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TxDOT cooked the books Enron style! Citizens call for AG investigation


TxDOT guilty of cooking the books Enron style
Citizens call for investigation of TxDOT CITIZEN PROTEST & RALLY –
“Don’t Tag Texas” TODAY!
Austin, TX, Friday, March 2, 2007 – During a Senate Hearing on Transportation Policy and Toll Roads yesterday, the State Auditor revealed that the Texas Department of Transportation miscoded invoices to read “engineering” when the money had actually been spent on Public Relations. Angry citizens are calling on the Attorney General to investigate this corrupt agency.

“If a corporate CEO had done this to their shareholders, they’d be in JAIL!” declared a shocked Terri Hall, Director of the San Antonio Toll Party and a newly formed statewide non-profit group defending and educating citizens from the current toll policy called TURF. Citizens gasped when the Auditor’s office revealed this information at yesterday’s hearing.

A record 800 witnesses heard this testimony at Senator John Carona’s hearing yesterday, and citizens may get his ear on this to launch an Attorney General investigation.

“Heads need to roll,” stated Hall. “This gives us that much more to accomplish at today’s protest march and rally” where citizens work to shape public policy.

“That ought to be refreshing, citizen-driven public policy!” said Hall.

For more details on testimony at yesterday’s hearing: here.

Toll Party Written Testimony to State Senate Transportation Committee

Submitted By:
Terri Hall, Director of a grassroots group called the San Antonio Toll Party with more than 5,000 supporters, and Founder of TURF, a new non-profit group that’s uniting concerned citizens across the state.

The people of Texas have had it. We’re in the midst of a Texas-sized tax revolt because these toll contracts are the epitome of selling off Texas to the highest bidder and a total betrayal of the public’s trust. It’s abundantly clear to citizens that our Dept of Transportation is not nor will it EVER listen to Texans with regards to this new shift to tolling and the controversial financing for them called public-private partnerships. This agency has violated its fiduciary duty to the public, and has instead become a tool for private corporations to enrich themselves at the expense of the taxpaying public.

The enabling legislation’s purpose has been perverted into something even lawmakers no longer support or recognize. Considering that even one of the author’s, Senator Steve Ogden, has come out in recent days stating he was duped by the original legislation and will work to right “his past sins,” it’s evident that TxDOT’s corruption, lack of accountability, and, frankly, arrogance, must be stopped by the Legislature.

We already pay a road user-fee, it’s called the gas tax. This myth that the gas tax is somehow insufficient is a farce. In fact, it’s been so efficient in funding our highways that there is enough leftover for 6,000 earmarks at the federal level, like the bridge to nowhere in Alaska, and over $9 billion in diversions on the state level for unrelated things like tourism promotion and cemeteries, not to mention the 25% diverted to public education.

The Legislature has stolen our highway funds, and WE THE TAXPAYERS demand you give them back. If that money had not been stolen from us, we would not be discussing tolls across Texas! We don’t lack funds; our politicians lack fiscal accountability.

We have $7 billion in mobility and revenue bonds available. TxDOT’s budget has tripled just since 1990, and doubled since Rick Perry took office. WE DO NOT LACK FUNDS! Couple this with the fact that TxDOT is tolling highways that we’ve already built and paid for like 281 in San Antonio, and the deal just signed on 121 in Dallas, and it’s further proof this isn’t about lack of money, accelerating road projects, or congestion relief, it’s greed, plain and simple. One of the companies bidding on toll projects all over Texas just posted a 76% increase in profits. Profit is one thing, but obscene profits through monopolies is exploiting the public’s roadways and amounts to thievery!

This same company, Macquarie, said this in an article in the Australian as quoted in the Waxahachie Daily Light, February 28, 2007 which “described Texas as ‘the toll road El Dorado’ in a recent online article that also referenced ‘vast toll road riches up for grabs in Texas.’ A Spanish term, El Dorado means ‘the golden one’ and typically is used as the name of a fabled land of gold and riches. More recently, the term has been used metaphorically to reference any place where wealth could be rapidly acquired, according to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia.”

Then a recent report commissioned by the Governor’s own Business Council done by TTI at A&M shows we do not need toll roads to meet our future transportation needs. It also showed TxDOT over-inflated their projected needs by $30 billion. Governor Perry also stated in a Statesman article dated August 26, 2006, that TxDOT’s supposed “funding gap” is nothing more than a wish list if money were no object.

The economic impact of tolling existing corridors has not been properly studied. Businesses along toll corridors are nearly non-existent. This will hurt economic development in these corridors not bolster it as tollers claim. Tolling an existing corridor will also limit availability of gas, goods, and services for residents who now access these businesses. TxDOT’s assumption that projected growth in these corridors will stay the same both with and without tolls, is not only inaccurate, it’s implausible, and defies logic and economic principles. People change their behavior when you put a toll on a road. It creates avoidance rather than an attraction to that highway.

Toll roads that just opened here in Austin have toll rates of up to $1.50 a mile, and with the State Auditor’s report revealing the 12% guaranteed profit for these private companies, it explains the obscene toll rates we’re already experiencing much less the continued escalation WITHOUT limit that’s sure to come over 50 years! We’re talking about $2,000-4,000 per year, likely more than that, to use our PUBLIC highways. These insidious toll contracts take away our freedom of mobility to line the pockets of private corporations.

