Public comment on TxDOT's "Public Involvement Plan" & "Strategic Plan"

Public comments DUE on TxDOT’s “Public Involvement Plan” (Sept 12 by 4 PM, submit via email here) and its “Strategic Plan” (Sept 15 by 5 PM, submit via email here).

TURF Public Comment on TxDOT’s Public Involvement Plan

TURF is a non-profit, grassroots organization with close to 50,000 members. Our mission is to educate and defend citizens’ concerns about toll roads and the Trans Texas Corridor, as well as to promote non-toll transportation solutions.

1. It doesn’t matter if TxDOT properly informs the public of a transportation project that affects them if they summarily dismiss the public comment submitted. What matters is that the TAXPAYERS have veto power over projects they don’t want or to have their concerns taken into account in a meaningful way. TxDOT needs to be required to do the transportation “alternative” that the public prefers and it must be the alternative that is also the most affordable and least invasive. This must be required in order to restore the public’s trust that transportation decisions are being made in the public’s best interest.

On page 5 TxDOT claims they “thoughtfully consider the feedback received during the public involvement process” yet they DO the exact opposite.

2.  TxDOT’s document states on page 3: “All other interested parties are provided notice of the comment period and public hearing via the Texas Register public notice and TxDOT’s website.”

TxDOT’s only notification of its plans is through notice in the Texas Register (which few citizens are even aware of or have time to wade through) or its web site. The Sunset Committee Report notes the non-user friendly problems with TxDOT’s web sites. Finding needed information on TxDOT’s web sites is at times near impossible unless one knows where to look. There must be an announcement made through major news outlets under public service announcements so that a mass audience is made aware of transportation hearings or that public comment is being solicited.

3. Page 5: “Several divisions are instrumental in TxDOT’s efforts to ensure a transparent process that provides the public with comprehensive information on a timely basis to facilitate stakeholder input in key decisions throughout the transportation planning process. TxDOT encourages Coordination, Cooperation, and Communication with the public…”

Transparency is not a part of TxDOT’s standard operating procedure (SOP). The SOP is to obfuscate, mislead, and hide vital financial information in the name of “proprietary information” or “draft” document loophole.  The Trans Texas Corridor TTC-35 development contract had the financial guts withheld from the public for 18 months AFTER a contract was signed and AFTER the Attorney General ordered it be made public.

Toll viability studies, market value studies, and other financial information on toll roads are routinely denied not only to the public (they lobbied to change the law, SB 792 passed in 2007, to allow them this sham protection), but even to Legislators and MPOs who have to vote to approve certain financial terms without even seeing them first! This is an egregious breach of open and transparent government and must be changed. There’s nothing proprietary about projected traffic volumes, projected toll rates, projected diversions rates, financing scenarios, and the projected financial viability of a project. If TxDOT is truly interested in transparency, they’ll release these documents BEFORE a contract is signed and PRIOR TO any vote for approval by MPOs or other decisions makers. Otherwise, the deal is done before the public or its duly elected representatives have an opportunity to weigh in.

4. Page 3 states and SAFETEA-LU requires:
“To the maximum extent practicable, ensure that public meetings are held at convenient and accessible locations and times” and “Demonstrate explicit consideration and response to public input”

The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority held its public meeting in June 2008 on the financial disclosure of its toll rate information in the middle of a workday (1 PM) more than 20 miles from the project area with NO PARKING. In 2007, TxDOT held its final NEPA hearing for US 281 several miles to the southeast of the 281 project area at the Alzafar Shrine Temple in an area almost entirely inaccessible to public transit users, and they refused to allow concerned citizens to have a table out in front with fliers and information stating “”this is a private facility, you can’t have a table out here,” regardless of the fact that it was PUBLIC meeting paid for with PUBLIC money. TxDOT shouldn’t hold meetings at private facilities if that means public involvement and information sharing can be hindered. At a later hearing for the Loop 1604 toll project, TxDOT tried the same tactic but after a County Commissioner and lawyer got involved, they finally relented and allowed the public to hand out information at a public hearing PAID FOR BY THE TAXPAYERS!

In 2006, at another hearing for Hwy 46 in Comal County, Greg Malatek of TxDOT stated that during public comment no one would be allowed to say the word “toll.” When I got up to make my comments, Judy Freisenhahn of TxDOT ripped the microphone from my hand when I said the word the “toll” (a word in the pass through financing contract for the project, but they arbitrarily deemed it “off limits”) in a total violation of my First Amendment rights. Armed police officers then surrounded me, simply for saying the word “toll.” TxDOT staff around the state have routinely forced citizens to face the TxDOT facilitator on the stage and NOT allow any speaker to turn around to address their fellow citizens face to face during public comment. When a citizen in San Antonio pressed the issue, armed police officers surrounded him and he was threatened and intimidated into silence or risked arrest.

