Link to article here.
Private tollway near east Dallas draws ire from record crowd
By Terri Hall
September 23, 2014
The people have spoken and their will is clear - they do not want the proposed private Blacklands Tollway-Northeast Gateway corridor through Rockwall to Greenville in east Dallas. Last night, a record capacity crowd of nearly 1,500 showed up to get their opposition to the controversial toll project on the record. Landowners and concerned citizens voiced their opinions to the Texas Turnpike Corporation (TTC) and the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) at a public meeting held in Rockwall that lasted until after midnight.
The initial public meeting took place on September 4 in Lavon, but the fire marshal shut it down due an overcapacity crowd. They planned on 250 and 500 showed up. The meeting was rescheduled for last night. So tripling the number of attendees in just a few weeks demonstrates that the public opposition to this private toll project is only gaining steam and showing no signs of petering out.
The overwhelming majority spoke in opposition, primarily because this private corporation can wield the power of eminent domain for its private toll road that company documents show is projected to net $78 million in annual profits by 2035. Yet the company claimed last night that it didn’t know how much profit the toll road was anticipated to make.
One attendee stood up and asked if anyone was for the project and not one person assented. When asked who opposed it, the room erupted with a unanimous, resounding ‘No!’ Neal Barker, the TTC spokesperson, could scarcely get through the formal presentation, particularly as the touchy subject of eminent domain came up. NCTCOG Executive Director Michael Morris tried to quiet the crowd and assure them their turn to speak was coming shortly.
Their turn lasted more than 6 hours until 12:48 AM. Citizens were very well informed and came armed with research that neither the NCTCOG nor the TTC had good answers for. For instance, Christine Hubley had a document from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) that showed a much lower figure for projected traffic in the corridor than the TTC and NCTCOG figures, which puts the actual toll viability in doubt. Some attendees suggested that given the data, the toll road will actually cause more traffic growth than if the toll road isn’t built, which suits this rural community just fine. They don’t want to be the next Frisco, as Barker and Morris suggested.
Tiffany Long produced an email where Morris stated there is no need for a toll road between Greenville and Rockwall, yet now NCTCOG’s is saying there is. Long also discovered that the TTC’s articles of incorporation do not give the company the authority to operate in Hunt County, the primary county through which the tollway would traverse. TTC countered that it amended its articles to include Hunt County, yet attorney David Stubblefield found that no such amendment was ever filed with the Texas Secretary of State by TTC.
Barker and Morris kept insisting they haven’t selected the final route yet, but landowners testified that surveyors have already been gaining access to properties along a specific proposed route. I met with John Crew, CEO of Public Werks, the parent company of Texas Turnpike Corporation a few weeks ago, and he pulled out a map that showed the final alignment they’ve selected. He knew exactly how many homes would be displaced. A landowner also testified during the meeting that he was on a conference call hosted by TTC just days ago that also indicated TTC had selected a final route before the current feasibility study is completed, and prior to the required environmental approval process.
Public funds & eminent domain
TTC also insisted that their project was completely privately funded and there would be no government or public funds involved. However, an email produced in an Open Records request shows Tom Shelton, Senior Project Manager of NCTCOG, is helping Crew and TTC apply for public bonds as well as a Comprehensive Development Agreement, which is a Texas public private partnership (P3) contract. P3s are hybrid public-private projects that use massive sums of public money, putting the taxpayers on the hook for potential losses of the private corporation.
They also involve non-compete agreements that penalize or prohibit the expansion of free roads surrounding the privately operated toll road. Barker insisted no non-compete agreement would be utilized, yet there is nothing to prevent one from being put in place since the unelected Texas Transportation Commission which oversees TxDOT negotiates the final terms without oversight by elected officials.
P3s can lower speed limits on the free routes and increase speed limits on the tollway, as well as put taxpayers on the hook for any ‘uncollectable’ tolls. P3s are not private roads, and they ultimately use eminent domain for private gain. In the case of TTC, the company actually has the power to use eminent domain itself. TTC was among ten companies whose eminent domain authority was grandfathered in from a now repealed state statute (Texas Civil Statutes Title 32 Articles 1448-1465).
Citizens repeatedly asked who voted for Senate Bill 18, the eminent domain bill that passed the legislature in 2011, that grandfathered in the ability of these private corporations to exercise the governmental power of eminent domain. The entire House of Representatives, and all but Dan Patrick, Brian Birdwell, and Jane Nelson in the Senate voted for the loophole-laden, special interests bill.
Senator-elect Bob Hall gave public comment and told his constituents that what the legislature gives, it can also take away. He plans to make removing these private companies’ authority to use eminent domain a top priority when the next session begins in January.