Truth is we don’t know what’s in these contracts that are being negotiated in SECRET, and even our elected officials cannot see the terms of these contracts UNTIL AFTER IT’S SIGNED and parts of them are still NOT DISCLOSED to the public to this day as these robber barons hide behind the term “proprietary information” that our own Attorney General thinks is bunk!

We wholeheartedly object to these non-compete agreements that will hold our free lanes hostage to private companies and replace them with inferior, less efficient access roads. The non-competes PROVE TxDOT’s version of tolls won’t solve congestion; they’ll manipulate it for profit.

Toll roads cannot work unless there is horrific gridlock on the surrounding free lanes. Over the next 50 years, these foreign companies stand to make billions on our PUBLIC infrastructure. Take the deal just inked for 121 in Dallas. The government gets $5 billion from Cintra and the taxpayers pay-up astronomical toll taxes expected to be $100 billion over the next 50 years for just that one highway. Cintra will make 20 times the money they invested! This is truly highway robbery!

And the Trans Texas Corridor…the real story is, they want this corridor to benefit foreign interests, mainly China, not Texas. Recent news articles tell us the Port Authority of San Antonio has been working actively with the Communist Chinese, to open and develop NAFTA shipping ports in Mexico that will enter the U.S. through the Trans Texas Corridor (or NAFTA superhighway) for the purpose of increasing its annual handling capacity from 100,000 containers to 700,000 containers initially, with possible expansion to two million containers by 2010. That’s the congestion problem they’re seeking to solve, the source is not Texas truckers and commuters but the massive new influx of Chinese goods into the U.S. via Mexican ports, trucks, and rail.

The State Auditor’s report affirms that TxDOT has overestimated the benefits and underestimated the costs of the corridor and it shows that taxpayer money will in fact be used to build this monstrosity.

The taxpayers have a right to vote on matters of such grave public interest. We are the owners of government, not an unelected bureaucracy behaving as dictators of public policy.

This amounts to increasing our cost of transportation from pennies a day under gas tax to dollars per day under an unaccountable toll system in the hands of a foreign company for private gain WITHOUT THE PUBLIC’S CONSENT! I cannot find a SINGLE study to show that raising the cost of transportation is good for the economy.

The taxpayers not TxDOT have the final say on the public’s roads. This agency and this Governor are corrupt, they’ve overstepped their authority, they’re guilty of abusing their oath of office, they’re not listening to nor serving the public, and it’s up to you to return our public highways and our government to the PEOPLE!

We URGE you to pass Senator Carona’s bill outlawing non-compete agreements, pass Rep. Kolkhorst’s and Leibowitz’ bills to abolish the Trans Texas Corridor, to pass Rep. Pickett’s bill to abolish the Transportation Commission and replace it with an elected officer accountable to the PEOPLE, and pass a host of other much needed reforms to return the highway system to the taxpaying PUBLIC!

Toll company: Texas is full of “vast toll road riches up for grabs”

As reported in the Waxahachie Daily Light, February 28, 2007:

“The Australian, a newspaper based in Sydney, described Texas as ‘the toll road El Dorado’ in a recent online article that also referenced ‘vast toll road riches up for grabs in Texas.’ A Spanish term, El Dorado means “the golden one” and typically is used as the name of a fabled land of gold and riches. More recently, the term has been used metaphorically to reference any place where wealth could be rapidly acquired, according to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia.”

Can’t you hear them laughing all the way to the bank? This is the sort of corporate greed and cavalier attitude that drives these toll companies. And this company is the same one who has purchased Texas and Oklahoma community newspapers in the path of the Trans Texas Corridor in order to control the media coverage of the opposition.Read the full article here.

And here’s another galling statement by someone who is supposed to guard the public interest up in Dallas:

“‘People are so desperate for transportation in the 121 area, they’d be throwing money out the window in sacks’ for a toll road, Michael Morris of the Dallas-area Regional Transportation Council said at a legislative hearing last week.” — Austin American Statesman, February 28, 2007.

They think we poor serfs are desperate enough to impoverish ourselves and pay ANY amount of money to drive on our PUBLIC highways. If this offends you, prove them wrong and turn out to Senator’s Carona’s Public Hearing March 1 in Austin at the Capitol Annex Auditorium and the “Don’t Tag Texas” Rally March 2 on the south Capitol steps. Let’s show them the true independent Texas spirit and that we’re NOT going to tolerate this! Texans own Texas highways, not foreign profiteers salivating over our wallets and counting on our desperation!Read the full article here.

Dewhurst: “I’m angry” at TxDOT, declares no telling how high toll rates will get

Link to article here.

Toll rates to increase so high, state leaders can’t even say
Texans can expect to pay more to drive on state-run toll roads — a lot more.
Houston Chronicle
February 27, 2007

But just how much more, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst can’t say because of confidentiality agreements that the Texas Department of Transportation has with private companies building the toll roads.

“I’m about as angry about what’s happening with the Texas Department of Transportation,” Dewhurst said moments after he skewered the Texas Youth Commission after reports of inmate abuse by top agency officials.
Although Dewhurst could not specifically say how much toll rates will be in the future, he described those rates as “astronomical.”

