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TURF releases primary election Voter Guide

Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom released its primary election Voter Guide today. The Guide reflects the candidates’ positions on transportation issues like the best way to fund roads as well as positions on toll roads, public private partnerships (where private corporations gain control of public infrastructure, called CDAs in Texas), and the Trans Texas Corridor. TURF targeted candidates in contested primary races, though some without opponents chose to include their remarks anyway. Those with general election opponents will be included in the guide for the fall election. Candidates are still returning surveys, so TURF expects to update its guide prior to election day, March 2. It’s also posted on its web site under “Important Info.”

Key Races to Watch -

Governor’s race
Obviously, TURF supporters feel Texans MUST get rid of Rick Perry if there is to be ANY hope of restraining his toll road policies that sell our freeways to private, foreign corporations who charge 75 cents a MILE to drive. After 5 years of citizens’ stiff resistance and lobbying to repeal or restrain the legislation Perry pushed through in 2003 to no avail, it is clear to TURF, no reform can take place as long as Perry is Governor. Most of the leading candidates for Governor did respond to our survey. Please see their responses.

State Senate race involving pro-toll, pro-TTC Steve Ogden, Senate Dist 5
Steve Ogden chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee. He authored the senate version of the toll road legislation, HB 3588 in 2003, that opened the door to Perry’s current toll road policies, including the Trans Texas Corridor and the creation of a new bureaucracy, Regional Mobility Authorities. Ogden didn’t even vote for the moratorium on selling our highways to foreign companies in 2007.

His opponent is Ben Bius, whose answers appear in our Voter Guide.

State Rep race involving pro-toll Vicki Truitt, State Rep Dist 98
Vicki Truitt authored the Local Option Tax bill that would have allowed local government to levy a tax on everything that moves including gas tax, vehicle registration fees, and even a tax on parking spaces! Truitt has also consistently voted for virtually every piece of toll road legislation and publicly chided Rep. Lois Kolkhorst on the floor of the House chambers for her moratorium bill to prevent the sale of TX roads to foreign corporations that Truitt claimed “interfered with our roads up here.”

There are several challengers for her seat, but the frontrunner is Giovanni Capriglione who also has the support of many taxpayer watchdog groups. His responses are included in our Voter Guide.

Hank Gilbert running for Agriculture Commissioner
Though Hank Gilbert doesn’t face pro-toll, pro-TTC Todd Staples until the fall, he has a primary opponent. Current Ag Commissioner, Todd Staples, not only voted pro-toll, pro-Trans Texas Corridor HB 3588 out of committee, he voted for it again on the floor to ensure it became law. Now as Ag Commissioner he’s trying to say he’s against the Trans Texas Corridor. But his actions tell otherwise.

Hank personally attended nearly every single one of over one hundred Trans Texas Corridor hearings for TTC-35 and TTC-69 defending ranchers and farmers from Perry’s land grab as well as educating landowners on the TTC’s dangers and galvanzing supporters to engage in the fight to the STOP the TTC.

Is the Trans Texas Corridor still alive?

Confusion persists about whether or not the Trans Texas Corridor is truly “dead” as Rick Perry’s transportation department announced last year. On February 1, 2010, in a Joint Senate and House Transportation Committee hearing, Senator John Carona directly asked TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz if TxDOT decided tomorrow that it wants to build the Trans Texas Corridor after all, does it still have the statutory authority to do so? Saenz answered: “Yes.” Watch it here.

At a Transportation Commission work session on August 26, 2009 (scroll down to the end of the transcript), Commissioner Ned Holmes essentially asked that the master development plan CDA for TTC-69 be expedited. For TTC-35, they’re planning to advance a “no build” alternative at this time. Such a move is UNPRECEDENTED. If a project is killed, all they have to do is send a letter to the Federal Highway Administration to notify them they’re withdrawing the project. End of story.

Instead, they’re seeking a Record of Decision on the “no action” alternative. Once they get a Record of Decision from the Federal Highway Administration, the law allows them to change their preferred “alternative” at any time. So if Perry is re-elected, he could easily change back to a “build” alternative and they’re in business. In addition, Ports to Plains and La Entrada de Pacifico are two TTC corridors moving forward unabated.

Tolling existing freeways legal or not?

