About the Texas Democratic Pork Barrel Caucus

Scheduled to meet Friday, June 27th at 1:30 p.m. at the 2014 Texas Democratic Party Convention in Dallas. The DemocraticPublic Insfrastructure (Pork Barrel) Caucus -will be moderated by co-founder Faith Chatham.

Pork, and divving up the pork, is a muchly esteemed focus and favored past-time of politicians on all levels of government. Despite public finance and campaign finance disclosure and ethics laws, and other attempts to shine light upon conflicts of interest, influencing the awarding of contracts for roads, bridges and public buildings is commonly known as one of the plums of political office. This year Water Insfrastructure, Energy and infrastructure for Broadband (internet) are also on the table. We are calling upon experts from within our own slate of Democratic Nominees to lead our discussion this year.

Historically, transportation projects have enabled this state's and nation's more skilled politicians to "bring home the bacon" to their home districts. The same dynamics are operating in Water, Internet (Net Neutrality) and Energy.

This caucus was born in 2006 when the Texas Legislature passed more changes to the Texas and Federal Transportation in one session than had been enacted in many decades to legalized much which has previously illegal to legitimize private-public partnership toll projects and market valuation pricing on road construction projects Instead of taking home a slice of the bacon (or the ham itself), the trend shifted to toll companies and their investors attempting to take the whole hog and charging the people rent for use of a small slice of Texas' "public" infrastructure.

Prompted by the proposed Trans Texas Corridor and other private-public partnership infrastructure projects in Texas, the Public Infrastructure Caucus - popularly dubbed the Pork Barrel Caucus met for the first time in June 2006 as an Issue Caucus at the Texas State Democratic Convention. Co-Founder Hank Gilbert led the charge against the TTC and showed attendees how to utilized Federal Environmental Impact Studies to slow it down and for property owners to get a seat at the table during EIS reviews.

Attendees collaborated after the convention, testified at TxDot public hearings, contacted legislators, and put pressure on the Legislature to change the eminent domain laws to prohibit exercise of eminent domain on homesteads for private development. The TTC was defeated. It is a snake with many heads andmaller versions of it (legs) have (and are being constructed) under other names. We continue to keep a wary weary watch on PPP Toll Roads in Texas.

In our Caucus in 2014 we shift the focus on Infrastructure for Water and Broadband and examine how energy drives or obstructs infrastructure in Texas.

The caucus is open to the public. It is not necessary to be a delegate or alternate to the Democratic Convention to participate in the caucus.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What should be "tweeked" in Carona's Local Option Rail Transportation Bill

By Faith Chatham - DFWRCC - March 21, 2009
Here is Faith Chatham's Wish List or list of "tweeks" for Rail Infrastructure Financing Bills:
1. Caps on potential taxes or fee increases should be lower. Currently many are so high that voters will reject all options because they vehemently object to the potential high cost of one or more potential options. The cap on proposed increase in vehicle registration or vehicle sales tax fees should be clearly stated and LOW ENOUGH THAT IT WILL BE ACCEPTABLE TO VOTERS!
2. Proposed tax increases should be tied to specific rail projects.
3. The bill(s) should clearly state that income generated from the tax or fee increase MUST be applied to the SPECIFIC PROJECT approved by the voters.
4. Instead of voter approval being optional, the language of the bill(s) must stipulate that the VOTERS MUST APPROVE THE TAX INCREASE FOR THE SPECIFIED PROJECT before public funds are spent on planning, environmental or construction of a proposed rail line or facility.
5. All bills must eliminate the requirement that citizens gather 10% of the signatures in that region of voters in the last governor's election before citizens are given opportunity to vote on the rail option. Instead, as stated in number 3, the language MUST STIPULATE CLEARLY that proposed increase in existing fees or taxes or imposition of new fees or taxes for proposed rail infrastructure projects be presented to the voters for approval before public funds are spent on proposed rail projects.
6. Passenger rail projects funded under these bills may not impose "congestion pricing" or "market pricing" on passenger rail tickets.
7. All fees or fee (tax) increase imposed on passenger vehicles under this act must also apply to commercial vehicles. Current bills exclude commercial vehicles from most proposed new taxes (fees).
8. When new fees (taxes) are presented to the voter, the bill should stipulate that there must be a sunset for the taxes stipulated in the wording on the ballot, clearly stating what specific project the funds are for and that they cannot be transferred to any other project without voter approval.
9. There should be a sunset in the bill for the expiration of the provisions of the bill stipulated in the language of the bill. After ten or twenty years, the taxpayers should be given opportunity to decide if these special financing options are the best options for their communities at that time.
10. There should be a cap on proposed fares for passenger rail funded under these options presented clearly in the language on the ballot when these options are presented to the voters.
11. There should be a sunset on particualar taxes when a sufficient income is generated to retire the construction debt for the project. Maintenance cost should be generated by passenger fees.
12. The language of the bill should allow muncipalities and districts within a county to vote on accepting or rejecting these options. Many Texans discount the overall economic drain air pollution has on each person. When voting to "tax" themselves more for rail, many will think only in terms of whether they personally will use the rail. The bill needs to allow municipalities within a county to exercise the funding options through approval by the voters in their municipality as well as counties to use the option through approval by the majority of the voters in the county.
13. All exemption should be defined in the text of the bill so it does not impose too great a burden on the middle class.
14. Public transit authorities should not have to operate on the same terms as potential private partners in competing for these contracts.

