November 12, 2012
Texans call for boycott of first foreign-owned toll road
Threatens right to travel, smacks of crony capitalism
(San Antonio, TX - November 12, 2012) Today marks the first day Spanish toll operator, Cintra, starts charging Texas commuters tolls to use SH 130, which doesn’t sit well with ordinary grassroots Texans who care about our right to travel and keeping Texas sovereignty over public infrastructure. San Antonio-based Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) and Austin-based Texans for Accountable Government (TAG) object to Texas’ first foreign-owned toll road, especially since SH 130 is actually part of the original Trans Texas Corridor TTC-35 (See ‘current route’). Though Cintra invented an innocuous sounding name, SH 130 Concession Company, Cintra controls SH 130 (segments 5 & 6).
The groups believe public private partnerships (P3s) will usher in the new railroad robber barons of our time -- private toll companies operating state-sanctioned monopolies and charging Texans a premium to drive. TURF & TAG also encouraged Texans to boycott Cintra’s toll road.
“Vote with your cars and your wallets and just say ‘No’ to foreign-owned toll roads in Texas,” urged TURF Founder Terri Hall. “Money is the only language our politicians and Cintra seem to understand, so let’s make sure they get the message loud and clear that Texans don’t want a corporate takeover of their public roads. Texas roads belong to Texans and no politician should ever have the power to sell them off to private corporations. It threatens our sovereignty and right to travel, which is offensive and unacceptable.”
Speed Limit Manipulation
Cintra bribed TxDOT into increasing the speed limit to 85 MPH. The agency concurrently lowered the speed limit on the adjacent free road, US 183, from 65 MPH down to 55 MPH. It’s obviously a move to keep speeds on alternative free routes artificially low to make the tollway more attractive. The company offered TxDOT $100 million for setting the speed limit to the maximum 85 MPH, and TxDOT took it.
“It’s an absolutely sickening example of throwing public safety under the bus out of pure greed. Things like speed limits should NEVER be manipulated for money, and certainly not to benefit a private corporation. If Cintra was willing to part with $100 million to bribe our highway department to jack-up the speed limit, they think they’re going to cash-in. TxDOT has demonstrated time and again it’ll do anything for a buck, and this time, they’ve gone too far,” Hall concludes.
There’s a reason they’ve dubbed I-35 a NAFTA superhighway considering the explosion of truck traffic into Texas since the agreement took effect. The cross border trucking program giving the green for Mexican trucks , officially enacted by the Obama Administration last year, has only added to the problem. With the expansion of the Panama Canal coming next year, it’s going to get even worse. Enter SH 130. It’s supposed to be the road savior to get trucks off of I-35.
But trucks, a key target market for SH 130, won’t take it, says Hall. They’ve deemed it an unsafe speed for big rigs and driving such high speeds guzzles too much gas. Truck trade groups say the speed is too dangerous, and the American Trucking Association and the Governor’s Highway Safety Association have urged the Texas Transportation Commission to reverse its decision. But they won’t, says Hall.
“They’ve boxed themselves into this reckless speed, because even going 85 MPH, the tollway barely beats taking I-35, and in some scenarios, takes longer. If they lower the speed, they’ll never make a dime off that toll road.”
TxDOT has skin in the game contends TURF and TAG, since they have a revenue sharing agreement with Cintra.
“No matter how you slice it, their decisions are being made out of profit and greed, not the public interest. This agency has hopelessly lost its way -- to the point that its now endangering the lives of Texas motorists by making decisions based on financial incentives instead of for the public good,” Hall said with regret.
Contract guarantees Cintra won’t have competition
Not only is a private company’s interests trumping the public interest in regards to speed limits, but decisions about future roads, and where and when they should be built or expanded are being based on TxDOT’s contract with this private entity. The contract contains a non-compete clause that prohibits the construction and expansion of free routes surrounding Cintra’s tollway. (See Exhibit 17 here) The idea behind a non-compete is to protect the private developer’s investment. If the state builds a competing free road next to Cintra’s tollway, it won’t make any money. They have to ensure the free routes are slower and more congested or no one will be willing to pay $13 (one way) to take a toll road.
Last year, the Texas Transportation Commission also dual designated parts of free interstates I-410 and I-10 as SH 130 in order to drive more traffic to Cintra’s tollway. It’s a form of entrapment to deceive people into taking a route that starts as a freeway only to get them out in the middle of Seguin with no way north but Cintra’s tollway. It’s clear public road policy is being dictated by a private developer, not the best interest of Texans.
Cronyism in plain sight
The genesis of how Cintra got chosen as the developer of SH 130 smacks of cronyism. Cintra lobbyist, err ‘consultant,’ Dan Shelley, landed a job in Governor Rick Perry’s office in 2005 as Perry’s legislative aide where he secured Cintra the development rights to the Trans Texas Corridor, then went back to work for Cintra.
"Good 'ol boy Texas politics has struck again," said Heather Fazio, Executive Director of Texans for Accountable Government (TAG), an Austin-based watchdog group. "And, as always, it's the people who suffer from the revolving door of politicians, bureaucrats, and corporate big-wigs."
“Cintra’s involvement has been scurrilous from the beginning. They bought their way into Governor’s office and they not only snagged the development rights to the Trans Texas Corridor, they’ve been awarded every single public private partnership in Texas ever since (North Tarrant Express and LBJ, see here). With Perry, you name your price, and he’ll sell you Texas,” Hall noted in disgust.
Cintra’s chief public face in Texas, Spokesman Chris Lippincott, came straight from TxDOT, giving Cintra another inside advantage with the agency on the publicity front, too. The press coverage has largely been all positive, and it reads like a Cintra press release.
Taxpayers on the hook for plenty
Not only did a $430 million federal TIFIA loan fund the construction of the road, but also $210,000 in state taxpayer dollars have funded EnviroMedia’s marketing and publicity for Cintra’s tollway to convince Austinites and San Antonians that it’s worth paying $13 one way, and blowing through your tank of gas to bypass I-35 congestion between the two cities. Not to mention the mounds of free publicity it received from the eye-popping 85 MPH speed limit and being dubbed the fastest road in America.
Opposition already lurking...
But the road is being marketed to Lockhart area residents, too. Yet, the Lockhart City Council and Caldwell County Commissioners have asked for special toll discounts for Lockhart residents who commute into Austin as well as asked the Commission to restore the 65 MPH speed limit on US 183. Neither have happened.
There's another way the taxpayers are footing the bill for the losses, and that's reimbursing Cintra for the tolls of out-of-state and foreign drivers. TxDOT has no way to enforce the collection of tolls from out-of-state drivers or those from out of the country since SH 130 is completely electronic tolling. So if they don't pay, the taxpayers are on the hook for any loss in toll revenue to Cintra. By contrast, if Texans don't pay, TxDOT could yank your car registration until you do.
“What they call a ‘credit enhancement’ (the taxpayer-backed TIFIA loan), we call a rip-off. Taxpayer money is subsidizing this toll road for private profits. Once again, our politicians from the President and Rick Perry on down are socializing the losses and privatizing the profits. It’s not only corporate welfare, but crony capitalism and it stinks like the carcasses of the dead hogs slaughtered on SH 130,” declared Hall.
"Already struggling Texas taxpayers have been coaxed into subsidizing, and now advertising for, a toll road that will make Cintra millions," decried Fazio. "Working through the Legislature hasn't provided a remedy to this corporate plunder. Now it's time for Texans to influence public policy with what has proven to be the most powerful political tool, their money, and BOYCOTT SH 130!"