Auto dealers bolt on Biden mandate for EVs

Link to article here.

Biden’s EV Plan Faces Opposition From Thousands of Car Dealers

An open letter was signed by more than 3,800 dealerships across the country.

By Jack Phillips
Epoch Times
November 28, 2023

Several thousand car dealership owners around the United States have signed an open letter to the Biden administration, saying they oppose the aggressive push for electric vehicles, in another sign of growing concerns about the market for EVs.

Since taking office, President Joe Biden has signed a number of executive orders to boost the sales of EVs amid proposed changes that seek to reduce the number of cars that produce emissions by 2032. In 2021, the president outlined a plan that seeks to have 50 percent of new vehicles be either plug-in hybrids or fully electric by 2030.
But in an open letter published on Nov. 28, more than 3,800 auto dealers wrote that EV demand isn’t sufficient, even as the dealers said they believe that EVs “are ideal for many people” and that “their appeal will grow over time.”

“The reality, however, is that electric vehicle demand today is not keeping up with the large influx of BEVs [battery electric vehicles] arriving at our dealerships prompted by the current regulations,” the dealers said. “BEVs are stacking up on our lots.”

They noted that in 2022, there was considerable “hype” around EVs and that “early adopters formed an initial line and were ready to buy these vehicles” as soon as they were being sold.

“But that enthusiasm has stalled,” the letter continues. “Today, the supply of unsold BEVs is surging, as they are not selling nearly as fast as they are arriving at our dealerships—even with deep price cuts, manufacturer incentives, and generous government incentives.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) goals around emissions and EVs are “unrealistic based on current and forecasted customer demand,” the letter said, further adding that EVs still have serious hurdles to overcome. That includes insufficient EV charging infrastructure, power grid reliability problems, and a lack of reliable supplies needed to make EV batteries.

A number of major dealerships across the United States signed the letter. That includes Longo Toyota in Southern California, considered the largest car dealership in the world.

Other Concerns

A signee of the letter, the owner of New Jersey-based auto group Celebrity Motor Cars, told Fox Business on Nov. 28 that federal officials are “forcing the consumer to buy something that they don’t want” with the “mandates they are putting in place” regarding EVs.

“Consumers are not buying into the electric vehicle market right now because the infrastructure is not there, they’re concerned about the range, and it’s 20 to 30 percent higher [prices] to buy the vehicle,” Tom Maoli, the owner of the dealership group, told the outlet.

Even though the federal government and manufacturers are offering incentives to purchase EVs, consumers just don’t want to buy them, according to Mr. Maoli.

“The president needs to back off on mandates and allow the river to take its course,” he said. “EVs will survive, they’ll be a part of the marketplace. But they have to let the consumer decide which vehicle they want, how they’re going to get their families around, and where they’re going to spend their money.”

The EPA’s proposed target to have 50 percent of all new vehicles sold by 2030 be electric came under criticism from a top U.S. automotive trade group, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which said in July that the proposal isn’t reasonable.

“EPA’s proposed rules effectively assume that everything ‘will go perfectly’ in the transformation to EVs between now and 2032,” the group said. “The agency unrealistically assumes, for example, an over-abundance of battery critical mineral mines, critical mineral processing capacity and battery component, cell and pack production facilities lead to continued battery price reductions.”

It added that a recent report shows that China “dominates those areas.”

That target also came under harsh criticism from the top U.S. automotive trade group, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which criticized the EPA’s proposed rule earlier this year as “neither reasonable nor achievable” in the time frame intended.

The recent criticism comes as several top auto manufacturers recently announced plans to pull back on EV production. For example, Ford said last week that it would rescind some of its planned $3.5 billion investment into an EV battery factory in Michigan.

“We looked at all the factors. Those included demand and the expected growth for EVs, our business plans, our product cycle plans, the affordability and business to make sure we can make a sustainable business out of this plant,” Ford spokesman Mark Truby told reporters. “After assessing all that, we are now good to confirm that we’re moving forward with the plant, albeit in a slightly smaller size and scope than what we originally announced.”

Weeks before that, fellow Detroit-based automaker General Motors announced it was abandoning its plan to build 400,000 electric vehicles by the middle of 2024.

“We are also moderating the acceleration of EV production in North America to protect our pricing, adjust to slower near-term growth in demand, and implement engineering efficiency and other improvements that will make our vehicles less expensive to produce, and more profitable,” GM CEO Mary Barra said in a letter to shareholders in late October.

Deadly toll road: When private companies take over our public infrastructure, everyone loses

TTH Founder and Executive Director, Terri Hall, was interviewed for this article. We sounded the alarm bells before any of this happened. It’s tragic that people have lost their lives over it. We need to steer clear of privatizing our public infrastructure for a host of reasons, but this is the most compelling reason of all. Read on.

Link to article here.

Illustrations by Julius Maxim

The Death Toll: An Expensive Tollway’s High Cost in Human Lives

State Highway 288 was built by a private equity firm, letting TxDOT abdicate its responsibility to both drivers and construction workers.


Texas Observer
December 11, 2023

The sun was sinking toward the horizon when brothers Alejandro and Juan Simental drove their pickup less than 10 minutes from a Motel 6 to their job site: a pricey new toll road they were helping to build alongside busy State Highway 288. A week before, they had left their home in Arlington to work in the flat southern edge of Houston’s suburbs, the bustling intersection of State Highway 288 (SH 288) and Beltway 8. That’s where their employer, Choctaw Erectors, a steel construction company, was subcontracted to help build the Texas Department of Transportation’s latest privately operated tollway.

They shared their no-frills motel room with a coworker, sleeping only a few hours just to get up and work again. Their shifts were punishing—nine to 12 hours, often overnight, seven days a week.  But that evening, as the Houston sky gradually dimmed to a streetlight-stained dark gray, Alejandro, Juan, and five others on their crew established a rhythm. Alternating thumps and whirrs sounded as they laid and bolted corrugated metal decking, piece by piece, onto the tollway’s four bridge girders, 85 feet above the ground.

As the sun began to rise on June 21, 2019, Alejandro, 21, who stood around 5 feet 3 inches tall and was stocky like his brother, was working on a section of the bridge just a few feet away from Juan. There were about 15 minutes left in their shift when Juan reached the end of the first girder. Realizing that the 6-foot double safety lanyard he wore, which was tied to a safety line, did not allow him to reach the second girder more than 7 feet away,  Juan briefly unhooked the lanyard from his safety harness and walked across the steel decking.

Foreman Jorge Carlos was the only one to hear the scream as Juan tripped and fell 85 feet, head first. Seconds later, realizing his brother had fallen, Alejandro let the metal sheet he was holding drop from his hands and clatter to the ground. He rushed to an elevated boom lift that lowered him to his brother’s side.

Blood was already soaking into the soil. To the west of Juan’s feet lay his white hard hat and his right brown slip-on boot. His black plastic headlamp was still glowing. Co-workers gave Juan CPR. Police arrived in four minutes, the medic nine minutes later. That was too late. At 4:58 a.m., just two minutes before their shift was to end, Juan was pronounced dead. He was 22.

Choctaw foreman Jorge Carlos was later questioned about how project managers made sure all employees were properly tied to safety lines since the project had no safety nets. His reply: “It’s their responsibility. I can’t babysit everyone.”

Texas has 698,839 miles of road lanes, the distance of 28 laps around the earth—more miles of roadway than any other state. Highways are a source of state pride. The slogan “Don’t Mess with Texas” originated in 1985 from the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) campaign to keep roads clean of litter. But the state also leads the country in the number of deaths among workers who build its highways, a fact that TxDOT officials don’t openly discuss. TxDOT’s failure to address and hold contractors accountable for accidents on its highways may be part of why Texas’ highway worker fatality numbers are so high.

From the bottom of the contracting chain to the administrative offices of TxDOT, no one took responsibility for Juan’s death, according to public records and court documents reviewed by the Texas Observer. Alejandro says he never saw anyone on site either from TxDOT or from the Spain-based general contractors, Dragados USA, Pulice Construction, and Shikun & Binui America, collectively known as Almeda Genoa Constructors. He had assumed Choctaw, a subcontractor, was in charge. At the time of the accident, no safety managers from Choctaw or from Almeda Genoa were on site.

In response to the Observer’s request for comments on the accident, Choctaw owner Kevin Ball deferred to Almeda Genoa, which did not comment.