TxDOT is negotiating with private companies that allow them to build roads and charge tolls for large upfront fees.

“The Legislature has no idea what those agreements are,” Dewhurst said.

The toll road contracts run for 50 years.

Halfway into the contract, toll rates will skyrocket to unimaginable levels, warned Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Chair John Carona, R-Dallas.

And state leaders will be restricted because of “significant penalties for building other roads, competing roads,” Carona said.

At some point Texas will either have to pay billions of dollars to buy back the toll roads or “accept very high rates for very long periods of time.”

Carona proposes to link the state’s gasoline tax rate to the consumer price index for automatic adjustments to keep pace with inflation. The state’s gasoline tax, now at 20 cents per gallon, has not changed since 1991.

The state’s current gasoline tax is 3.6 cents under the national average.

Sen. Ogden, new ally! Former toller desires to right “past sins” that unleased this monster!

Link to article here.

Finance chairman warns of political force against reform
By Laylan Copelin
Austin American Statesman
February 27, 2007

Fearing that state officials lack the collective will to act, the Senate Finance Committee chairman said this morning that three state agencies must be reined in despite the embarrassment it may cause.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, cited the Texas Department of Transportation, the Texas Youth Commission and Texas Southern University as severe problems that he fear will be swept under the Capitol rug.

“Two of them are broken,” he said. “And one is out of control.”

In an interview with the American-Statesman, Ogden warned that political forces were trying to keep lawmakers from dealing with the issues to avoid embarrassing the Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry.

He said he was speaking out to put a spotlight on the problems of fiscal mismanagement at Texas Southern University in Houston, sexual abuse allegations at a Texas Youth Commission facility and the transportation department’s negotiations with private developers to build and toll a system of roads.

“There’s a huge political force out there saying, ‘We don’t care or this is too embarrassing,” Ogden said. “What keeps the Legislature from hiding from problems, you have to shine a spotlight on it.”

He urged reporters to pay greater attention to the three issues and pledged to use the appropriations process to make changes.

“If I was king, TYC and Texas Southern would be in conservatorship — that means fire everybody and start over,” Ogden said. He predicted there would be more resignations at TYC — the executive director quit last week — and said he believes there is evidence of a cover-up at the agency.

The allegations of sex abuse at a TYC facility in West Texas are “as bad as it gets,” the senator said. “Isn’t this what the lieutenant governor it talking about giving the death penalty for?”

The powerful senator said the transportation department has “too many tools in their arsenal” to construct highways and the Legislature should take some of them back.

Ogden said he is concerned about the department’s plans to allow private contractors, for a large upfront fee, to build roads and charge tolls — perhaps forever. He said the department has as many as 21 projects under consideration.

“Do we really want to be turning over state highways to private contractors?” Ogden said.

The irony is that Ogden was the Senate author of the bill that in 2003 expanded the commission’s powers to construct roads.

“I’m trying to correct the sins of the past,” Ogden said.

He is considering legislation that would force the tolls to go away once a highway is paid for. He said he is concerned with plans to use toll revenue, long after a highway is paid for, to build more roads.

He said the Legislature is hearing from constituents who want the agency’s powers curbed.

“Every (legislative) member is paying a political price for what they are doing,” Ogden said. “TxDOT needs to be more sensitive and accountable to the Legislature.”

The executive director of the Texas Youth Commission resigned last week after internal review found that agency officials had ignored, for more than a year, staff complaints that administrators at a West Texas State School had molested young inmates.

Texas Southern University is asking for $25 million in emergency appropriations because of fiscal mismanagement, including hundreds of thousands of dollars inappropriately spent on the president’s house while the basements of classroom buildings are flooded and the athletic department has overspent its budget by $2 million.

The transportation department has steered the state into controversy with plans to execute the governor’s plans for the Trans Texas Corridor by negotiating agreements with private developers to build the roads and charge tolls.

More deception: TxDOT lies to Austinites about their “free” lanes

It shouldn’t surprise anybody by now that TxDOT has lied to the public. Haven’t we all heard the oft repeated claim that when they convert existing roads into tollways we’ll have as many free lanes as exist today per state law? Well, next to one of the recently opened toll roads in Austin, motorists had one of their free lanes SWIPED by TxDOT causing greater congestion in an attempt to entice more motorists to cough up the cash to use the tollway.
Link to Letter to Editor in the Austin American Statesman here.


We miss our lane

Before the MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) toll road extension opened, residents of Wells Branch and the surrounding North Austin subdivisions had two free lanes that directly fed into southbound MoPac. Now these residents have the choice to pay 50 cents for about a half-mile on the toll road or enter the very congested one-lane free ramp onto MoPac.

The Texas Department of Transportation has robbed these residents of one of their access lanes to southbound MoPac — a lane that was paid for with our tax dollars.


