Texas Voters Reject Red Light Camera Candidates
State legislators most responsible for red light cameras in Texas lose primary elections.
March 6, 2014
Two of the figures most responsible for the spread of red light cameras in the Lone Star State lost their jobs Tuesday. Texas state Senator John Carona (R-Dallas) and state Representative Linda Harper-Brown (R-Irving) were both defeated in Republican primary elections. Rodney Anderson, a one-term state representative, took out Harper-Brown with 53 percent of the vote. Tea Party candidate Don Huffines ousted Carona by 636 votes.
Harper-Brown's service to the photo enforcement industry is legendary. Over the course of eight years, the Texas House had consistently and overwhelmingly rejected bills to authorize red light cameras. Harper-Brown came up with a solution. When a bill dealing with commercial motor vehicle standards was on the floor in 2003, she snuck in a one-sentence provision allowing municipalities to issue "civil" citations for traffic crimes. Most House members did not notice the provision until it after it became law. They were furious at what they saw as an underhanded move, and the vote to strip Harper-Brown's language passed by a three-to-one margin. The state Senate blocked its repeal.
Top Christie Port Authority appointees devised toll-hike plan to bolster image of NJ, NY governors
Sunday, March 2, 2014
BY SHAWN BOBURG
Years before they resigned amid a scandal over politically motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, Governor Christie’s top two executives at the Port Authority led a secretive campaign to quickly push through controversial toll hikes on the Hudson River bridges and tunnels by drowning out criticism, limiting public input and portraying the governors of New York and New Jersey as fiscal hawks who reined in an out-of-control agency.
At its heart was a plan to have the Port Authority, an independent bi-state agency, propose an enormous toll hike — a $6 increase that would bring the E-ZPass toll to $14 by 2014 — so that the governors could then scale it back. The smaller increases that were ultimately approved in 2011 — $4.50 over four years — allowed both governors to claim credit while they set the stage for each state to claim hundreds of millions of dollars to fund pet projects not directly related to the Port Authority.
Tolls are collected for round trip when entering New York.
It was a sleight of hand that began with a campaign-style operation that, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen people familiar with the operation, was run out of a conference room on the southwest corner of the 15th floor of the Port Authority’s Manhattan headquarters.
It was referred to as the “war room.”
Running the campaign were former Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and his aide, David Wildstein, both central figures in the bridge scandal and its first political casualties.
Hanging from the door of the war room was a sheet of paper that warned: “Do Not Enter.” The room was accessible to very few of the agency’s senior staff, but not the New York-appointed executive director, who had fallen out of favor with Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Some of the more than one dozen people regularly inside the room — mostly Christie loyalists placed at the agency — were instructed not to reveal its secrets.
One outsider was granted access.
Maggie Moran, then an employee of a large regional labor union led by a Port Authority commissioner, helped mobilize hundreds of union workers who flooded public hearings that were scheduled at times and places that made it difficult for the general public to attend. Drawing from scripted messages, laborers wearing orange T-shirts spoke favorably of the toll hikes at the hearings, providing Christie with a talking point.
“There were more people who spoke in favor of the toll hike than against it,” Christie said after the hearings, not mentioning the union workers.
Weeks earlier, Christie held a meeting in his office where he instructed his aides at the Port Authority to float the higher number, a knowledgeable source said. And Christie and Cuomo’s top Port Authority commissioners — David Samson for New Jersey and Scott Rechler and Jeffrey H. Lynford for New York — also discussed the toll-hike plan with Wildstein and Baroni before it was released.
The findings by The Record, based on detailed interviews with eight people familiar with the operation, cast doubt on claims that the governors had no prior knowledge of the toll-hike proposal and suggest that it was intentionally inflated. The sources were varied, each with independent knowledge of the events that took place and were interviewed separately, providing similar accounts. They included people involved with the Port Authority and politics in New Jersey and New York. Cuomo’s office didn’t return requests seeking comment. Christie’s office declined to comment.
Toll hikes have always been politically sensitive, especially in New Jersey and in Bergen County, which sends a large number of commuters across the George Washington Bridge. Because of this, making a proposal seem more palatable by first floating an extreme alternative is not new. But all of the people interviewed, some of whom were familiar with multiple toll increases going back decades, said they had never seen such a secretive campaign by the Port Authority, one that excluded many of the agency’s professional staff and manipulated the public hearing process.
A New Jersey legislative investigative committee has issued subpoenas for records related to the toll increases as it looks into whether the Port Authority, an independent regional transportation agency with a $8.2 billion annual budget, was used as a political tool. The committee is primarily focused on the lane closures that gridlocked Fort Lee for five mornings in September and led to the resignations of Baroni and Wildstein in December.
There are commonalities in the circumstances surrounding the lane closures and the toll-hike rollout: a culture of secrecy, rank-and-file employees who feared for their jobs and the sidelining of the agency’s executive director, who is supposed to run the day-to-day operations. In both cases, Christie has said he had no prior knowledge of the planning.
Before Baroni and Wildstein took charge of the secretive campaign, some senior Port Authority staff had made the case internally for toll increases that were closer to the amount ultimately approved by the governors. Instead, what emerged from the war room was a proposal that one senior executive said was “outrageous” — an immediate $4 hike that would have pushed tolls for E-ZPass users during rush hour from $8 to $12 in 2011, and a $2 increase in 2014 that would have brought them to $14. The governors ultimately decided on a $4.50 increase achieved with incremental increases through 2015. Tolls would increase immediately by a $1.50 increase with annual 75 cent jumps through 2015.
“This notion that the organization had come up with this outrageous toll-hike proposal that the governors had to reject was nonsense,” said one former senior official from the agency.
Debt over WTC
The Port Authority, taking on growing debt due largely to construction of the World Trade Center, had been asking Trenton and Albany for the go-ahead to propose toll hikes as far back as late 2010, sources said. It seemed to agency officials like an ideal time: New Jersey had a popular governor who could afford to absorb the political backlash and New York had an incoming governor who could claim no ownership of the agency’s financial troubles.
Top agency officials decided they would pitch a $2 increase followed by another $2 increase in 2014, one source said.
