Alamo MPO shafts 281 commuters AGAIN!

Alamo transportation board wastes Prop 1 on non-priority projects
Fails to turn toll lanes back to free lanes on 281 as promised
By Terri Hall
Jan., 26, 2015

Today, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) decided how Prop 1 funds would be spent on area roads. Notably absent, again, was Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff whose precinct encompasses the controversial toll project on US 281. His father, the County Judge Nelson Wolff, sent a letter to the Transportation Commission asking for Prop 1 funds to be used to turn toll lanes into free lanes on US 281 if Prop 1 passed, and yet there's a deafening silence from both Wolffs now that Wolff was re-elected county judge.

Rather than turn toll lanes back to free lanes on US 281 as promised and as its own policy requires, the board unanimiously chose to spend $124 million in new money that voters approved, which can only be spent on non-toll projects, to non-priority minor fixes to frontage roads on I-10 near Boerne and on Hwy 90. Neither project is on the state's 100 Most Congested Roads List. US 281 has been consistently on the list for years and even ranked the #1 most stressful road in the state per the Commuter Stress Index. None of the new funds will be used on major congestion relief projects that add capacity to major corridors - all of which are slated to be tolled.

Perry Legacy: Unpopular, failed toll road policy

Link to article here.

Governor proposes a toll road plan 'as big as Texas'
Aman Batheja | Texas Tribune | Posted: January 7, 2015

Rick Perry was just a year into his tenure as governor when he proposed the Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive 4,000-mile network of privately operated toll roads, railroad tracks and utility lines that would take 50 years to build.

“This plan is as big as Texas and as ambitious as our people,” Perry said at the first of many events touting the project.

The corridor he envisioned would never become a reality, but he still managed to leave his mark on the state’s approach to funding roads. Under his leadership, Texas has been the country’s most aggressive supporter of tolling and private-sector investment in transportation.

Toll tags used to enforce speed limits

Link to article here.

Electric toll tags can and will be used to enforce speed limits. Couple this with all the so-called distracted driving laws, and the nanny state in America is run amok.

Not just tolls: E-Z Pass keeping an eye on speeders
 Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
December 20, 2014

Warning to motorists: Don't speed in the toll lanes. E-Z Pass is watching.

Several states, including New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania, say they monitor speeds through the fast pass toll lanes and will suspend your E-Z Pass for multiple speeding violations.

In all, five of the 15 E-Z Pass states have some kind of rules on the books for breaking the speed limit in the convenience lanes.

"You can lose your E-Z Pass privileges if you speed through E-Z Pass lanes," says Dan Weiller, director of communications for the New York State Thruway Authority. "You get a couple of warnings. We don't have the power to give a ticket, but we do have to power to revoke your E-Z Pass, which we will."

He and tolling officials in several other states say the issue is the safety of human toll collectors. "At most toll barriers, we have a mix of E-Z Pass lanes and standard toll lanes," Weiller says.

On Maryland toll roads, drivers' speed is monitored in the free-flowing toll lanes, which have a 30 mph speed limit, says Becky Freeberger, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority. "If we clock you at 12 mph more than that, we will send you a warning, saying slow down," she says. "It's not a ticket." If a driver gets a second such notice within six months, their E-Z Pass account can be suspended for up to 60 days.

In Pennsylvania, a warning usually suffices for lead-footed drivers, says Carl DeFebo, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. "If a collector spots an E-Z Pass customer blasting through at a high rate of speed, they'll get a license plate," he says. "We do have the ability to send a warning letter to the customer, and that has proven effective. If the customer doesn't heed the warning we have the ability to suspend their E-Z Pass privileges but we haven't done that recently."

DeFebo notes that while states can collect tolls using transponders based in other states, they don't yet have the ability to access the account information of out-of-state drivers. "We don't have the ability to send a warning letter to those customers," he says. "As far as I know there is no reciprocity (with other states) on this issue."

That's one reason the state is slow to suspend E-Z Pass accounts, he says. "It would be like letting others get off the hook but going after our own customers."

West Virginia can suspend the accounts of E-Z Pass customers who repeatedly speed but rarely does so, says Etta Keeney, customer services supervisor with West Virginia Parkways Authority.

"If they're over a certain speed, they receive an informational letter, like a warning, please slow down for your safety and ours," she says. "If they continue to speed, if it's like a habitual problem, we can take their privileges."

In Rhode Island. lasers are used to monitor speeds in E-Z Pass lanes on the Newport Bridge, also known as the Claiborne Pell Bridge, the state's only tolled facility, says Jim Swanberg, director of plaza operations, safety and security for the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority. He says drivers can be "disqualified" for speeding after getting a warning.

