08.31.07

Will TxDOT’ Plan To Toll Interstates Be Tipping Point?

Posted in Around The State, Congress, Privatization, Road Issues at 1:23 pm by wcnews

With the news that TxDOT now wants to buy back interstate highways from the federal government and put tolls on them, hopefully this issue will reach it’s tipping point.

The Texas Department of Transportation is pushing Congress to pass a federal law allowing the state to “buy back” parts of existing interstate highways and turn them into toll roads.

The 24-page plan, outlined in a “Forward Momentum” report that escaped widespread attention when published in February, drew prompt objections Thursday from state lawmakers and activists fighting the spread of privately run toll roads.

“I think it’s a dreadful recommendation on the part of the transportation commissioners here in Texas,” said Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas.

Sen. Carona doesn’t like it, that’s not a good sign. It’s also should come as no surprise that the report recommends corporate tax breaks – A GOP staple for any plan.

The report not only advocates turning stretches of interstate highways into toll roads, but it also suggests tax breaks for private company “investment” in such enterprises.

It seeks changes in federal law to allow the use of equity capital as a source of transportation funding. Along with that, it calls for altering the tax code to “exempt partnership distributions or corporate dividends related to ownership of (a) toll road from income taxation.”

It’s painfully obvious that TxDOT only knows one song and they sing it over and over and over again. It’s called Toll Every Road, Even The Existing Ones. If that’s “forward momentum”, it would be scary to see what they think moving backwards is.

There was much backtracking toward the end of the article but that usually occurs when these schemes see the light of day.

[Transportation Department spokesman Chris Lippincott] said he’s surprised by the surprised reactions, noting the agency discussed the issue at four public meetings and sent a link to the draft report last December to all members of the Texas Legislature.

Besides, he said, state law would prevent the conversion of interstate highways into toll roads unless such a plan gained votes of county commissioners and taxpayers in a referendum.

Anti-toll road activist Sal Castello, the Austin-based founder of the TexasTollParty.com, said he’s frustrated by the “schemers and the scammers” who “never stop” divisive toll road proposals despite widespread opposition and fretted that a required referendum could be creatively worded to disguise the conversions.

Perry spokesman Robert Black said the report in no way contradicts Perry’s repeated promise on highways that “if it’s free today, it will be free tomorrow.”

That holds true, he said, unless local voters say otherwise.

Let’s be clear what our choices are for paying for our transportation infrastructure needs, and yes they are needs. We can accept TxDOT’s plan which is to toll existing highways and every new highway that’s built in Texas. Or we can raise the gas tax, statewide by 8 cents and index it to inflation, and use toll roads little, if at all. Either way taxes/revenues have to be raised to pay for the new roads.

The Republican/TxDOT plan is an attempt to hide the tax increase as tolls. The Republicans who run our state have take so-called “no tax” pledges and think they can fool people into believing that tolls are not taxes. They believe they can put tolls on everything, mostly urban roads, and their constituents in rural areas won’t have to pay the “new” tax. Although, in their next breath, the GOP leaders will say we need the roads for the economic benefit of the whole state. It’s a GOP scheme to try and hide a tax increase. They also hope this tax increase will miss most of their constituency. And the part is does touch will be in the urban areas, and the hope is that they’re wealthy enough to afford the tolls and won’t mind paying for the new roads.

It’s the long used GOP scheme of trying to tell the American people they can have something for nothing.  Like St. Ronnie’s “voodoo economics” and all it brought were deficits as far as the eye can see.  That scheme has won elections but has never delivered on it’s promise.  It’s the same thing with corporate toll roads.  This scheme will cost the average Texan much more than raising and indexing the gas tax.

Clearly a simple raising and indexing of the gas tax is the broadest, cheapest, and fairest way to pay for our transportation infrastructure needs. Which is more than likely why, as long as we have Republicans running our state, it won’t happen.  It’s long past time to bring sanity back into our tax debate and hopefully idiocy like this can be the tipping point.