Juan’s death raises concerns about who, if anyone, is held responsible when highway workers die in Texas, especially in public-private partnership projects where virtually all control of public infrastructure is handed over to a for-profit entity. In the case of Juan’s death, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) gave Choctaw a slap on the wrist with only a $5,000 penalty, even after finding the company violated federal safety standards by failing to provide proper protective equipment. Kevin Ball, the owner of the Decatur, Texas-based steel erection company, admitted to OSHA investigators that he made workers provide their own safety harnesses and lanyards or took money from their paychecks if they used the company’s protective equipment.

But other players in the massive construction project were assessed no penalties at all, not by OSHA and not by the state agency, even as the number of worker accidents on the 10-mile-long toll road continued to pile up.

The Observer found that the agency had incomplete information on Juan’s death and failed to address accidents that the Observer uncovered. Even though the toll road was built on state-owned land with funds from federal tax revenues, TxDOT passed the buck on highway workers’ and drivers’ safety, indemnifying themselves against liability for any and all accidents based on its contract with the private equity firm that now controls the SH 288 toll road and its revenues for the next five decades.

TxDOT declined the Observer’s request for an interview with the agency’s occupational safety director or with the agency’s designated project director for the SH 288 tollway. When asked to explain specific actions TxDOT took after each serious accident, the agency commented, “TxDOT carefully examines every incident in a work zone.”

However, the agency did not find any records related to other workers’ accidents that resulted in hospitalization during the tollway construction, including one cited by OSHA. Its public information officers told the Observer that TxDOT “does not track injuries and fatalities of prime contractors or their subcontractors as a standard operating procedure” and only records contractor fatalities “if our office was made aware of the occurrence.”

ACS worker deaths

In a list of roadway construction fatalities TxDOT sent to the Observer, the agency listed the contractor in charge when Juan died as “unknown.”

“TxDOT, by using these public-private partnerships, is a way for them to shuffle off responsibility. And sadly, OSHA rarely shows up unless there is a death or serious injury,” said Jeremy Hendricks, political director of the Southwest chapter of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. Hendricks added that compared to states like Illinois, in which 99 percent of roadway workers are represented by the union and represented in the transportation department’s workers committees, zero roadway workers in Texas are unionized.

OSHA never cited general contractors Almeda Genoa Constructors, even though company officials admitted to the investigators that they failed to ensure all workers on the site were properly trained and equipped before they started working. OSHA reasoned that the company’s direct employees were not responsible for the incident, even though the agency has a multi-employer citation policy that holds general contractors, along with subcontractors, responsible. In response to the wrongful death lawsuit later filed by Juan’s family, Almeda Genoa said: “The accident in question and damages were solely caused by third parties over whom this Defendant had no control nor right of control.”

In an interview, former OSHA chief of staff and policy advisor Debbie Berkowtiz told the Observer that OSHA “failed to hold those responsible accountable for this tragic death.” She noted that falls are a leading cause of death in construction, and employers are required by law to provide proper fall protection equipment. “The agency sent the wrong message.”

Statewide, TxDOT has erected traffic safety signs that flash playful messages such as “Gobble, Gobble, Easy on the Throttle” or “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” as part of its “End the Streak Campaign” to reduce traffic-related deaths. But the eyes of TxDOT seem to be overlooking roadway workers who continue to experience as many deaths as 10 years ago. Studies on the safety conditions for Texas roadway workers are nonexistent.

Apart from an email TxDOT issued about Juan’s death, records and statements the Observer received indicate the agency took no independent action after the fatality. In a public statement, TxDOT referred questions to the private developer. “TxDOT’s contracted developer is responsible for the design, build, finance, operation and maintenance of the Drive 288 Project.”

The avoidable death of Juan Simental raises bigger questions about whether TxDOT is doing anything to monitor private contractors when it comes to worker deaths and accidents during road construction projects—on toll roads or otherwise.

The privately operated SH 288 tollway shows there’s plenty of money to be made from Texas’ roads, but it’s often workers like Juan who pay the biggest price.

“It’s a race to the bottom when it comes to the state of Texas and the way they deal with contractors. They often don’t care how the work gets done. And who gets hurt in the process,” Hendricks said.

Since 2000, when Texas’ population started to boom and its growth started surpassing all other states, the previously semi-rural community of Pearland has transformed into an ever-expanding suburb for families looking for cheaper homes close to the SH 288 corridor that leads to the Texas Medical Center and downtown Houston. Along with the people came more congestion.

During public meetings from 2007 to 2013, community members called for an HOV lane or a public railway to be built on the median of SH 288 to alleviate congestion. Those alternatives, they argued, would encourage commuters to share rides and put fewer cars on the road.

What they got instead was a 10-mile, billion-dollar tollway built on state-owned land at a rate of $106 million per mile. The same citizens who called for HOV lanes or a train are now paying some of the state’s highest toll fees.

During a February 2007 public meeting to discuss alternatives for SH 288, resident and medical librarian Marilyn Goff told TxDOT, “Tolling will only benefit the rich and put money into the pockets of contractors and profit-seekers.” Now retired at 70, Goff told the Observer she can’t afford to pay for the tollway. But as Goff predicted, revenue from the SH 288 toll road has filled the pockets of profit-seekers.

Actividades de Construcción y Servicios, S.A. (ACS Group) is now the sole owner of the Blueridge Transportation Group that owns and operates the toll road, which runs from Beltway 8 to US 59 in downtown Houston, along SH 288. The company reported earning $74 million in revenue from the tollway last year. The fee for the road, as high as $30 for a round trip during rush hour, is already one of the state’s highest. But there is no limit to how much ACS Group can charge or how much it can raise tolls under its agreement with Texas.

Back in 2005,  then-Governor Rick Perry proposed creating a 4,000-mile network of privately operated toll roads called the Trans-Texas Corridor, prompting opposition from environmentalists, property rights advocates, farmers, business owners, and taxpayers’ rights activists. Many Texans were angry that the roads would be owned and the tolls collected by foreign investment firms.

Transportation activist Terri Hall has been organizing Texans against tolled roads since the state lifted its ban on toll roads back in 2001 and then permitted private entities to control roadways in 2003. Prior to this, state roadways were funded exclusively by state and federal gas taxes. Unlike standard TxDOT projects, these private operations, called concession projects, cede control of a roadway’s entire process—the design, construction, operation, and maintenance—for a period of 52 years to private investment firms. It’s why private firms can charge drivers exorbitant toll prices, especially when traffic is at its worst.

“The government pimped out Texas to seek out foreign toll operators from France and Spain. They put out on the front lawn of the Texas Capitol a sign that read ‘Texas is for sale. Name your price,’” Hall said. Around this time, she created the group Texans for Toll-Free Highways and has been fighting since to eliminate toll roads in the state.

While TxDOT has argued that privately operated highways shift the financial burden from taxpayers to the private sector, Hall argues that taxpayers often end up stuck paying for construction costs and decades of tolls until the contracts end.

Hall explains that private investment firms controlling the roads milk money from the public in several ways. The firms often self-deal construction contracts to their own subsidiaries that answer to the private entities rather than going through TxDOT’s normal competitive bidding process. For instance, ACS Group doled out construction contracts to its wholly owned subsidiaries Dragados USA and Pulice Construction to work on the SH 288 tollway. Construction costs are often inflated with various change orders that TxDOT cannot control. Private firms have no cap on how much they can charge drivers for tolls. They use a congestion pricing model to charge drivers more when traffic is at its worst and can levy heavy fines and even criminal penalties for tolls paid late under their contracts with the state.

“They’re literally extracting the highest possible rate from the traveling public and exploiting congestion rather than solving congestion,” Hall said.

Hall organized Texans to push the state Legislature to issue moratoriums on concession projects, starting in 2007 when 21 private concession projects under Perry’s plan came to the table. State Senator Robert Nichols, who had previously served as a Texas transportation commissioner, started to embed more public protections into these public-private partnership contracts. He rid contracts of the noncompete clauses, which had essentially awarded a private entity a monopoly in any road building activity within an area, and applied stricter standards before projects could pass the Legislature.

“My main objection is that when you have a roadway owned by a governmental entity that’s collecting tolls, the decisions that are made are made in the best interest of the people. When you have a toll authority that’s owned and operated by a corporation whose primary motive is to make a profit and benefit the stockholders, then those decisions are made in the best interest of the stockholders,” Nichols said.

