July 28, 2008

"There is no 'free' money in public-private partnerships."

GAO Questions Wisdom of Public Private Partnerships

Government Accountability Office testimony warns of need to better assess the true cost of privately operated toll roads.

GAO report coverThe Government Accountability Office last week questioned the wisdom of using public-private partnerships to build and maintain toll roads. GAO's Director of Physical Infrastructure issues, Jay Etta Z. Hecker, summarized the congressional watchdog agency's work in testimony before a US Senate Finance subcommittee hearing on Thursday that focused on the cost to the public of privately operated toll road leasing arrangements........

"There is no 'free' money in public-private partnerships," GAO's report stated. "They are potentially more costly to the public and it is likely that tolls on a privately operated highway will increase to a greater extent than they would on a publicly operated toll road. There is also the risk of tolls being set that exceed the costs of the facility, including a reasonable rate of return, should a private concessionaire gain market power because of the lack of viable travel alternatives."

July 18, 2008

Austin, we have a problem

by Virginia “Dee Dee” King and Connie Fogle
Groveton News
Copyright 2008

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) announced June 11th that it will recommend that the I-69/Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) Project be developed using existing highway facilities “wherever possible”.

TxDOT is trying to slip through the current Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for approval by the Federal Highway Administration to get financing to start construction! As Craig Whealy wrote in his Letters to the Editor (June 19th), “when a project moves from a Draft EIS to Final after federal approval, all discussion and legal challenges come to a screeching halt.” The finalized EIS (Tier II) “does not preclude the use of the Preferred Alternate at some time in the future.”

TNT (like that acronym?) has requested a meeting with TxDOT to get answers to the concerns in Trinity and Polk counties. No reply, yet.

So, who and what in the heck is TNT?

Trinity-Neches Texas Sub-regional Planning Commission whose purpose is to coordinate with state and federal agencies on any concerns involving our counties. Mayor Grimes Fortune (Corrigan), Mayor Troy Jones (Groveton), Mayor Lyle Stubbs (Trinity), and member at large Bob Dockens make up the Board of Directors.

TNT wants the existing EIS rewritten to no longer include Trinity County, and to start addressing the Polk County issues involving US Hwy 59.

Connie Fogle, Dee Dee King, Jessica Parish, and Craig Whealy, all Planning Commission Associates, along with representatives from three other Planning Commissions sat in a meeting, on July 15th, between the ECTSRPC (East Central Texas Sub-regional Planning Commission) and the NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service), in Holland, TX.

Though the Topic of Discussion was “The Impact of the Trans-Texas Corridor, I-35 Segment”, TNT associates benefited from some insights presented by Donald Gohmert, State Conservationist and Dennis Williamson, Acting Soil Scientist. These insights brought home possible issues if the current DEIS is approved.

Two other Planning Commission Associates attended the Sunset Advisory Commission meeting in Austin, July 15th, concerning the proper functioning of TxDOT. Created in 1977, the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission is to identify and eliminate waste, duplication, and inefficiency in government agencies

Noble Campbell, a TNT Associate member, attended the Sunset Advisory Commission meeting on TxDOT. Noble had prepared a 3 minute presentation for the commission, where he said “My second worry relates to an aspect of the supposedly agreed restructure of the route of the "corridor", moving it to the "footprint of existing highways" …from Laredo to Texarkana.

"The manipulations of the Environmental Tier I activities, at step 9, marks step 9 as a beginning of Tier II. There is an effort underway at TXDOT that Tier II of the original corridor route will not be eradicated, meaning that the original corridor route will remain legal and intact through eternity…and at this point, we get the 50 year hogwash treatment.

'There are four counties in the loop which was planned to bypass Houston on the west side… We are concerned that the "50 year hogwash treatment" may revert to about a "5 year hogwash" when TxDOT gets stuck in the middle of Houston and complains its way out, explaining that it has to revert to the Tier II route (in the current TTC/I-69 DEIS) through the four counties noted. (Waller, Grimes, Walker and Trinity)”

July 18th, the Sunset Advisory Commission posted the hearing report at listed 6 issues that Sunset had identified concern-ing TxDOT at http://www. sunset.state.tx.us/81streports/txdot/txdot_hm.pdf and added 16 more from the public hearings.

Hank Gilbert, of Whitehouse TX, submitted Number 16: which requires TxDOT to properly coordinate with all local governmental entities in the proposed pathways of their future projects, not just the elected officials TxDOT deems important. (Hank Gilbert, President – Pineywoods Sub-Regional Planning Commission)

© 2008, The Groveton News: www.easttexasnews.com

July 16, 2008

Commissioners Say Yes to 391

BY DAVE LEWIS, Publisher
The Navasota Examiner
Copyright 2008

After a few months of pressure from the public and taking time to become comfortable with the idea, the Grimes County Commissioners’ Court Monday voted unanimously to create a resolution that would allow the county to form a 391 sub-regional planning commission.