Police enforce speed limits on E-Z Pass toll roads, and some states say they don't gather any information on motorists' speed.

In Virginia, E-Z Pass account holders sign a customer agreement to abide by the speed limit through toll plazas, says Tamara Rollison, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. "There is no consequence spelled out if someone breaks the speed limit regarding their E-Z Pass usage," she says. "The expectation is you obey the law."

On North Carolina's Quick Pass toll roads, which also accept E-Z Pass accounts, driver speeds are not monitored, says Steve Abbott, a spokesman with the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The state's toll roads, which opened in 2011, were the first in the nation to be built without toll booths, he says. "It's all transponders or (billing) by mail," Abbott says. "If you drive it at 20 mph or 70 mph, it doesn't note the speed of the vehicle," he says.

Speeding and the other E-Z Pass states:
Delaware. "We don't monitor speeds with the E-Z Pass system," says Mike Williams, chief of communications with the state Division of Motor Vehicles. "Speeding is a law enforcement issue in Delaware.

Maine. Speeds are not monitored, says Erin Courtney, a spokeswoman with the Maine Turnpike Authority.

Massachusetts. E-Z Pass does not monitor drivers' speeds on toll roads nor as they drive through toll plazas; drivers don't lose E-Z Pass privileges for speeding through toll plazas, says Amanda Richard, deputy press secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

New Hampshire. "New Hampshire Turnpike System presently does not use the E-Z Pass equipment in the toll plazas or open road toll lanes to collect speed data and enforce speeds through the plaza or toll zone, nor do we suspend E-Z Pass privileges," says Christopher Waszczuk, administrator of the New Hampshire Bureau of Turnpikes. "The state police is used to legally enforce the speed limit in locations susceptible to speeding."

New Jersey. The E-Z Pass equipment at toll plazas on the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway records the speed of vehicles coming through, says Thomas Feeney, a spokesman for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. "But we don't issue tickets or suspend privileges," he says.

Ohio. "We do not monitor speed using E-Z Pass," says Adam Greenslade, spokesman for the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission. "Also, as far as speeding at our toll plazas is concerned, we have a completely gated system. Therefore, even E-Z Pass users are required to slow down enough to give the gate time to open."

Information for E-Z Pass in Indiana and I-PASS in Illinois was not available.

P3s cost Canadians $8 billion more than public-run roads

Link to article here.

Privatizing highways using P3s (called AFPs in Canada) cost Canadians $8 billion more than if the government had done the toll projects. Bottom line, P3s cost far more than the quicker delivery is worth.

Government-managed projects could save Ontario money: Auditor-General
By Adrian Morrow
The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Dec. 09 2014

Public-private partnerships have cost Ontario taxpayers nearly $8-billion more on infrastructure over the past nine years than if the government had successfully built the projects itself.

Tolls up 54% in Miami, drivers flee tollways

Link to article here.

This is what is happening all over Texas, too: “It’s crazy. Gas is going down but what we’re saving on gas we’re spending on tolls.” Tolls have gone up 54% overall in Miami and that’s the pattern for toll roads - perpetual, ever increasing, unaccountable taxation. This is the legacy of Rick Perry that's well articulated by this frustrated motorist quoted below: “They’re taxing the crap out of people.”

Tolls on 836, 112 have driver tempers flaring
By Glenn Garvin
Miami Herald

It may take a full year to evaluate how a new toll system on State Roads 836 and 112 has affected traffic, expressway authorities say, but the effect on motorists’ tempers is pretty clear: They’re flaring.

“An abuse of power!” fumes Coral Gables architect Maria Luisa Castellanos. “Taxation without representation.” says Jim Angleton, who owns a cluster of financial services scattered across Miami-Dade: “They’re taxing the crap out of people.”

Diversions of gas tax threaten transparency

Link to article here.

Transportation Diversions Are the Enemy of Transparency
by Ross Kecseg
Empower Texans
December 31, 2014

Lazy politicians maintain that Texans should pay higher taxes, fees and tolls if we hope to meet roadway demand spurred by population growth. However, they fail to mention the gas tax revenue we already pay is diverted to unrelated programs with billions more spent by transportation agencies on non-road projects.

A simple example is our state’s gas tax. The legislature levies it specifically for the State Highway fund…and then diverts 52% of it elsewhere. Transportation is such a “high priority” that Republicans gleefully divert more than half of road money away from what it was created to finance—roads.

Federal gas tax hike on the horizon?

Link to article here.

John Thune Puts Gas Tax Hike on the Table for GOP Senate
by Dan Riehl
4 Jan 2015

The incoming chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sen. John Thune (R-SD) put all options on the table when it comes to replenishing the shrinking Highway Trust Fund, which is widely seen as opening the door to a tax increase.