The Observer found that over the past five years, there have been at least 119 workers’ compensation accident claims filed against the four primary private road developers—including the ACS Group subsidiaries, Zachry Construction, Webber LLC, and JD Abrams LP—awarded concession contracts by TxDOT, according to data from the Texas Department of Insurance.

Due to widespread opposition, Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor was essentially dead by 2017. Perry managed to grandfather in five concession projects, four of which were awarded to the Spanish company Ferrovial-Cintra: the LBJ-635 Express Corridor, the North Tarrant Express and another segment of North Tarrant Express/ I-35 West completed later (all three in the Dallas-Fort Worth area), and State Highway 130 in Central Texas. The last to be built was the State Highway 288 tollway.

Those concession projects typically received about one-third of their funding from federal loans and another third from tax-exempt private activity bonds. “These private firms get all this other money from the feds, from the state. They make enough money in those early years, even when it’s underutilized, so they cover at least their equity and usually a handsome profit before these things go belly up,” Hall said.

That’s exactly what happened to the private State Highway 130 toll road, 41 miles that run through Travis, Caldwell, and Guadalupe Counties. When the SH 130 Concession Company filed for bankruptcy in 2016, the company’s main player, Ferrovial-Cintra, left SH 130 with millions in debt, pavement defects, and flooding problems. Bankruptcy court filings revealed that the company knew the highway would go broke but managed to siphon $329 million to pay for construction costs to a company Ferrovial created.

Two days after SH 130 filed for bankruptcy, TxDOT signed a contract for the 288 tollway project with the foreign investment firms making up the Blueridge Transportation Group, now solely owned by the Spanish infrastructure firm ACS Group.

After Juan’s death, the accidents continued as the Blueridge Transportation Group assembled the SH 288 toll from 2016 to the end of 2020.

No one from the state nor from the toll road general contractor seemed to consistently force contractors to comply with workers’ safety laws under OSHA and the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which regulates traffic control for highway construction. There were dozens of other injuries during the tollway’s construction, including at least six workers hospitalized with debilitating injuries, OSHA records show.

According to OSHA investigation reports and court filings, workers commonly reported that there was no one monitoring safety conditions, no flagger or spotter, and no safety training.

On December 2, 2017, one worker under the direction of ACS subsidiary Pulice Construction hit an unmarked electrical line on the company’s Houston premises, causing power to surge through and shock him. No report was filed with OSHA.

On July 11, 2018, at the Interstate Highway 610 intersection of the tollway, a highway concrete form without adequate support braces collapsed on two workers, both of whom suffered fractures. OSHA cited Almeda Genoa for failing to train the workers and to provide adequate support structures for the job.

On August 28, 2019, solid concrete blocks crushed a worker and severed his toes while he was emptying out a truck bed under the direction of ACS’s Pulice Construction subsidiary McNeil Brothers.

On October 7, 2020, a little over a year after Juan’s death, another worker was injured when he fell from a wall without fall protection equipment at the tollway’s intersection with Beltway 8.

On February 28, 2020,  a truck struck a worker and drove over his legs as he was spreading concrete near the intersection of Beltway 8 and SH 288. Court filings revealed there were no spotters in place. The worker survived the incident, regaining his ability to walk and work one year later.  No report was filed with OSHA.

Another worker was not so lucky. A similar accident occurred one year later on another Pulice Construction project for TxDOT just 20 miles west of the SH 288 tollway. The company’s foreman, Isidro Matamoros, died when a tractor backed into him and knocked him over. There were no spotters, and the tractor driver later told the police he had heard and noticed the impact, but he still proceeded to roll backward over Matamoros, crushing his body.

In total, the SH 288 tollway construction resulted in dozens of worker accidents, at least 10 motor vehicle accidents, two of which resulted in deaths, a pavement collapse, four class action wage theft claims, and seven lawsuits involving breach of contract claims, the Observer found in an extensive search of federal, state, and county court records.

Juan’s death and other accidents on the SH 288 tollway illustrate a small part of the dangerous conditions faced by  Texas roadway workers.

Texas has the highest rate of highway worker fatalities in the nation. Part of the reason is that

TxDOT’s general standards for ensuring workers’ safety are weak. In its two-page instruction for contractors titled “Standard Specifications for Construction” and its online Construction Manual, TxDOT largely defers to federal OSHA statutes and the state Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which regulates work zone and traffic safety during highway construction, without specifying how TxDOT plans to enforce workers safety. In comparison, Caltrans, California’s state transportation agency, outlines specific requirements extending beyond its state or federal OSHA plans, and gives guidance on how to conduct each aspect of road construction safely in their Code of Safe Practices and their Construction Manual.

California, which has a larger population than Texas, has had at least 57 highway worker fatalities in the last 12 years, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since 2012, the state has reduced the number of fatalities from 10 to two in 2022. Illinois, whose transportation department frequently meets with a committee of unionized workers, has only had 28 highway worker fatalities in the last 10 years. In comparison, Texas has had 116 highway worker fatalities in the same period. In 2022, 12 roadway workers died, the same number as in 2012. Most of these workers were Hispanic immigrants.

Caltrans also establishes a safety plan for all projects, including state private-public partnership projects. In contrast, TxDOT has private contractors develop their own health and safety plan in accordance with general contract requirements.

Alemda Genoa did send TxDOT its safety plan, many provisions of which the company seems to have repeatedly violated, including requirements for safety training, as well as contractor identification and inspection of protective equipment. No course of enforcement from TxDOT was stipulated.

And TxDOT does not seem to have considered ACS Group’s own safety history. The company reported fatality numbers for its subsidiaries’ various projects, exceeding TxDOT’s own number in the years before the start of the tollway’s construction. TxDOT continues to award ACS subsidiaries roadway construction contracts even after two workers died and countless others were injured on its roadway projects.

Worldwide, from 2014 to 2022, 88 workers have died during projects conducted by ACS’ subsidiaries, an average of 11 deaths a year.

In the Chamartín district of Madrid, Spain, where the streets are lined with lush gardens, upscale restaurants, and boutiques, ACS Group’s headquarters tower over neighboring buildings. Swallowing one infrastructure company after another, ACS Group has been continuously ranked as the world’s largest public-private partnership transportation developer by Public Works Financing, an industry periodical. The company has more than 130 concession projects worldwide and investments worth over $60.5 billion. A publicly traded company, it took in a net profit of $727 million last year, a 66 percent increase from the previous year. Its largest market now, more than half of all its upcoming projects, is North America.

ACS alone continues to rake in millions from projects like the SH 288 tollway. And TxDOT is one of its biggest customers.

Here’s how that happened.

TxDOT initially awarded a 52-year contract to design, construct, maintain, and operate the private highway, to be built on a 10-mile median of a state-owned road that runs from Brazoria County to downtown Houston, to the private equity partnership called Blueridge Transportation Group. The partnership included the infrastructure investment groups ACS Group, the Israel-based firms Shikun & Binui and Clal Industries, London-based Infrastructure Fund, Canada-based Northleaf Capital, and an American company, Tikehau Star Infra.

Before construction began, ACS Group had only paid $80 million, or 8 percent of the total project costs. The company then doled out the $800 million construction contract to its own subsidiaries Dragados USA and Pulice Construction, which together with Shikun & Binui American formed the general contractors Almeda Genoa Contractors.

Blueridge still owed two-thirds of the costs in loans at the time construction was completed in 2020: $357 million in federal loans, nearly $300 million in tax-exempt private equity bonds, and $17 million from TxDOT.

But by April of this year, ACS Group had bought out all other equity shareholders and is now the sole owner of the Blueridge Transportation Group.

And despite the slew of accidents on the SH 288 toll, TxDOT continues to award contracts to ACS Group and its subsidiaries, now totaling more than $4.7 billion for at least 22 projects. In just two years between 2019 and 2020, Texas roadway workers filed 20 workers’ compensation claims against ACS subsidiaries.

ACS’ Texas projects include the US 181 Harbor Bridge in Corpus Christi, yet another public-private partnership project that has displaced and made unlivable the surrounding low-income Black community of Hillcrest. The project is at least four years behind schedule after perpetual delays caused by safety issues and design defects.

