Federal highway program gridlock: Bills push tolls and P3s as quick fix

Link to article here.

Federal highway program gridlock: Bills push tolls and P3s as quick fix
By Terri Hall
July 28, 2014

The Federal Highway Trust Fund is going broke. The 18.4 cents a gallon in gasoline tax levied by the federal government is no longer sufficient to fund the highway program. The current federal highway bill, MAP-21, expires next month. The House passed a short term extension bill that puts off the pain until after the mid-term elections in November, and it remains to be seen what short-term fix the Senate will pass, but we’ll be right back where we started next May.

Rather than discipline the use of the fund to restrict it to highways only, the feds continue to divert significant gas tax revenue to transit programs that auto users do not benefit from. If ending transit diversions still isn’t sufficient to fund the program, then indexing the gas tax to inflation (with a cap to protect against runaway inflation) is preferable to a massive increase in tolling and selling off our public highways to private, even foreign, corporations in public private partnerships known as P3s.

Congress Holds Hearing on Red River Fight

Link to article here.

Congress Holds Hearing on Red River Fight
By Gilad Edelman
Texas Tribune
July 29, 2014

Lawmakers at a U.S. House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation meeting on Tuesday said they support legislation that aims to resolve a land dispute between the federal government and Texas landowners.

The Red River Private Property Protection Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, would affect a 116-mile stretch of land along the Red River that forms part of the border between Texas and Oklahoma. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, citing court rulings, says the area belongs to the federal government. But Texans have used and lived on the land for years, holding deeds to it and paying taxes on it.

The bill would require the BLM, which has said it won’t decide what to do with the land until at least 2018, to transfer property within the disputed territory to landowners who can prove they hold a title through Texas county or state records.

“The status today is that private landowners cannot borrow money on their land, because the title is clouded," Thornberry said. "They cannot make improvements on the land, they cannot sell the land, because there is all this concern that the federal government is going to come in and make a claim on portions of these acres.”

Pat Canan, a Wichita Falls game warden, told lawmakers that BLM officials placed boundary markers on his land in 2008, laying claim to 1.7 miles between his house and the river that he considered his property.

Steve Ellis, deputy director of operations for the BLM, said the agency opposes the bill because it could force the federal government to transfer mineral rights without compensating U.S. taxpayers.  
Ellis suggested that the BLM could deal with some of the land by selling it at fair market value. Lawmakers bristled at the idea.

“That’s why there’s such fear of a federal land grab,” said Thornberry.

Subcommittee Chairman U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said that the suggestion “sent a chill up my spine.”

“Let’s hope we can solve this problem for you very quickly,” Bishop told Canan.

Original story:
A high-profile land dispute between the federal government and Texans who live along the Red River will be the subject of a hearing by the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.

The Red River Private Property Protection Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, would direct the federal government to give up some of its claims to a 90,000-acre strip of land along the river’s south bank that has become the subject of controversy over ownership. Texans who have lived on the land for years, using the property, paying taxes on it and holding deeds to it, worry that the federal government is trying to take lands they claim to have long owned. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, though, has cited court rulings holding that the federal government owns the land.

BLM officials and Pat Canan, a Texan whose land has been called into question, will testify at the hearing.

Controversy over the land began last year, when the BLM, a federal agency that manages nearly 250 million acres of public land and 700 million acres of mineral rights, announced that it would update its resource management plans in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas to determine how the land will be used for the next 15 to 20 years. The BLM has said it won’t finalize its plan until 2018, leaving Texas landowners to wonder what will become of property they have long considered theirs.

This past April, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sent a letter to the BLM accusing the agency of “threatening [Texans’] private property rights by claiming ownership over this territory” and urging it to disclose its plans for the land.

The dispute has a complicated history. In 1923, a fight between Texas and Oklahoma over oil and gas rights forced the U.S. Supreme Court to determine the boundary between the states. The court held that under an 1819 treaty between the U.S. and Spain, everything north of the middle of the river belonged to Oklahoma and everything below the south bank belonged to Texas. That left a strip of land between the south bank and the middle of the river that belonged to the federal government.

In the decades following that decision, the river shifted north, and new parcels of land on the south side were sold as parts of Texas. But in 1983, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that because the shifting was the result of sudden, rather than gradual, changes, the Texas border remained where it had been fixed in 1923. That meant the new land between the Texas border and the river belonged to the federal government, and not to the people who considered it their property.

The BLM has not fully surveyed the area, so it is not clear how many acres the locals have claimed and how many are untouched.

The proposed legislation seeks to clear up the confusion — and keep the land in Texan hands — by directing the BLM to transfer deeds to landowners who can prove ownership through state and county records. Those properties would not be included in the bureau’s resource management plans.

