Counties hire PR firms to push road bond packages

Link to article here. Counties are following in TxDOT’s footsteps using taxpayer money to lobby, and now to push road bond packages on voters. Who’s going to hold them accountable? The taxpayers at the ballot box. TURF’s lawsuit to stop TxDOT’s illegal lobbying is pending appeal. It’s clear the establishment, the Legislature, the courts, and law enforcement will look the other way unless the PEOPLE themselves act to put a stop to abusive government.

Williamson County’s hiring of PR firm for controversial road project upsets some
County may pay as much as $1 million to firm helping with Texas 29 expansion.

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The hiring of a public relations firm by Williamson County commissioners has drawn the ire of some residents and a political hopeful, who say that the contract is a waste of taxpayer money and that the timing is suspicious in light of controversial plans for expanding Texas 29.

County officials contend otherwise, saying Martin & Salinas Public Affairs Inc. was hired in late March to create more openness and to get more information to residents about the county’s $228 million road bond package, approved by voters in 2006.

The commissioners voted to pay up to $1 million to the firm to handle seven or eight projects left over from the bond. The proposed expansion of Texas 29, a major east-west thoroughfare between Georgetown and Liberty Hill, was not explicitly part of the bond proposal approved by voters because the county was still studying the project. Texas 29 has since been added to the firm’s responsibilities, which angered the project’s critics.

Commissioners say the $1 million price tag is a ceiling amount and that the county probably won’t spend that much on the firm, which is expected to finish its work in the next 18 months. County Judge Dan A. Gattis said the county’s attempt at more openness may have backfired with the public, mainly because of the backlash over the $1 million cap.

“I don’t know what a good amount would be, but $1 million set off a lot of light bulbs or rockets in people’s minds,” Gattis said.

That was the case for J.T. Cox, who owns land south of Liberty Hill. Commissioners announced Sept. 3 that the Texas 29 expansion will run south of the city and current road, probably going through Cox’s land.

The proposed 19-mile expansion, though not final, would convert the four-lane road into 12 lanes. County officials said they hope to avoid congestion on Texas 29 similar to what’s already bogged down other roads in the county, such as RM 620 in Round Rock.

Cox and other residents say the expansion is not needed, and some fear it is part of a bigger effort to push a major toll road corridor through the western part of the county.

“If they can’t sell something on their own, why do they need to hire someone to do it for them?” Cox said about the firm and fears of a possible corridor. “Something is going on, and no one is being honest and truthful with us.”

Commissioners, engineers working for the county and officials with Austin-based Martin & Salinas say there are no plans to turn the expansion into a toll corridor. And last week, Commissioner Cynthia Long said construction on the expansion is still 20 to 25 years away.

“There’s a lot of anxiety, but I can tell you we’re not doing anything with regards to pushing toll roads. … We’ve not been asked by anybody” to push them, said Jed Buie, president of Martin & Salinas.

Since the firm was hired in March, it — along with other subcontractors hired by Martin & Salinas — has been paid almost $50,000 by the county.

Invoices obtained by the American-Statesman under the Texas Public Information Act show that Buie was paid $150 an hour to call residents concerned about the Texas 29 expansion, review a Web site that was created in opposition to the expansion and “discuss strategy” with engineers about an article that an American-Statesman reporter was writing on Texas 29.

Commissioners say the hiring was necessary because the job of issuing public notices, hosting town hall meetings about roads, developing Web sites and returning phone calls and e-mail from residents — among other things — is too much for the county’s one public information officer, Connie Watson, who earns $55,971 annually.

In Travis County, public outreach on road projects is done in-house with its 12 road staff workers, often with residents talking directly to the road engineer or project manager. Hays County has historically left public outreach on roads to the four commissioners and county judge. This year, however, it is using a consulting firm to distribute information about a $207 million road bond package that the county is putting before voters in November. The firm’s costs are estimated to be $65,000, said Hays County Judge Liz Sumter.

In Travis and Hays most of the projects have been county roads, not state roads as in Williamson County. State roads come with federal rules and more formal proceedings, which can increase the need for outside help, said Mike Weaver, a transportation consultant of Prime Strategies, who heads the county’s road bond projects.

“That’s an entirely different ball of wax,” said Joe Gieselman, executive manager of Travis County’s transportation and natural resources department. “It’s probably a good reason to (hire outside help), to make sure you do it right.”