The county’s move would follow the City of Iola’s action last week to form its own 391 commission. Plans are for Grimes County to participate with Iola to complete the process of two founding entities providing the formation and leadership of such a commission.

County Attorney John C. Fultz was instructed to frame the county’s 391 resolution, which is expected to mirror Iola’s. Passage of the resolution is expected this month.

In moving to create the resolution, Precinct 3 Commissioner Julian Melchor said he’d like to see certain stipulations included in the plan. However, Melchor was informed that his suggestions were covered in the Iola plan, which is expected to be the county’s model.

Other governing bodies may participate in the Iola-Grimes County 391 commission if they comply with the commission’s structure.

The sub-regional commission would give county residents and elected officials a measure of status in dealing with proposed state projects that could adversely impact the area. The initial chief concern locally was construction on the previously proposed TransTexas Corridor route, which would have cut a significant swath through Grimes County, destroy several farmsteads and remove thousands of acres of taxable property from the county’s books.

TxDOT recently announced a new proposal to use existing roadways to complete construction of the corridor. Residents in favor of the 391 Commission say they want to make sure that the county has a say in all future projects planned for our area.

© 2008, The Navasota Examiner: www.navasotaexaminer.com

July 15, 2008

East Texans voice opinions about TxDOT at Sunset Commission hearing

By Donna McCollum
KTRE-TV (Channel 9)
Copyright 2008

NACOGDOCHES, TX - The Sunset Commission staff report begins with a very telling statement. Under issues/recommendations it states, " Until trust in the Texas Department of Transportation is restored, the state cannot move forward to effectively meet its growing transportation needs.

Some of that mistrust comes from entities that continue to join the Piney Woods Sub Regional Planning Commission. Number one on its list is to abolish the appointed Transportation Commission and replace it with mostly elected commissioners. Member Merry Anne Bright said, " We feel like that's a political encumbrance when you have an appointed board as opposed to an elected board. "

Second, is the request that all TxDOT ad campaigns receive final approval from the legislature and transportation committees. Accountability is the concern. Bright said, " We would like an investigation into the mismanagement of taxpayer's money. "

The third request is a mandate forcing TxDOT to coordinate with local towns and cities the proposed pathways of their future projects. President of the Piney Woods Sub-Regional Planning Commission, Hank Gilbert of Whitehouse was scheduled to testify in Austin today. Additional Piney Wood members were in Bell County meeting with other sub regional commissions along the I-35 corridor.

Not all East Texans can go to Austin to voice their opinion before the Sunset Commission in person so many of them wrote letters. Their letters can be found on the Sunset Commission web site. www.sunset.state.tx.us/ Some are handwritten by individual property owners. Others represent multiple entities.

Despite the criticisms, most Texans recognize the agency's benefits. Senator Robert Nichols from Jacksonville said, " That agency is wonderful. I strongly support it. What we have a problem with are some of the actions that have occurred. "

The positive aspects are there, but the Sunset Commission is still recommending a four year legislative conservatorship to return control over transportation policy to the legislature.

More Reaction To Today's Sunset Commission Hearing

The following statement can be attributed to Bill Noble, executive director of Texans for Safe Reliable Transportation:

"Today Texas lawmakers showed they are absolutely committed to improving the trust and transparency of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). TxDOT and the legislature demonstrated their commitment to building quality statewide infrastructure that will help grow the economy of Texas. In the days and weeks ahead, a lot of hard work will take place to put past mistakes behind them and promote transportation initiatives that will make Texas the best place to live, work and play."

© 2008, KTRE-TV: www.ktre.com

July 10, 2008

Local Republicans Invite 391 Commission Speakers

The Navasota Examiner
Copyright 2008

The regular meeting of the Grimes County Republican Party held Monday, July 7, at 7 p.m. in the commissioners’ courtroom in Anderson featured a slightly different agenda and group in attendance.

This meeting was open to all concerned citizens, regardless of political affiliation, to gather information regarding the formation of a 391 sub-regional commission in Grimes County.

Special guests were Commissioner Glenn Beckendorff of Waller County, who is also an officer of the Waller County sub-regional planning commission and a director of the Houston- Galveston Area Council (COG); Trey Duhon, an attorney from Waller County, as well as a director for the Waller County Toll Road Authority and a director of the TTC/I-69 Advisory Committee; and Don Garrett, long time Waller County realtor and president of the Citizens for a Better Waller County Organization. Each spoke, then answered questions for the 35-plus people assembled Monday evening.

Grimes County officials attending were Judge Betty Shiflett, District Attorney Tuck McLain and councilman Norman from the newly-formed City of Iola.

