Sunday, October 07, 2007

Dallas and Denton drinking water at risk by TxDOT's route choice for FM 2499

By Faith Chatham - DFWRCC - Oct. 7, 2007
(This diary is about TxDOT's selection of the most costly, most environmentally dangerous route for FM2499. FM 2499 runs through Denton County connecting with I35 (prospective route of Trans Texas Corridor. The route selected crosses emergent federal wetlands, three forks of Lake Lewisville which provides drinking water to Dallas and Denton Counties).
Crossposted on Texas Kaos.

Letter from Highland Village Parents Group to Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert:

Letter to Mayor of Dallas
Dear Mr. Leppert:

I am writing this letter to bring to your attention a matter of some grave concern.

Just this week, I contacted the Dallas Water Department to inquire about the extent of their knowledge and participation in matters pertaining to a major Dallas drinking water source. I foolishly presumed that the Water Department would be fully informed of activities that might potentially pollute this source. It came to my attention in 2003 that despite the events of 9/11, and the nation's terrorist concerns, there was very little inter-agency communication on matters that could potentially threaten resources and facilities of our local Cities.

I live in Highland Village, which is situated at the southern and western boundary of Lake Lewisville. This community has had an ongoing battle with regard to the proposed alignment of Section 4 of FM 2499, a 4 - 6 lane thoroughfare that Texas Department of Transportation (TxDot) plans to run through our 96 percent owner-occupied residential community. Members of our community contacted the City of Dallas at that time, to ask them about their participation in the selection process for the alignment for this road, since Alignment 3, (there were originally 10) through Highland Village, was the only easement that would take this roadway over Lake Lewisville. We assumed the City would be involved since Dallas owns the water rights. They were not! With the huge outcry at the Public Hearings and considerable media coverage at that time, we presumed Dallas would get involved, especially as TxDot went ahead and selected Alternative 3 over other less controversial and less expensive routes for this road. They apparently did not!

This particular alignment, through our unique and massively "hilly" neighborhoods, through wetlands and over the western boundary of Lake Lewisville is very controversial! It is the most disruptive and THE MOST EXPENSIVE of all options which were available. The environmental threat from this road is huge - to human and wildlife (Lake Lewisville already has a high MTBE content according to EPA reports). Yet it somehow 'squeaked' inside the NEPA guidelines and was 'shoehorned' under the radar, to fit the need to move this project along. Leadership of Copper Canyon - the neighboring community which was the site for several of the other alternatives, fought this roadway from the very beginning. Leadership of Highland Village did not! That is what is amounted to. Despite the huge citizen opposition, despite being elevated above grade (up to 15 ft. in places), and less than 10 feet from some homes; despite the necessity to build bridges over emergent wetlands along the western boundary of Lake Lewisville - and potential threat to this drinking water source, the project received an assessment of "no significant impact" to the surrounding community, in late 2005. No formal Environmental Impact Study (EIS) was ever done. The conditions for the lesser study were also less than ideal. No ground assessment was ever done for the emergent wetlands evaluation portion, and all areas of promised mitigation to the community (for what they were worth) cannot be fulfilled because the City of Highland Village does not have authority over this State highway. And yet apparently, through all this, the City of Dallas stayed out of this process.

TxDot is preparing to put this construction project out to bids next month. Highland Village families continue to fight the project and have recently been talking to an environmental attorney, to seek advice on how we should move forward at this time. We had hoped to stop the process before now, or at a minimum force TxDot to complete a proper Environmental Impact Study (EIS). This especially in light of the recent USC Medical study published earlier this year in Lancet, implicating automobile pollution as a major source of loss of lung function in children, and more recently the reports about breast cancer from the same source. This agency appears to be determined to push forward with this project however, even with their recent acknowledgement of a $290 million deficit in state funds. We are therefore trying to get as many people involved as possible, in asking the right questions, so that they might reconsider the repercussions of their choices. I called the Dallas Water Department about 11 days ago to discuss this matter, and was instructed that Jodi Puckett, the Director, was out of the office. Earlier this week I received a call from Rick Galceron(sp?) in Ms. Pucket's stead. Mr. Galceron informed me that he was unaware of any participation or issues with regard to this or any other proposed highway crossing of Lake Lewisville. He told me he would make some calls to find out what he could, and then get back to me. I have heard no more to date, and therefore feel I should bring this matter to you Mr. Leppert, as the newly appointed Mayor of the City of Dallas. I felt you would wish to be informed of this and other matters of such importance. I realize I am a simple "lay-person" in this area, but I find the lack of apparent concern and cooperation in this matter to disturbing to the point of outrageous. We are after all talking about a potential threat to one of the City of Dallas' largest sources of potable water. A lack of inter-agency co-operation regarding a project of this scale, which has the potential of putting massive amounts of toxins into that source, is absurd. Mistakes are made and accidents happen. That no cooperation is believed necessary is shocking! Whatever happened to the requirements for stepped up security on such resources? Given the recent concerns not that long ago following the spill at Lake Tawakoni, one would have thought there would be more involvement and monitoring of these matters. I have to wonder whether the citizens of Dallas are aware of how little oversight is being given to their drinking water source. I would appreciate hearing from you at you earliest convenience in response to my concerns.


