Sunset Commission slams TxDOT for converting existing freeways to tollways & more

Mission accomplished. The Sunset Commission heard your voices loud and clear and will investigate scrapping the appointed 5 member transportation commission with a single ELECTED commissioner and more (like investigate their misuse of taxpayer $$$ on illegal lobbying and its advocacy for tolling and the Trans Texas Corridor). Watch the explosive videos, including how legislators say TxDOT is not following the legislative intent of their law prohibiting freeway to tollway conversions here.

Read some of the news coverage that overtly passed over the release of the damaging video of TxDOT’s top brass LYING under oath here and here. But the Houston Chronicle’s blog and the Dallas Morning News blog did mention the TURF lawsuit. See below…

Houston Chronicle blog
July 15, 2008

About that Keep Texas Moving lawsuit

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, a Sunset Advisory Commission member, is questioning the large number of people in the Texas Department of Transportation’s government and public affairs division – 63 – and its efforts to promote toll roads through efforts like the Keep Texas Moving campaign.

“It would be like almost TEA (the Texas Education Agency) creating a Web site for vouchers,” the controversial idea of proving public funds for private-school attendance, Kolkhorst said at today’s Sunset hearing.

Keep Texas Moving sparked a lawsuit by Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, but it was dismissed last month by State District Judge Paul Davis.

TURF’s Terri Hall said her group will appeal the dismissal.

TURF contended the Keep Texas Moving campaign violated a a state prohibition on state officers or employees using their authority for political purposes.

The state said it was allowed to promote toll projects under law and its campaign was responsive to a call from the public and elected officials for more information on road initiatives.

The campaign had been proposed at a cost of $7 million to $9 million.

It has cost $4.5 million and no additional big advertising or outreach pushes are in the works under the KTM banner, said TXDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott — although its Web site will continue to be maintained.

“As an agency,” Lippincott said, “we have been asked to cut back.”

Hearing on transportation begins with a bang

The Sunset Advisory Commission has started with a bang: Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, says officials need to seriously consider the idea of an elected transportation commissioner.

“I think that we ought to have everything on the table,” McClendon said, asking Sunset staff to explore pros and cons of the idea, which would be a dramatic change from the current five-member commission appointed by the governor.

She said everything should be looked at from leaving the commission the way it is to making that big change to an elected overseer for the agency.

Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, agreed that the idea of an elected transportation commissioner should be explored, saying 76 percent of those who commented wanted the commissioner to be elected.

The idea drew an “Amen” and applause from TxDOT critics in the hearing room.

Dallas Morning News blog
TxDOT hearings continue into the evening, turn testy6:04 PM Tue, Jul 15, 2008 |  | 
After hours of mostly polite, if often pointed, questioning by members of the Sunset Advisory Commission, a hearing in Austin turned uglier late Tuesday.Rep. Ruth McClendon, D-San Antonio, questioned the honesty of TxDOT executive director Amadeo Saenz when he said he couldn’t immediately recall the details of State Highway 281 in south Texas. “After we started off on such a positive start, and after all this talk of honesty and transparency, you sit here in front of us and say you do not know.”No, Mr. Saenz repeated, he did not have the details in front of him, but said he would get the information and meet separately with the commission members when he did.

Ms. McClendon and the 11 other members of the advisory committee are grilling TxDOT today over allegations that the agency has lost its way.

Other areas of disagreement that led to sharp questioning by the lawmakers include the question whether TxDOT is illegally spending millions of dollars to advance its preference for toll roads and, in many cases, private toll roads.

State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, asked TxDOT executive Coby Chase how much the agency had spent in the past year on Keep Texas Moving, the agency’s public campaign supporting its road-building agenda. “$4.5 million,” he said, to the guffaws of some in the audience who have seized on the spending as evidence of the agency’s improperly politicizing transportation.

State law prohibits state agencies from lobbying, and Rep. Kolkhorst said TxDOT spending money to promote toll roads is just as illegal as if the education department ran ads encouraging vouchers.

But TxDOT spokesman Christopher Lippincott said the agency does not participate in the kind of advocacy prohibited by state law. It does not, he said, lobby for particular changes in the law. Toll roads, even private toll roads, are entirely legal and have been authorized by statutes passed by the Legislature, he said.

TxDOT’s top brass perjures themselves
TURF releases explosive footage of depositions from ad campaign/lobbying lawsuit to Sunset Commission

Tuesday, July 15, 2008 – Some very damaging footage of TxDOT’s top brass under oath was presented to the Sunset Advisory Commission at its hearing on the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) today. As part of TURF’s lawsuit against TxDOT to stop its illegal lobbying and ad campaign called Keep Texas Moving to promote toll roads and the Trans Texas Corridor in violation of Texas Government Code Chapter 556, several top officials of TxDOT were deposed under oath where they perjured themselves.

TURF gave each member of the Commission a DVD of a new documentary film, Truth Be Tolled TURF Special Edition, made about TxDOT’s Keep Texas Moving campaign that shows portions of legal depositions of TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz, Director of Government and Public Affairs Division Coby Chase, and Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton.

TURF showed the Sunset Advisory Commission that TxDOT has made an unprecedented push to win public approval for its controversial toll road and Trans Texas Corridor project, using public money, which is not only illegal, it unfairly stacks the deck against citizens.