Connie Watson, a spokeswoman for Williamson County, said that the county’s road department has 17 employees but that those employees do little work on bond projects. That work would require hiring more engineers, she said.

Gattis said having a single firm keeps residents from having to go to multiple places for information. He said the county considered hiring additional people to help Watson. But he said it didn’t make economic sense to pay three to four additional salaries (at roughly $50,000 and up) that would not be needed after the bond projects are complete.

“Then you’ve got to lay people off,” he said.

At the time the commissioners approved the $1 million cap, Gattis said the transaction seemed normal.

“I don’t remember keying on the $1 million,” he said.

Hiring a public relations firm to do outreach for county road projects is not unethical, said University of Texas law professor Daniel Rodriguez. He could not speak specifically on Williamson County’s situation, but he said in general any hired outside counsel — especially that of public relations firms — can raise red flags with constituents. Often the perception is that the firms are hired to push an agenda or plan that’s already been derived by municipalities or counties, he said.

“They sort of have this whiff of publicity and Madison Avenue and even spin control that we’d like to think our local officials de-emphasize” Rodriguez said. “When you’re in PR, you’re in the business of getting things past the public.”

Some of the Williamson County critics point to campaign donations from developers and engineers who have ties to toll roads as one of the reasons to worry. The county has had some controversial experiences with consultants, who were also political contributors.

For example, in 2002, a previous commissioners court hired a public relations consultant for a massive road bond project who had once worked pro bono on the campaigns of three commissioners and the county judge. The consultant, Amos “Pete” Peters, earned about $4,000 a month from the county’s bond budget and had previously helped lead a political action committee that promoted the same bond package.

It was later alleged in news reports based on a review of public records that Peters billed the county for meetings that never occurred. The Texas attorney general’s office investigated him, but a Williamson County grand jury did not indict him on charges of submitting false bills to the county.

County officials said at the time that his hiring was fair and that Peters was qualified for the work and did the work.

Peters said he is working for private public relations and graphic design clients in Texas and four other states.

Commissioners say contributions don’t sway their votes, nor did they influence the hiring of Martin & Salinas, which did public outreach in 2004 for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, an independent government agency that builds toll roads. (Don Martin, a partner at Martin & Salinas, donated $100 each to Gattis and Commissioner Ron Morrison.)

The situation is common in local politics, where groups that do business with the county are often the ones who donate to campaigns. Even so, some residents are worried.

Greg Windham, a Democrat running for county commissioner in November, has opposed the expansion of Texas 29 and the county’s hiring of Martin & Salinas, calling it a “propaganda initiative” and part of “backroom” deals.

“When you’re running a campaign, the scope of services are eerily similar to the scope of services being provided by Martin & Salinas,” he said. “The sad part of this is there are so many other pressing projects that could be addressed with this money they’re wasting.”

TURF launches new campaign: www.281OverpassesNow.com

IMMEDIATE RELEASE

TURF launches campaign demanding overpasses for 281 NOW

San Antonio, TX, Wednesday, September 10, 2008 – Citizens fed-up with delays to the fix on 281 have launched a new campaign to demand the gas tax funded fix to 281 be installed immediately, not a toll road. A new web site www.281OverpassesNow.com is chalk-full of documentation, videos, and data including a comparison of the “original” gas tax funded fix to 281 to the enormously expensive $1.3 billion dollar toll road plan.

“We don’t need a toll road, we need overpasses,” notes Terri Hall, TURF Founder. “The QUICKEST, most affordable, least invasive solution has been promised in public hearings since 2001 and funded with gas taxes since 2003. When they can fix 281 for $170 million and keep it a freeway instead of waste $1.3 billion and take nearly 4 years to make it a toll road few can afford, it borders on malfeasance to REFUSE to do the fiscally responsible solution IMMEDIATELY.”

After exhausting every other means to stop the toll road for three years, the citizens through TURF along with co-plaintiff’s Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, or AGUA, filed a lawsuit in February to stop the toll road in order to advance the gas tax freeway fix. On the day the lawsuit was filed, the two parties announced there is NO opposition to installing the promised and funded overpasses and expansion of 281 from either group.

In what amounts to a total victory for the grassroots, TxDOT had to ask the court for a 60-day delay in the 281 lawsuit to buy time to persuade the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) NOT to yank its environmental clearance for the 281 toll project. Through the discovery process of the TURF/AGUA lawsuit, it’s been discovered that TxDOT withheld key documents not only from the public and TURF attorneys, but also the feds!

