, includes draft contracts between the agency and private vendors (like Cintra). This provision became a campaign issue in 2006, when Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and the Houston Chronicle demanded the release of the draft agreement between Cintra and the Texas Department of Transportation to develop the Trans-Texas Corridor 35 project.

The public explanation usually given when this provision is published is that a draft contract between the state and a private company is proprietary and contains trade secrets. The problem with that argument is that state law has always provided an exception to public disclosure for real trade secrets - provided that the Attorney General and the courts agree that the material is actually proprietary.

In short , it is fair to question whether the rationale for the blanket exemption from public disclosure is driven by politics. If the public can't see contracts that bind the state for 50 years until after they have been approved and are then a done deal, then opposition is less likely to materialize. There will be less debate over the toll rates and non-compete clauses, for example.

Thanks to Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Lewisville), in 2007, the Legislature passed a "truth in tolling" provision that requires the agency to publish toll rates and other key information before finalizing a toll contract.

But shouldn't the public have the right to see the whole contract in advance of its approval? Will the new commissioners support additional public disclosure of toll road contracts or will they defend secret, special-interest government at its absolute worst?

The agency has not shown the Legislature the respect it deserves. The current executive director of TxDOT has made some improvements in this area. But in 2005, 2006, and early 2007 the agency and the commission showed an appalling lack of respect to lawmakers. Commissioners would seldom attend legislative hearings and regularly picked petty fights with key legislative players.

Carona - the chairman of the Senate committee overseeing TxDOT - had to go to the House and create a big public showdown in 2007 just to get a meeting with the then-chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission. Simply respecting the process - as TxDOT has begun to do in recent months - will go a long way toward building bridges with lawmakers.

The agency is perceived as having a "my way or the highway" approach. It seems that every action the agency takes is designed to build support for privately-run toll roads.

If the commission came up with and supported a more balanced approach, it might get a more receptive audience for its ideas. Not every road has to be a toll road built and financed by Cintra.

A little common sense will help, sometimes. TxDOT seems to have a way of dumping gasoline on the fire. A good example was right after the 2007 legislative session (when the Legislature banned cities from issuing speeding tickets with automated cameras) when TxDOT put up automated cameras in a rural part of Interstate 10 to issue speed warnings. No wonder rural folk don't trust TxDOT!

TxDOT is still under the Governor's control and its tolling policies have not been repealed, largely due to a lack of legislative will-power.

If the Legislature wanted to stop this stuff, it could - even when Perry plays hard ball. Lawmakers can override vetoes. They can brave special sessions. They could make life unpleasant for the governor by holding hearings into the revolving door between the governor's office and certain transportation contractors (including issuing subpoenas to transportation lobbyists who used to work for Perry). They can propose new ethics and campaign contribution legislation.

The agency is up for Sunset in 2009, and the Legislature could easily have someone besides the Governor appointing its board. Or it could allow Comprehensive Development Agreement authority to expire.

But if the new commissioners take a more cooperative approach to transportation, the Legislature may conclude that none of the above steps are necessary.

In other words, the new commissioners are coming in under a cloud, but they also still have an opportunity to make changes - if they want to.

Senators to Prez: Stop stockpiling oil at a time of crisis

Link to article here.

Sen. Hutchison: “Immediately Halt Deposits in the Strategic Oil Reserve”
Published in Texas Insider: 04-30-08
Letter to the President Signed by 16 Senators, Cites “Busiest Driving Season” of the Year

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, today urged the administration to immediately halt deposits of domestic crude oil into the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR).

“The SPR had 554 million barrels when President Bush took office and today it has over 701 million barrels,” Sen. Hutchison said. “We are in an extreme circumstance, now that oil is around $120 a barrel. I support an immediate halt in the deposits of domestic crude into the SPR as we enter the busiest driving season of the year.”

The letter was signed by Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ), John Barrasso (R-WY), Kit Bond (R-MO), Sam Brownback (R-KS), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Susan Collins (R-ME), John Cornyn (R-TX), Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Lisa Murkowski (R-AL), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), John Sununu (R-NH), and Ted Stevens (R-AK). Sens. Murkowski, Sessions, and Barrasso are members of the Senate Energy Committee.

April 29, 2008

The Honorable George W. Bush
President of the United States
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Bush:

We write today to request that the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) immediately halt deposits of domestic crude oil into the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). As we enter the busiest driving season of the year, the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude oil hovers around a record $120.

The SPR was established in 1975 to provide a supply of crude oil during times of severe supply disruptions. Today, the SPR contains more than 701 million barrels of oil, exceeding our International Energy Program commitments to maintain at least 90 days of oil stocks in reserve.

High energy prices are having a ripple effect throughout the U.S. economy and exacerbating recessionary pressures. The Energy Information Agency reports that supplies and inventories of crude oil and refined products are above 2007 inventories while our demand for gasoline is down. Yet, the price of crude oil has skyrocketed 100% from last year’s levels which were just above $63 a barrel in April, 2007. Despite these economic realities, the DoE recently solicited contracts to exchange up to 13 million barrels of royalty oil from Federal leases in the Gulf of Mexico for deposits in the SPR.

Some analysts blame geopolitical instability and disruption in production for the rapid price increases; however, these factors alone do not explain the extraordinary increase in oil prices compared to previous years, when these same challenges were present. Temporarily halting deposits to the reserve can provide some relief because the increased supply of oil available for refinement will send the right signal to all markets that the U.S. Government will take measures necessary to address exorbitant crude oil prices that negatively affect the global economy. We believe, in light of the dramatic increase in oil prices, a temporary halt to deposits into the SPR should be considered until the economy stabilizes.

I appreciate your attention to this matter and look forward to hearing back from you.

Hutchison: Time to remove ethanol from food price hike/rationing equation

Link to article here.

Undoing America's Ethanol Mistake
By Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison
Published in Texas Insider: 04-30-08

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once said, "One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results."

When Congress passed legislation to greatly expand America's commitment to biofuels, it intended to create energy independence and protect the environment.

But the results have been quite different. America remains equally dependent on foreign sources of energy, and new evidence suggests that ethanol is causing great harm to the environment.

In recent weeks, the correlation between government biofuel mandates and rapidly rising food prices has become undeniable. At a time when the U.S. economy is facing recession, Congress needs to reform its "food-to-fuel" policies and look at alternatives to strengthen energy security.

On Dec. 19, 2007, President Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act. This legislation had several positive features, including higher fuel standards for cars and greater investment in renewable energies such as solar power.

However, the bill required a huge spike in the biofuel production requirement, from 7.5 billion gallons in 2012 to 36 billion in 2022.

This was a well-intentioned measure, but it was also impractical. Nearly all our domestic corn and grain supply is needed to meet this mandate, robbing the world of one of its most important sources of food.

We are already seeing the ill effects of this measure. Last year, 25% of America's corn crop was diverted to produce ethanol. In 2008, that number will grow to 30%-35%, and it will soar even higher in the years to come.

Furthermore, the trend of farmers supplanting other grains with corn is decreasing the supply of numerous agricultural products. When the supply of those products goes down, the price inevitably goes up.

Subsequently, the cost of feeding farm and ranch animals increases and the cost is passed to consumers of beef, poultry and pork products.

Since February 2006, the price of corn, wheat and soybeans has increased by more than 240%. Rising food prices are hitting the pockets of lower-income Americans and people who live on fixed incomes.

While the blame for higher costs shouldn't rest exclusively with biofuels — drought and rising oil costs are contributing factors — the expansion of biofuels has been a major source of the problem.

The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that biofuel production accounts for between one-quarter and one-third of the recent spike in global commodity prices.

For the first time in 30 years, food riots are breaking out in many parts of the globe, including major countries such as Mexico, Pakistan and Indonesia.

The fact that America's energy policies are creating global instability should concern the leaders of both political parties.

Restraining the dangerous effects of artificially inflated demand for ethanol should be an issue that unites both conservatives and progressives.

As a recent Time cover story pointed out, biofuel mandates increase greenhouse gasses and create incentives for global deforestation.

In the Amazon basin, huge swaths of forest are being cleared to meet the growing hunger for biofuels.

In addition, relief organizations are facing gaping shortfalls as the cost of food outpaces their ability to provide aid for the 800 million people who lack food security.

The recent food crisis does not mean we should entirely abandon biofuels.

The best way to lower energy prices, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, is to accelerate production of all forms of domestic energy.