Duhon presented an overview of a 391 sub-regional planning commission, explaining the state statutes authorizing the formation and authorities awarded the commission under those statutes.

He allayed the fears of some that a 391 might have the authority of eminent domain by citing Texas statutes as well as assuring listeners that for extra measure, special verbiage could be included in the commission by-laws to exclude any and all condemnation authority.

Another negative brought before the Iola City Council in a recent meeting was the threat of a lawsuit. Duhon again countered with an explanation of the commission’s authority, which in general is to coordinate with State Agencies. “How can someone get sued for coordinating?” he asked.

Beckendorff assured the group that forming a 391 sub-regional was not an obstructionist movement but a full-fledged effort to bring their county together to work toward common goals and improvements for the cities individually as well as the county as a whole. He cited a working example.

Several months ago, TxDOT proposed a road widening. The school district and bus drivers were concerned with the plan as presented because they felt it put the drivers and children at risk.

After contacting TxDOT and explaining their 391 commission was in progress, meetings were facilitated and the schedule and plans for the project were adjusted to meet the needs and safety concerns of the school district.

After a general question and answer session, Judge Shiflett spoke to the group. She reported on her recent visit with TxDOT and stated that TxDOT welcomed the formation of a 391 sub-regional planning commission.

She added that the Commisisoners Court still needs more information before making a decision on the matter.

© 2008, The Navasota Examiner: www.navasotaexaminer.com

July 9, 2008

Rocks for the Goliath Road

Small-town leaders in Central Texas think they’ve found cracks in the Trans-Texas Corridor’s armor.

Fort Worth Weekly
Copyright 2008

BARTLETT — Sitting in Lois and Jerry’s Restaurant, surrounded by a blue-jean and overalls lunch crowd, Mae Smith and Ralph Snyder don’t look like giant-killers. In fact, the small-town mayor (5’ 2”) and the salvage shop owner (6’ 6”) look more like a Mutt and Jeff comedy team.

But along with mayors, business leaders, and farmers in Bell County, north of Austin, and their counterparts in several other parts of the state, Smith and Snyder are taking on a Texas Goliath — the Trans-Texas Corridor, the monster transportation project being pushed by Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Department of Transportation.

Two years ago, the I-35 section of the project, planned to parallel the existing interstate, was seen as a done deal, and TxDOT was busy signing contracts with the Spanish-U.S. consortium called Cintra-Zachry to build a section of the corridor and operate it as a private toll road. Now, however, much of the political support for it has drained away in the face of widespread grass-roots opposition. Even the project’s backers say the small-towners’ group may have a chance of causing major holdups — and perhaps even fatal delays.

Smith, Snyder, and a growing group of leaders in other small towns and rural areas in the TTC’s path have found what they believe to be a chink in the giant’s armor, and they are exploiting it for all they’re worth — backed by national property-rights groups that have fought government land seizures in other states with some success.

In the last two years, Smith, the 64-year-old firebrand mayor of Holland, and the leaders of three other Bell County towns, with a combined population of less than 6,000, had grown increasingly worried about the threat that the TTC project posed for their communities. Frustrated by their inability to get state transportation officials to pay attention to their fears, the mayors found a provision in state law that allows for the creation of local planning commissions — and then requires TxDOT and other state agencies to coordinate projects with those commissions.

So they created a planning commission and began asking for consultations and records on TTC. And what they found in the process astounded them.

Smith said that TxDOT claims in official documents that it has studied the Corridor’s expected effects on communities it will run through — but that it has done no such studies. In the draft version of its environmental impact study, she said, the agency wrote a summary — the only part many busy lawmakers are likely to read — that varied wildly from the information in the body of the report.

The local officials charge that the transportation agency report broadly misstated its own consultant’s findings regarding jobs that the TTC would create and failed to mention heavy losses in personal income and in the tax base the project would cause. They say TxDOT has also ignored requirements in state and federal law that it consider effects on air quality and the environment, look into other alternatives — or even to state why the TTC, with its grand vision of toll roads, train and pipeline rights of way, and commercial areas controlled by private corporations, is needed at all. And, perhaps most importantly for one of the state’s richest farming areas, they charge that TxDOT has failed to consider the major impact the project would have on their federally protected farmland.

As a result, the planning commission is pressing for TxDOT to redraw its environmental impact statement and to stop any further work on the TTC until proper studies have been done and requirements met — or expect to be sued.

TxDOT officials have said only that they have contacted the Federal Highway Administration to find out if the Central Texas group, which now includes a fifth town, in Milam County, has the power to compel it to respond. TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippencott wrote in an e-mail that, “We are awaiting further guidance from [the federal agency] on whether and how to revisit the already-completed portion of this process.” Gov. Rick Perry, who has been the power behind the push for the TTC, declined to comment.