TxDOT purposely withheld a key study from a geologist they hired that stated the potential long-term effects of the toll road on the Edwards Aquifer could be “severe.” Such a study didn’t conclude what TxDOT wanted it to in order to get clearance from the feds, so they intentionally hid the report and failed to submit it to the FHWA who uses that crucial information in their decision on whether or not to give federal approval for the project.

There is also an email that shows TxDOT tried to “fix” the environmental work for 281 to pre-determine a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (or FONSI) BEFORE the study even began. TxDOT then hired a company, HNTB, to do the so-called “independent” environmental study even though HNTB has a MAJOR conflict of interest, in that, the tolling authority (ARMA) also hired HNTB to do the preliminary engineering for all their toll projects! So HNTB had a vested interest in a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (or FONSI).

“TxDOT and the RMA blame us for the delay instead of their own incompetence and deception. As usual, they seem to think they can wiggle out of their corruption without consequences simply by supplementing the record. They were FORCED to come clean through a lawsuit brought by concerned citizens, not by them being forthcoming,” said Hall. “We will NOT tolerate willful deception nor politicians’ stubborn refusal to give taxpayers the most affordable fix to 281. Give us the overpasses on 281 NOW.”

###

Financial details on 281 toll road get released

Link to article here.

This traffic and revenue study conducted by the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA, the tolling authority), was withheld from the public, MPO Board members and legislators until our lawsuit to stop the 281 toll road. Now this information is being made public because a Judge ordered it. This same study was also criticized by the State Auditor for not including high gas prices in its analysis of the financial viability of the project.

The Auditor asked the study to be re-done. So Brechtel’s comments below are pure spin. The ARMA knew it needed this information since 2006 when citizens and previous toll studies warned gas prices at $3 a gallon threaten the financial sustainability of toll roads, and yet it conducted a study without analyzing it. For them to now act as if they called for a new study including gas price analysis on their own is a farce.

U.S. 281 tollway is seen as a road to $2.1 billion
By Patrick Driscoll
Express-News
08/29/2008
At 17 cents a mile, and rising steadily each year, the tolls for driving on U.S. 281 will add up fast.

Motorists could pay $2.1 billion over 37 years to use the 8-mile stretch of tolled express lanes expected to open by 2012, according to a recent traffic and revenue report needed to sell bonds for the project.

That averages almost $57 million a year, an eighth of the $472 million needed upfront to design, buy land and rebuild U.S. 281 into a tollway with non-toll frontage roads.

Bottom line, according to Moody’s Investors Service, the project is a sound investment for bond buyers, Alamo Regional Mobility Authority Director Terry Brechtel said.

“It’s conservative,” she said. “So we feel good about it.”

The money would trickle in at first, with toll lanes fetching just $8 million the first year, says the report by consultant URS. But as waves of people and jobs migrate north of Loop 1604 and traffic increasingly chokes area roads, drivers will warm to the idea of paying to double their speeds, analysts predict.

Toll traffic could swell five times over by 2048, when about $1.3 billion in bonds, loans and interest would be paid off. Also, the 17-cent-per-mile fee should rise to about 48 cents by then, while trucks would be paying almost triple the rate.

By the time today’s teens get around to eyeing retirement four decades from now, the U.S. 281 tollway might be on track to rake in $120 million a year.

Startup and debt costs aren’t the only outlays needed.

Expenses to collect tolls and pay staff would eat 18 percent, or $427 million, of revenues, a recent HNTB Corp. engineering report says. Maintenance would add another $170 million.

The biggest risks to money flows would be a major slowdown in population growth, which feeds traffic congestion, or political backlash that reigns in annual toll-rate increases, the URS report says.

If San Antonio’s population and job growth falls 14 percent below forecasts — which, to be safe, URS set lower than 1990s trends — the toll road could lose more than a fourth of earnings. A recession stopping growth along the corridor for five years could slice revenues more than a tenth.

Robust growth and perpetually escalating toll rates are much of what activists fear.

A pending federal lawsuit challenges a state environmental study for not seriously considering how the toll road would spur growth over recharge areas of the Edwards Aquifer or financially harm residents.

Yet, the URS report confirms that healthy traffic and revenues rely on such growth, said Bill Bunch of Save Our Springs Alliance, which is representing two area groups.