“This hearing is one more step forward, and a very important one, in our efforts to assure landowners that their private property will be protected,” Thornberry said in a written statement. “Property owners deserve this certainty, particularly when their livelihoods are at stake.”  

Toll special interests hijack highway bill

Link to article here.

Tolling lobbyists attempt to hijack highway funding discussion
By David Tanner,
Land Line Magazine
July 23, 2014

A pro-tolling lobby group attempted to steer the discussion about highway and bridge funding this week toward interstate tolls. Fortunately, an alliance that supports toll-free interstates is in place to counter their arguments.

The plot thickened this week when U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and 11 former transportation secretaries including Ray LaHood joined together in a letter to Congress to urge long-term solutions to road, bridge and transit funding.

The letter did not even sniff the issue of tolling, but that didn’t stop the pro-tolling group, the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, from glomming on in an attempt to make the discussion about tolls.

Critics raise concerns on information collected by toll cameras

Link to story here.

Critics raise concerns on information collected by toll cameras
By Scott Wickersham
July 25, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Critics raise privacy concerns over your personal information and toll cameras that track where you go and when.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation explained Friday why their contract with Cintra talks about driver's medical records.
The NCDOT contract with Cintra  stated the Spanish company must not make public driver's Social Security number, medical and criminal records.
NCDOT said that's not something Cintra will even collect.

The North Carolina Turnpike Authority will handle toll collections and they won’t ask for any of that.
The DOT needed to have protective language in the contract if that information ended up in Cintra's hands.
What's more disturbing to some drivers is that toll road sensors and license plate cameras will track their every move.
In the past, courts and law enforcement have used that data for criminal cases and even civil matters like divorce.
For years, the North Carolina ACLU has been trying to pass legislation to limit law enforcements' use of this data.

They said there's no law that says police need a warrant to get it or who they can share it with.
“These are things that are perfectly legal. But none of the government's business,” said Mike Meno with North Carolina ACLU. “Whoever is controlling these cameras, can paint a vivid picture of your life and where you go. Even folks who have nothing to hide are entitled to their privacy.”
Terri and Jim O'Connor said it took months to clear their son of a car crash he wasn't involved in.

The license plate camera evidence implied he was at fault.
“The DMV sent him a letter saying he owed money because he ran a light and hit a car and criminal history and a civil rights group is raising concerns about a different type of history,” they said.
Another concern with tolls is the Turnpike Authority website has a warning right now about a phishing scam.
Some of its users are getting fake emails asking them to pay an overdue bill.

If you click the link, it downloads a virus that could steal your financial data.­­­

Pipeline rule revives eminent domain debate

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Pipeline Proposal Revives Eminent Domain Debate
by Jim Malewitz
Texas Tribune
Aug. 1, 2014

Amid an oil and gas boom that has increased demand for new pipelines, Texas regulators have proposed new rules that have renewed a clash between two major state interests: energy development and private property rights.

The Railroad Commission of Texas — which regulates the state’s 426,000-mile network of natural gas, hazardous liquid and other pipelines — offered rules last month aimed at clarifying when pipelines qualify as “common carriers,” a status indicating availability for public use and enabling companies to seize private land using eminent domain. The agency is accepting comments on the proposal until late August.

The proposal would require companies to submit documentation — including a sworn statement — supporting a common carrier claim and to give the commission 45 days to review an application. Currently, companies seeking common carrier status need only to mark a line on a permit application — an honor system that has spurred legal battles over eminent domain claims.

Pipeline operators say stricter regulations would bog down efforts to transport the resources that lubricate Texas’ economy. Landowners say they want fair offers for their land and lose bargaining power when companies haphazardly invoke eminent domain claims.

Both groups are scrutinizing the Railroad Commission proposal, which follows a 2011 Texas Supreme Court decision that upheld a landowner’s right to challenge a pipeline operator’s eminent domain claim.

"Merely registering as a common carrier does not conclusively convey the extraordinary power of eminent domain or bar landowners from contesting in court whether a planned pipeline meets the statutory common carrier requirements," the court said in its ruling in favor of David Holland, a Beaumont-area landowner who questioned Denbury Resources’ use of eminent domain to build a carbon dioxide pipeline across his land.

David Holland walks among the dozens of pipeline markers scattered across his Beaumont-area farm.

The commission opposed the ruling, writing in a brief that it could “significantly impact the development of needed pipeline infrastructure.”

Phil Gamble, a lawyer who represents several major pipeline companies, said the commission’s proposal was “certainly more burdensome” to the industry.

Advocates for landowners say they want to ensure that proposal, which does not add any mechanism to contest a commission decision, will not hinder a landowner’s challenge in court.

“It’s still a little vague,” Regan Beck, assistant general counsel for the Texas Farm Bureau, said of the proposal. “We want to make sure that there’s not an assumption in court that it’s a common carrier because the Railroad Commission says it is.”

