TxDOT under fire…from the concerned citizens of TURF!

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TxDOT under fire
Daily Light Managing Editor
Saturday, September 8, 2007

  • 12th in a series

    Transportation was a hot subject during the recent legislative session – and it continues to be so in the interim.

    This week, several Texas lawmakers, Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson and state Reps. Joe Farias, David Leibowitz, Nathan Macias and others held a press conference in San Antonio in protest against current transportation policy and the Texas Department of Transportation.

    Key among their concerns are recent reports the state agency has launched a public relations plan to promote the Trans-Texas Corridor and to lobby for toll roads. Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom founder Terri Hall is among those criticizing TxDOT for using tax dollars to promote the TTC and tolling.

    During the San Antonio press conference, the group also called for TxDOT to install the original gas tax-funded improvement plan for U.S. Highway

    281 and drop plans to convert that roadway into a toll road, with Hall saying citizens on hand called for the “immediate resignations of TxDOT leadership.”

    Hall said TxDOT intends to make some interstates into toll corridors, including Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Dallas and Interstate 10 between Houston and San Antonio and also is looking at highways 281, 1604, Bandera Road and others around San Antonio.

    “If TxDOT and the politicians who enable them have their way, it won’t stop there,” she said, saying, “TxDOT plans to take every single lane on existing highway U.S. 281 and convert them into toll lanes. The only free lanes will be frontage roads, not highway lanes.”

    According to www.keeptexasmoving.com, TxDOT’s Web site relating to toll roads, Texas’ population has increased 57 percent in the past 25 years, with road use up by 95 percent.

    That’s a problem, the agency said, when state road capacity grew only 8 percent. TxDOT further notes on its Web site that the state’s population is estimated to increase another 64 percent during the next 25 years, with road use to increase 214 percent.

    “Without new funding methods, state road capacity will only grow 6 percent,” the agency says on its Web site.

    According to a TURF press release, Adkisson, who sits on the San Antonio Metropolitian Planning Organization, said, “TxDOT should begin (improving its relations with the public) by installing the overpasses and improvements at an estimated cost of $100 million and already paid for by our gas taxes instead building the hugely intrusive $400 million toll plan for U.S. 281 at four times the cost (and double the number of lanes).”

    Adkisson said the state’s transportation policy has failed in several areas by not indexing the gas tax and by not accelerating other forms of transportation. Creative solutions such as contraflow should be implemented and Texas should cease being a donor state that gives away more of its gas taxes than is returned, he said, saying the state is bearing the burden of NAFTA-related traffic.

    Macias, Farias and Leibowitz discussed their work during the legislative session relating to control over the toll road and TTC issues – and how that work was subsequently altered. All three encouraged voters to seek accountability at the ballot box in the next election so as to affect needed changes.

    During the press conference, Macias characterized tolling of an existing highway as the same as double taxation – and questioned TxDOT’s cost escalations for certain projects.

    Farias said amendments he tried to put into the two-year private toll moratorium bill, Senate Bill 792, were stripped out, adding that he’s concerned with the economic impact of tolls on economically-disadvantaged constituents.

    Leibowitz, who also sits on the San Antonio MPO, said he is calling for that board to pass a resolution against TxDOT’s public relations campaign and said he will ask state Attorney General Greg Abbott for an opinion on the issue.

    “I have never voted for a single toll road bill in my time in the Texas House,” said Leibowitz, who also shared his concerns that Texas is paying a disproportionate share of the NAFTA cost.

    Hall noted more lawmakers are becoming involved with the transportation issues.

    “The citizens support lawmakers’ efforts to put accountability and sanity back into transportation policy,” Hall said. “With U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison introducing a bill to prevent the tolling of existing interstates this week, calls from U.S. Congressman Ciro Rodriguez to investigate the tolling of existing interstates report, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Congressman Charlie Gonzales adamantly opposed to it, the people may get relief on the federal level first.”

    Hall said she supports a move back to the gas tax-funded plan for improvements to 281 and a stop to the tolling of other existing highways.