“If you are projecting decades of substantial traffic growth along U.S. 281 and then taking on debt based on those projections, then you are basically betting in favor of polluting the aquifer and paving the Hill Country,” he said.

Another looming concern involves record-high gas prices, which the URS report doesn’t specifically address.

Most experts agree that global oil production is peaking now or will in a few decades, and that the age of cheap energy is over. But how adjustments play out with alternatives, including public transit and fuel-efficient cars, is less certain.

After seeing the URS report, Brechtel requested a close look at gas-price impacts.

“I said, ‘Thank you very much, I want a specific gas-price analysis,’” she said.

With high gas prices pushing Americans to drive less this year, most U.S. toll roads lost 2 percent to 10 percent of traffic, Fitch Ratings said in a report last week. Texas losses are under 5 percent.

The trouble could last one or two years, Fitch said. If pressures continue, and policymakers start funneling more money to transit and more people begin shunning suburbs to live in urban cores, toll roads will face even bigger problems.

“The question is whether the current trend will continue for a longer period,” the report states.

Judge says TxDOT withheld “numerous” documents from the feds

Link to article here.

New documents cause delay in U.S. 281 tollway lawsuit
By Pat Driscoll
Express-News
August 21, 2008

A judge on Wednesday granted a 60-day delay on the U.S. 281 tollway lawsuit so federal officials can review recently discovered documents from a state environmental study.

The documents, called “a small addition” by the Texas Department of Transportation but “numerous” by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery, could alter the Federal Highway Administration’s environmental clearance for the eight-mile toll road.

Toll critics and environmentalists filed the lawsuit in February to challenge the environmental study’s thoroughness.

“TxDOT has discovered numerous documents containing potential evidence which, to its credit, says should be reviewed,” Biery said in a four-page order.

The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, which took over the U.S. 281 toll project from TxDOT, promised not to start construction during the break, the order says.

Biery also noted that court battles take time. Thirty-plus years ago, the U.S. 281 project now known as McAllister Freeway was locked in litigation for 14 years and many contracts were delayed.

“The court presumes counsel and the parties will continue to use best efforts to proceed efficiently and professionally,” the order says. “Like good wine, the court will make no opinion before its time.”

The delay, effective Aug. 7, will end in October.

Judge says TxDOT withheld "numerous" documents from the feds

Link to article here.

New documents cause delay in U.S. 281 tollway lawsuit
By Pat Driscoll
Express-News
August 21, 2008

A judge on Wednesday granted a 60-day delay on the U.S. 281 tollway lawsuit so federal officials can review recently discovered documents from a state environmental study.

The documents, called “a small addition” by the Texas Department of Transportation but “numerous” by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery, could alter the Federal Highway Administration’s environmental clearance for the eight-mile toll road.

Toll critics and environmentalists filed the lawsuit in February to challenge the environmental study’s thoroughness.

“TxDOT has discovered numerous documents containing potential evidence which, to its credit, says should be reviewed,” Biery said in a four-page order.

The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, which took over the U.S. 281 toll project from TxDOT, promised not to start construction during the break, the order says.

Biery also noted that court battles take time. Thirty-plus years ago, the U.S. 281 project now known as McAllister Freeway was locked in litigation for 14 years and many contracts were delayed.

“The court presumes counsel and the parties will continue to use best efforts to proceed efficiently and professionally,” the order says. “Like good wine, the court will make no opinion before its time.”

The delay, effective Aug. 7, will end in October.

TxDOT’s rigged environmental study on 281 failed to include aquifer authority

Link to article here.
Did aquifer authority weigh in on toll-road study?
By Pat Driscoll
Express-News
August 14, 2008

One bone of contention with the U.S. 281 tollway’s environmental study has to do with whether officials “involved” and worked in “consultation” with an aquifer authority, as required by regulations.

281.illustration.2.jpg
Illustration of U.S. 281 tollway from Alamo Regional Mobility Authority slide show.

Critics filed a federal lawsuit in February to challenge the thoroughness of the study, which says doubling U.S. 281’s width for eight miles would not cause significant impacts.

The study’s conclusion is ridiculous, they say, especially since the highway traverses Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributory zones.

Toll advocates say the lawsuit is frivolous and will just delay a long-needed project.

