FW Weekly: Opposition to tolls & TTC mounting, getting lawmakers' attention

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A traffic jam of opposition is facing the Trans-Texas Corridor

Ft. Worth Weekly
March 7, 2007

The Trans-Texas Corridor, the Goliath of Texas road projects, is taking a real bruising from the slingshot crowd these days, with so many Davids piling up stones that critics and supporters alike are beginning to believe it may be stoppable.

In the last few weeks, more than a dozen bills have been introduced in the both the Texas State and House to either stop the project cold or put enough restrictions on it to chill the interest of private investors. In late February, a state audit report revealed that millions of public dollars have secretly been spent on the project and that hundreds of millions more might be needed. At least one legislator is considering calling for an investigation of the Texas Department of Transportation. And thousands of opponents from around the state showed up last week in Austin to march in opposition to the giant toll-road proposal and to testify against it at a public hearing.

Gov. Rick Perry, Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson, and other top- ranking state politicos are still pushing to get ground broken on the 4,000-mile network of privatized toll highways planned throughout Texas in the next several decades. But with opposition growing on both sides of the aisle, critics are suggesting that supporters of the TTC may find they have a price to pay at the ballot box next time around.

“There’s no doubt there’s a huge groundswell of opposition to the TTC,” said Hank Gilbert, a businessman and rancher who organized a March 2 rally in Austin against the project. “We had between 3,000 and 4,000 people rallying against it. That is huge … . And when even people like State Sen. Steve Ogden, a co-author of the bill that permitted the privatization of roads, come out and say the Texas Department of Transportation is out of control with the TTC, well, I think that’s the point at which other politicians will realize that those of us who’ve been fighting this thing are not just lunatics.”

Ogden, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is reportedly considering legislation that would eliminate tolls on all roads once the road is paid for — which generally takes 20 to 30 years — as opposed to allowing the private company that built and leased the road to keep charging tolls for a contract period of 50 to 60 years, as will be the case with the TTC if it goes forward as planned.

But while Ogden, a Republican from Bryan, hasn’t yet introduced a bill to rein in the TTC, others have. State Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat, recently introduced a bill to place a moratorium on all new toll roads in Texas for a period of two years “so that the issue can be studied, rather than rammed down our throats.”

State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham has introduced two bills that would effectively kill the TTC. One would “repeal … authority for the establishment and operation of the Trans-Texas Corridor”; the second would prohibit public pension funds from being invested in private toll roads — cutting billions in funding that private toll road builders would probably try to use to raise capital.

And powerful State Sen. John Carona of Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, has introduced 10 bills that together would severely curtail private businesses’ interest in building toll roads. Among them is a measure requiring that the price paid for land taken under eminent domain be established by three disinterested voters who live in the county where the land is located, rather than by a judge. Another would limit the length of a toll-collecting contract held by a private entity to 30 years, after which the highway would become a free road. Other bills would limit toll rates rather than letting private companies set them at will, eliminate the “no compete” clauses in toll road contracts that many believe would hamper the state’s ability to maintain and improve other roads, and tie the state gas tax rate to the amount needed for highway building and maintenance, to ensure that tax funds rather than tolls could be used for those projects.

Carona admits he made a huge error in signing the measure that created the TTC. He told Fort Worth Weekly that he and nearly everyone else in the Texas Legislature were “deliberately deceived” by that bill, and that it’s time to put a halt to the TTC. At a hearing he held last week, he said, “About 1,000 people came, and the overwhelming majority were against the TTC.”

He believes an overwhelming majority of state Senate members now oppose the TTC as well, and that, as chinks begin to show in Perry’s armor, the senators are more willing to oppose him on this issue. “The fact is, the death of the TTC and other toll roads is just one gubernatorial election away,” he said. “The opposition to these things is growing daily.”

“I think the bills I’ve proposed will pass in the Senate,” Carona said. “The real question is whether they will get a fair hearing in the House Transportation Committee. I don’t know. [Chairman] Mike Krusee has the power to bury them there.

“On the other hand,” he added, “Krusee won his last election by a surprisingly narrow margin, and he will have public rage to deal with on this. Of course, if he intends to leave his position as an elected representative and enter the private sector, he may have another agenda. But if he wants re-election, he may realize that following the governor’s lead on the TTC hook, line, and sinker is not the best road for him to take.”

Krusee said he handles bills before his committee fairly. “But it’s up to every member to convince the committee that the hearing won’t be a waste of time, that there is some support and reason to listen to it.”

Coleman said he thinks the TTC can be stopped only if legislators in both houses “feel the heat and know it’s going to be an election issue.”

The recent state auditor’s report may provide plenty of ammunition for the election debates. Auditors concluded that millions of dollars in public funds had already been used for the TTC, in both direct and indirect costs, while Perry has repeatedly said that no public monies would be used to fund the project. And much of the money spent on the TTC was taken from funds set aside for other projects, the report said. At least $52,000 used to pay for TTC advertising — billboards and radio spots — was listed as “engineering” expenses.

The report also noted that Cintra Zachry LP, the partnership hired to develop a comprehensive plan for TTC-35, the 333-mile stretch of toll roads from San Antonio to Dallas, had not met all of its 2006 insurance requirements until October of that year. If Cintra Zachry can’t cover its liabilities under the contract, auditors noted, “it is possible that plaintiffs could seek recovery of these damages from the state.”

The report also noted other problems: Public money would pay for 55 percent, or $16.9 billion, of the rail projects touted as part of the TTC package. The state would be responsible for collecting from toll-jumpers. Under the contracts, the state could be forced to build some segments of the corridor that the private firms didn’t find profitable.

And auditors said TxDOT may have been seriously underestimating the cost of the corridor. The agency has put the price tag of the entire 4,000-mile network at $145 billion to $184 billion, but auditors said one 560-mile stretch alone —from Laredo to Oklahoma, paralleling I-35— will cost more than $105 billion.

“I think that auditor’s report is particularly damning,” said Carona. “The most damning thing, I think, was that the governor, when he announced the Trans-Texas Corridor, said that no public funds would be used for its development. And the auditor now says that $90 million in public funds have already been used, and that number is climbing daily.”

Gilbert said that in light of the auditor’s report, Kolkhorst may ask the attorney general to investigate TxDOT over the subterfuge on TTC spending. She could not be reached for comment.

Proponents of the TTC say it remains the answer to Texas’ current and future transportation problems. Williamson, the commissioner, has insisted, publicly and repeatedly, that with Texas’ population expected to double in the next 30 years and with the shortfalls the state is facing in highway funding, allowing private corporations to build and run toll roads is the only possible solution.

His sentiments were echoed by former Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr, currently a member of the TTC advisory committee. “There’s just not money available to build all of the roads that we need,” he told the Weekly. “That means that goods will not move efficiently and people will not move, and there’s a cost associated with that.” However, he said, the transportation agency has done a poor job communicating that to the public. “There is an awful lot of dialogue that needs to be held that hasn’t been held,” he said.

Terri Hall, founder and director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, a statewide group fighting the TTC, said the situation is worse than that. “TxDOT continues to operate in complete denial of the reality of the situation. The governor’s Business Council’s own report — done by the Texas Transportation Institute — says that toll roads are not necessary. The sky will not fall if we don’t build the TTC.”