VICTORY: Grassroots KILL private toll bill…

IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Terri Hall, (210) 275-0640

 

Defeat of private toll road bill affirms Abbott’s pledge to voters 
Promise to fix roads without new tolls or debt gets bipartisan support

(Austin, TX – Friday, May 5, 2017) Texas taxpayers can breathe a sigh of relief tonight as a bipartisan effort to defeat expansion of private toll roads in Texas went down in flames by a vote of 79-51 in the Texas House. Taxpayer champions Rep. Jeff Leach (R – Plano), Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R – Bedford), and Rep. Joe Pickett (D – El Paso) led the floor fight, noting 90% of Democrats and 95% of Republicans oppose new toll roads in Texas, and both party platforms oppose privatized toll roads in particular. Governor Greg Abbott promised to fix Texas roads without new tolls or debt, and the Texas House delivered on that promise today by killing Rep. Larry Phillips HB 2861.

Pickett and Stickland made impassioned speeches opposing the bill. Leach emphasized both party platforms oppose this type of toll project and that the voters just gave the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) $5 billion a year in new funding by passing Proposition 1 and Proposition 7.

He asked the bill’s author, “Why do we need this bill now?”

Then Leach directly asked Pickett whether or not the House needed to pass HB 2861 to get the projects done, and he answered with a firm, ‘No.’

Stickland bluntly argued the reason why he’s now serving in the House is because his predecessor Todd Smith voted to turn 183 and 121 into toll roads that devastated his community. He intimated that voters took out their vengeance by electing a new representative.

“My constituents hate it,” asserted Stickland, referring to the privatized toll roads that run through Ft. Worth that are locked into 50 year contracts operated by Spain-based Cintra.

Pickett sounded the alarm about the need to draw a line in the sand, “If we don’t stop it now, it’s never going to stop.”

He warned that passage of HB 2861 would dig the debt-toll road sinkhole even deeper and told his colleagues that Prop 1 and Prop 7 expire, and they’re going to have to address the debt problem very soon. He also shared frustration that neither he nor the public has any idea where all this toll revenue is going. It lacks transparency and gets eaten up by the toll road bureaucracies, or in this case, the private entities the public cannot hold accountable.

“This is so people can make money,” contended Pickett.

Terri Hall, Founder and Director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Reform (TURF) and Texans for Toll-free Highways hailed the defeat of HB 2861, “A bipartisan coalition swept the Rick Perry-era of toll roads aside, and today we officially started the Abbott era that firmly opposes new toll roads, especially privatized toll roads that give an exclusive right to a single company to extract the highest possible toll from the traveling public for a half century at a time.”

JoAnn Fleming, Executive Director of Grassroots America – We the People agrees, “A broad coalition of groups across Texas made it clear that they would not tolerate the expansion of private toll roads and the corporate welfare they represent to continue to spread like a cancer across the Lone Star State. We applaud the work of our champions in the House and thank the Governor for his leadership in firmly setting a new course away from debt and toll roads and moving forward with a new fiscally responsible, sustainable future.”

Roads in HB 2861:
– I-35 in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio
– I-45 in Houston
– Hwy 290 (Hempstead Tollway) Houston
– I-30 in Ft. Worth
– I-635 E in Dallas
– Loop 1604 in San Antonio
– 290 W in Austin (from MoPac to Oak Hill)
– South MoPac in Austin
– South Padre Island Second Access Causeway
– International Bridge Corridor Project
– Hidalgo County Loop project
– FM 1925 in Cameron & Hidalgo Counties
– Hwy 83 Hidalgo County
– Hwy 68 in Hidalgo County
– Outer Pkwy in Cameron County
– Loop 49 in Tyler (two projects)

Hall concludes, “Special interests continue to push these ‘innovative’ financing schemes despite the public opposition because private toll contracts and design-build procurements drive up the cost to build, putting more money into the pockets of road builders at great expense to Texas taxpayers. Our elected representatives just said, ‘No more.’ You’re not going to gouge our citizens just to get to work.”

See article: HB 2861 Record Vote

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Secret agreement handed private toll firm control of public roads

How sad that this happened just days before we celebrate Texas Indepenence Day, March 2.

City hands control over public roads to private firm
By Terri Hall
March 1, 2017

In a stunning betrayal of open government, the Cibolo City Council voted 6-0 to approve a 50 year development agreement with Texas Turnpike Corporation (TTC) granting it the exclusive right to build, operate and maintain what’s been dubbed the Cibolo Parkway — a tollway linking I-35 to I-10 through mostly rural farmland northeast of San Antonio. The agreement was negotiated behind closed doors and was kept secret from the public until it was approved last night.