Here’s some stuff plaintiff attorneys dug up:

These pages from the study say the Texas Department of Transportation sent letters to stakeholder agencies, including the Edwards Aquifer Authority, in February 2006 to solicit input:

Download file

The Edwards Aquifer Authority, responding to an open records request, said two months ago it has no record of the TxDOT letter or any other written request since December 2005 concerning U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 widening projects:

Download file

But there’s this record of a 25-minute telephone conversation between a TxDOT consultant and the authority:

Download file

“It’s ridiculous, in our opinion, to say that that’s agency coordination,” plaintiff attorney Andrew Hawkins said in an e-mail. “It’s not a meeting, it’s not a request for EAA to participate and give input on the project — it’s a consultant yanking info out of EAA staff to plug into the consultant’s report.”

More on the lawsuit:

Lawsuit uncovers holes in U.S. 281 tollway study
State responds to U.S. 281 tollway lawsuit
Toll agency will try to step around lawsuit
For your eyes — U.S. 281 tollway lawsuit
Lawsuit eyed to stop U.S. 281 tollway

TxDOT's rigged environmental study on 281 failed to include aquifer authority

Link to article here.
Did aquifer authority weigh in on toll-road study?
By Pat Driscoll
Express-News
August 14, 2008

One bone of contention with the U.S. 281 tollway’s environmental study has to do with whether officials “involved” and worked in “consultation” with an aquifer authority, as required by regulations.

281.illustration.2.jpg
Illustration of U.S. 281 tollway from Alamo Regional Mobility Authority slide show.

Critics filed a federal lawsuit in February to challenge the thoroughness of the study, which says doubling U.S. 281’s width for eight miles would not cause significant impacts.

The study’s conclusion is ridiculous, they say, especially since the highway traverses Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributory zones.

Toll advocates say the lawsuit is frivolous and will just delay a long-needed project.

Here’s some stuff plaintiff attorneys dug up:

These pages from the study say the Texas Department of Transportation sent letters to stakeholder agencies, including the Edwards Aquifer Authority, in February 2006 to solicit input:

Download file

The Edwards Aquifer Authority, responding to an open records request, said two months ago it has no record of the TxDOT letter or any other written request since December 2005 concerning U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 widening projects:

Download file

But there’s this record of a 25-minute telephone conversation between a TxDOT consultant and the authority:

Download file

“It’s ridiculous, in our opinion, to say that that’s agency coordination,” plaintiff attorney Andrew Hawkins said in an e-mail. “It’s not a meeting, it’s not a request for EAA to participate and give input on the project — it’s a consultant yanking info out of EAA staff to plug into the consultant’s report.”

More on the lawsuit:

Lawsuit uncovers holes in U.S. 281 tollway study
State responds to U.S. 281 tollway lawsuit
Toll agency will try to step around lawsuit
For your eyes — U.S. 281 tollway lawsuit
Lawsuit eyed to stop U.S. 281 tollway

Guerra: TxDOT didn’t coordinate with Aquifer Authority on 281 toll road

Link to article here. What’s so damaging about this revelation is that the feds gave a “Finding of No Significant Impact” on this project over the Edwards Aquifer (extremely environmentally sensitive area and the sole source of drinking water for nearly 2 million people)when TxDOT didn’t even solicit comment from or coordinate this massive project with the Edwards Aquifer Authority!

The email correspondence showing that the management of TxDOT pre-determined the outcome of “no significant impact” along with the fact that they didn’t bother to coordinate with the AQUIFER AUTHORITY on potential impacts to the aquifer (when they state in their study that they had) proves a fraudulent study was submitted to the feds. TxDOT just can’t seem to play by the rules. They have to deceive and rig the results in order to railroad their agenda. Well, the light of day is now shining on these ill-conceived toll plans, and the citizens are seeking justice.

NOTE: AGUA and People for Efficient Transportation (PET, Inc.) filed the lawsuit in 2005. TURF and AGUA filed the current lawsuit in February this year.

TxDOT documents not reassuring about toll-road concerns
By Carlos Guerra
Express-News Columnist
August 9, 2008

Long faulted for its arrogance, the Texas Department of Transportation also is under fire for embracing toll roads.

They are forced to because gas taxes can’t meet growing highway needs, TxDOT officials say. So they will finance a lot of new highway lanes by tolling new and existing roads, and by handing some publicly owned right-of-way to private toll-road builders and operators in exchange for letting them collect tolls for decades.