    “TxDOT has breached the public trust and it cannot be repaired short of cleaning house at that agency. They’ve repeatedly sworn to our faces they’re not tolling existing roads and then lobbied Congress to do just that,” Hall said.

    TURF calls for investigation

    In another development this week, TURF has called for Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle to investigate the Texas Department of Transportation relating to a public relations campaign it is mounting.

    “Unaccountable, eminent domain abusing, runaway toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor,” TURF founder Terri Hall said. “It’s not just smarmy, it’s illegal.”

    In a recent press release, TURF criticizes the agency for disregarding input from Texans, including more than 13,000 people who spoke during hearings on the TTC.

    “Apparently they lack the intellectual capacity to understand one of the most basic words in the English language (‘no’),” the release reads, with Hall adding, “To add insult to injury, they patronize us further by thinking we just haven’t gotten the message or that we somehow don’t understand their cash-cow, land-grabbing, double-taxing toll road policies, therefore they need to spend our money to further indoctrinate us into submission.”

    TURF’s disagrees with TxDOT’s plans to spend up to $9 million on its public relations campaign – which started June 1 – to promote the TTC.

    “The politicians who are ramming this down our throats need to realize they can’t escape the long arm of the law, especially Ronnie Earle’s. Tom Delay couldn’t and neither will they,” Hall said.

    “The citizens of Texas believe the Texas Department of Transportation is illegally using taxpayer money to wage a cleverly cloaked public relations campaign to push the wildly controversial Trans-Texas Corridor and toll road proliferation,” the complaint reads as filed by TURF, which notes the agency’s public relations campaign includes direct mail, billboards and employee training.

    “It’s not only an inappropriate and wasteful use of our gas tax dollars by an agency perpetually claiming it’s out of money for roads, but it’s illegal for a public agency to take a policy position and use the public’s tax money to sell them something using an under-handed PR campaign,” the complaint reads.

    TURF’s complaint also notes that a state auditor’s report issued earlier this year found “mismarking” of funds on expenditures relating to the TTC, with some expenditures marked as engineering instead of as an actual expense of public relations.

    “Please open an investigation and prosecute this agency for its repeated illegal activities,” the TURF complaint reads. “The people of Texas want justice. When Ken Lay cooked the books at Enron, he was sent to jail. The same needs to happen with those guilty of breaking the law at the highway department.”

    Hutchison’s response

    In response to the tolling controversy, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, has filed legislation that would prohibit the tolling of existing federal highways across the country.

    “My bill will protect drivers from paying tolls on roads that were already paid for by taxpayers,” Hutchison said in a statement about her legislation, S. 2019.

    The legislation’s intent is to “prohibit the imposition and collection of tolls on certain highways constructed using federal funds,” by blocking the U.S. Secretary of Transportation from approving tolls on existing federally-funded highways. Under current law, states can apply to the U.S. Department of Transportation to place tolls on existing federal highways.

    In a press release from her office, Hutchison said she would “vigorously oppose” any effort by Texas Department of Transportation to toll existing interstate highways through the use of buy backs.

    Earlier this year, TxDOT officials said they intended to lobby Congress to allow for the buy back of existing federal highways in Texas for the purpose of tolling. Hutchison’s legislation specifically disallows states to place tolls on any federal highways they buy back from the DOT.

    “I will work with members of the Texas Congressional delegation and the state legislature to ensure that Texans are never asked to pay a toll of an existing interstate highway,” said Hutchison, who serves as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which sets the budget for the federal Department of Transportation

    In February, TxDOT released its legislative agenda in a report called “Forward Momentum,” which seeks changes in federal law that would allow such buy backs for the purpose of tolling interstate highways, pending approval by local governments.

    S. 2019 is similar to a previous effort by Hutchison to block the use of tolls on existing interstate highways as part of the 2005 Highway Bill.

    The amendment passed the Senate but was stripped in conference by the House of Representatives.

    Cities fight to stop TTC

    The cities of Bartlett, Holland, Little River-Academy and Rogers recently formed the Eastern Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission to fight the TTC.