Per an AP report, “Gas and diesel taxes haven’t risen since 1993, resulting in perennial shortfalls in the fund that pays for most road projects”.

Several commissions have called for raising the taxes, but Congress has been reluctant. Instead lawmakers have dipped repeatedly into the general treasury to keep the trust fund solvent.

The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon and the diesel tax is 24.4 cents per gallon.

Thune made the comments while on “Fox News Sunday.”

P3s come at a high cost

Link to article here.

When will governments figure out that they’ll never come out on top on a P3 deal? Never. These special interests have armies of lawyers to write these contracts in a way where taxpayers will always be on the hook for the losses and will guarantee the profits of these corporations. This example in Ontario is just another in a Texas-sized stack of examples of P3s that fleece the public.

Public-private partnerships come with a high cost
North Bay Regional Health Centre
By Rebecca Zanussi
December 26, 2014
North Bay Nipissing News

ALMAGUIN – An initiative meant to save the province money is actually costing more — $8 billion more to be precise.

Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk released her annual report on Tuesday, Dec. 9, reviewing a number of initiatives led by the Ontario government. One of the areas she examined in detail was private-public-partnerships, known as P3s or Alternative Funding Procurements (AFPs).

“For 74 projects that were either completed or under way under Infrastructure Ontario, tangible costs, such as construction, finance and professional services, were estimated to be nearly $8 billion higher under the AFP approach than they were estimated to have been if the projects had been delivered by the public sector,” Lysyk said following the release of the report.

“About $6.5 billion of this is due to higher private-sector financing costs.”

The North Bay Regional Health Centre was one of the first AFP projects built in Ontario. And Dave Smits, vice president of corporate and support services for the health centre, believes that the process was worth the investment.

“In a traditional method of funding, you would bid the work for the new hospital project, pick a general contractor, and after the new building was built undergo a typical warranty period of about a year,” Smits says.

“But after that the contractor’s work is essentially done and you’re responsible for the maintenance of the building for the rest of its life cycle.”

That could give way to complications, Smits says, because while the costs for constructing the building were approved, maintenance issues had to be dealt with as they arose, and sometimes the funding wasn’t there.
But in an AFP hospital the onus of maintenance — and the estimated cost over the hospital’s mortgage — is on the contractor.

“With AFP hospitals, the government realized the traditional approach to funding ongoing maintenance hadn’t been particularly successful,” Smits says.

“Over the life, the buildings were falling into a state of disrepair. Certain systems were maybe not maintained or kept in line.”

And that’s where AFPs come in. The contractor bids a capital cost for building the new project, but also includes the maintenance costs. And if any of it isn’t maintained — whether it’s walls needing a new coat of paint, or equipment being out of commission — the contractor could face a financial penalty written into the contract.
However, Lysyk said in her report that a typical AFP project almost always costs significantly more than if governments just put up the money themselves and hired contractors to build the same infrastructure, under conventional contracts.

But Smits says it’s not quite that simple.

“What we’ve seen in the past, often from a life cycle perspective, is that the cheapest isn’t necessarily the best,” he says.

Smits provided his personal opinion that before using the AFP model, a hospital would have to consult on a design, submit it to the ministry for approval, and likely be told to cut down the cost. That meant either shrinking the space, or compromising on value of equipment upfront. The practical example Smits gave for this is choosing a vinyl flooring over tile because the vinyl would cost less, even though the tile would last longer. In the long run the cost of maintaining and replacing would actually be more, but that wasn’t the ministry’s focus: the upfront costs were deemed the priority.

“The difference with AFP is the contractor has been given that responsibility to come up with the best accommodation of finishes, quality of equipment, etc. that they as experts have to figure out how to balance the upfront costs and maintenance,” Smits says.

“So, it makes them think really hard about, ‘Am I going to just cheap out on all the finishes because I’m going to have to replace them,’ versus, ‘No, I’m going to go with better finishes that will last longer.’”

P3s began appearing on the provincial landscape in 2001, when the then-Minister of Finance announced that public-private partnerships would have to be seriously considered before the Ontario government would commit any funding for new hospitals that were needed at that time.
In November of 2001, the government approved the development of two new hospitals (in Brampton and Ottawa) using the P3 approach.

According to Lysyk’s report, as of March 31 there were almost $23.5 billion in liabilities and commitments that current and future governments will have to pay for AFP projects. The province has also borrowed money to pay AFP contractors when projects were substantially completed. The Auditor General estimates these borrowed amounts to be an additional $5 billion, included as part of the total public debt recorded in the Public Accounts.