Expanding biofuels while refusing to take other measures, such as lifting the ban on oil and natural gas production in Alaska and the Outer Continental Shelf, is counterproductive. We should be tapping into a broad portfolio of energy options, including clean coal, nuclear power and wave energy.

The key is increasing energy supply. By taking these measures, we can enable biofuels to be part of the energy solution, instead of contributing to the energy problem.

Congress must take action. I am introducing legislation that will freeze the biofuel mandate at current levels, instead of steadily increasing it through 2022.

This is a common-sense measure that will reduce pressure on global food prices and restore balance to America's energy policy.

As the Senate debates this issue, we must remain focused on the facts.

At one point, expanding biofuels made sense for America's energy security. But the recent surge in food prices has forced us to adapt. The global demand for energy and food is expected to rise about 50% in the next 20 years, and the U.S. is well-positioned to be a leader in both areas.

That will require a careful, finely tuned approach to America's farm products.

By freezing the biofuel mandate at current levels, we will go a long way to achieving that goal.

Senator Hutchison chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee and is representing Texas in her third full term in the Senate.

O'Reilly: Fight back against gas price gouging

Link to article here.

Fight Back Against Big Oil
By Bill O'Reilly
Published in Texas Insider: 04-28-08

So now we have the presidential candidates running around telling voters that they will help solve the problem of high gas prices. Well, if you believe that, you'll believe that Hugo Chavez drives a Yugo. It's just bull.

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are calling for "investigations" into "price gouging" by American oil companies. Good. There's plenty of price manipulation going on and, under Presidents Bush and Clinton, little federal oversight. If a big oil company wants to tighten supply, for example, it's a snap. Just slow down the refinery process by ordering extra "maintenance" or something.

But who is going to investigate Sens. Obama and Clinton on their opposition to oil drilling? The Democratic Party has consistently opposed new drilling and nuclear energy, as well. Even the dedicated liberal governments in France and Sweden bought into nuclear. But not the American left, no way.

On the Republican side, President Bush has done absolutely nothing about rising gas prices, which is part of the reason his approval rating is approaching 20 percent. He blames the Democrats. Fine. But the president should be telling all Americans to cut back their gas consumption by 15 percent. He should be urging us to use less gas. That would at least cut into big oil's record profit margins.

Sen. John McCain proposes a gas tax "holiday" this summer. True, that would save the folks a few bucks, but it would also add to the massive spending deficit. The government better start balancing the budget soon, before Haagen-Dazs becomes more valuable than the U.S. currency.

The sad truth is that both political parties have sold out the folks. For decades, economists knew China and India were industrializing, and that those countries would demand much greater amounts of oil. Everybody knew that OPEC would slow down production and gouge the world if it could, and of course, now it can.

But if Americans would get angry and begin punishing the oil bandits, prices would drop. However, we are often a selfish people. We want those gas-guzzling Hummers and SUVs, and we're paying a big price for that, above and beyond the sticker.

If I were president, I'd be on every program, leading the charge to buy less gas, urging folks to conserve energy in creative ways. I'd create peer pressure against the guzzle crowd. I'd name the names of greedy oil company CEOs making tens of millions of dollars while working folks suffer.

We need leadership on this energy business or it is going to cripple our economy. Our energy incompetence has already empowered our enemies.

So let's get angry out there. We the people can do this. Big oil is not looking out for us. Let's stop rewarding it.

Veteran TV news anchor Bill O'Reilly is host of the Fox News show "The O'Reilly Factor" and author of the book "Who's Looking Out For You?"

TxDOT shifts maintenance money to new road construction

Link to article here.

We all know TxDOT has been manipulating their budget to make it look like the gas tax will only cover road maintenance and no new road construction so they can push their toll road agenda. Sworn testimony in TURF's lawsuit to stop TxDOT from using taxpayer money to sell tolls roads and the Trans Texas Corridor shows TxDOT has also moved up when a highway needs to be re-surfaced by 10 years from the industry standard in order to blow through their maintenance money even faster. So with that said, it still makes no sense to shift money from maintenance to building new roads if they claim there isn't enough money to maintain them!

Panel relents, shifting $5 billion to new roadways
By Patrick Driscoll

The Texas Transportation Commission, buckling to pressure, decided Thursday to let highways decay some during the next decade rather than follow through on a scare to choke off all construction money — including funds for the U.S. 281 toll road.

Commissioners recently drew heat after saying funds were too scarce to cover both maintenance and construction, and that keeping roads in good shape was more important.

But commissioners, apparently feeling that keeping testy state lawmakers off their backs is even more important, voted 4-0 to shift $5 billion from maintenance to construction.

"Philosophically, I don't think you let your house deteriorate and then go build a new garage," Commissioner Ted Houghton said before casting his aye. "I think we're headed down, no pun intended, a very rocky road."

Among construction projects saved from the chopping block is the 8-mile U.S. 281 tollway north of Loop 1604 in San Antonio, which needs $112 million in public money along with toll-backed bonds for construction to get under way this year.

However, another $213 million public subsidy for toll lanes and interchange ramps along Loop 1604, from Culebra Road to U.S. 281, has been slashed to $104 million, which means some parts could be delayed, said Terry Brechtel of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority.

"So one of our projects will get delayed if the Legislature doesn't come up with new funding," she said.

State lawmakers next year could authorize funds to support $6.5 billion worth of transportation bonds. The Texas Department of Transportation says that would provide about $5.2 billion for roadwork after engineering and land-purchase costs are subtracted.

How much of that could be redirected back into maintenance is unknown. Legislators could attach strings, and transportation commissioners would also have designs on it.

"If things should change, we can restore the money back into maintenance," commission Chairwoman Hope Andrade said.

The Transportation Commission's 11-year outlook leaves $12 billion for maintenance, half of what's needed to meet a goal of getting nine out of 10 roads in good condition.

Officials estimate that just 80 percent of roads will be in good shape by 2019, down 7 percent from today. By then, $9 billion more will be needed to reach the 90 percent goal.

Farm Bureau slams Trans Texas Corridor, supports alternatives

Link to article here.

Texas Farm Bureau supports transportation alternatives
Southwest Farm Press
Apr 25, 2008

Texas Farm Bureau offered several viable transportation and funding alternatives to the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) in meeting Texas’ future transportation needs during testimony before the Senate Transportation Committee.

“Let me assure you, as an industry we absolutely support and recognize the need for building and maintaining roads in Texas,” said Texas Farm Bureau State Director Tom Paben. “We feel this can be accomplished within the current framework of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).”

“However, there is a need for redirection, as well as a review of the current priorities of the agency,” Paben added, noting several concerns about the TTC project raised in a report commissioned by Farm Bureau and conducted by professors at Baylor Law School. He also said Farm Bureau believes that the recent Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS) of I-69 “is fatally, flawed,” and would not stand up to judicial scrutiny.

Paben, who represents 15 counties potentially affected by the massive TTC transportation project, said the first option for new highway and road construction, when possible, should be use of existing rights-of way and routes.

“In many cases, using entirely new routes would impact irreplaceable farm and ranch land,” Paben said. “If new right-of-way is needed, at a minimum, landowners should have reasonable access to their property.”

The cattle, corn and hay producer said members of the state’s largest farm organization supported funding alternatives, including indexing and/or increasing the gas tax, to finance new road construction. Paben suggested bonding could also help build roads across Texas.

“Recent articles suggest the Cintra-Zachry Consortium stands to make billions of dollars from the TTC,” he said. “If they are able to do so, then why can’t the State of Texas? It seems those kinds of revenues could certainly go a long way in funding Texas roadways in the future.”

Although Farm Bureau does not support tolling existing roads, Paben said the organization does not oppose the use of tolls to fund construction of new roads.

The Farm Bureau testimony suggested the state focus on transportation projects that will help the “impending stress” on traffic ways—using existing routes—in the Golden Triangle, where it is estimated 60 percent of the state’s population will live in the next 30 years.

The testimony also recalled Farm Bureau’s support of legislation by Senator Steve Ogden to utilize the existing state highway “trunk” system.

“We believe the trunk system comprised of improving current state highways, and constructing by-passes and loops, could greatly relieve traffic flow in our metropolitan centers,” Paben said.

The farm leader noted Texas Farm Bureau members support the need for new and better roads in Texas.

“We are an industry no different from any other and need to move our products throughout the state,” he said. “…if building highways is to be a profit center, then let those highways be built by Texans for Texan taxpayers.”

Perry appoints two more tollers to Commission

Link to article in Dallas Morning News here. Read more from San Antonio Express-News where it recounts when Senator John Carona called Delisi a "hack" here.