Even worse, the city council gave TTC the rights to develop a project the taxpayers have already paid for, the expansion of FM 1103, the city’s primary connection to I-35. By doing so, they’ve granted a private corporation a virtual monopoly over the existing non-toll competitor to its private toll road. TTC can intentionally slow down the free option to force more cars onto its for-profit toll road by manipulating speed limits, access points, and stop lights. It’s a developer’s dream and a commuter’s worst nightmare.

The city tried to reassure residents there is no non-compete clause, prohibiting or penalizing the city from building any competing free roads. The agreement may still bind the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the county from expanding free roads. But who knows since no member of the public could see it before the council voted on it? So while the city touts it’s protected taxpayers from a non-compete provision, it handed TTC control of the adjacent competing free lanes of FM 1103, achieving a form of a non-compete out the gate.

The agreement offers no way out for the city, except an eventual buy out opportunity after the road gets built. But those buy out agreements are just as thorny as these complex development contracts. Most private toll road developers require the public entity to pay them for any future loss in toll revenue, often making it more expensive to buy them out than the original cost to build it.

One has to wonder how any elected official could green light approval of a project before a toll feasibility study has been performed, the environmental review complete, or final route selected. It’s worse than putting the cart before the horse, it’s putting special interests above the public interest. The company insisted on having an irrevocable agreement in place with the city before it invested $10-$12 million for the feasibility study. Nice work if you can get it, but what about the taxpayer?

No formal public hearings were hosted by TxDOT to notify residents of the proposed project, so unless you happen to look at the city council agenda every two weeks, a resident had no way of knowing what just happened, much less have the ability to stop it since the majority of it was done behind closed doors with a private entity.

Throwing landowners under the bus
Cibolo has become a bedroom community of San Antonio, but before homes stacked the landscape, Cibolo’s roots were decidedly agricultural with farming and ranching dating back to Texas’ days as a republic. The mayor and council weren’t afraid to show their intentions when public discussion about this possible private toll road began to surface last year. Their primary interest is in economic development, which is code for flipping farmland into a commercial tax base. The city acted so desperate for new economic development, it signaled to TTC that it would sell out its current residents for the promise of a higher tax base from its new ones.

The southern boundary of the city that was most recently annexed occurred over the objection of many landowners. Now their worst fears have been realized as a private developer who cozied up to the mayor and council got himself an iron clad contract to mow them over and change their way of life. Roads are disruptive to the native landscape and often split farms in half. Many will not be able to continue farming or even have the ability to access the other side of their property without an overpass (built at the developer’s expense, which isn’t going to happen in most cases). That’s the city’s intent – to drive out the farmers and welcome in big box stores generating lots of sales tax for it to spend. New residents, more traffic, and, they hope, more riders for the toll road.

Eminent domain for private gain
The city has agreed to use eminent domain to take land from its residents and confer it to a private entity for private gain, not for a legitimate public use. While the road is open to the public (so is a mall or restaurant) if they pay a toll, this arrangement is for a private toll road whose corporation will use the city’s police force to become its private toll collector and speed enforcer.

John Crew Public WerksWhile the politicians argued eminent domain would only be used as a last resort, that’s the club TTC’s CEO John Crew needs to get landowners to sign over their land in negotiated settlements. We’ve seen it used prolifically — sign on the dotted line for the amount we’re offering or we’ll take it with eminent domain and pay you even less.

Numbers don’t add up
In town of just 25,000 residents, it’s hard to conceive of how any toll road could be profitable. The city must be banking on literally hundreds of thousands of new residents to make the numbers work. Cities with populations over a million and lots of urban congestion have toll roads that can’t pay for themselves. It just doesn’t add up that this little city will provide enough users to pay back $125 million plus interest, plus profit over 50 years. No elected official has any control over the eventual toll rates that will be charged. So there is no cap or limit. While the consultants tried to say the free market would keep rates in check, roads by their very nature are a monopoly. Just ask the residents in Ft. Worth and Dallas who are paying a private Spanish firm in excess of $20/day in tolls to get to work if they think that’s market rate or reasonable.

But numbers and data don’t matter. The city council seems to think they’re getting something for nothing — even if the toll road goes bankrupt, they get it back at a fire sale price. But the private company knows how to make money even when a toll road goes bankrupt. They put in very little of their own money and borrow the rest. The developer makes their money on the front end so that when it goes south, it’s the bond holders who are at risk, not the developer. If the road goes into bankruptcy, the road will remain operational, but control then gets handed to the bond investors in bankruptcy court where a bunch of the debt gets written down and off the books and the investors hire another operator, starting the process all over again. Control does not revert back to the public or the city. Only if the city exercises its buy out option would the residents get it back under public control.

Taxpayer money in play
The city manager and its lawyers bragged the city had no financial risk in the deal, yet, ironically, the city had to hire extra legal and engineering consultants to review the agreement, which is, of course, at taxpayer expense. There’s more to come since next up is negotiating the formal operating agreement. Policing of this private toll road will also be done by city police. While the developer is supposedly responsible for paying to hire the extra personnel, who is responsible for those public employees’ pensions, benefits, etc.? I’d bet money it’s the taxpayers. Who will collect the tolls and what enforcement does the private company have access to? If it’s anything like the SH 130 tollway, TxDOT does the toll collection and state law allows a user’s vehicle registration to be blocked for failure to play tolls, even when it’s for a private toll road.