The Railroad Commission says the proposal will simply improve its registration process for common carriers and will not grant the agency new authority on eminent domain.

“The ultimate authority to make that determination of who qualifies for common carrier status is with the courts,” Ramona Nye, the agency’s spokeswoman, said.

Matthew Festa, a professor at the South Texas College of Law, said the proposal “doesn’t really seem to address the main issue” in the common carrier debate.

Requiring pipeline companies to prove their status should not, in theory, create new hurdles for development, he said. “They should be doing it anyway.”

Festa said it was unclear how the proposed regulations would affect future legal battles over eminent domain. Judges might give more weight to a Railroad Commission permit, bolstering a pipeline company’s position, he said, but landowners might benefit in other ways. The information provided to the commission, for instance, might help landowners challenge a pipeline company’s false statement in court.

TX Railroad Commission to close eminent domain loophole, but groups say still too vague

Link to article here.

TX Railroad Commission to close eminent domain loophole, but still too vague
By Terri Hall
July 25, 2014

The Texas Railroad Commission, that regulates the oil and gas industry, recently proposed a new rule to close the so-called ’T-4’ loophole that’s long allowed private pipeline companies to claim common carrier status by simply checking a box on a one-page form and gain eminent domain authority.

In 2011, the Texas Supreme Court said in its Denbury Green decision that companies need to prove they’re truly a public use pipeline, known as a common carrier, before they obtain or exercise eminent domain powers. It quickly became an issue with the Keystone Pipeline, which TransCanada claimed to be a Texas common carrier and used eminent domain for its private international pipeline.

The proposed rule would give the Commission the ability to revoke a permit if a company violates the law, giving the Commission enforcement powers that it currently doesn’t have. It would also mandate permits must be renewed on an annual basis. The legislature contemplated at least four bills to fix the problem last year, but none of them passed. While the Railroad Commission rule makes an effort to quell the controversy, it stops short of fixing the problem.

Fracking in North Texas brings property rights fight to the fore

Link to article here.

Nowhere does the tension between property rights and the energy industry display itself than with the ongoing debate over tracking. The ability to enjoy and use one’s property and the pursuit of happiness mean different things to different people - to corporations they want an unlimited, uncontested right to develop minerals they own, and to people with interests above ground, they feel just as strongly. In the end, the people have a right to vote and redress their government for grievances. Energy companies have become too powerful in Texas, and they need to learn to be better neighbors and work with landowners or they may risk losing access to their golden goose.

Denton Fracking Ban Could Spur Wider Legal Clash
by Jim Malewitz
Texas Tribune
July 25, 2014

DENTON — Debbie Ingram understands the importance of Texas’ oil and gas industry, and she enjoys the look of a lit-up drilling rig rising in the nighttime sky.

But a few months of living about 400 feet from a natural gas well — the source of a cacophony of noises and nauseating fumes that, at times, have overtaken her brick house — prompted her to join hundreds of others pushing back against the industry in this North Texas city.

“I couldn’t sit on the back porch because I couldn’t breathe,” said Ingram, 67, wearing a black T-shirt reading “Frack Free Denton,” the name of the grassroots group spearheading that opposition.

The group could have its moment in November. Voters will decide whether the city will become the state’s first to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the method of oil and gas extraction that has led to a domestic energy boom. But passage of a ban would probably trigger another fracking fight: a legal clash over a city’s power to regulate for health and safety and the rights of mineral owners to develop their resources. The outcome could reshape Texas law at a time when drilling is causing tension in some of its urban areas.

“It’s going to be one of those first-time tests, and I don’t think there’s a clear answer out there in Texas law,” said Jim Bradbury, a Fort Worth-based lawyer who focuses on environmental and energy issues.

The Denton measure would not prohibit drilling outright; it would apply only to fracking, which involves blasting apart rock with millions of gallons of chemical-laced water hauled in by trucks. After gathering nearly 2,000 signatures on a petition calling for a ban on fracking, opponents forced the City Council to vote on it. Council members rejected the proposal last week, leaving the decision to voters.

Denton, a city of 121,000 with more than 270 gas wells scattered among its neighborhoods, is one of several cities that has tried to ban fracking. That includes towns in New York, whose highest court last month upheld local ordinances banning the practice. The state of Colorado has sued its cities that have banned fracking and is pushing back against ballot measures that would toughen regulations. The prospect of such a ban in Texas — a leading oil and natural gas producer — has put Denton in a bright spotlight, rankling industry leaders and the state’s Republican leadership.

“If one community after another continues to say ‘Not in my backyard,’ then before long, a tsunami of exclusion will jeopardize our freedom as a country,” said Chris Faulkner, the chief executive of Breitling Energy in Dallas, one of many industry representatives who spoke at City Hall before the Council’s vote.