Despite briefings sent to both administrations, the source said, it was difficult to get the governors on board. The agency’s executive director at the time, Christopher Ward, also had trouble selling the idea to Cuomo’s staff, who blamed him for sinking too much money into construction at the World Trade Center site, two sources said. Ward was appointed by Cuomo’s predecessor, David Paterson.
Then, in March 2011, a Wall Street ratings agency downgraded the agency’s financial outlook, a development that had the potential of leading to higher borrowing costs. A report by Moody’s Investors Service noted that Christie had proposed taking $1.8 billion from the Port Authority that had been destined for a cross-Hudson rail tunnel plan that Christie had killed. “This request raises concerns,” analysts wrote. The Christie administration was also in the middle of a patronage hiring binge, placing about 50 Christie loyalists, campaign contributors and Republican operatives at the Port Authority.
By late spring, financial pressure was building at the Port Authority.
Its top appointees, Baroni and Samson, met with Christie advisers on April 12, 2011, to discuss toll and fare increases, according to a source. Baroni, Wildstein and Samson also met in the governor’s counsel’s office to discuss increases again on July 13 of that year, the source said.
That summer at the Port Authority offices, Baroni and Wildstein set up the war room.
The small conference room has a long table, ringed by black-and-white photos of old Port Authority facilities, including one of the New Jersey entrance to the Holland Tunnel during the Depression. It is a rarely used space next to Baroni’s office and across the hall from two color photos of the governors hanging from a wall. Its position in the corner of the 15th floor means there is little foot traffic outside its door. Two desktop computers were brought in, along with a handful of laptops.
Senior staff groused at the secrecy around the room.
“All the Port Authority regulars who would have been included in the preparation of a toll increase, based on having prior experience with the process and the legal requirements, were excluded until their inclusion was absolutely necessary, and even then, only for discrete tasks like running financial models,” one former official said.
Another longtime senior executive recalled asking a subordinate, who had been called to the room, what he was working on. The subordinate answered that he was instructed not to tell his boss or anyone else. And a longtime janitorial worker who tried to get into the war room over a weekend to reach a leaky pipe was so forcefully admonished that he told others that he feared he would lose his job as a result, the same senior executive said.
Cuomo’s two new commissioners, Rechler and Lynford, however, were dispatched to the 15th floor and charged with digging into the numbers, a source said. They met with Baroni and Wildstein and, in turn, briefed two of Cuomo’s top aides, Larry Schwartz and Howard Glaser. Ward, the executive director, was cut out completely, although his name would appear on press releases touting the proposal. One former longtime senior executive said that the exclusion of the top executive was unprecedented.
Records show the two governors met for dinner at the Beacon Restaurant in Manhattan on Friday, July 29, 2011, one week before the proposal’s release. Christie has said he didn’t know the magnitude of the Port Authority proposal until after the dinner.
Days later, on Aug. 3, a knowledgeable source said, Christie held a meeting in his office with about five top advisers and Samson, Baroni and Wildstein. The source said Christie instructed the Port Authority officials to float the immediate $4 hike, and that he and Cuomo would reduce it to $2. Baroni, Wildstein and Samson declined to provide comment for this article.
Additionally, multiple sources said the governors would typically have been told about a toll-hike proposal from the Port Authority prior to its release.
“You are going to get sign-off from the governors before you go public with a proposal,” said one former senior official who was familiar with multiple past toll hikes at the Port Authority. “Anything gets pre-cleared with Trenton and Albany.”
The proposal was released late in the afternoon on the following Friday. Days before, according to one senior Port Authority executive, Baroni told the person, “We know we’re going to take heat for it, but it’s what the governors want.”
Baroni, who made it clear to staff that he was leading the effort to build support for the toll hikes, told several agency officials that it would be run like a political campaign. Unlike past toll-hike proposals, which were proposed months before they were approved, the vote was set for two weeks later.
Three days after the release of the proposal, Christie described his reaction to it as surprise: “I said, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ and they said ‘no,’ ” he said. “This is, unfortunately, a testimony to the mismanagement of the Port for years. We shouldn’t have to be in this kind of situation.”
An intensive campaign began at the Port Authority.
Among those allowed in the war room was Dominick Fiorilli, a political operative who was installed at the authority by the Christie administration and given the title director of new port initiatives. Fiorilli worked in Christie’s office, as of Dec. 31 of last year as an aide to the governor, according to payroll records. Hunter Pendarvis, a former Christie aide; Jamie Loftus, a former campaign aide to Sarah Palin; and Andy Hawthorne, a director of marketing, were also allowed in the room, sources said. All were among the 50 Christie loyalists placed at the agency by 2011.
Long-term agency employees, such as general counsel Darrell Buchbinder, deputy general counsel Christopher Hartwyk and chief financial officer Michael Fabiano, also appeared in the room from time to time.
They all either declined to comment or did not respond to messages.
For nearly two weeks, there were three meetings each day: one in the morning, one in midday and one in the evening, multiple sources said.
“They drafted press releases, endorsement and comments for blogs and comments sections of news websites,” said one source familiar with the operation. “They also orchestrated the public hearings, picked the most inconvenient times and locations for the hearings and prepared testimony outlines for various speakers for the public hearings.”
Moran, the director of business development for Laborers International Union of North America, attended most of the meetings. Port Authority Commissioner Ray Pocino is a vice president for the powerful union, which endorsed Christie for reelection at his first campaign event, and he signed off on Moran’s involvement. Moran was also former Gov. Jon Corzine’s chief of staff and served as an adviser for Cuomo’s 2010 campaign. The union did not deny its inside access.
“LIUNA Vice President Pocino has an entire staff dedicated to supporting infrastructure investment and economic growth, so supporting the Port Authority fare increase was a no-brainer,” a LIUNA spokesman said in a statement Friday.
“Maggie [Moran], along with many other staff at the union, was involved in all aspects of building a coalition in support. We are proud of the role we played in the effort to finance infrastructure investment in our region.”