At an MPO Meeting on a key vote at the San Antonio MPO, David Casteel of TxDOT directly threatened retribution against the public transit board members for voting against a 281 toll project and both those members were removed from the MPO in retaliation. All of these examples demonstrate a flagrant violation of federal law as it pertains to “public involvement.” Bullying, retaliation, threats, and intimidation are not to be tolerated in a free society. This is the pattern of behavior at TxDOT and it must be changed immediately!

5. On page 6: “TxDOT divisions work closely with state and federal regulatory agencies to ensure that the planning, engineering, environmental, public involvement, and construction processes result in the safe, efficient and effective movement of people and goods throughout the state, while facilitating trade and economic opportunity, and accomplishing TxDOT’s five primary goals: reduce congestion, enhance safety, expand economic opportunity, improve air quality, increase the value of our transportation assets.”

Increasing the value of the public’s highways (that TxDOT calls “assets”) and “expanding economic opportunity” have NOTHING to do with providing transportation. These should NOT be TxDOT’s goals. Their mission changed once public opposition to toll roads and PPPs came on the scene in earnest in 2005. They use these “goals” to justify their toll and Trans Texas Corridor agenda of pushing the most expensive transportation financing option, toll roads. Increasing the cost of transportation through tolling does NOT expand economic opportunity for taxpayers, it hurts the family budget and sucks money away from other household necessities.

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TURF Public Comment on TxDOT’s 2009-2013 Strategic Plan

The Texas Department of Transportation used to have admirable goals that the public could support. Now, however, their primary mission is to “maximize the value” of our public “assets,” which simply used to be called highways. On page 2, it asks, “Are we doing the right thing?” The public’s answer is a resounding “NO!” The public’s highways, bought and paid for by the taxpayers, are not the Department’s to hawk up to the highest bidder on Wall Street in a risky leveraged debt toll road scheme requiring an additional toll tax to use them.

It’s time TxDOT wake-up and smell the warning signs around them. Fitch and Moody’s have warned that toll roads are becoming more risky, not less, and that governments or private operators will have to increase tolls in order to make bond payments to prevent default since toll road usage continues to drop as the price of gas rises. A continued push for massive leveraged debt and ever increasing toll hikes is as foolish in this economic climate as it is a taxpayer rip-off.

We’re in a different era than we were in 2000 when the push for toll roads began. We’re in the midst of a volatile oil market causing high gasoline prices and an increase in the cost of basic necessities like food, as well as a credit crunch and declining dollar causing an overall economic decline. The cost of living is rising faster than wages and people’s ability to keep up. Continued reliance on tolling is a recipe for economic disaster and will likely lead to a “bubble” that will later “bust” and require massive taxpayer bailouts.

More specific concerns with the Plan are outlined below:

1. On page 2 of the proposed plan it states: “The Texas transportation system plays a critical role in the economic and social well-being of all Texans. It provides the basic infrastructure that supports our economy and quality of life.”

TxDOT acknowledges that Texans rely on our transportation system for daily living and it’s the backbone of our economy. Increasing the cost of transportation from 1-2 cents per mile in gas taxes to 20 cents or more per mile in tolls is an expense most Texans can ill afford. A recent Austin Business Journal article stated Texans are hit particularly hard by high gas prices. On average they spend over $2,000 a year in gas. Since the average cost in tolls will be $2,000-$4,000 a year per family (20 mile commute at 20 cents per mile in tolls, roundtrip daily cost = $8, $40/wk, and over $2,000/yr), tolls will, at a minimum, double the average Texan’s cost of gas!

Toll taxes will negatively impact the family budget, and hence decrease the quality of life of Texans as more money gets sucked into transportation leaving them less money for basic necessities for their families. Though toll roads may save time, it costs more money. It’s an empty promise to say toll roads will give Texans more time with their families as they race home on uncongested tollways, since most Texans will have to work longer and harder in order to pay their toll bills or remain stuck in traffic.

2. The Plan also states on page 2: “Travel demand for people and goods is growing…”

This is untrue. In March of 2008, the United States experienced the largest drop in driving (vehicle miles traveled) year over year in recorded history. Federal Highway Administration statistics show a steady decline in driving almost entirely attributable to high fuel costs. So to continue to rely on old travel demand models that assume VMT will continue to rise is fundamentally flawed and ignores reality.

3. Page 4 states: “Economic and population growth negatively affects the performance of our transportation system. As travel demand increases, congestion worsens, air quality suffers, safety concerns grow, and maintenance needs multiply.”
Again, TxDOT falsely assumes mere population growth leads to highway congestion. The Texas State Data Center predicts population growth will be poorer and less educated. An increase in retirees is expected and they generally do not drive during peak congestion nor contribute to peak traffic in urban areas. A less educated populace will tend to lack the personal income to own and maintain a personal vehicle and less likely to be able to afford tolls on a daily basis.