No one, from the BTG spokesperson to the CEO of ACS Infrastructure to the president of their subsidiaries involved in the project, responded to the Observer’s multiple requests for comments via phone and email.

Alejandro and Juan Simental did everything together. Only a year separated Alejandro from Juan, the middle child of three siblings. Growing up in their hometown of Durango, Mexico, the brothers played endless hours of soccer, battled each other in video games, and planned their futures together. Durango is Mexico’s fourth-largest state but is sparsely populated. Fields producing corn, beans, and chilies and pastures filled with beef cattle make up most of the landscape. Compared to other Mexican states, fewer residents of Durango emigrate. But in 2016 when Alejandro turned 18, he and his brother went north to try their luck in the Texas construction industry.

They thought they’d found stable work with Choctaw Erectors in 2019. For six months, they built university and commercial buildings in North Texas, but never anything as tall as the 85-foot high SH 288-Beltway 8 tollway bridge.

“My brother’s life could’ve been saved if there was more security. There was no one looking. Us workers, we were all alone. Above, there was no one,” said Alejandro.

He never returned to the worksite after his brother’s fatal fall. Or to Choctaw Erectors. A few days later, Alejandro left for Durango to take his brother’s remains to his grieving family. When he returned to Texas a month later, he decided to work for himself. As an independent contractor, his income is not as stable. But he feels safer knowing he can better control his own working conditions.

It’s still difficult for Alejandro to speak about his brother. But he shared his story in the hope that other workers wouldn’t have to lose their lives before the government finally takes notice.

Today, motorists who pay to travel on the SH 288 tollway where the Simental brothers worked can see how the new toll road soars above commercial buildings, electrical poles, and evergreen trees, so high that cars seem surrounded by nothing but sky. Those who look down at the site from a plane can see how eight crisscrossing highway segments form what looks like a knotted cross.

Grassroots groups sue state of Texas over Prop 2 illegal ballot


Three grassroots groups file lawsuit to challenge Prop 2
Deceptive & illegal ballot language removed ‘ad valorem tax increases’ from ballot

(November 8, 2021 — Austin, Texas) Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), Grassroots America – We the People, and True Texas Project (TTP) filed a lawsuit against the Texas Secretary of State, John B. Scott, challenging the constitutional amendment known as Proposition 2. The suit contends the ballot language presented to Texas voters on November 2, 2021, failed to comply with common law requirements and asserts the ballot language was substantially misleading due to the removal of the phrase ‘ad valorem tax increases.’ State law requires that a proposition be described “with such definiteness and certainty that the voters are not misled.” Blum v. Lanier, 997 S.W.2d 259 (Tex. 1999). The lawsuit seeks the remedy of Governor Greg Abbott declaring the election on Prop 2 void.

Prop 2 would authorize counties to create Transportation Reinvestment Zones (TRZs) that give them the authority to issue bonds and use property tax increases for repayment of those bonds. A virtually identical proposition was put before Texas voters in 2011 known as Proposition 4 and voters rejected it when the phrase ‘ad valorem tax increases’ was included.

TURF, Grassroots America, and TTP believe this was intentional since the legislation, HJR 99 authored by Rep. Terry Canales (D – Edinburg), and its stated purpose and intent includes the phrase, but the ballot language expressly does not. Senator Bob Hall tried to amend HJR 99 in the senate to restore the original ballot language for the identical legislation from 2011, but the amendment failed.

“The legislature intentionally chose to mislead voters in order to get it passed this time around. Former House Transportation Committee Chair Joe Pickett even stated as much when Prop 4 failed in 2011. He cited the phrase ‘ad valorem tax increases’ as the problem for voters. So instead of abiding by what the voters decided, they chose to deceive voters, keeping them in the dark as to the tax impact,” observed Terri Hall, Founder/Director of TURF.

“It’s this sort of deceptive ballot language that angers voters and makes them think twice about participating in these off-year elections out of fear they’re going to be tricked into voting for things they didn’t intend to had the plain meaning been obvious.”

The Republican Party of Texas and the House Freedom Caucus also opposed Prop 2. Additionally the Republican Party of Texas 2020 Platform includes several planks opposing virtually every aspect of TRZs. Planks #178 & 179 favor limiting and even abolishing property tax. Plank #176 opposes special taxing districts like TRZs.  Three more planks (#s 50, 159 & 206) also address the issues of higher taxes and more bonds.

The suit points out that “Texas has some of the highest property tax burdens in the nation. Among the 10 most populous states, Texas’ local debt per capita ranks as the 2nd highest total, behind only New York. In light of these circumstances, Proposition 2’s omission of any mention of its relationship with local debt and property tax burdens misled voters about its chief features.”

Ballot language comparison:

Prop 4 in 2011 said: “The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to permit a county to issue bonds or notes to finance the development or redevelopment of an unproductive, underdeveloped, or blighted area and to pledge for repayment of the bonds or notes increases in ad valorem taxes (emphasis ours) imposed by the county on property in the area. The amendment does not provide authority for increasing ad valorem tax rates.”

Prop 2 in 2021 said: “The constitutional amendment authorizing a county to finance the development or redevelopment of transportation or infrastructure in unproductive, underdeveloped, or blighted areas in the county.”

Further information:
TURF, Grassroots America – We the People, and True Texas Project sent this letter to the Secretary of State prior to the election requesting a change in the ballot language… and stating they’d file a lawsuit to contest the election otherwise.

‘No’ on Prop 2 campaign flyer
Article on lawsuit in The Texan


What did taxpayers get from the 88th Legislature on transportation?

No mileage tax, but taxpayers get transportation crumbs and a whole lotta ‘woke’ from 88th Legislature
By Terri Hall
Texans for Toll-free Highways & Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (Texas TURF)
June 6, 2023

While the 88th regular session of the Texas Legislature has come to a close, what did the taxpayers get out of it when it comes to transportation and toll reforms? In short, not much. Let’s break it down.

It’s easier to say what didn’t pass first since none of our filed bills even got a hearing, except one, much less voted out of committee. No bill to stop remote kill switches going into all cars after 2026 (currently mandated by the Biden Infrastructure bill), no bill to stop road diets, no bill to protect drivers’ right to repair, no bill to take tolls down once the road debt is paid for, and no toll collections/billing reform, with the exception of immediately notifying drivers when there’s a problem with your payment card (HB 2170). Get the scoop on all this essential legislation here.

HB 2170 by Bobby Guerra (D-McAllen) was a huge missed opportunity. The grassroots jumped in to ask him to sign onto our broader toll billing reform bill, HB 2991 by Brian Harrison (R-Midlothian), as soon as his bill got filed, but he never did. Then when his bill was heard in committee, we asked if he’d consider substituting our language for his since his bill’s language was already in our bill, and he wouldn’t. Then when his bill came to the House floor for a vote, knowing it was too late to have our bill make it to the floor, he once again refused any amendments to his bill, including a pared-down version just capping the toll fines/fees and removing the criminal penalty. He refused to budge.

Then when it passed the House and went over to the Senate, we once again asked him and the senate sponsor, Senator Carol Alvarado (D-Houston), to amend it to at least give drivers relief from punitive fines and remove the criminal penalty — still no deal despite calls and pleas from ordinary Texans. Not one Republican would bring any of these amendments to the floor for a vote in either chamber. So the toll agencies have more power and sway than the millions of Texas drivers who get put into collections over unpaid tolls. Why do so many of those bills go unpaid? Because of the outrageous fines and fees tacked onto them, making them out of reach for most drivers.

One glimmer of hope came from a bill by Senator Brian Birdwell, SB 1017, to protect our right to own and use a vehicle or any other machine with a fossil fuel powered engine. Basically, it will keep cities and counties from banning gas powered engines.

Two significant wins for taxpayers were the defeat of two of House Transportation Committee Chair Terry Canales’ (D-Edinburg) bills — the mileage tax, HB 3418, and the bill to extend the 50-year private toll contract on SH 130 another 20 years, HB 2795, in order for the state to get a ‘free’ connector to SH 130 from SH 46 in New Braunfels. Both of these bills passed the House but failed in the Senate, thanks to tremendous grassroots opposition and clearer heads in the more conservative chamber. To understand the implications of why HB 2795 is a BAD deal for taxpayers, go here.

