Tuesday, August 01, 2006

TTC is Sparking a Prairie War at Texas A & M

It's been really interesting what I've been digging up as I follow the money of influential folks in this toll project here in Texas. Texas A&M (Hank Gilbert's alma mater) is also the home of one of our state's foremost Colleges of Civil Engineering. There are also a lot of petroleum engineers who graduated from Texas A&M. I think it's wonderful for folks who make good to give back to help the next generation along. However, this time, many of the alumni of Texas A&M are ending up on opposite sides of the TTC issue.

Farmers and Ranchers are mad because they need to keep their farms and ranches intact to continue making a living. History buffs are upset because the enabling language of the TTC legislation exempts TTC and related toll projects from the normal laws regarding land sites of historical significance. The way much of the bills were drafted exempts this project from normal public hearings on Historical Significance! Heck, they could be within the law and plough right through Washington on the Brazos where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed! What the folks behind getting that language in the bills really probably intends to do is to dispense with public hearings on Historical Significance when they move to condemn farmland. Texas has a Historical Family Farm program which recognizes farms which have been continuously operated and owned by the same family for over 100 years. There are several farms belonging to some of my relatives in East Texas which have that designation and others which probably could get it if folks took the time to apply. One farm I know of with that designation has buildings on it which date from prior to the War between the States.

Contractors and transportation planners don't want to be slowed down and enmeshed in hearings on how important old great grandpa's barn is. When the kind of dollars are on the table and the smell of PROFIT is as strong as it is currently on the Texas prairie, some ambitious folks have "inspired" some of their friends in the Texas Senate and Texas Legislature to draft bills with language which will dispense with open meetings, normal competitive bidding processes, and messy historical significance hearings.

There are environmentalist who are affiliated with Texas A& M. The contractors aren't very concerned with all the same things that are high on the list of priorities of the environmental crowd. Many of the bills which I term "TTC enabling legislation" have clauses which permits TDoT to perform, or contract to consultants who will perform under their supervision, the environmental /ecological impact studies. Many of us see this as a blatant conflict of interest.
Texas A&M is one of the more heavily endowed Universities in Texas. Most of us thought this was a good thing but since the TTC moved to the forefront, a few of us are questioning how independent can a University's research be when it is as heavily endowed as Texas A&M? For example: The Texas A&M School of Engineering received $10 million from the Zachry Foundation. Folks were thrilled. That money allows the University to do a lot of good things. The main building where engineering classes are held is now the Zachry building in the Texas A&M School of Engineering.

About the same time the University received this endowment, the TTC initiative moved onto the planning boards in Texas. At first it looked like Halliburton and Citras (a Spanish corporation which operates toll roads in Canada) were going to get the biggest slices of the pie. It rapidly became evident from the public outcry that Halliburton's involvement would probably kill the project. Having a foreign corporation involved is not popular either. So the dreamers and schemers went shopping for a Texas Corporation with strong ties in Austin. Because the negotiations and records of the TTC are sealed from public scrunity, I don't know if Zachry was involved as a potential contractor and player under Halliburton and Citras or if they got involved after Halliburton fell from favor. However, now H.B. Zachry Corporation is teamed with Citras as the most favorable (in the view of TDoT) companies to construct, finances, operate and share in a return on their investment by concessions (rest stops, restaurants, gas stations, and toll plazas other facilities) along the TTC route. How the energy sector fits into the picture is still fuzzy. But is is probably that several of the $ 1.5 million and larger donors to Texas A&M who are in the petroleum engineering field will be considered in the pipeline/utility phase of the project.

Additionally, located within the Zachry Engineering Building is the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI). TTI was founded in the 1950s. For many years funding to the TTI was rather flat. Since 2000 TTI has been blessed with success when it comes to funding. There has been dramatic increase in the budget during the past few years. Over 60% of TTI's consulting contracts are with the TDoT. There may be NO TIE between the funding or donations to Texas A&M and the decisions TDoT has made in selecting H.B. Zachry Construction as one of the two major players in the TTC. However because of the secret method they have employed in the "vetting" process, the political maneuvering in Austin with TTC enabling legislation by officials who receieved substantial political contributions from Zachry during or just prior to the introduction and passage of said bills, there is a culture of distrust on the Texas Prairie.

