TX Tags and 183-A

Posted in Road Issues, Commentary, Williamson County at 11:46 am by wcnews

The Hill Country News recently published a Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) News Release (.PDF) in its news section, 183A toll begins for all drivers - nothing technically wrong with that, just lazy. Their pro-toll stance is still well intact.

Reading this “news” item it’s apparent that the CTRMA spent quite a bit of its resources trying to communicate to potential local drivers of this toll road the idiosynchrosies of just how the tolling will take place on this stretch of road.

The enforcement effort follows a major community outreach program aimed at informing drivers about the new road which opened to traffic on March 3, 2007. The program included television ads, radio spots, community events, direct mailings, multiple newspaper inserts, e-newsletters and a virtual tour video of the project.

Here’s the video if you have 10 minutes. For all the money the CTRMA spent on outreach it seems it would have been much cheaper to put in few more cash lanes rather than enter into contract with law enforcement. A reasoned approach, for the consumers anyway, would keep the tolling policy consistent with the toll roads they’ve already become accustomed to using. But this is not about thrift, sense or the customer. It’s about selling TxTags.

The enforcement of catching toll scofflaws at just the toll booths on 183-A creates confusion. Especially because earlier in the year, as the first toll roads opened, TxDOT told us not to worry, just drive through and you’ll get a bill. While it’s mentioned in that article that 183-A won’t be using “video tolling” it’s not mentioned that there will be TxTag only gantries where cash won’t be accepted. While it’s obvious to those responsible for the creation of these roads how they work, it’s quickly turning into a myriad of different tolling schemes as we drive between tolling authorities. Reminds me of the alcohol laws in the Dallas area. Is this town dry or do I have to drive 20 minutes to get a six pack?

While there has been confusion since 183-A opened the thing I’m noticing with all of our new toll roads is there always a catch to get us to buy a toll tag. Getting pulled over by the police for driving through the wrong booth is not enjoyable, maybe even frightening, for some people. If drivers can’t take the hint from all the attempts listed above to goad them into buying a TxTag - they even tried to get non-profit’s to use it as a fund raiser (.PDF) - then they’ll scare people into buying one. And if that doesn’t work, they’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse:

First time offenders can have the $5.00 fee waived if they sign up for a TxTag account.

I don’t live in the Cedar Park/Leander area and can’t really speak to 183A’s usefulness. Looking at the map (.PDF), it looks nonsensical. It’s also obvious they want to make drivers pay big money for convenient access to the biggest attraction in the area, Lakeline Mall. Happy motoring, and keep an eye on your rear-view mirror.


Sen. Brimer v. Public Over TABC Report

Posted in Corruption, 80th Legislature, Had Enough Yet?, Commentary, Around The State at 12:44 pm by wcnews

A spat over the comments from a public member of the Sunset Commission, Howard Wolf, enabled Sen. Kim Brimer to delay releasing the commission’s report on the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) until after reauthorization of the TABC was complete. AAS has the story, Months late, Sunset report surfaces:

On the last day before he would have broken the law, Sen. Ken Brimer, R-Fort Worth, quietly released a report he withheld from the Legislature for months in a feud with a citizen member of the Sunset Advisory Commission.

In spite of several requests by the member, Howard Wolf, Brimer refused to include in the report comments written by Wolf criticizing legal protections given the wholesale distributors of alcohol that Wolf says are tantamount to corruption.

What is the point of involving someone from the public in this process if their comments won’t be allowed to be published? Not to worry, Lt. Gov. Davy Dewhurst (R - Can’t Control Senators) is trying to work out a deal, you know how that goes. More from the article, public member speaks for Texans and Brimer hides.

Read the rest of this entry »

SplashDown: Abrupt Resignations At HCTRA After Contractor “Sponsored” Picnic Is Discovered

Posted in Privatization, Road Issues, Around The State at 9:34 am by wcnews

Interesting story out of Houston where the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) had begun soliciting corporations that do business with them to “sponsor” an annual employee party at a local water park. Here’s the story, Toll road picnic footed by vendors:

Contractors doing business with the county paid thousands of dollars for a picnic for Harris County Toll Road Authority employees last year and were about to be asked to do so again, officials with the county and district attorney’s office said Monday.