State Auditor slams Trans Texas Corridor

TxDOT misled public about use of taxpayer money

My mother called it LYING when someone deliberately fails to tell to the truth, and, in fact, tells someone the opposite of what is true. That’s what TxDOT has done not only with the figures for the state’s transportation “needs,” but also regarding the use of taxpayer money for the Trans Texas Corridor. Rick Perry stated at a press conference last year, in front of KHOU cameras in Houston, that NO TAXPAYER MONEY would go into the Trans Texas Corridor. Now the State Auditor (not sure why he’s just now waking up to this when citizens have asked his office to investigate these toll contracts for nearly 4 years) reveals TxDOT will use taxpayer money for the TTC and that the amount may never be clearly determined without better financial accounting from this corrupt and broken agency.

Cintra’s Annual Report has told its shareholders to plan on a 12% rate of return on their investment. So once again, TxDOT isn’t telling the taxpayers the truth behind their special interest monopolistic deal (that was brokered behind closed doors) to enrich a private, foreign corporation.


Link to articles here and here.

Auditor scolds agency for corridor project
Texas Department of Transportation downplayed costs, withheld information, audit says
By Ben Wear
Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Texas Department of Transportation has downplayed the potential costs of the Trans-Texas Corridor and potentially inflated expected gains for the project, state auditors said in a report released Friday.

Auditors also said department officials have not been sufficiently open about information on the massive road project and should involve the state comptroller’s office in overseeing future corridor contracts.

The department, in a response included in the 73-page audit, agreed with most of the auditors’ observations and recommendations. But the department defended its decision to withhold for more than a year portions of its contract with corridor developer Cintra-Zachry. And it said the auditor was wrong to conclude that the contract commits the department to guarantee Cintra-Zachry a 12 percent rate of return on what it spends building a 300-mile toll road alternative to Interstate 35.

“The 12 percent was merely a modeling assumption,” the agency’s response says.

The state plans to delete language about a “12 percent guaranteed return on equity” now in the master development plan, the audit says.

The report also says the $3 billion in payments from the developer that the state expects to get could be reduced to nothing if interest rates and inflation are higher than expected. The agency in its response did not address that assertion.

Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson, a Democrat who serves on the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, in a statement said the audit should put the brakes on the corridor project pending further study.

“Texas cannot rush into a project that will help define our future when there are so many uncertainties about the present.” Watson said. “We must step back, demand answers, and (ensure) the public is protected before work proceeds on the Trans-Texas Corridor.”

The Trans-Texas Corridor was proposed in 2002 by Gov. Rick Perry as a 4,000-mile network of tollways, railroads and utility corridors roughly paralleling existing interstate highways in Texas. The department in late 2004 announced that it had selected Cintra-Zachry to create a master plan for developing the first and most-needed of those corridors, the twin to I-35.

The department and Cintra-Zachry in March 2005 reached a $3.5 million agreement for the partnership to create a plan, and the agency released much of the contract. But the agency said release of certain sections was not required until the actual plan was complete, an assertion that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office disputed. Perry’s gubernatorial opponents seized the opportunity to criticize.

The rest of the contract was released last fall when the master plan was completed.

The audit said “it is important that the Department makes all documents, plans, and contracts related to the project public in a timely manner.” The audit did not define “timely.” Even so, the agency remained defiant about its decision to keep the information confidential temporarily. (My emphasis..For 18 months, hardly timely)

“Providing information prior to approval (of the plan) could jeopardize competition during the procurement process,” the agency said in its audit response.

Council briefed on risks of Trinity Toll Road

Link to article here.

They should have pulled the plug on this toll road long ago. It’s a dangerous boondoggle to benefit well-connected developers, not the average commuter. It barely passed the public vote in the first place. There are better uses for scarce road funds.  

Dallas council briefed on risk of Trinity toll road floods
Staff Writer
Dallas Morning News
April 14, 2014

A 9-mile toll road proposed inside the Trinity River levees would extend about 535 feet into the floodway for much of its length and run right next to the river in some spots.

Dallas City Council members also learned during a presentation Monday that the road would include a “flood separation wall” that’s not even as high as the existing levees and would necessitate an evacuation plan in the event of a 100-year flood.

Read more: Council briefed on risks of Trinity Toll Road

Gas Tax Hike Touted for Transportation Woes

Link to article here.

Drew Darby is trying to re-write history and say he didn't advocate for gas tax hike to a room full of road builders last week, but he's parsing words. His chief of staff insisted that the WOAI news story below be edited. However, Darby did indeed advocate for a gas tax hike without directly saying, "I'm for a gas tax hike." He used phrases like 'smart' and 'courageous' lawmakers know we need to raise the gas tax. He supported a bill to do just that last session as well as one that would have doubled vehicle registration fees. Darby also mocked those who want an end to gas tax diversions before any gas tax hike is on the table. Read my article on it here or here.

Gas Tax Hike Touted for Transportation Woes
By Jim Forsyth
WOAI Radio
March 21, 2014

The Texas Legislature’s point man on transportation funding says Texas motorists need to understand that a higher gas tax would be a more 'open and transparent' way of dealing head on with the state's transportation crisis than the 'congestion tax' that motorists are currently paying every day.

"I think we need to revert to pay as your go," State Re. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) told the San Antonio Mobility Coalition.  "Nine times members of the Legislature have raised the gasoline tax to pay for our transportation infrastructure, but that hasn't happened since 1991.  Since then, however, we have said we don't want to deal with the open and visible tax, we would rather pay an invisible tax."