I suspect that the riff will grow greater unless TDoT votes to take NO ACTION on the TTC. If TDoT moves forward after these hearings and announces that they are intending to construct the TTC, all hell will break loose between the Farmers and the Ranchers, the environmentalist and the contractors, the historians and the government. Might be more action than was seen in the TV Show "Dallas" in the days of ole J.R. Ewing.


THERE NEEDS TO BE AN EXAMINATION OF THE APPEARANCE OF CONFLICT(S) OF INTEREST by Universities when they accept large endowments. Corporate and private endowment dollars can help further the University in conducting research. They can also erect clouds over the process that moves people to question how independent and unbiased research really can be when it is performed in a department which receives a significant amount of its funding from influential people in the industry. The researchers don't deserve to come under any UNDESERVED CLOUDS.

It is obvious that there is a close relationship between TTI, local and regional traffic planning entities who are endorsing the TTC, TDoT and the Administration of Texas A&M University which receives considerable funding from H.B. Zachry Foundation. Over 60% of the contracts for consulting by TTI is with TDoT, the agency making decisions about letting contracts to contractors. There does not have to be any actual influence peddling for these ties to create an APPEARANCE of A CONFLICT OF INTEREST.

In ethics we are told that it is AS IMPORTANT to avoid the appearance of a CONFLICT of INTEREST. No laws have to be broken. No one has to gain financially via special favors for there do be a serious breach of the public trust when bureaucratic and elected officials and state colleges and/or private research institutes receive large sums, whether in the form of LEGAL campaign contributions or generous endowments from benefactors who profit financially from contracts let by agencies and clients served by the endowed institutions.

The lines are blurred enough here for there to be an APPEARANCE of several CONFLICTS of INTEREST between these inter-related entities for the independence of the research to be questioned. No innocent researcher deserves to have a cloud come over their independence. Unless the University immediately examines these intermeshed relationships and sets up guidelines to insure that the researchers remain independent from influence from the endowers an erosion of trust can occur.

It is important that TTI not recommend a contractor to TDoT one way or the other. If they recommend or influence, they have violated ethical standards in this particular instance because the instution where they work benefits financially from at least one contractor who does business with TDoT, TTI's number one client. One of the biggest problems is the method TDoT is using for vetting contractor for the short list for the TTC Project. The backroom, out of the public view methods currently practiced by TDoT makes it impossible for the public to examine the negotiation process to determine if it is fair. The Texas House and Senate has recently passed massive changes to the Transportation Code, some of which is intended to allow TDoT to conduct their own studies, including environmental studies, refuse court orders for records regarding planning studies, proposals for contracts, and contract negotiation processes. The public is especially distrustful of elected officials, TDoT and contractors who have been "vetted" by TDoT as the most appropriate to slice up the lion's share of the TTC contracts.

There is a vast divide between where most local citizens who are testifying at TTC TDoT Public Hearings stand on the TTC and where members of RMA's, COG's, and county and city governments who are members of The Texas High Speed Rail Transportation Corporation stand. The Texas High Speed Rail Transportation Corporation utilizes TTI and the Texas A&M Bush School of Public Policy as major resources. It appears that the TTI, though the THRTC and related regional transit planning agencies, influences local member governments through education and joint planning initiatives. I do not know how great a role TTI and THSRTC has played in moving these governmental officials to endorse the TTC. It is apparent that many ordinary citizens disagree vehemently with positions stated by many of their local leaders. In Fort Worth at the TDoT TTC hearing, several stated that "They didn't ask us before they endorsed the TTC!" Mayor Mike Moncrief, County Judge-Elect Glen Whitley (Secretary of the THSRTC), officials from the City of North Richland Hills, and a representative of the City of Arlington (all members of the THSRTC) endorsed the TTC asking that the route be modified to incorporate the local RMA's transportation plan. All of the other speakers opposed the TTC and left trying to figure out how their elected officials came to endorse it!

Perhaps there has been failure to educate the public. However, DFW regional media has publicized the RMA's plan. The RMA's transportation plan does not resemble the TTC in any way except that both include rail and highway components. Everything else is vastly different.

It is obvious that much work has been done by somebody to get local leaders to buy into the TTC plan.

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