Perhaps worse news, from TxDOT’s point of view, is that, since the Central Texas group formed, four more local planning commissions have been formed in East Texas, two more are being organized on the other side of the state, and the Sierra Club is getting into the action, pointing out problems with the environmental assessment on another major portion of the TTC and asking that that work be delayed as well, until a new impact study is done.

The small-town group’s formal request to the state agency cites so many sins in the Corridor planning process, Smith said, that the detailed document “can almost indict people for the way TxDOT has purposely ignored state and federal law.”

Chapter 391 of the Texas Local Government Code is the not-so-secret weapon of the Central Texas officials who are fighting the Corridor. The code “says that TxDOT and other state agencies have to coordinate project planning with local planning commissions,” Smith explained, “so we formed one” – specifically, the Eastern Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission, of which she is president.

The commission was created in August 2007, by which time TxDOT had already released its draft environmental impact statement on the part of the Corridor project that affects Bell and Milam counties, known as TTC-35. In the draft statement, Smith said, the agency “claimed to have studied the highway’s environmental impact and the impact it would have on the communities it ran through, but that wasn’t true.” So the group asked for a meeting with TxDOT to talk about it.

At that first meeting, in October, Smith said, TxDOT officials admitted they hadn’t studied the environmental impact the planned 1,200-foot wide corridor would have on the area covered by the four towns — Holland, Bartlett, Rogers, and Little River-Academy (Buckholts has joined since then). That area is part of the Blackland Prairie, covered by the federal Farmland Protection Act.

A second meeting revealed that the environment wasn’t the only thing TxDOT hadn’t studied. The local commission concluded that in fact, TxDOT hadn’t studied much of anything with regard to Bell County “They had no idea how to answer questions about [the TTC] dividing our cities in half and the effect that might have on school districts, on the agriculture business this area depends on, or the effect that highway would have on our emergency services,” Smith said.

TxDOT officials, she said, promised they would do that work when they began the second phase of the project — that is, after they decided exactly where to put the superhighway. In the meantime, however, the agency was already buying land and making deals with contractors. “That’s not OK with us,” she said. “That’s not the law. You can’t begin to study the impact you’ll have after you’ve made your plans; you have to make your plans around the impact you are going to have.”

The planning commissioners also found that the state highway agency’s draft environmental study didn’t even agree with itself — the summary wasn’t supported by the text of the report.

And so Smith’s group sent out a formal request on May 20 to Edward Pensock Jr., the engineer who is director of corridor systems of the TxDOT’s turnpike division, asking the agency for a supplemental report on the project’s environmental impact.

The Central Texas commission backed up its request with a 28-page list of “deficiencies” in the current environmental assessment. Perhaps as important as the request itself is the commission’s insistence on when it should be done.

“We want the supplemental environmental impact study done by TxDOT prior to any further work or planning on the highway,” Smith said.

TxDOT wasn’t happy with the request and sent it on to the Federal Highway Administration, asking whether it indeed has to do a supplemental report. The federal agency’s answer is expected by the end of the month. And if the ruling favors the local commission, the entire TTC could be held up until that new report is complete.

A TxDOT official who asked not to be named said the state agency has satisfied its obligations by holding hearings and meeting with the commission — and that it isn’t required to actually address the commission’s request for a new study.

Not so says Snyder, the only non-elected member of the commission. “We’re a political entity, and as far as this request is concerned, there are things that TxDOT ignored under federal law,” he said. “And they’ve got no choice but to abide by those federal laws.”

Snyder predicted that the feds will pressure TxDOT to do the additional study before further work is done on the TTC plans. But if that doesn’t happen, he said, he’s confident that the commission can force the state agency’s hand through the court system. “We’ve got the law on our side,” he said. “TxDOT has to do this thing right, or there will be no TTC.”

The Central Texas group has environmental, economic, and legal issues to pick with TxDOT. One of their key points, for instance, is TxDOT’s claim that when the new superhighway is complete it will add 434,000 permanent new jobs and $135 billion in additional personal income in the state.

But in fact, the report done for the state agency on the TTC’s economic impact doesn’t make that prediction on new job creation, and suggests that the project would decrease personal income across the state by $90 million a year because of land to be taken by the project. On the TTC-35 section alone, the Perryman Group consultants predicted governments will lose $94 million in taxable property.

More than 4,000 acres would be lost just in Smith’s planning region, which includes an area roughly 30 miles by 30 miles. Additionally, the Perryman Group’s report, which was all but ignored by TxDOT in its draft environmental statement, predicted hundreds of millions of dollars would be lost from the agricultural sector.