TxDOT and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority plan to pay for a huge expansion project by tolling 70 miles of U.S. 281, Loop 1604 and other area highways.

“It’s a massive, multibillion-dollar project over the most sensitive parts of the (Edwards Aquifer) recharge zone,” says Bill Bunch, an attorney who, along with Andrew Hawkins, represents Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.

Construction on the 281-1604 project — which will be 19 lanes wide in parts — started in late 2005, and within weeks, a contractor ruptured a sewer main, spilling raw sewage for three weeks before it was fixed.

The two groups sued TxDOT and the regional mobility authority over their environmental assessment — required by the National Environmental Policy Act to get federal funds — which the groups say is flawed and grossly insufficient.

And they sued the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for approving TxDOT’s environmental assessment and demanded a more extensive environmental impact statement (EIS) before irreparable harm is done to the aquifer.

The massive highways will traverse numerous recharge features and a lot of the Edwards’ contributing zone. That notwithstanding, TxDOT’s environmental assessment included a “finding of no significant impact,” which in bureaucratize is written: “FONSI.”

Bunch and Hawkins pressed their case, and just before it went to court, TxDOT and the RMA raised the white flag and the federal agency “disapproved” TxDOT’s environmental assessment, forcing the state agency and the RMA to conduct the much more extensive EIS.

In the conduct of legal discovery, the attorneys recently uncovered some apparently damning documents.

In TxDOT’s environmental assessment, the agency asserts that it “coordinated with” and “solicited comments and input regarding the proposed action and potential issues that should be considered during the development of the environmental assessment” from a number of agencies, one of which was the Edward Aquifer Authority.

“Hogwash,” says Hawkins. “We scoured everything in (TxDOT’s) administrative record and found no letter asking for comment or coordination.”

In fact, all they found was a “Record of Conversation” of a 25-minute phone call made by a TxDOT contractor to an aquifer authority staffer asking for technical info. That isn’t exactly “comment and coordination.”

But to be on the safe side, the attorneys checked with the aquifer authority for any correspondence whatsoever from TxDOT from December 2005 to the present concerning the planned toll roads on U.S. 281 and Loop 1604. “And they wrote us back saying we have nothing, no e-mail, no correspondence. Nothing,” Bunch says.

The lawyers did find two e-mails from a TxDOT geologist and a biologist that raise questions about the impartiality of their science.

In one to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the biologist wrote: “At the moment we are trying to get a FONSI from the FHWA by September.”

And the geologist wrote a colleague at TxDOT saying that he was “unclear on … the extent to which we need to study (the) 1604 corridor,” before adding, “plus I know mgmt want to get (the) FONSI on 1604 right after 281 so we really need to get working on both.”

Guerra: TxDOT didn't coordinate with Aquifer Authority on 281 toll road

Link to article here. What’s so damaging about this revelation is that the feds gave a “Finding of No Significant Impact” on this project over the Edwards Aquifer (extremely environmentally sensitive area and the sole source of drinking water for nearly 2 million people)when TxDOT didn’t even solicit comment from or coordinate this massive project with the Edwards Aquifer Authority!

The email correspondence showing that the management of TxDOT pre-determined the outcome of “no significant impact” along with the fact that they didn’t bother to coordinate with the AQUIFER AUTHORITY on potential impacts to the aquifer (when they state in their study that they had) proves a fraudulent study was submitted to the feds. TxDOT just can’t seem to play by the rules. They have to deceive and rig the results in order to railroad their agenda. Well, the light of day is now shining on these ill-conceived toll plans, and the citizens are seeking justice.

NOTE: AGUA and People for Efficient Transportation (PET, Inc.) filed the lawsuit in 2005. TURF and AGUA filed the current lawsuit in February this year.

TxDOT documents not reassuring about toll-road concerns
By Carlos Guerra
Express-News Columnist
August 9, 2008

Long faulted for its arrogance, the Texas Department of Transportation also is under fire for embracing toll roads.

They are forced to because gas taxes can’t meet growing highway needs, TxDOT officials say. So they will finance a lot of new highway lanes by tolling new and existing roads, and by handing some publicly owned right-of-way to private toll-road builders and operators in exchange for letting them collect tolls for decades.

TxDOT and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority plan to pay for a huge expansion project by tolling 70 miles of U.S. 281, Loop 1604 and other area highways.