Susie Venable
Concerned Parent/Citizen/Homeowner/Taxpayer
of Highland Village, Texas

Susie Venable's letter points out that:
* TxDOT selected the most EXPENSIVE ROUTE

* It will cost two times more to build Section 4 of FM2499 on the selected route than it would on any of the other 7 alternate routes.

*This route is the only one that threatens the drinking water of Dallas and Denton counties.

* The EPA and TxDOT and US Army Corp of Engineers and NCTCOG have all failed to ensure the safety of human beings.

* The environmental assessment is inadequate. They did not assess the impact of the route on human health.

The real "topper", in my estimation, is that TxDOT claims that this route was chosen "because of local demand!" Gee! Over 3000 citizens from a SMALL TOWN showed up at hearings in 2003 to protest this route. The fire marshal closed the meeting and turned hundreds away. TxDOT held the overflow meeting at UNT to have enough space. Susie said when she signed up to speak she was told over 900 people had already signed in before her!

Yet a few elected officials recommended this route! Some of them have been voted out of office, yet this route moves forward and TxDOT is prepared to open bidding for it on Nov. 1st.

This is not how the process should work! This illustrates how broken and unresponsive the system is to citizens' input, wishes, best interest.

I don't know who owns undeveloped land along this path. There are probably some decision makers with conflicts of interest. However, because TxDOT refuses to cooperate with compliance with the Texas Local Government Disclosure laws, it is difficult to determine which local officials who recommended this project will benefit or have close associates who will benefit financially by the selection of this VERY EXPENSIVE boondoggle!

It is appalling that the Dallas City and County Commission is sleeping through this route selection.

They should be PRINCIPALS in this -- following it closely to ensure that proper EIS is performed to protect their valuable drinking water. However, despite citizens attempts to engage them they are still asleep at the wheel.
This route will go up for bid in November! It will cost twice as much for them to build it on route alternate 3 (of 8) than on any of the other seven routes!

Gee. Wonder why they have money woes in the Texas Department of Transportation. They choose routes which are the most environmentally dangerous and double the cost of other alternate routes. They waste money on TV ads trying to get us to "like" toll roads and welcome the Trans Texas Corridor. They spend money on lobbyist to lobby the Federal Government. Gosh. Isn't that illegal. Somewhere in the crevices of my brain it seems there is something tucked away which says that governmental agencies are not supposed to spend tax payer money lobbying Congress. It amazes me that Ric Williamson and Speaker Jim Wright could come from the same place. Jim fought for the Constitution and Williamson runs the Texas Department of Transportation like it is the henchman of Attia the Hun! His rape and burn toll road policy threatens the very fabric of American life. They've told people that there is no way to build roads except tolls so long that some smart people have begun to believe it. Wait! Stop! Think! Examine the facts! There are better ways to do this.

Roads are supposed to serve the needs of people. The people who live near them are the ones who probably should have the greatest interest in them because they should serve their needs more frequently than those who live far away. However, TxDOT pays attention to out of state and out of the country parties more than they listen to the people in the neighborhood of the road project. Many project proceed more as Corporate Workfare project than as projects to serve the true transportation needs of the people of Texas.

That may explain it. Since the goal is probably to benefit contractors more than to serve the transportation needs of the citizens, it would make more sense to select the most costly route. That way there is double the pork to divvie out on this one project. However, they are ruining the integrity of a very nice neighborhood, endangering the health of millions of people in two counties, and endangering the health of over 1000 children who live within 1500 feet of the road.

Oh well. Too sad. No one is answering their phone who is really concerned about the health of people. The EA (done from an airplane) didn't note any endangered species. Wonder if they could see children from the air? They noted that their study did not assess the impact of the road on the health of human beings! Gee! Isn't that great? A handful of elected officials get to request that a route be fast tracked environmentally and the voices of over 3000 citizens is ignored.

What really irkes me is the excuse TxDOT gives for the selection of this route is "citizen demand"! 3000 citizens speaking out against it at public hearings didn't register. They only listened to a handful of elected officials (some of whom have already been voted out of office.)

Folks, we have to wake up and take note of the local races. It is county commissioners and city council members who carry the weight when it comes to recommending or stopping road projects. Toll roads have to be approved by the County Commission. Yet we sleep through these races.

For way too long the Democratic party has said that it was "focusing only on specific upticket races." In many cities and counties in Texas most of the local slots are filled by Republicans who ran unopposed!