Details, including plans to recognize vendors as gold- or platinum-level donors based on how much money they contributed to this year’s picnic, were confirmed Monday in response to questions about the abrupt retirement of Toll Road Authority Executive Director Mike Strech last Thursday.

Strech, who headed the agency for six years, and his executive assistant Diana Wilcox, quit after being confronted about the planned solicitation, Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Director Art Storey said.

The annual event was held last year at SplashTown in Spring and was scheduled there for mid-July until county officials canceled it. Storey described the party as a long-standing event typical of the authority’s “culture.”

I would recommend reading the comments too. The discussion is revolves around, what’s wrong with it if none of this is going into anyone’s pocket, and the counterpoint of, if nothing was wrong then why did those two people abruptly resign?

The biggest issue is probably this:

District attorney’s investigator Dan McAnulty said vendors were classified as bronze-, silver-, gold- and platinum-level contributors for gifts ranging from $500 to $5,000.

Similar letters signed by Strech were to be sent to several companies, each doing at least $100,000 in annual business with the county, McAnulty said.

He and Storey declined to name the companies, but Storey said most are engineering firms that are hired on the basis of credentials instead of the sealed bids used for construction contracts.

Storey emphasized that Strech neither had nor claimed any authority to award contracts, which are approved solely by vote of Commissioners Court.

McAnulty said donations were placed in a Bank of America account in the name of the Toll Road Authority Celebration Committee, which he described as a “social committee” set up last year.

Such an account is “clearly improper because it was off the county’s books” and would not be noticed in a county audit, Stafford said.

About $15,000 was in the account, apparently left over from last year’s party at SplashTown, for which $60,000 had been collected — and $45,000 spent — from 29 contributors, McAnulty said.

He said about 1,400 people attended that event, including HCTRA employees and guests of vendors, who received tickets based on their contributions.

The off the books account with money left over. That’s just asking for trouble. If there was any impropriety here it’s doubtful anyone will be held accountable. Toll authority officials, appointed by local elected officials who, more than likely are long gone. He’s already resigned, case closed.


NASCO Nonsense

Posted in Privatization, Road Issues, Around The Nation, Around The State, Uncategorized at 3:36 pm by wcnews

Nobody is quicker to shout “conspiracy theory” than Bud Kennedy, especially when NASCO’s involved, Group’s ‘conspiracy’ is to create more efficient trade route.

Conspiracy lurks this week in downtown Fort Worth, where an international cabal is scheming to bring a sinister plot to our own Texas highways.

Or that’s what the Patrick Buchanan crowd would have you believe, along with the John Birch Society fringe and the Eagle Forum ladies and everybody else who fears a new, fast, international highway and rail line across America.

On one hand Bud is right, this group does appear to be out to just make money and not take over the world.

More than 350 business and political leaders from the United States, Mexico and Canada are gathered in a Fort Worth hotel ballroom for the annual meeting of a Dallas-based trade organization called North America’s SuperCorridor Coalition (NASCO).

But on the other hand what Bud does in his article by belittling some that have a problem with NASCO/TTC - because they are one in the same and that’s no theory - is making no mention of the real problems with this, the privatization of our transportation infrastructure. A bunch of corporations and governmental leaders (what’s in this for them?) form the US, Mexico and Canada coming together to figure out the cheapest way, which will allow them to make huge profits off of taxpayers, to take Texan’s land, and slap a toll on these roads to move their goods form point A to point B. Does anyone remember back to the days when the TTC was supposed to help with traffic congestion and wasn’t just a trade route give-away to corporations? That’s rhetorical by the way.

The point is that when Bud drags all those wing-nut groups into this and starts yelling “conspiracy theorists” he winds up diverting attention, purposefully or not, form the real issue: Selling off our infrastructure for corporate profit.

It’s A Moratorium On Nothing

Posted in Privatization, 80th Legislature, Road Issues, Around The State at 9:30 am by wcnews

Who’s to blame? Is it us for trusting legislators or the legislators for trusting Perry. Ultimately it’s the legislature for not getting something done that reflects the will of the people. It appears that the legislature got what it wanted, a free hand to build roads in the major metropolitan areas and everyone else be damned.