There are also questions about whether or not it is legal to convert free highway lanes into toll lanes in the state of Texas, despite Governor Rick Perry’s claim that it is illegal during the January 29 Republican gubernatorial debate. In an article in the Dallas Morning News February 1, TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott stated:

“’The department has made it clear that we have no interest in tolling existing lanes,’ Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Chris Lippincott said this afternoon, when told of the Obama budget provision. ‘Whether we are prohibited from doing so in federal law is irrelevant,’ he said.

The article goes on to say…
“And it wouldn’t be easy, even if the state’s Transportation Commission didn’t have a policy in place that effectively abides by the moratorium. To turn a freeway (or even a single lane of existing roadway) into a toll road, TEXDOT would need a waiver from the Federal Highway Administration. These are granted only rarely. Then, state law requires approval from the county commissioners and then from a county’s voters.”

Terri Hall, Founder of Texas TURF counters, “Not only is TxDOT planning to toll existing lanes, they’re lying about it. The feds are not only aware of the plans for US 281 in San Antonio in particular, it had already granted clearance until we sued to stop them. So rare or not, the feds granted it.”

Perry’s greatest fib of the January 29 debate was his insistence that the Texas legislature passed a bill in 2005 prohibiting the conversion of free lanes to toll lanes. However, the bill, HB 2702, tells precisely how TxDOT can LEGALLY convert existing highway lanes into toll lanes through 6 exceptions, one that allows a conversion of free lanes by simply downgrading the free lanes to access roads adjacent to the tollway.

Though the language doesn’t specifically use the term “access roads” to refer to the relocating of free lanes adjacent to the tollway, TxDOT has consistently interpreted the law to mean it has the authority to downgrade freeway lanes to access roads without triggering a public vote based on HB 2702. See the two-part discussion of this law before the Sunset Commission in 2008 here and here. Part-two shows TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz stating TxDOT’s interpretation of HB 2702 allows highway lanes to be downgraded to access roads.

The bill also contains a gaping grandfather clause that exempts virtually all the toll projects currently on the table (because they were designated as toll roads in MPO plans prior to September of 2005), so no public vote would be triggered for the dozens of grandfathered toll projects.

“Perry’s elitist ‘you can eat cake’ attitude is this: if you can’t afford the toll lanes, you can sit in congestion on the stop-light ridden access roads. He thinks replacing free highway lanes with access roads is acceptable and his highway department is doing it all over Texas,” says Hall.

The citizens’ fight to stop the conversion of existing FREEway lanes into toll lanes on US 281 and Loop 1604 in San Antonio, 290 West in Austin, and Hwy 59 in East Texas (part of Trans Texas Corridor TTC-69), has languished precisely because of the loopholes in HB 2702.

TURF worked 24/7 in the last session to fix these loopholes. Rep. David Leibowitz of San Antonio introduced a bill to do so and got it attached to the TxDOT sunset bill (but it was stripped in the Senate).

“Texans deserve protection from the DOUBLE TAXATION of converting freeways into tollways. Perry was dead wrong to imply Texans are protected in state law. They’re not, especially for the exempted Trans Texas Corridors, like TTC-69, that will ‘upgrade’ existing freeways (like Hwy 59) into tollways at the hands of foreign companies,” Hall emphasized.

See detailed proof of the freeway to tollway conversion plans for US 281 on this web site: http://www281overpassesnow.com.

Portion of HB 2702 that addresses converting existing highways into toll roads –

SECTION 2.36. Chapter 228, Transportation Code, is amended by adding Subchapter E to read as follows: SUBCHAPTER E. LIMITATION ON TOLL FACILITY DETERMINATION; CONVERSION OF NONTOLLED STATE HIGHWAY
Sec. 228.201. LIMITATION ON TOLL FACILITY DESIGNATION. Except as provided by Section 228.2015, the department may not operate a nontolled state highway or a segment of a nontolled state highway as a toll project, and may not transfer a highway or segment to another entity for operation as a toll project, unless: (1) the commission by order designated the highway or segment as a toll project before the contract to construct the highway or segment was awarded; (2) the highway or segment was open to traffic as a turnpike project on or before September 1, 2005; (3) the project was designated as a toll project in a plan or program of a metropolitan planning organization on or before September 1, 2005; (4) the highway or segment is reconstructed so that the number of nontolled lanes on the highway or segment is greater than or equal to the number in existence before the reconstruction; (5) a facility is constructed adjacent to the highway or segment so that the number of nontolled lanes on the converted highway or segment and the adjacent facility together is greater than or equal to the number in existence on the converted highway or segment before the conversion; or (6) the commission converts the highway or segment to a toll facility by: (A) making the determination required by Section 228.202; (B) conducting the hearing required by Section 228.203; and (C) obtaining county and voter approval as required by Sections 228.207 and 228.208.