The city, like TxDOT, loves to claim the road and right of way is still technically owned by the city and hence the public, but that’s only so the private toll company can use the public’s policing and enforcement powers for its for-profit toll enterprises. For tax purposes, these corporations show ownership and depreciate it like an asset.

Then there’s the tax money it would take to buy out the private developer at some point in the future. No matter how you slice it, Cibolo residents just got sold out by their elected officials. They’ve lost control of FM 1103, the ability to determine the toll rates, the route, the exits, the overpasses, the toll collection procedures, and a whole bunch more. Taxpayers will be paying for extra consultants and legal haggling for the foreseeable future. Accountability at the ballot box will now be your only recourse. Sadly, there are no remaining pain-free options.

Note to Trump: Key states tossed pro-toll incumbents

Link to article here.

Trump take heed: Toll roads a factor in Florida, North Carolina, and Texas election
By Terri Hall
November 9, 2016
Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research

With the historic election of Donald Trump to the American Presidency, it signals a total repudiation of the political establishment by the working class. You could call it the election of the American worker. But analysts would be remiss if they failed to overlook how toll roads played a part in several races in key states.

One of the most notable races is for governor in North Carolina — must-win state for Trump that went red. Yet, Republican Governor Pat McCrory is in a nail biter photo finish to retain his seat in a state that went Republican last night. The very real threat by Democrat Roy Cooper who claimed victory Wednesday morning, though most still believe the race too close to call, is in part due to McCrory losing support among his base thanks to his approval of the controversial public private partnership (P3) toll project on Interstate-77 in Charlotte.

Citizens lost their battle in the courts and the legislature to stop the state from handing the public’s vital interstate over to the control of a private, foreign corporation in a 50-year deal.

Then, the focus turned to Governor McCrory to cancel the contract. Cooper, the current Attorney General, said in the Charlotte Business Journal in August that McCrory would have “to admit now that he cut a bad deal for North Carolina. He should stop stalling and cancel this contract that never should have been signed to begin with.” McCrory didn’t budge to his own peril.

In Florida, another must-win state that went red for Trump, former House Transportation Committee Chairman, Congressman John Mica lost his seat to newcomer Stephanie Murphy. While some blame his defeat on redistricting bringing in more minority voters to his suburban district, Mica lost touch with his base due in part to his longstanding support for toll roads, particularly P3s. Mica brought tolls to I-4 using congestion pricing, forcing drivers to pay a premium to drive during peak hours. The hidden tax hurts suburbanites harder than urban dwellers since they experience longer commutes and pay more in tolls. He failed to stop the toll bloodletting when taxpayers revolted. So the untold story in this race is about the rise of the middle class worker struggling to make ends meet amidst stagnant wages, staggering health premiums, and ever growing taxes.

In Texas, a state without which no Republican can win the White House, Dallas State Representative Kenneth Sheets also became tone deaf to his conservative base on toll roads. The Dallas-Ft.Worth metroplex is ground zero for toll managed lane projects and soon will boast the largest managed lane network in the country. Taxpayers are none too happy. Though Sheets didn’t go all-in for tolling, he cozied up to the establishment, played footsy with too many controversial bills, scored poorly on legislative report cards, and lost his base. As a result, Sheets lost his seat to Democrat Victoria Neave, who said tolls are a hidden tax and should not advance without local support.

Now back to Mr. Trump. Days before the election, Trump announced his plan to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure without raising taxes by harnessing the private sector. Voters in these key states know that’s code for P3s and toll roads. They’re not fooled into thinking tolls are not a tax. Their pocketbooks have already been sufficiently raided enough to know the dangers of handing the sovereignty over our public roads to private for-profit companies who are given a blank check to charge punitive tolls during congested periods.

Trump’s anti-free trade message resonated because it hurt the American worker. Tolls likewise, hurt the American working class — and hard. Considering these three must-win states for a Republican president just tossed incumbents over toll projects, voters trust Mr. Trump will read the tea leaves and advance a transportation vision and policy that’s pro-freedom, pro-taxpayer, and pro-worker. Voters need to watch closely who he appoints as Transportation Secretary.

Former governors like Rick Perry made road privatization and tolls the centerpiece of his transportation policy for 14 years, and he’s vying for a position in the new Trump administration. Perry would be a disastrous choice considering Texans just elected a new Governor Greg Abbott who campaigned against toll roads and has made a marked departure from privatization. Americans expect Trump to surround himself with like-minded advisers who will set a course consistent with his campaign message. Millions will be watching and waiting.