So TxDOT’s entire “Strategic Plan” is flawed since it’s based on flawed assumptions of growth in driving and congestion. TxDOT also fails to take into account that new population growth and any influx of new users on the highway will also pay gas taxes and thus increase revenues. Additionally, TxDOT fails to consider that a reduction in driving also translates into a reduction in the need for road maintenance.

4. TxDOT’s Vision, Mission, and Goals do not reflect the ideals of most Texans.

Vision
We will deliver a 21st century, multimodal transportation system that will improve the quality of life for Texas citizens and increase the competitive position for Texas industry.
Mission
We will provide safe, efficient, and effective means for the movement of people and goods throughout the state, facilitating trade and economic opportunity.
Goals
Our five goals establish the general direction we will take to realize our vision and mission: reduce congestion, enhance safety, expand economic opportunity, improve air quality, increase the value of our transportation assets.
Strategies
We will harness market-based principles to maximize competition, reduce costs, and guide investments. We will facilitate consumer-driven decisions that respond to market forces.

“Increase the competitive position for Texas industry” and “facilitating trade and economic opportunity” are goals for private industry and should NOT be the aim of a taxpayer-funded public agency. This smacks of corporatism and does not protect the public interest.

Increasing the value of the public’s highways (that TxDOT calls “assets”) and “expanding economic opportunity” have NOTHING to do with providing transportation. These should NOT be TxDOT’s goals. Their mission changed once public opposition to toll roads and PPPs came on the scene in earnest in 2005. They use these “goals” to justify their toll and Trans Texas Corridor agenda of pushing the most expensive transportation financing option, toll roads. Increasing the cost of transportation through tolling does NOT expand economic opportunity for taxpayers, it increases the tax burden and hurts the family budget by sucking money away from other household necessities.

TxDOT’s strategy of using “market-based” tolling is diametrically opposed to protecting the public interest and its access to government-sanctioned monopolies, our public highways. It is NOT the government’s role to implement market forces in order to access public “assets.” Private industry utilizes competition and market forces, but highways are monopolies built with public money to serve the public and cannot be viewed as subject to the same market forces as other private sector goods and services.

A recent poll done by Lyceum, a non-partisan public policy institute, shows only 9% of Texans use toll roads regularly and it also shows the majority of Texans do not want an increase in gas taxes or TOLLS and they are also against tolling existing freeways. TxDOT’s “goals” are in direct opposition to the majority of Texans. Its goals must be changed to reflect the will of the taxpayers who pay the bills.

TxDOT’s stated “tactics” do not protect the public interest using controversial methods like debt financing, handing control of our public roadways over to private entities through PPPs, a state infrastructure bank, and public pension funds to finance toll roads.

5. Congestion not going up, but down.

TxDOT sites the travel time index for Texas’ major cities as going up. Yet, a San Antonio Express News article July 29, 2008, using the most recent Transguide data shows the opposite…travel times in both San Antonio and Houston are going down. Peak congestion in San Antonio went from 3 hours a day down to under 2. This is function of higher gas prices and people finding other ways to get to work.

6. Increasing the cost of transportation does NOT help, but HURT the economy.

TxDOT assumes that by merely increasing the number of transportation-related jobs helps the economy when the economic data shows an increase in the cost of transportation (whether gas prices, gas tax, tolls, or other increases) hurts the economy and causes a dramatic rise in the cost of goods and services, including necessities like food.

7. Texans don’t want the Trans Texas Corridor and PPPs, and TxDOT’s claims of protecting the public interest are false.

Page 31 states:
All state highway facilities, including toll roads, will be completely owned by the State of Texas at all times.

• Only new lanes added to an existing highway will be tolled, and there will be no reduction in the number of non-tolled lanes that exist today.

• CDAs will not include “non-compete” clauses that would prohibit improvements to existing roadways.

Effective ownership is transferred when the PPP is for half century. TxDOT is taking away existing non-toll highway lanes and replacing them with frontage or access roads. That’s highway robbery plain and simple. The non-compete clauses may not prohibit expansion, but the state will have to pay the toll operator a penalty for doing so. The punitive financial consequences will in itself prohibit expansion of non-toll options.

Bottom line: Texans don’t’ trust this agency, its assumptions laid out in this plan are flawed, do not protect the public interest, and will hurt the economy, and its goals do not reflect the goals of the majority of Texans. This Strategic Plan is more of the same, not a fresh start as Chairwoman Delisi assured the Sunset Commission on July 15. TxDOT must return to a more affordable, less risky approach to highway funding.

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