HB 3418 by Canales would have studied how to impose a state mileage tax. A tax on every mile you drive is really a toll for every mile you drive. This would be disaster for Texas taxpayers! The original filed bill required TxDOT to “vary pricing based on the time of driving, type of public highway, proximity to transit, vehicle fuel efficiency, participation in car-sharing or pooling, or the income of the operator.”

That’s straight out of the Biden administration’s socialist, anti-car playbook. In a Government Accountability Office report on the expanded use of a mileage tax published just after the infrastructure bill passed, it explains it perfectly, “Another type of equity is the ability-to-pay principle, where users who are more capable of bearing the burden of fees should pay more for the service than those with less ability to pay.”

The version that passed the House removed income (for now). However, it still required TxDOT to “evaluate the enforceability of the vehicle mileage user fee and opportunities for operators to evade or manipulate the fee; and the impact of the vehicle mileage user fee on equity.”

It also required TxDOT to “submit to the legislature a report including: the feasibility of permanently assessing a vehicle mileage user fee; an evaluation of the impacts of a vehicle mileage user fee on the economy, the environment, and traffic congestion; and the department’s recommendations together with suggested legislation necessary to implement the recommendations.”

Plank #63 in the 2022 GOP platform opposes a mileage tax, but that didn’t make a difference to the Democrat Committee Chair nor the majority of House Republicans. Ultimately, a mileage tax is a form of carbon tax, because the government would be able to track and penalize drivers for driving ‘too much,’ at the ‘wrong’ time of day, or for actions they deem environmentally unacceptable, like choosing to drive when you live close to transit. While it received a hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee, it lacked the votes to get out of committee, so it died in the Senate.

But there was plenty of ‘woke’ road policy and climate extremism, as well as bills to benefit special interests, especially the EV industry. Thankfully, very little passed the Senate, too, but not without a fight.

The House passed bills out of the Green New Deal playbook that includes intentional slowing of cars and other ‘traffic-calming’ measures designed to restrict the free flow of auto lanes. Get the backstory with all the bill numbers here. Climate equity plans adopted by most Texas cities also include increasing penalties on speeding and other aspects of driving (for example, prohibiting cars from passing pedestrians and cyclists without a specific distance as a buffer, or anything to put barriers in the way of free-flowing traffic).

Houston’s Climate Action Plan calls for slower speeds and other anti-car measures, with the express intent of getting people out of their cars and into buses or on bikes. Often dubbed Vision Zero, these policies deliberately slow cars to force drivers out of them, under the guise of ‘safety’ to attain the impossible goal of zero fatalities on Texas roads.

Austin’s Climate Action Plan declares, “we created the plan through the lens of racial equity,” confirming climate plans are a vehicle to impose social justice policies as well. They envision a car-free society.

HB 2224 authored by Rep. Ana Hernandez (D–Houston) would give cities unilateral power to lower speed limits on highways down to 20 m.p.h., without a traffic or engineering investigation to justify it. It was one of the first bills backed by environmental groups to pass out of committee, and it passed the full House.

The Senate had already passed the identical version, SB 1663 by Alvarado. But neither bill ended up moving through both chambers until the last two weeks of session when the House Transportation Committee decided to quickly move to pass the senate bill, SB 1663, and got it on the last House calendar on the last day to pass senate bills in the House. Because of delay tactics by Democrats to stop many bills they didn’t like using ‘chubbing’ to run out the clock, SB 1663 died. But it came VERY close to becoming law, effectively turning our highways into school zones. Permanently.

Canales did pass HB 1885, which allows TxDOT to ‘temporarily’ reduce the speed limit 10 m.p.h. below the posted speed for virtually any purpose, and it fails to define ‘temporary’—so, it could last indefinitely. Ever experience inactive work zones for months and even years with lower posted speeds? Imagine that spread like a virus.

Another bill, HB 898, authored by Republican Lynn Stucky of Denton, also passed, which will mandate new criminal penalties and more than double the fine (to a minimum $500 up to $1,250) for drivers who fail to move over when passing police, fire, tow trucks, TxDOT and other road workers on the shoulder. On a second offense resulting in bodily harm, a conviction will land you in jail with a felony and your license suspended for six months. There’s no room for discretion, it’s mandatory sentencing. It won’t matter if the situation was unavoidable when a driver may have been facing other perilous hazards if they slow down too quickly (like causing a pile-up behind them or crash into other vehicles if the driver forces his/her way into the other lane in crowded conditions). HB 898 passed the House 139-9 and passed the Senate 27-4.

One small bright light was passage of HB 4797 by Ramon Romero, Jr. (D-Ft.Worth) to bring some degree of accountability for the deaths of 6 Texas drivers. During ice storm Yuri in 2021, Interstate-35 W in Ft. Worth did not get properly treated to prevent ice build up by the private toll operator, Cintra, causing a 133 car pile-up that left 6 drivers dead. Romero’s bill would require all toll agencies, including private entities, to undergo training by TxDOT on how to properly weatherize roads.

Passage of HB 3297 by Cody Harris (R-Palestine) was another win for taxpayers with the repeal of the vehicle inspection for many vehicle owners. An inspection is still required per federal law in non-attainment areas thanks to the EPA, however, for everyone else, there is no longer a requirement to get your vehicle inspected. Ironically, since the Texas Constitution requires you to pay a $7 vehicle inspection fee to the state, you’ll still pay the fee, but just save the $7 you’d normally pay the vehicle inspection station and save the hassle of getting the inspection. Small victories.

Two key transportation funding bills passed, which shores up a sustainable highway funding stream and prevents the need for more toll roads. HB 2230 by Canales ensures revenue from oil and gas severance taxes (as approved by 80 percent of voters statewide in 2014) will continue. It extends Prop 1 funding from 2034 out to 2042.
SCR 2 by Senator Robert Nichols likewise ensures that annual revenue from Prop 7 sales tax and vehicle sales tax provisions (approved by 83 percent of voters in 2015) will remain in place. It extends Prop 7 until 2039 (vehicle sales tax) and 2042 (sales tax).

Another bill by Nichols finally made it across the finish line to charge Electric Vehicles (EVs) a vehicle registration fee. SB 505 imposes a $200 (renewal) or $400 (new) registration fee on EVs. Since EV users do not pay gasoline tax, EVs have been using Texas roads without paying for that road usage. This will require EVs to contribute to the State Highway Fund to ensure there continues to be sufficient funding for our state roads.

However, the EV industry got two prizes with passage of HB 3014 by Caroline Harris (R-Round Rock), to repeal the vehicle inspection for EVs, and SB 1364 by Alvarado (D-Houston) that grants a weight exemption to EV trucks allowing heavier loads (up to 82,000 pounds compared to their fossil fuel powered counterparts who are limited to 80,000 pounds) on our highways. This enshrines in statute the ability of EV trucks to do more damage to Texas highways without having to pay an additional overweight truck permit fee. Currently the max weight is 80,000 pounds for all other trucks. That’s not likely to be the last giveaway to the EV industry. Some might be asking, ‘But this is Texas! Why are we giving away green subsidies like the blue states do?’ Good question. I don’t have an answer for you, except cronyism and big campaign donations from the special interests who benefit from these corporate handouts.

WIth the first special session underway and more coming, who knows what the other sessions could produce. But rest assured, all eyes are on the Texas legislature, and we’ll stand guard to ensure our travel liberties are not infringed. While no genuine reform bills passed as a deliberate choice of leadership (Governor, Lt Governor, and Speaker and their committee chairs), we’ll turn our focus on preparing for the next regular session and building the grassroots army necessary to get them across the finish line. Texas drivers deserve far better than they’re getting, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to demand it. Hold them accountable at the ballot box. We need more courageous lawmakers to stand up and fight for our freedoms, not play footsie with leadership, be paralyzed with timidity, or go along to get along.  

County slapping $94 ticket for avoiding toll lanes

Fairfax County Virginia is forcing drivers onto the outlandishly expensive toll road on I-66 in Virginia by making the alternative worse – a $94 ticket for taking neighborhood streets.

Link to article here.

Virginia Restricts Use Of Public Roads In Neighborhoods
Fairfax County, Virginia to ban drivers from turning onto free public roads based on residency.

Virginia for the past several years has been turning its freeways into toll roads. A ride on Interstate 66 into Washington, DC, for example can cost as much as $44 one way. Motorists attempting to avoid these fees by taking neighborhood roads could soon be thwarted with a ban on entering certain free, public roads for vehicles that fail to display a special resident permit for that neighborhood.

