Munoz’ ties to 281 toll road create trail of corruption

Link to article here. Update: Munoz & team did snag the contract.

Munoz’ ties to 281 toll road create trail of corruption
By Terri Hall
September 17, 2014

The Express-News reported yesterday that Henry Munoz is angling to get a piece of the US 281 toll project in San Antonio by seeking a 5-year engineering contract with the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (RMA). The trouble stems from his sordid history of buying and manipulating local politicians, and he’s particularly adept at it when it comes to transportation. He’s set-up his own company to now profit from the project he helped fashion while a public official.

Munoz is a former member of the Texas Turnpike Authority and a former Texas Transportation Commissioner, who resigned from the agency under a cloud of scandal for his staff abusing the state travel program and for providing inside information to a Mexican construction company in exchange for lavish accommodations, travel, and other personal pay-offs. Nearly a decade later, Munoz was appointed to the Alamo RMA and served as its Finance Committee Chair. He bolted when Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) successfully sued to halt the US 281 project in 2008. It was just no fun for him to be there anymore. No money to snag for the foreseeable future.

In December 2008, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff appointed him as Chairman of the Board for both Via Metropolitan Transit and the Advanced Transportation District, or ATD, (which oversees the portion of local sales tax dedicated to transportation projects – half goes to transit, half to roads). The RMA immediately attempted a hostile takeover of Via (cloaked as a merger but the idea was concocted by Wolff and Munoz) to get itself on life support, since its seed money from the city ($500,000) and county ($750,000) had run out. It had no ongoing revenues to cover its operating expenses absent any toll projects.

With roughly $40 million in debt on the RMA’s books, many Via board members balked at the merger, and before the state laws could be changed to allow the merger, President Obama came to the rescue and bailed out the RMA with his stimulus program. With a project now in hand, the RMA dropped Via like a hot potato and ran merrily on its way to build the southern ramps of the 281/1604 interchange. But the bad blood between the two agencies lingered. It didn’t take long for the RMA to get too big for its britches, and Bexar County took over the operations of its recalcitrant child in June of 2012.

But it wasn’t until 2012 that Munoz made his move to get back in the toll road game. When TxDOT announced a $2 billion surplus (due to cost under runs and infusion of federal money), San Antonio received $146 million in unexpected funding. TURF asked for the funds to go to one of the region’s top most congested roads, US 281, especially since it had $100 million in gas taxes yanked from the project in 2008 (without TxDOT or the local Metropolitan Planning Organization, MPO, ever accounting for where it went).

The MPO and the Bexar County Commissioners passed unanimous resolutions to use the funds, along with $100 million in ATD sales tax revenues, to fix both US 281 and Loop 1604 West without tolls. But TxDOT quickly went to work in both public and private meetings to assure any deal still contained tolls on US 281. Munoz seized the opportunity to get back at the RMA since ATD dollars were involved, and the Via/ATD Board passed a resolution to bar the RMA from controlling the toll revenues. In a back room deal with TxDOT, Munoz, and Wolff, Munoz also insisted the deal include a Via Park-N-Ride transit center ($12 million) and an exclusive ramp (also over $10 million) into and out of the inside toll lanes on 281 for its buses and park-n-ride customers, which in the Stone Oak area is scant at best.

Fast forward to January of 2014. Once again, TxDOT, Wolff, and Munoz hatched a back room deal to hand over 29 miles of TxDOT highways to city and county taxpayers in an $825 million toll road package that now included adding toll lanes to I-10 (outside Loop 1604) and free expansion on Loop 1604 West. Munoz, a powerful ally and penultimate fundraiser for Democrats, as well as a high-powered bundler for Obama, was sure to protect fellow Democrats’ districts from tolling, while slapping toll taxes on the largely Republican north side.

Apparently, after the now defunct unpopular streetcar plan went south, Munoz got the hankering to cash-in on the US 281 toll road deal he helped fashion, and decided to let the ATD Board relinquish control of the toll revenues. Perhaps knowing the backlash to his name being attached to the engineering teams vying for the 281 toll contract would come, he wanted to soften the obvious tie to his Via/ATD Board Chair activities and this project. At its board meeting in August, the RMA officially ceded the project back to TxDOT, but retained the rights to the toll revenues.

Fraught with red flags

The obvious red flags are these:
1) Munoz & Co. is not even an engineering firm; it’s an architecture firm. How can an architecture firm qualify as part of a team for a civil engineering contract? Clearly Pape Dawson and AECOM are seeking to cash-in on Munoz’ connections to local officials and even to the RMA board itself. Indeed, Munoz has strong ties to three current RMA board members. The first, Reynaldo Diaz, served on the RMA board with Munoz. The second, Gavino Ramos, is a former Via board member that served at the same time as Munoz, and the third, Ramiro Cavazos, is the CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce who led a business coalition to advocate for Munoz’ street car plan.

2) The US 281 toll project does not have final clearance from the Federal Highway Administration. The final configuration of the road is still in doubt, too. Judge Wolff and Texas State Senator Donna Campbell sent a letter to the Texas Transportation Commission requesting that if Prop 1 passes in November, that some of those funds be used to replace some of the toll lanes planned for the 281 toll project with more free lanes. So how can an engineering contract be issued for a project where the design is still up in the air and for a project that has not received final approval from the feds yet?

The only explanation is corruption. This deal is rigged in favor of Munoz’ team from start to finish. Munoz was a key player in orchestrating the 281 toll road as a public official, and he’s now stealthily positioned himself to profit from it. He has a string of bad deals fraught with abuses in this town (San Antonio ISD bond program and the Museo Alameda project to name a few), and the US 281 toll project may be next among them.