There was tremendous financial pressure brought to bear on all legislators this session over tolls for corporate profit and the selling off of our transportation infrastructure. It was evident in how fast Sen. Carona changed his tune - first being strongly opposed then taking a more measured tone- after hearing overwhelming public and expert testimony on what a bad idea corporate toll roads are. It seemed that hearing would have steeled his resolve but instead the exact opposite happened. We’ve found out that not only are corporate toll roads a bad idea but they’re a bad investment and rip-off for taxpayers too. With all this and a veto proof majority it only makes sense that the legislature would give in to the governor’s demands.

It’s hard to fathom any sane/rational reason why this occurred. In the end it was a deal by a bunch of people who, for whatever reason, don’t see the issues the taxpayers of this state have with toll roads. They believe that their selling off of our infrastructure, for short term gain, roads now, will be hailed as the public policy coup by generations to come. They believe they will be long remembered for their farsighted thinking when exactly the opposite will be the case.

Not only did Perry not sign the supposed “moratorium” his office is now rubbing it in legislators faces that this is a moratorium on nothing, and certainly not the TTC:

Now that legislators have gone home and trumpeted how they passed a bill to freeze private financing of toll roads, the governor’s office has some bubble-busting news.

There isn’t much of a moratorium in Senate Bill 792.

“Of any kind, that we can tell,” said Robert Black, spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry. “Unless there was something screwy that happened.”


Worried that the construction contracts might slip through the moratorium on new concessions, Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, added an amendment to plug the potential loophole. But Perry balked, threatening to veto the bill.

The House-Senate compromise committee agreed to take the amendment out.

After talking to lawyers and Perry’s office, Kolkhorst said she believes in her heart that there is a moratorium on the corridor contracts, according to reports. If TxDOT wants to play with words, she said, the matter could be settled in court.

“It’s a strong bill with or without the amendment,” she said.

Black said Kolkhorst was told that work couldn’t start on corridor projects within two years anyway because environmental studies won’t be finished.

But Kolkhorst may not have known that SB 792 would still allow construction contracts to be signed, though work wouldn’t begin until after the studies are completed, he said.

“She kind of got her hat handed to her,” Black said.

Ben Wear has more on the lack of will the legislature had for this fight and how Ric Williamson has got his “saunter” back:

The obvious question, given all the public pressure and the periodic displays of legislative umbrage this session at a Texas Department of Transportation “run amok”: How can this be? Everyone said they wanted to vote for a moratorium, but we didn’t really get one?

It’s all about commitment. In politics, all other things being equal, the side that wants it the most and is willing to do whatever it takes is going to win most of the time. In this case, that side was Perry and the Department of Transportation.

Legislators were conflicted. They wanted to please constituents, particularly rural ones, who don’t want a bunch of new tollways “owned” by foreign companies cutting through farms. They were nervous about 50-year toll road leases that might outlive their children, and about corporations toting away profits that might otherwise go to building other roads.

But lawmakers also wanted urban highways, as many as possible and as soon as possible, and the Houston and Dallas delegations in particular wanted to build and run most tollways in their areas. And legislators also didn’t intend to raise the gas tax, no matter how much the fiscal logic of the situation tells them they should. Those are, taken together, competing imperatives.


The Wednesday before lawmakers adjourned for good May 28, Williamson hosted his monthly briefing with reporters at Transportation Department World Headquarters, across 11th Street from the Capitol. By then it was looking like SB 792, which emerged as the toll road bill of choice after several pretenders had skidded into the ditch, would pass and would be acceptable to Perry.

Williamson, spotted several weeks earlier huddling with confederates at the Capitol after the Legislature passed a much tougher toll road bill, had looked grim. (Perry vetoed that earlier bill.) This day, though, Williamson sauntered into the room seeming pretty pleased with life. As he swung into his chair, he tossed some party favors onto the table, royal-blue plastic wristbands with white writing on them. The words succinctly captured why SB 792 turned out the way it did.

The Churchillian message: “Never ever give up.”

The worst part is, is that the governor’s office is even robbing legislators of the ability to go back to their districts and say they did something to stop toll roads.

This all reminds me of a question EOW posed a few weeks back, when do those opposed to corporate tolls in the Lege figure out that they’ve given all the power back to the governor on this issue? Well if they didn’t know it by now they damn sure know it now. Check this post out as well, Deal Or…No Deal, Does It Matter?, it pretty much sums up what happened.

