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Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.

Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.



The Trans-Texas Corridor: The Road to Salvation or the Highway to Hell? Depends on who you ask, silly.

by Peter Gorman © all rights reserved

4,000 miles of smooth finished blacktop. Six open lanes of road with never a traffic jam. Four lanes of truck traffic to keep the 18-wheelers from bothering Joe Motorist. High speed rail to get you from San Antonio to Dallas in just a couple of comfy hours. Oil and gas and water lines running from Oklahoma to the Mexican border. Private motels, shops, gas station to keep you from having to get off the road till you reach state-line limits. That’s the dream of the backers of the Trans-Texas Corridor, the biggest public works project in the history of the state and the most ambitious road project in the USA since Ike decided to connect Maine with California and Wisconsin with Arizona by building the US highway system 50 years ago.

 

But some people see it more as a nightmare than a dream. They see foreign companies owning the rights to Texas’ infrastructure, whole towns being turned to dust because there won’t be an exit ramp into them; vast agricultural and ranching land—close to 1 million acres all told—being gobbled up in a bid to put a feather in Governor Rick Perry’s cap—to begin with—and later in the US Department of Transportation’s cap when the plan is expanded to all 48 contiguous states. They see Texas water being traded for Mexican oil, toll fees as high as .44 cents a mile, non-compete clauses which will destroy Texas’ current free highway system and a host of other problems with the gigantasaurus-sized plan.

    The nightmare thinkers are a lot more vocal than those trying to implement the plan. Surprising, as Governor Rick Perry has hailed it as 

“the most visionary transportation plans this state has ever seen… . [I]t likely will forever change the way we build roads in Texas.” And the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), has said it will financially benefit all of Texas by “injecting billions of dollars in private spending into the state’s economy and creating millions of jobs…”

    But for all the hyperbole, what exactly is the Trans-Texas Corridor [TTC] and what will it really be: a boon or bust for Texas?

    At its simplest, the TCC is not one corridor but a series of several roads connecting the state’s major population hubs with one another. It is intended to ease traffic congestion along the state’s busiest corridors, and provide lanes not only for cars, but for high speed and commuter rail, freight trains and trucks carrying NAFTA goods from Mexico to Oklahoma, initially, and eventually all the way to Canada. It will also include a utilities corridor that will have protected pipelines and conduits carrying natural gas, oil, water, electricity and electronic data.

    In theory it will boost Texas’ economy by making Texas more attractive to businesses which will see the corridor as a time, and therefore money, saving way to move their goods from point A to point B. In theory it will also “significantly reduce air pollution”—according to TxDOT—with both the use of rail lines, supposed to make Texans give up their cars, and by having less congestion on the rest of the state’s major thoroughfares.

    All of which sound pretty desirable. But when HB3588, a massive transportation bill authorizing the TTC, was passed by the state legislature in 2003 the bill’s final impact was nowhere near understood, either by the politicians voting on it or by the general public. Article 1 of the executive summary of the final bill reads, in part, HB “3588 amends the Transportation code to create the Trans-Texas Corridor, a statewide network of transportation facilities that includes toll and non-toll state highways, turnpikes, freight or passenger railroads, public utility facilities… .”

    Which sounds like political-speak for continued road building in a state that’s got several metropolitan areas suffering from congestion.

    But the master plan for the TTC-35, the section of corridor to run parallel to I-35 from Laredo to Oklahoma, released in 2006, indicates it’s anything but continued road building. The plan, released only after 175 Freedom of Information Act requests were filed, indicates that TTC-35 will be a 1,200 foot wide corridor to be leased to private companies who will design, build and maintain their specific sections, setting and collecting all tolls for contract periods ranging from 50-75 years. Sections of roads that coincide with the corridor—all of I-35 from San Antonio to Laredo, for example—will become part of the toll road. Additionally, motels, gas stations and stores built within the corridor will be part of the leasee’s holdings, which it may sub-lease to others.

    And just to sweeten the deal to bring private funds to the table, the initial contract signed between the Spain-based Cintra corporation, their partner on the project, Zachry Construction Corporation and TxDOT for a 316-mile section of road to be built from Sam Antonio to Dallas, includes a non-compete clause. That clause will prevent TxDOT from improving any roadways that run parallel to the TCC for the length of the lease unless those improvements had already been approved prior to the signing of the contract.

    Sections of the contract that have been made public—Governor Perry has adamently refused to disclose certain financial aspects on the grounds that they are proprietary to Cintra-Zachry—also indicated that Cintra will not be obligated to build more than four lanes of car and truck bearing blacktop “until and unless it is demonstrated that there is a demand for high-speed rail, commuter rail, freight and utilities.”

   Tolling levels top it all off with TxDOT having agreed that they will be set “at what the market will bear,” with Cintra having final say. A TxDOT release suggested they would be in the $0.12--$0.24 cent range per mile for autos. Opponents think they’ll more likely be in the $0.25--$0.44 cent range.