Hank Gilbert is right. We have to ask EVERY CANDIDATE what his or her position is on toll roads and eminent domain. We have to challenge every pro toller in our towns and counties. We have to replace those who think it is o.k. for Texans to have to pay for every mile we drive on state highways.

Besides, when a political party fails to elect people to local offices, they create a world where there are no experienced candidates to run for higher offices. It is very difficult to recruit a strong state wide slate if we fail to fill City Commissions and County Commissions and County Judge slots with qualified Democrats.

Every Dallas County Commissioner, ever Dallas City Council Person should be looking into the ramifications of this route selection on the health of citzens of Dallas.

Denton County should too, but they are the ones who asked for it to be fast tracked and for the draft EIS to be set aside in favor of the shorter, less extensive, more inadequate Environmental Assessment.

Failed Electric Utility Policy in Texas

By Faith Chatham - DFWRCC - Oct. 7, 2007
Utility deregulation was supposed to lower utility rates in Texas. Instead, Texans have seen rates escalate to 200%-300% since deregulation. A hodgepodge of policies on credit eligibility, credentials for eligibility for deposit waivers for the medical infirm or elderly complicates decision making for many citizens. KWw hour rates quoted by some providers do not always include all the fees charged for electric service. Consumers are penalized for falling below minimum usage amounts on many plans. Customers with poor credit are refused service by companies with the lowest rates.

Even when some Texans "shop around" and find up to "25% savings on rates", they report paying double and triple the amount they paid prior to deregulation. Yes, higher natural gas rates fuel some of the rate hikes. While utility rates have escalated, profits by utility companies have also escalated. Yet when some utility representatives discuss the floating price caps utilized as deregulation was phased in here in Texas, they speak of "losing money". Even though they have had increases in profit and revenue, they speak of the difference between what might have occurred if there had been no floating price caps to help ease in deregulation and the increased profits they made with the price caps as if they were a "loss of income" instead of referring to it more correctly as a difference in the level of increased profit/earnings!

In a news story in today's Houston Chronicle reporters Tom Fowler and Janet Elliott conclude that utility deregulation in Texas is a "failed waste of time" which "fails to slash electric bills."
When Texas lawmakers agreed to open the state's power markets to competition back in 1999, one promise was on the tip of many tongues: lower prices.

"Competition in the electric industry will benefit Texans by reducing monthly rates and offering consumers more choices about the power theyuse," then-Gov. George W. Bush said at the time.

Then-state Sen. David Sibley, who was a key author of the bill, put the promise more bluntly:

"If all consumers don't benefit from this, we will have wasted our time and failed our constituency," he said.

Eight years later, many consumers are calling deregulation just that — a failed waste of time.


From 2000 to June of this year, the average electric rate in Texas rose 56 percent, more than in all but three states, according to the most recent federal figures.

Tom Fowler and Janet Elliott illustrate this point with CPS Energy, a city-owned utility whih serves San Antonio. City owned utilities are exempt from deregulation. "

San Antonians must buy their power from just one source: CPS.

Yet being exempt from deregulation has benefited CPS customers, who are paying less for electricity than residential customers in other big Texas cities.

The 25 percent of Texans living in regulated markets generally pay less than consumers in markets such as Houston that have been opened to competition.

For example, Houston residential consumers use an average of 1,130 kilowatt hours a month. Bills for that much power would range from $125.43 to $163.85 based on rates available in Houston at the end of September for a one-year, fixed-rate plan. The average rate in Houston would produce a monthly bill of $142.95.

The same amount of electricity would cost $94.40 from CPS in San Antonio and $105.32 in Austin, also served by a city-owned utility.--Elliott and Fowler

But the very structure of Texas' deregulated market exposes customers to the full impact of rising natural gas prices more than in other states, or even in parts of Texas still served by regulated electric companies, municipally owned utilities or electric cooperatives.

Steve Bartley, CPS vice president of government and regulatory relations, told Flowler and Elliott that
CPS historically has had lower rates than investor-owned
utilities in Texas primarily because of the fuel mix it uses to generate electricity. It isn't as exposed to volatile natural gas prices.

"When bills go up, it's typically a function of natural gas prices, and it usually happens all over Texas," Bartley said. "Our bills don't rise as dramatically because we don't use as much natural gas."

Before deregulation, a utility set prices based on the mix of power plants it used. If half the electricity came from gas-fired plants, one-quarter from nuclear power and one-quarter from coal, the rates would be based on a weighted average of their costs.

Any increase in rates had to be approved by the Texas Public Utility Commission. The process was often contentious and lengthy, but essentially utilities were guaranteed a profit of 11 percent over their operating costs.