Perry's picks for Texas Transportation Commission highlight commitment to toll
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
By MICHAEL LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News

A week after Gov. Rick Perry said in a speech that he’ll fight to keep toll roads at the center of any plans to solve Texas’ transportation needs, he proved it by naming his former chief of staff to lead the Texas Transportation Commission.

Mr. Perry also reached inside the board room of the North Texas Tollway Authority Wednesday, selecting that agency’s vice chairman to also serve on the five-member commission, which sets policy for the nearly 15,000-employee Texas Department of Transportation.

The new chairman is Mr. Perry’s former aide, Deirdre Delisi, 35 of Austin. Ms. Delisi replaces Hope Andrade of San Antonio, who had been serving as interim chairman.

The appointment of NTTA vice chairman William Meadows, a Fort Worth businessman, fills the vacancy left open by the December death of commission chairman Ric Williamson. By appointing Mr. Meadows, the governor satisfied demands by North Texas lawmakers who had insisted that the Dallas-Fort Worth area be represented on the commission.

Commissioners meet once a month, and often travel throughout the state. They are paid $15,914 per year.

Mr. Williamson was an old friend of Mr. Perry’s whose outsized personality had helped push TxDOT’s pro-toll road policies through several sessions of the Legislature, until they ran into a road block last session.

Like Mr. Williamson, Ms. Delisi is a close ally of the governor, and is expected to use relationships she built with lawmakers as the governor’s chief o staff to shepherd the agency through the 2009 session, which is expected to be no less bumpy than last year’s.

“Texas faces serious challenges in providing a transportation infrastructure that will sustain our state’s rapid pace of population and trade growth," Gov. Perry said in a statement. "I am confident (Mr. Meadows’ and Ms. Delisi’s) contribution to the commission will maintain the momentum of the late Commissioner Ric Williamson’s pioneering vision.”

Mr. Perry had been said to favor appointing Ms. Delisi months ago, but had been bogged down in discussions with her state senator, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a leading critic of the transportation department.

Wednesday’s announcement indicates Sen. Watson has lifted those objections. In an interview last week, the senator complimented the governor for allowing him the time to meet several times with Ms. Delisi to discuss the approach she would bring to her new role.

In an interview just after her appointment, Ms. Delisi said she had promised to be honest, and make the agency more transparent.

“I have made a commitment to provide as much transparency as possible,” she said in an interview. “That is especially the case when it comes to the agency’s finances. People want to know how much money we have, where is the money coming from, how the money is being used.”

Toll roads — and private toll roads — will continue to be on the state’s agenda, she said, but she also said the commission will be looking for other solutions to build the new roads Texas needs.

“I am looking from a global perspective. I am not real interested in process, all I care about are results,” she said. “These solutions have to be come to us from a very cooperative approach. We want to see as many options on the table as possible.”

The appointment of Mr. Meadows takes the vice chairman of the one agency other than the Legislature with whom TxDOT has clashed most often, the NTTA, and makes him one of five members who will set transportation policy for all of Texas.

Mr. Meadows said his appointment forecasts a more harmonious approach. “I have a very good conversation with Gov Perry,” he said. “What I recognized first and foreman is that transportation is, if not the top priority, one of the very top priorities of this governor. These challenges are huge and must be met.”

He said he believes his appointment comes at a time when NTTA itself is looking for a more conciliatory approach with TxDOT, after nearly two years of bruising and highly visible clashes between the two.

“I think the board recognizes, and I know the commission does, that we need to work cooperatively,” Mr. Meadows said.

Those predictions will likely be tested not just in the Legislature, where NTTA and TxDOT are expected to fight over revisions to last session’s toll legislation, but also in the coming negotiations over the Trinity parkway, Southwestern Parkway and other North Texas-area toll projects.

Road lobby to lawmakers: If goal is to MAXIMIZE profits, use a private toll contract

Today the Joint Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Projects (mandated by the private toll moratorium bill) invited boatloads of bureaucrats and private sector road building contractors (engineering firms, law firms, financial consultants, etc.) to sing the praises of private toll deals before state lawmakers (and the Governor's 3 appointees, all pro-privatization and pro-TxDOT...think people who believe TxDOT walks on water, tells no lies, and is always right).

A few government folks warned Public Private Partnerships (or PPPs) are not prudent or do-able in all situations, but none repudiated them outright or recommended the Legislature do away with them. At a Senate Transportation Committee hearing March 1, 2007, PPP expert Dennis Enright with Northwest Financial in New Jersey said PPPs cost 50% more, the private sector assumes NO FINANCIAL RISK (though PPP advocates claim "risk transfer" is the advantage of doing a private deal), and recommended toll projects always stay in the public sector. No such moral clarity today. One thing's clear: the highway lobby and the PPP chief cheerleader, Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, have been very busy lobbying our elected officials since the hearing March 1, 2007.

It was all a taxpayer could do to keep his/her cool when listening to the spin and the brazen attempts to raid our wallets with the highest possible toll "the market will bear," simply because they can. The hogs at the trough are alive and well and far outnumber the ordinary citizens who can take off work to sit in a 6 hour hearing (with no breaks, but lawmakers always have a "back room" stocked with drinks and food both in Austin at today's meeting) before they can give a stitch of testimony against these sweetheart deals that amount to a public fleecing.

Read the TURF testimony (which we were not allowed to finish before being cut off) here.

A Secretary from the Florida Department of Transportation even admitted the primary funding source for their PPP deals is private activity bonds (or PABs), which is a pot of public money established by the feds to encourage private toll contracts (note how it's cloaked with "private" in the title).

VA Secretary of DOT a STAR!!!!!

Deputy Secretary of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), Barbara Reese, stole the show today and displayed the kind of integrity and leadership we need at TxDOT. We liked her so much we suggested the Legislature get her down here to run TxDOT post-haste!

She described how Virginia's DOT approaches transportation starting with "an unwavering commitment to the public good" (since someone has to pay that tax/toll) and total transparency ("no closed door deals"). They have a section of their web site where anyone at any time can examine the performance of any contract and, hence, the department's technical and financial decisions on behalf of taxpayers.

Reese also noted that they're very open and candid about what they're doing and why, and emphasized they involve the public at every step of the process. She was specifically asked by one of the committee members if they proceeded with a project if the public didn't want it, and she emphatically said, "No." What a novel concept, actually listening to the public who pays the bills...TxDOT and our Texas politicians have a lot to learn about integrity and serving the public interest from VDOT.

She said 80-90% of their road maintenance has been outsourced from government to the private sector which has subsequently reduced the number of VDOT employees from 12,000 down to 8,600. Here's the kicker. If a VDOT project wasn't done in time or came in overbudget, "you have a lot of explaining to do and possibly could lose your job." How refreshing! A government agency that will actually fire people who don't deliver for the taxpayers! I'm concluding TxDOT's recent $1 billion accounting error and ad campaign selling tolls roads and the Trans Texas Corridor to the public using TAXPAYER MONEY would have resulted in heads rolling at VDOT. Where's the accountability at TxDOT?

Hogs at the trough get trotted out

Then out came the private sector firms (who will profit handsomely from PPPs and toll roads) blowing sunshine in lawmakers' ears about what the private sector brings to the table. They talked about "risk transfer" and tried to claim since a private lender is involved in private deals, that the deal is more scrutinized than a public sector model. Oh really, is that how we arrived at the current subprime mortgage crisis? Because lenders were so good at "scrutinizing" buyers' ability to make payments? Let's remember who bailed that mess out...we the TAXPAYERS did. There is no private "risk" anymore. It's the taxpayers, the taxpayers, and ONLY the taxpayers who pay the price for corporate America's mistakes and our government's malfeasance.

URS and other companies who do these traffic and revenue toll viability studies are known for perpetually OVERprojecting the expected amount of traffic that will take these toll roads, and when the cars don't materialize, it's once again the taxpayers who bail out the failed toll road, like we did on the failed Camino Columbia toll road in Laredo (and there's plenty of examples of failed toll roads in Florida, and in VA and elsewhere). It's a total scam, they'll say and do anything to get these toll roads built, sell the bonds, get their money, and leave the taxpayers holding the bag. I've even heard companies admit they can't tell TxDOT the truth because then they'll never hire them for these studies again. It's all about the money, folks. The public good gets checked at the door. It's been long since buried in Texas.