In its request for a new impact report, the small-town group wrote that TxDOT’s draft environmental statement “should have revealed the [Perryman] study … and then analyzed those facts to determine the economic impact” on the region.

“In plain language, they had a study done, and then when the figures didn’t match what they wanted, they just made up some figures and put them in the summary they passed out,” Smith charged. “Just made them up.”

In addition to the financial losses to individuals and governments in the area, the TTC would force area governments to build their own overpasses and underpasses for all except state highway crossings — and some crossings could carry tolls. “None of those issues were even considered” in TxDOT’s draft environmental statement, said Smith.

Beyond that, the planning commission charges, are all the federal laws and even state needs that are being ignored by the TTC planning process, including the Environmental Protection Act.

But there is one overriding concern that the Central Texas commission members share, and it is more basic than tax losses or expensive overpasses. It is the land itself, the rich black clay that defines their region’s culture and economy. And in saving the land, they believe they’ve got the federal government — and, oddly enough, some of the federal government’s most implacable opponents — on their side.

Just a few miles east of I-35, near Salado, lies the heart of the Blackland Prairie. The gently rolling hills reach to the horizon, the fields alternating with stands of Osage orange, hackberry, cedar elm, oak, and pecan orchards. Corn ready for harvest stands next to the dark brown of the milo tops and the rich green of cotton. Recently harvested wheat fields expose the rich black clay from which the prairie gets its name.

Holland’s downtown, a block of old brick buildings dating back more than 100 years, is a throwback in time. The only lunch spot in town is closed for vacation. At noon a siren shrieks, calling the hour.

So when Mae Smith drives up in her dusty dark green Dakota pickup, we head over to Bartlett, to meet reinforcements and find lunch. She wears jeans and a red blouse, and her blonde hair is cropped short.

“Most of the people living here have been living here for generations,” she explains as she drives. “And they like this life. They may work in Temple or Austin, but they still live here. Just like their daddies and their daddies.”

Stepping out of the truck 20 minutes later on Bartlett’s main drag, we’re met by the huge figure of Snyder. He has the same searing blue eyes as Smith.

“Let me tell you something about the Blackland Prairie,” Snyder says. “In 1850 this was the most heavily populated area in the United States west of the Mississippi. That’s because of the soil here. Now the blackland, a fine clay, runs from Mexico up to Canada.” In some parts of the country, the swath of soil is 250 miles wide, but here it’s just 30 miles across. “And if you take any of it away, well, it’s gone forever, and these towns depend on the ag business.”

At one point in the lunch, he makes a dash to his truck and comes back with an ear of corn. “Take a look at that,” he says, peeling back the husk to show off a large ear with golden kernels. “The black clay here expands with the winter rains and then gives off the water during the summer months. We’re in the middle of a drought, and this was grown without irrigation. Farmers will be averaging 130 bushels of corn around here per acre without irrigation. This soil is a national treasure. To pave it over is a crime.”

Farmland is lost every day in this country to urban sprawl and road development, but this fertile region has federal law on its side — the Farmland Protection Act — as well as state protections. Although most of the Blackland Prairie in Texas is being farmed, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has identified the remaining 5,000 acres of the formation as deserving “high priority protection” — and has already recommended that TxDOT not put another huge highway through the area, but stick to the I-35 corridor to build any additional freeway capacity.

The Farmland Protection Act has already been used in freeway fights. According to the lawyer for a national property rights group, the Federal Highway Administration cited that law in rejecting plans for a new highway in Indiana, in favor of an alternative that had less impact on farmland.

The property rights group in question is called Stewards of the Range. And one of its founders is neck-deep in the TTC controversy.

Snyder was the linchpin in getting the Bell County planning commission off the ground. In the spring of 2007 he attended a meeting called by Margaret and Dan Byfield in the town of Jonah, about the TTC. “There had been a lot of misinformation put out by TxDOT on the Corridor, and the Byfields were meeting with the folks ... to give them the real story,” he said.

The Byfields, who joined us for lunch, are controversial figures. Margaret, 41, helped found the nonprofit Stewards of the Range in 1992, when the federal government moved to take away her family’s right to run their herds on 1,100 square miles of federal land next to their Nevada ranch. Dan Byfield, 54, is the president and founder of another land rights group, the American Land Foundation. When they met, the two were already involved with their respective organizations in the long-running private property rights called the Sagebrush Rebellion, which has pitted Western U.S. farmers and ranchers against environmental groups fighting for causes like the protection of wetlands and endangered species habitat.

The couple moved to Central Texas about five years ago — only to find that the behemoth TTC was being aimed within a mile of their property. It was the attorney for Stewards of the Range who drew up the Bell County group’s demand letter to TxDOT, asking for a new environmental impact study.

“We’ve often fought with environmental groups,” Dan said, “but in this case we seem to have come full circle and are fighting [alongside] them.”