    “This is one issue all four cities are united behind to save our rural way of life,” said newly elected president Mae Smith, who is mayor of Holland. Other members of the board include Arthur White, mayor of Bartlett; Ronnie White, mayor of Academy; the Rev. Billy Crow, mayor of Rogers; and Ralph Snyder, a business owner from Holland.

    “The purpose of this commission is to give us a voice in this process. It’s our land that the Texas Department of Transportation and our governor want to take and we are not going to let them pave us over and ignore the concerns of our communities,” Snyder said.

    The commission reports the TTC would take from 5,000 and 7,500 acres in Bell County alone, while taking in another 50,000 acres of farmland between San Antonio and the Texas-Oklahoma border. The Texas Legislature created the TTC in 2003 “and ever since, landowners have been fighting to protect their rights,” according to a press release from the commission.

    The commission was formed using Texas Local Government Code, Chapter 391, which allows cities and counties to form regional planning commissions to work together to develop plans for their local region and to force the state agencies to coordinate with their activities.

    Under Chapter 391.009(c), TxDOT is required to coordinate with commissions to ensure effective and orderly implementation of state programs at the regional level.

    “TxDOT must coordinate with us before they can implement their plans in our region,” said Ronnie White, commission vice president. “The TTC is driven by greed and has no respect for our rural way of life.”

    The commission says that under state law, TxDOT will be required to work with it and coordinate the agency’s plans with the local group before any land is taken or any construction begins.

    “If not, they are in violation of the state statute and we are prepared to take them to court if necessary,” Smith said.

    The individual cities have also requested that the Environmental Protection Agency reject the Draft Environmental Impact Statement submitted by TxDOT, because the agency did not coordinate with local government as required under the federal law.

    Waller County rejects proposal

    Waller County commissioners announced at a meeting in early August that they had been approached by TxDOT officials and Gary Bushell, a lobbyist for the Alliance for I-69 and the Gulf Coast Strategic Highway Coalition, with a plan to route the TTC along the proposed path of the Prairie Parkway, which had been recently discussed as a thoroughfare from Highway 290 between Waller and Prairie View (James Muse Road), to I-10 and Woods Road.

    Waller County commissioners rejected the proposal, according to a press release from Citizens for a Better Waller County.

    “For folks that think that the Trans-Texas Corridor is not going to happen – this is a major wake up call,” said Don Garrett, president of the citizens group. “Not only does it show that TxDOT and Gov. Perry are going forward with the plans for the TTC-69, but that they still have Waller County dead in their sights for the path of this 1,200-feet wide mobility monster.

    “Although there is a two-year moratorium that prevents TxDOT from signing a contract with a private company to build the TTC-69 under Senate Bill 792, that doesn’t mean that they can’t proceed forward with selecting a pathway for it,” he said.

    Garrett said he encourages people living in Waller County to stay aware of TxDOT’s plans.

    “An express toll road that is a 1/2 of a mile wide going through the dead center of Waller County would devastate it. It will change life as we know it in Waller County for generations to come,” Garrett said. “This move by TxDOT shows that they are still trying to route this thing through the middle of our county, despite the fact that nobody in Waller County wants it here.

    “We are not opposed to a rational approach to solving our future transportation needs, but are adamantly opposed to a system that primarily benefits Wall Street and foreign investors,” he said, saying the organization has confirmed TxDOT representatives have met with Fort Bend County officials in regard to routing TTC-69 through Fort Bend County toward Waller County.

    According to information from the organization, Prairie Parkway has been on the county’s thoroughfare plan since 1985 and has been updated because of development to Houston Executive Airport and expansion plans for I-10 and Highway 290. The route also will provide additional hurricane evacuation capabilities for coastal residents.

    “TxDOT saw an opportunity with the proposed Prairie Parkway to piggyback the TTC on top of it. It’s now up to the citizens of Waller County to let TxDOT know what they think about that,” Garrett said.

    A final route for TTC-69 is pending release of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and additional hearings.

    “It is more important now than ever that people pay attention to what is going on around here,” Garrett said. “The TTC is alive and well and TxDOT is hoping that folks are asleep at the wheel when they show up with bulldozers.”