Very few start-up toll roads are financially viable

Well, the fact most of these toll projects aren't 100% toll sustainable has been abundantly obvious since day one of the Governor and Legislature's shift to tolling. They're using all kinds of public subsidies to make the projects work so that they can still toll you! Wisdom and prudence would say if the road can't be paid for by the tolls, then don't build it as a toll road, period. No so with today's politicians. They instead choose to subsidize it so they can still tap the vein and get their revenue stream.

So don't believe them when tollers claim you have a choice whether to pay to take a toll road. No you don't, a heap of YOUR public money is going into nearly every one of these projects, but you won't be able to drive on them without paying a toll, too, in a double or even triple tax scheme. Why do you think they're tolling existing freeways? Because they can make an extra BIG heap of cash off roads already built and paid for!

Any discussion of market valuation is always very revealing. The purpose of market-based tolls is to "maximize the profits" from the road (as we warned when we tried to kill this provision in the bill last year). Lawmakers and private firms said so repeatedly at the hearing. This shift to tolling has always been about creating a new revenue stream for road builders without having to raise the gas tax. Politicians honestly think raising the gas tax will bring worse political fallout than tolling. Well, they're learning that's a false hope. See, it's not that they're averse to raising your taxes, they do it all the time, they think tolls can ultimately be blamed on local government decisions so they basically think they get to pass the buck with tolling. There's no question that paying tolls on all new lanes/roads will be the largest tax increase in Texas history, period, and there's blame at EVERY level of government.

PPPs more expensive than public toll roads

The private firms admitted PPPs cost the taxpayers more, not to mention loss of control, but they think it's justified since in some circumstances the road can't be built without the private money since many public tolling entities have maxed their proverbial bond debt credit cards. So instead of restrain government spending and rein-in the prolific use of leveraged debt to get new roads built, their argument is the public should pay even more to have a private company build, maintain, and control our roads in 50+ year deals for the ultimate quick fix.

The road building industry is hitting tough times, like all of us hit hard by the recession, so instead of tighten their belts like we have to, they want the taxpayers to suspend all rational fiscal policy and allow PPPs to continue in Texas when we can least afford them.

Tolls not a "user" fee

Sasha Page of Infrastructure Management Group (IMG), a financial firm that consults on such deals, even admitted the private sector attraction to toll roads is due to the "monopolistic characteristics" of toll roads. Cha ching! You got it! Again, the testimony of industry experts time and again shows toll roads are monopolies, they are not "free market" as tollers try to tell us. And, tolling is not a user fee, it's a tax, especially when they use a mix of other public funds to build them.

Market valuation, in particular, is another Robin Hood scheme to jack up the toll beyond the actual cost of the road and milk that money from one set of motorists and give it to another set. A user fee is directly tied to the user of the road as it is with traditional turnpikes. Toll advocates complain the gas tax is flawed because the payer is too far removed from actual road use because all the money gets put in a pot and gets redistributed. Well, that precisely what they're doing with market valuation and PPPs. All told, they're putting the money in a pot and spending it elsewhere, not on the road where the toll is collected.

Advocates will say it's not fair to raise the gas tax for everyone, like in rural Texas, to solve congestion in Houston or Dallas. First of all, rural areas get far more back in gas taxes than they put in and urban areas have donated to rural areas since the gas tax first started. There simply isn't enough population in rural areas to support any highway being built/maintained. The bottom line is this: we've all decided public infrastructure and connectivity of all our roads, whether urban or rural, are important and necessary and we've all agreed to pool the money collected for roadways to support and maintain a STATEWIDE highway system. All Texans benefit from our highway system, whether it's to get to work, get goods to market, or to visit Grandma in another town, we all use and need our highway system.

Toll advocates bring up this straw man gas tax argument to stir-up strife and division among various regions as an excuse to push the most expensive transportation tax, toll taxes, on all of us without a public vote.

Market valuation is hard for politicians to sell back home

Representative Wayne Smith, who is the House author of SB 792 that unleashed market valuation on Texans, told Geoff Yarema, with the law firm that represents TxDOT in PPPs, that he's having trouble selling market valuation to constituents. "Telling people that we're extracting the maximum revenue from a toll road to go build more toll roads where we extract the maximum revenue is hard to sell back home, can you help us with that?" Smith asked.

You bet that's hard to "sell" to constituents, because they recognize runaway taxation and gouging when they see it! They're tired of being gouged at the gas pump and add market-based tolls on top of it, and you have an all out taxpayer revolt brewing. We tried to warn these guys market valuation is DISASTROUS public policy and we begged them to kill it, but lawmakers wanted to go home at the end of the last session rather than fight with the Governor over toll road policy. Some of them may well be going home from Austin for good when this mess hits the fan in the voting booth!

Reason Foundation infecting lawmakers

Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation again suggested that the federal law prohibiting the public and private sector from competing with one another on such contracts ought to be repealed. I repeatedly ran into the Reason Foundation lobbyists in lawmakers' offices at the Capitol during the 80th Legislative session. They have infected the Texas Public Policy Foundation and other "free market" think tanks convincing them toll roads and privatizing infrastructure is free market and the best way to finance transportation. But for all the reasons laid out above and throughout this web site, toll roads as conceived under PPPs and the new policies under Bush and Perry are anything but free market or good public policy. It's the MOST EXPENSIVE, monopolistic, runaway, Robin Hood form of taxation put into the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats.

Senate Transportation Committee debates road funding, questions market valuation

Overall, today's Senate Transportation Committee hearing studying several interim charges on public-private partnerships (PPPs or CDAs in TX), market valuation, the Trans Texas Corridor and road financing, at least began a much needed evaluation of the many areas of concern to the taxpaying public. That said, there were also plenty of political bombs dropped and even ultimatums like "over my dead body" to keep the marathon hearing nerve rattling for what's become one of the most politically radioactive issues in the State.

Of the nine committee members, 6 showed up: Kim Brimer, John Carona, Robert Nichols, Florence Shapiro, Kirk Watson, and Tommy Williams. Notably absent, as usual, was San Antonio & Hill County Senator Jeff Wentworth. Our favorite comments came from Senator Williams who told TxDOT that it'll be "over my dead body" before TxDOT takes toll revenues from Houston to fund northern or southern segments of the Trans Texas Corridor. His message: keep your mitts off our region's money.

This discussion occurred during the CDA panel where the Committee trotted out Jose Maria Lopez of Cintra, David Zachry of Zachry Construction (Cintra's partner on many toll projects and the Trans Texas Corridor), the Associated General Contractors, and an attorney who represents the public sector on public-private deals who said the decision on the maximum toll rate and escalation formula cannot be left to the private sector. Amen!

Lopez and Zachry agreed that:

1) It's difficult to determine a "market price" for a toll road without a previous sale price (like a home)

2) That the private sector can offer more up-front cash than the public sector despite its tax-free, low interest loans

3) That there is no single market value for any given toll project since competitors would use varying formulas and criteria and would naturally arrive at different numbers.

Senator Nichols, former Transportation Commissioner, had offered up a new way to do buyback provisions in CDAs that would give the State a guaranteed not to exceed buyout price in the contract so there's no guesswork or court battle over the pricetag of a toll road should the State need to buy it back from a private entity.


Then TxDOT hinted they could raid "excess toll revenues" (code for profit) to fund non-toll viable segments illiciting Williams' ultimatum. "Once you redistribute money it's no longer a user fee; it's a tax," Williams said. We'd argue that ANY money forcibly taken from taxpayers and given to the government is a TAX, not a fee to begin with, but his point is well taken.

In TURF's testimony, we addressed that aspect of the new "market valuation" scheme, which the Governor injected into his counterfeit moratorium bill SB 792, calling a spade a spade. Market valuation is nothing more than a Robin Hood scheme to milk taxes from one set of motorists to pay for other projects elsewhere, which is horrific public policy and smacks of a slush fund for politicians to raid for any number of projects without accountability or a direct path to track the tax collected to the tax spent.

It was clear that "market valuation" and the words "financial terms" (to be agreed upon) had any number of definitions even among lawmakers who voted for the bill. Senator Nichols expressed concern that 3 bidders could give 3 totally different market values to the same toll road making TxDOT's insistence on locking local toll authorities into a single market value pricetag for the life of a contract was as foolish as it was impractical. There was much debate over TxDOT's interpretation of the market valuation language in SB 792 versus lawmakers' and local entities' definition.

