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October 7th, 2005:

Toll road lawsuit

An anti-toll road organization has filed a lawsuit alleging that two toll road related authorities are illegal.

A lawsuit filed in Travis County contends the Metropolitan Planning Organizations in San Antonio and Austin — which dispense tens of millions in federal gas taxes annually — are illegal.

Lately, some of the money in both cities has been allocated for toll roads. That’s a burning issue for People for Efficient Transportation, which had the Texas Legal Foundation file the lawsuit Wednesday in district court.

“It’s a double tax,” PET spokesman Sal Costello said in a statement. “It’s morally and ethically wrong.”

The lawsuit, which targets Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas Department of Transportation and the two planning organizations, doesn’t actually say tax money can’t be spent on toll roads.

Instead, the suit claims the planning organizations have no legal footing in Texas to spend at all.

Perry’s spokeswoman, Kathy Walt, said the suit is a bunch of huffing and puffing.

“This is a frivolous lawsuit that amounts to nothing more than a public stunt,” she said.

The suit hammers out several arguments:

There’s no state law to create the planning organizations, and the governor has no authority to do so as called for in federal law.

State law doesn’t authorize the planning organizations to allocate federal gas tax money.

State legislators serving on the planning boards, two in San Antonio and seven in Austin, violates the Texas Constitution’s separation of powers.

The San Antonio planning organization noted, however, that federal law says boards should include local elected officials, officials with transportation agencies and “appropriate state officials.”

Rather than seek an injunction, PET wants to use a court ruling to help push for legislation to fix the flaws.

At the same time, members will seek changes to make the planning organizations more accountable.

“A supermajority of Texans oppose tolls on taxpayer-funded highways and want government to be accountable for toll decisions, but those desires have been ignored by government,” said David Rogers, the legal foundation’s policy director.

I’ll come back to that point in a moment. In the meantime, here’s PET’s press release with a fuller statement of their arguments. I don’t have anywhere near the expertise to evaluate their claims, but as any success on their part would have a dramatic effect on a lot of road construction planning around the state, I want to keep an eye on this.

Now then. Regarding that “supermajority” opposition to toll roads, it depends to a certain extent on how the question is phrased, as the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority recently found when it commissioned a poll on attitudes towards toll roads.

•Half of Central Texans said “no” when asked whether “there is a need for toll roads” here. But that includes toll roads cut through the prairie, like the Texas 130 bypass east of town and five other entirely new roads that will have tolls, and expansions of existing highways, like Ed Bluestein Boulevard, where the new lanes will have tolls and there will be free access roads. Some might accept one kind of toll road and reject the other.

•When the question is narrowed somewhat and people are asked if they approve of adding toll lanes to existing highways, 60 percent say that’s a bad idea. That’s precisely what would happen in the “phase two” toll road program that caused so much controversy over the past year and a half. The mobility authority would operate those five roads: Ed Bluestein, Texas 71 east of Interstate 35, U.S. 290 East in northeast Travis County, U.S. 290 West in Oak Hill, and Texas 45 Southwest, the only completely new road.

•As for conversions — taking an existing road and simply slapping tolls on it without making further improvements — 78 percent are against that. The only two pure conversions bandied about locally over the past two years — short stretches of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and U.S. 183 — were abandoned after public umbrage.

•So, if most of us don’t like paying tolls for these roads, then it follows that we must support raising gasoline taxes to build road improvements, right? Well, no. Asked how to pay for improvements, 38 percent said tolls were the answer, 37 percent opted for a gas tax hike and 25 percent had no response.

“It shows us we have a lot of work to do” in the public relations and education area, said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the mobility authority.

In the abstract, I don’t think there’s anything illegal or immoral about toll roads. My objections largely have to do with the way they’re currently being pushed as a panacea to all our transportation needs, from the utter unaccountability of toll road authorities like HCTRA, to the fraudulent claims being made by TxDOT officials about how much more the state gas tax would have to be in order to properly fund road construction the old-fashioned way, and back to the clear lack of concern about building toll roads through established residential areas. (Go back to Christof’s post and read carefully the letters highlighted in red in the third bullet point from the bottom for an example.) If HCTRA were subject to the same requirements about public meetings and regulatory oversight that TxDOT is, I’d be a lot more sanguine about the whole thing.

Any comment from the more-qualified-than-me crowd as to the merits of this suit?

