January 31, 2009

Trans-Texas Corruption

By Dan Byfield
Standing Ground

Despite what anyone may have read in the papers, the Trans-Texas Corridor is not dead. It simply has a new name. “Innovative Connectivity” sounds more like a creative science class on electricity, but it’s our state’s “new” approach to building toll roads in Texas.

There’s a reason for the name change and it’s not because the state of Texas woke up one morning with a grand new vision. The reason is the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and Governor Rick Perry had a public relations nightmare on their hands.

The nightmare started after the Texas Legislature passed a transportation bill during the last two weeks of the 2003 Legislative Session creating the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC). When people realized what was in it – 4,000 miles of 1,200 foot-wide, 12-lane toll roads – they became enraged.

Two Legislative Sessions went by in 2005 and 2007, and nothing of consequence changed. Governor Perry, his transportation department, and their 50-year Spanish partner still had their master plan in place and were moving at warp speed.

There appeared to be nothing that could slow, let alone stop, this high-powered, elite project.

But, then amazingly, the press reported that Amadeo Saenz, the executive director of TxDOT, announced the TTC was “dead.” No, that’s no accurate. What Amadeo Saenz said was: “The Trans-Texas Corridor, as a single project concept, is not the choice of Texans. So we’ve decided to put the name to rest.”

That’s what’s known as the Texas two-step. All TxDOT did was change the name because the TTC had become such a political liability. But listen to the rest of what Mr. Saenz said.

“As of today (January 6, 2009), we are unveiling a new corridor program that makes use of all the innovative project development tools we have. This new plan, called Innovative Connectivity in Texas/Vision 2009 (now that’s real catchy) will usher in this new method of operation. Projects that had been developed under the heading of the Trans-Texas Corridor will now become a series of individual projects. To be clear: the Trans-Texas Corridor as it was known will no longer exist.”

Clearly, Amadeo was under a lot of stress and strain. The Texas Legislature was going into session exactly one week after this grandiose announcement and a few legislative members were calling for the elimination of his position. Clearly, TxDOT and the TTC were going to be the center of attention and without the ousted Speaker Craddick at the helm in the House, Governor Perry had to do something to head off the angry mob that was about to lynch his pet project.

It was a shrewd political maneuver that not only more than likely saved TxDOT’s and Saenz’ collective necks, but gave cover to every politician from the Governor on down to say the “TTC is dead.”

The announcement did exactly what the Governor wanted – it minimized public criticism, relieved immediate pressure to do something politically, and gave those who don’t want anything to change the opportunity to get through 140 days with no real deal busters so they can continue their scheme immediately upon the Legislature leaving Austin.

TTC Cash Cow

There’s another reason why the TTC isn’t dead. Over the past two Legislative Sessions, 67 lobbyists have been paid more than $6 million to make sure the TTC remained intact. Then, there are the dozens of corporate contributors making campaign contributions to all those legislators on the transportation take including Lt. Governor David Dewhurst at $466,850, Governor Rick Perry raking in $354,450, and that back-stabbing Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Carona stuffing his pockets with $41,000 – just to name a few. (Click Here to View TTC Recipients Charts )

Since the TTC statute was passed, TxDOT, according to their own Web site, has spent an impressive $131 million, including $30.7 million in the fiscal year that ended August 31, 2008, just on engineering and environmental studies. The total includes $59.4 million for the I-35 corridor, $67.9 million for the I-69 corridor, with a few more million on other toll roads and loops around major metropolitan areas that will complete the TTC from one end of the state to the other.

TxDOT also received a $25 million payment from Cintra, the Spanish consortium in 2005, to build the 300-mile 130 toll road from east of San Antonio to Oklahoma parallel to I-35. The road isn’t supposed to be part of the TTC, but it’s as close to the preferred route as they have come and already has 90 miles constructed. Cintra will receive toll revenue from the project for the next 50 years. TxDOT is now saying 130 will be expanded to become the TTC 35, but that’s only speculation at this point.

Local People Fight Back

The real nightmare for TxDOT and the reason they had to divert the heat came as a direct response to four small, rural communities that took the advice to form sub-regional planning commissions and demand coordination.

With all the lobbyists, attorneys, engineers, and politicians working diligently to get this corrupt project off the ground, they failed to notice one obscure, but powerful state law. A law that has forced TxDoT, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to the table of local people to coordinate their plans and policies.

We discovered Chapter 391 of the Texas Local Government Code that allows cities and/or counties to form regional planning commissions for just about any purpose, including transportation. The most important and brilliant section of that statute happened to be added by State Representative Rob Junell (D-San Angelo) in 2001. It reads:

“In carrying out their planning and program development responsibilities, state agencies shall, to the greatest extent feasible, coordinate planning with commissions to ensure effective and orderly implementation of state programs at the regional level.” §391.009 (c), Texas Local Government Code.

None of the politicians and lobbyists knew we had found the language that gave local government the power to force the almighty Texas Department of Transportation to the table and begin coordination proceedings. We knew prior to the beginning of the 2007 Session, but we told no one.