Lysyk also found that two of the risks Infrastructure Ontario used in its assessments for P3s should not have been included. Without them, public-sector delivery for 18 of the 24 projects would have been assessed as $350 million cheaper than delivery under AFP.

Infrastructure Ontario estimated that this $8-billion difference was more than offset by the risk of potential cost overruns if the construction and, in some cases, maintenance of these 74 facilities was done by the public sector.
 Smits says while there are some complications that arise with AFPs, such as different sets of complexities, he has found the model much less stressful than the previous method.

“At the end of the day I’m getting funded to keep this building in what I consider a very good state of repair,” he says.

“And I’ve been guaranteed that funding in my contract. It gives me a certain comfort I couldn’t have had in old delivery model. In past, you weren’t sure where the money was going to come from to keep your building up to date and looking good and functioning well.

Chinese to fund road project in exchange for residency

Link to article here.

This is a seriously risky proposition. All foreign investors are not created equal. Giving residents of a hostile Communist country like China permanent residency in the U.S. in exchange for money is disgusting! Nothing like buying your way into our country. Public private partnerships (P3) are a threat to our sovereignty over our own public infrastructure, but this takes even a P3 to new heights.

Chinese investors to fund I-95 interchange in exchange for U.S. residency
By David Tanner, Land Line senior editor

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission not only has gone outside the box, but has gone outside the country to find funding for a new interchange with I-95. Turnpike officials are capitalizing on a law that allows Chinese investors to fund half of the project cost in exchange for permanent-residency visas from the U.S. government.

The EB-5 Immigrant Investor Pilot Program was enacted by Congress in 1990 and is overseen by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service. It allows foreign investors to chip in at least $500,000 for U.S. projects of regional significance in exchange for residency.

In 2012, the Turnpike Commission paid $50,000 to study whether EB-5 financing would be a viable option.

The commission signed an agreement with the Delaware Valley Regional Center to attract up to $250 million in EB-5 financing. The DVRC successfully applied to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service to be designated as an EB-5 regional center – one of the stipulations for attracting foreign investment.

The mainline Pennsylvania Turnpike is designated as I-276 in Bristol County. Interstate 95 currently passes over the turnpike in Northeast Philadelphia with no interchange. Officials have been planning an interchange there for years.

The first $150 million to jumpstart the project came from the Federal Highway Administration and the Turnpike Commission. It is being used to widen four miles of the Turnpike in Bristol County and to lay groundwork for three new bridges and piers for future ramps. According to officials, that will take about four years.

Future phases will reconfigure traffic patterns and connect the Pennsylvania Turnpike with the New Jersey Turnpike.

A turnpike official previously told Land Line that the entire project would cost about $1.4 billion. Tolls and other sources will complete the financing.

Tax relief, road funding priorities in coming session

Link to article here.

It’s reports like this one that we’ll use to hold state leaders accountable for how they spend our hard-earned tax money this next budget cycle. They promise more money for roads, but TxDOT’s perpetual excuse to levy toll taxes on every highway will continue to be ‘it’s still not enough’ unless we demand NONE of this new money or existing tax revenues can be used to build toll roads. If they’re going to build a toll road, it should pay for itself with just the toll users alone - no tax money!

Tax relief figures high on legislative budget priorities
By Peggy Fikac
December 6, 2014
Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN — Texans can expect tax relief, a focus on border security and more efforts to fight traffic congestion when a cash-flush Legislature convenes in January.

The budget priorities line up with campaign promises from Republican state leaders and lawmakers, who handily won their spots with a message of keeping state government lean while carefully weighing additional spending for its benefits.

Special Section on Prop 1 - Fallout as oil bust means less money for roads

Prop 1 special section

Link to article here.

Doubts about Prop 1 loom in light of oil bust
By Terri Hall
January 4, 2015

When Texas lawmakers punted on road funding with passage of Proposition One last year, they never anticipated the Texas oil boom would abruptly crater. It took three special sessions to round up the two-thirds majority needed to place a Constitutional amendment on the ballot for Texas voters to decide if they wanted to raid half of the state’s oil and gas severance tax (a tax on new oil wells) and divert those revenues to the State Highway Fund. With the promise that the new funds could not be used to build or support toll roads, Texas voters gave the green light. But the euphoria lawmakers felt after getting away with gaining new highway funds without ending diversions of the gasoline tax has quickly turned to doubt as the plummeting price of gasoline has severely tempered oil production in the Lone Star State.

Big govt snoop: Toll tags in three states now interoperable

Link to article here.