Read more: Gas Tax Hike Touted for Transportation Woes

Larson: Streetcar "Unethical and Possibly Illegal," Should be Killed

Link to article here.

We say 'Amen' to Larson's thoughts that the $92 million in road funds that were stolen to build the street car downtown where there's no congestion should be reallocated to fix 1604 or 281 without tolls. We've been saying that since the street car first came online...

Larson: Streetcar "Unethical and Possibly Illegal," Should be Killed
By Jim Forsyth
WOAI Radio
March 18, 2014

The heat on VIA, Bexar County and the City of San Antonio is being cranked up to boiling levels as pressure increases to kill the controversial downtown streetcar plan, or at least call an election to see if there is any support at all for the project.

In letters to the county, VIA Chairman Alex Briseno, and the Texas Transportation Commission, influential State Rep. Lyle Larson says he has not seen a 'more divisive issue in this community over the last two decades.'

Read more: Larson: Streetcar "Unethical and Possibly Illegal," Should be Killed

Trucker files lawsuit for overcharging by Florida toll system

Link to article here.

Lawsuit alleges overcharging by Florida SunPass
By David Tanner
Land Line Magazine
March 20, 2014

A Florida car hauler has filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Transportation’s toll collection agency, SunPass.

John Northrup, doing business as Angie’s Transportation out of Plant City, Fla., seeks to “recover excessive tolls charged under FDOT’s SunPass system,” according to the lawsuit filed Feb. 21 in the Circuit Court of the Second Judicial Circuit for Leon County, Fla.

In addition to monetary damages, Northrup seeks declaratory and injunctive relief for breach of contract by the named defendants – the Florida Department of Transportation and FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad in his official capacity.

Read more: Trucker files lawsuit for overcharging by Florida toll system

New York tracks motorists using toll tags - even on non-toll roads

Link to article here.

New York uses toll tags to track motorists
By Kit Daniels
March 24, 2014

New York traffic agencies are tracking motorists across the state by connecting to their toll tags mounted to their windshields, even when the drivers are no where near a toll booth.

Both the New York City Department of Transportation and Transcom, a traffic management agency, admitted that for nearly 20 years they have been using antennas to connect to E-ZPass toll tags in vehicles driving across more than 3,000 miles of public, non-toll roads, not just in New York but neighboring states as well.

Read more: New York tracks motorists using toll tags - even on non-toll roads

Tax hike? Lawmaker tells road lobby gas tax hike coming

Link to article here.

Tax hike? Lawmaker tells road lobby gas tax hike coming
By Terri Hall
March 21, 2014

Texas State Rep. Drew Darby told a friendly crowd of road builders that he’ll continue to push for a gas tax hike to help shore-up the State’s road funding shortfalls at yesterday’s San Antonio Mobility Coalition (SAMCo) luncheon. Darby supported a bill to capture half of the vehicle sales tax receipts, raise the gas tax 10 cents a gallon, and double vehicle registration fees during the legislative session last year. So his support of gas tax hikes are well known. But what makes his comments to SAMCo so newsworthy is his open mockery of those who have a problem with ending the raid of gas taxes for non-road purposes.

The biggest diversion of gas tax goes to public education by constitutional amendment (twenty-five percent). The next goes to the Department of Public Safety (DPS) which gets roughly five percent. The constitution does say the gas tax can go to policing state highways, but that’s a small amount of the DPS budget. The Texas legislature has raided additional sums to the tune of billions over the last several decades for anything from computers in the Comptroller’s office to enhancing employee benefits in the Attorney General’s office. Taxpayers want accountability for those funds and restitution before any tax hikes are contemplated.

Read more: Tax hike? Lawmaker tells road lobby gas tax hike coming

Federal study backs single Dallas Trinity toll road route

Link to article here.

Federal study backs single Dallas Trinity toll road route — or none at all
Dallas Morning News
Published: 18 March 2014

Dallas will either get a toll road inside the Trinity River levees or there won’t be one at all.

That’s according to the Federal Highway Administration’s recently completed final environmental impact statement on the project. The study appears to give Dallas City Hall what it has long wanted: a somewhat clearer path toward building a nearly 9-mile toll road along the east levee of the Trinity River.

But the road ahead is still a bumpy one, and any construction would be years away. The city lacks the more than $1.5 billion needed to build the road. Other federal clearance is still required.

And the highway administration wants to evaluate the toll road’s impact on wetlands and flood plains between the levees. Those effects were rated unacceptable by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2009.

Tuesday’s report concludes a toll road just inside the east levee would be the “least environmentally damaging alternative” of all options presented — except for not building the road at all.

“Then let’s not build it,” said council member Philip Kingston, one of a handful of council members opposed to the toll road.

The FHWA won’t issue a final decision about the project until after an April 24 public hearing to gather input about the report. The federal agency is holding the hearing in conjunction with the Texas Department of Transportation and the North Texas Tollway Authority.

Several key hurdles to building the toll road, like securing funding, remain. The project also will require two permits from the corps. One allows an agency to modify an existing corps project — in this case, a flood plain. The other regulates changes to bodies of water overseen by the U.S. government and is required by the Clean Water Act.