Sec. 228.2015. LIMITATION TRANSITION. (a) Notwithstanding
Section 228.201, the department may operate a nontolled state highway or a segment of a nontolled state highway as a toll project if: (1) a construction contract was awarded for the highway or segment before September 1, 2005; (2) the highway or segment had not at any time before September 1, 2005, been open to traffic; and (3) the commission designated the highway or segment as a toll project before the earlier of: (A) the date the highway or segment is opened to traffic; or (B) September 1, 2005. (b) This section expires September 1, 2006.

SECTION 2.37. Section 362.0041, Transportation Code, is transferred to Subchapter E, Chapter 228, Transportation Code, redesignated as Sections 228.202-228.208, and amended to read as follows:

Sec. 228.202 [362.0041 ]. COMMISSION DETERMINATION [CONVERSION OF PROJECTS ].
The [(a) Except as provided in Subsections (d) and (g), the ] commission may by order convert a nontolled state highway or a segment of a nontolled state highway [the free state highway system ] to a toll project [facility ] if it determines that the conversion will improve overall mobility in the region or is the most feasible and economic means to accomplish necessary expansion, improvements, or extensions to that segment of the state highway system.

Sec. 228.203. PUBLIC HEARING.
[(b) ] Prior to converting a state highway or a segment of a[the ] state highway [ system ] under this subchapter [section ], the commission shall conduct a public hearing for the purpose of receiving comments from interested persons concerning the proposed conversion [transfer ]. Notice of the hearing shall be published in the Texas Register, one or more newspapers of general circulation, and a newspaper, if any, published in the county or counties in which the involved highway is located. Sec. 228.204. RULES. [(c) ] The commission shall adopt rules implementing this subchapter [section ], including criteria and guidelines for the approval of a conversion of a highway. Sec. 228.205. QUEEN ISABELLA CAUSEWAY. [(d) ] The commission may not convert the Queen Isabella Causeway in Cameron County to a toll project [facility ].

Sec. 228.206. TOLL REVENUE.
[(e) Subchapter G, Chapter 361, applies to a highway converted to a toll facility under this section. [(f) ] Toll revenue collected under this section: (1) shall be deposited in the state highway fund; (2) may be used by the department to finance the improvement, extension, expansion, or operation of the converted segment of highway and may not be collected except for those purposes; and (3) is exempt from the application of Section 403.095, Government Code.

Sec. 228.207. COUNTY AND VOTER APPROVAL. [(g)]
The commission may only convert a state highway or a segment of a[the] state highway [ system ] under this subchapter [section ] if the conversion is approved by : (1) the commissioners court of each county within which the highway or segment is located ; and (2) the qualified voters who vote in an election under Section 228.208 and who reside in the limits of: (A) a county if any part of the highway or segment to be converted is located in an unincorporated area of the county; or (B) a municipality in which the highway or segment to be converted is wholly located .

Sec. 228.208. ELECTION TO APPROVE CONVERSION.
(a) If notified by the department of the proposed conversion of a highway or segment under this subchapter, and after approval of the conversion by the appropriate commissioners courts as required by Section 228.207(1), the commissioners court of each county described by Section 228.207(2)(A) or the governing body of a municipality described by Section 228.207(2)(B), as applicable, shall call an election for the approval or disapproval of the conversion. (b) If a county or municipality orders an election, the county or municipality shall publish notice of the election in a newspaper of general circulation published in the county or municipality at least once each week for three consecutive weeks, with the first publication occurring at least 21 days before the date of the election. (c) An order or resolution ordering an election and the election notice required by Subsection (b) must show, in addition to the requirements of the Election Code, the location of each polling place and the hours that the polls will be open. (d) The proposition submitted in the election must distinctly state the highway or segment proposed to be converted and the limits of that highway or segment. (e) At an election ordered under this section, the ballots shall be printed to permit voting for or against the proposition: “The conversion of (highway) from (beginning location) to (ending location) to a toll project.” (f) A proposed conversion is approved only if it is approved by a majority of the votes cast. (g) A notice of the election and a certified copy of the order canvassing the election results shall be sent to the commission.

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