Their role was most evident at eight public hearings, all scheduled for one day. The hundreds of union workers, many of them organizers, showed up to hearings wearing orange T-shirts with the slogan “Port Authority = Jobs.” They were given talking points beforehand, and many repeated the same refrains, according to a review of transcripts posted on the Port Authority’s website.
Dozens also attended multiple hearings in different venues and posted comments in an additional online hearing, making sure their voices were counted more than once.
The Port Authority commissioners didn’t attend the hearings, scheduled on Aug. 16. Instead some of the Port Authority executives who were shut out of internal deliberations were assigned to run the hearings in out-of-the-way venues.
One longtime executive assigned to one called them “a sham.”
At an evening hearing in Staten Island, where tolls are exceedingly unpopular, former Borough President James Molinaro started the proceedings by standing on the stage of the school auditorium and lambasting the Port Authority.
A public-relations employee assigned to monitor the proceedings for the Port Authority waved to the hearing officer, chief operating officer Ernesto Butcher, and told him, “Bill Baroni is watching. He said to cut the guy off,” a person familiar with the exchange said. When Butcher refused to stop Molinaro from speaking, the public-relations employee approached Molinaro on the stage and asked him to end his comments, incensing the local politician.
“It was an example of the tight control, the electioneering, a campaign that did not speak to the real issues,” a person familiar with the episode said.
A report issued in September by the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, concluded that the Port Authority’s toll hearings “did not provide sufficient, convenient, accessible opportunities for the public to comment on the proposal.”
On Aug. 18, two days after the hearings and a day before Port Authority commissioners were poised to vote, the governors released a second joint statement saying they would support a smaller toll hike: $1.50 immediately, with 75-cent increases through 2015 for E-ZPass users.
“This is a responsible alternative that balances the infrastructure needs of the region with toll and fare payers’ economic realities,” the joint letter said. There was a hitch: The agency had to agree to bring in outside auditors.
At the hearing, Pocino, the commissioner whose union flooded the hearings, said he had “never been as impressed with any elected officials as I am today with Governors Cuomo and Christie.” He and the other commissioners voted yes without reservation.
“There was absolutely no conflict of interest or appearance of impropriety in Ray Pocino’s vote,” said LIUNA spokesman Rob Lewandowski. “He has always been a steadfast supporter of infrastructure investment, especially to improve the safety and efficiency of the region’s aging transportation system.”
By October, Ward, the executive director was out. Christie said he was responsible for years of mismanagement. The audit described the Port Authority as “dysfunctional” and laid out a series of reforms that officials said would turn the agency around.
What neither Christie nor the Port Authority mentioned publicly at the time of the toll-hike approval was that part of the agreement was that each state would get its own project slush fund out of the future toll money. The agency’s $27.6 billion 10-year capital plan, approved last month, includes $942 million for what is called a “regional bank” for both states to dip into over the next decade.
The regional bank program, used in the past for transportation and economic development projects only loosely related to the Port Authority, had not been in effect since 2008. The specific projects that are to be funded have not yet been identified, according to the plan.
Meanwhile, a motorist advocacy group, AAA New York, is suing the Port Authority to try to overturn the toll hikes. In the early stages of the lawsuit, the motorist group has zeroed in on communications between the governors’ offices and the Port Authority to try to understand the reason for the toll increases.
The Port Authority is, according to court records, refusing to turn over 339 records, including communications between agency officials and the offices of both governors, that it says are protected from disclosure because they were part of discussions that led to a policy decision.
Last month, the state legislative committee investigating the bridge scandal joined the hunt for more information about the toll increases. A subpoena was issued to the Port Authority requesting all correspondence between Christie’s office and the Port Authority from Jan. 1, 2011, to Aug. 9 of that year.
Taxpayers beware! Special interests and governments want to lift the ban on tolling existing interstates. There is no more a sweeping heist of your freedom to travel ever conceived!
Congress considers lifting toll ban to ease repair woes
By DANIEL C. VOCK of Stateline.org
Saturday, March 1, 2014
WASHINGTON — Wisconsin is facing problems familiar to most states when it comes to paying for its roads and bridges. The gas tax is not bringing in enough money to meet its needs, the steady stream of federal transportation money may be in jeopardy, and voters do not want to pay more taxes.
The crisis was laid out last year in a 176-page report to Wisconsin lawmakers on the funding problems and the deteriorating road network. Legislators received another reminder in September, when Green Bay officials had to close a bridge that carries 40,000 vehicles a day because it was sagging. It took until January to fix and reopen the bridge.
The revolving door keeps spinning...
Obama appointee subsidizes electric bus company, then goes to work for it
By Timothy Carney
February 26, 2014
Washington's green revolving door keeps on spinning.
President Obama’s Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has left the administration and joined the board of an electric bus company he subsidized and praised while in office.
Proterra Inc. makes buses that require no gasoline or diesel – they run on electricity and fuel cells.
You can see why electric buses would appeal to cities that want to clean the air and reduce fuel usage: City buses run a predictable number of miles a day, averting worries about dead batteries. Also, a fleet of buses creates economies of scale that can make recharging infrastructure economical.
Remember the Alamo while you drive
By Kolten Parker
February 5, 2014
SAN ANTONIO — Attention, Alamo City faithful.
For the first time, a San Antonio-themed Texas license plate is available from the Department of Motor Vehicles that reads “ALAMO TX”. The vanity plate is a part of an auction held by MyPlates, which is under contract with the DMV, which includes 20 American city-themed license plates such as Chicago, Dallas and New York.
The bidding started at $1,000 Tuesday and runs through March 3. The winner of each plate will choose from 30 different plate designs and have the rights to the vanity plate for 10 years.
Read the rest of the story here.
Also see my article on how the City of San Antonio caved and took over state roads with next to nothing gained in return.
Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff questions TxDOT proposal to send some state road upkeep to cities
By Tom Benning
Dallas Morning News
August 21, 2013
Texas Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff said Wednesday that he has reservations about a transportation department proposal to transfer maintenance of nearly 1,900 miles of state highways to Dallas and other urban areas.
Vandergriff, an Arlington businessman, said he knows the Texas Department of Transportation must find ways to shore up its depleted coffers. And he said some roads would likely be better served under cities’ controls.