In a letter to the City Council this month, Barry T. Smitherman, chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas — the state’s oil and gas regulator — praised the energy industry’s multibillion-dollar impact on the Texas economy and its schools, and said a Denton fracking ban could embolden opponents across the state.

Debbie Ingram in her backyard, which is just a few hundred feet from a gas well that was last fracked in March.

“If other cities were to follow your lead, then we could potentially, one day, see a ban on drilling within all cities in Texas,” he wrote. “If that were to happen, I believe that our country, our state, its citizens and its school children would be severely harmed.”

Proponents of the ban called the measure a last-ditch effort to address noise and toxic fumes that spew from wells just beyond their backyards, after loopholes and previous zoning decisions have rendered unenforceable changes to the city’s drilling ordinance, including a 1,200-foot setback from homes, schools and other structures. Opponents argue that the move would effectively halt all drilling inside Denton, costing mineral owners and the local economy millions of dollars and exposing the city to expensive litigation.

Passage of the ban would almost certainly spur litigation, with energy companies and royalty owners arguing that state drilling regulations supersede Denton’s and that the city was confiscating mineral property.

Those claimants could include the state, which owns minerals within Denton’s corporate limits. Jerry Patterson, Texas' outgoing land commissioner, warned in a letter last week that the state would “pursue any available remedy to ensure the right to develop” those minerals.

George P. Bush, the Republican nominee in this year's election to succeed Patterson, said he supported that stance. “We don't need a patchwork approach to drilling regulations across the state,” he said. But John Cook, Bush's Democratic opponent, disagreed, saying that “local communities need to have a say” in quality-of-life issues.  

Though Texas courts have occasionally considered cities’ drilling regulations, they have yet to see a case of such size and scope, legal experts say.

Texas law says the state intends its mineral resources to be “fully and effectively exploited,” but courts have said the power is not absolute. The Railroad Commission has jurisdiction over all oil and gas wells in the state, with authority to adopt “all necessary rules for governing and regulating persons and their operations.” Local governments have the right to impose reasonable health and safety restrictions, and the Legislature has granted most Texas cities, including Denton, the power to “regulate exploration and development of mineral interests.”

The state has long regulated most aspects of drilling, including well integrity, pipeline safety, and air and water impact, while cities have typically controlled noise and authorized the location of wells or related facilities like compressor stations. Now, a key question is where fracking falls in that spectrum.

Tom Phillips, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court from 1988 to 2004, said he would expect courts to side with the energy industry — by ruling that the ban unconstitutionally supersedes state law or that it makes gas beneath the city too difficult to tap and amounts to a taking.

Phillips, now a lawyer with the firm of Baker Botts, who was asked to review the proposal for the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said state law gave cities less stringent options for protecting health and safety at well sites, and that Denton “can’t just say no” to fracking.

Other legal experts acknowledge that state high courts tend to favor oil and gas interests, but say that Denton could make a compelling argument that a fracking ban would not wipe out all options to drill.

“To say that this is a slam dunk, it’s a taking, I think that’s painting with an overly broad brush,” said Terrence Welch, a lawyer who has helped write drilling ordinances in several Texas cities. “The property — the mineral estate isn’t left valueless. You can drill, but you just can’t frack.”

Bradbury, the Fort Worth lawyer, agreed and noted that new technology has enabled drillers to reach resources thousands of feet away at various angles. He suggested that some companies might reach Denton’s gas from outside city limits.

Sitting in a living room that has been quiet during a temporary “standstill agreement” between Denton and EagleRidge, the company that has fracked the well near her home, Ingram said she doubted a ban would cripple the industry.

“You can’t take gas and oil out of Texas,” she said, “because that’s what Texas is.”

Dallas commuters paying the price for highway underfunding

Link to article here.

These new urbanists seem to think building more failed mass transit projects will solve the gridlock problem on our highways. HOV lanes haven't worked, nor has urban rail, bike lanes, or any other wasteful transit spending. Gas tax should go exclusively to building and maintaining our highways. Stop the social engineering and transit boondoggles that have only made congestion worse, not better.

Drivers in Dallas, across state pay price for aging highways
Published: 23 July 2014
Dallas Morning News

Texans have dodged higher federal and state gas taxes for decades, but it doesn’t mean their wallets are getting any fatter.

A study from a transportation nonprofit released Wednesday said aging roadways and continued traffic congestion cost drivers in the state more than $25.1 billion every year.

Research group TRIP concludes that those conditions lead to vehicle maintenance costs, lost time, increased gas consumption and other expenses that annually cost the average North Texas driver $1,740.

“We’re just transferring the cost over to the consumer, and there’s obviously more cost-effective ways to pay for it, but for whatever reason, we don’t seem to ever get those points across,” Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said of the report.

PA's billion dollar bridge boondoggle

Link to article here.