It’s only a matter of time before big government colludes to bring us a national toll tag system that tracks citizens everywhere we go and can conveniently charge us for every mile we drive. The fact that this reporter nor the people interviewed in the story see this as a threat to privacy and our pocketbooks is downright scary. There’s a whole lot more to this than convenience….

Improved system makes cross-county and cross-country travel easier
Florida Weekly
December 24, 2014

The word interoperability is tough to spell and pronounce and isn’t one used in everyday communication.

Unless, that is, one works in a bridge or highway tollbooth.

Yet, interoperability might affect anybody who drives a car or truck over bridges or toll roads anywhere in Florida and a couple of nearby states. Eventually, perhaps in every state.

Navasota residents leery of proposed toll road

Link to article here.

Navasota residents waiting to see proposed toll road route
Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Plans for a Texas 249 toll road connecting Houston to Waco by way of Grimes County have left some landowners in limbo as transportation officials decide where to build the roadway.

"We're living on the edge of the unknown," said David Tullos, a coordinator for the Grimes Citizen Advisory Group, a grassroots coalition opposing the construction of the toll road, which would start out as a two-way road with a passing lane and eventually grow to a four-lane divided highway.

"It has created a degree of uncertainty," Tullos added. "If somebody wanted to sell property, they couldn't because the person buying would be buying into the unknown with the fact that a toll road could go through the property."

Toll roads going belly-up

Link to article here.

When good toll roads go bad
By Keith Benman
December 27, 2014

Northern Indiana is not the first region in the nation to be subject to fallout from a toll road bankruptcy, with a number of other privatized roads and bridges going belly up across the nation in the past few years.

The good news is those roads have continued to carry traffic with little disruption. The bad news is there is usually little communities can do to influence the bankruptcy process, except in cases where roads revert to government ownership.

Double digit tolls to fund I-70 in Missouri

Link to article here.

OUTRAGE: As punishment for voters rejecting a sales tax hike to pay for state highways, Missouri politicians seek to impose $20-$30 in tolls per trip to use I-70.

Report: Double-digit tolls could fund I-70 repairs
Associated Press
Wednesday, December 31, 2014

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Motorists on Interstate 70 would need to pay $20 to $30 in tolls to travel one way across Missouri to pay for the minimum in needed repairs on the roadway, according to a state Department of Transportation report released Wednesday.

Possible solutions suggested in the report, commissioned in early December by Gov. Jay Nixon, include using tolls to repay public bonds or to recoup expenses in a public-private partnership.

Trinity toll road to benefit handful of developers

Link to article here.

Content warning: The reporter does use an expletive in this article.

The Trinity Toll Road Is a Real Estate Play to Boost One Corner of Downtown Dallas. Period.
By Jim Schutze
Mon., Dec. 29 2014
Dallas Observer

My big hope for this coming year would be that 2015 will be The Year of Talking Honestly. The bitterness and recrimination hanging in malevolent clouds over the 16-year-old Trinity toll road debate really have very little to do with the nature of the project itself. It's about roads, parks and drainage. How malevolent can you get about drainage?

The anger and angst have to do with two things: 1) The perception that people are lying about the project, and 2) The fact that people are lying about the project. Every six months new and fantastic justifications for it are invented. Now it's a bloody civil rights project, for God's sake.

And after years of telling us that it's all a done deal, totally designed, approved and paid for, the mayor now is telling us to withhold judgment because the project hasn't been designed yet. Then he tells us it will provide major traffic relief for downtown. Then he tells us it will be a modest country lane that will carry hardly any traffic at all.

If the mayor and his friends would only try to tell us the truth about it, they might actually find they have some real selling points to work with. In recent months, I have come to believe that I do know what the Trinity toll road is all about. I disagree with the purpose. But I am aware many others will find it worthwhile.

The real purpose of the Trinity toll road, as I have become convinced over the last two months, is to serve and spur the redevelopment of the southwestern corner of downtown Dallas. The favored plan calls for access to and from the toll road at Corinth Street, which would feed traffic into the southwest corner, probably along Lamar Street.

What's so special about the southwest corner of downtown? The southwest corner of the Dallas central business district is the most active and least talked about venue in downtown, which may be only fitting. It is the bastion of some of the city's most powerful families -- the sort of people who never complain, never explain.

It was that way 37 years ago when Dallas City Manager George Schrader informed the city council he had been negotiating for more than a year with Woodbine, the real estate arm of Ray Hunt, heir to fortune of legendary Texas wildcatter H.L. Hunt. Oh, and, in addition to just talking, Schrader told the council, he had been swapping city-owned land for some of Hunt's property in the southwest corner near historic Union Station.