WHY PASSING CLEANING UP THIS BILL AND PASSING A LOCAL OPTION RAIL TRANSPORTATION FUNDING BILL IS IMPORTANT:
Financing passenger rail in Texas is one of the few true cures for gridlock and improvements to air quality in the DFW region. Congestion pricing and market valuation on tolled HOV lanes and toll roads will not cure gridlock or improve air quality. Getting cars off the roadways is a much better plan.

Arlington, Texas, in the center of the DFW Region, is the largest city in the USA without mass transit. Over 60% of the residents of Arlington work outside of the city and it is estimated that over 70% of those who work in Arlington reside outside of the city. Except fora pilot program for commuter bus service from two park and ride lots in Arlington to Fort Worth, every worker is dependent upon private automobiles for commuting to and from work. A similar scenario exists in neighboring Grand Prairie.

The Dorothy Spur runs through the downtown business/entertainment districts of both cities. That rail line is currently devoted entirely to freight transportation and a few Amtrak trains a day, none of which actually stop in either Arlington or Grand Prairie. Some freight is switched to feeder tracks in the Great Southwest Business District, but passengers are not allowed to board or exit any passenger train which passes through either of these cities.

Senator Carona authored SB942, a local option transportation bill, in an attempt to generate a source of funding for passenger rail which voters in each county can approve or reject to address regional rail needs throughout the state. SB942 needs a serious overhaul before it is voted on by the Senate or Texas Legislature. Two other rail financing bills, one by Sen. Truitt and one by Sen. Villarreal have been filed. The language in these bills is changing and it is necessary to continue checking the Texas Legislature website for current language.

I am personally very interested in seeing a tighter, more precisely worded rail financing bill passed by both houses of the Texas Legislature. Current vague wording in all versions before the Senate present pittfalls.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Waco-area legislators charge state process to disburse federal stimulus transportation funds political and not transparent.

By Tim Woods - Waco Tribune-Herald staff writer - Tuesday, March 03, 2009

State Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, worries that Texas Department of Transportation decision-makers might be considering more than just what is best for the state when allocating project funds.

Last week, TxDOT staff recommendations apparently left McLennan County without a dime of the $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds the state received for transportation projects. Before the department’s recommendations, Waco-area officials had hoped to get $200 million in discretionary stimulus money to begin widening and rebuilding Interstate 35 from Lacy-Lakeview to near West.

The Texas Transportation Commission is supposed to vote Thursday on the projects TxDOT has proposed.

The TxDOT recommendations have caused frustration among Waco-area state legislators, who criticized the process as possibly influenced by politics and not transparent.

Averitt said the process may have become political, rather than simply a cost-benefit analysis. He referred to a statement by TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott to the Tribune-Herald last week, when Lippincott said that just because the stimulus money may fund 20 projects, that doesn’t necessarily mean that projects 21 through 25 get bumped up in priority.

“In my view, that’s a problem,” Averitt said Friday evening. “That tells me that there are other factors that weigh in the decisions of what projects get funded, rather than some methodical, analytical, financial analysis or cost-benefit analysis.”

He added, “I fear that the political factor gets too heavily involved sometimes.”

The senator said he doesn’t know for certain that TxDOT decisions are swayed by political pressure, “because I don’t know what their process is, but it raises the question.”

Lippincott later said the criteria were developed by local metropolitan planning organizations, then were evaluated by TxDOT staff.

“There was no way that this process would not yield fewer projects than there are needs,” Lippincott said.

The TxDOT spokesman also said that the process has only been politicized by the discussion since last week’s recommendations.

“The risk of this process becoming politicized increases with every day that it is attacked and questioned by people who don’t like the outcome,” Lippincott said.

Being in the dark about TxDOT’s decision-making process is something Averitt and state representatives Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, and Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, point to as a source of frustration.