Pa.'s $1 billion bridge 'boondoggle': Is private funding cheaper?
By Joseph DiStefano
July 22, 2014

MONDAY 7/28: PennDOT officials say the bridge funding program will rely on tax-exempt federal Private Activity Bonds (PABs), which are typically less expensive than private funding, though more expensive than direct state general-obligation bonds. PennDOT hopes for other savings, including volume discount. More in my column in the July 28 Philadelphia Inquirer here.

TUESDAY 7/22: A highway contractor active in Pennsylvania gives me this view of the "public-private partnerships" that President Obama and Gov. Corbett (with his Rapid Bridge Replacement Program) assure us will change the way our governments fund highway and bridge repairs: "As a highway bill, this is a boondoggle. I can assure you that the money involved will be far in excess of what would have been spent utilizing PennDOT’s current procurement process."

But won't PennDOT's scheme get 560 much-needed bridges (most far from Philly) repaired and maintained more quickly? I asked. Maybe, maybe not, the contractor said. But this isn't really about completion dates, he added: "It is the difference of paying as you go with current taxes and fees or having the private sector provide the up-front money and then take 'availability payments' over 30-35 years once the work has been completed."

So how big are those payments, and how much will private highway financing cost, compared to government bonds? That's the question Obama didn't address and his Transportation and Treasury secretaries refuse to address, and PennDOT won't know until the bids are in. But you don't need the details to see that "P3’s are financed at (high) rates that cannot be gotten anywhere but hedge funds. 12-15% are typical. When the cost of this work, plus the financing of same, is removed from Pennsylvania’s highway fund, the drain on resources will be extensive and continue for a long time.

"Everybody that’s trying to get elected likes the plan. But where’s the money to pay for it? There are four teams bidding for the bridges. I see the financiers getting 12-15%. The big construction companies that don't build bridges, which are part of each team, will likely pull in a 'management fee' that's at least as large. Then the rest of the cost is building. So I don’t see any way on earth you will save money.

Bad for taxpayers, good for Wall Street lenders? "Right. Perhaps the Commonwealth’s two large underfunded Pension Funds should invest in this process to beef up their returns?"

"And why replace PennDOT's procurement system? The way they are set up, before this came along, you’re getting 6, 8, 10, 12 bidders on every job. They go to the low bidder. There’s no B.S., no negotiating, the prices are locked. It’s pretty straightforward. These big companies don’t do little bridges. Some of them don't do any bridges unless they're across like the Bering Strait (Alaska-Siberia). So who's building these (Pa.) bridges? The way I see it, they're hoping everybody on the losing teams becomes a free agent, and all the mom and pop companies, they'll all go together to the winner and get some work there."

Which they would anyway, without the high-priced middlemen, if PennDOT bid the jobs directly.

How does this fit with the new gas tax and highway bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Corbett? "There is so much work coming from PennDOT, a transformative change in PennDOT’s roadbuilding and bridgebuilding.

They're finally going to do jobs like the Route 1 and 95 intersection. And all that is completely different from this bridge thing. I wonder how many of these contractors out there will even offer to do bridges (once the master bridge contract is awarded?) If you’re any good you have work already lined up. You're not waiting around."

He's also concerned about putting private contractors to work on many bridges simultaneously. Not so much in the Philadelphia area -- few of the targeted bridges are there -- but in the southeastern Poconos alone "they're starting 10 in the first year. Whose job is to coordinate construction when you have 10 private contracted bridges instead of one PennDOT? Just imagine what happens when the Pocono 500 NASCAR (race) is running."

The traffic jams "will be epic."

PennDOT has said, no tolls.

So "the money will have to come from the highway fund. Will that get in the way of the other projects? Sure. Once they start making these 'availability payments,' it will be taken right off the new highway fund. For 30, 40 years. You will be down to where New Jersey is. In the hole, with no reserves."

Just like with state pensions, Harrisburg appears to be kicking the can down the road: running up expenses now, for others to pay, with interest, when the current lawmakers are gone to their rewards.

No wonder Moody's, citing the state's 'imbalanced' election-year budget, on Monday cut Pa.'s bond rating so it now ranks third-worst in the U.S. -- only New Jersey and Illinois are lower.
PennDOT is also prepping a "P3" project fixing up 11 railroad stations on the Amtrak line from Ardmore to Harrisburg, with procurement solicitations to include "hotels, train stations, (Americans with Disability Act) improvements, urban renewal, parking garages, etc. Who knows how this cost will be covered? But rest assured it will be paid out by future generations, lest we tax current voters."

Sounds almost as good as the Amtrak station built in Hershey a few years back. Amtrak trains don't actually go to Hershey. But the scheme got the town business interests what they wanted: a big, federally-taxpayer-funded parking garage.