But Vandergriff expressed concern that many of the cities and counties being considered just don’t have the budget flexibility to absorb those roads’ maintenance costs: an estimated $165 million a year statewide.
“We’re going to have a pretty robust discussion about whether this is a wise move,” he said after a ribbon-cutting for the DFW Connector project in Grapevine. “For me personally, I question it.”
Vandergriff and the four other transportation commissioners are slated to explore the plan Aug. 29 at a meeting in Austin. No action will be taken, and TxDOT has invited city and county leaders to share their thoughts on the idea.
TxDOT notified cities and counties – in and around large, urban areas – of the cost-cutting “turnback” program in a letter last week.
In TxDOT’s Dallas district – which includes Collin, Dallas, Denton, Ellis, Rockwall, Kaufman and Navarro counties – the agency has identified 70 road segments that could be sent back to cities.
That nearly 265 miles of road includes 37 miles of Northwest Highway in Dallas, 11 miles of Cross Timbers Road in Flower Mound and six miles of Irving Boulevard in Irving.
Phil Wilson, TxDOT’s executive director, reiterated Wednesday that his agency is dealing with the realities of a budget that needs another $3 billion a year. And that’s even after the Legislature this year found TxDOT an extra $1.2 billion annually, pending voter approval.
Wilson, also at the DFW Connector ribbon cutting, said TxDOT started looking at roads that have evolved beyond their initial purpose. Many are state farm-to-market roads or other arterial roads that have grown into city streets that serve local traffic.
“These roads are not really about what TxDOT’s historic mission has been about: connectivity from city-to-city,” he said.
Wilson, who stressed that the conversation was just beginning, said cities could benefit in some ways from the increased local control. He said cities would have the final say over things like driveway access, speed limits and maintenance schedules.
But the Texas Municipal League has panned the plan, as has Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. And Vandergriff’s position could signal broader opposition, especially since he said he’s already heard grumbling from a few other cities.
“It’s been generally negative,” he said.
TX Transportation Commission even opposes the turnback program. Read it here.
City caves, agrees to take over state roads
By Terri Hall
February 3, 2014
It’s unbelievable what politicians consider a good deal. The San Antonio City Council formally approved an inter-local agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to takeover maintenance on 21.8 miles on segments of nine state highways within the city: Broadway, Culebra, Eckert, Fredericksburg Road, Lone Star Pass, San Pedro, UTSA Blvd., and Hausman. In exchange, the city gets more space inside TxDOT’s Transguide building, property to complete its convention center expansion, $250,000 to fix roads at Lackland, a $150,000 Wurzbach Pkwy traffic study, and re-configuring Broadway into a ‘complete street’ with bike lanes and pedestrian walkways.
Those are seriously the priorities of the San Antonio City Council, not expanding north side freeways that are among the most congested corridors in the state. So the city takes on $2.5 million a year obligation in new road maintenance costs for state highways, for which there’s no money for in the existing budget, and what do we get in return? Basically, a one-time, short-term measly $350,000 and bike lanes and sidewalks on Broadway. San Antonio, we have a problem!
Let’s not forget TxDOT initially asked the city to takeover 129 miles of state highways to which the city correctly said ‘No.’
This is politican-speak for soliciting the special interests to lobby elected officials to raise taxes and increase spending. No doubt we need to boost transportation funding since the gas tax hasn't been raised in 20 years and not even adjusted for inflation, but when past highway bills contained over 6,000 earmarks for congressional pet projects, and when anywhere from one-third to nearly half of past gas taxes went to transit instead of roads, Congress needs to prioritize existing taxes and properly fund highways or completely devolve the federal program to the states.
Shuster: Lawmakers need 'educating' on transportation funding
By Keith Laing
January 24, 2014
The chairman of the House Transportation Committee said Friday that lawmakers in both parties needed to be “educated” on what needs to be included in a new road and transit funding bill. Speaking at the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s annual conference, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said he needed the help of municipal leaders to convince lawmakers to make compromises that will be necessary to approve a new surface transportation bill.
“We need your help also in educating members of Congress,” Shuster said. “Because there are some members out there, and on both sides of the aisle there's education needed. On my side of the aisle, there's a reluctance to think … the federal government has a role or we shouldn't be spending money, or we shouldn't be spending more money. On the other side of the aisle, we've got, there's a reluctance to streamline things. To make sure we can get these projects … out there in the field and get them done quicker. Time is money.”
Straus wants tolls, higher taxes, Beebe to keep freeways free
By Terri Hall
February 7, 2014
Speaker(R - Dist 121) is a master at kicking the can down the road. After three sessions as Speaker of the Texas House, Straus has failed to properly fund the state highway system. At the commencement of the 83rd regular session last year, he promised to end diversions of the gas tax and to make funding infrastructure - both roads and water - a priority. Neither happened.
Instead, Straus punted the funding of infrastructure to the voters with two constitutional amendment elections. After three expensive special sessions, the Texas legislature finally agreed upon a transportation funding bill that will go to the voters for approval in November. During the second special session, Express-News Austin Bureau Chief Peggy Fikac tweeted that Straus was telling senators he wants a transportation crisis in 2015 to increase pressure for taxes. So crisis creation and crisis management describe Straus’ leadership style.
The Constitutional amendment that passed would divert half of the oil and gas severance tax that funds the state’s emergency fund, or Rainy Day Fund, to roads, giving the highway department a potential boost of $1 billion annually. Lawmakers readily acknowledge it’s a stop gap measure since the agency needs $4 billion more per year.
Wolff: I like tolls, if you won’t carpool or get on a bus, then you oughta pay
By Terri Hall
February 6, 2014
Bexar County Judgewants you to pay up to 50 cents a mile in new toll taxes to drive San Antonio freeways. Tolls will cost the average family $2,000-$4,000 a year in new taxes on driving and Wolff has his fingerprints all over the deals that brought it to San Antonio.
First, Wolff lobbied for a new $10 hike in your vehicle registration fees from the Texas legislature last year - the only local fee hike that didn’t require a public vote first. This money goes directly to the county-run toll authority. Then, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) decided to offload part of the state highway system to local governments.
