Wednesday, June 10, 2009

NAFTA Superhighway Dead, But The War Continues

MONSTER BILL THAT WOULD HAVE SPAWNED NAFTA SUPERHIGHWAY DEAD

Legislative session ends; ‘NAFTA turnpike’ dealt major setback

By Mark Anderson

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Texans who oppose the Trans-Texas Corridor, the conversion of freeways to toll ways, and foreign ownership and tolling of U.S. highways in Texas were outraged over the back-room deals that almost led to the passage of House Bill 300, a massive bill that would have unleashed the Texas Department of Transportation to continue pursuing broad development of the TTC and other projects that could pave over the people’s property rights.

Meaningful oversight of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) would have been lifted had the bill passed, and the agency likely would have ramped up its use of tax dollars to promote the TTC and related projects, instead of remaining neutral.

But thousands of concerned Texans rang their legislators’ phones off the hooks and successfully “cattle-prodded” them to kill H.B. 300. As of midnight on May 31, the ballooning 2,000-page bill that nobody had time to read expired on the eve of the last day of the regular 2009 legislative session. The next regular session is not until 2011. Citizen pressure and legislative infighting doomed the bill. Removal of a 10-cent gas-tax hike from H.B. 300 prompted a number of lawmakers to cast the bill aside.
“State Rep. Yvonne Davis, a northern Democrat, threatened to filibuster H.B. 300 if they brought it to the House floor [at the designated time of 11:40 p.m. May 31],” Hank Gilbert, of Texans United for Reform and Freedom, told AMERICAN FREE PRESS on the morning of June 1. That threat, he said, helped keep H.B. 300 caged until midnight when it expired.

As of the morning of June 1, Republican Gov. Rick Perry had wanted a special session beyond June 1 just to save the Department of Insurance and TxDOT from literal extinction. This is because a “safety-net bill” (H.B. 1959) also was supposed to be passed on May 31 to prevent the two agencies from sunsetting under Texas “sunset” provisions that require periodic performance reviews of all government agencies. But Democratic State Rep. David Leibowitz of San Antonio actually filibustered H.B. 1959, so it died, too.

Asked by AFP if this all amounts to winning a major battle but not the overall war, Gilbert replied: “That’s a pretty good summation.”

TxDOT ‘ABOLISHED’

“For about 16 hours, TxDOT was officially abolished! Oh, I slept well last night...” commented Terri Hall, in her San Antonio Toll Party news bulletin issued later on June 1. With Gilbert and others, she has led the charge against the TTC and related matters for several years.
“Today [June 1] the House was only to do technical changes (like remove conflicts within bills, mismarked section numbers and the like), but they again broke their own rules and managed to extend TxDOT for another 2 years ... through a resolution [instead of by statute]. Lawmakers would do anything to avoid a special session, so they snuck the continuation of TxDOT into a resolution on [federal] stimulus funds (and where to deposit them),” Ms. Hall also wrote.

With the state House officially adjourned, she also noted: “While we didn’t reform the agency [TxDOT] and get the good provisions passed, we averted disaster, and CDAs, that sell our highways to foreign companies, sunset August 31. If CDAs die, TTC-35 dies with it.”

CDAs are another name for public-private partnerships that merge government coercion with corporate financial muscle.

However, the TTC-69 part of the overall TTC “was [exempted] out of the moratorium bill last session (which we vehemently opposed), so CDA contracts for that corridor can continue until 2011,” Ms. Hall added, showing that the war is far from over.

Importantly, she added that local governments can form bodies under Texas law to throw roadblocks in front of the TTC: “The local government 391 Commissions we’ve been forming all over the state will now be the only thing (aside from litigation) standing between East Texas and a possible 1,200 foot wide Trans Texas Corridor,” she wrote, referring to TTC 69, which is a TTC branch that would roughly shadow Interstate 77 and Interstate 59 north toward Houston and onward to Port Huron, Mich., and into Canada if the whole snake is ever built.

Earlier this year, the Perry administration tried to say that the TTC was being dropped and that a new scaled-back plan was taking its place. Called the “Interconnectivity” plan, it envisions a narrower “footprint” for tollways and the use of more existing pavement, which means needing less land for new pavement along new rights-of-way.

Notably, AFP is attending upcoming meetings and gathering strong evidence which indicates that various south-Texas “loop highway” proposals and new interstate highway designations, which appear to be TTC-69 friendly, are being pursued piecemeal for expansion later. Stay tuned.

Notably, TTC opponents do not necessarily want TxDOT itself to expire. Gilbert noted that thousands of people would be laid off if that happens, and TxDOT’s essential functions are needed in a huge state with a vast transportation system that is heavily used and needs constant upkeep. So, in the unlikely event that TxDOT (and the insurance agency) both are allowed to sunset, they would die in September when the budgetary cycle runs out.

H.B. 300 started out relatively benign with about145 pages. Legislators piled in amendments, many of which would have spelled bad news for taxpaying motorists and Texas’s famed ranch owners whose properties have been in the same families for generations.

A number of these ranchers have valuable land in the path of what appears to be the largest highway/toll-way proposal ever devised in human history, if the entire NAFTA Superhighway system within and beyond Texas is considered. Just the Texas portion would require 600,000 acres of land converted to highway and related uses, with 4,000 miles of new pavement.

The words “eminent domain”—government land-takings from private owners at the bequest of corporate interests, carried out with the force of law—could take on a whole new meaning if TTC backers ever figure out a way to get past tenacious grassroots Texans who are determined to defend their state from the financial/political elite that see Texas as a gateway for the NAFTA Superhighway from Mexico to Canada. Would calling the TTC the “North American Union Tollway” be an exaggeration? Probably not.

Conceptually, some parts of the TTC itself would be a quarter-mile wide, with parallel rail and utility lines; possible fueling stations, eateries and hotels in the medians to keep drivers from patronizing businesses in nearby towns; and very few overpasses and off ramps – meaning that it would be for rushing huge shipments of foreign-made goods into, but mainly through, Texas (hence the prefix “Trans,” which means over or through) en route to a U.S. Customs hub in Kansas City and to various retail warehouses in America for retail distribution, before ending up in Canada.

Worst of all, the TTC – like similar schemes coming from Canada into the U.S. that need to be more closely watched – would allow even more Asian-made products to be trucked and “railed” into the U.S., since this delivery system would connect with Pacific Ocean ports in western Mexico, namely Lazaro Cardenas which is under the effective control of Chinese shipping interests. That would mean even less employment for American longshoremen at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, Calif.

AFP toured the Long Beach port in March and spoke to a Longshoremen’s Union representative, who had mixed feelings about the situation.

In summary, had H.B. 300 passed, depending on its final form, it could have ended the private-toll moratorium (to hand Texas public highways to private, foreign toll operators), kept the TTC alive, opened a new loophole to toll existing freeways, raided public-employee pension funds to invest in risky private toll-road deals, reduced the number of elected officials on transportation boards, and more, according to Ms. Hall, the founder of TURF and the San Antonio Toll Party – two groups that have fought this monster ever since the TTC was born in 2003 in H.B. 3588.

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