The coincidences keep piling up

Amazing, isn’t it how one man can be responsible for so many coincidences?

Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) met for at least 30 minutes with the top fundraiser of his Texas political action committee on Oct. 2, 2002, the same day that the Republican National Committee in Washington set in motion a series of financial transactions at the heart of the money-laundering and conspiracy case against DeLay.

During the meeting at his Capitol office, DeLay conferred with James W. Ellis, the head of his principal fundraising committee in Washington and his chief fundraiser in Texas. Ellis had earlier given the Republican National Committee a check for $190,000 drawn mostly from corporate contributions. The same day as the meeting, the RNC ordered $190,000 worth of checks sent to seven Republican legislative candidates in Texas.

All of these things happening at the same time, and in the same place, with the same people involved. What, you thought “coincidence” meant something else?

DeLay and Ellis have so far given slightly different accounts of the substance of their discussion. Ellis’s attorney, Jonathan D. Pauerstein, said that Ellis recalls that their Oct. 2 discussion did not concern or involve Texas or Texas candidates. But DeLay, interviewed last weekend on “Fox News Sunday,” said that during a “scheduling meeting” with Ellis in October, Ellis said while they were leaving his office that “by the way, we sent money” to Washington.

DeLay’s lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said in an interview this week that “there is no question that at some point Ellis told him,” but that DeLay does not recall the precise timing. DeGuerin said “it could have been that day” — Oct. 2, the day the same arm of the RNC began to process the seven checks for printing two days later, on Oct. 4.

But DeGuerin said that this does not mean DeLay was “the one who made those decisions” about collecting the funds, sending them to Washington and returning the same total amount to candidates in Texas. “It wasn’t his role or his authority” because DeLay was not involved in the day-to-day operations of the committee.

Ellis, who still directs DeLay’s Washington-based Americans for a Republican Majority political action committee (ARMPAC), “is the kind of guy who would say, ‘I did this, how about that?’ ” according to DeGuerin. DeLay may have responded, DeGuerin said, by saying, “Hey, that’s great,” but “that does not make him a part of the agreement to do that.”

It’s nice to know that amidst all the misspeakings and allegations of rampant partisan vindictiveness, Team DeLay is still keeping the Some Other Dude Did It defense in its back pocket, just in case. I wonder when JD Pauerstein is going to respond in the kind of fashion that one might expect from an attorney whose client is being set up as a fall guy by one of his coconspirators. He may want to hurry, or Warren RoBold might beat him to any good deals that may be available.

Even more amusing is the attempt by DeLay to claim that Ronnie Earle broke the same law he did. No stone, no matter how ludicrous, will be left unturned.

Meanwhile, the Chron is following the shifting winds of DeLay’s explanations.

DeLay and his lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, have changed their stories this week about what DeLay knew about the money and when.

DeLay told talk show host Rush Limbaugh that in August, he mistakenly told prosecutors he knew about the TRMPAC check before it was sent to the Republican National Committee. He said Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle would not allow him to change his statement.

“I misspoke one sentence — one sentence — and they have based all of this on one sentence,” DeLay said during a radio interview with Limbaugh on Tuesday. “They think that before the (TRMPAC) check was cut and sent to the national committee that I approved this check. I didn’t know this went on until well after it happened.”

On the same day, DeGuerin told the Houston Chronicle that DeLay likely found out about the check at an 10:15 a.m. Oct. 2, 2002, meeting with Ellis. DeGuerin said what DeLay learned was informational and did not put him into a decision-making process.

“The bottom line is DeLay didn’t have any decision to make, and he didn’t make any decision. He might have been informed about it, but it was kind of as, ‘Hey, I got this done,’ and he might have said, ‘Sure, that’s great,’ ” DeGuerin said.

But on Thursday, DeGuerin told the Chronicle that Ellis and DeLay did not talk about the TRMPAC donation to the RNC during that meeting. He said DeLay remembers Ellis telling him about it at a later meeting. DeGuerin said he clarified what happened after talking to DeLay and Ellis’ lawyer.

“He has a recollection … as he was leaving the scheduling meeting of Ellis simply saying, ‘We’ve sent $190,000 up from TRMPAC.’ And that was it,” DeGuerin said.

You’d think for all the money that DeLay (or more appropriately, all the contributors to his legal defense fund) is paying DeGuerin, they could get their stories straight before they tell them to the press. And just for the record, there’s plenty of documentation to indicate that DeLay was in fact involved.

