July 28, 2009

Grass roots group remains concerned about highway planning

By Donna McCollum

NACOGDOCHES, TX - Thursday night a half a million dollars was approved by the U.S. House for I-69 Texas. The funds will be used to expedite the U.S. Transportation's environmental review to advance I-69. Today the I-69 Alliance publicly praised the legislation. The funding level for I-69 FY 2010 will be determined later this fall when the Senate spending bill is determined.

Meanwhile, the issue remains a topic in national, state and local politics. Tuesday night in Nacogdoches, another group is talking transportation issues with State Representative Jim McReynolds. The Piney Woods Sub-Regional Planning Commission (PWSRPC) is keeping a close watch on future transportation issues, includiing a loop by-pass around Nacogdoches, Lufkin and as far south as Diboll.

It's a good idea for moving people quickly, but could be a bad one if the route hampers accessibility to other roadways and towns. "Say on South Street, here in Nacogdoches, where you've already got a lot of businesses and you've got a lot of hotels," Nacogdoches County Judge Joe English began. "Are they going to try to move it (roadway) over a little bit either one side to the left or the right because they don't want the expense of having to replace all those businesses?," the judge questioned. "And so when they start moving it we've got the same issues we had before and that's taking the grass roots mom and pop property."

Sub-regional planning commissions remain in existence along the I-69 route despite recent legislative efforts to disband them. Members are determined to have their voices heard before the Texas Department of Transportation. "We want them to know that we're still looking at it and we're still addressing it and when the planning and the meetings are put together we want to be a part of them," English said.

The commission is gathering information for a rural transportation plan. Members have gatherings planned in Garrison and Chireno. "We'll develop a plan for each community and what their needs and concerns are for transportation in their community," Jan Tracy, a PWSRPC volunteer explained. "And then we'll come back and compile all that together and present that to TxDOT."

Another concern is the financing method chosen. The group questions toll roads and who will own the toll money.

It's a grass roots mission that remains even after the state says the Trans Texas Corridor has gone away.

© 2009 WorldNow and KTRE: www.ktre.com

July 9, 2009

I-35 Segment 4 Kick off meeting

Kathy Palmer, President
South Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission

(For the full President's report click: [HERE])

Well this was certainly an interesting meeting.

It was held at the TxDOT District office in San Antonio and we had a variety of attendees from Laredo through to Seguin, including members of the San Antonio and Seguin Chambers of Commerce, a Frio County 911 Coordinator, City of St. Hedwig, City of Seguin and City of Laredo Planning and Zoning Commissioners, a Guadalupe County resident and a Guadalupe County Texas Farm Bureau representative.

Kudos to Judge Marvin Quinney, as he was the ONLY elected County official to attend.

Commissioners and Judges from Bexar County, Atascosa County, Medina County, Zapata County, and LaSalle County although invited, were nowhere to be seen. Being that the intent of this Segment Committee is to make sure your folks in your Counties are given yet another avenue to make their concerns, comments and considerations heard relating to the expansion of the Alternate I35 Corridor, one would think at least an alternate from those Counties would have been present.

It appeared by the input given at the start of the meeting approximately ¾ of the folks in attendance are very pro Commerce however it has to happen, while those in the rural areas are pro property rights and use of existing right of way.

There was lively debate as to the differences in the definition of “economic viability” as those in the city see the definition as commercial businesses all up and down the main roads and successful movement of commerce in those areas, while those in the rural areas see the definition as commercial business is good as long as it is not forcefully taking over the properties of residences along the roadways and building such roadways to bring trucks and freight through their once quiet farmland.

The Segment Committee members have been tasked in each of their individual areas to:
  • Identify transportation needs, Examine Existing and Planned Facilities
  • Identify areas where new location facilities may be needed
  • Prioritize the individual needs into a Master Plan
  • Finalize the Corridor Development Plan
While TxDOT is adamant that they want to “make sure we are getting the most out of the current facilities”, it is the Segment Committee members responsibility to hold them accountable to that expectation.

As members of the SCTSRPC, St. Hedwig and Wilson County as well as a portion of the representation of Guadaulpe County are all continuing with the original input of unfettered use of existing right of way on I10 and SH1604. Existing and future SH130 is a major part of this IH35 alternate plan, which directly affects Guadalupe County (Marion and Seguin via IH10), St. Hedwig (IH10 and SH1604), and Wilson County (SH 123 and expansion of SH1604).

The Committee’s main goal is to make sure that when a final recommendation is made of the Alternate to I35, that it indeed solves the true problem in the areas it will affect. That is the challenge that confronts each and every member as they will all be vying in the beginning for their individual areas while at the end will be tasked with prioritizing each issue brought to the table into a final Master Plan.

Eventually, the Segment 4 Master Plan will then be merged into the Segment 1-3 Master Plan therefore creating the “new”, specific, alternate route to I35 from the Texas/OK boarder to the Texas/Mexico border. As you can see the TTC 35 has not gone away, it has simply been broken down into smaller chunks to be analyzed and then reconstructed. TxDOT is looking for a “cohesive transportation system for the I35 Corridor with interstate multimodal transportation solutions”.