Back to the bridges: PennDOT is supposed to award a contract "by Halloween," a week before voters decide Corbett's future.

"It's supposed to come in around $1 billion," which would be the biggest public project in Pennsylvania history, bigger than the $800 million Pennsylvania Convention Center or the $400 million new prison at Graterford. But the contractor is concerned bidders won't find that price attractive. So "I think it will come in higher," and jobs will be dropped off the list to get it to budget.

"If this was a way to get something done that needed done -- a ton of bridges -- and then kick the can down the road, that’s the plan."

Blogger calls TX toll road capital USA

Link to article here.

Watchdog: Drive a highway, pay a fee in Toll Road Capital, USA
By Dave Lieber, Watchdog
Dallas Morning News
July 19, 2014

The emergence of North Texas as Toll Road Capital, USA, represents failure of government of the worst kind. We have to pay for what we could do for free.

They say they don’t raise our taxes. But fees that can cost hundreds of family dollars a month to get to and from are money out of our pocket. Call it by any name you want.

The names are confusing. The SRT? Sam Rayburn Tollway? How many who drive it every day think of Speaker Sam, the long-serving U.S. House Speaker from Bonham?

Or the Bush Turnpike, which had to be changed to President George Bush Turnpike when the son got elected governor. Then the son got elected president, and the North Texas Tollway Authority didn’t change the name by adding middle initials. So the road is named after two men at the same time, although it’s not.

Learn to love tolls: Highway underfunding opens door to toll roads

Link to article here.

This article credits the work of TURF Founder, Terri Hall, to remove support of toll roads in the 2014 GOP platform.

Reinventing the American highway: The promise (and pitfalls) of learning to love tolls
America's infrastructure is dramatically underfunded, and our roads are falling apart. Time to change things up
By Henry Grabar
July 20, 2014

It has always been cheap to drive in the United States, relative to other developed countries. As far as our road budget goes, it’s too cheap.

The money American drivers pay into the federal Highway Trust Fund, through a tax exacted at the gas pump, no longer covers the costs of building and maintaining the nation’s road network.

It’s easy to see why this levy, which dates from the inception of the Interstate Highway System, no longer serves its purpose. The federal gas tax has stood at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, rendering its budget-replenishing power woefully small. Neither President Obama nor Congressional Republicans seem to be interested in raising it and resetting the calculus.

DPS ignores lawmakers, starts fingerprinting Texans

Link to article here.

Texas Agency Ignores House Vote, Starts Fingerprinting Everyone
Friday, July 18, 2014
By: Jon Cassidy, Watchdog.org

Last month, the Texas Department of Public Safety started collecting full sets of fingerprints from every Texan who comes into their offices for a new driver's license or a renewal.

But the regulation that DPS adopted for this new policy didn't take effect until July 6.

The department may have jumped the gun, but that's the least of the legal trouble it may get into with this policy, which includes uploading the prints to a criminal history database.

The department's lawyers insist the new rule is authorized by existing law. That law, however, was passed almost 10 years ago and has never been interpreted like this.

Scott Henson, who covered the debate 10 years ago for his widely read criminal justice blog, Grits for Breakfast, says Texas lawmakers had no such intention. In fact, when the idea was put to a vote during the 78th Legislature, it was rejected by the state House, 111-26.

"I remember when that law passed and thought we [privacy advocates] won," he wrote in an email Thursday. "Can't believe they're pretending that was permission to do this. [Jon] Cassidy's depiction of the original intent — thumbprint OR index finger — is definitely how I remember it ending."

The Department of Public Safety is using a stray reference to "fingerprints" in the legislation as proof that they're allowed to collect sets of fingerprints.

As I pointed out Wednesday, the reference to fingerprints, plural, exists because of a requirement that driver's license applications "include: 1) the thumbprints of the applicant or, if thumbprints cannot be taken, the index fingerprints of the applicant.


For those who shrug their shoulders, figuring they're not criminals so the intrusion is unlikely to affect them, Henson points to a "grave risk" in biometric recordkeeping that's easy to overlook.

"If biometrics become a standard form of ID that can unlock things like access to bank accounts, public benefits, or even the ballot box, they become just another piece of valuable data waiting for a thief to steal," he writes. "If my credit card number is stolen, I can get it changed with some trouble. But if someone figures out how to fake my fingerprint or my iris scan to access my credit, my bank account, medical data, or other personal information, how can anyone ever return what's been taken from me?"

States siphon gas taxes for other uses

Link to article here.

As much as conservatives like Mike Lee and others argue in favor of scrapping the federal highway program and handing the task off to states, this is why we can’t rely on states to do a better job than the feds - they’re broken, too. We need to fix what’s wrong at every level of government when it comes to highways. They need to top pilfering our road taxes for non-road purposes, especially transit and rail boondoggles and these hike & bike trails that canabalize parking in downtown areas and take away scarce road dollars needed to ease congestion.