I see also (via The Daily DeLay) that the Brazosport Facts has a nice anti-DeLay editorial, which boils down to this:

Unfortunately for DeLay and his defenders, politics are not at the center of the charges. It is DeLay’s conduct.

Last but not least, I think we’ve officially reached the point where Tom DeLay has become a Newt Gingrich-like character in the minds of the American people. I love this line from David Letterman (via the Whitmarsh mailing list):

Yesterday down in Washington, D.C., they shut down Pennsylvania Avenue due to a suspicious package. Turned out it was a bag of laundered cash for Tom DeLay.

Sweet.

Sugar Land Kiddie Roundup ends in dismissals

Remember the Sugar Land Kiddie Roundup, in which a bunch of kids who were attending a parentless party at which alcohol was present but who were not drinking got busted for minor-in-possession by the overzealous SLPD? (See here and here if you need your memory refreshed.) The good news for them is that their charges have been dismissed.

With too many defendants, attorneys and court-watchers to fit in Sugar Land’s municipal courtoom, the teens went to trial today in city council chambers, but after a morning of testimony, prosecutors asked that the case be dismissed because it was proving too difficult for police to indentify by face those they arrested.

[…]

Testimony got under way today with Officer Tod Cox describing how he was sent to the home to investigate a loud noise complaint.

Cox said he saw five or six young people standing outside the home and the people fled when they saw the officer approaching him.

After entering the home and seeing there were no adults present, Cox and other officers talked about what action they should take.

“We began issuing citations to everyone who was there,” Cox said.

City and police officials have been defending the actions of the officers, saying teen drinking is a serious offense.

“We have all seen the tragic aftermath of underage drinking,” said police chief Steve Griffith.

And here we see the tragic aftermath of lazy, overreactive policing. Maybe next time, if it’s not too much trouble, you could make an effort to distinguish between lawbreaking and innocent bystanding. Might save you some embarrassment later on.

(By the way, the original story identifies Lisa Womack as the Sugar Land Police Chief. Anyone know what happened to her?)

Houston loses out again on the Super Bowl

Once again, Houston has lost out on landing a second Super Bowl.

Houston and Atlanta may want to get out of the Super Bowl business after being rejected a second time in less than five months in favor of a Florida city.

In May, Houston and Atlanta were considered the favorites to land the 2009 Super Bowl that was awarded to Tampa, Fla. — the long shot going in.

On Thursday, NFL owners voted the 2010 Super Bowl to Miami, even though the city has been awarded the 2007 Super Bowl as well.

Once again, Houston and Atlanta were considered the favorites. South Florida media were so certain that Miami had no chance that not one outlet sent a reporter to suburban Detroit for Thursday’s vote.

“I was feeling pretty good until (Dolphins owner) Wayne Huizenga said everybody was going to get a yacht for a week,” Texans owner Bob McNair said, laughing at a South Florida bid enhancement. “And he guaranteed they’d all be over 100 feet long.

“I offered quail hunting, but that didn’t quite compete.”

Owners representing the three finalists made five-minute speeches to their partners Thursday morning. During his presentation on Miami’s behalf, Huizenga disclosed that the other 31 owners would be given free use of a yacht at Super Bowl XLIV.

“When Wayne said it, a collective gasp kind of went around the room,” McNair said. “That was a last-minute addition that kind of changed the dynamics.

“We’re not giving up, though. Hopefully, the next time there’s a vote, we won’t run into another regatta.”

Well, so much for the notion that the city’s actions during Hurricane Katrina might sway the vote in our favor. But at least we’re probably in a better position for the next time than Atlanta is:

Falcons owner Arthur Blank was frustrated because, once again, Atlanta’s weather was the biggest factor working against his city. The owners haven’t forgotten that freezing temperature and icy conditions put a damper on Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta.

“I guess the only way we might get another Super Bowl is if we build a stadium in Puerto Rico so the weather won’t be a factor,” Blank said. “It’s very clear that the ownership wants the game where the weather’s generally warmer.”

Knowing the outcome of Thursday’s vote, Blank was asked what he would have done differently.

“I’d take Atlanta and move it to the Caribbean,” he said.

And yet the 2006 Super Bowl will be played in that balmy island paradise known as Detroit. Methinks the owners could use a geography lesson. Will someone please tell Bill “The Sports Wimp” Simmons that he’ll need to pack his thermal undies for this one? Thanks.