The corps also is finalizing its own environmental impact study, which is expected to be given to council members April 14. Jim Frisinger, a spokesman for the corps’ Fort Worth District, said its contents will not be made available until shortly before that.

“They’re a little ahead of us, the parkway people,” Frisinger said.

Despite remaining steps, FHWA spokesman Doug Hecox said his agency’s final environmental impact statement is a key part of the process.

“The FEIS is a milestone,” he said.

Hecox said barring any surprises at next month’s hearing, his agency will support the option to build just inside the east levee. Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan, who oversees the Trinity River Corridor Project, was delighted Tuesday.

Jordan said the least environmentally disruptive route has always been Dallas’ preference. That option is labeled 3C in the report.

“We were hopeful the record of decision would point in the direction of 3C, and the fact they’re getting to that conclusion eventually supports the city’s position and desired outcome,” she said.

Still, there are caveats that came with the FHWA’s conclusion. The massive document said that general policy “would not favor such an alternative” at all as going inside the levees.

The report says it’s recommending the route “for further evaluation” based solely on “a unique set of factors that warrant favoring” such an alternative.

The federal government says in the study that it has allowed the so-called 3C plan to survive this long because the toll road has been designed to avoid substantial impacts of the Trinity River flood plain to perform its “fundamental mission of safely conveying floodwaters from extreme storm events” past downtown Dallas.

The study also notes the toll road has been a prominent aspect of Dallas city planning for more than 40 years.

Kingston criticized the report for being influenced by Dallas politics and planning.

“It doesn’t seem responsible to allow Dallas’ zeal to build this road to affect an outcome of an environmental impact statement,” he said.

The NTTA has first shot at building the toll road. But it will first conduct its own revenue study to determine, among other things, how many people would use it and whether it makes financial sense to fund it.

Jordan said once all federal clearances are reached, a funding plan will be put in place. Then the design phase can begin.

“Construction could be several years off,” she said.

AT A GLANCE: The preferred route
Description: Preferred by the city, this option would put the toll road to the inside the east levee. It would run 8.67 miles, with about 6.2 miles in the floodway.
Total cost: at least $1.46 billion (2013 dollars)
Environmental mitigation cost: $22.9 million
Operating and maintenance costs: $597.8 million (2012 dollars)
Buildings destroyed: 30 (27 commercial)

Pro: It’s cheaper, faster and less disruptive to business. It also would leave Riverfront Boulevard open to commercial development.

Con: It puts a six-lane toll road right in the middle of the floodway, something that has never been done. Critics say it mars the parklike atmosphere and needlessly adds strain to the aging levees that protect Dallas from floods. Federal law prohibits a project from elevating flood levels, and this alternative would do so slightly. The corps could issue a waiver to permit the higher water if it felt the associated risks were small enough.

Oklahoma has better toll roads than Texas

Link to Letter here.

Oklahoma has a better toll road system than Texas
By Letters to the Editor
Dallas Morning News
March 20, 2014

Recently I traveled to Oklahoma, and I paid my toll at a manned toll both in Chandler. It also had a Prairie Speed Pass option. Manned booths coupled with electronic booths are necessary everywhere. The REAL people can help drivers who are lost or help find gas stations, and one doesn’t have to pay the enormous processing fees when the toll bill comes in the mail.

It also provides local jobs which support the local economy.

I have been on toll roads in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas. Unfortunately my home state of Texas is the only with all automated tolls where the poor and visitors end up paying the most fees. We have eliminated manned booths and jobs that help the local economy, and we are not available to help visitors and those who are lost to help with directions and services.

Please bring back at least one manned booth on the automated massive and growing toll road system in Texas.

— Gabrielle Gordon, Unincorporated Tarrant County

Editorial: Toll roads aren't right for Wisconsin (Texas either)

Link to article here.

For many of the same reasons, tolls aren't good for Texas, either.

Journal Times editorial: Toll roads aren't the answer for Wisconsin
March 04, 2014 12:15 am  •  Journal Times Editorial Board

Like potholes in the spring, the perennial proposal to raise revenue for state road construction by putting tollbooths on Wisconsin’s Interstate has again resurfaced.

Last week, the toll road arguments got an unlikely bipartisan push from state Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

At a Racine County legislative breakfast, Barca worried aloud about the decline in state gas tax revenue as vehicles become more energy-efficient. “This is a huge problem and I think counties and everyone around the state needs to carefully analyze this,” Barca said.

And Vos chimed in that without another source of revenue to support road construction the fuel tax could double. “As a Republican I don’t stand up saying ‘it’s great we’re going to raise fees,’” Vos said. “But I do believe people should pay for what they use.”

The lure of toll roads for Wisconsin is easy to understand — legislators and others think it would fund our highways using OPM — other people’s money. Why, just look at all those Illinois cars that glide up the Interstate on their way to Wisconsin’s northwoods every year. And they’re already used to toll roads so they won’t even notice.

Except they might. And they might decide to forego that trip to Eagle River if the trip takes longer because of toll stops. Or they might decide to skip off the Interstate and use secondary roads to avoid the tollbooths, a diversion that would put more traffic on those roads and boost congestion and repair costs for highways less able to handle the load. You can be sure that southeastern Wisconsin residents would use that option of toll avoidance as well.