“I think (lack of transparency) is somewhat systemic, and I think there will be some changes there at an organizational level,” Anderson said. He added, however, that he has had good experiences working with local TxDOT engineer Richard Skopik.

Dunnam was more biting in his criticism of the state agency.

“I don’t think it’s been good in any sense,” Dunnam said. “They’re very difficult to deal with. They’re very difficult to get information out of. When you try to get an explanation for rationale, you get a lot of double talk.”

Regarding last week’s TxDOT staff recommendations, Dunnam added, “(Thursday) they were saying that the Waco decisions were the result of the MPO, and I’m told that they told the MPO that the decisions were the result of a matrix that they use to prioritize projects, but they won’t give anybody a copy of the matrix. So, they have a great deal of expertise in double talk.”

Dunnam said he thinks TxDOT historically has acted “as though they are autonomous, with no level of responsibility to the taxpayers.”

Lippincott scoffed at the notion that TxDOT has been less than transparent.

“This has been the most open, transparent process that TxDOT has ever engaged in with the state’s metropolitan planning organizations,” Lippincott said. “These discussions have been going on for four months, and the people of Texas expect quick action with the stimulus funds that are being provided to our state.”

Commission to Decide

When the five-member transportation commission meets Thursday to decide on TxDOT’s recommendations, the legislators will be watching how carefully the commission examines those recommendations.

Lippincott said the committee has several options and is not required to either accept or reject any of the recommendations.

Though Dunnam stopped short of saying he sees the commission as simply a rubber stamp for TxDOT, he said “I don’t see them operating independently. I think we need to look at making them more accountable, and I think we should consider looking at a different structure for decision-making.”

Averitt said he knows all five members of the commission, three for quite some time, and thinks they will put great thought into the decision, but he again referred to what he sees as a lack of transparency.

“I think they deliberate,” Averitt said of the commission. “Here’s the problem, though. I don’t know what their process is. Nobody knows what their process is.”

Unless the commission opts to fund proposed projects in McLennan and other counties in Averitt’s district, the senator says he expects his constituents to continue making their voices heard.

Lippincott has acknowledged that TxDOT anticipated vocal criticism as soon as they saw the amount of funds weighed against the state’s needs.

“I represent 10 counties,” Averitt said. “Three of those counties, other than McLennan, had projects on the cusp of being funded, and none of them got done, (yet) some mega-projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth area got funded. So, yes, I’ve heard from folks in McLennan, Coryell, Johnson and Hood counties, and none of it is positive.”

Averitt added, “Everybody wants to know what’s going on, and, at this point, all I can say is we’re working on it.”

TxDOT Gets First $500 Million Wrong

By Reeve Hamilton - The Texas Observer -Mar 02, 2009

The Texas Department of Transportation took a verbal beating this afternoon from the House Select committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding, and especially from its chairman, Rep. Jim Dunnam.

Last week, TxDOT was held up as a model of restraint for agreeing to hold off on allocating all of its its stimulus funds right away. Of over $2 billion available to them, the agency only dedicated $500 million for maintenance projects in its meeting last Thursday.

Their days being in the committee’s good favor came to a dramatic end when they returned for further testimony this afternoon and were told they went about spending that $500 million all wrong. The American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act that says that priority for funding “shall” be given to economically distressed areas. In appropriating the $500 million, TxDOT did not factor in economically distressed areas at all.

“What we are hearing is that, last week, 20-25 percent of the stimulus money was spent on maintenance projects in violation of the stimulus act,” said Dunnam said to TxDOT point man John Barton. “How can you assure us that we’re not going to be charged back $500 million in stimulus money for not complying with the act?”

Barton said that TxDOT is providing the Federal Highway Administration information regarding the economic distressed analysis of each project, but Dunnam wasn’t buying it.

“I don’t know how you give priority on a decision after the fact, which is what you’re telling me y’all are fixing to do,” Dunnam said. “And we’re going to have egg all over everyone’s faces if the [U.S] Department of Transportation says they want $500 million back.”

“If we complied with federal law, it’s by accident,” said Dunnam.

When asked why he did not tell the committee last week that the provision on economically distressed areas was a “shall” provision, Barton said, “I believe that I shared that it’s not a requirement of the bill that all projects be in economically distressed areas.”

“That sounds, no offense,” said Dunnam, “like a lawyer talking.”

It only got worse.

Dunnam chided TxDOT for including all of the transportation funding automatically reserved for rural areas in the $500 million and committing it all to maintenance projects, leaving none for new infrastructure, only eight days after the bill was signed into law.