In fact, the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) revealed new details in the prolonged Hwy 161 market value fight with TxDOT showing TxDOT tried to force the NTTA to agree on no less than 200 different financial terms before agreement could be reached so the project could move forward. And the 200 items delved into insignificant minutiae like grass-cutting measures and requiring no more than 20 pieces of litter on the roadside.


This is what our hard-earned tax dollars have been wasted on...more than 60 meetings of taxpayer-paid bureaucrats fighting over the amount to gouge motorists to use a public highway. In the end, TxDOT believes they could have extracted an additional half BILLION out of our pockets in up-front cash on the project (that the taxpayers would then have to pay back with INTEREST if TxDOT had had its way).

Williams rightly agreed that pulling the "excess revenue" out of a toll project on the front end carries interest and debt (versus extracting excess revenue when and if the toll road produces the cash at a later date), not to mention higher toll rates (though TxDOT insisted it wouldn't increase the toll rate...yeah right!). He repeatedly said they (the authors of the bill) didn't want the market valuation language in the bill (inserted by Dictator Perry, but they certainly could have stood up to the Governor and told him NO), and that he'd be more than happy to see it go away next session. Here, here!

Senator Carona also dispelled the myth that private operators take the risk from the State on public-private toll projects therefore justifying the guaranteed profit in these contracts. He said: "Private investors don't want the risk either, only the most profitable, low-risk projects like we do."


Senators Carona and Shapiro were flabbergasted that Houston's Grand Parkway negotiations with TxDOT allowed a non-CDA approach when TxDOT FORCED the NTTA into an up front cash payment in competition with the private sector (Cintra) for Hwy 121. The Harris County Toll Authority attorney then explained their approach, "we weren't trying to milk this project." It's clear TxDOT milked North Texas, though. TxDOT apparently backed-off in Houston, but stuck it to the taxpayers insisting on $3 billion in quick cash (in borrowed cash, no less, based upon future profits) from the Hwy 121 deal in North Texas.


All of these revelations preceded the Trans Texas Corridor discussion where Senator Shapiro asked the burning question: why 1,200 feet wide and why not expand existing highways instead of building the Trans Texas Corridor? Of course TxDOT gave it's usual convoluted ramblings trying to convince the senators they may not use that much right of way and "assured" them they'd expand existing right of way first wherever possible. Who are they kidding? Their environmental documents submitted to the feds will clearly authorize 1,200 feet of right of way regardless of what TxDOT tells the senators in some hearing. The same is true of utilizing existing right of way first. That alternative isn't even on the table in the current draft environmental study for TTC-69. TxDOT can do a dance for the senators today and steal our land and livelihoods tomorrow.

A suggested solution: Make it law to limit the right of way to 400 feet (the standard for a fully built-out interstate highway) and make it law to force TxDOT to expand existing right of way before embarking on ANY new corridor ventures.

TxDOT also tried to assure Senator Nichols that it will listen to and heed the advice given to it by the TTC Advisory Committees and Working Groups, but then said that tomorrow the Transportation Commission would vote on policy changes to the Trans Texas Corridor regarding use of existing right of way, bisecting land, and converting non-tolled highways into tolled highways (ie - SH 59 and SH 77) among other things, WITHOUT hearing word-one from these Advisory Committees!

Also of note, the counties who had representatives before the Committee today singing the praises of the TTC and toll roads all have goodies being granted to them in tomorrow's Transportation Commissioner Meeting. Quid Pro Quo? Sure looks like it.

That was the most appalling aspect to today's meeting, overall. Listening to elected officials and bureaucrats alike promote the Trans Texas Corridor, knowing the destruction it'll bring. Senator Williams said he supported the TTC-69 despite the farmers with pitchforks! The Lufkin Mayor Jack Gorden said the TTC-69 would increase the standard of living in East Texas. Oh really, Sir, how does increasing one's taxes and stealing one's land and livelihood increase someone's standard of living? Then, Bowie County Judge James Carlow welcomed the TTC to his community saying: "we're ready to give the land right now. Come build it." It's not YOUR land to give, Mr. Carlow. What a slap in the face to his constituents. This deplorable behavior is easy to explain however. These officials have been heavily lobbied USING OUR OWN TAXPAYER DOLLARS by registered LOBBYISTS and TxDOT, and no doubt promised the moon to get on board. Just look at the goodies the Commission is doling out at their meeting tomorrow.

Let the taxpayer revolt kick it up a notch. Let these elected officials hear from you with your thoughts on their "representation" of YOU before this committee.

Food rationing hits the U.S., in part, due to high fuel costs

Link to article here.

Fuel prices have been steadily driving up the cost of food. Read more here.

Food Rationing Confronts Breadbasket of the World
By JOSH GERSTEIN, Staff Reporter of the Sun | April 21, 2008

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - Many parts of America, long considered the breadbasket of the world, are now confronting a once unthinkable phenomenon: food rationing.

Rice is stored at a National Food Authority warehouse at Manila, the Philippines, on April 17.
Major retailers in New York, in areas of New England, and on the West Coast are limiting purchases of flour, rice, and cooking oil as demand outstrips supply. There are also anecdotal reports that some consumers are hoarding grain stocks.

At a Costco Warehouse in Mountain View, Calif., yesterday, shoppers grew frustrated and occasionally uttered expletives as they searched in vain for the large sacks of rice they usually buy.

“Where’s the rice?” an engineer from Palo Alto, Calif., Yajun Liu, said. “You should be able to buy something like rice. This is ridiculous.”

The bustling store in the heart of Silicon Valley usually sells four or five varieties of rice to a clientele largely of Asian immigrants, but only about half a pallet of Indian-grown Basmati rice was left in stock. A 20-pound bag was selling for $15.99.

 “You can’t eat this every day. It’s too heavy,” a health care executive from Palo Alto, Sharad Patel, grumbled as his son loaded two sacks of the Basmati into a shopping cart. “We only need one bag but I’m getting two in case a neighbor or a friend needs it,” the elder man said.

The Patels seemed headed for disappointment, as most Costco members were being allowed to buy only one bag. Moments earlier, a clerk dropped two sacks back on the stack after taking them from another customer who tried to exceed the one-bag cap.

“Due to the limited availability of rice, we are limiting rice purchases based on your prior purchasing history,” a sign above the dwindling supply said.

Shoppers said the limits had been in place for a few days, and that rice supplies had been spotty for a few weeks. A store manager referred questions to officials at Costco headquarters near Seattle, who did not return calls or e-mail messages yesterday.

An employee at the Costco store in Queens said there were no restrictions on rice buying, but limits were being imposed on purchases of oil and flour. Internet postings attributed some of the shortage at the retail level to bakery owners who flocked to warehouse stores when the price of flour from commercial suppliers doubled.

The curbs and shortages are being tracked with concern by survivalists who view the phenomenon as a harbinger of more serious trouble to come.

“It’s sporadic. It’s not every store, but it’s becoming more commonplace,” the editor of SurvivalBlog.com, James Rawles, said. “The number of reports I’ve been getting from readers who have seen signs posted with limits has increased almost exponentially, I’d say in the last three to five weeks.”

Spiking food prices have led to riots in recent weeks in Haiti, Indonesia, and several African nations. India recently banned export of all but the highest quality rice, and Vietnam blocked the signing of a new contract for foreign rice sales.

“I’m surprised the Bush administration hasn’t slapped export controls on wheat,” Mr. Rawles said. “The Asian countries are here buying every kind of wheat.”

Mr. Rawles said it is hard to know how much of the shortages are due to lagging supply and how much is caused by consumers hedging against future price hikes or a total lack of product.

“There have been so many stories about worldwide shortages that it encourages people to stock up. What most people don’t realize is that supply chains have changed, so inventories are very short,” Mr. Rawles, a former Army intelligence officer, said. “Even if people increased their purchasing by 20%, all the store shelves would be wiped out.”

At the moment, large chain retailers seem more prone to shortages and limits than do smaller chains and mom-and-pop stores, perhaps because store managers at the larger companies have less discretion to increase prices locally.

Mr. Rawles said the spot shortages seemed to be most frequent in the Northeast and all the way along the West Coast. He said he had heard reports of buying limits at Sam’s Club warehouses, which are owned by Wal-Mart Stores, but a spokesman for the company, Kory Lundberg, said he was not aware of any shortages or limits.

An anonymous high-tech professional writing on an investment Web site, Seeking Alpha, said he recently bought 10 50-pound bags of rice at Costco. “I am concerned that when the news of rice shortage spreads, there will be panic buying and the shelves will be empty in no time. I do not intend to cause a panic, and I am not speculating on rice to make profit. I am just hoarding some for my own consumption,” he wrote.