“It’s a massive, multibillion-dollar project over the most sensitive parts of the (Edwards Aquifer) recharge zone,” says Bill Bunch, an attorney who, along with Andrew Hawkins, represents Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.

Construction on the 281-1604 project — which will be 19 lanes wide in parts — started in late 2005, and within weeks, a contractor ruptured a sewer main, spilling raw sewage for three weeks before it was fixed.

The two groups sued TxDOT and the regional mobility authority over their environmental assessment — required by the National Environmental Policy Act to get federal funds — which the groups say is flawed and grossly insufficient.

And they sued the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for approving TxDOT’s environmental assessment and demanded a more extensive environmental impact statement (EIS) before irreparable harm is done to the aquifer.

The massive highways will traverse numerous recharge features and a lot of the Edwards’ contributing zone. That notwithstanding, TxDOT’s environmental assessment included a “finding of no significant impact,” which in bureaucratize is written: “FONSI.”

Bunch and Hawkins pressed their case, and just before it went to court, TxDOT and the RMA raised the white flag and the federal agency “disapproved” TxDOT’s environmental assessment, forcing the state agency and the RMA to conduct the much more extensive EIS.

In the conduct of legal discovery, the attorneys recently uncovered some apparently damning documents.

In TxDOT’s environmental assessment, the agency asserts that it “coordinated with” and “solicited comments and input regarding the proposed action and potential issues that should be considered during the development of the environmental assessment” from a number of agencies, one of which was the Edward Aquifer Authority.

“Hogwash,” says Hawkins. “We scoured everything in (TxDOT’s) administrative record and found no letter asking for comment or coordination.”

In fact, all they found was a “Record of Conversation” of a 25-minute phone call made by a TxDOT contractor to an aquifer authority staffer asking for technical info. That isn’t exactly “comment and coordination.”

But to be on the safe side, the attorneys checked with the aquifer authority for any correspondence whatsoever from TxDOT from December 2005 to the present concerning the planned toll roads on U.S. 281 and Loop 1604. “And they wrote us back saying we have nothing, no e-mail, no correspondence. Nothing,” Bunch says.

The lawyers did find two e-mails from a TxDOT geologist and a biologist that raise questions about the impartiality of their science.

In one to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the biologist wrote: “At the moment we are trying to get a FONSI from the FHWA by September.”

And the geologist wrote a colleague at TxDOT saying that he was “unclear on … the extent to which we need to study (the) 1604 corridor,” before adding, “plus I know mgmt want to get (the) FONSI on 1604 right after 281 so we really need to get working on both.”

TxDOT caught in deception, hid docs from the feds that prove violation of the law

Link to article here. This violation of federal law is much more than a “snag,” it blows a hole right through the 281 toll project. TxDOT was caught in willful deception, so this story is the understatement of the year!

Planned U.S. 281 tollway hits another bump
By Pat Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
August 7, 2008
A federal lawsuit blasted as frivolous has dug up some documents that throw yet another curve at San Antonio’s planned U.S. 281 tollway.

The documents were uncovered in a discovery process for the lawsuit, which challenges the thoroughness of the tollway project’s environmental study.

The Texas Department of Transportation, which did the study, won’t say what the documents are but is handing them over to the Federal Highway Administration, which approved the study last year.

“We wanted to take the cautious advice of the attorneys and give the FHWA another opportunity to review this project,” TxDOT Director Amadeo Saenz said in a statement.

TxDOT asked the court’s judge to delay the lawsuit for two months to give federal officials time to review the documents and decide whether to amend the environmental study or reconsider approval. Pulling the clearance would delay the toll project even more.

Widening eight miles of U.S. 281 north of Loop 1604 has been on hold for years, first as TxDOT waited to build it as a freeway and then converted to a tollway plan, and then after activists filed a 2005 lawsuit to force a redo of the environmental study.

The more recent lawsuit, filed in February by Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom and Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, is similar to the 2005 suit in that it calls for a closer look at impacts to motorists, water and wildlife.

One of the documents missing from the latest environmental study is a report on how the 10- to 20-lane tollway could affect the Edwards Aquifer, which supplies most of San Antonio’s drinking water, said TURF founder Terri Hall.

“They have withheld information from the Federal Highway Administration that could blow a hole in the middle of the 281 project,” she said.

The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, which took over the $472 million toll project from TxDOT, hoped to sell bonds in October and planned to start opening new lanes in three years, now must push its schedule back at least two months.