States Siphon Gas Tax for Other Uses
Makes Them More Reliant on Federal Assistance for New Infrastructure
By Damian Paletta
Wall Street Journal
July 16, 2014 8:53 p.m. ET

States are allotting a growing share of the funds they raise from gas taxes to debt service and spending unrelated to roads and bridges, making them more reliant on federal assistance to pay for new infrastructure.

The shrinking pot of state cash is one reason why governors increasingly are in a panic over a congressional impasse about replenishing the federal Highway Trust Fund. The federal fund, too, is running out of money and will cut disbursements to states in August if Congress doesn't intervene.

Texas spends 25% of its fuel-tax revenue on education programs. Kansas has allocated some of its gas-tax revenue to pay for Medicaid and schools. Nationwide, making interest payments on debt used to fund existing infrastructure projects is one of the biggest state expenditures.

SH 130 faces bankruptcy

Link to article here.

Texas' flagship toll road faces financial problems
By David Tanner
Land Line senior editor
July 17, 2014

Since 2006, the state of Texas has put a ton of trust in private companies to build and operate toll roads in exchange for a cut of the profits. Just eight years in, the state’s flagship public-private toll road, the SH 130 that connects Austin and San Antonio, is facing financial difficulties, low traffic volumes and a “junk bond” rating from financial analysts.

Moody’s Investor Service, which twice downgraded the SH 130’s bond rating in 2013, announced this month that the SH 130 Concession Co. had failed to make a full debt-service payment to lenders on the money it borrowed to build Segments 5 and 6 of the roadway.

According to the 50-year contract between the SH 130 Concession Co. and the Texas Department of Transportation, the builder-operator carries the financial risk while the roadway itself remains owned by the state of Texas.

El Paso toll road still being subsidized by taxpayers

Link to article here.

We’ve learned that higher than expected traffic on a toll road does NOT mean it’s operating in the black. Until you look at each toll road’s traffic and revenue projections, all of these puff pieces pushed out but he press are more akin to propaganda than truth. Every toll road has a ramp up period where it operates int eh red. The Austin toll system is expected to operate in the red for the entire life of the bond debt - it’s being annually bailed out by you and I the taxpayer. So don’t buy the soundbites in the press - we’re all paying to bail out these toll projects…

César Chávez Border Highway toll road sees increased users, toll tags still underutilized
By Aaron Martinez / El Paso Times

The number of transactions on the César Chávez Border Highway toll lane has continued to increase since it opened in January, but most motorists are not using toll tags, officials said Thursday.

So far, about 153,246 transactions have been recorded, officials said. Of that number, 37,394 were with toll tags, the rest were with the pay-by-mail option in which a motorist is mailed the fee.

Outsourcing toll collections runs into snags

Link to article here.

Outsourcing the billing for toll collection is predictably fraught with trouble that can quickly put commuters in big financial and credit trouble - or could lead to blocking their car registration or having their vehicle impounded.

Toll troubles linger after billing system revamp
By Angie Beavin
Published: July 14, 2014

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Department of Transportation recently shut down its TxTag customer service phone lines and website to upgrade their services and allow customers an easier way to manage their accounts.

About a week after coming back online, users are still experiencing problems getting through on the phone and accessing pages on the website.

Fake toll road bills emailed to drivers across the nation

Link to article here.

Electronic tolling is rife for abuses like this one - erroneous bills by private companies phishing for quick cash by deceiving commuters into thinking they owe toll bills.

Fake toll road bills emailed to drivers across the nation
By Emily Foxhall
LA Times
July 16, 2014

Orange County switches to a cashless system on its network of toll roads, drivers across the nation have been receiving what is described as a phishing email saying that they owe fees for using the pay-to-drive highways.

Printed beneath a logo that mimics the E-ZPass design, the fraudulent email reads: "You have not paid for driving on a toll road. This invoice is sent repeatedly, please service your debt in the shortest possible time."

Toll road officials say this fraudulent email is being sent to drivers across the nation. (Transportation Corridor Agencies)

Neither the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which manages the Orange County toll road system, nor EZPass, which provides electronic tolling services on the East Coast, sent the email, according to statements from both entities.

The groups advise not opening or responding to the email.

Instead, they recommend that questions about an E-ZPass message be directed to E-ZPass customer service.

In California, FasTrak transponders are commonly used for toll collection.

The toll roads in Orange County stopped using toll booths and switched to a cashless system in May.

Commuters use either a transponder, which debits an established account, or pay online.

Business interests welcome Obama's push for P3s

Link to article here.

Of course, the Chamber of Commerce crowd welcomes more P3s that subsidize private toll operators and guarantee the private company's profits. We don't need anymore taxpayer-subsidized 'job growth.'