For now, rice is available at Asian markets in California, though consumers have fewer choices when buying the largest bags. “At our neighborhood store, it’s very expensive, more than $30” for a 25-pound bag, a housewife from Mountain View, Theresa Esquerra, said. “I’m not going to pay $30. Maybe we’ll just eat bread.”

Lawmakers salivate at raising taxes for transportation

Link to article here.

In case you're like me and had to rub your eyes and re-focus on the text to make sure I'm reading this right, some of our politicians are clearly drinking the tax-and-spend Kool-Aid that afflicts most politicos when they've been wined and dined sufficiently by lobbyists who demand more tax money for their industries.

We have a global economic crisis fueled by high gas prices that are subsequently driving up the cost of necessities like food. We have riots and food rationing around the globe, including in our own country. We have all time high home foreclosures, a mortgage and credit crisis, and these politicians have the unmitigated gall to champion not only gas tax hikes, but also the MOST expensive transportation tax, toll roads! They've LOST THEIR MINDS! The best solution: throw the bums out so they can return to the real world and be reminded of what it's like to EARN a living in these tough economic times.

Toll roads, higher gas taxes predicted
By Patrick Driscoll

AUSTIN — When it comes to the big picture, two ranking members of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, one Republican and the other Democrat, were on the same page in separate speeches Monday.Building toll roads and leasing some to private corporations will be needed to keep traffic moving on the nation's highways, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., told more than 1,000 people at the Texas Transportation Forum.

But so will higher gas taxes, though the pair differed on how.

Johnson said the 18.4 cents-a-gallon federal tax needs to go up at least a nickel and that states need to boost rates, too.

"We know there's got to be an increase in the gas tax eventually," she said.

Mica said the tax probably should be calibrated to rise with an inflation index and that a per-mile tax then should be phased in within a decade using vehicle-tracking technologies.

"Oh yeah, I think you're going to have to do that," he said.

Both talks hit on all cylinders for a crowd made up mostly of government and industry officials hungry to hear how more funds can be poured into transportation.

The Texas Department of Transportation, which held the forum, recently retrenched and targeted nearly all its gas tax and fee collections into maintenance.

"The reality is, we're in a difficult financial situation," TxDOT Assistant Director Phil Russell said at an afternoon session. "Right now, across the state, any addition in capacity is probably going to have to be looked at as toll lanes."

Toll roads and privatization are at least part of the answer, said Johnson, who's been working with a handful of members of Congress from Texas since last year to come up with a bipartisan list of recommendations.

"We cannot see how it can be done with just tax dollars," she said.

Mica, who's calling for a national vision and policy for transportation, said all funding options must be weighed.

Congress should consider taxes and fees, innovative financial packaging and public-private partnerships to harvest $1.5 trillion for the next five-year transportation bill, which is due next year, he said.

Such a bill would be five times larger than the current law.

"Hang in there, baby, you'll see," Mica said. "I think we can do it."


Toll roads, education and wood chips

Toll-road warriors camped out at the Texas Transportation Forum through today spent due time fretting over why toll proposals ignite public uproars, and brainstormed on ways to soothe tempers.

The elusive balm is education, not to be confused with advocacy, they insisted. If people only knew how little funding there is to build and maintain roads for growing traffic, they'd jump on board to help find answers.

"Frankly, we neglected the public education aspect of it from the beginning," said U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, a forum speaker who's served on the House transportation committee since 1993.

Her colleague on the committee, and also a speaker at the forum, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., had a different take. He said elected leaders need some lessons in transportation realities, and that will include the next president.

"Members of Congress do not know anything," he said. "Let's start with that."

Mica said the current crop in Washington is too myopic, but nevertheless he's beaming with hope, in part because this year's elections will plant some new seeds.

"I've got a whole new cast of characters," he said after his Monday night talk. "Bush will be back here in Crawford chopping wood."

Speaking at lunch: Bush's old buddy Gov. Rick Perry.

Parties agree on Hwy 161 toll road's worth, project moves forward

Link to article here. Read about the tax-and-spend free-for-all saga here.

Tollway agency approves deal with TxDOT on Highway 161
Sunday, April 20, 2008
By MICHAEL LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News

The North Texas Tollway Authority on Sunday unanimously approved a deal with the Texas Department of Transportation that sets the value of the State Highway 161 toll road at about $1.1 billion.

The vote ratifies a compromise reached Friday after leaders from both agencies met behind closed doors with key legislators to end a stalemate that had threatened to stall or even cancel plans to build the approximately 10-mile toll road in western Dallas County.

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said Sunday that TxDOT leadership already had ratified the agreement and had been awaiting approval by NTTA's board, which held an emergency meeting Sunday afternoon to vote on the deal.

Construction contracts for the road already have been awarded, and work is expected to begin Monday.

NTTA has promised to decide by mid-summer whether it will build the toll road itself or step aside and let TxDOT contract with a private firm to build it.

Market based toll roads run amok in North Texas

Link to article here.

In case anyone needs reminding, we warned legislators this is EXACTLY what TxDOT would do. Lawmakers convinced themselves the Governor's counterfeit moratorium bill, SB 792, and it's horrific market valuation language, was the panacea to give them local control. We tried to tell lawmakers the veto power they were seeking cuts both ways; it still allows TxDOT to KILL a project if the local authorities don't agree with TxDOT's quick cash, "market value" figure as determined by Wall Street. "Market value" is code for how much money the government thinks it can make off its highway monopoly resulting in tolls as high as they can get away with. Notice that the articles opine that if the two sides can't agree on the maximum level of taxpayer gouging, that Hwy 161 will become a freeway. Heaven forbid, not a FREEway! Well, that's what we the PEOPLE should demand!

Dewhurst, legislators to meet in Dallas to ease Highway 161 deadlock
Thursday, April 17, 2008
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News
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Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and other key legislators are expected to meet behind closed doors in Dallas today to end a deadlock over State Highway 161 that has threatened to derail plans to toll the highway, a development that could cost North Texas more than $1.2 billion in road funds.

Also Online
TxDOT, tollway authority clash on value of State Highway 161 contract

Download: Letter from the Texas Department of Transportation

Download: The tollway authority response

Regional leaders have insisted that the 10-mile Highway 161 in western Dallas County be built as a toll road. But negotiations between the North Texas Tollway Authority and the state transportation department over how much the toll contract is worth unexpectedly collapsed late Wednesday night, just hours before construction crews were to begin building the highway.

The Texas Department of Transportation has insisted for weeks that if no agreement was in place by April 16, the road could not be built as a toll road.

That prospect prompted howls of protest from local elected officials. Senate transportation committee chairman John Carona, R-Dallas, stepped in Thursday to initiate the unusual last-minute involvement of some of Texas' most powerful elected officials.

"I am working hard to facilitate open conversation between all parties involved in the construction of SH 161," Mr. Dewhurst said in a written statement about his efforts to resolve the impasse.

Gov. Rick Perry's deputy chief of staff and his top transportation adviser, Kris Heckmann, will also attend. House Speaker Tom Craddick was not invited and will not attend, his spokesman said Thursday.

Today's high-level meeting is designed to produce an agreement, said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, a transportation committee member who will also attend

"I think we need to sit around the room and have all the parties look eyeball to eyeball," Ms. Shapiro said.

NTTA offer
Racing to beat the April 16 deadline imposed by TxDOT, NTTA last week offered what it called its best and final offer. Its proposal valued the Highway 161 project at $1.2 billion and, if accepted by state transportation officials, would have let the highway proceed as a toll project. The Regional Transportation Council voted 16-13 on Tuesday to support NTTA's proposal.

But TxDOT executive director Amadeo Saenz rejected NTTA's proposal late Wednesday night. Mr. Saenz ordered work on the highway to be delayed and extended his own agency's deadline through the end of the weekend to provide time for negotiations.

That decision "pulled the rug out from under the region," Ms. Shapiro said.

But on Thursday, Mr. Saenz said that decision was based on what's best for the region, and department leaders said Thursday that NTTA's proposal was for hundreds of millions of dollars less than what the toll contract was really worth. Leaving that money on the table, they said, would only make it harder for North Texas to reduce congestion on its traffic-snarled highways.

Mr. Saenz said he is prepared to continue negotiating with NTTA throughout the weekend, and said he looked forward to the meeting with senior legislators today.

