Landowners revolt: Push cities to oppose private Blacklands tollway

Link to article here.

Citizens blitz local governments to stop private Blacklands tollway
By Terri Hall
October 16, 2014

Opposition to the controversial private Blacklands-Northeast Gateway Toll Road from Garland to Greenville east of Dallas kicked into high gear this week when concerned citizens did a full court press to pressure remaining cities and counties to pass resolutions opposing the toll road. Seven cities had already passed resolutions prior to Tuesday. Those cities include Fate, Josephine, Lavon, Nevada, Rockwall, Sasche, and Wylie. The Rockwall County Democratic Party also passed a resolution opposing the tollway.

On ‘Super Tuesday,’ residents blitzed four city council meetings and one county commissioners meetings in one day. The City of Rowlett agreed to pass a resolution and Caddo Mills plans to pass one prior to the next crucial meeting of the Regional Transportation Council (RTC) on November 13, where the board may decide whether or not to adopt the tollway into its short and long-range plans.

The public's outrage over a private company wielding the power of eminent domain has gotten officials to take notice. Stiff opposition forced Texas Turnpike Corporation (TTC) to cancel its series of ‘informal’ meetings, and the RTC postponed its vote to adopt the tollway into its official plans to November 13. But without formal action nixing the project, concerned citizens continue to unite to put a stop to it. The grassroots have swelled their ranks in just one month from 700 signatures on the online petition to now over 4,200.

Landowners focused on the promise made by the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) Executive Director Michael Morris at the September 22 public meeting in Rockwall. Morris said the toll road would not be built if the cities don’t want it (Watch here. Public Comment - Part 3 of 5 - minute 12:45). With opposition from nine cities already, they’ve created a wall (see it here) that CEO John Crew and his company cannot get around in order to connect to the President George Bush Turnpike.

Property owner and grassroots leader Christine Hubley sent an email to the RTC and Morris yesterday asking whether he’ll keep his word and reverse the staff’s prior recommendation to adopt the toll road at the NCTCOG meeting tomorrow now that cities have expressed overwhelming opposition to it. One thing Morris failed to mention is both federal and state law prohibit the RTC from advancing a project that violates local governments’ plans. So his promise isn’t just benevolence, it’s the law. If the RTC adopts it anyway, it will ensure a legal challenge.

Lavon reversed itself
Some cities, like Lavon, previously passed a resolution in support of the project, but since then have reversed its support, and one council member described their introduction to the TTC as ‘shady.’

Lavon Councilwoman Jenny Bodwell says, “It’s a sad day when private companies, motivated by money alone, and the not the welfare of our citizens, are allowed to take someone’s land. I stand with every land, business, and home owner that this toll road project affects. What this firm is attempting to do is just wrong. Their actions go against everything we stand for as Texans.”

“While addressing the need for regional transportation improvements is essential to our quality of life and place, we must always do so publicly and with respect for the residents and landowners who will be affected by any future roadway development. It is unfortunate that the developers of this private toll road chose to exclude the public and affected municipalities from its process,” notes Rockwall City Councilman Scott Milder.

Wylie Councilman Nathan Scott is encouraged by the community’s activism, “I encourage the leaders and members of RTC, NCTCOG and other organizations to listen to the people, to the Councils in each Municipality and make decisions with our concerns and hopes in mind. The citizens of Wylie and the surrounding areas that may be the most impacted from this current proposal have spoken loud and clear, ‘No thank you, not this way.’ I support their individual rights and opinions to preserve and protect their properties, their way of life and our small-town feel in a growing and thriving community.”

Traffic forecasts don’t add up
A Texas A&M study of congested roads in Texas shows that the PBGT to Rockwall segment of I-30 ranks #206 for congestion level in the DFW area. As you move east along I-30, the rankings drop dramatically. Yet, today, TTC and NCTCOG claim the future growth in this area warrants a massive 8-lane tollway to address the supposed ‘congestion,’ when the neighboring major interstate ranks 206.

The NCTCOG’s population and traffic projections for 2035 are highly inflated. Texas State Data Center's estimates for 2035 population for just Hunt County is 117,592, versus NCTCOG estimates for Hunt County are over 148,451 (a difference of 30,000). This so-called ‘need’ for a toll road seems to have appeared overnight. There was no mention of a ‘need’ for a new road to get to Dallas in NCTCOG’s presentation of the 2012 Hunt County Transportation Plan.

Whereas NCTCOG studies merely show a need may be present under certain conditions at the IH-30 bridge in Rockwall. In fact, their own traffic study maps show a very small area of mild congestion at the bridge - ONLY. They spent two years and lots of public money developing Hunt County’s transportation plan. So how could they fail to miss the need for a giant multi-lane toll road then claim two years later there’s a dire need for one?