First 391 Commission Formed

After the Session ended in May of 2007, we met Ralph and Marcia Snyder, who had been fighting the TTC for years, but were frustrated because nothing was working to stop the toll road. We explained the 391 statute to Ralph and off he went to sell the idea to his local city and school leaders.

Within a few weeks, the cities of Bartlett, Holland, Little River-Academy, Rogers, and their school districts formed the first of nine sub-regional planning commissions. It was called the Eastern Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission (ECTSRPC). TxDOT was immediately notified and by October of 2007, they held their first coordination meeting with the state transportation department. It was the first time in five years TxDOT was not in charge of a meeting dealing with the Trans-Texas Corridor.

The ECTSRPC has not only met with TxDOT, but Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Agency, Region 6, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and have a third meeting scheduled with TxDOT in February.
Overall, the ECTSRPC has pointed out specific violations of the National Environmental Policy Act with a 26-page indictment of everything they have failed to do through their Environmental Impact Study. That document has also been sent to the Federal Highway Administration requesting a supplemental Environmental Impact Study be done. The local group instigated a federal study through NRCS that should have been done by TxDOT, but never was, showing how construction of the massive toll road will destroy critical prime farmland known as the Blackland Prairie. And, they have set the precedent for other 391 commissions to demand state and federal agencies coordinate this transportation project before any concrete gets poured.

Other 391’s Formed

The second 391 commission to form on the I-35 Corridor was the South Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission southeast of San Antonio, Texas. The city of St. Hedwig and Wilson County formed the planning commission in the summer of 2008. Since then, they have added Marion City, Guadalupe County, and the East Central Independent School District. They are looking to add one more city and two more school districts to their commission.

Kathy Palmer, president of the commission stated: “We decided to meet with our neighbors and form a commission when we realized state officials were planning a Trans-Texas Corridor route that bisected our city — and nobody at the state level had contacted anyone at St. Hedwig to discuss it.”

Since forming, Palmer says coordination works. The SCTSRPC met with TxDOT in which the state engineer for the TTC project admitted the local group was better organized and “further along” in their planning stage than ever realized. Their meeting with TxDOT is the first time they’ve been able to express any meaningful issues with the state agency. “We in the St. Hedwig, Wilson County area and our neighbors will no longer be ignored when it comes to federal and state agencies making changes in our area without them first having a true understanding of what those changes mean to our citizens,” stated Palmer.

TxDOT has agreed to a second meeting in February. TxDOT has also agreed to use the 391 commission for “local” input and not go through the state-created advisory committees. “That is a major concession we were able to get from the state because we used coordination,” stated Palmer.

I-69 Corridor

TXDOT has a second high priority TTC corridor that runs along the eastern side of the state, bypassing Houston and connecting to Louisiana and Oklahoma. When the I-69/TTC was initially planned, it was to be a new Interstate that connected through several states ending in Indiana. TXDOT converted the project into a TTC superhighway, changing what was once a needed highway into a Texas sized controversy. The people didn’t want it, and turned out by the thousands to the public meetings to protest.

While the agency was finishing up their public hearing process on the Draft EIS for the corridor, four sub regional planning commissions were also forming along the route. The first two that organized, the Trinity Neches Texas Sub-Regional (TNTSRPC) and the Piney Woods Sub-Regional (PWSRPC) immediately noticed TXDOT that they would be required to coordinate the project with them. Both Commissions were in the path of the preferred new corridor alternative being pushed by TXDOT.

TXDOT made its first major slight of hand and publicly announced they would no longer be considering the new corridor as their preferred route. They then used this public stunt as a reason to tell the new Commissions that meeting with them was unnecessary, because they were no longer in danger.

The Commissions disagreed, and while TXDOT was arguing the need to meet with TNT, EPA Region 6 didn’t hesitate to hear from the local communities. TNT prepared a workbook for the agency with statements and detailed accounts from their school districts, sheriffs, water districts and other entities as to the human impact that would occur in the area which TXDOT had failed to study as required under the federal law.

When TXDOT finally agreed to meet with TNT, they brought with them a representative from the Federal Highway Administration. The Chairman of the Commission, Bob Dockens, asked the FHA rep if would provide a letter to the TNT which backed up his statement that the new corridor alternative was off the table. The rep said that he couldn’t make that guarantee from the FHA.

Connie Fogle, who spearheaded the effort to form TNT and the PW, says the TNT Commission has no plans to go away. In fact, they have now held their second meeting with TXDOT and are preparing for more.

The Piney Woods Commission took it a step further. In their first meeting with TXDOT, Doug Booher who is in charge of the environmental study, committed to President Hank Gilbert that the Commission would see the final EIS before it was sent to the FHA for approval – a clear signal that TXDOT understands its coordination duty to the local commissions.

TxDOT Responds

Immediately after the first 391 commission formed, TxDOT was on the defensive. For the first time, local people had a voice. TxDOT began with announcing several changes.