Texas Democratic Party ePrimary Poll

Posted in 2008 Primary, Around The State, Democratic Events, Election 2008, Take Action at 12:25 pm by wcnews

Click here to go vote. Lone Star Report has more about it, Democrats Expanding Base, Launch New ePrimary Poll, Meanwhile, Republican Candidates Bail on GOP Straw Poll.

The “State” Of Congressional District 31 – Brian P. Ruiz Running In CD-31

Posted in 2008 Primary, Commentary, Congress, District 31, Election 2008, Williamson County at 12:04 pm by wcnews

This from the comments to an earlier post about Rep. John Carter (R – Round Rock):

Regarding 2008, this is the person I would most like to see defeated, assuming he runs. I have heard him speak on C-Span and YouTube, and I can not believe how poorly he expresses himself, especially for a man who was a judge and once lawyered for a living.

It seems to me that he was supposed to have given his annual “State of Williamson County” speech a few weeks ago at a Baptist {?} Church in either Leander or Cedar Park, but I can find nothing anywhere that he actually did so. Did he?

Don’t worry, he’s running. Well he did give the SOD speech, and the only evidence EOW can find is this press release on his web site. Generally speaking Congressman Carter, for the reasons listed in the comment, doesn’t like coming out into the open much. He has a history of putting his foot in his mouth. EOW’s assuming the speech wasn’t open to the public. It’s a possibility that a contribution had to be made to attend. I’m sure his staff wanted to make sure that it didn’t wind up like speech at the AARP preceding his SOD speech.

He addressed the issues of Iraq, immigration and taxes, and answered audience questions for the relatively small group at the Hope Fellowship Church in Cedar Park.

He said his policy on the war is to “stay the course,” citing progress he witnessed during a recent trip to Iraq. He said he walked without security through a market which was located in an area that was considered unstable a year ago. He credited the change to a neighborhood watch program established by the area’s residents.

“I’m not saying there aren’t problems – there are. I am not saying there aren’t issues – there are. But I am voting to stay the course,” he said. “We would be irresponsible to leave those people to die.”

[...]

Will Storie, who introduced himself as a 2004 graduate of Round Rock High School, also spoke against the war.

“If they’re going to be killing themselves for thousands of years, are you going to ask my generation to stay there for thousands of years?” Storie asked, saying his friends were among those fighting right now. Carter replied that if the issue is not settled now, another war in the region will be inevitable.

“It won’t be your generation who will fight the next war over there, it will be the 5-year-old sleeping in his bed tonight,” Carter said. “I don’t want that 5-year-old going in again.”

[...]

After the speech, guests were allowed to ask questions of the Congressman. While most comments centered on the war in Iraq, a few people expressed concern about the growing income gap and lobbyists in Washington.

“Somewhere along the lines ‘we the people’ has become ‘we the corporations,’” said Randy Stripling, a new member of the AARP who attended the meeting. “Our Constitution doesn’t seem to matter anymore.”

Stripling blamed the problem on a combination of voter apathy and the system pandering to corporate interests.

Carter responded by saying the system has not failed. While he does have to raise funds to run for office, he said he spends more time talking to his constituents, adding that any problems with the system will work themselves out.

“I have absolute faith in the American people and the government we have created,” he said.

I would say the more that Carter has to defend his blind support of Bush and corporations the better chance we have of getting him replaced. Although one of his supporters thinks he was roughed up at that AARP speech.

Congressman John Carter stood toe-to-toe with a crowd at the Wednesday AARP Meeting. The group was infiltrated with war protesters and others wishing to be heard on national issues.

They’re not insurgents, they’re called constituents. And they have a right to hold their elected representative to account. It’s called democracy.

Of course on the war Carter will do anything Bush tells him to do, but he recently attempted to soften his rhetoric on immigration somewhat. The harsh rhetoric helps him with his base and Carter needs no help there. Where he could be hurt is by losing Independent and moderate Republican’s support.

Carter already has an opponent for 2008. His name is Brian P. Ruiz. He was mentioned in CQpolitics.com.

Democrat Brian P. Ruiz has filed paperwork with the FEC to prepare a challenge to three-term Republican Rep. John Carter in the 31st District of Texas, a Republican-leaning district that includes suburbs of Austin and some territory near Waco. Carter won a third term last year with 59 percent of the vote, defeating Democrat Mary Beth Harrell. In the 2004 election, the 31st backed President Bush by a 2-1 ratio.