   And on January, 27, 2007, TxDOT will be lobbying the US Congress on a proposal to “Work with Congress to amend federal Tax Code to exempt partnership distributions or corporate dividends related to ownership of toll road  from income taxation.”

   The ambitiousness and audacity of the master plan provoked former Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, in her recent and failed Gubernatorial bid, to call it “the biggest land grab in the history of Texas.”

While support for the TTC has come from a small coterie that includes Governor Perry, TxDOT, the US Federal Government and businesses with an interest in leasing and building the roads, opposition has come from all over the map. The Texas State Republican Party has found itself in bed with the Sierra Club and independents like Strayhorn, liberals like Houston state rep, Garnet Coleman, the ultra-conservative property-rights group Stewards of the Earth, farmers, ranchers and a host of groups which have been created with the sole purpose of trying to stop the TTC.

   “The initial plan for the TTC,” said Terri Hall, regional director of the San Antonio Toll Party, “calls for the taking, by eminent domain, of 580,000 acres of private Texas property. That’s more than 900 square miles. And there are secondary components to the TTC that would bring that number up to 1 million acres. That’s going to cut the state into pieces.”

   While TxDOT downplays the issue of having a series of nearly quarter-mile, non-crossable roadways cutting Texas into a bunch of jigsaw puzzle pieces, it’s very serious to the tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers who are going to see their property and livlihood slashed by the widest roadway in the hemisphere.

   Ron Smith, editor of the Southwest Farm Press says the farmers and ranchers who read his magazine and website are up in arms. “You’ve got farmers with 500-800 acres whose farms are going to be cut in half. The same with ranchers. They make a good point when they say that with the TTC having few crossovers it’s not just going to make their lives difficult, it’s going to drive them out of business.”

   Farmers concerns include not only losing valuable property but access to property split by the TTC. And although final plans for the TTC have not been drawn as yet, Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Department of Transportation has often been quoted telling farmers that they can go ahead “and build a tunnel underneath the road if you want one.”

    Such flip comments won’t solve the problem. Farmers moving large tractors a couple of miles from their land to a cross-over wouldn’t be a huge problem, but if the final Cintra Zachry (the builder-partner of Cintra on the TTC-35 segment) plans call for crossovers less frequently than that it could be a major problem, not just for the farmers but for the traffic on the access roads stuck behind their slow moving equipment. And it would be worse for a rancher who has to move his cattle from pasture to pasture during a given season. Imagine a cattleman having to move even 100 head down an access road several miles to the nearest crossover.

   “It could be worse than you think,” says Smith. “Farmers are telling me the only way they’ll be able to work fields on the other side of the corridor will be to set up a second farm headquarters there. That means tractors and other farm equipment that couldn’t possibly pay for itself on a hundred, two hundred acres of land.”

   Anna Mowery, long time Republican state rep. from Fort Worth says she worked with the Farm Bureau to try to make certain that TTC overpasses would be frequent enough to allow for reasonable farm connections. “I don’t mind telling you that I think we need to do something, and toll roads seem like a reasonable way to go about improving our transportation needs. And what particularly interested me about the TTC was the inclusion of commuter and high speed rail. That was a real selling point to me.

   “But what bothered me about the original plan was than farmers might need second tractors to access land cut by the eminent domain-taken corridor. But I hung in with the Farm Bureau to ensure that the farmers and ranchers would have reasonable access.”

    Asked if she knew how frequently there would be overpass access roads, she didn’t know. Not surprisingly, since TxDOT, which spoke very briefly and conditionally to the Fort Worth Weekly for this story, has maintained silence on the issue. The truth is there is no answer. No one knows if the overpasses will be every 10 miles or every 40. And no one, despite Governor Perry’s claim that no public monies will be used to build the TTC, knows if the costs will come to the farmers who want them, to the counties, or towns that need them or to public funds.

    “Bottom line,” Mike Barnett, a spokesman with the Farm Bureau, told the Fort Worth Weekly, “is we were told to trust TxDOT and Cintra. And we don’t. We are dead set against the whole TTC. And we’ll fight for our farmers and ranchers as best we can to get them the best deal. But right now we have no idea what that will be.”

    The TTC won’t just cut farm and ranches; there may be points, particularly in the area from San Antonio to Laredo, for instance, where I-35 will be incorporated into the corridor—taking a road already purchased by tax dollars and making it a toll road—where whole towns will be cut in half. TxDOT refers questions to its web page and the ominously named Master Plan, which reassures readers that there will be plenty of access to affected towns. But that reassurance doesn’t jibe with the Cintra-Zachry contract, which calls for the corridor to connect with all US highways, interstate and state highways, but says nothing about duplicating the number of access roads that already exist on I-35.