"We have to meet the deadline to build the project, or yes it will have to be a gas-tax road," Mr. Saenz said. "Maybe it can be resolved over the weekend. We are very close."

Michael Morris, director of the Regional Transportation Council, said he canceled plans to be in Washington to attend today's meeting. He said that his discussions with NTTA and TxDOT on Thursday had helped the parties resolve many of their differences and that he expects them to reach an agreement today.

NTTA chairman Paul Wageman said his agency's offer will remain on the table all weekend, but he said its board will not renegotiate the terms of the proposal. He said TxDOT should unequivocally accept the proposal that has been endorsed by the RTC.

"We are here to do what is best for the region," Mr. Wageman said. "If TxDOT wants to extend the deadline that it has imposed on this project, which we have said all along is an arbitrary deadline, then of course we will not let our offer lapse during that time. But I also want to be clear: Our proposal is our best and final offer. We made our best effort to get this project moving and to bring value to the region. We're not going to renegotiate our terms."

'We need this roadway'
Ms. Shapiro said it's long past time for the agencies to agree on how the road will be built.

"The three entities have got to come to an understanding," she said. "Sixty-two meetings were held between TxDOT and NTTA to resolve market valuation, and they still haven't resolved it. The more time this takes, the more we in this region are the losers. We need this roadway so desperately."

Mr. Dewhurst and the others at today's meeting cannot order either party to reach an agreement – as both TxDOT and NTTA are state entities directly answerable only to their governing boards.

Nevertheless, TxDOT finds itself in an unusually vulnerable position, with the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission set to give it a top-to-bottom look, and a Legislature mostly hostile to its push for private toll roads ready to reconvene in January.

Mr. Saenz said today's meeting will probably determine how quickly his agency and NTTA can come to an agreement on Highway 161.

"It all depends on what happens tomorrow," he said. "The crux is that the project needs to be completed on a certain time schedule. ... If there is no resolution, then I guess [it won't be a toll road]. But I am hoping that there will be a resolution. If we have to, we can extend our deadline a day or two."


Link to article here.

Regional council could weigh in Thursday on Highway 161 toll road project's next turn
Thursday, April 10, 2008
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News

The Regional Transportation Council will consider Thursday yet another twist in what has been six solid months of deadlocked negotiations over the State Highway 161 toll road.

Parties on both sides of the dispute – which involves a billion-dollar toll road and the prospect of traffic relief for thousands of drivers on State Highway 360 – say this week's proposal by the North Texas Tollway Authority could be the breakthrough they've been waiting for.

Monday's proposal by NTTA to value the road contract at about $1.2 billion, if accepted by the state Transportation Department, could clear a key legal hurdle that has stalled negotiations for months.

But despite those hopes – and they could still be dashed – about all anyone involved in the talks can agree on is that the process itself has been deeply flawed.

When negotiations over the toll contract began in earnest last fall, expectations from all sides were sky-high.

Fresh from a bruising but richly rewarding fight over State Highway 121, regional leaders saw the approximately 10-mile toll road as another golden egg. They hoped to see an upfront payment of as much as $1 billion to help build other roads.

State transportation leaders said the Highway 161 negotiations would prove that private-sector competition would create the billions Texas needs to pave its way out of increasingly bad traffic jams.

And for NTTA, the Highway 161 project was the first chance it would have to test-drive the new powers the Legislature had bestowed upon it last year. Those powers essentially have given the authority veto power on any toll road project within its service area.

"Everybody agrees that the process needs to be revamped," said Dallas City Council member Linda Koop, who is also vice chairwoman of the transportation council. "This is not a process that really works too well."

A frustrating process
No wonder.

The past six months have seen more than 60 meetings between NTTA and state Transportation Department officials, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal and consulting fees, and a series of firm deadlines set by the Transportation Department that were promptly ignored.

"I have been to I don't know how many meetings," said Bill Hale, director of the Dallas district of the Transportation Department. "And I just don't think we were going to get anywhere."

At fault, Mr. Hale, NTTA officials and others said this week, is the procedure established by the Legislature last year that means if NTTA or its counterparts don't agree on hundreds of toll road conditions, then projects simply can't proceed.

NTTA and its statewide counterparts say the Legislature was wise to give them what it calls primacy over private competitors. But even they said the forced negotiations have been doomed.

"I find it to be cumbersome, bureaucratic, argumentative and frustrating," said Art Story, director of public infrastructure and tollways for Harris County.

Law faulted

State transportation officials have opposed the new law from the beginning, saying private companies can pay more for toll roads than public agencies. They agree with NTTA and the others that the negotiation process contained in the law has not worked.

Private companies and public entities will always see the value of a proposed toll contract differently because they operate with a very different set of financial assumptions, Mr. Hale said. "There are some inherent differences in the way both sides approach a project like that," Mr. Hale said. "And if you are trying to negotiate, I think you will always end up with" deadlock.

But after six months of meetings, he said, the Transportation Department may support NTTA's price tag anyway, or accept its alternative proposal that would lead to NTTA stepping away from the project altogether.

"I am pretty optimistic," Mr. Hale said. "Sometimes, though, the best deal isn't the right deal, and you end up with a good deal instead."

Ms. Koop said the transportation council could vote on a recommendation, or table the matter at today's meeting.

What's certain is that all the parties will be back in Austin next year asking for changes.

"We need to have a robust conversation about what works and does not work," she said. "We need to make some recommendations."

Toll Chairman says plans to turn free road into toll road 'won't happen'

Link to article here.

Read the original story on the conversion of Hwy 161 from a free road into a toll road here. Time will tell if this controversial pan is truly dead on arrival or just a political power play to temporarily cover for Rick Perry's unpopular toll policies as he faces re-election.

NTTA chairman: Staff idea to toll free road not vetted by board, will be killed

Fri, Oct 15, 2010 | Michael Lindenberger - Reporter, Dallas Morning News

NTTA chairman Victor Vandergriff called me late Thursday to say the executive director of the toll authority had not discussed with the NTTA board any plans to seek permission from the state to toll existing highways, and that the proposal made Thursday by executive director Allen Clemson would be withdrawn.

"There is no support for that. It is not on our legislative agenda and hasn't been brought to the board. It will not happen," Vandergriff said late Thursday night.

Just hours before, Clemson had told members of the Regional Transportation Council that he had been in discussions with TxDOT involving a three-mile stretch of State Highway 161 in Irving.

The segment was built years ago as a four-lane free highway and is not currently tolled, though it connects to toll roads at both its northern and southern ends.  

Traffic exiting the six-lane President George Bush Turnpike often stalls as it enters the free portion fo SH 161, Clemson explained. After three miles of the four-lane road, traffic then moves onto NTTA's SH 161 toll road.

Adding tolls to the middle, free segment would allow NTTA to expand and rebuild that segment more quickly than TxDOT has promised to do so. It would enable NTTA to cover the $75 million in construction costs that TxDOT will otherwise have to spend.

But such a move would be controversial, too, and would need legislative approval and an OK by the RTC and TxDOT.

Our story from today, set to be published Friday morning, made clear that agreement from those entities is anything but guaranteed, and it revealed that Gov. Rick Perry is dead-set opposed to creating an exception for NTTA to toll the existing free highway.

But that apparently is moot now. Vandergriff's opposition, shall we say his energetic opposition, effectively kills the idea before it even gets started.

"Allen was looking at this issue from the perspective of making a business case (for tolling the free segment)," Vandergriff said. "And there is a business case to be made. But there is a political element to this too, and the board simply was not aware that this was being brought forward."

Most drivers who currently use the free segment of highway are traveling from one toll road to the next and may not even be aware that they aren't being tolled for those three miles, Vandergriff said. A better, wider highway may even be worth paying the toll for those three miles to those drivers, he said.  

But nevertheless, he said NTTA will not move forward with the idea.

"This will not be pursued," he insisted.

Existing freeways 360, 161 could be tolled

Not only is tolling existing FREEways a huge DOUBLE TAX, Michael Morris, the Executive Director of the Regional Transportation Council, is using taxpayer money to lobby AGAINST the TAXPAYER for such a DOUBLE TAX! Every political party in the state has a plank in its platform AGAINST tolling existing freeways, yet the RTC is brazenly lobbying to thwart the grassroots and the PEOPLE that keep this great state moving. Note how the article says the final say will be from the legislature and NOT the PEOPLE. That's the other sore spot on tolls. They've shoved this down our throats without asking us at the ballot box if we want this runaway, unaccountable taxation! They already know our answer. Weigh in on Dickson's blog here. If Morris and politicians fear opposition, let's give it to them!