Rather than tell TxDOT to take a hike, Wolff brokered a back room deal with Transportation Commission Chairman Ted Houghton to takeover some state roads from TxDOT and utilize half of the new fee hike to add toll lanes to I-10 in a financing package that includes tolls on US 281, and in return, TxDOT dropped $70 million in discretionary funds to extend the non-toll expansion on Loop 1604 West. However, all of Loop 1604 is targeted for tolls, too.
Campbell’s betrayal on tolls leaves Chan opening to snag senate seat
By Terri Hall
February 1, 2014
How the mighty fall could be the theme of the Texas Senate District 25 race where incumbent Donna Campbell faces a tough fight to hang onto her senate seat. Campbell drew two primary opponents in her re-election bid, one a Chamber of Commerce establishment pick, former County Commissioner Mike Novak, who’s running on giving more money to public schools and raising the gas tax in addition to supporting toll roads (all loser issues in District 25). He’s taken huge sums of money from San Antonio’s major toll road player, Zachry. The other opponent is former City Councilwoman Elisa Chan.
Chan jettisoned to rock star status in conservative circles when she opposed the city’s non-discrimination ordinance that many felt went too far and amounted to making adherence to scripture a crime. Though Chan resigned her seat after the controversy, she’s a perfect fit for District 25 Republican voters. She has both social and fiscal conservative bona fides and is - as anyone who’s met or worked with her will tell you - super sharp.
More bike paths? Congressman floats near doubling of federal gas tax
By Terri Hall
December 5, 2013
Tired of your road taxes disappearing? So is Neil Cavuto, with the Fox Business Network who hosts his own daily show where, yesterday, he unleashed his frustration on U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) over the congressman’s proposal to hike the federal gas tax by 15 cents. The current federal gas tax is 18.4 per gallon, which has remained unchanged since 1993.
Cavuto asked what many Americans want to know -- where are our road taxes going? Where is the toll money going? Our roads and bridges are crumbling or in perpetual states of construction or reconstruction yet we’re still stuck in traffic. Now congress wants us to pay more and Cavuto asks a legitimate question. Why should we?
This road for Exxon Mobil is a wasteful greenfield project, propped up with taxpayers money and not even o the state's priority list. Yet it is to receive over $400 million in taxpayer subsidies plus an un-Constitutional loan guarantee courtesy of Texas taxpayers. Send a message and boycott it anyway!
Grand Parkway Segment E northwest of Houston opens this weekend - 15 miles more on TX99
December 21, 2013
By Peter Samuel
Toll Road News
The northwest fringe of the Houston area gets new connectivity with the opening Saturday (Dec 21) of Segment E of the Grand Parkway, TX99. 2x2 lanes of toll expressway will open as barrels and barriers are removed. Last weekend TxDOT sponsored a Party on the Parkway with 1km and 5km runs, bands, barbecues and food. Construction cost of the 15 miles was $320m. Prime contractor was Williams Bros.
Toll systems are by TransCore. Ground was broken on the project Sept 13 2011. South-to-North TX99-E goes from I-10 in Katy to US290 in Cypress. The Parkway has spectacular four level interchanges with major intersecting highways at the ends, although some of the ramps remain to be completed.
There are two gantry toll points on the mainline with $1.40 tolls and some ramp tolls 35c to 70c. Segment D about 12 miles south from I-10 to US59S/I-69 is already open, and work is well under way on segments F-1, F-2 and G, a 38 mile stretch from the end of Segment E at US290 east to US59N/I-69. That’s due to open late 2015 under a design-build-operate,maintain contract for $1.1 billion. Most of the pavement and bridge beams are concrete.
Concessioning failed - state takes risk
TxDOT efforts to concession the Grand Parkway have failed and the state is taking the traffic and revenue risk. Some segments of the Parkway are designed to have untolled frontage roads straddling the tollway and hitting at-grade signalized intersections. In other places motorists that want to avoid tolls can use ramps to signalized intersections and toll gantries are on mainline overbridges of the intersections.
Clockwise from 8 o’clock On a clockface the scheduling started at 8 o’clock and proceeds clockwise. Part of Segment D from I-10 to the Westpark Tollway used tax money for financing and is untolled, but there are tolls on the portion south of the Westpark to US59. In the southeastern portion TX99 around Baytown and the port area will use an existing stretch of TX146, a freeway which is to remain untolled.
There is preliminary work on some stretches of the H and I segments in the north east and east. The southern segments A, B, C will be the last built. Work was started by a Fort Bend county toll authority but TxDOT has taken over - being better able to sell needed bonds. Some $2.9 billion have been sold so far. TX99 when complete at 185 centerline miles will be a third belt route around the Houston area. It will intersect the many radial expressways going in to the center of the region. It's located at distances varying from 17 miles to 27 miles out from central Houston.
Lawmakers Audit Automakers Over GPS Privacy Issue
GAO report investigates privacy protections for in-car navigation devices and apps.
January 16, 2014
Ongoing revelations about the depth of domestic spying by the National Security Agency keeps individual privacy in the spotlight. In a report released last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined whether automakers and the producers of in-car navigation devices have been adhering to recommended privacy practices. The congressional watchdog agency, for the most part, was satisfied with what it found, though it identified a few areas where improvement was needed.
Buck halts at $1.1 million bus ‘Super Stop’
January 16, 2014
By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ARLINGTON, Va. — Arlington County dubs itself a “world-class” community. Such hubris has led to a $1.1 million bus stop.
The so-called “Super Stop” was to be the first of 24 along the Columbia Pike corridor, but a torrent of bad publicity halted the $24 million program as local officials retrenched.
“Total expenditures, including local funds, are currently being examined,” Arlington spokesman Eric Balliet told Watchdog.org on Tuesday. An independent auditor has been called in to review the program.
The first Super Stop, installed at Columbia Pike and Walter Reed last year, hasn’t fared well.
Last summer’s heat wave fried its electronic schedule board. Open at the back, the shelter allows wind, rain and snow to blow in behind the huddled masses.