Houghton swore under oath that TxDOT had not hired registered lobbyists when these invoices (view here.) show they have (as well as Houghton’s own admission during a Town Hall Meeting in Hempstead, view here.). State law prohibits state agencies from hiring lobbyists and prohibits them from using public money for a political purpose. State agencies are to implement policy, not shape it. Video clips from the Town Hall meeting in Hempstead also show Houghton trying to sway the crowd in favor of the Trans Texas Corridor while under oath he was adamant that TxDOT and he had not done so.

PULL ANY ADVOCACY CAMPAIGNS FROM TXDOT
Keep Texas Moving advocates the Trans Texas Corridor, privatization of infrastructure, and tolling. The information in this campaign only extols the benefits of tolling and privatization (and never includes criticisms).

The stated goal of the campaign found in TxDOT documents is:
“To shift perception among those who are opposed to or on the fence about the TTC” and to change the political environment to “make it less hostile to the TTC” and to promote the “benefits of TTC…and help inoculate it from negative attacks” as well as “increase support of TxDOT programs.”

“This is no public information campaign. It’s a taxpayer-funded political ad campaign, which is not only illegal, but it also abuses the taxpayers in order to line TxDOT’s pockets with the MOST EXPENSIVE transportation tax,” says Terri Hall, TURF Founder who testified before the Sunset Commission.

TxDOT hired 5 registered lobbyists to the tune of $100,000/month to directly lobby Congress and other elected officials for more CDAs, the TTC, and tolling. Saenz, Chase, and Houghton all claimed ignorance of the law under oath, but Chapter 556.009 says all state officers and employees are given the law prior to taking a position with the State and a record of their acknowledgment of receipt is to be kept in writing.

“So any claim of ignorance of the law by the top brass is no get out jail free card,” Hall said.

This document shows TxDOT targeted County Judges in the path of the TTC-69. Houghton testified in the TURF lawsuit that lobbyist Gary Bushell is who arranged Houghton’s meetings with the County Judges. County Judges are key in appointing an arbitration committee between landowners and the State in eminent domain cases. So TxDOT’s lobbying effort was clearly to give the State an advantage in eminent domain proceedings for the Trans Texas Corridor.

Despite the TURF lawsuit and the suspension of hiring outside lobbyists, TxDOT recently hired an in-house lobbyist, Rebecca Reyes, to lobby Democrats in Congress through TxDOT’s Washington office (view here) and joined a lobby group named Transportation Transformation, or T2, with 4 other DOTs and private investors, like Goldman Sachs, to lobby Congress for more CDAs (see here).

TxDOT (see here) seeking to gain public approval of the TTC, which included asking overtly political questions like political party affiliation and if the respondent voted straight ticket in the last election.

In another document, it states TxDOT’s messages in the ad campaign would promote tolling over gas taxes with statements like, “tolls are better than gas taxes to fund roads” (see here).
“The Sunset Commission needs to strongly recommend the repeal of Section 228.004 from the transportation code and remove from TxDOT any ability to promote toll roads. They’ve become an arm of private industry that cannot be trusted to expend funds in a way that protects the public interest,” insisted Hall.

END FREEWAY TO TOLLWAY CONVERSIONS
TURF and many of its supporters addressed the reforms the citizens demand in order to restore trust in the agency, anywhere from replacing the unelected 5 member Transportation Commission with a single ELECTED commissioner to fixing how decisions to toll roads are made (and giving the public real veto power), to getting an accurate figure of road funding needs independently of TxDOT, as well as ending freeway to tollway conversions.

The complete conversion of US 281 from a freeway, already built and open to traffic for decades, to a toll road shocked the Commission and was a central part of the hearing. Representative Linda Harper-Brown questioned TxDOT’s perversion of a state law, HB 2702, that prohibits conversions without a public vote and requires them to leave as many non-toll lanes that exist before adding toll lanes. But TxDOT is tolling every single express lane (or main lane) on US 281 and downgrading the non-toll lanes to access roads with slower speed limits and permanent stop lights, an unfair replacement say critics.

Even worse, the 281 improvements have been funded with gas taxes starting in 2003 ($100 million plan total), but it was turned into a toll road simply to generate revenue for other area projects, clearly a discriminatory, targeted tax. Now as a toll road, the pricetag has ballooned to a whopping $1.3 billion!

“With highway robbery of this scale, it’s no wonder the supposed funding gap for future roads swelled to $86 billion. This is insane! Rep. Joe Pickett once stated we can build 4 freeways for the price of one toll road. In the case of US 281, we can build 10 freeways for the price of one toll project!” notes an outraged Hall.

TURF also delivered disks of all the evidence in their lawsuit to the Travis County District Attorney’s office to press them to file criminal charges against guilty parties.

“Texans are tired of one legal standard for them and another for those in power. The Truth Be Tolled TURF Special Edition DVD (www.TruthBeTolled.com) is enough evidence to show TxDOT is guilty of lying under oath and prosecuting an illegal ad and lobbying campaign on the taxpayers’ dime. Blood’s in the water now, and the sharks are circling. The people demand justice,” Hall commented.

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