    And in the southern part of Texas, where I-35 is little more than a two lane road through towns, or a two lane road along which towns have grown up, it’s not difficult to imagine that some of those towns will be wholly swallowed up by a 1,200 foot roadway.

   But the interest of the operators of the TTC is to make money. They will have a substantial investment—all components of the TTC combined will have a price tag as high as $184 billion—to recoup, and it won’t be in their interest to put 1,200-1,400 foot crossovers—which come with a price tag of $2.66 million each—very frequently. Too, it won’t be in their interests to even have exits very frequently. Exits will not only take people off the toll road, costing the private company leasee’s money, but they are expensive to build. (There is some question of whether or not TTC builders would be responsible for crossovers and road connections at all, as a clause in the initial HB3588 has TxDOT responsible for those.)

   No. For Cintra-Zachry and any other company to repay their investors they are going to have to maximize profits and minimize costs. Maximizing profits means getting people on their roads and then keeping them there for the longest possible time. Which is where the sticky issue of the road builders/developers having the rights to build gas stations, stores and motels comes into focus. If a traveler is headed north to Oklahoma from Laredo today, he or she will likely stop at local eateries, purchase gas at a station near the road, and grab a room in a motel along the I-35 corridor. Which is why all those gas stations, motels and eateries have been built. A new road that provides all those amenities while not providing a great number of exits is likely to have a great deal of impact on current businesses. And it won’t be positive.

   “I’ve wondered whether those farmers affected by this road would have the right to build motels on their land, or gas stations,” said Mowery. “I havn’t gotten an answer to that yet.”

   Chances are they won’t, based on the no-compete clauses in the initial TTC I-35 contract. But even if they were permitted to build one, with limited access and available motels on the road itself, why would a driver go out of his way?

The limited-access clauses have a lot of people wondering what the rules will be when the public is finally allowed to see them. At the moment all we know is that any road that runs parallel to the TTC corridors will not be allowed to be improved unless plans for improvement were already approved prior to the contract signing for the TTC. That means no beautification, no widening, no new exits or entrances for the life of the contract. With the Cintra-Zachry contract that means 50 years. “Imagine if you live in a little town on a two lane farm to market road that runs parallel to this thing,” suggested former Fort Worth councilman Clyde Picht. And then a subdivision gets built and suddenly you’ve got three thousand homes and cars fighting for space on that two lane farm to market road. Well, you need to widen it to accommodate people. But your hands will be tied.”

    Picht admits he was surprised when he first learned there would be no compete clauses. “There should never be no compete clauses in highway construction. If the toll is too high, let someone else build a road. I hate to see us depart from the traditional system of free roads. And this, well, I’m disgusted with it. After seeing the abuse of eminent domain with the Trinity uptown project, I think this will be a thousand times worse.”

   Hank Gilbert, a farmer, former high school ag teacher and small businessman who ran unsuccessfully for Texas Agriculture Commissioner in the recent elections, goes further. “They’re going to take a million acres of Texas agricultural and ranch land and pave it over. This is such a huge project it’s almost incomprehensible. And I personally don’t like the idea of taking people’s homes away to build a highway system to facilitate NAFTA to the betterment of companies who sent US jobs down to Mexico to make more money by bringing their goods in tariff free.”

   Gilbert, who says the TTC and what he sees as conceptual corruption associated with it propelled him into running for political office, is passionate about how little we know of things like the no compete clauses. “As best as anyone knows, because so many elements of the contract are not clearly spelled out, no compete would mean no improvements to any road seen as a viable alternative to getting to a destination that you could reach using the toll road. But we don’t yet know what that proximity is. And in all likelihood that would be determined by Cintra or whomever leased the road.”

    The issue of non-compete clauses has raised the ire of many, including Texas State Senator John Carona (R-Dallas), the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security. Carona was recently quoted in a Texas Monthly article as noting that “Within thirty years’ time, under existing comprehensive development agreements [like the one given Cintra], we’ll bring free roads in this state to a condition of ruin.”

   Gilbert is also unsure what the public’s financial investment in the TTC will be. “The governor and TxDOT signed off on a contract not made public in many parts, so we don’t have any idea what our fiscal responsibility will be. We do know that initially this will be a roadway with four lanes in each direction, two for passanger cars, two for trucks. There’s no guarantee they’ll have to put rail in, or utilities. The contract says things like ‘if and when they are deemed necessary.’ Well, if and when means when they look like they’ll be profitable. But who knows if that means they or us are responsible for putting them in at that time because Governor Perry isn’t releasing those parts of the contract.”