His website is online, ruizforcongress.com, stop by and check it out and drop him a few bucks if you can. Ruiz is from a political family. His father, Abel Ruiz, ran in the Democratic Primary in 1996 for HD-51, coming in second to Glen Maxey. You can read the rest of his bio, and where he stands on the Iraq War. You’ll be hearing much more about Ruiz in the future.

Beating Carter in 2008 is an extremely uphill battle. Carter’s strength comes from the fact that he’s well known and liked by the Republican base in CD-31, which is still a Republican majority district. His strength is also that’s he’s near invisible to most of the his constituents – out of sight, out of mind. Most of his constituents know about him from the articles that appear, under his name, on the local papers Op-Ed page. It’s doubtful we’ll see much more of him unless he thinks he’s in trouble. Carter would not debate Mary Beth Harrell in 2006 and there’s little chance he’ll debate Ruiz in 2008.

As the population of Williamson County continues to grow at it’s rapid pace, it is the majority of CD-31, it will also continue to grow more Democratic. Who knows, with Carter running as a Bush rubberstamp and with a slip-up here and there, we could get a race.

08.30.07

Colorado Avalanche, Denver Area Toll Road Leased For 99 Years

Posted in Around The Nation, Commentary, Privatization, Road Issues at 2:02 pm by wcnews

A Denver area toll road, that didn’t get the traffic projected during planning, has been leased to a foreign corporations for 99 years.

A foreign-owned toll-road operator agreed Wednesday to spend at least $800 million on the 99-year lease of the Northwest Parkway – with the expectation that the highway will complete the beltway around metro Denver with an extension to Interstate 70 and C-470.

A consortium led by the Portuguese toll-road firm Brisa Auto- Estradas will pay the Northwest Parkway highway authority $503 million to buy out all the existing bond debt of the 4-year-old toll highway.

The consortium will pay an additional $100 million if the parkway is extended and $200 million in operating expenses.

The deal gives the new operator the right to raise the toll for cars traveling the full 9 miles of the current highway to $3 when the deal is final in October. The full-length toll now is $2.

The toll would be capped at $3 until the end of 2009.

The remaining $300 million is contingent on the completion of the beltway. The corporation is especially insistent that the part that goes to the airport be connected.

The Ed Board at the Denver Post is giving their support to the sale, Troubled toll road’s sale is best of a bad situation.

When the privatization plan was proposed last year, The Post editorialized that we could support it if it met several key tests, including that bondholders were paid in full and taxpayers didn’t have to bail out the parkway. Wednesday’s final lease agreement meets these tests, albeit at the cost of leasing the roadway to private investors for 99 years, rather than the 50 years we had originally hoped to see. At the end of that time, the tollway will revert to the local governments that now support it and that will continue to exercise some oversight over the next century.

For the first few years, motorists shouldn’t notice much difference. Brisa/CCR does have the right to raise the toll across its full length from the current $2 to $3, but the authority was planning such a hike anyway. We suspect that by 2030 or 2040, tolls will rise substantially higher under the private operators than they would have been set by the politically constrained tollway authorities. But if the parkway had defaulted on its bonds, its creditors would have taken it over and been free to set higher tolls in any case. The choice, in short, was privatization by order of a bankruptcy court or the plan negotiated with Brisa and CCR. Obviously, we prefer the negotiated solution.

With the parkway’s future assured, attention turns to the remaining gaps in the northwest corridor. Brisa/ CCR has agreed to add $60 million to its investment to bridge U.S. 36 and link Interlocken and the Jefferson County Airport to the existing parkway if – but only if – an expressway is built to link that airport with Colorado 93. Arvada has strongly supported such an expressway, which would leave just a 7-mile gap to reach C-470. But the city of Golden sits squarely in that gap and is bitterly opposed to becoming the final link in the beltway system.