It is imperative that the public give competent, factual input to each of the Committee members as this runs its course. Following the NIMBY approach will not work. In order for the Committee member to be able to give it’s input as a reason to keep their issue at the top of the list, factual information from an environmental, historical and/or economical aspect must accompany the issue.

Meetings are open to the general public and you are encouraged to attend. This is an important issue that will affect each and every citizen in the East Bexar County, Guadalupe County and Wilson County area whether you think it will or not.

Please contribute and help the Committee members in your area as they strive to make sure their area is not left behind or worse yet, paved over.

© 2009 SCTSRPC: sctsrpc.blogspot.com
Senator Robert Nichols and Toll Roads

(For video click [HERE])

By Roger Gray
KYTX (East Texas)

In the last legislative session, the future of toll roads was on the line.

But one area state senator was more involved than most. In fact some critics say the fix was in.

"You can't do toll roads in rural Texas. It won't work," says State Senator Kevin Eltife.

Yes, the original Trans Texas Corridors were huge, and controversial.

Whitehouse rancher and toll road critic Hank Gilbert called it, "the largest land grab in the history of the U.S."

Senator Eltife agreed. "It's a total property right's mess."

Gilbert added, "I don't think the people of Texas, rural and urban, are going to allow that to happen."

And Austin seemed to get the message.

"I think there's no question, the Trans Texas corridor is dead," Eltife concluded.

But some advocates clung to the idea of foreign companies building and running toll roads as private enterprises. Eltife is an opponent. "They should never be owned by a private company, ever. That's a gold mine for the state." As is Gilbert, of Texans United for Reform and Freedom. "Comprehensive Development Agreements that would allow private investors to come in, plan, build, operate, maintain, the whole nine yards."

Eltife agreed, "The state ought to own them. They ought to be a small piece of the puzzle." State Senator Robert Nichols "seemed" to agree when we spoke to him by phone during the session. "The people of East Texas are clear," he said. "They do not want the East Texas Corridor. But they do want to develop Interstate 69."

But did Sen. Nichols want to insure that private toll road contracts were a part of that I-69 development? He added an amendment to his transportation bill that seems to guarantee a contractor couldn't lose money.

Gilbert explained, "You have one of our own East Texas Republican senators is offering an amendment to his own bill which would guarantee a profit. To me that kind of goes against capitalism."

Nichols, though, disagreed. "There is language related to buy backs, but there is absolutely no guarantee whatever that anybody will ever get any of their debt back."

But, we have a copy of an e-mail sent out by toll road lobbyist Gary Bushell, and it says,

"...we have reached an agreement with Senator Nichols on a buyout provision...that provides protection of their position in the event they find themselves upside down on their debt to fair market value...I want to thank Senator Robert Nichols and his chief of staff Steven Albright for making this outcome possible."

Nichols doesn't think that's what he did. "Well, it's incorrect, because that's not true."

Gilbert concluded, "That's not very free market."

So, according to one lobbyist, Senator Robert Nichols went to bat for private toll road contractors.

"That's crazy," he protested. "No. I don't know who told you that, but that's nuts."

I responded, "Well, I've got an email from a lobbyist who says that's exactly what you did."

Nichols again disagreed, "Well, it's incorrect, because that's not true."

"So this lobbyist is wrong," I replied.

"If that's your interpretation of what he says," Nichols responded. "I'm not looking at whatever it is you're reading."

"I read you exactly what he said, " I said. "that provides protection of their position in the event they find themselves upside down on their debt to fair market value.'"

"Ok, I did not write that." He concluded.

Toll road critic Hank Gilbert is skeptical.

"At any point in time, this developer comes to the realization that they're not getting the return on investment they anticipated from this road, they can sell it back to the state at that time and with this amendment, they're guaranteed not to lose money."

Nichols again protested, "If you're saying the State of Texas or any entity is going to guarantee an investor his money back, no. Not correct."

But we have a copy of the amendment and it says.

".the fair market value of the private entity's interest...is not less than the (entity's) outstanding debt at that time plus other reasonable costs."

In short, they get out at least what they've put in.

So why would Nichols continue beating the toll road drum? The explanation may lie in his contributor list.

His top donor by far, James Pitcock of Williams Brothers Construction of Houston, the second largest TxDOT contractor for toll roads and they only gave money to one candidate in 2008, Robert Nichols.

But Nichols still insists toll roads aren't a certainty.

"So, it's your contention that even though these CDA's, comprehensive development agreements are in HB300," I asked, "we're not talking toll roads for East Texas."

"Well, now, that's a different question." He replied. "You have toll roads in Tyler."

And Robert Nichol's tried to push these CDA's again in the special session last week. He didn't succeed.

Apparently, as long as the political money is there, toll road advocates will keep pitching.

