Texans to boycott first foreign-owned toll road

Link to article here.

Texans for boycott of first foreign-owned toll road
By Terri Hall
November 12, 2012

Today marks the first day Spanish toll operator, Cintra, starts charging Texas commuters tolls to use SH 130. San Antonio-based Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) and Austin-based Texans for Accountable Government (TAG) object to Texas’ first foreign-owned toll road, especially since SH 130 is part of the original Trans Texas Corridor TTC-35 (see it here). Though Cintra invented an innocuous sounding name, like the SH 130 Concession Company, make no mistake, a Spanish company, Cintra, controls and operates SH 130 for the next HALF CENTURY -- and some say it represents a multi-generational theft of public assets.

These controversial contracts called public private partnerships (P3s) will usher in the new railroad robber barons of our time -- private toll companies operating state-sanctioned monopolies and charging Texans a premium to drive. This is about our right to travel being trampled on by well-connected special interests with ties to the Texas Governor Rick Perry's office.

Today, TURF and TAG called for Texans to boycott Cintra’s toll road and here's why:

Speed Limit Manipulation
Cintra bribed TxDOT into increasing the speed limit to 85 MPH. At the same time, TxDOT lowered the speed limit on the adjacent free road, US 183, from 65 MPH down to 55 MPH. It’s obviously a move to keep speeds on alternative free routes artificially low to make the tollway more attractive. The company offered TxDOT $100 million for setting the speed limit to the maximum 85 MPH, and TxDOT took it.

It throwing public safety under the bus out of pure greed. Things like speed limits are being manipulated for money for the benefit a private corporation. If Cintra was willing to part with $100 million to bribe our highway department to jack-up the speed limit, they think they’re going to cash-in. TxDOT has demonstrated time and again it’ll do anything for a buck, and this time, they’ve gone too far.

SH 130 is supposed to be the road savior to get trucks off of I-35. The four TxDOT segments that have been open for nearly four years already are not attracting truck traffic off I-35, it costs too much and the tollway is too far out of the way. TxDOT had to lower the toll 65% earlier this year to try to get more trucks to take the road. The road is so empty, a distressed plane landed on it during what supposed to be ‘rush hour.’

So trucks, a key target market for SH 130, won’t take the tollway. Now with the 85 MPH speed limit on Cintra’s segments, they’ve deemed it an unsafe speed for big rigs and driving such high speeds guzzles too much gas. Truck trade groups say the speed is too dangerous, and the American Trucking Association and the Governor’s Highway Safety Association have urged the Texas Transportation Commission to reverse its decision. But they won’t.

They’ve boxed themselves into this reckless speed, because even going 85 MPH, the tollway barely beats taking I-35, and in some scenarios, takes longer. If they lower the speed, they’ll never make a dime off that toll road. TxDOT has skin in the game since they have a revenue sharing agreement with Cintra.

No matter how you slice it, their decisions are being made out of profit and greed, not the public interest. This agency has hopelessly lost its way -- to the point that its now endangering the lives of Texas motorists by making decisions based on financial incentives instead of for the public good.

Contract guarantees Cintra won’t have competition
Even decisions about future roads and where and when they should be built or expanded are being held hostage by Cintra. The contract contains a non-compete clause that prohibits the construction and expansion of free routes surrounding Cintra’s tollway (See Ex. 17 here). The idea behind a non-compete is to protect the private developer’s investment. If the state builds a competing free road next to Cintra’s tollway, it won’t make any money. They have to ensure the free routes are slower and more congested or no one will be willing to pay $13 (one way) to take a toll road.

Dual designation
Another way TxDOT is helping increase ridership on this privately-run toll road is by tricks with signage. Last year, the Texas Transportation Commission dual designated parts of free interstates I-410 and I-10 as SH 130 in order to drive more traffic to Cintra’s tollway. It’s a form of entrapment to deceive people into taking a route that starts as a freeway only to get them out in the middle of Seguin with no way north but Cintra’s tollway. It’s clear public road policy is being dictated by a private developer, not the best interest of Texans.

Cronyism in plain sight
The genesis of how Cintra got chosen as the developer of SH 130 smacks of cronyism. Cintra lobbyist, Dan Shelley, landed a job in Governor Rick Perry’s office in 2005 as Perry’s legislative aide where he secured Cintra the development rights to the Trans Texas Corridor, then he went back to work for Cintra in 2006.

"Good 'ol boy Texas politics has struck again," said Heather Fazio, Executive Director of Texans for Accountable Government (TAG), an Austin-based watchdog group. "And, as always, it's the people who suffer from the revolving door of politicians, bureaucrats, and corporate big-wigs."

Cintra’s involvement has been scurrilous from the beginning. They bought their way into Governor’s office and they not only snagged the development rights to the Trans Texas Corridor, they’ve been awarded every single public private partnership in Texas ever since (North Tarrant Express and LBJ, see here). With Perry, you name your price, and he’ll sell you Texas.

Cintra’s chief public face in Texas, Spokesman Chris Lippincott, came straight from TxDOT, giving Cintra yet another inside advantage with the agency on the publicity front, too.

Taxpayers on the hook for plenty
Cintra has led people to believe it paid for the road and is taking all the risk on this project. Not only did a $430 million federal TIFIA loan partially fund the construction of the road, but $210,000 in state tax money funded the marketing & PR campaign for Cintra’s tollway, not to mention the mounds of free publicity it received from the eye-popping 85 MPH speed limit TxDOT handed them. It’s now being dubbed the fastest road in America.

There's another way the taxpayers are footing the bill for the losses, and that's reimbursing Cintra for the tolls of out-of-state and foreign drivers. TxDOT has no way to enforce the collection of tolls from out-of-state drivers or those from out of the country since SH 130 is completely electronic tolling. So if they don't pay, the taxpayers are on the hook for any loss in toll revenue to Cintra. With our proximity to Mexico, it’s certain the tab to taxpayers will be substantial. By contrast, if Texans don't pay, TxDOT could yank your car registration until you do.

Taxpayer money is subsidizing this toll road for private profits. Politicians from the president and Rick Perry on down are socializing the losses and privatizing the profits.

Opposition already lurks...
The Lockhart City Council and Caldwell County Commissioners have asked for special toll discounts for Lockhart residents who commute into Austin as well as asked the Commission to restore the 65 MPH speed limit on US 183. Neither have happened.

TURF and TAG want Texans to vote with their cars and their wallets and say 'No' to Texas' first foreign-owned toll road. Money is the only language our politicians and Cintra seem to understand, so they want to send a message loud and clear that Texans don’t want a corporate takeover of their public roads. Texas roads belong to Texans and no politician should ever have the power to sell them off to private corporations. It threatens state sovereignty and one's right to travel, and Texans need to be active in the Texas legislature to ensure more public private partnerships do not become law.

"Already struggling Texas taxpayers have been coaxed into subsidizing, and now advertising for, a toll road that will make Cintra millions," decried Fazio. "Working through the Legislature hasn't provided a remedy to this corporate plunder. Now it's time for Texans to influence public policy with what has proven to be the most powerful political tool, their money, and BOYCOTT SH 130!"

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