Many of us saw this coming, some didn’t want to believe this, but now that we all know what’s happened, despite the “legislative intent” we now have to get to work electing people that will never give up.


Reason Number 6,538 Why T. Don Hutto Should Be Closed

Posted in Election 2008, Criminal Justice, T. Don Hutto, Williamson County at 11:48 pm by wcnews

The AusChron uncovers more from the Cover-up at Hutto?

ICE’s announcement characterized the contact as “relations between two adults,” implying the contact was both sexual and consensual but vowed it took such behavior “very seriously.”

However, incident documents indicate that something more serious was suspected at the outset by both federal and local law enforcement. On May 20, Pete De Angel, a higher-up who works out of the ICE Detention and Removal Operations Office in San Antonio, called the Taylor Police Department to report a “possible assault on an inmate” and asked to speak to an officer, according to TPD dispatch records. The phone number De Angel called from was the extension of ICE agent supervisor Roy Armendariz, at the Hutto center. TPD dispatched Sgt. Mark Clark to the scene; he requested a determination of whether a sexual-assault nurse examiner was on duty at Johns Community Hospital in Taylor. Clark was then instructed to call the Williamson Co. Sheriff’s Office, because that agency, according to county protocol, must handle all calls at the Hutto center. Clark left the scene when WilCo deputies arrived.

According to the subsequent WCSO police report, three WSCO deputies, Mike Hallmark, Gilbert Unger, and Lindsey Aigner, arrived on scene, with Detective Larry Hawkins assigned as the investigator in the case. The detainee was transported to Round Rock Medical Center. The report said the incident was reported as an “assault (victim)” that took place from “11:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.” on May 19. However, after their investigation, WCSO officers labeled the incident as “official misconduct,” instead of assault. The “evidence taken” notations were blacked out on the front page of the report provided to the Chronicle. Our request for the full version is before the Texas Attorney General’s Office.


Despite ICE’s assurances that the case is in good hands, the outlook appears bleak; a 2005 U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General report titled “Deterring Staff Sexual Abuse of Federal Inmates” flatly states that custodial sexual abuse, as well as assault, often go unpunished. Even if such sex is consensual, it is a crime, the report emphasizes – though only a misdemeanor offense under federal law. (Most states, including Texas, consider it a felony.) But victims are often afraid to tell the truth, resulting in a lack of evidence to file charges or convict. And in this case, ICE is essentially policing itself, proceeding with an investigation through its Professional Responsibility Office, with TPD and WCSO reportedly no longer involved. Perhaps the OIG should weigh in, for objectivity’s sake.

Is $1/inmate/day worth this? What do you say Mrs. Birkman, Mr. Laukhuf?

Lisa Birkman, Precinct 1 County Commissioner, Has A Primary Challenger

Posted in Election 2008, Williamson County at 11:43 pm by wcnews

Via the AusChron:

Steve Laukhuf, former general manager and publisher of the Round Rock Leader, announced this week his candidacy for Williamson Co. Commissioners Court, Precinct 1, becoming the first WilCo hopeful to file for the 2008 elections. Lisa Birkman is the incumbent; both are Republican in a predominately Republican county – the contest could turn out to be an interesting battle of conservative wills. It’s Laukhuf’s first bid for public office, but he’s a veteran community volunteer, with leadership roles on the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce, Charter Commission, Community Development Advisory Commission, and Independent School District Finance Committee, among others, to his credit. He also serves as a reserve sergeant with the Travis Co. Sheriff’s Office. As to his motive for running for commissioner, Laukhuf ruled out that winning would be a ticket to higher office. “This is the only elected office I will ever seek,” he told the Chronicle. His campaign slogan is “It’s time to work together again,” reflecting his goal to be a voice of diversity in the county. Laukhuf, who now heads his own communications firm, Round Rock-based One Voice Communications, promises he’ll be an agent of openness and compromise on the court

Hillary and Craddick

Posted in Election 2008, Commentary, Around The State at 10:11 pm by wcnews

Apparently Tom Craddick’s strategy to save his job is to make sure Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic Nomination for President. At least that’s what Paul Burka and Clay Robison, who brought this up a couple of weeks back, are reporting.


