TxDOT violates law, forced to pull plug on 281 toll road

IMMEDIATE RELEASE

TxDOT caught violating the law, forced to pull plug on 281 toll road
TxDOT asks feds to pull clearance due to damaging evidence of rigged study and subsequent cover-up

San Antonio, TX, October 1, 2008 – Today, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) announced it is asking the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to withdraw its environmental clearance for the US 281 toll project in Bexar County. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit to halt the toll project and advance an overpass plan, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) and Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas (AGUA), believe TxDOT’s move is in response to an email they obtained from a TxDOT whistleblower showing a biologist at TxDOT hired her own husband to “fix” the environmental study for 281 in order to get federal clearance for tolling an existing freeway.

She did this at the direction of top management at TxDOT, like David Casteel, the former San Antonio District Engineer now promoted to a position as the right hand man to TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz in Austin. TURF recently uncovered even more damaging emails. In its recent motion to compel TxDOT to hand over other key documents, TxDOT was put on notice that TURF knew about this illegal behavior and were about to depose witnesses under oath about it. Rather than come clean, TxDOT is again trying to hide their wrongdoing blaming the halt on a “technicality” and procurement “irregularities.”

Law enforcement to step in?

“We need law enforcement to get inside TxDOT and confiscate all of these email records and shine the light on this corrupt organization. What we know is likely just the tip of the iceberg,” urged TURF Founder Terri Hall.

“Calling this ‘irregularities’ is their way of covering-up the fact that they broke the law to pre-determine the outcome of the environmental work on 281 (see page 3 of this document) and deliberately suppressed a study (read it here and here) that warned of the potential damage the aquifer. What TxDOT did is tantamount to fraud and collusion to break federal law. TxDOT has conducted itself illegally and shamefully, and you can bet we’ll take them to task for this and so must law enforcement and the Legislature,” insists Hall.

TxDOT’s Spin

TxDOT’s Jefferson Grimes, Deputy Director of the Government and Public Affairs Division of TxDOT sent out an email stating:

“This week, the Texas Department of Transportation requested that the Federal Highway Administration withdraw its Finding of No Significant Impact on the U.S. 281 project in Bexar County.

“TxDOT recently discovered possible irregularities in the procurement of a scientific services contract that was utilized in the preparation of the Environmental Assessment.  TxDOT is currently conducting an internal audit to establish relevant facts and will release the audit when it is complete.  Following the conclusion of the audit, TxDOT will take necessary corrective actions and will work to prevent similar issues from delaying future projects.”

Looking forward

TURF recently launched a new campaign to inform citizens about the 281 toll road debacle and the non-toll plan promised by TxDOT in public hearings in 2001 and paid for with gas taxes since 2003 called www.281OverpassesNow.com. TURF’s battle cry continues to be: “Give us the overpasses NOW! We don’t need toll taxes, just overpasses.”

Background on the litigation

On August 7, 2008, TxDOT asked a Bexar County federal district court for a 60 day delay in the TURF/AGUA 281 toll road lawsuit so they could beg the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) NOT to yank their environmental clearance for the US 281 toll project. Through the discovery process of the lawsuit, Judge Fred Biery required TxDOT to hand over the complete administrative record for US 281, including all the financials and the documents from when the improvements were funded with gas taxes that would keep US 281 a FREEway. It was discovered that TxDOT withheld key documents not only from the public and TURF attorneys, but also the FHWA!

There is an email record that shows TxDOT tried to “fix” the environmental work for US 281 to pre-determine a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (or FONSI) BEFORE the environmental study was even conducted.

“They rigged it! That is a DIRECT VIOLATION OF FEDERAL LAW,” says Hall.

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 Alamo Regional Mobility 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).

Then, it’s also been discovered that TxDOT purposely withheld a key study from a geologist they hired that stated the potential “severe” harmful effects of the toll road on the Edwards Aquifer. 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.

TxDOT submitted these documents to the feds who completely re-examined its previous approval of the US 281 toll road. It’s likely the feds were set to yank their environmental clearance for the toll road in light of this deception by TxDOT. As damage control, TxDOT beat them to it before the FHWA or the court did it for them. Of course, TxDOT and the RMA blame the citizens who brought TxDOT’s deception to light for killing the toll project instead of their own willful dishonesty.

“They were FORCED to come clean through a lawsuit brought by concerned citizens, not by them being forthcoming,” notes an outraged Hall.

TURF is seeking to have law enforcement get involved to prosecute the willful violation of federal law by TxDOT.

For more information on the TURF/AGUA US 281 lawsuit, go here and here.

More information on the history of the 281 freeway to tollway plan: www.281OverpassesNow.com

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7 Replies to “TxDOT violates law, forced to pull plug on 281 toll road”

  1. David R

    Terri,
    A great victory for the grass roots. The commuters who use Hwy 281 are indeed grateful.
    Given the arrogance of TXDOT, I’m sure they could see the writing on the wall by asking the Feds to pull the environmental clearance.
    If they really wish to clean things up, they’ll look carefully at Casteel and all of those folks inside TXDOT who were trying to rig this environmental study.
    Additionally, I hope the authorities investigate prosecutions if there were any criminal offenses involved !

  2. Lynn M

    The District Engineer decommissioned the funds for the improvements to 281. The buck should stop at the top not the bottom.

  3. terrih Post author

    It is our understanding those funds are programmed by the MPO not the District Engineer. Even so, the Legislature and MPO ultimately have oversight over how gas tax funds are programmed. In addition, the MPO already allocated $325 million in Texas Mobility Funds to build the toll road which can now be used to build the promised FREEway expansion and overpasses. With a $14 billion state surplus next year, there is NO EXCUSE not to get the gas tax plan for 281 built NOW!

    –Terri Hall

  4. Julie Munoz

    As a registered Republican I am appalled that Gov. Perry would support such action. The constant “borrowing” from our Social Security is what created such a mess in that arena. Our Texas teachers are not eligible to receive Social Security. Their checks are taxed directly into the teacher’s retirement fund and this fund should be considered sacrosanct and not be raped and pillaged to pay for toll roads. These “borrowed” funds somehow never get repaid and our teachers are public servants who provide a necessary and unselfish service to our communities. I fear we will not be able to continue to attract bright young people to this field if they fear for their retirement. Do we really want to telegraph this message to our teachers and those aspiring to become teachers? I thought we wanted to continue to attract the bright and committed people for this very important field of educating the future generations, not scare them away.
    I would like to state at this time that I am not a teacher and do not have a personal vested interest in the fund. However, as a citizen concerned with justice, I hate hearing about anyone’s retirement placed in jeopardy. With economic times so unsure, this is the last thing we need to do.

  5. Kevin

    Great job now i get to sit in traffic for 30 to 45 minutes twicw a day thanks a lot. The toll road would have been completed by now and cost a couple of dollars per day. But no now we have nothing Hope you are all happy idiots

  6. terrih Post author

    No, the plan that would have been done by now was the original gas tax funded freeway expansion plan that TxDOT promised in public hearings in 2001. No one needs to a pay an extra tax to get to work when the fix has already been paid for since 2003. Plus, compare the non-toll plan to the toll road and you see how the toll road is a taxpayer rip-off! The freeway plan = $170 million, 18 months to build; the toll road is $475 million to build + $864 million in interest = $1.3 billion and 3.8 years to build. The soonest the toll road would have built was nearly 4 years from this January 2009! The quickest, cheapest fix? The gas tax FREEway plan. See all the proof at http://www.281OverpassesNOW.com.

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