Fairfax County on Tuesday provided an update on its new resident cut-through permit program. The policy is a significant expansion of existing turn restrictions found in three county locations that apply to all traffic turning off of busy roads. The non-resident turning bans will impose a $94 “failure to obey a highway sign” penalty on drivers who turn onto a neighborhood road without a permit during designated times. These permits are only granted to the owners of homes within the “primary use area” of the neighborhood.

“Permits would not be available for visitors, caregivers, service providers, non-resident owners, relatives or other non-residents,” county briefing material explained.

State Delegate Kathleen Murphy (D-McLean) introduced the legislation making the non-resident bans possible. Her bill sailed through the state Senate on a 32 to 7 vote, and the measure cleared the House of Delegates without opposition.

“A county operating under the urban county executive form of government may by ordinance develop a program to issue resident permits or stickers to residents of a designated area that will allow such residents to make turns into or out of the designated area during certain times of the day when such turns would otherwise be restricted,” Virginia Code Section 15.2-2022.1 states.

The legality of non-resident ban is likely to be challenged. A lawsuit was filed against Leonia, New Jersey, last year over a similar program designed to thwart cell phone apps like Waze from directing motorists through the town to avoid traffic jams. The Hudson County Superior Court declared the town’s non-resident driving restriction ordinance “null and void” in August, enjoining the town from enforcing the policy. The town adopted a new ordinance in September that reimplemented the policy, triggering a second lawsuit.

A Fairfax County memo from May 14 admits there is “no public safety nexus” for the program which is “not considered high-priority” for the deployment of police.

Anti-toll candidates win in midterm election

Anti-toll candidates fare well in midterm election

The midterm election in Texas concluded with new battle lines drawn and the margin between parties closer than ever in what was considered a solidly red state. Anti-toll candidates fared well, winning the majority (18 of 27) of the races endorsed by Texans by Toll-free Highways. Likewise, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom’s (TURF) Voter Guide, that rates incumbents based on voting records and its survey on toll roads and property rights related questions, saw many of its top rated candidates who had contested races chalk up victories. All the anti-toll candidates at the top of the ballot won, including Ted Cruz, two congressional candidates, Ron Wright and Chip Roy, as well as Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The state’s two top leaders, Abbott and Patrick, put a line in the sand last November declaring no more tolls moving forward. Voters re-elected both and they’ll hold them to that promise

The biggest defeats came in the Texas House with 9 anti-toll backed candidates losing, and one outcome is still too close to call as it’s undergoing a recount in House District 132 where incumbent Mike Schofield has fallen behind his challenger. While tolls may not have played a huge role in several of those races, the hardest ones to choke down are the losses of two anti-toll champion senators, Konni Burton (R – Colleyville) and Don Huffines (R- Dallas), and House Freedom Caucus anti-toll champion Matt Rinaldi (R – Irving). The other four anti-toll backed senate candidates won their races: Bob HallAngela PaxtonDonna Campbell, and Pat Fallon.

The Democrat bump from the energy brought to the midterms by Beto O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate race made many races close and flipped many Republican held seats to Democrats in urban areas, particularly Dallas County. Only a handful of Democrats engaged the grassroots on the toll issue, and most failed to return candidate surveys or vetting questionnaires, so it’s unclear where they stand on toll road issues.

The two standouts are Democrats Terry Meza (HD 105) and Vicki Goodwin (HD 47). Texans for Toll-free Highways endorsed Goodwin over incumbent Paul Workman, representing west Travis County who consistently earned an ‘F’ on our TURF’s legislative Report Cards, racking up one of the worst voting records on toll road issues in the Texas House. Meza has engaged on the issue and is ready to work with the grassroots to relieve this undue tax burden on working families in Irving and Grand Prairie. Incumbent Rodney Anderson rated fairly well on TURF’s Report Cards, but there’s no question the toll tax burden is a major issue in the district and the Metroplex. Moving forward, Meza is not a net loss for taxpayers in HD 105 on toll roads.

With the Democrat surge over Republicans in urban areas complicating how to interpret this midterm election in general, overall, the anti-toll cause is in good shape heading into the 86th Legislative Session regardless of the overall two-party battle lines. The grassroots will remain laser focused on legislation to remove the toll once the debt is paid off and expanding the toll collection reforms secured last session to all toll agencies. At least 14 taxpayer funded toll agencies will be lobbying hard against taxpayers seeking to cap toll fines and remove tolls on roads that are paid for. With new leadership in the House and strong allies in the senate and governor’s office, voters should expect both to pass in spite of taxpayer funded lobbying by toll bureaucracies.

GO VOTE! Now’s our chance to elect anti-toll champions

Run-Off Early Voting: May 14-18
Election Day: May 22

Chip Roy

Dr. Stuart Spitzer

Thomas McNutt

Jill Wolfskill

Brent Lawson

Q: Many of you ask, how do we get our anti-toll reforms passed? How do we have our new law capping toll fines/fees at $48 a year to apply to ALL toll roads? I thought the Governor and Lt. Governor said ‘No more tolls,’ so why am I still seeing toll roads go up everywhere?
A: The short answer to these questions is we haven’t had the votes to get all of our reforms passed in a ‘clean’ bill without interference from the toll bureaucrats & special interests.

The way we get progress is to have enough lawmakers committed to protecting taxpayers from punitive toll taxes to get our reforms across the finish line.

That’s where elections come into play. We need more anti-toll lawmakers representing we the people in local, state, and federal government.
We’ve carefully vetted these candidates and they’ve committed to our legislative agenda in writing. We have a real chance at significantly changing the composition of the Texas legislature with so many anti-toll candidates in the run-offs.
Your vote counts even more in run-off elections when turnout is low. So be sure to go vote and bring friends and family with you to the polls!
NOTE: All of the candidates listed are in GOP primary election run-offs. No Democrats have responded to our candidate survey. All candidates are ‘A’ rated by TURF.
TURF - A rated
Deanna Metzger
Matt Beebe
Gregory Parker


Big rigs still drive on I-35, can't afford toll road

Link to article here.

The SH 130 toll road is the poster child for FAILED toll road policy in Texas. Taxpayers were sold the SH 130 toll road as the panacea to fix congestion on gridlocked I-35 through Austin. Politicians and planners said it would draw trucks off of I-35 and over to the toll road. As the article below demonstrates, it hasn’t worked. Truckers can’t afford the toll road any more than motorists can. In fact, the SH 130 toll road is SO EMPTY, a distressed airplane landed on it in the middle of what is supposed to be rush hour! If they really want to relieve I-35 traffic, they’d make SH 130 a FREE bypass route. But as the Texas Turnpike Authority spokesman says below, the government has no motivation to fix I-35 traffic since it means fewer customers for their toll road.

Big rigs still drive on I-35, despite alternative routes
Friday, May 7

When the SH-130 toll road opened a year ago this week, it was supposed to ease congestion on Interstate 35.  It was also supposed to move cars and trucks from one end of Austin to the other more quickly.
But recent KVUE helicopter video shows a different picture.  Traffic remains congested on I-35, and SH-130 is empty.  The Texas Turnpike Authority has a theory on why.

“A lot of traffic is still coming to destinations in Austin,” said Turnpike Director Mark Tomlinson.  “And if they are, then probably I-35 is going to be the choice for a bigger percentage of that traffic.”

Though some big rig drivers told KVUE the toll road works well, they said they cannot justify the expense.  Ken Dukes says he stays on I-35 because it costs him $27 to take SH-130.

“Yeah, it’s 45 minutes to an hour and a half of my time,” he said, “but it’s not worth $27.

Others say the saving of time is worth their money.

“Absolutely,” said William Brown, driver.  “It wouldn’t make sense for me to go through that traffic every day.”

A spokesperson for the Texas Turnpike Authority believes it will take time, as well as more congestion along I-35, before the public fully embraces the benefits of the SH 130 toll road.

That 130 project commences in 2012, when it will connect I-35 in Georgetown to I-10 in Seguin.