Beware the T&R study – stands for traffic and revenue study – that accompanies any proposed toll road.  They’re tales of low tolls and cars as far as the eye can see.  In reality they’re much differnt, as this case shows.  T&R studies deserve heavy scrutiny. As the Denver Post series showed. Most of the T&R studies are done by consulting firms who will benefit from the road being built. Therefore it’s in their interest to make the numbers rosy to ensure the road is built. Once it’s built they’ve made their money and the municipality is left holding the bag. This should be a lesson to all of us, not just in Central Texas, but all over the state.

AusChron On Tuesday’s Landfill Vote – UPDATED, News 8 Video

Posted in Commissioners Court, Landfill, Williamson County at 12:25 pm by wcnews

Landfill Expansion Trashed … for Now. Sheds a little different light on the story, especially at the end. Those who are for the current deal really hate ob Gregory, owner of Texas Disposal Systems. This part toward the end shows that, and a couple of more things

After the vote, opponents were jubilant. “They [the court] blinked, big,” said Gregory, adding, “They listened to the constituents and their concerns.” Gregory also heads Texas Justice for All, which is a party to the contested case hearing at the state level.

County Attorney Jana Duty deemed Gregory a “propagandist” for wanting the county to seek competitive bids on the project rather than just handing the job to WMI.

The specter of a landfill as large as King Kong has served to mobilize residents and environmental opponents. As proposed, “Mount Hutto,” so named by Mount Hutto Aware Citizens, could rise twice as high as the UT Tower and about 200 feet higher than the Frost Bank Tower, to a height of 700-plus feet on more than 500 acres. Opponents of the expansion also believe WilCo has long played the financial fool, because in the 1990s, commissioners acquired 300 acres through condemnation, in hopes WMI would one day buy the landfill-area property outright. The $50 million sale will probably never materialize, however, as long as WMI keeps its contractual relationship with the county. “It’s like they won the lottery,” Texas Disposal Systems spokesman Johnson said of WMI. “The county was snookered.”

The possible height of the future landfill is definitely disturbing. But I was completely unaware that the county had this $50 million carrot being dangled in front of them. If true, that would explain why the county would be so willing to make such a bad deal.

[UPDATE]:  News 8 story with video, No decision yet on Wilco landfill.

08.29.07

What’s Next For The Williamson County Landfill?

Posted in Commentary, Commissioners Court, Landfill, Williamson County at 4:08 pm by wcnews

As interested parties wait on the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) to rule on Waste Management, Inc.’s expansion permit for the landfill, it’s time to explore where the landfill issue goes from here. From this Hutto News article, County tables landfill contract indefinitely, it’s clear that Precinct 4 County Commissioner Ron Morrison, in whose precinct the landfill resides, is attempting to set the timetable for the future of the landfill contract:

There’s much more. Click “Read the rest of this entry” for full story.

Read the rest of this entry �

ACLU v ICE – This About Sums It Up

Posted in Commentary, Criminal Justice, T. Don Hutto, Williamson County at 1:42 pm by wcnews

Via WFAA.com, Fears Hutto deal will keep center running.

[..attorney and Dallas businessman Ralph Isenberg] has played a role in the release of at least three detainee families.

He says the settlement is not necessarily good news.

“Because had this thing gone to court I believe the judge would have shut this facility down because the fact still remains, you don’t put children in prison.”

Immigration officials downplay the significance of the the settlement saying many of the modifications have already been implemented.

But one thing everyone agrees on is that the Hutto is a far more humane facility than it was just a few months ago.

The settlement leaves EOW with the feeling that ICE and nobody on the Feds side in this case wanted a trial or to testify under oath. Some truly nasty stuff would have come out and then, rightfully so, this facility would have been closed.

AAS Gives In On Tolls, Tell CAMPO Your Opinion – UPDATED

Posted in Central Texas, Had Enough Yet?, Privatization, Road Issues, Take Action, Uncategorized, Williamson County at 12:44 pm by wcnews

The AAS today with this editorial, No exit from toll roads, is giving in to toll roads. It’s a sad stance that the paper is taking. After a long explanation why it come down to this.

We have supported an increase in gasoline taxes, but there’s no reason even now to think that will happen, and there is no road fairy to step in. Central Texas is growing, shows no signs of stopping and already lacks sufficient highway capacity.

