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(Austin, TX, May 25, 2011) - As the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) hosts its final public hearings on its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), a broad coalition of groups including Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), Citizens Transportation Coalition, Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG), Independent Texans, Central Texas Republican Liberty Caucus, Texans for Accountable Government, Houston Tomorrow, and Sierra Club are protesting the agency’s misplaced priorities. TxDOT officials have made the Grand Parkway Segment E a statewide "priority" and are assigning $350 million of statewide discretionary funds toward the project. Construction of Segment E is slated to begin this summer. According to TxDOT officials, ExxonMobil’s consideration to build its headquarters near Houston is contingent upon the completion of portions of the Grand Parkway in Harris County.
“The Grand Parkway is a giveaway to special interests,” said Melissa Cubria, Advocate, Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG) and leading member of the coalition. “TxDOT is rushing through the project, which is a private toll road to nowhere, while Texans remain stuck in traffic, roads in desperate need of maintenance remain unrepaired, and more than 2,000 unsafe bridges continue to crumble.”
The coalition, along with more than 100 additional groups that signed onto an Open Letter opposing private toll road deals, is also upset that lawmakers are giving TxDOT the ability to build the project as private toll roads, which will be subsidized by the local taxpayers of Texas. According to coalition members, State Representative Larry Phillips (R-Sherman), Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, snuck a provision onto a bill that was supposed to reform the troubled state agency, making it more efficient and responsive to the public’s interests. Chairman Phillips’ provision allows TxDOT to build the Grand Parkway as a privatized toll road using Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs), despite the fact that the people of Texas have protested private toll roads for close to a decade now, forcing state lawmakers to declare a moratorium on the deals.
“The fact that lawmakers are allowing TxDOT to build the Grand Parkway as a private toll road is a major slap in the face to the public,” maintained Cubria. “But this has been a common theme this session—individual lawmakers like Chairman Phillips are abusing their power to push through their own radical agendas and the agendas of special interests. “TxDOT is putting the interests of ExxonMobil above the interests of the people of Texas and state lawmakers like Chairman Phillips are allowing them to do so.”
According to Cubria, "Texans should be concerned about private toll road deals, especially the ones lawmakers are trying to sneak through this session, which are especially bad for taxpayers and do not contain any public protections to ensure that the needs and interests of the people of Texas are placed above the needs of private corporations like ExxonMobil.
“Texas lawmakers are enabling TxDOT to build roads with credit cards, using the same risky financial behavior, multi-leveraging of debt and reckless shifting of risk that caused the financial crisis, the mortgage meltdown, and the Great Recession.”
Texans will shoulder the risk and financial burden associated with the debt generated by the private toll road project as the costs are ultimately absorbed by taxpayers through the rising tolls they pay for generations, revenue which is not collected for public use or investment in future infrastructure needs. In a legislative hearing, TxDOT Executive Director acknowledged that it is cheaper to build toll roads with public money and that private toll roads are more expensive for taxpayers because the private companies are making a profit.
None of the private toll road deals state lawmakers are authorizing, including the deal for the Grand Parkway, contain a single meaningful safeguard to ensure that the taxpayers of Texas are protected from the countless long-term consequences associated with road privatization. Furthermore, the Grand Parkway deal does not protect property owners from having their land seized for economic development purposes.
According to Cubria, “The Grand Parkway is the poster child for eminent domain for private gain.”
Linda Curtis of Independent Texans is already looking ahead, focusing on holding lawmakers accountable for these decisions made by them and a rogue agency they refuse to clean-up, "Texans made a big mistake giving one party super-majority control of both chambers. The ‘Porkway’ sausage we're supposed to eat is just the topping on an unpalatable cake cooked up by the Governor and mega-special interests. Truly independent Texans must come out of the shoot next week ready to clean house in upcoming elections.”
“Five of the top 10 most-congested roads in the state (35 of the top 100) are in Harris County, but TxDOT would rather waste our tax dollars building a new toll road across the Katy Prairie,” notes Robin Holzer Board Chair of Citizens Transportation Coalition (CTC) in Houston, "TxDOT's unelected Commissioners have 'found' billions for a speculative toll road that will destroy the Katy Prairie in order to subsidize a few private land developers. Meanwhile, a quarter million taxpaying commuters will sit in traffic on US-290 indefinitely. TxDOT's gross misallocation of our tax dollars is appalling.”
"So TxDOT can come up with $350 million for the Grand 'Porkway,' a greenfield project to nowhere to benefit developers and ExxonMobil, but can't fix the highly congested Hwy 290 without making Texans pay toll taxes 'cuz we're out of money to fix our roads'? Truth is TxDOT has plenty of money to subsidize toll projects to benefit their buddies, but refuses to fix our freeways and keep them free because of their political agenda to pick winners and losers,” contends Terri Hall, Founder, Texans Uniting for Reform & Freedom, “These misplaced priorities are obvious to anyone with a pulse. It's public money for private profits and it's this sort of piracy of the public's assets that has caused the public to mistrust TxDOT and the elected officials who allow this abuse of public funds to continue."
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