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2007-11-22

TxDOT meets match

by David Arny

“Activist” is a term which conjures up images of a wild-eyed rabble-rouser with a much broader agenda than the cause du jour for which they fight. Striving to save the whales one day and holding candlelight vigils to end the death penalty the next, some folks seem to be born tilting at windmills, like Don Quixote and his obsessive quest.

Terri Hall however, appears to be cut from a different cloth entirely.

During her presentation at the Bandera County Republican Women Club’s November meeting, she outlined her opposition to the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) plans for a network of toll roads in her adopted state. Hall appeared more a pragmatist than a perpetual malcontent. The issue for her is simply whether or not Texans will allow a large amount of their land and money to be forcibly confiscated so a handful of foreign companies, their lawyers and Texas politicos-cum-lobbyists can realize an enormous - and perpetual - profit.
Devil in the details

The foreign toll road construction companies referred to are a Spanish firm named Cinta and the MacQuarie Infrastructure Group from Australia. As Hall explained, Public Private Partnerships are agreements between government entities and private businesses. The latter construct public works projects in exchange for guaranteed long-range dividends paid by taxpayers, in addition to other lucrative concessions. When entering into this type of agreement, the state or municipality is generally paid an up-front sum, which, depending upon the scale of the project, can run into billions of dollars.

Hall compared the schemes to “taking out a second mortgage on our highway system.”

The late US Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neil once said “All politics are local.” While there are much larger issues related to Hall’s fight against TxDOT, she focused her attention on the effects that agency’s agenda will have on residents of Central Texas - from the Rio Grand Valley to the Oklahoma border.

Even closer to home than the proposed Trans Texas Corridor (TTC) - a quarter of a mile wide in places and requiring the “taking” of over half a million acres under eminent domain - is the toll road planned to replace Highway 16 between San Antonio’s Loop 410 and Loop 1604, also known as Bandera Road. Commuters from Bandera, Hall said, who presently use that thoroughfare for free would be forced to pay their hard earned dollars every day for the privilege of driving back and forth to work on it.

Can’t get there from here

Motorists who wish to avoid traveling on toll roads and use alternative routes instead, will have an unpleasant surprise in store for them, said Hall.

“Municipalities that sign on with these plans must enter into contractual ‘no-compete agreements,’ meaning they are legally prohibited from making any improvements to roads in the vicinity of the toll roads. It’s a way to force drivers into using their toll roads.”

Hall quoted Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Committee, a proponent of TxDOT’s agenda. Speaking of the choices Texas drivers will have in the future, Williamson said at a rare public hearing on the issue, “It’s going to be toll roads, slow roads or no roads.”

Troubling behavior

Acknowledging the need for major improvements and increased capacity on Texas highways, Hall claimed TxDOT is not in the dire financial straits it claims to be.

She referred to an audit by the Texas State Comptroller’s Office which found TxDOT’s budget had tripled since 1990 and doubled since Governor Rick Perry took office in 2000. “

Part of the problem,” she said, “is that an estimated $10 billion in taxes already collected for highway construction and maintenance have been earmarked for things like tourism, refurbishing cemeteries and mental health projects.”

To the TxDOT claim that revenues to the highway fund haven’t kept pace with population growth, Hall again cites figures from the comptrollers office, saying TxDOT’s budget increases have outpaced both the influx of new residents and the rate of inflation by 178 percent.

Hall said some of the money TxDOT has already collected should be used to widen existing roads, such as the congested stretch of US Highway 281 between Loop 1604 and Stone Oak Parkway and beyond. Instead, it’s being used illegally to pay for a huge public relations campaign designed to sway public opinion in favor of the agency’s plans. In one instance, she noted, TxDOT officials marked a set of expenditures as “engineering costs,” but were later discovered to be public relations fees.
“They deliberately defrauded taxpayers,” Hall said.

Then & now

Comparing existing turnpikes in Houston and Dallas that charge tolls, Hall said, voters approved those projects in referendums. Completely new roads were built. Money collected from tolls on those thoroughfares - as well as control over them - remained with local communities. When the bonds which paid for those roads were paid off, the tolls were eliminated.

Hall told the group that the new toll roads proposed by TxDOT will, for the most part, simply widen existing stretches of roadways.

Voters will have little or no options regarding the projects they will be financing. Profits will be paid to the stockholders of foreign-owned companies, and a percentage distributed statewide for unrelated government programs. Tolls will be collected “in perpetuity.”

“When you buy a car, you can choose among competing sellers,” said Hall. “You can shop around for the best price, choose the make and model that suit you best and, when the car is paid for, the payments stop.

“With TxDOT’s toll road plans, there’s only one expressway - you have no choice but to use their ‘product.’ The tax rates are dictated to you. There’s no competition and there’s a 50-year monopoly. And, the tolls never end, even after the road is paid for.”

Other voices

Hall and the group she founded in opposition to TxDOT’s plans for Public Private Partnerships in toll road enterprises, TURF (Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom), are not alone in their David and Goliath-like battle. In an opinion piece appearing in the Dec. 2006 issue of Texas Monthly, editor-in-chief Paul Burka wrote, “Existing highways should not be converted to toll roads - this is double taxation. Commuters should not be forced to tithe for the privilege of using a freeway overpass.”

In the same issue of Texas Monthly, four-term State Senator John Corona predicted that if TxDOT’s plans are fully implemented, “Within 30 years’ time, we will bring the condition of free roads in Texas to a condition of ruin.”

Perhaps the strongest words quoted by Hall were said by former State Senator John Lindsay, from an interview in the Houston Chronicle dated Jan. 1, 2007.

“Selling our highways to anyone is terrible public policy,” he said. “The demands TxDOT has been making is tantamount to extortion.”

Glimmer of hope

The youthful-looking mother of six said her organization consists of lawyers and legal assistants working long hours pro bono; volunteer canvassers going door-to-door; a film maker who spent countless hours shooting and editing “Truth be Tolled,” an award-winning documentary about the issue; and everyday citizens who dislike what they see as the heavy-handed tactics of a state agency “run amok.”

According to Hall, their efforts are beginning to show signs of promise.

A lawsuit filed by TURF to stop TxDOT from spending taxpayer-funded resources on lobbying efforts and ad campaigns promoting its toll road projects - practices she says are clearly illegal under Texas law - is going forward.

TxDOT is being defended by the office of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. On Thursday, Oct. 18, State District Judge Orlinda Naranjo ruled against TxDOT’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit and granted TURF’s lawyer Charles Riley a 90-day continuance in the case.

Hall sees the ruling as a major victory.

“This means we will be able to continue the discovery phase of the suit,” she said. “That includes taking depositions from TxDOT’s top brass.”

The Assistant Attorney General who fought the three-month continuance, Krista W. Silcocks, expressed her disappointment after the ruling. Quoted in a Houston Chronicle report, she said, “State employees do not need this hanging over their heads.”