However Vos and Barca would like to spin it, unintended consequences like secondary highway congestion, loss of tourism dollars and increased repair costs on other roads would be some of the results.

And no matter how you slice it, it would be another tax — and an inefficient one to boot. In a recent commentary, Hayes Framme of the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, cited a State of Washington study that noted the cost of operating and maintaining toll facilities can consume as much as 20 percent of the money generated. That compares to about 1 percent for the cost of administering a gas tax.

Instead of a two-tax system, Wisconsin would be better off taking the current road and using the gas tax as the primary source for highway funding. Critics will say the state’s gas taxes are already among the highest in the country — and it’s true that Wisconsin ranks 14th among all states. But at 51.3 cents per gallon for federal and state gas taxes, Wisconsin is less than 2 cents per gallon more than the national average of 49.5 cents.

We don’t need a new and inefficient tax like toll roads in southeastern Wisconsin.

Hydrogen Fuel Set to Take Off, But Safety Concerns Remain

Link to article here.

Hydrogen Fuel Set to Take Off, But Safety Concerns Remain
by Naveena Sadasivam

Feb. 18, 2014

It was just before 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon and traffic was moving smoothly on the Pomona Freeway, about 20 miles outside downtown Los Angeles. Suddenly, a truck carrying compressed hydrogen caught fire, and by the time the local fire department had arrived on the scene, two of the hydrogen tanks had begun venting gas, and flames had engulfed the truck’s cab.

It took almost seven hours for firefighters, working with a mix of chemicals and water, to end the threat.

“It had the full spectrum of colors,” Captain Will Pryor of the Los Angeles County Fire Department recalled of the fire on Nov. 14, 2013. “It’s like a log in a fire. You’d have blue parts of it. Orange parts of it.

“There is a school nearby, there are multiple residences nearby, apartment buildings, office buildings,” Pryor said. “They were all in a half-mile blast radius, what was reported would be the blast radius of hydrogen.”

In the end, there were no casualties, and the worst-case scenario was avoided. But as California expands its use of hydrogen-fueled cars and builds out its infrastructure for servicing those cars, more hydrogen is going to be trucked around.

Later this year, 1,000 of Hyundai’s hydrogen-fueled cars will go on sale in California, and Toyota has announced plans for a commercial model to go on sale in 2015. Ford, Daimler, Nissan, General Motors and Honda have also announced plans for partnerships on hydrogen fuel cell technologies. The California Air Resources Board has projected that there will be over 50,000 electric and hydrogen cars in California by 2018.

California Gov. Jerry Brown last year agreed to devote $20 million every year over the next decade to build 100 additional hydrogen fueling stations. The state currently has 23 active stations.

Hydrogen as a fuel source is an attractive proposition mainly because it doesn’t emit toxic, heat-trapping pollutants the way gasoline does. An analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy shows that for a mid-size SUV, the total greenhouse gas emissions from using hydrogen as a fuel is at worst half that for gasoline.

However, hydrogen poses several other risks that gasoline does not. It is highly flammable, and can ignite more easily than other fuels. Hydrogen is also colorless and odorless, making it difficult to readily detect leaks.

Environmental and regulatory experts have long worried about the threat posed by the vast array of dangerous materials daily being moved across the country, from nuclear waste to pesticides and compressed gases.

“As far as the aggregate risk that is presented to the American public, I don’t think it’s going to change significantly,” said Carl Southwell, a risk analyst who studies infrastructure and chemical risks. “But there will be slightly more risk to first responders and people near the hydrogen fire.”
A ProPublica review of voluntarily submitted data collected by the Department of Energy does show there have been some problems with hydrogen infrastructure nationally.

There have been 37 recorded “events” in recent years involving hydrogen trucks or fueling stations. Of the 22 events recorded at fueling stations, hydrogen was released in a dozen of them, and twice the releases resulted in fires. Fires occurred in five of the 15 recorded events involving hydrogen trucks.

At the moment, the transport of hydrogen is monitored by both state and federal agencies. The federal agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), says it requires various types of documentation and labeling for shipments of hydrogen and training for employees involved in its transport.

However, there have been recent reports —one by an inspector general with the federal Department of Transportation — asserting that the agency has been chronically understaffed and underfunded. A senior agency official recently conceded as much, saying funding from Congress had dried up and that the regulatory process he oversees was “kind of dying.”

Gordon Delcambre Jr., a PHMSA spokesman, told ProPublica that the agency ensures compliance of hazardous materials shippers and carriers by conducting unannounced inspections. But he acknowledged that federal regulations do not actually require such inspections or mandate how often they should occur.

ProPublica determined that the agency’s western office, which is responsible for 12 states, has just seven inspectors.

Warnings about the transport and use of dangerous materials of all kinds have been sounded for years. In 2007, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which is in charge of enforcing regulations for cargo trucks and interstate buses, called for changes in its operations to meet the rise in vehicles that used hydrogen.

“The [current] regulations do not consider safety systems and equipment required for commercial vehicles using hydrogen as an alternative fuel,” the authors of the report said. But to date, the FMCSA has not made changes to include separate inspection procedures and regulations for hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Quon Kwan, who helped compile the report at the FMCSA, said he was hopeful that more action would be taken in spite of the fact that the number of hydrogen-powered vehicles on the roads today are a “drop in the bucket” when set against the millions of diesel-powered trucks the agency is responsible for regulating.