I-45 and US290

Here’s an I-45 update from Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition:

You may recall reading an article by Rad Sallee in the Houston Chronicle on 9/1/05. The headline was “North Freeway expansion back to drawing board”. (ed. note: See here.) The article reported that Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) was considering moving some, or none or all of the 4 managed lanes planned to go on I-45 to the Hardy Toll Road. (that could be good news!) Gary Trietsch, district engineer for TxDOT was quoted as saying “That will probably take us at least a year. We’ll see where we are a year from now.”

Now fast forward “a year” in 30 days!

On late Friday afternoon, 9/30/05, Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) modified their agenda and added the I-45 revised project to their action item to be considered at their Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). This TAC meeting [was] scheduled to be held on Thursday morning, 10/6/05.

(TAC normally reviews projects and recommends their approval or disapproval to the Transportation Policy Committee (TPC). The TPC must approve the project before it is permitted to progress to the next phase.)

This gave us less than a week to review and analyze a 335 page report. There was not enough time to get that done.

The Mayor’s office and Councilmember Adrian Garcia’s office set up a meeting on Monday afternoon. Participants included neighborhood representatives, TxDOT, CM Garcia, the Mayor’s office, Dr. Carol Lewis (Planning Commission), Congress member Sheila Jackson Lee’s office, Representative Jessica Farrar’s office, Alan Clark from H-GAC and several others. The quick synopsis of the meeting was the community representatives were asking for a 30 day postponement on the consideration of the project, in order to give folks an opportunity to review the revised report.

Bottom line – TxDOT would not agree to postpone the I-45 presentation before TAC.

So elected representatives and their staffs started to work on our behalf. And thanks to probably hundreds of phone calls from dozens of people, TxDOT agreed to reschedule the TAC meeting. It is now going to be held on Friday, October 21st. Then the following week, on Friday, October 28th, it will be presented to the TPC for their approval. Then if approved, it will go to the next phase which will be Schematic Drawings and Environmental Studies. In this phase, TxDOT will start coming up with actual roadway layouts and start to consider alternatives, like a tunnel. This phase is estimated to take 2 to 3 years and public meetings will be held by TxDOT. (And if not … the I-45 Coalition will hold them!)

We are in the process of setting up a small working meeting to have TxDOT go over their changes with us & answer our questions. Plus we will now be having a TxDOT representative attend a portion of our Steering Committee meetings on a monthly basis to help foster better communications.

What are some of the “major” changes? One change was mentioned before – the possibility of moving managed lanes to Hardy Toll Road.

Another major change – TxDOT has re-evaluated the conceptual capital cost of the project. The new estimate has now increased more than 5 times the original – from $404 million to $2.1 billion! At $404 million, the estimate per mile worked out to be $13.5 million a mile (a 30 mile project). Even at $2.1 billion, the new estimate is now $70 million a mile … which may be accurate … it’s definitely closer to a realistic number. (The current Katy Freeway project is around $100 million a mile.)

There are numerous other changes – but we have not had a chance to review and analyze them yet.

If you would like to see the report for yourself, you can find it in two locations. It is a very large file (25+ meg file) and can be found either on the H-GAC website (scroll down to the North Hardy Study) or you can go the TxDOT site and scroll down to Houston then to IH45 / US 59 – (it seems that the H-GAC site downloads quicker).

You do have an opportunity to speak at both the TAC and the TPC meeting. Public comments are heard at the beginning of the each meeting. Concerned residents are encouraged to attend the meeting and sign up to speak. The TAC meeting begins at 9:30 a.m., Friday, October 21, in the second floor conference room of the HGAC offices at 3555 Timmons Lane in the Greenway Plaza area. Speakers must register before the meeting is called to order. The TPC meeting, same place at 9:30 a.m., Friday, October 28.

We will continue to try to make this a cooperative venture – one that can be a win-win for everyone. With continual improvements in communications, we hope that the entire project will improve and these kinds of hurdles will not need to be jumped in the future!!

Well done, I-45 Coalition!

Meanwhile, things are afoot for US290 as well. Christof Speiler has the details. I note with interest that TxDOT seems to be taking an uncharacteristically open approach with this one. Either someone lives out that way that they don’t want to piss off, or they’ve finally learned their lesson. Whichever is the case, good on them for that.