Toll roads not a good fit for San Antonio

The people of this community have expressed time and again in every way available to them that they DO NOT want toll roads. With tourism such a major industry and economic engine for our region and the adverse impacts of a high cost of transportation on the region’s economy, toll roads are not the right fit for San Antonio, nor are they sustainable. They will bury us in debt to the tune of BILLIONS with no way out (except a taxpayer bailout and draconian tax hikes). When the cost of transportation goes up, driving goes down.

Toll roads rely on ever increasing traffic volumes and more driving to pay off the debt of toll roads, which is anti-thetical to the economic reality of what occurs when the cost of driving goes up…driving goes down and so does toll usage. Also, increasing the cost of transportation through tolling makes the the cost of goods go up, which everyone pays whether they take the toll road or not. San Antonians cannot afford tolls, when a third of Bexar County doesn’t make enough money to cover their basic needs for daily living. San Antonio has also been ranked by Forbes Magazine as one of the top 10 cities hardest hit by high gas prices. When tolls are like adding $4.00-$17.00 more to every gallon of gas you buy (for toll rates from 25 cents up to 75 cents per mile as we’re seeing around the state), they’re completely out of reach for the vast majority of San Antonians.

Based on the MPO plans, it claims a funding gap figure of $18 billion. To put it in perspective, that’s like saying they need more than $10,000 from every man, woman, and child in San Antonio in the next 25 years…that’s from every person in San Antonio, not just motorists, and that’s $40,000 from a family of 4! A study conducted by the Surface Transportation Project published in June of 2005, shows the two biggest costs for every household since 1984 are housing and transportation and account for 52% of the average family’s budget (or $21,213 a year)…the highest level in 20 years! Now compare that with the median household income in San Antonio of only about $36,000 a year and compare it with TxDOT’s claim they need $40,000 from the average family in San Antonio in the next 25 years, and you’ll see this will not only cripple the economy, it’ll tax people into bankruptcy. Their plan is unrealistic and totally unsustainable! With 57 toll projects in the MPO’s plans, there will be no escape form this new tax on driving.
Add to that, San Antonio has been consistently shorted the highway funds that it sends to Austin and Washington. In addition, vehicle sales tax revenues have been dumped into general revenue instead of going to roads as the taxpayers intended. Ending this diversion of funds amounts to $2-3 billion a year (on track for $4 billion this year, this reaps more than doubling the gas tax) for roadways, and would nearly triple our region’s money for roads WITHOUT RAISING TAXES! Restitution needs to be made before ANY taxpayer is asked to pay more.

As long as ANY project is marked “toll” in the MPO’s TIP (and there are 57 of them), the RMA (which is the tolling authority) has control of the project and a vested interest in ensuring projects remain tolled even when new sources of revenue become available. RMA Chair Bill Thornton promised on WOAI radio January 14, 2009 that they’d fix 281 non-toll if they got a new source of funds. When stimulus funds became available, the RMA STILL submitted the project as a toll project (they planned to build it with stimulus money and still charge users a toll to drive on it, a DOUBLE TAX). The FHWA also informed MPO Chairman, Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, that as long as a project is marked toll in the MPO plans, it will be done as a toll project.

With 800 people packing an auditorium in October 2009 to tell the MPO they don’t want toll roads (and only 100 got to testify with all but 7 against), and with MPO Board members assuring the public that both toll and non-toll options are on the table for 281 and 1604, how can they have an ounce of credibility when both are marked toll projects in the MPO’s TIP and when the tolling authority (RMA) is conducting the “study” of the options? How can the MPO have any credibility that non-toll options are even being studied when its attempt to find a contractor to do an independent study of non-toll options yielded ZERO takers?

This demands ACTION, not words, and must be remedied.

MPO MUST remove all toll projects from its plans

The federal government requires an agency to show a reasonable source of funding for a project in order to place it in an MPO plan. The RMA can’t show any of its toll roads are funded by any reasonable funding sources since toll revenue bonds won’t cover 100% of the project costs and all of them need massive public subsidies. In other words, none of the toll projects in the TIP are toll viable (meaning they cannot pay for themselves with the toll revenues of projected users).

TIFIA loans can only fund up to a third of the project costs. The current federal TIFIA loan pot of money is EMPTY, and there’s a cloud over the program after the first PPP toll road to receive a TIFIA loan went bankrupt a few months ago (at the hands of an Australian firm, Macquarie. (Read more here). The taxpayers aren’t going to get their money back, and many in Congress are doubting the efficacy of this controversial program that has, up until now, been used as a backstop to primarily benefit private toll operators at taxpayer expense. The TIFIA program may or may not be funded in the next federal highway bill, and there’s talk that the focus be shifted away from funding PPP & toll projects and directed to more mass transit and rail projects. Yet the RMA lists it as a “reasonable” source of funding for both the 281 and 1604 toll projects.

Second, TxDOT issued a letter to the MPO last fall saying the Texas Mobility Fund money ($200 million) isn’t available in one chunk any longer, it’s only available in $25 million chunks over 7 years (2012-2019). So how is this a “reasonable” source of revenue for the RMA’s toll road when the entire sum is needed in 2012 for just 281? So with two-thirds of the 281 project revenues in doubt (TIFIA and TMF), the RMA cannot demonstrate that the 281 toll project is funded by any reasonable sources of revenue. Ditto for segments of 1604 that also rely on TMF or TIFIA funds.

The RMA also has to spend $83 million on ROW acquisition for 281 (the figure given in the last TIP), when the MPO does NOT have to come up with that sum under a non-tolled scenario (since TxDOT funds ROW out of a different pot of money apart from the MPO). This ROW cost thereby drives up the project cost that the RMA bonds have to cover.

So with the RMA Chairman admitting the toll funding is a mere “placeholder” to keep certain road projects in the MPO plans, why can’t a non-toll source of funding be used as a placeholder instead and keep the plans toll-neutral, which they claim is their goal?

For instance, using the Zachry estimate for US 281 north of Loop 1604 from 2005, the cost to fix 281 as a freeway would be less than $200 million. The 2005 plan cost is $78 million for the first 3 miles (and that was the actual contract bid price, not an estimate, when construction costs were much higher). Extrapolate that for the 7.8 mile project area, and the cost is actually UNDER $200 million ($160-$170 million). So a $200 million project cost (with some flexibility to add extra overpasses where needed) is perfectly reasonable and is based on actual construction costs. No one has yet to give a single reason why this estimate isn’t bonafide when Zachry’s proposal had engineering and the contract had already been let (prior to clearance being yanked). Clay Smith of TxDOT stated on the record in a Technical Advisory Committee meeting last fall that the Zachry proposal is the “actual” cost, not TxDOT’s estimates.

With $3 billion more in Prop 12 bonds are expected to be approved by the legislature next session (they issued only $2 billion of the $5 billion voters approved last session), and Speaker Joe Straus announcing at the NE Partnership meeting April 15 that there is near unanimous support to end at least some of the gas tax diversions, we can use some gas tax revenues with a mix of Prop 12 bonds (or even just solely Prop 12 bonds) as the “reasonable” anticipated source of revenue to fund 281 as a freeway in the TIP to keep it toll-neutral. Prop 12 is a more reasonable expected source of revenue than the RMA’s pot of funds listed in the current TIP. With the current batch of Prop 12 monies netting our region about $200 million, a $3 billion issuance would net us closer to $300 million. That would more than cover a non-toll fix to 281.

The Legislature has also placed restrictions on using Prop 12 and other bonds backed by general revenue (and the majority of Texas taxpayers) for toll roads, since it’s a DOUBLE TAX to build a road with general funds and charge taxpayers AGAIN (a toll tax) to use the public road.

Return to sustainable transportation policy. Restore credibility and heed the public outcry. Remove toll roads from all MPO plans.

Express-News sold out for tolls

Bruce Davidson, author of the column below, heads the Editorial Board at the Express-News. He, and the paper (as evidenced by their coverage since they laid off the excellent, unbiased, and very fair transportation reporter Pat Driscoll), are sold out on tolls. This is one of many editorials that read like an RMA press release. Whatever RMA Chair Bill Thornton speaketh, Davidson prints as Gospel.

Whenever we’ve attempted to go to the Editorial Board to dialogue about the toll issue, they flatly ignore us and our concerns (as well as elected officials, attorneys, certified planners, and other experts who have joined us) and print a negative editorial in response to our “visit.” After all, the paper has the establishment to please, never mind the Express-News is bleeding readers. Why? Because of columns, editorials, and stories like this one. Or perhaps it’s because the RMA has paid the Express-News nearly $25,000 in government advertising.

