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.

Them Fires on the Texas Prairie

There's more than one kind of prairie fire

1. Between elected officials and them that "brung em to the dance"
2. Between Aggie Engineers and Aggie Farmers and Ranchers
3. Between Historians and Legislators
4. Between Environmentalist and Legislators and Contractors
5. Between Grassroots Democrats who are looking at turn-coat money grubbing Democrats in office who are voting with big money interests on the TTC and who received donations from Zachry
6. Between Grassroots Republicans who are looking at incumbent Republicans who they helped elect who are supporting the TTC and who took money from toll road special interests
7. Between Local governments and regional transportation planning entities who are endorsing the TTC and local voters who are mad because their officials are endorsing it without listening to the people

We had devastating grass fires in much of this state which left thousands of acres of farm/ranch land charred. Much of rural Texas was declared a National Disaster. The TTC is the defining insulting swipe at those same people. When it is an act of nature (or even arson which got further out of hand) it is devastating. However, the TTC is something that governmental officials are deliberately DOING to the Ranchers, Farmers, homeowners and tax payers of Texas.

"Remember the Alamo" will be mild compared to the battle cry of "Remember TTC" before this is over.


THIS PARABLE IS DEDICATED TO RICK PERRY, DAVID DEWHURST, TODD STAPLES, FRANK CORTE, GREG ABBOTT and all the elected officials in Texas who took Campaign Contributions from H.B. Zachry and worked diligently to get the Texas Transportation Code and Eminent Domain Statues changed to enable construction of the Trans Texas Corridors and similar toll initiatives.

The Trans Texas Corridor initiative seems more like this parable:
Once upon a time let's say that I discovered that it was closer for me to go through your yard than it was for me to go around the block on the public street to conduct my business in the land beyond your homestead. So I begin to habitually take a short-cut through your yard. I make my own path through your shrubbery, detouring around your house and garage and walk through your property to deliver goods to my clients who live far beyond your lot line.

After a while, I complain about how much time I'm losing having to go between your house and garage. For me, I'd get there easier and faster if your house weren't in my way. I mean, after all, why should I be inconvenienced having to detour around your house when I have important business to conduct on the other side of your property!

Under current law, I can't just legally tear your house down. But I know some folks who owe me some favors. I do some things for some other folks so that they'll also owe me. I approach a man who owns a paving company with strong ties with the agency which regulates planning and construction of public paths. Then I find some "business men" and show them how they can profit if your house were gone and we had a direct path WE CONTROLLED through your property and this man's paving company poured the asphalt. Together we start dreaming about this path. Wouldn't it be even better, someone says, if there are concessions along the path. If they can't get off the path to patronize the businesses along existing streets, that will be better for us because we'll make more money. So while the "you scratch my back I'll scratch yours" gang is busy revising the Transportation and Property Codes of the government, we have them add in a clause allowing exercise of eminent domain for construction of a facility which serves users of the toll facility.

By scratching backs and showing folks how they can PROFIT from my scheme, I've moved from just cutting through your bushes and walking between your house and garage as I cut through to the other side of property to conduct my business on the other side of you to actually getting the law changed so that I can have your home torn down and land confiscated by the state. I can also get your neighbor's land condemned by eminent domain because it's contingent to a toll corridor and is NEEDED TO BE USED FOR A CONCESSION WHICH WILL BE USED BY USERS OF THE TOLL PATH.

Now, there are a lot of places in our town where more people actually need a paved path more than this one. There may even be some places where they need a bridge. But this project gets priority because I agree to pay for the clearing, demolition of your house, and the concrete to pave it. I get a 50 year right to set the rates for the toll and operate all the concessions along the path. I get the government to underwrite a lot of the studies and planning for this project because they are in the business of overseeing planning projects.

After we pour all this concrete the neighborhood looks different. Because it looks DIFFERENT, some people call it progress.