The state's electric co-ops and city utilities still follow that model. For example, Austin limits profit to 9 percent, which goes toward other city services.--Fowler and Elloitt

In parts of the state opened to competition, however, retail electric entities that sell directly to customers don't own their own generating plants and must buy power in the wholesale market.--Fowler and Elloitt

Because consumer deregulation was phased in from 2002 through Jan. 1 of this year, some price controls were still in place when gas surged in 2005. The controls allowed electric rate caps to rise when natural gas costs increased, but the PUC said the law did not allow it to force rates down when gas prices fell.--Fowler and Elliott

Rebecca Klein, PUC chairwoman told Elliott and Fowler that from 2002 to '04, in Texas, floating price caps prevented the sudden rate shock that other states, including Illinois and Maryland, experienced when their price caps were lifted.

"We've been able to successfully and completely lift price caps without the tumult that other states have had," she said.

Under pressure from lawmakers, the largest retailers, including Reliant and TXU Energy, raised rates more slowly than the law allowed. Fowler and Elliott wrote: TXU estimates it lost about $40 million during 2006 as a result, and Reliant estimates it lost about $120 million.

But electric rates still reached record levels by summer 2006.--Fowler and Elloitt

For the majority of customers in the Houston area who remained on Reliant's base plan that summer, the rate was 16.3 cents per kilowatt hour, up 89 percent from July 2002. In Dallas, TXU customers still on that company's base plan were paying as much as 15.3 cents, an 82 percent increase from 2002.

The rate picture has improved since the highs of 2006, helped mainly by natural gas prices that have stayed below $9 since the 2005 hurricane season.--Fowler and Elloitt

Other states have seen rate increases, but most have been smaller than in Texas. And many states have instituted price caps that limit what consumers pay or have taken other action to lessen the pain.

Illinois had price caps in place from 1996 until lifting them in January, after which the state experienced double-digit rate increases in just a few months. The Legislature there just approved $1 billion in residential and business rebates.

Virginia re-regulated parts of its market in response to backlash against price increases that followed when caps were lifted..--Fowler and Elloitt

Proponents of Deregulation point out that the cost for construction of powerplants, under Deregulation, is passed to the stockholders. Critics fear that energy markets are more subject to price manipulation by private corporations delaying construction of necessary power faciities or keeping existing ones off line.

Competition is supposed to produce options and give consumers more choices. Critics point out that a variety of corporate policies among providors makes it more complicated for consumers to understand the options and make informed decisions.

In today's volatile energy market, consumers are granted discounts usually only when signing long-term contracts with their electric providor. Current PUC rules in Texas does not force providors to pass along savings to consumers when natural gas prices drop. In desperation, some cash strapped Texans feel forced into signing contracts with penalities for switching in order to get small discounts off their electric bills yet if natural gas prices drop more than the discount they are receiving, there are no laws to force the electric companies to pass some of the savings on to the oonsumer.

I personally experienced this last month. I was forced to move suddenly due to my apartment complex failing to meet city code standards. The complex where I lived had commercial rate metered service. My utility bill was paid to the complex each month and no credit history shows on my credit report for the six years I lived there. I entered into the world of "deregulated" utilities after six years of not dealing directly with utility companies. I used the PUC website. Those showing the best rates were inaccessible to me. They either required a utility history or did not serve this area. The remainder of companies were unable to connect the electricity on short notice. Only TXU could connect the service within three days.

I discoved that the rates set by most companies penalize customers who use less than 1000 Kww a month. Some penalize those who use less than 500 Kww a month. (My usage in my previous apartment ranged from 500 to 700 kww a month. I hoped to become more conservative.)

My order was placed online and I submitted information that I have medical life support equipment and am medically disabled on Social Security. I was astonished to learn that the waiver for the $250.00 deposit enacted by the Texas Legislature did not apply to me. Victims of domestic violence and people on Social Security over age 62 are granted waivers by most companies. However, only a few providors waive the deposit for medically diabled under retirement age. Improperly I assumed that certification by Social Security that I am medically disabled would be sufficient. No! TXU requires a letter from a physician stating that you cannot perform three or more daily tasks. They refuse to honor the more extensive medical review process by Social Security. What I found especially obscene by this requirement is that TXU requires persons who are deserving of financial assistance in the form of a waiver of the deposit who have already been certifed by a very extensive medical review process through the Social Security Disability Insurance department of the Federal Government to pay for a visit to a physician to get a letter to qualify them for a waiver of the deposit!

Another disconcerting tidbit I uncovered about TXU's policy regarding disconnection of service to persons with life support equipment is that, according to a TXU Customer Service rep, they are only required to notify the customer by US Mail of their intention of disconnecting service. Persons with life support equipment are not phoned or provided notices on the door prior to disconnection of service for a variety of reasons! It became obvious to me that there are more than a few "life threatening" issues which need to be addressed by the Texas Legislature regarding standardization of utility company administrative practices for the handicapped, elderly, or dependent on life support equipment!

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