It was from Dan Byfield that Snyder heard about the local government code provision that allows for creation of the sub-regional planning commissions. Similar federal provisions had been used by the Stewards of the Range to force the federal government to deal with counties in the West.

“I told him we ought to try it up in Bell County,” Snyder recalled, “because those people were already looking for a way to stop the TTC from destroying the Blackland Prairie.”

His first step was to approach each of the four mayors with his idea. “And then I got on the agenda for the city councils for each of the four cities and explained to them how a commission worked and that we wanted to form one. And as there was zero opposition to it, we did.” The school boards of the four cities joined as well.

“It wasn’t hard, because I knew everyone. Heck, I probably know everyone in Bell County,” said Snyder, 64, who owns three farms besides his salvage business.

From the viewpoint of Snyder, Smith, and the Byfields, the whole TTC is a land grab disguised as a transportation issue. Snyder pointed to a study done in the 1990s by the Federal Highway Administration and TxDOT. “That study says that you can expand I-35 in the existing right of way to build enough road to take care of our transportation needs until 2025,” he said. “But that study has been thrown away for the TTC. So it’s not about transportation.

“But the TTC is planned at 1,200 feet wide so that there will be room to lease land to McDonalds and gas stations and motels along the highway, and they’re going to lease the rights to use the pipelines and rail lines they’re planning. That’s when you get to see it for what it is: the use of eminent domain to grab hundreds of thousands of acres in rural Texas to make money.”

While none of Snyder’s property would be affected directly by any of the proposed routes of the TTC, he’s passionate on the issue. “A lot of people here have been here for as many as six generations. They’re not all very sophisticated, and they’re the ones who are going to be taken advantage of,” he said. “They’ve got no idea what their land is worth, they don’t trust lawyers, and they’re ripe. … You cut these towns up and you’ll kill them; they’ll never be the same again.”

A fellow in overalls at the next table leaned over to say, “I agree with you. I hope you stop it.”

Then Sammy Cortez, a huge young man whose arms are covered in tattoos, stopped by. “I can’t see it,” he said of the TTC. “People have been living on and working this land forever. They’re not going to give it up. I don’t even know why we need a new road.”

“That’s what most people are beginning to ask,” Dan Byfield said.

Another few miles away, through more lush farmlands, is the town of Little River-Academy. The drive comes with Smith’s travelogue of memory — here’s where the old road was, that pecan orchard is new, her uncle used to live over there.

At Gunsmoke Motors, wrecker service owner Ronnie White was inflating a stack of tractor-tire inner tubes. His family and friends were planning to celebrate the Fourth with a five-mile float down the Little River. A Navy veteran who took part in the Cuban missile crisis action and served in Vietnam, White has been mayor of this town, population 1,645, for 27 years. Now he’s also a member of the planning commission.

Light-hearted in talking about his holiday plans, he grew serious when the topic turned to the TTC. “The politicians and the people behind the corridor plan, they talk about how it will help the economy. I know I’ve had a few run-ins with the mayor of Temple — that’s the largest city in Bell County, with a population of close to 60,000. He’s all for it. He thinks the TTC is going to bring more money, help his city’s economy. But down here, out here in rural Texas, we don’t think that way.

“Our lifestyle is our wealth. Our land is our wealth,” he said. “People have been here for generations, and we’re happy with the way things are. If you start telling us you’re going to take our land and put up new shops and we’re going to start making a few more dollars and all we have to do is give up the way we live, well, that’s not something people around here are going to go for.

“When they were taking land for I-35, they took a much wider piece than they needed,” White said. “And we asked why they needed to take that much. The answer was that they’d need it in the future. Now they’re saying the same thing when they’re talking about taking 1,200 feet of land. Well, I say, ‘You already took all that land for I-35, so now use it.’ ”

Pensock, the TxDOT official, sounded supportive when he talked about the Central Texas group. “These folks that form regional subcommittees are very concerned folks,” he said, “and we definitely want to hear what they want to say and know what their thoughts are. We’ve already met with Mayor Smith and some of the other folks from the Holland area several times and spent a lot of time trying to give them information and answer their questions.”

He’s not quite so definite about what his agency needs to do in response. Does TxDOT have to meet the commission’s demand for a new study? “Well, they have a voice and a right to be heard,” he answered. “But Texas is a big state, and there are a lot of voices to be heard.”

Pensock doesn’t think that simply widening I-35 without taking more land is a real option. “People look at those broad medians and those gently sloping embankments and picture that we can just lay down another 12-foot lane. That’s not really the case. For one, our highway engineering specifications are quite rigorous. And then there’s the matter of why we put those medians there in the first place. They’re there to help prevent head-on collisions. Our first guiding principle is how to best keep traffic flowing while minimizing accidents.