You no longer live there. Your next door neighbor no longer lives in the town. The land now belongs to the state. Your neighbors get their tax bills after completion of this project. The school district and county and city have divided their annual budgets among the number of remaining homeowners. Everyone has a tax increase. There is still a shortfall because even with a tax increase, there is less land available and when they need to build a new school, the price is higher for the land. But that's ok. Because it is now easier for the folks I did business with on the other side of your property to go through the path and not have to detour around where your house used to sit. No one actually stops on your land to do anything. They use the concession where your next door neighbor used to live as they travel through. But they don't patronize any of the businesses on the street where you lived. When they carry packages along this toll road to deliver to your former neighbors, they pay tolls. But that's o.k. because the pass the additional cost along to the buyers.

Oh, I forgot one thing. When I sell the VISION for building this toll path corridor, I point out that we need A MUCH WIDER RIGHT OF WAY than is actually called for right now. We need to plan for 50 years in the future. So we advise the "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine gang" to write the law so that instead of the land that the path needs being condemned, they condemn three times that much land. We won't use it for 50 years, but that's o.k. We'll control it. It goes out of the local tax base too and more folks lose their homes. Those that remain have to absorb an even larger percentage of the taxes formerly paid by you and your neighbor. But I'm content.

I'm given an award by the City Father's for being a "Catalyst of Progress." I have more money, so I give a little of it to a charity run by one of the folks who helped me get the laws changed to Legalize all the illegal obstacles to progress that I decided needed to be eliminated so that I'd be enabled to "get a return on my investment" as I instigate getting this toll path built so that I'll not to be inconvenienced by having to detour around your house. I'm now known as a "humanitarian."

Our project has utilized public governmental planning agencies who usually plan public projects. They haven't had time to concentrate on public works projects except for our path. So the street that runs in front of the property where you used to live becomes filled with potholes and is actually dangerous to pedestrians and drivers. The tax base is less. The businesses on that road have closed down because they lost business when people started patronizing the businesses on the toll path. We approach the city and tell them that we can solve their problem. We'll use a bit of the money we made operating this first toll path to repair roads which are currently PUBLIC ROADS if they are turned into toll roads and we are given 50 years to operate them so we can get a return on our investment.

This time there are activists who are prepared for us and manage to demand this project be put to a vote. But it is obvious that the road will remain impassable because now the tax base of the town has dwindled to such a state that there REALLY IS no money in the budget to pave the public road. The toll initiative on the ballot passes by only a few votes, but I have a new project to profit on with my friend the paving contractor. The public street is now a toll road and we are studying where we want to locate the concessions.

There will be goods shipped through Texas from Mexico to other states whether or not the TTC is constructed. Some folks are wondering TEXANS should give up our land and finance the TTC by paying tolls and higher property and school taxes! Don't we have other more important transportation needs that need to be met right now? TDoT, elected officials and transportation planners in COGS tell us that the TTC is necessary because we need to plan for 50 years in the future.

Planning for the future is fine when you have your CURRENT HOUSE IN ORDER. People without food on the table can't throw their entire annual budget into a retirement account. This initiative is one that transfers resources away from meeting VITAL TRANSPORTATION NEEDS in communities all over Texas right now! DFW is on the brink of having EPA shut down economic development. We have to address air quality along with transportation. Every urban center in Texas needs SOME transportation solution and this TTC snowgoose doesn't meet ANY OF THEM. But it's true, business interest shipping goods from Asia to Mexican ports will get those goods to market somehow. They want us to cut them a direct, less-costly-for-them route. We must fight for OUR NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED before their comfort! If we build a corridor or highway or rail line for US, and they use it too, that's normal. That's not what they are asking. THE TTC is not a transportation plan to meet the needs of Texans. Instead of concentrating on this state's highest priority transportation needs, we're expected to forgo what we need to build this rail, utility and super toll highway from Laredo to Oklahoma to facilitate shipping through Texas.

Let's end this "good night" story with a quote from a lady who addressed the TDoT officials at the Dallas TTC Hearing: "What part of stupid do you think we are?"

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