Oh, and, in addition, Schrader said, he had agreed to build a new sports arena on some of the land he had swapped from Hunt, right next to the gleaming new glass-walled hotel Hunt was building in the southwest corner. Oh, and the city would be floating bonds, of course, to finance the construction. Oh, but these would be the type of bonds that don't require voter approval, so there would be no need to bother the voters at all about any of this, because it was all already a done deal.

In the Dallas City Hall of that era, a city council that was staring a done deal in the eye, especially a done deal with Ray Hunt's name on it, had but one choice. As a body the council nodded and said unanimously to Schrader, "Yes, sir." And it was done.

The Reunion Arena deal was done entirely according to the same mechanism that has continued to serve the southwest corner of downtown ever since -- the lips of the city's business Brahmins to the always obsequious ears of successive city managers. Hunt has been joined often by the owners of The Dallas Morning News in an uphill battle to improve the southwest corner, always by seeking what Woodbine and the News proudly call "public/private partnerships." In my own view, those would be deals where private parties use government money to kite their own profits, but that is how I would see it, isn't it?

Mainly the Hunt/Decherd/Dealey/Moroney forces have sought to improve their little corner of the world by pushing for an ever-expanding city-owned convention center and for a city-owned convention hotel, by lobbying to bend the light rail system far from its natural course to take in their corner and by pushing for other even more speculative adventures.

But in spite of their heroic efforts on its behalf, the southwest corner never seems to quite take root. The commercial excitement downtown always seems to yearn northward toward Uptown on the other side of the Woodall Rodgers Expressway, while the residential buzz seems to want to move East toward, of all places, Deep Ellum and Baylor Hospital. It's pretty bad when you've invested all that political clout but you lose out anyway to a scaggy joint like Deep Ellum.

But they don't give up, and why would they? The one advantage the Brahmins in the southwest corner can bring to their own cause again and again is their absolute dominion over the city manager system, a control born of the newspaper's raw political power and of Hunt/Woodbine's longstanding and assiduous cultivation. That's why, for every ounce of sheer market force pulling the city away from them, the southwest corner Brahmins have been able to martial 10 pounds of government leverage to tug the action back to themselves. In the process they have created the closest thing in Dallas to a socialized realm.

Right now the pressure is greater than ever to use government money to force the market their way. Vigorous efforts are underway to pull the second downtown light rail alignment to the convention hotel in their part of town, even though that route has been deemed by studies to be the least effective and most expensive of all the possible alignments through downtown that have been analyzed -- so expensive DART won't do it without a direct subsidy from the city.

Perhaps the most illuminative quote I've seen on that issue came four years ago from then DART board chairman William Velasco. Velasco said of the detour-to-the-southwest-corner route for DART downtown, "It didn't make any sense to me at first, but now it makes all the sense in the world."

Yes, that would be after the chit-chat. No sense before. All the sense after.

An effort is underway to pull high-speed rail into the southwest corner of downtown, even though the Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains proposed for the Houston-Dallas line can reach a quarter mile in length, roughly from City Hall across downtown to Main Street, so that a depot capable of handling multiple trains would be immense. That must be why the proponents of the line are holding out for a station in southern Dallas instead.

Union Station, a creaky old thing, already is home to two DART light rail lines and the TRE commuter train to Fort Worth, as well as serving as the city's only Amtrak depot. In the not too distant future it will gain another occupant in the trolley line to Oak Cliff.

And now I'm starting to hear earnest talk again about putting a major entertainment venue in the southwest corner. This time it's a baseball stadium. Just a couple years ago former mayor Laura Miller was going around town offering to lobby for a casino on the site of the torn-down Reunion Arena, saying it would be "a great shot in the arm for our city."

But where in the world could any of this stuff be put? So much of the privately held land in that corner of town is held by A. H. Belo, the company that still owns The Dallas Morning News and used to own WFAA. But maybe that could change. In a story that fell in the pond with amazingly few ripples, the News' own intrepid Brandon Formby came across city documents two months ago identifying the newspaper and television station sites as "potential redevelopment blocks."

He quoted a mid-level Belo executive who has since left the company as saying, "There's a lot of ideas you could come up with for this site." But the executive assured Formby nothing definite was on the drawing boards.

Sure. But if you were holding a major investment in a regional daily newspaper today, would you be interested in a scheme that might allow you to rescue some of your money by selling the dirt beneath the paper at a really good price? Just saying.

I believe the real purpose of the toll road is to provide a discrete point of ingress and egress for the bustling recreation, convention and transportation center in the southwest corner of downtown that major land owners there have dreamed of for decades. And while I may be snide and negative about it, I am fully aware that the concept would resonate like hell with lots of people in this city. I think thousands of people out there would say, "Damn, man, why didn't you just tell us this is what that toll road is for?"

