One thing’s certain, the Texas Turnpike Corporation (TTC) and its sidekicks at the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) were caught misleading the public about the nature of this project, its final route, the method of procurement, and what source of funding they plan to use. With deception like this being trotted out at a public meeting, imagine what they’re concocting in private. The citizen uprising is just getting started. Such a visceral and united reaction to a toll project hasn’t been seen since the days of the Trans-Texas Corridor. So it’s ultimately likely to die the same death, and it’s clear the citizens won’t rest until it does.
By Terri Hall l September 29, 2014
A full house packs the 1,500 seat Rockwall High School Performing Arts Center the night of Monday, September 22, 2014.
The people have spoken and their will is clear – they do NOT want the proposed private Blackland Tollway-Northeast Gateway Corridor through Garland to Greenville in east Dallas. A record capacity crowd of nearly 1,500 showed up to get their opposition to the controversial toll project on the record. Landowners and concerned citizens voiced their opinions to the Texas Turnpike Corporation (TTC) and the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) at a public meeting held in Rockwall that lasted until after midnight.
The initial public meeting took place on September 4 in Lavon, but the fire marshal shut it down due an overcapacity crowd. They planned on 250 and 500 showed up. The meeting was rescheduled for Monday, September 22. Tripling the number of attendees in just a few weeks demonstrates that the public opposition to this private toll project is only gaining steam and showing no signs of abating.
The overwhelming majority spoke in opposition, primarily because this private corporation, TTC, can wield the coercive power of eminent domain for its private toll road that company documents show is projected to net $78 million in annual profits by 2035. Yet, the company claimed it didn’t know how much profit the toll road was anticipated to make.
One attendee stood and asked if anyone was for the project and not another person stood up. When asked who opposed it, the room erupted with a unanimous, resounding ‘No!’ Neal Barker, the TTC spokesperson, could scarcely get through the formal presentation, particularly as the touchy subject of eminent domain came up. NCTCOG Executive Director Michael Morris tried to quiet the crowd and assure them their turn to speak was coming shortly.
Their turn lasted more than 6 hours until 12:48 AM. Citizens were very well informed and came armed with research that neither the NCTCOG nor the TTC had good answers. For instance, Christine Hubley had a document from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) that showed a much lower figure for projected traffic in the corridor than the TTC and NCTCOG figures, which puts the actual toll viability of the Blackland Tollway in serious doubt, given the fact that such traffic overestimates cause so many toll roads to ultimately fail. Some attendees suggested that given the data, the toll road will actually cause more traffic growth than if the toll road isn’t built, which suits this rural community just fine. They don’t want to be the next Frisco, as Barker and Morris suggested.
Tiffany Long produced an email where Morris stated there is no need for a toll road between Greenville and Rockwall, yet NCTCOG’s is now saying there is. Long also discovered that the TTC’s articles of incorporation do not give the company the authority to operate in Hunt County, the primary county through which the tollway would traverse. TTC countered that it amended its articles to include Hunt County, yet attorney David Stubblefield found that no such amendment was ever filed with the Texas Secretary of State by TTC.
Barker and Morris kept insisting they haven’t selected the final route yet, but landowners testified that surveyors have already been gaining access to properties along a specific proposed route. I met with John Crew, CEO of Public Werks, the parent company of Texas Turnpike Corporation a few weeks ago, and he pulled out a map that showed the final alignment they’ve selected. He knew exactly how many homes would be displaced. A landowner also testified during the meeting that he was on a conference call hosted by TTC just days ago that also indicated TTC had selected a final route before the current feasibility study is completed, and prior to the required environmental approval process.
Public funds & eminent domain
TTC also insisted that their project was completely privately funded and there would be no government or public funds involved. However, an email produced in an Open Records request shows Tom Shelton, Senior Project Manager of NCTCOG, is helping Crew and TTC apply for public bonds as well as a Comprehensive Development Agreement, which is a Texas public- private partnership (P3) contract. P3s are hybrid public-private projects that use massive sums of public money, putting the taxpayers on the hook for potential losses of the private corporation.
They also involve non-compete agreements that penalize or prohibit the expansion of free roads surrounding the privately operated toll road. Barker insisted no non-compete agreement would be utilized, yet there is nothing to prevent one from being put in place since the unelected Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, negotiates the final terms without oversight by elected officials.
Manipulated P3s can lower speed limits on the free routes and increase speed limits on tollways, as well as put taxpayers on the hook for any ‘uncollectable’ tolls. P3s are not private roads, and they ultimately use eminent domain for private gain. In the case of TTC, the company actually has the power to use eminent domain itself. TTC was among ten companies whose eminent domain authority was grandfathered in from a now repealed state statute (Texas Civil Statutes Title 32 Articles 1448-1465).
Citizens repeatedly asked who voted for Senate Bill 18, the eminent domain bill that passed the legislature in 2011, that grandfathered in the ability of these private corporations to exercise the coercive governmental power of eminent domain. The entire House of Representatives, and all but Dan Patrick, Brian Birdwell, and Jane Nelson in the Senate voted for the loophole-laden, special interests bill.
Senator-elect Bob Hall gave public comment and told his constituents that what the legislature gives, it can also take away. He plans to make removing these private companies’ authority to use eminent domain a top priority when the next session begins in January.
Other contradictions and outright lies by TTC and NCTCOG were noted by the well-informed citizens, fueling the public distrust of the company, the project, and the NCTCOG. Many meeting attendees expressed frustration with the fact that NCTCOG are bureaucrats who don’t answer directly to the voters. They were also shocked to learn the staff at NCTCOG are considered federal employees, who are merely cloaked in a ‘local’ moniker.
The Mayor of Rockwall, David Sweet, read the unanimous resolution passed by his city council opposing the privately operated tollway. Citizens vowed to pressure other cities and counties in the path of the toll road to pass similar resolutions or face the consequences at the ballot box. Written public comments must be submitted by October 2 to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The many other counties in Texas may experience the same fate if this precedent is set. The company’s articles of incorporation show it can build private toll roads in 13 Texas counties: Bexar, Caldwell, Collin, Comal, Dallas, Denton, Guadalupe, Hays, Tarrant, Kaufman, Rockwall, Travis, and Williamson (which is North Texas, Austin, San Antonio and the surrounding areas).
One thing’s certain, the Texas Turnpike Corporation and its sidekicks at the NCTCOG were caught misleading the public about the nature of this project, its final route, the method of procurement, and what source of funding they plan to use. With deception like this being trotted out at a public meeting, imagine what they’re concocting in private. The citizen uprising is just getting started. Such a visceral and united reaction to a toll project hasn’t been seen since the days of the Trans-Texas Corridor. So it’s ultimately likely to die the same death, and it’s clear the citizens won’t rest until it does.
Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of nine turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.