    He’s also not releasing any information on what the tolls will be, though TxDOT has estimated they’ll probably run from $0.12-$0.24 per mile. Given that TxDot has also said they’ll be “what the market will bear,” it’s not unreasonable to think they’ll be at least at the high end of TxDOT’s estimate, if not higher. For the average Joe commuting 50 miles daily, that would be about $12 a day, or $60 a week. And despite promising yourself you wouldn’t use them, if the no-compete clause kept I-35 from being widened at critical points and traffic on it got even more congested, you might be forced to just to be able to get to work on time, which is the sole purpose of the no-compete clauses.

According to Governor Perry and TxDOT, financial constraints have pushed them into a corner in terms of building new roads to accommodate Texas’ fast growth. They were either going to have to come up with creative solutions to the funding gap in new road and improvement to existing road needs or simply allow projects to stay on the books for decades because of underfunding.

   James Bass, chief financial officer for TxDOT told the Weekly that TxDOT collects a total of $7 billion annually from federal and state gas tax, vehicle registrations and a few other avenues. But after all the expenses of maintaining current Texas roadways, buying right-of-ways, designing new roads, paying TxDOT’s operating costs and returning 25 percent of the state gas tax over to public schools—mandated by law—there’s only about $700 million left for new road construction. “And it’s only going to get worse,” said Bass. “With the needs that have already been identified to expand the system, between now and 2030 there will be an 86 billion dollar shortfall.”

    When the passage of HR 3588 opened the door to tolling existing free roads and building new toll roads, the opportunity for infrastructure development with no apparent cost to the taxpayer—including no increase in the state gas tax, anathema to politicians—they couldn’t resist.

   “So what we’re looking at is innovative public-private partnerships to raise those funds,” said Michael Peters, a TxDOT spokesman. In theory, said Peters, sums like the $1.2 billion paid to Texas by Cintra-Zachry for the right to design, build and operate the 316 miles of TTC-35 will be immediately rolled into funding currently underfunded TxDOT projects.

     But that’s only the tip of the financial iceberg, say TTC proponents. A study was commissioned by TxDot and conducted by Ray Perryman and the Perryman Group of Waco, to look into the financial aspects of the biggest public-private partnership of them all, the TTC. The report from the Perryman Group, titled “Moving Into Prosperity: The Potential Impact of the Trans-Texas Corridor on Business Activity in Texas”, was released on October 30, and it was glowing. Among it’s projections, assuming that all aspects of the TTC were in place and functioning as anticipated, were these: that the TTC would     

   * Contribute annual gains of $1.6 trillion in expenditures

    * Increase the gross state product by $665.9 billion

    * Boost personal income in Texas by $376 billion

    * Generate 3.7 million permanent jobs

    The report was everything Governor Perry and TxDOT hoped and paid for. And the alternative to the TTC, according to TxDOT, would be to increase the state gas tax from $0.20 to $1.40 a gallon.

    Baloney say many. The first thing to do to correct the shortfall on highway construction funds, say opponents, is to stop looting the state gasoline tax fund. Several papers released Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson—who is anti-toll roads—reveal that that fund has lost $10 billion in the last 20 years. The looting was discussed on Jim Forsyth’s radio show on WOAI on October 3. “More than half of the total money diverted from road construction, $5.4 billion, went to fund the operations of the Department of Public Safety. One hundred and fifteen million went into the state’s general fund.” Smaller amounts but still in the millions went into a computer system for the State Comptroller’s office, into the state department of Mental Health Mental Retardation, into arts commissions and other pet projects of various state politicians. 

     Despite the siphoning off of billions, the highway construction fund could be healthy enough to construct all the roadways Texas needs, suggests a report released in November, 2006 that dealt with Texas’ eight primary urban areas. Produced for the Governor’s Business Council by the Texas Transportation Institute of Texas A & M, the report suggests that of the $86 billion shortfall in new construction money during the next 25 years that TxDOT’s Bass discusses, $66 billion could be raised through an increase in the state gas tax. “By raising the gas tax by $0.08 and indexing it to the highway cost index—the annual increase in highway construction costs,” David Ellis, Ph.D., one of the reports co-authors, you could fund the $66 billion needed for the eight largest urban areas. It would have to be higher to fund the $20 billion needed by the rest of the state.” Asked what the indexing would bring the tax to, Ellis told the Weekly that “over a 25 year period, that figure would reach about $0.92 a gallon, including the state gas tax you already pay, but not the federal tax you pay.

    Simple math appears to make privatized toll roads like the TTC the more expensive option for commuters. If an average driver uses roughly 1,000 gallons of gas annually, the $0.08 gas tax increase he or she would pay would amount to  $80 a year. Even gas guzzlers would pay no more than double that. But a 50-mile daily commute at $0.25 per mile would come to $62.50 a week—about $3,000 a year. And even at the $0.92 rate it would be considerably lower than toll roads.

    “But our report doesn’t make the gas tax out to be a silver bullet,” cautions Ellis. “We’re going to need a whole toolbox to get these things built and maintained. And we don’t exclude tollways from that mix.”

 

 

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