Of course, it has never been the way of the Brahmins in the southwest corner to speak publicly about their plans. Since the Reunion Arena deal over a third of a century ago, they have trusted in the art of whispers behind closed doors. But times have changed. Maybe the city has gotten smarter. It would be hard not to get smarter than the city council that okayed the original Reunion Arena deal.

The better bet now, even for lucky Brahmins, is to show some clean cards. They might even surprise themselves and win an honest game. I don't think the other option is healthy for anybody right now. That's what people are really tired of. It's not even the road. It's the insulting bullshit.

Falling oil prices could deepen road funding woes

Link to article here.

Falling oil prices could deepen Texas' road funding woes
Transportation Writer
Dallas Morning News
December 28, 2014

Drivers cheer falling gas prices, but the plummeting value of oil could undermine voters’ attempts to pay for more road construction and maintenance.

Texans overwhelmingly agreed in November to partially fill the state transportation agency’s $5 billion annual shortfall with excess oil and gas production taxes. The approval of Proposition 1 was expected to give the Texas Department of Transportation about $1.7 billion a year.

2014: Year of public backlash to tolls

Link to article here.

Maybe the political class and special interests are excited about rail since road funding has been lackluster for the last few years and they’ll latch onto any black hole needing taxpayer subsides and guarantees anytime they can get it. However, North Texas residents are angry at the prospect of more of their road funding being diverted to rail projects while being asked to pay double digit daily toll bills all over the Metroplex.

2014 in transportation: Toll projects garnered furor while rail projects drew excitement
Transportation Writer
Dallas Morning News
December 28, 2014

North Texas this year moved closer to becoming home to the nation’s largest network of managed toll lanes, as the second phase of LBJ Freeway’s massive renovation opened.

The region’s proliferation of toll lanes and roads expanded into Tarrant County with the opening of three projects — the DFW Connector, the North Tarrant Express and the Chisholm Trail Parkway. And in Dallas, the long-planned Trinity Parkway toll road once again emerged as one of the city’s most contentious topics.

Ginned up traffic forecasts for Northeast Gateway

Link to article here.

Dallas Transport Agency Cooks Up Fishy Traffic Projections for a New Road
by Angie Schmitt
DC Streets Blog
Thursday, October 16, 2014

We’ve reported on the way state agencies justify spending on expensive road expansions by overestimating the traffic that will materialize in the future. In an encouraging sign, one local press outfit is calling out the fishy traffic projections before a project gets built.

The regional transportation agency for Dallas justifies this highway project with traffic projections that far exceed even the estimates from the notorious sprawl enablers at Texas DOT.

Brandon Formby of the Dallas Morning News‘ Transportation Blog (yes, it’s a long-time member of the Streetsblog Network) has been taking a critical look at traffic projections from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the Big D’s regional planning agency. Residents who oppose the 28-mile Northeast Gateway-Blackland Prairie toll road – planned for a rural area between Garland and Greenville — question the assumptions behind the project.

The numbers certainly do look suspicious.

Here are some excerpts from Formby’s reporting (emphasis added):

    •    “Some of the council of governments predictions are hundreds of percentage points higher than the Texas Department of Transportation’s forecasts.”
    •    “NCTCOG predicts that 72,300 drivers will use State Highway 66 at County Road 6 in Lavon in 2035. That’s six times as many as the 12,000 drivers the agency says used it last year. It’s also more than triple the 22,880 drivers TxDOT estimates for the same spot in 2030, the closest year to the NCTCOG estimates for which the state has forecasts.”
    •    “While the regional agency’s traffic estimates for spots in the corridor predict anywhere from a 70 percent to 503 percent increase in drivers, the state predicts population increases in the four counties to be between 23.3 percent and 65.1 percent.”
Formby reports that NCTCOG has been reluctant to divulge how its traffic projections were developed. No wonder, because they seem to be practicing highway voodoo.

Availability payment P3s eschewed by Indiana politicos

Link to article here.

TURF worked hard to defeat the availability payment model of P3s in Texas during the 2013 legislative session. We were successful, but we must remain vigilant since special interests will be working 24/7 to find ways to make taxpayers pay for their potential losses.

Financing strategy for roads hits bump
November 22, 2014
Kathleen McLaughlin

A standard-bearer of public-private partnerships since former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ toll road lease, Indiana might be turning away from at least one form of the P3s.

Indiana Department of Transportation Commissioner Karl Browning doesn’t think the state should commit to any more so-called availability payments, which financed Indiana’s share of the Ohio River Bridges project and section five of Interstate 69.