The puff piece in the Dallas Morning News beats all. Rick Perry's loophole laden law that passed in 2005 (HB 2702) allows exceptions to tolling existing FREEways already. He has the audacity to expect us to believe he's suddenly seen the light as he talks tough on tolling existing freeways two weeks out from re-election after 5 years of locking horns with Texans over this issue (for his refusal to listen to taxpayers)? Please, Texas, don't be fooled. He's the precise reason for the taxpayer revolt against toll roads!


Texas Gov. Rick Perry vows to stop NTTA from tolling stretch of State Highway 161 in Irving

03:40 PM CDT on Thursday, October 14, 2010

By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News
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Under a plan floated this week by the North Texas Tollway Authority, a three-mile stretch of free highway in Irving could soon be tolled if legislators agreed to make an exception to state law that bars tolls on existing free roads.

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Blog: Transportation

Link: North Texas Tollway Authority

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The segment is State Highway 161 between Belt Line Road and State Highway 183. Under an agreement with NTTA, the Texas Department of Transportation has agreed to rebuild the four-lane road, expanding it to six lanes by 2019.

NTTA would like to see it rebuilt sooner, in part because traffic leaving the six-lane President George Bush Turnpike – which is SH 161 farther to the north – now backs up as it enters the narrower, untolled segment of SH 161. The tollway authority is offering to pay for the reconstruction itself – if the state will agree to allow it to toll that segment.

NTTA executive director Allen Clemson said the proposal, still in the discussion stage, could save TxDOT at least $75 million and remove a bottleneck for drivers.

A second segment, of less than two miles, on State Highway 360 near Interstate 20 could also be tolled if lawmakers embraced the approach, Clemson said, though it's not yet clear whether that would be necessary.

Clemson said he has discussed the item with TxDOT officials and leaders in Irving. But the ultimate say will come from state legislators, who would have to amend the law to permit the tolling of an existing free highway.

Clemson said if area partners embrace the idea, NTTA will lobby legislators in January to change the law.

However, Gov. Rick Perry made it clear in an interview today that he'll oppose any effort to carve an exception that would allow NTTA, or anyone else, to toll existing highways.

"They can't do that," the governor said. "They better find a way to get around me."


October 14, 2010
By Gordon Dickson
Star Telegram -- Honkin' Mad blog

Existing freeways could be tolled

Tolls could someday be placed on portions of Texas 360 in south Arlington and Texas 161 in west Irving that are currently free.

The Regional Transportation Council by its own rules is not allowed to put tolls on existing free lanes. In many cases state and federal law prohibits the conversion of free lanes to toll lanes as well.Tx161

But members of the RTC, the Metroplex's federally-recognized official planning body, are weighing whether to go to Austin and ask for permission from state officials to convert a couple miles of freeway into toll roads on Texas 360 south of Interstate 20, and Texas 161 from Texas 183 to the President George Bush Turnpike.

 "Would the public fully understand or would we lose the support we have now, in ... converting free lanes into toll lanes?" said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas

Morris wanted to bring the issue up for debate, but cautioned that it may not be wise to ask legislators for permission to increase the use of toll roads in the region at a time when the state is dealing with straining issues such as an $18 billion budget shortfall, immigration and redistricting. One train of thought is to wait until the 2013 legislative session, instead of pushing the idea during the 2011 session that is scheduled to begin in January.

"As a staff person, I am very nervous," Morris said. "Maybe we can hold off on this, and maybe put it into another legislative session. It could be like the Trans Texas Corridor, where once the opposition started you couldn't have a conversation about it."

But Dallas Councilman Ron Natinsky said the idea merits further discussion.

"At some point, I think we need to test the idea with some legislators, and see if it’s going be an idea that will float," Natinsky said. "I think we need to do our homework on that."

On Texas 161, the North Texas Tollway Authority could remove the state of a $74 million commitment to rebuild a two- to three-mile section of the four-lane freeway and expand it to six lanes in exchange for the right to convert the road into a part of the Bush Turnpike, tollway authority executive director Allen Clemson told an RTC committee Thursday. That road is already bumpy -- a stark contrast from the smooth pavement on the adjacent turnpike -- and needs to be rebuilt by 2019, officials said.

On Texas 360, the need is further down the road, maybe 10 years or longer. But the tollway authority also is probing the possibility of converting a two- or three-mile portion of the nontoll road near Southeast Green Oaks Boulevard into a toll road. While that news may be unsettling for residents of south Arlington and Mansfield, the tollway authority is already responsible for planning a southern extension of Texas 360 into the Mansfield area, so the question is really just how far north should the tollway authority's jurisdiction be allowed to reach.

Read more: http://blogs.star-telegram.com/honkin_mad/2010/10/existing-freeways-could-be-tolled.html#ixzz12MOFiA3z

Mr. 39%, Rick Perry, to run for governor, AGAIN!

Link to article here.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry to run for re-election in 2010
Thursday, April 17, 2008
By GROMER JEFFERS JR. and CHRISTY HOPPE / The Dallas Morning News
Gov. Rick Perry told The Dallas Morning News on Thursday that he would seek re-election as governor in 2010.

During a break in a Republican Governors Association forum being held in Grapevine, Mr. Perry said that he would like to return for a third full term as governor.

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Tell us: Will you vote for Gov. Perry in 2010?

Opinion blog: What Perry needs to do

 Texans my not want a governor to hang around that long
When asked whether the gubernatorial field would include Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and himself, Mr. Perry responded , “I don’t know about them, but it will be Perry in 2010.”

“I don’t know about the other two. You need to ask them.”

Mrs. Hutchison appeared unaffected by the governor’s statement. She has earlier said that her decision to run for governor would not be swayed this time by other candidates in the race.

“I am encouraged by the growing number of Texans asking me to return home to run for governor to provide leadership for our state,” she said in a statement Thursday.

“It is too early to make an announcement about the 2010 race. Right now I remain committed to serving the people of Texas in the United States Senate and helping our Republican candidates win crucial elections this fall.”

Mr. Dewhurst also said he would weigh his options later.

"My focus is on the 2009 legislative session and continuing to build on our successes over the past five years. Whatever I decide to do after that will be based on what's best for Texas," he said.

Since winning re-election with just 39 percent of the vote in a four-way field in 2006, Mr. Perry has held out the possibility of seeking an unprecedented third four-year term. But his statement Thursday is his most definitive yet that he would do so, though much could change in the two-and-a-half years until the next gubernatorial election.

Mr. Perry will soon become the longest-serving governor in Texas history. He took over for George W. Bush when Mr. Bush resigned in late 2000 to become president. The state has no term limits for governor.

Last year, Mr. Perry had expressed doubt as to whether he wanted another term, saying he would look at doing other things.

It has been speculated that Mr. Perry was positioning himself to be a vice presidential candidate, but he said Thursday that he would not accept such an offer from Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party’s all-but-certain nominee.

Longtime Republican consultant Bill Miller said the governor’s remark not only tips his hand, but tips the political balance.

“Most politicians who have been around awhile understand that when you become a lame duck, you really lose leverage and you lose your ability to get some things done, particularly hard things,” Mr. Miller said.

Eight months before a legislative session, it might be wise to strengthen your clout with lawmakers by letting them know you intend to be in the executive office for awhile, Mr. Miller said. “It’s the nature of politics.”

As for Mr. Perry’s election chances, Mr. Miller said he expects the governor will meet formidable competition in the 2010 GOP primary. And being the longest serving governor means you are not just battle-tested, but battle-scarred as well, he said.

“He’s got the most recent election and his polling numbers indicate it will not be an easy task for him to be reelected,” Mr. Miller said.

But it would be foolish to underestimate Rick Perry, he said. “The fact is that he’s never lost a political race and he’s had many, many of them.”

Democratic Party chief Boyd Richie suggested Mr. Perry has a lot to run on, including several school funding crises, the Texas Youth Commission sexual abuse scandal, soaring college tuitions, sprouting toll ways and more than 1 million children lacking health insurance.

“That's the record of Rick Perry and the Republican politicians who masquerade as our leaders while serving the interests of special interest contributors and cronies. Texas Democrats look forward to 2010,” Mr. Richie said.

Mr. Perry also said Thursday that he thought Tom Craddick would win re-election as House speaker. Mr. Craddick, embattled over his leadership style and his declaration that he had absolute authority in running the House last year, is expected to face several challengers for the job, even if Republicans maintain their thin majority in the House.

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