I had a conversation with a Craddick staffer during one of those stand at ease moments in the final days (never was standing at ease so uneasy) during which he said that the speaker believed the Republicans could pick up as many as eight House seats in 08 if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. I don’t agree with the number, but the underlying reasoning is sound.


If his speakership survives the remaining eight days of this legislative session — and that is debatable — Tom Craddick may begin offering a few silent prayers for Hillary Clinton.

While it has appeal in a fun sort of way, after further review, as they say, it doesn’t hold much water.

People usually show up to vote for someone, not against someone. If that was the case “Dubya” wouldn’t have stood a chance in 2004. This theory also doesn’t take presidential/electoral college politics into account. This theory makes the assumption that Texas is in play if Hillary is the nominee, otherwise there’s no reason a Texans vote would matter when it comes to the presidential race. I’m not sure Texas would be in play no matter who the nominee is.

They’re also assuming that these folks that supposedly show up to vote against Hillary, will also vote a straight ticket for Republicans - as Texas is becoming more independent - to give Craddick the seats he needs. Assuming he wins enough primary races. Not to mention if he has enough viable challengers against incumbent Democrats.

It also totally discounts the lack of interest there may be in the future GOP nominee. The Republicans should be more worried about their nominees inability to draw voters to the polls, and what the lack of a chance they have of regaining the White House in 2008 will do to keep their voters home, no matter who the eventual Democratic nominee is. And if this is Craddick’s strategy to keep his job, he might as well start apartment hunting.

Cops to Crack Down on Toll Cheats

Posted in Road Issues, Commentary, Williamson County at 1:16 am by dembones

KXAN is reporting that Cedar Park Police will be stopping drivers without TxTags who fail to pay the $1.50 toll at the 183-A plaza.

Those pulled over Friday for not having a tag said there were not enough warning signs leading to the highway, and part of the toll road accepts TxTags only, no cash.

Cedar Park Police Chief Harry Fluck announced the crackdown today. Left unexplained was the rationale behind diverting law enforcement resources from other priorities in order to help the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) collect tolls. Since the CTRMA is responsible for operating the 183-A toll road, taxpayers in Cedar Park should not be subsidizing the toll collection apparatus. UPDATE: No resources have been diverted. CTRMA has a contractual agreement with the city of Cedar Park to provide law enforcement services on the 183 A toll road.

It is not as if CTRMA has done everything they can to help clarify matters. Quite the contrary, their marketing of the radio frequency identifier (RFID) decals known as TxTag has created intentional confusion.

The CTRMA has created a carrot and stick approach to encourage Williamson County motorists to get on board with TxTags. The incentives have included a 10 percent reduction in tolls and an extra month or two of no-toll time as the roads open. The “stick” comes with a flashing blue and red light atop a Cedar Park Police Department cruiser. It’s a great deal for the CTRMA. The tax payers in Cedar Park foot the bill, the CTRMA understaffs or omits cash toll collection booths, and stories like this one on KXAN earn free media. UPDATE: CTRMA is paying for the law enforcement services, but the message remains the same: Avoid arrest. Get your TxTag now.

CTRMA has done little to clear up the confusion over when tolls would be required. Drivers are understandably puzzled. Before signing up for your TxTag, consider this: The free roads still go all the same places they always have. Taking long trips away from home on $3 per gallon gasoline should be painful. Perhaps that trip to Lakeline Mall isn’t really that great of an idea.

UPDATE: The reporter had incorrectly stated that the cost of this operation was being borne by Cedar Park tax payers. CTRMA is paying for the operation. Eye On Williamson regrets the error.


The Republicans In Congress Are In Deep Trouble

Posted in Election 2008, District 31, Commentary, Williamson County, Uncategorized at 3:31 pm by wcnews

The evidence:

“We’re trying to look into our conscience and define ourselves, and as we define ourselves, decide how we can best communicate that to the rest of the world,” said Rep. John Carter (Tex.), the Republican conference secretary and one of the effort’s participants. “In other words, what are Republicans?”

If Mr. Secretary is looking into his conscience to try and figure our what a Republican is. If this is it then GOP is in deep trouble.

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