He questioned the high prices TxDOT has been paying private contractors for maintenance projects, as reported last week in the Austin American-Statesman.

He scolded them for removing indications of which projects are toll roads from their project lists.

Rep. Carol Kent asked if a certain project in her district was a toll road, and Barton responded that it included “a component of a managed lane.” Rep. Garnet Coleman took Barton to task for his failure to call a spade a spade. Managed lanes are lanes on which some drivers, but not all, pay a toll.

Coleman said the agency had “lost some competency” because it had gotten “slick”.

“If you know what we’re talking about and what our concerns are, why don’t you just answer them?” Coleman asked. “Do they teach you all evasion when you come in to work for TxDOT?”

Even after TxDOT departed, the committee’s more cordial session with Texas Education Agency was peppered with references to what had just transpired. Dunnam made a point of asking TEA officials, “Y’all know what ‘shall’ means?”

TxDOT currently plans to allocate their remaining $1.7 billion at a meeting this Thursday.

A number of citizen groups will rally at the Capitol on Tuesday to encourage TxDOT to, according to a press release, “slow down and do this right.”

But, for the first $500 million, it might already be too late.
Read more in the Texas Observer

Monday, March 2, 2009

DO NOT USE STIMULUS FUNDS ON TOLL PROJECTS


POSITION STATEMENT:
Applying Federal Stimulus Funds to Texas toll projects is irresponsible!
 Law makers and taxpayers were told that the reason Texas Highway projects must be funded as toll projects is that NO OTHER FUNDING WAS AVAILABLE.
Stimulus Funding is NOW available.
TxDOT and local RTCs should revise plans for toll roads. As many toll projects as possible should be converted to NON TOLLED PROJECTS funded by stimulus and other available funding.

Texas Taxpayers deserve our fair share of the infrastructure stimulus funds.
We will have to repay our share of the stimulus funds.
Federal Stimulus Funds should not be used on toll projects.
Repaying Stimulus Funds through Federal Taxes and Paying Tolls is double taxation.

Market Valuation Pricing and tolled HOV lanes will not improve air quality.
 Market Valuation Priced Toll Corridors diverts traffic from freeways onto city and county streets and roads which are not designed for heavy traffic.
 Taxpayers will be burdened with escalating local and county taxes to maintain and widen city and county roadways due to added stress from diversion of traffic from market priced tolled roads.
We urge the Texas Legislature to block use of stimulus funds on toll roads.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Panel to call for axing Texas' transportation board

By Gordon Dickson - Staff Writer Fort Worth Star Telegram - May 31, 2008
A legislative group will recommend next week that a conservator take over the Texas Department of Transportation, an agency under fire for planning toll roads in areas that don't want them and failing to keep track of its finances properly, officials said.

The staff of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which periodically reviews state agencies to see whether they're still functioning properly, is expected to release a report on the department next week.

The Transportation Department has been overseen by a three- or five-member commission with members appointed by the governor throughout its 91-year history. But several people who have reviewed drafts of the sunset report say one of the key recommendations is to replace the current five-member transportation commission with a single commissioner who would serve a two-year, paid term and report to the Legislature.

"TxDOT has become an agency that is focused on making money and deciding policy, and they need to get back to the business of building roads," said state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, who serves on the sunset commission.

Harper-Brown declined to comment on the report itself. But she said better communication with Texans -- especially lawmakers -- is crucial to the Transportation Department restoring its credibility.

"Whatever tools we give them, that's what they need to work with," she said.

Background

Since 2003, transportation commissioners have succeeded in having laws changed, creating alternatives to the state's gas tax, including private investment in toll roads.

Opposition to those changes surfaced during the 2006 gubernatorial race, when three challengers attacked Gov. Rick Perry's vision for the Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposal to build a network of mega-wide toll roads.

Many lawmakers in 2007 said they regretted giving the Transportation Department more power in previous sessions, and the Legislature passed a bill that put a moratorium on toll projects.

Also last year, transportation officials were forced to cancel many construction projects statewide after realizing they'd overestimated their funds by $1.1 billion. They blamed miscommunication between the agency's planning and financial staffs, and promised to reorganize the department to prevent more mistakes.

What's next

The Sunset Advisory Commission will debate the Transportation Department's management during a hearing in Austin. Some recommendations could become state law during the 2009 legislative session, which begins in January.

Transportation commissioners and staff members say they're ready for a tense hearing.

"I'm sure the agency will be roundly criticized, and you know what? It's part of the public process," said Commissioner Bill Meadows of Fort Worth. "The sunset process is not something you should be afraid of. It's something you really should welcome."