“It’s a lot like borrowing,” Browning said in a recent conference call with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. “I would be more than cautious about the notion of doing public-private partnerships of the nature of some of them that we’ve done.”

Browning’s remarks might come as a surprise, considering the way Daniels, his former boss, embraced P3s. Appointed to his second stint as INDOT chief by Gov. Mike Pence, Browning is concerned about debt payments consuming too much of a limited budget, which is needed to tackle a mountain of road and bridge work.

The term “availability payment” is P3 industry lingo for annual payments that come from available budgeted revenue sources. A developer can use a government’s long-term commitment of annual payments to finance a project.

Availability payments are gaining popularity as governments look to finance projects that can’t be tied to a dedicated funding stream, such as tolls. The city of Indianapolis plans to use availability payments to finance a criminal justice complex that could cost as much as $600 million.

While Indiana isn’t carrying the debt from the Ohio River Bridges project or I-69 on its books, the P3 deals still mean INDOT has to set aside money for 35 years.

Debt burden grows

The share of revenue INDOT spends on debt obligations is set to grow. Currently, about 10 percent of its $1.6 billion in state and federal revenue goes to debt service. That will rise to 17 percent in 2018, according to INDOT projections through 2030.

“In my view, that’s a manageable number,” Browning told the chamber. “If we let it get higher, we’re going to be mortgaging our grandchildren.”

A critic of Daniels’ toll-road lease and the I-69 project, Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said he’s pleased to hear a member of the Republican administration talk about P3s in frank terms.

“Where have you been all these months?” he asked.

Browning isn’t eschewing P3s in general. He said he would support a deal for new construction if it can be sustained by a known revenue source.

“Tolling comes to mind,” he said.

Tolls were not an option for Section five of I-69, in which State Road 37 from Bloomington to Martinsville will be upgraded to freeway standards. So in 2013, the Legislature approved language in the budget bill allowing the Indiana Finance Authority to pursue an availability-payment scheme.

Once the road is operational, Indiana will pay $21.8 million a year for 35 years.

Indiana’s first availability-payment P3 was the East End Crossing, a toll bridge under construction over the Ohio River at Utica. Availability payments are $33 million a year from 2016 through 2050.

Toll revenue will offset the availability payments, but Indiana does not expect it to cover the bridge’s $763 million cost.

With Browning resisting more of those deals, it’s unclear how Indiana will pay for the final leg of I-69 from Martinsville to Indianapolis, which is a priority for Gov. Mike Pence.

“It is not feasible to toll only the remaining I-69 Section 6, and INDOT has no plans to pursue this tolling approval with the Legislature,” Jim Stark, deputy commissioner for innovative project delivery, said in an emailed statement. 

“Right now, no funding has been identified for final design or construction of I-69 Section 6.”

Nevertheless, INDOT is pursuing a Tier 2 environmental study, which includes examining different road paths and developing a preliminary cost estimate. The study is expected to take two to three years, Stark said.

Future revenue 

The lease of the Indiana Toll Road generated $2.6 billion for Daniels’ 10-year transportation plan, Major Moves.

Now, Browning hopes to rally taxpayer support for a lasting solution to the transportation funding gap caused by declining gas-tax revenue, aging infrastructure and escalating construction costs.

The average Hoosier spends less than $20 a month on the state highway system through BMV fees, sales tax, and state and federal gas taxes, according to a presentation Browning made to the Joint Transportation Committee this summer.

Meanwhile, roads and bridges built 50 years ago are approaching the end of their useful lives. INDOT spends an average $273 million a year on bridge preservation, but 12.5 percent of bridges will be in poor condition by 2024, Browning told the chamber audience.

Likewise, the state is spending $400 million a year on roads, but 11.5 percent of highways will be in poor condition by 2024, he said.

Browning does not think the federal government will come up with the answer.

“If we’re going to be the crossroads of America,” he said, “our existing highways have to be in pretty dang good shape. We have to persuade 6 million people that it’s worth it to them, and not rely on the federal government.”

Pierce said the billions Daniels generated with the toll-road lease masked the transportation funding problem.

“Most of the legislators haven’t focused in on the issue of funding and how that impacts their own districts,” he said.

Indiana Chamber transportation lobbyist Cam Carter predicted the Legislature won’t consider any tax increases or new revenue sources until INDOT reveals a consultant’s study, due out in August.

There is no P3 deal that will make up for the fact that the federal gas tax hasn’t risen since 1993, cars are becoming more fuel-efficient, and Americans are driving less.

“What you have to understand with public-private partnerships in the transportation realm—they’re a financing mechanism,” Carter said. “They’re not a funding mechanism.”