New jobs, new contracting opportunities – all good for Texas
By Mary Scott Nabers
San Antonio Business Journal
July 25, 2014

The concept of financing large infrastructure projects through public-private partnerships got a huge boost recently when President Obama announced the new Build America Transportation Investment Initiative. Geared toward increasing public-private partnerships (P3s) throughout the nation, the presidential initiative will provide all types of assistance to partners launching infrastructure projects.

A “one-stop shop” for assistance – the Build America Investment Center – will help partner cash-strapped governments and cash-flush private-sector firms that are willing to invest in infrastructure projects.

The center will offer a “Navigator Service” for both the public- and private-sector partners. Located within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), it will provide information to private-sector developers and investors about DOT credit programs and various other types of assistance and resources.

Public-private partnerships have already been highly successful in a number of states, including Texas.

The $1.2 billion Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) Connector project in Texas just last week was named the “P3 Project of the Year” by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association at its annual P3 conference in Washington, D.C. This highway expansion and reconstruction project includes 24 lanes – 14 main lanes, six frontage road lanes and four managed toll lanes. The Texas Department of Transportation teamed up on the project with private partners that specialize in architecture and transportation, construction, engineering and design. The team also included a financial advisory firm, a national law firm and a joint venture construction group. This model public-private partnership resulted in the project being completed six months ahead of schedule and at a savings of $140 million.

Florida alone has completed more than $6 billion in P3s since establishing the state’s Office of Public-Private Partnerships in 2007. Its most prominent P3 project is the $1.1 billion Port of Miami Tunnel. That partnership includes the Florida Department of Transportation, Miami-Dade County, the city of Miami and a private-sector developer.

In Denver, a P3 involving multiple financing sources was used as part of the city’s $2.2 billion FasTracks development that combined light rail, bus rapid transit, development of Denver Union Station and other improvements. The city used federal transportation program grant funds, Private Activity Bonds, a Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan and other state and federal funding to construct two new commuter rail lines.

In addition to the investment center, the presidential initiative also calls for a working group that will focus on expanding the use of P3s beyond the transportation industry to include such areas as water, ports, harbors, broadband and the electric grid. Also, the U.S. Treasury Department will host a summit on “Infrastructure Investment in the United States” on Sept. 9. This session will bring together stakeholders including leading project developers, institutional investors and state, local and federal officials. It will focus on innovative financing approaches to infrastructure and give an overview of other resources that can be used to support project development.

Texas has lots to gain from this initiative – hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new jobs and an economic stimulus that will likely ripple through every region of the state.

Mary Scott Nabers is president and CEO of Strategic Partnerships Inc. (spartnerships.com) and author of ‘Collaboration Nation.’ (collaborationnationbook.com). Contact Mary at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Obama Shifts to Urge Private Investment in Roads, Bridges

Link to article here.

Bob Poole with Reason Foundation is paid big bucks by the industry to convince lawmakers there’s all this private money out there sitting on a shelf awaiting Congress’ green light. Truth is thirty-three states have already passed legislation to allow public private partnership (PPP) contracts for roads, yet few are advancing. Why? They’re looking for taxpayer-backed guarantees. They want us to pay for their losses while they walk away with guaranteed profits.

There’s nothing stopping any private entity from investing in infrastructure right now today as a truly private venture. But companies don’t want to risk their own capital, they put the word ‘public’ in the PPP contracts precisely because they want guaranteed profit with no risk. Guys like Poole are snake oil salesmen. The private industry doesn’t just invest billions in public roads as a charitable contribution - all of that money has to be paid back with interest and profit through tolls. In Dallas, drivers are paying up to 95 cents a mile for the PPP toll road on I-635 - that’s a horrible deal for taxpayers and three-quarters of the money on that project comes from the taxpayers!

Obama Shifts to Urge Private Investment in Roads, Bridges
By Lisa Lerer and Angela Greiling Keane
Bloomberg Business Week
July 17, 2014

Stymied by Congress in passing a multiyear solution for transportation funding, President Barack Obama is looking to private-sector companies to help fix roads.

Speaking beside a project to repair a closed interstate highway bridge in Wilmington, Delaware, Obama called for making it easier for states and local governments to access private capital for roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

House approves short-term, $10.8 billion bill to keep afloat Highway Trust Fund

Link to article here.

House approves short-term, $10.8 billion bill to keep afloat Highway Trust Fund
Fox News.com
July 15, 2014

The House voted Tuesday in favor of a short-term, multi-billion dollar fix to the Highway Trust Fund, which helps pay for federal highway and transit programs.

President Obama spent the last several weeks at campaign-style public events -- including ones with the backdrop of Delaware and Virginia bridges -- trying to garner public support for the $10.8 billion bill and to convince Congress to approve the funding.