By contrast, an older Metro bus stop across the street affords greater protection from the elements, and more seating. And it was constructed for $30,000.
BAD BUSINESS: Transportation Advisory Committee member Joseph Warren calls the Super Stop an “embarrassment.”
“This is such an embarrassment. It’s unbelievably stupid,” said Joseph Warren, a transportation economist and member of Arlington’s Transportation Advisory Committee.
Warren said his panel was initially told the Super Stop, which features a heated sidewalk, would run $500,000. “We were never apprised of the increased price,” he said in an interview with Watchdog.
Before county officials started deflecting blame on their consultants for the cost overruns, Warren said “no one was asking any questions.”
“They had the money,” he said.
But with an estimated $10.8 million sunk into the Super Stop project — and just one shelter to show for it — future funding is problematic.
Taxpayer groups, including Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, have roundly criticized the program. Further federal and state funding is questionable in the wake of the public mockery.
Arlington Board Chairman Walter Tejada has called the Super Stop an isolated incident.
Balliet said the county spent “approximately $1.5 million in federal funds for planning and preliminary engineering” of new bus stops. The figure includes “fabrication of three stations, and construction of the prototype,” he said.
“The new stations will accommodate growing transit service and ridership on Columbia Pike and also serve a future streetcar line,” Balliet stated.
But the county has yet to account for the whereabouts of the $10.8 million that Warren says has been expended so far.
J.T. Parmalee, who has used the million-dollar bus shelter, calls the Super Stop a poster child for government waste.
Parmalee, a conservative political consultant, said such pricey edifices only fuel a push by state Delegate Ben Cline, R-Richmond, to repeal the multibillion-dollar transportation tax increase passed by the General Assembly last year.
Kenric Ward is chief of Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau.
This shows politics can be played with toll roads and road closures can be used to punch political enemies. When citizen prevailed in their lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation in 2006 & 2008 to stop the US 281 toll project, stop light times doubled overnight. No one should have that kind of power of anyone’s freedom to travel and road delays should never be used for political ends. There should be criminal penalties for anyone who attempts to engage in abusing public assets for political gain.
Christie Faces Scandal on Traffic Jam Aides Ordered
By KATE ZERNIKE
JAN. 8, 2014
New York Times
The mystery of who closed two lanes onto the George Washington Bridge — turning the borough of Fort Lee, N.J., into a parking lot for four days in September — exploded into a full-bore political scandal for Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday. Emails and texts revealed that a top aide had ordered the closings to punish the town’s mayor after he did not endorse the governor for re-election.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Mr. Christie, emailed David Wildstein, a high school friend of the governor who worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge.
Later text messages mocked concerns that school buses filled with students were stuck in gridlock: “They are the children of Buono voters,” Mr. Wildstein wrote, referring to Mr. Christie’s opponent Barbara Buono.
The emails are striking in their political maneuvering, showing Christie aides gleeful about some of the chaos that resulted. Emergency vehicles were delayed in responding to three people with heart problems and a missing toddler, and commuters were left fuming. One of the governor’s associates refers to the mayor of Fort Lee as “this little Serbian,” and Ms. Kelly exchanges messages about the plan while she is in line to pay her respects at a wake.
Mr. Christie denied knowledge of the emails and said his staff was to blame. The growing scandal threatens to tarnish him at the moment he assumes an even larger position on the national stage, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and an all-but-certain candidate for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016.
While the emails do not establish that the governor himself called for the lane closings, they show his staff was intimately involved, contrary to Mr. Christie’s repeated avowals that no one in his office or campaign knew about them. In fact, the emails show, several staff members and appointees worked to cover up the scheme under the ruse that it was a traffic study.
The disclosing of the emails will probably intensify an investigation into the lane closing by the Port Authority Inspector General’s office, which opened a formal inquiry in December. At that time, the deputy inspector general, Michael Nestor, confirmed the investigation, and another official said the office was seeking to determine whether there was any abuse of authority or gross mismanagement.
The emails could represent evidence that government resources were used for political purposes, a potential crime. Mr. Nestor did not respond to a telephone message on Wednesday seeking comment.
On Wednesday, the normally voluble Mr. Christie was largely quiet. He and his staff had apparently been caught off-guard by the day’s revelations. He canceled his one scheduled public event, where he was expected to talk about progress in recovering from Hurricane Sandy. Late in the afternoon, he issued a statement saying that he had seen the exchanges “for the first time” and casting blame on his staff for “unacceptable” behavior.
“I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge,” Mr. Christie’s statement said. “One thing is clear: This type of behavior is unacceptable, and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”
His office did not respond to follow-up inquiries about whether this meant Ms. Kelly, or anyone else, had been fired. Mr. Wildstein, along with Bill Baroni, Mr. Christie’s top appointed staff member at the Port Authority, resigned in December after port officials testified in a legislative hearing that the men had violated protocols and had sought to hide their plans for the lane closings from Fort Lee officials, the police and even other Port Authority officials.
The documents were obtained by The New York Times and other news outlets Wednesday. They are heavily redacted by Mr. Wildstein, who turned them over under a subpoena from Democratic legislators investigating the lane closing, making it hard to determine in some cases who is speaking.
But they indicate that Mr. Christie’s staff, appointees at the Port Authority, and his campaign office were all intimately involved in discussing the growing scandal and how to react to it even as it was unfolding.
After New York appointees at the Port Authority, who had not been warned in advance about the closings, reopened the lanes four days after they were closed, Mr. Wildstein and Ms. Kelly expressed panic, but Mr. Wildstein assured her that David Samson, Mr. Christie’s handpicked chairman of the Port Authority, was “helping us to retaliate.”
When reporters began calling to ask about the lane closings, Mr. Wildstein and Ms. Kelly worked with Michael Drewniak, the governor’s chief spokesman, to fashion a statement saying that the port was “reviewing traffic safety patterns” at the bridge and had been “in contact with Fort Lee police throughout this transition.”
In fact, bridge officials testified in December that Mr. Baroni and Mr. Wildstein instructed them not to tell the Fort Lee police, or anyone else, about the lane closings before they happened. They also testified that they did not believe there had been any traffic study; none were produced after the lane closings, and any study of traffic patterns could have been done using computer models of data routinely collected at the bridge.
Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie, emails David Wildstein, Mr. Christie’s close friend and appointee at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote.
In early October, Mr. Wildstein wrote to Bill Stepien, Mr. Christie’s campaign manager, about an article in The Wall Street Journal about the suspicious lane closings.
“It’s fine,” replied Mr. Stepien, recently named by Mr. Christie to be head of the state Republican party and a top adviser to the Republican Governors Association. “The mayor is an idiot, though.”
He added, with an apparent typo, “When some, lose some.”
“It will be a tough November for this little Serbian,” Mr. Wildstein replied. (The mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, at whom that barb was aimed, is actually of Croatian descent.)
After another story a few weeks later, Mr. Stepien assured Mr. Wildstein, “For what it’s worth, I like you more on October 2, 2013 than I did on October 2, 2009.”
Mr. Baroni and Mr. Wildstein resigned their positions in December as the scandal began to cast a shadow over Mr. Christie’s political fortunes.
I'm generally a supporter of Christie, but this type of behavior cannot be tolerated by any elected official. They work for the people they represent, including the ones who didn't vote for or otherwise oppose them.
Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, a Democrat who has been leading legislative hearings on the closings, said Mr. Christie’s statement on Wednesday suffered from a “credibility gap.” He was skeptical, he said, that Ms. Kelly could sit “three chairs or four chairs away from the governor’s office” and be directing such an operation without his knowledge.
“His front office is not a place where freelancers and independent actors are welcome,” he said. “It’s a tight ship.”
“No matter who’s fired or resigns, we still have questions without answers,” he added.
Mr. Christie was cruising to re-election over Ms. Buono in the fall, but he and his campaign were leaning on local Democratic officials to endorse him so that he could pitch himself to national Republicans as the presidential nominee who could attract broad bipartisan support.
More than 50 local Democrats endorsed Mr. Christie, and some whispered that they feared the governor would withhold state money or favor if they did not go along.
Mr. Sokolich, a Democrat, was among those who did not endorse him.
On Nov. 25th in Trenton, former Port Authority director Bill Baroni defending incident as a traffic study:
The governor’s office dismissed it as routine schedule changes. But the emails that came to light on Wednesday show that Mr. Fulop’s reluctance to endorse the governor did not sit well with the governor’s office. In one exchange, Mr. Christie’s aides and the Port Authority staff talked about how they were ignoring messages from the mayor of Fort Lee, who had called Mr. Baroni to report the lane closings as “urgent matter of public safety.”
“Did he call him back?” Ms. Kelly asked.
“Radio silence,” Mr. Wildstein replied. “His name comes right after Mayor Fulop.”
“TY,” she wrote, using shorthand for thank you.
Mr. Sokolich texted Mr. Baroni, Mr. Christie’s chief appointee at the Port Authority, later in September seeking to understand why the lanes were closed, and said people were saying it was “punishment.”
“Try as I may to dispel these rumors I am having a tough time,” he wrote.
Mr. Sokolich, in an interview on Wednesday, said he found the emails — particularly the one referring to him as “this little Serbian” — “condescending, offensive, insulting and slanderous.”
“How dare you?” he added.
For weeks, Port Authority officials and Mr. Christie’s office declined to address the lane closings. Mr. Baroni told other port officials that they were not to discuss the closings publicly.
After the initial legislative hearings late last year, Mr. Christie mocked the idea that he might have been involved, joking, “I actually was the guy working the cones,” and then adding, “You are not really serious.”
When he announced Mr. Baroni’s resignation in December, he said that he had “made it very clear to everyone on my senior staff that if anyone had any knowledge of this that they need to come forward.”
“They’ve all assured me that they don’t,” he said. “I’ve spoken to Mr. Stepien and he has assured me the same thing.”
Mr. Wildstein is scheduled to testify before the legislative committee on Thursday, but he has filed a motion to quash the subpoena compelling his testimony. A judge is expected to rule on his motion in the morning.
Correction: January 8, 2014
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Bridget Anne Kelly was texting with David Wildstein about children being late to school as a result of the lane closures. The documents are redacted and who was texting with Mr. Wildstein is not identified. The article also rendered the attribution for the quotes incorrectly. The unidentified person said, “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” And Mr. Wildstein responded, “No,” and then added, “They are the children of Buono voters.”
Correction: January 8, 2014
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Mr. Christie’s campaign manager. He is Bill Stepien, not Stepian.
Folks, this along with the tax hikes in Virginia are being held up as the model for the next federal highway bill. Con. Bill Shuster from Pennsylvania is a BIG reason this series of tax hikes passed a Republican legislature. Now the special interests are hungry for more at the federal level, using PA as a test case. It’s time to DUMP Shuster, who has drawn an opponent in his primary race.
Pumping out the Pennsylvania gas tax facts
By Liam Migdail-Smith
January 21, 2014
There's been a lot of debate over the $2.3 billion boost to transportation funding Gov. Tom Corbett and the Legislature approved in November.
On one hand, it will help Berks County and the rest of the state pay for road and bridge projects, such as widening Route 222 between Reading and Allentown.
On the other hand, drivers will have to pay more.
Texas County Commissioners Vote For Illegal Speed Cameras
Denton County, Texas prepares to ignore state ban and allow a private company to install speed cameras.
December 20, 2013
Five years ago, the Texas state legislature cracked down on the cities of Rhome and Marble Falls when they allowed a for-profit company to issue speed camera tickets without the authority of the legislature. Before the programs could get off the ground, lawmakers acted and Governor Rick Perry (R) signed a law banning photo radar in the state. On Tuesday, Denton County Commissioners voted 3 to 1 to move forward on a speed camera program regardless of the law.
"A municipality may not implement or operate an automated traffic control system with respect to a highway under its jurisdiction," Transportation Code Section 542.2035 states. "The attorney general shall enforce this subsection."
Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) has already staked out a campaign platform highly skeptical of the use of red light cameras. He proposes to allow voters to decide whether such programs would continue by referendum. American Traffic Solutions (ATS) insists it has the right to issue photo radar tickets worth $150 each, beginning in school zones because the law prohibits "a municipality" not counties from having speed cameras.