1. Agency Regulations

After being notified by the ECTSRPC that TxDOT had ignored local governments and would now be required to coordinate their plans with them, TxDOT rolled out a new set of Transportation regulations trying to undermine the authority of the 391 commissions.

These new regulations actually contained language that TxDOT would “coordinate with local communities” and gather advice from rural areas. However, the agency reserved the right to ignore their input. Not the case under Chapter 391 of the Texas Code where the agency must coordinate – defined as equal in rank and order, not subservient -- with the local governments. We still had TxDOT in a bind they could not ignore. They are required by state statute to coordinate their plans and policies with every 391 commission.

2. Advisory Committees

Then, in another effort to try and prevent from having to meet with local commissions, TxDOT formed Corridor Advisory Committees and Corridor Segment Committees to get “input from local leaders and various segments of the community.” However, TxDOT appointed the individuals that would serve on these “advisory” committees and had no obligation to listen to or take their advice. This was in direct response to the demands placed upon them by the 391 commissions requiring they coordinate their plans and policies. If need be, TxDOT wanted to be able to explain to a judge that they were “coordinating” with local people through their “ordained” advisory committees.

3. Rural Planning Organizations

TxDOT then came up with yet another scheme to make it appear as though they too had rural planning committees that were “advising” them on rural issues. They decided to use existing state Councils of Governments (COGs) to implement a new strategy called Rural Planning Organizations (RPOs), which would design transportation plans for rural areas outside the metropolitan areas of the state.

Amadeo Saenz said TxDOT had come up with federal dollars to reimburse the COGs to implement these RPOs and would be asking the state Legislature to codify their idea into law during the 2009 Session. Again, these RPOs are TxDOT’s attempt to thwart what the nine sub-regional planning commissions have forced them to do through coordination.

4. The I-69 Corridor “Dead”

Witnessing the effectiveness of the ECTSRPC on I-35 Corridor, local governments in East Texas formed three more 391 commissions for the I-69 Corridor. Once these commissions started forming and demanding coordination, TxDOT released a statement saying they would no longer be building a new corridor for I-69, but would instead use existing roads and highways for the project. This new strategy was designed to quiet the opposition to the new corridor, at least until the elections passed.

While many bought the public relations ploy, the Trinity-Neches Texas SRPC (TNT) and the Piney Woods SRPC weren’t fooled. TNT requested a letter from TxDOT’s Lufkin District Engineer confirming in writing that the new corridor was off the table.

What they received instead was acknowledgement that the new corridor would still be a part of the Final Environmental Impact Study (FEIS). The regulations allow an agency to change their alternative after the study has been finalized, as long as the route was studied in the original FEIS. TxDOT’s slight of hand was exposed and people realized they were just trying to deflect any opposition to their plan.

Later, the FHA representative refused to provide TNT with a letter confirming that the new corridor alternative would not be considered by the FHA.

5. The “TTC is Dead”

Then came the final announcement that the TTC was “dead” as explained above. For one and a half years, four 391 commissions have forced TxDOT into playing defense. Every time a commission has had a coordination meeting with the state, they have gone back to Austin and devised yet another plan to avoid accounting for the true impact of their super-corridor plans. This latest ploy of announcing the TTC is dead proves local people have tremendous power when they are organized and utilize the law in their benefit.

Coordination Times Nine

To date, there are nine 391 Commissions formed in Texas, with at least one Commission on each of the 3 north-south corridors. The Eastern Central Commission has since increased its jurisdiction by adding one more town and their school district placing a 30-mile wide gap in a critical part of the path of the I-35 super-corridor.

Chapter 391 of the Local Government Code requiring state agencies to coordinate with local governments will likely come under attack during the 2009 Legislative Session. Governor Perry cannot tolerate his pet project being derailed. There has been too much money paid to him, other politicians, lobbyists, and the state just to throw in the towel.

People have found a way to fight back. Hopefully, if the law gets changed those commissions that formed will be grandfathered and those areas will be able to continue the fight.

But, had it not been for the bravery of four small, rural towns in Bell County, Texas, with a combined population of less than 6,000 forming the first 391 commission, the condemnation of private property for the corridor would have already begun and pavement would have been poured.

How this fight will ultimately be resolved is unknown, but the Commissions have prepared the necessary groundwork to challenge the project in court and TxDOT has sufficiently ignored enough laws to make even the most hesitant judge skeptical of the state’s agenda.

Stewards of the Range and the American Land Foundation are committed to going the distance with the sub-regional planning commissions. For them, it is a matter of losing their local economies and way of life. For us, it is about losing more of our national sovereignty and private property. For every American it is about further eroding our economy and security.

Thankfully, the unassuming phrase “coordination” was waiting to be used, and once revealed, these local officials didn’t hesitate. The job is far from over, but as Kathy Palmer said: “We’re not going to back down” and TxDOT and our governor know it.

Click Here to View TTC Recipients Charts

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