© 2009 KYTX: www.cbs19.tv

July 6, 2009

In spotlight, toll roads too hot to handle

During special session, it's safety first for lawmakers.

by Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman

It's intriguing how a spotlight can change a politician's perspective. Or in the case of the special session just past, a whole bunch of politicians' perspectives.

Way back in the spring of 2009 (OK, about three months ago), the Texas Senate overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 404 and Senate Bill 17. The House Transportation Committee later passed both bills. And the Senate even passed them again, this time while they were taking a ride on the Texas Department of Transportation sunset bill that later died.

In fact, all of these bills died in the House late in the session. But it had nothing to do with the content of SB 404 and SB 17, which occasioned little debate during the regular session.

Then, last week, members of the House and Senate turned their noses up at both bills and declined to even vote on them.

To refresh your memory, SB 404 would have extended by several years the authority of TxDOT and regional mobility authorities to sign long-term toll road leases with private companies. Its companion bill, SB 17, would have mandated that such contracts protect the state's and residents' interests by making it easier to build nearby free roads and setting prices now for the state to buy back a private toll road if it ever wanted to.

Those two bills were combined, for the special session, into a single bill. Neither could get a vote in the House Transportation Committee or the Senate Finance Committee. The House Transportation Committee chairman, Joseph Pickett of El Paso, said members did not consider it a "safe vote." Meaning, it was a vote that could turn a legislator into a former legislator.

Remember, this same committee voted for the same changes to the law about seven weeks ago.

Why was it a safe vote in May and a dangerous vote in July?

Back then there were thousands of bills up for consideration, and thus the attention of the public and the press was fragmented. Transportation insiders, anti-toll activists and the few transportation writers for major dailies were paying attention to this. But most people weren't.

Now, with only three subjects on the special session call, and no controversy on two of them, that left the entire focus on this one bill. On legislators voting to allow private toll roads, potentially operated by (and sending profits eventually to) foreign companies like Spanish toll road builder Cintra. On lawmakers in effect undoing a moratorium on most such contracts that they voted for in 2007.

So, why not just bring it up and vote against it? Well, that could then be used against lawmakers later by an opponent saying they'd voted against badly needed roads. And it would be a vote against Gov. Rick Perry, who wanted to extend the authority for private toll roads. A vote against Perry, who has enthusiastically wielded his veto pen through the years.

Of course, presumably somewhere amid all this there is the "right" position to take on this issue — even if what is deemed right might vary from lawmaker to lawmaker — rather than the "safe" position. But Jefferson Smith went to Washington, not Austin.

And he was a fictional character.

© 2009 Austin American-Statesman: www.statesman.com

July 5, 2009

TxDOT: After all the outcry, no changes in law

By Peggy Fikac
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN — More than a year after the Texas Department of Transportation was labeled an out-of-control agency in need of reining in, lawmakers made their decision: No TxDOT reforms were put into state law.

That means no alteration in the makeup of its governing commission, which is appointed by Gov. Rick Perry and in the past was accused of pushing his ideas without heeding lawmakers leery of such things as privately run toll roads. No special legislative oversight committee. No changes except for those TxDOT carries out on its own.

That's the upshot after a reform bill failed in the regular session and lawmakers meeting in a quickie special session simply continued the agency as is until they reconvene in 2011.

“Certainly I think this is a missed opportunity,” said Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, a House Transportation member who pushed for such changes as an elected commissioner.

The good news: McClendon and some other lawmakers said TxDOT is working to change. Among actions they like is a new contract for a thorough review of agency operations.

TxDOT says it has acted on last year's Sunset Advisory Commission staff recommendations, including an update of its complaint receipt and tracking process. Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas, said most Sunset changes are under way.

Among items not addressed is the Transportation Commission makeup. But Carona, who opposes an elected panel as too political, said members are listening to lawmakers' concerns.

McClendon and House Transportation Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, say there's a need to change the agency “culture.” Pickett said that without a legislative overhaul, “I think they'll try to paint the trim on the ... building, but it's not going to make any real significant difference.”

Lawmakers said even without a new oversight committee, they'll keep close tabs on TxDOT between now and 2011.

“We recognize that TxDOT has been a troubled agency,” Carona said, “and it needs significant attention from the Legislature.”

As some lawmakers fruitlessly urged Perry to add a bill to expand the Children's Health Insurance Program to the special-session agenda, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's camp still wouldn't say if she supported the measure. Her spokesman, Hans Klingler, said she will be detailing a plan for children's health care and make the issue “a centerpiece” of her expected tough campaign against Perry for the GOP nod for governor.

Perry spokesman Mark Miner said, “Once again, she doesn't have any details to discuss.” He noted Perry's stand that the focus should be on children who already qualify for CHIP but aren't enrolled, adding that Hutchison supported a CHIP expansion in D.C.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who married Houston lawyer Tricia Bivins just over a week ago, got to spend part of his honeymoon at the Capitol. Session over, he said they plan to go to Colorado or California. His take on his marriage: “Even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a beautiful acorn.

© 2009 San Antonio Express-News: www.mysanantonio.com