Chief Jan Dunbar at the California Office of Emergency Services downplayed the challenge any increase in hydrogen transport and use might present to first responders.

“There’s nothing special about hydrogen that sets it apart from any other flammable gas,” he said.  

California’s Office of the State Fire Marshal does have a 16-hour emergency response training program for alternative fuels vehicles. The curriculum allocates one hour to the discussion of hydrogen. But fire departments aren’t required to provide the course to their firefighters. Since the program was started in 2009, four classroom sessions have been conducted, each with 44 students. The manual for the program is also available for download on the State Fire Marshal’s website.

We have it available to departments. It’s whether or not they choose to access that,” said one instructor at the State Fire Marshal’s office.

Jennifer Hamilton, an education specialist at the California Fuel Cell Partnership, said she has been delivering hundreds of workshops on hydrogen fuel cells to firefighters. Currently, the California Fuel Cell Partnership and the Department of Energy are the two main organizations with outreach programs to educate firefighters on the properties of hydrogen and the working of hydrogen cars.

Hamilton estimates that her workshops have reached more than 5000 firefighters so far, but is quick to clarify that they do not qualify as true training.

“Training implies that there is some sort of certificate or credits and an approved curriculum,” she said. “We don’t give anything like that. Our program is at the information or awareness level.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Gov. Jerry Brown had agreed to spend over $2 billion on hydrogen fueling stations. Gov. Brown has allocated $2 billion for clean-vehicle incentives over the next ten years. $20 million a year has been set aside specifically for hydrogen-fueling stations.

Report shows how much user fees actually covers the cost of road building

Link to report here.

Share of State & Local Road Spending Covered by User Fees and User Taxes
January 07, 2014
By Richard Borean
Tax Foundation

This week’s map comes from a report we released earlier this week that looks at how state and local road spending is funded. This map looks specifically at the share of state and local road spending covered by user fees and user taxes.

As Joseph Henchman explained in his report:
The lion’s share of transportation funding should come from user fees (amounts a user pays directly for a service the user receives, such as tolls) and user taxes (amounts a user pays, based on usage, for transportation, such as fuel and motor vehicle license taxes). When road funding comes from a mix of tolls and gasoline taxes, the people that use the roads bear a sizeable portion of the cost. By contrast, funding transportation out of general revenue makes roads “free,” and consequently, overused or congested—often the precise problem transportation spending programs are meant to solve.

Delaware comes in first place due to 78.6 percent of its road spending being funded by user fees and user taxes. Hawaii (77.3%) and Florida (68.8%) are close behind. By contrast, Alaska (10.5%), South Dakota (21.5%), Wyoming (24.5%), and Louisiana (25.4) raise little of their transportation spending from user fees and user taxes, instead subsidizing it heavily with general revenues.

All maps and other graphics may be published and reposted with credit to the Tax Foundation.

Toll violators: TxDOT to impound vehicles

Link to article here.

Is this really the best use of our law enforcement officers? It's likely to cost more to contract with law enforcement to collect the unpaid tolls than the cost of the tolls themselves.

Watch out, toll scofflaws: TxDOT may impound your car
By Andra Lim
Austin American Statesman
Friday, March 21, 2014

ROUND ROCK — Each month, Charles Ackridge is supposed to make a dent in the $40,000 or so a court decided he owed for thousands of unpaid tolls.

The Austin man sent his one and only payment, about $350, in 2009. But for years he’s taken the Texas 45 and Texas 130 tollways to get around town.

TxDOT plans to soon try a new way of reeling in the top toll scofflaws like Ackridge. It will partner with law enforcement agencies to impound cars that have racked up at least 100 violations within a year but continue to drive on tollways. A vehicle wouldn’t be released until the owner made good on the toll bill.

Read more: Toll violators: TxDOT to impound vehicles

360 Tollway Project to convert free lanes to toll lanes in DFW

Link to article here.

Another example of TxDOT slapping tolls on your existing FREEway and downgrading your free lanes to permanent frontage roads. Note TxDOT is footing the bill for the project with tax money (so it could be a FREEway, not a tollway - no one should pay a toll to use a road that's paid for with their tax money) and the tolls will be paying it back. Traditionally, tolls pay back toll revenue bonds (which is NOT taxpayer money - if the toll traffic doesn't show up, the bond investors lose, not taxpayers). Wake-up DFW, you're going to have to pay tolls just to leave your driveway in short order if you don't rise up and stop this theft of your public highways!

360 Tollway Project Moving Forward
By Tim Cosec
Tuesday, Mar 11, 2014

The Texas Department of Transportation is moving forward with plans to make a portion of state Highway 360 a toll road. The toll road would stretch from Sublett Road in Arlington to U.S. 287 near Mansfield.

Mansfield resident Elizabeth Rizzo has no problems taking SH 360 during the afternoons so she and her daughter can get frozen yogurt. During the morning and evening commutes, though, she goes out of her way to avoid it.

Read more: 360 Tollway Project to convert free lanes to toll lanes in DFW

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