“The issue of eminent domain should concern all Texans. Power hungry corporations have lobbied hard to reach into the pockets of hard-working Americans through unelected boards and commissions. Toll roads have become the projects of choice while making transportation inaccessible for many Americans. The people are awakening from their slumber and have begun the next great political battle of our times,” Long warned.
Other contradictions and outright lies by TTC and NCTCOG were noted by the well-informed citizens, fueling the public distrust of the company, the project, and the NCTCOG. Many expressed frustration with the fact that NCTCOG are bureaucrats that don’t answer directly to the voters. They were also shocked to learn the staff at NCTCOG are considered federal employees who are merely cloaked in a ‘local’ moniker.
The many other counties in Texas may experience the same fate if this precedent is set. The company’s articles of incorporation show it can build private toll roads in 13 Texas counties: Bexar, Caldwell, Collin, Comal, Dallas, Denton, Guadalupe, Hays, Tarrant, Kaufman, Rockwall, Travis, and Williamson (which is North Texas, Austin, and San Antonio and the surrounding areas).
One thing’s certain, the Texas Turnpike Corporation and its sidekicks at the NCTCOG were caught misleading the public about the nature of this project, its final route, the method of procurement, and what source of funding they plan to use. With deception like this being trotted out in a public meeting, imagine what they’re concocting in private. The citizen uprising is just getting started. Such a visceral and united reaction to a toll project hasn't been seen since the days of the Trans Texas Corridor. So it’s ultimately likely to die the same death, and it’s clear the citizens won’t rest until it does.
Link to article here.
Angry crowd opposes tollway link between Bush Turnpike, I-30
By Michael Young
Dallas Morning News
September 22, 2014
ROCKWALL — A large and often angry crowd provided almost unanimous opposition Monday night to a proposed toll road that would link Bush Turnpike with Interstate 30 near Greenville.
Neal Barker of the Texas Turnpike Corp. was interrupted repeatedly at the nearly full 1,500-seat Rockwall High School Performing Arts Center as he tried to present an overview of the Northeast Gateway toll project.
On the sensitive issue of eminent domain, which the company can impose, Barker stressed: “We want to be good neighbors. … We want your feedback.”
But when he said the turnpike corporation had to follow the same procedures as public entities, some in the audience shouted, “Bribery.” And when Barker described the eminent domain process, another yelled, “You’re a crook.”
Finally, Michael Morris, who heads the transportation department for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, took the microphone.
“Hold it, hold it, let them finish their presentation, and then we’ll turn it over to you,” he said, to a smattering of applause.
Barker waded back into the eminent domain issue, describing the process: the appraisals, negotiations with property owners, and, after 30 days, a final offer.
“That’s the law; that’s not our intent. Our intent is to negotiate for any property we need. If no agreement can be made — at that time and only at that time — could the project developer begin eminent domain proceedings,” Barker said, as the calls from the audience began again.
“Look, you came here, we’re going through this as quickly as we can,” Morris said. “You’ll get your chance.”
When that chance came, speaker after speaker unloaded on the four- to six-lane 27-mile toll road project, on Morris and on the Council of Governments.
Christine Hubley, who lives along a possible route for the toll road, asked Morris and others on the stage what she was supposed to comment on, because the feasibility study for the project hasn’t been completed.
It won’t be completed until after the Regional Transportation Commission of the Council of Governments decides whether to include it in its transportation plans, she said.
“You tell us there’s no public money, but this study was paid for with public money,” she said. “Why waste our money if the study isn’t needed?
“And you want to ‘no build’ or ‘build anything’ in the plan,” Hubley said. “You haven’t once broken out this toll road. How about you show us a ‘build everything but this toll road option?’”
Another speaker questioned the need for the road, arguing that claims that the proposed toll road will alleviate traffic on other roads, including Interstate 30, are false.
“If you’re really looking out for the public, put this on the ballot and let us vote on it,” she said.
Rockwall Mayor David Sweet said the toll road could touch portions of Rockwall, the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction and Rockwall County — a proximity the city doesn’t want.
“The city of Rockwall strongly opposes the route,” he said. “Transit options should be left to local governments.”
The members of the public who spoke on the project overwhelmingly opposed it.
John Holloway, who lives near Wylie, talked about the home he shared with his wife and a 102-year-old great-aunt.
“We were lucky enough to buy that home back in 1990 at a very reasonable price,” Holloway said, and they subsequently renovated it to provide a home for their elderly relative.
“If my house is taken, and it’s very close to the Pleasant Valley route, I’ll have to try to find
another single-story house with a handicapped bathroom in it,” he said. “Trust me, it doesn’t exist. Or we’ll have to find another house and renovate it. Will you pay for those renovations?
“I don’t think that’s part of your plan.”