"Texas law addresses speed cameras and prevents their use in cities, but not in counties," ATS wrote.
To bolster the sales pitch, ATS hired former state Supreme Court Justice Thomas R. Phillips to reassure local government officials that the speed camera program is legal. Phillips is now a partner and lobbyist for Baker Botts. Local officials were most concerned about how much money could be generated.
"Let me ask you this," Commissioner Ron Marchant asked. "Since it is a civil (fine), the fine itself and any administrative fees do not go back into the coffers of the state of Texas -- they stay and remain in Denton County. Is that correct?"
ATS has recently begun a campaign to encourage counties to sign up for speed cameras while the state legislature is out of session. So far, no other county in the state has gone along with the plan.
"I don't want to be the canary in the coal mine," Commissioner Hugh Coleman said. "For us to rely on a legal contrivance -- to me, it makes me want to act with trepidation."
Others saw it as an opportunity to open a door to widespread speed camera use throughout the state.
"I have no reluctance at all of being the canary," Marchant said. "I recommend that if we do have some interest that we put some kind of ad hoc committee together to see the feasibility of it, to see exactly what the financial ramifications are... This basically cuts the state out of getting a piece of the pie."
The commissioners court voted to create a study committee that would report back for action on the proposed photo ticketing proposal.
The Laughable Fiction of Travel-Demand Forecasts
By James Bacon
December 20, 2013
The Virginia Department of Transportation and regional transportation planning organizations periodically make traffic forecasts for planning purposes. The idea makes sense in the abstract — estimating future volumes of traffic is needed to determine how much, and where, we should invest in new transportation infrastructure. Unfortunately, the process is flawed. Estimates have consistently overshot the mark in recent years, feeding the sense of transportation “crisis,” justifying the construction of uneconomical projects and feeding the clamor for higher taxes.
The problem is hardly unique to Virginia. The U.S. Department of Transportation has been consistently overestimating traffic volumes for years, though rarely so egregiously as in the past year. In its 2012 Conditions and Performance Report to Congress issued December 2012, USDOT projected that Vehicle Miles Traveled in the U.S. would reach 3.3 billion. Turns out the estimate was about 11% too high. Think about that: Eleven percent off in just one year!
The Frontier Group decided to compare past USDOT projections with real-world performance. The result was the graph shown here. Writes Eric Sunquist with the State Smart Transportation Initiative: “The rolled-up trend estimates show essentially the same slope year after year, indicating that agencies providing [Highway Performance Monitoring System] data generally have not updated their models and assumptions to account for current conditions, as if they expect the year to be 1980 forever.”
Projecting long-term traffic forecasts is bad enough. Acting upon those forecasts is foolhardy. There are just too many unknowns to take the forecasts seriously. Will the price of gasoline go up or down? Will Millennials continue to reside in urban centers, sticking to their buses and bicycles as they get older, or will they move to the ‘burbs and embrace the auto-centric lifestyle? What impact will smart-cities technology have on relieving traffic congestion? Which transportation mode will innovate faster and gain more transportation market share — cars, bicycles or mass transit? How will economic restructuring affect the distribution of jobs? Will new technologies enable more people to work at home? Will driverless cars make long-distance commuting less onerous and more popular? Will developers continue building green-field projects on the metropolitan periphery or will they shift to infill and re-development? We can guess the answers but we cannot know them. And we don’t have a clue how the trends might interact in unexpected ways.
There’s one other reason to regard predictions of infinite increases in traffic and congestion with suspicion. In personal correspondence, Barry Klein, president of the Houston Property Rights Association, invokes the work of transportation theorist Yacov Zahavi to suggest why the traffic modeling systems used in Houston are thoroughly inadequate: When congestion intensifies, people change their behavior. “Travel models,” Klein writes, “historically have not included a ‘feedback loop’ so the reactions by road users when confronted with congestion was not reflected.”
Congestion is a subjective experience and people have different levels of tolerance for it. … When individuals perceive themselves to have an intolerable congestion problem they usually find a way to resolve their problem. This phenomenon is unacknowledged by transportation planners.
Here are three examples of how individuals in different social roles adapt their use of the road network and allow the commute time to stay under half an hour. Workers often-times relocate (not hard for renters), adjust their work hours and even change employers when traffic becomes irritating. Employers will relocate to parts of the region that are less congested or that put them close to the workforce that they desire. Retailers play a role, because of their habit of looking for under-served pockets of consumers and then set up stores in their proximity, which incidentally reduces congestion by giving consumers shorter shopping trips.
All these factors combine to disperse traffic over the road network. They each play a role in the on-going, unplanned but never ceasing trends that mitigate congestion.
People adapt in other ways. As traffic congestion increases, people are more likely to avail themselves of alternatives to the automobile: walking, biking, riding mass transit or working at home. Developers respond to the increased demand for convenience by building housing where more transportation options are available. Employers implement Transportation Demand Management strategies. The list goes on.
Bottom line: Long-term traffic forecasts are a fiction. Rather than spending billions of dollars expanding the transportation network in anticipation of travel demand that may or may not materialize, we should focus short-term on addressing demand that demonstrably exists right now and longer-term on achieving a better balance of land uses that generates fewer and shorter trips.
Texas politicians love to slam liberal California for just about everything. But this time they got it right. They actually LISTENED to the PEOPLE and nixed an unpopular toll road in response to public opposition. REFRESHING! Texas could use a lesson from California. The crony capitalists are alive and well and have a choke-hold over Texas. The conversion fo free lanes into toll lanes has alreayd happened in Texas. Mostly because TxDOT LIES to the public until the dirty deed is already done, which is illegal. But none of the GOP politicians with oversight lift a finger to halt it.
California County Says No To Tolling
Orange County, California rejects toll road option in light of overwhelming public opposition.
December 11, 2013
California's busiest stretch of freeway will not be tolled. On Monday, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) agreed with local politicians and members of the public who expressed opposition to the proposed conversion of existing Interstate 405 lanes into toll lanes.
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