According to Crew, he’s borrowing half the project cost. The cost is estimated by NCTCOG to be between $750-$850 million. At 8% interest for 30 years on $400 million, with payments due once a year, TTC’s annual payment would be $35.5 million. According to their report from Baez Consulting, using traffic numbers even higher than NCTCOG’s, the revenue the first year would be $8.2 million.

The first time TTC would have enough revenue to cover its payment is 2022 - five years after the assumed 2017 start date. This does not take into account operational, maintenance, administrative expenses, or profit. More telling, the cumulative revenue shown in the report would not cover the build cost until 2034 or 17 years after the road opens. This road is NOT financial viable and will go bankrupt, based on the report from TTC’s own consulting firm.

The study also claimed there would be ‘no revenue leakage,’ yet every toll project currently open to traffic with electric tolling is experiencing Texas-sized problems collecting tolls. NTTA alone had over 25,000 users each with over 100 toll violations totaling $294 million in unpaid tolls as of 2012. So they and other toll authorities got the law changed last year to allow stricter enforcement, including impounding vehicles, $500 citations, and blocking car registrations (here and here) to force people to pay-up. So for any consultant to claim there will be ‘no revenue leakage’ on a toll project is either deluding itself or using outright deception to justify the toll road.

Other assumptions made by the consulting firm:
1.    MTP Scenario has 290 travel days in 2017 when there are fewer than 260 working days in a year. With several FREE options to choose from, who is going to pay a toll to drive on the weekends?
2.    The modified scenario starts off with 310 travel days in 2017.
3.    After 2035, the MTP scenario uses 310 travel days.
4.    After 2035, the Modified MTP scenario uses 330 travel days.

Privately-funded or not?
While TTC claimed during the Rockwall public meeting that no public funds will be used for its tollway, documents obtained by residents shows in Hunt County alone $17.5 million in public funds will be used to support this private project. For instance, the right of way acquisition to expand FM 1570 as part of the deal will cost $1.5 million, Phase I - $7.5 million, and Phase II - $8.5 million. Plus, the NCTCOG is expending public money for its feasibility study, public meetings, and through staff time and resources.

So claims that this toll road will be 100% privately funded are false. These emails obtained from Public Information requests prove otherwise along with other emails showing the NCTCOG staff schooling TTC on how to obtain public funding, particularly federal loans. Then there’s the big money it took to produce the NCTCOG’s feasibility study and to hold the public meetings and process all the comments. Plus, TTC also plans to use NTTA as its toll collector, so this private company will have the defacto ability to impound vehicles and block car registrations for failure to pay this private company tolls.

There are many more questions that must be answered.  The 9.9 mile stretch of President George Bush Turnpike from Firewheel to I-30 was projected to cost $800 million and it wound up costing well over $1 billion. The Chisolm Trail Parkway is 27 miles, too, and it cost $1.4 billion. Yet Crew says he can build this 27 mile stretch for $500 million, even though NCTCOG estimates a cost between $750-$850 million.

“If Crew has underestimated, and many are convinced that he has, how is he going to build it so cheap?  Is he going to lowball the private land owners?  Also, a well designed toll road on paper matters none if he goes cheap on materials and implementation. The private operator of the SH 130 tollway used inadequate materials and had to spend $30 million to correct the costly mistakes,” grassroots spokesperson and Royse City resident Bryan Slaton pointed out.

Crony capitalism
Citizens obtained an email sent from Tom Shelton at NCTCOG to Crew telling him NCTCOG was crafting language for the Regional Transportation Council (RTC) amendment that would create the least amount of risk to Crew and TTC.

Tiffany Long of Caddo Mills who obtained the emails asks, “Who does he represent? Certainly not the people in this instance.  So, if the RTC votes to include this toll road in its mobility plan, it’s, in essence, choosing to support a deal that reeks of crony capitalism.”

Call to action
The coalition pointed out support of the tollway comes only from the TTC and regional governing boards like TEX-21 and the NCTCOG, which are stacked with a few select elected officials making decisions for millions of North Texans. More than 80% of NCTCOG’s entire voting body does not represent the area affected by the toll road.

So residents called upon the remaining cities and counties to pass resolutions, particularly Hunt County led by Judge John Horn who’s a member of NCTCOG and TEX-21 and an adamant supporter of the tollway.

“We don’t want a company from Highland Park forcing its toll road down our throat.  We don’t want an organization where less than 20% of its membership represents our communities, making decisions that contradict the plans of our counties and cities,” explained Slaton.

“If this private company with eminent domain authority is successful in forcing their toll road on the people and cities that clearly do not want it here, rest assured, Texas Turnpike Corporation will be in your backyard next” warned Slaton.

According to its articles of incorporation, TTC can also legally operate in Austin, New Braunfels, San Antonio, and San Marcos.

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