I find the first line of this column inexplicable. How can we NOT blame the tolling authority, which is precisely what the RMA is, for tolling our existing freeways? Though there’s plenty of blame to go around, including the people Davidson cites, our state lawmakers led by Rick Perry (we would add there are culprits who have approved and voted for this at EVERY level of government, local, state, and federal), it defies logic NOT to address the RMA’s culpability in the toll road fight.

The RMA is a Board of UN-elected bureaucrats appointed by YOUR county commissioners, who have given them the authority to levy taxes (toll taxes) without answering directly to the taxpayers (which is taxation without representation). Their only source of revenue is tolling (and a heap of loans from the city and county and grants from TxDOT to keep them afloat until they tap the vein of your wallet with their first toll road). RMAs were created in state law for the sole purpose of tolling and off-loading the State’s job to build STATE highways to local government and its taxpayers.

This notion that the RMA “doesn’t care where the money comes from, they just want to fix the road” is a farce. They’re a tolling authority! They exist to toll roads! Most importantly, the needed fix to 281 was already paid for with gas taxes until TxDOT made the money disappear sometime in mid-2008. So the toll agenda for 281 has NOTHING to do with lack of funds. They had the funds…it’s about tapping a new revenue stream and levying a discriminatory, targeted tax on 281 users in order to fund 1604 (which they don’t have the money for). The fact 281 already had the funding is one the RMA and the Express-News like to ignore so they can push toll roads, making them appear the ONLY option.

Then, the stimulus money the RMA is using to build HALF of a non-toll interchange (for the price of a WHOLE interchange) is a one time deal. We’ve long objected to the RMA even doing a non-toll project, especially with the pricetag they can’t justify ($143 million for just the four southern ramps of the interchange when the RMA’s published price to build the northern ramps in 2018 dollars is $59 million. If they can build half of the interchange for $59 million, they can surely build the whole thing NOW for $120 million! For comparison, the 410/281 interchange just built cost $155 million). What on earth are we paying our highway department to do if we now have these high paid bureaucrats at the RMA sitting around duplicating TxDOT’s role and charging us $20 million in “management fees” to oversee the interchange project that TxDOT should be doing (without the added cost)? The RMA is a second-tier bureaucracy and a taxpayer rip-off from start to finish.

Here are just two timelines (here and here) to give you a flavor of how corrupt and untrustworthy this RMA is. Then here’s a few other zingers. The RMA operates in secrecy and has refused to hand over the financial guts to its potential toll agreements BEFORE the contract gets signed (when the public can actually DO something to stop provisions that are not in the public interest). It hides behind a state law that allows these agencies to keep toll viability studies, the market valuation, and other key financial details SECRET from the public AND even YOUR elected officials. In fact, prior to a crucial vote on financing the 281 and 1604 toll projects at the MPO December 7, 2007, the RMA did not give MPO Board members this information prior to their vote, causing them to vote BLIND.

During the last legislative session, the RMA spent $32,000 of YOUR money to hire a lobbyist to lobby state lawmakers for toll roads and more taxing authority to levy ANY kind of tax to raid your pocketbook. The RMA also recently came out in favor of thwarting legal challenges to its unwanted toll projects by lobbying to force binding arbitration. Then, the RMA Board just voted to do all of its business BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, out of the public eye, unless they have an “actionable item” to vote on. Plus, the RMA has 8 employees whose total salaries with benefits equal more than $1 million dollars annually. All but two employees make six figures, which is totally out of balance with the median household income in San Antonio, which is $36,000/yr.

Credibility gap
As long as the 281 & 1604 projects are marked “toll” in the MPO’s plans, the RMA has control of the project and a vested interest in ensuring it remains tolled even when new sources of revenue become available. The RMA is conducting its own environmental studies on both the 281 and 1604 toll projects (the fox guarding the hen house), yet to read the Express-News editorial (see below), you’d think the RMA was a paragon of diplomacy, reaching out to its “enemies.” Diplomacy? Pleez…their consultants told the community advisory groups that the RMA didn’t have to listen to our feedback nor the public feedback at the hearings either. The RMA is using these “community groups” as window dressing, nothing more. After repeated attempts to sit down with the RMA and work out many issues regarding these projects, they’ve REFUSED to work with ANYONE who gets in the way of their toll agenda. The RMA opposed the citizens’ call for a temporary superstreet fix on 281, too, until they figured out that doing the project could boost their PR with fed-up residents and give them something to do until their first toll project brings home the bacon.

RMA Chair Bill Thornton promised on WOAI radio January 14, 2009 that they’d fix 281 non-toll if they got a new source of funds. When stimulus funds became available, the RMA STILL submitted the project as a toll project (they planned to build it with stimulus money and still charge users a toll to drive on it, a DOUBLE TAX), which is proof-positive that even when they get a new pot of money to do something non-toll, the RMA still pushes its toll agenda…regardless of the opposition to it.

Also, the FHWA also informed MPO Chairman Commissioner Tommy Adkisson that as long as a project is marked toll in the MPO plans, it will be done as a toll project. With 800 people packing an auditorium in October 2009 to tell the MPO they don’t want toll roads (and only 100 got to testify with all but 7 against), and with MPO Board members & the RMA assuring the public that both toll and non-toll options are on the table for 281 and 1604, how can they have an ounce of credibility when both are marked toll projects in the MPO’s TIP and when the tolling authority (RMA) is conducting the “study” of the options? How can the MPO have any credibility that non-toll options are even being studied when its attempt to find a contractor to do an independent study of non-toll options (apart from the RMA) yielded ZERO takers?

Toll roads NOT inevitable
Then, Davidson would have us accept his premise that toll roads are inevitable because lawmakers in Austin refuse to raise your taxes. First of all, tolls are taxes and they have yet to hesitate to charge commuters the MOST EXPENSIVE tax to fund roads. Second, where is Davidson’s call to end the diversions to the gas tax we ALREADY PAY? Why would any thinking person ask government to raise taxes when they’re misappropriating the taxes we already send them? Third, why isn’t Davidson insisting San Antonio get back the money we already send to Austin and Washington that we’re shorted before he advocates for higher taxes (tolls)? Lastly, ending the vehicle sales tax diversion (that’s being dumped into general revenue instead of going to roads) would nearly triple our region’s road money WITHOUT RAISING TAXES! But Davidson doesn’t think that way. He’s an extension of the government bureaucrats at the RMA.

Goes to show, one must do his/her due diligence before believing what you read in the Express-News.
Austin’s aversion to tax hikes makes toll roads inevitable
By Bruce Davidson – Express-News

Web Posted: 05/13/2010

Don’t blame the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority when U.S. 281 from north of Loop 1604 becomes a toll road.

RMA officials are in the midst of the lengthy Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process. They are studying three possible approaches to dealing with the nightmarish traffic on U.S. 281.

One scenario involves overpasses at the key intersections and non-continuous frontage, as RMA spokesman Leroy Alloway described it. Another would have expressway lanes and continuous frontage road from Loop 1604 to the Bexar County line. And a third option would have elevated U.S. 281 lanes, leaving most of the existing structure in place.

RMA Chairman Bill Thornton emphasizes that while the project is listed as a toll road in Metropolitan Planning Organization plan, that status is a placeholder.

Read the rest of the story here.

Agua should drop legal threat
Express-News Editorial Board
Web Posted: 05/11/2010

The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority is engaging in some highway diplomacy. Rather than allowing plans for road construction in the U.S. 281-Loop 1604 corridor to get bogged down in challenges, the RMA is bringing potential adversaries to the table and making them part of the development process.

The RMA has created community advisory committees for both of the two major highway projects it is managing — a 7.9-mile segment of U.S. 281 north of Loop 1604 to the county line and a 37-mile stretch of Loop 1604 from Interstate 35 North to Highway 90 West.

Among the stakeholders on these committees are representatives of homeowners associations, school districts and the business and development community.

The RMA has also included groups with which it has traditionally had an adversarial relationship: the Alamo Sierra Club, Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, San Antonio Toll Party and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.

This diplomatic approach is a wise one. A good faith effort by members of the advisory groups can streamline the process for road construction and avoid lawsuits and political challenges that are both costly and time consuming.

Read the rest of the story here.