“So say you take away those medians and turn them into lanes. Well, we think that will increase the risk of horrible accidents. And those gentle embankments? If you cut them at a steeper angle to add lanes, or get rid of them altogether and put up a retaining wall, you’ll get your lanes but at what price? How many more accidents will you have and how much more severe will they be?”

For now, TXDOT is waiting on word from the Federal Highway Administration before moving on the commission’s request for a supplemental study.

Fred Kelly Grant, president of Stewards of the Range, who wrote the commission’s request to TxDOT, said he’s thought from the first that the TTC issue would end up in court.

And Margaret Byfield said that, if that happens, the 5,000-plus-member Stewards group is ready to fund the fight. “Our membership opposes the corridor. And we’re nationwide, so we have the financial backing, and we’ve already got the attorneys. So we are ready to go to court.”

Smith said the commission has talked to officials of the Environmental Protection Agency and has a meeting scheduled with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged with protecting farmland.

“We’re tired of fooling around,” she said. “We want the supplemental studies done. And we’re coming at them from state law, from the EPA, the NRCS … from all sorts of directions.”

While the Central Texas group is lining up its arguments and allies, it also appears to have exported its revolutionary sentiment to other parts of the state. The several newly formed planning commissions in East Texas and around El Paso are considering asking for TxDOT to re-do the environmental studies on TTC’s impact in their areas as well.

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club has also asked TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration to withdraw and redo the impact study on I-69, the leg of TTC planned between Laredo and Texarkana. The environmental group backed up its request with an 84-page document pointing out errors or omissions in TxDOT’s original report on that road.

Smith said she expects to see an attempt in the Texas Legislature next year to eliminate the part of the local government code that allows for the formation of local planning groups like hers. Grant, the Stewards of the Range attorney, said that even if that happens, legislators won’t be able to strip already-existing commissions of their powers.

“The public hearings that TxDOT holds are just that,” said Smith. “The people come in and speak what’s on their mind, but then TxDOT goes on its merry way. But with the commission we’ve formed, with four mayors and four school board officials, well, we’re all elected officials — TxDOT is compelled by Texas law to speak with us.

“We may not be able to stop a toll road,” she said. “But we set ourselves a goal when we formed: to get I-35 finished and expanded before anyone jumps into a toll road. And we believe that if that’s done, then people will see that a toll road isn’t needed at all.”

© 2008, Fort Worth Weekly: www.fwweekly.com

July 8, 2008

Talk is Cheap, the Devil’s in the Details, and the Details are in the Contracts.........and we don’t see them until after they are signed.

Linda Stall
News & Views from CorridorWatch.org
Copyright 2008

For those of you who live in the proposed TTC-69 footprint and may have breathed a sigh of relief last week when you heard TxDOT was pulling back to the proposed I-69 footprint, recommending that only existing right of way be used, I draw your attention to the article below. If you aren’t interested in reading a very long article about Virginia toll roads (although you should because it is exactly what will happen in Texas if the private partners have their way) then I draw your attention to one particular paragraph:

"Finally, the contract insists that if any homes happen to lie in the way of the construction of the new lanes, Transurban will pay no more than the current market value to purchase the land in question. If the owner refuses to move, VDOT will condemn the property and confiscate it for the use of the private, for-profit company through eminent domain. The Beltway project, however, was designed to be built within existing VDOT right-of-way to ensure the exercise of this power would not be needed." (emphasis added)

Why is that language necessary? Why does VDOT's concessionaire need the ability to take land through eminent domain? Because when their plans change, that's exactly what they will do and the assurances of VDOT that the project was designed to fit in the existing right of way will go right out the window.

The very assurances that we are hearing from our own TxDOT: "existing right of way". But the real decisions lie in the terms of the contract. And right now, who looks over the TxDOT contracts before they are executed? Anyone outside of the agency and their commission? Will the assurances of our supposedly cash-starved transportation department be abandoned when the contract negotiations heat up? Will the "design" no longer fit inside the existing right of way when the private partner begins looking for enhancements to its revenue stream? (You remember revenue enhancements, the ancillary facilities that HB3588 allows, for which additional land may be taken.)

As we have for several years, CorridorWatch will continue to advocate that the Legislature put some protections in place so that no single agency executes this type of agreement without peer agency review and legislative oversight.

The whole story (illegal political donations, and new semantics games) is below- Read it and weep, kids, that's the future in Texas, unless the 2009 Lege stands up.

Read the article HERE: www.thenewspaper.com/news/24/2458.asp

© 2008, News & Views from CorridorWatch.org: www.corridorwatch.blogspot.com

July 6, 2008

Is the Trans-Texas Corridor I 69 issue over?