The choice remains simple: Use tolls to finance highway expansion and reconstruction that was needed yesterday built within a decade or so, or don’t and watch traffic get ever worse.

Actually, it’s not much choice at all

Choice? In this scenario there is not a choice. I believe there is a choice and it’s not one that the AAS or many politicians, if any, have the courage to take on. It entails doing what the people want, not doing what is easy. It entails taking a tough stand, stepping out front, breaking down GOP talking points, and leading on this issue. If put to a public vote these politicians know the toll roads would fail, overwhelmingly. But they still proceed as if this is the only option.

Williamson County residents were told over and over again that a new landfill contract with WMI unstoppable. Yesterday that contract was indefinitely delayed. It is entirely possible to halt bad public policy. What it takes is an informed public. Most people when faced with the stark financial differences to their personal pocket book of the two choices below, would logically choose raising the gas tax over tolling roads. Raise the gas tax 3¢/gallon and index it to inflation, or drive roads with tolls of – and we’ll be generous – 15¢/mile. Broken down like this it becomes even more clear:

UPDATE: [Numbers below have been changed. Gas tax rate has been changed to 8¢ to reflect the number from the Governor's Business Council study.]

Assuming your car gets 20 miles a gallon and your daily commute on the toll road will be 20 miles (not, by any means inconceivable) you’d spend only an extra 3 8¢ per day driving to and from work. That’s the non-toll road math. So how much will it cost you with the tolls.

Again working with the 15¢/per mile scenario. using the same assumptions as above, you’d pay $3.00 per day in tolls. Using toll road math, that’s cheaper than 3 8¢. (Numbers reworked from this 11/06 McBlogger post).

This flawed logic must be accepted for someone to believe that tolls are cheaper than raising the gas tax. Toll roads are nothing more than an attempt to disguise a huge tax increase. In the above scenario the gas tax will go up every two years at the rate of inflation. But no one should for a second be under the false impression that the tolls won’t be increasing on these roads too. They will and, more than likely, at a much more than the rate of inflation.

Nothing kills bad public policy faster then bringing the facts to the public’s attention. Here’s an easy way to let them know you understand that tolls are bad public policy. You can send an email to all 19 CAMPO board members at once.

Tell all 19 CAMPO board members to “Vote NO Tolls on our Freeways! or I’ll help remove you in your next election!”.

This ONE email address goes out to all 19 Board members! (please include a subject heading, your name, address so they know you’re a real person) [EOW adds be respectful or it will have no effect]:

campo@austintollparty.com

If the CAMPO board members don’t get the message from the voters that this is wrong and will cost them at the polls then policies like this will continue. Votes can be changed but the public must get active and be heard. If the public continues to keep it’s mouth shut about this, then they will only have themselves to blame for the proliferation of toll roads in Central Texas. Of course a phone call is much better than an email. Let them know your opinion.

08.28.07

Latest Sentencing Curious In Light Of Earlier Proctor Sentencing

Posted in Commentary, Criminal Justice, Williamson County at 4:00 pm by wcnews

Another sentencing of a child molester in Williamson County brings up more questions regarding the sentencing of a former peace officer. I saw this last night when the 10 o’clock news on KXAN, Man Sentenced To 50 Years After Impregnating Relative.

A judge sentenced a man to 50 years in prison Monday after he was convicted of impregnating a 16-year-old family member.

Tomas Zapata, 32, waived his right to a jury trial in Williamson County and pleaded guilty to sexual assault of a child.

In addition to fathering her child, the victim said Zapata had been abusing her since she was 9 years old.

[...]

Zapata had previously served time for a 1996 burglary. The charge enhanced his punishment range up to life in prison.

DA John Bradley had this to say in the AAS.

In 1996, Zapata had been convicted of burglary, a felony that increased his punishment range from 20 years in prison to up to life in prison for each of the five counts of sexual assault he was facing, according to court records.

Monday’s plea agreement came two weeks after an Austin mother of two, Phill Rian, was sentenced to 23 years by a Williamson County jury for having sexual relations with a 16-year-old neighbor. The 41-year-old woman’s sentence sparked some disagreement in the community; some said her prison sentence was too strict.

But Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley said he does not think the community will be outraged by Zapata’s sentence because he impregnated the victim and the abuse began when the child was 9.

Bradley said Zapata took the plea deal to avoid the possibility of a jury sentencing him to life in prison.

“He could have faced five life sentences if convicted, and then there is the possibility of those being stacked,” Bradley said. “Frankly, I don’t think you’d find another county in Texas where someone would plead guilty to five aggravated counts without a jury trial.”

Bradley said there was a large amount of evidence that would have helped convict Zapata if the case had gone to trial.

While there’s no issue with the sentence that Mr. Zapata received for his crime, nor will there be outrage similar to that of the Rian sentence. This shines more light on the sentence was that was given to Roger Dale Proctor earlier this year, allowing him to plead to solicitation. Proctor was given 5 years probation, A $2,500 fine, and maybe 30 days in jail for his similar crime of a years long relationship with a minor. While obviously Zapata’s prior conviction added to his sentence, this sentence further highlights the leniency that was shown a former peace officer for a similar crime.

Landfill Vote Delayed!! – UPDATED

Posted in Landfill, Williamson County at 12:16 pm by wcnews

Very Sorry. In EOW’s haste to get the story posted we forgot to give huge congratulations and credit to the Hutto Citizens Group, Texas Campaign for the Environment, Mount Hutto Aware Citizens, A Better Wilco, and Eye On Williamson for spreading the word on this and getting this victory for the citizens of Williamson County.

[UPDATE]: Hutto Citizens Group reporting [.PDF] on today’s landfill vote. The operative phrase seems to be “indefinitely delayed”.

AAS has the story, Williamson commissioners delay landfill vote again.

After several minutes of debate about a controversial landfill operating contract today, three Williamson County commissioners said they had concerns and wanted to put the vote on hold.

“It appears to me this contract is probably going to fail today,” said County Judge Dan A. Gattis.

Commissioner Ron Morrison told the court — and the dozens of spectators in the standing-room-only crowd — that the pending permit to expand the landfill and the contract are intertwined, and he wanted to wait for the permit hearings to finish before he signs a contract.

Commissioners Valerie Covey and Cynthia Long agreed. They named the length of the contract, 40 years, and discrepancies between the permit application and the contract as reasons for their concern.

Closing arguments in the expansion permit hearings are expected later this week.

Today’s non-vote was the latest in a string of postponed votes on the landfill contract. Commissioners have come under increasing pressure by citizens groups to turn down the contract. Some have even threatened to sue the county if the renegotiated deal passes.

Gattis supports the new contract and said today that commissioners who feel otherwise had plenty of opportunities to bring up concerns during negotiations.

Commissioner Lisa Birkman sided with Gattis today, saying, “If y’all want to vote it down, then that’s your choice.”

But Birkman ended up siding with Covey, Morrison and Long in a 4-1 vote to table the vote on the contract.

Thank you Commissioners Morrison, Covey and Long. Cooler heads have prevailed it seems, at least for now. The words and then actions of Commissioner Birkman are quite humorous. I guess she wanted to make sure she wasn’t on the wrong side of one of those infamous “3-2″ court votes that were talked about so much during the 2006 campaign season.

There’s no mention in the article of the major sticking point of the Hutto Citizens Group which is the fact that Waste Management, Inc. (WMI) is still on the contract as the operator which, if allowed to continue, would give WMI complete control of the landfill for the length of the contract.

Today’s vote delay means there’s quite a bit riding on the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) permit case regarding whether to allow WMI to expand the landfill. This will again shine a spotlight on the WMI, their lawyers from Vinson and Elkins, along with County Attorney Jana Duty’s brief denying the commissioners the ability to use outside counsel without her permission. My recommendation to the commissioners and Judge, not that they’re looking for EOW’s advice, would be for them to get a disinterested third party to evaluate the contract on their behalf. If WMI doesn’t get the expansion permit it’s likely the contracting process will stall or end altogether. All eyes will now shift to the SOAH permit case.

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