Groveton News
Coyright 2008

CORRIGAN – Is the Trans Texas Corridor-I 69 issue over? The Trinity-Neches Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission says no, at last week’s meeting held at Corrigan City Hall. Approximately twenty-five people attended the meeting to hear the commission’s plans.

According to TNTSRPC President Bob Dockens, on June 11 the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) held a press conference and announced that the department would no longer explore building the TTC-I69 through undeveloped areas of East Texas.

During the press conference, TXDOT officials said the I-69/TTC would use existing highway facilities, which in this part of the state means U.S. 59 through Angelina, Polk and San Jacinto counties.

According to Craig Whealy, member of TNTSRPC, “The maps are still in place for the TTC-I-69 and it could resurface in five, ten or fifteen years.”

“The thing we need to do is have some conversations with politicians to get rid of the maps,” stated Whealy.

“We have sent letters to TXDOT and will be hearing from them by July 18,” said Whealy. The planning commission will meet with TX DOT and they will address the commission’s questions.

Connie Fogle, member of TNTSRPC stated, “It’s a smoke screen, this is not over. We are going to be fighting this battle for several years.”

Dockens stated that the fight is not over.

“Spread the word to your friends, we need your support,” said Dockens.

“We need each entity to get a group of questions together for the TxDOT meeting,” stated Dockens.

According to Dockens, if the I-69/59 is put in place, Hwy 59, as we know it will only be feeder roads. The new roads will be limited access toll roads.

The Trinity-Neches Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission held their first meeting after representatives from Trinity, Groveton and Corrigan met on April 22, 2008 at Groveton City Hall.

The TNTSRPC was formed under the authority of the Texas Local Government Code Chapter 391 which allows counties and towns to “join together and cooperate to improve the health, safety and general welfare of their residents.”

Under chapter 391, state and federal governments must coordinate with local planning commissions concerning “com-mon problems of transport-ation” before building roads or other transportation facilities through their jurisdictions.

The TNTSRPC Board members are Bob Dockens– president, Corrigan Mayor Grimes Fortune– vice-president, Trinity Mayor Lyle Stubbs– secretary, Groveton Mayor Troy Jones– treasurer, Connie Fogle– member and Craig Whealy– member.

© 2008, The Groveton News News: www.easttexasnews.com

July 2, 2008

TTC: Dead or Alive?

Linda Stall
News & Views from CorridorWatch.org
Copyright 2008

Is the Trans Texas Corridor dead?

Don’t break out the champagne too early. There is a lot of talk about the "death" of the Trans Texas Corridor. Talk is cheap.

Austin insiders say it’s dead because the unpopular project is too much of a liability for the Governor as he anticipates another campaign. Other’s say its dead because the Transportation Commission issued a rather limp promise not to do a lot of things they never planned to do in the first place, or that revenue projections no longer justify. The June 2nd "Burka Blog" cites the legitimate complaints of urban mayors about the controversial "market valuation" concept as the final straw. Congressman Ron Paul sent a constituent letter about the end of the NAFTA highway, crediting citizen outcry. (What about the citizen outcry in 2006, objecting to TTC-35, also referred to as the NAFTA highway? Better revenue projections?)

Critics are skeptical. And as I read the TxDOT press release in which Chairman Delisi refers to "a parallel corridor to I-35 and the long-awaited I-69", I am skeptical, too. That skepticism seems justified when TxDOT turned around and chose a proposer for the Corridor project south of Refugio County at their very next Commission meeting.

The tide is turning. But it will take more than public relations driven "principles" issued by TxDOT. The 2009 Legislature will have to put some law behind TxDOT’s empty promises. It is the Legislature who will put the final nails in the Corridor coffin. It is the Legislature who can mandate that TxDOT return to road building and stop lobbying, stop policy-making and stop developing their own independent revenue streams.

"Vote early, vote often". This election-season joke should be the theme for the next Legislative session. Our Senators and Representatives will have to pass bills limiting TxDOT and their love for public private partnerships early in the session, and unite against the predictable vetoes. Pass the private property rights protection bill early enough in the session to make it veto-proof.

In the meantime, the grassroots activists, the citizens of Texas, and the consumers who ultimately pay for every infrastructure decision made in Austin, must continue to speak out about the Corridor project.

TxDOT may have conceded the TTC/I-69 foot print, but they have not conceded the Corridor concept. As long as the broad authorities granted in the original HB3588 remain on the books, a Corridor is lurking in the shadows. As long as the law allows for a 1200 foot wide, multi-modal, private property devouring, auto/truck/train/utility/hotel-motel/food chain/gas station, Public Private Partnership nightmare, TxDOT will continue to plan for its development, and court private partners.

© 2008, News & Views from CorridorWatch.org: www.corridorwatch.blogspot.com