In Texas, at the southern end of I-69, people have been opposing the highway for 10 years. It’s a tug of war with proponents of the highway. The opponents have had some wins, but the struggle is far from over, and it contains some lessons for opponents of I-69 in the Bloomington area.
Terri Hall, a resident of San Antonio, is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. According to its website, “Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to educate the public on our government’s new shift to tolling using controversial financing methods called public-private partnerships (called Comprehensive Development Agreements or CDAs in Texas), the tolling of existing corridors, and the eminent domain abuse inherent in these plans (confiscating private land to give to a private company for commercial gain).
"They take your property by eminent domain and turn it over to a public-private partnership for a foreign company to profit from for 50 years."
"TURF also educates the public about the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC), the first of the planned NAFTA Superhighways that are part of the progression toward U.S. integration with Mexico and Canada through a North American Union (NAU). TURF is a grassroots group of Texans who are asking for reforms that require accountability and good public policy as well as promoting non-toll, sensible transportation solutions.”
I-69 is one part of the TTC, a huge transportation network that’s envisioned to cover 4,000 miles and 584,000 acres and to cost $184 billion.
In June 2008 the State of Texas signed a contract for a public-private partnership with a Spanish company, ACS, to develop the TTC-69/I-69 as a toll road. The Spanish company is the majority owner.
“They take your property by eminent domain and turn it over to a public-private partnership for a foreign company to profit from for 50 years,” Hall says.
Two days before Gov. Rick Perry was re-elected in 2010, the contract expired. In Hall’s opinion, he let the contract lapse because “he wanted to convince everybody that the TTC was dead. He knew that if he signed that contract, the election could have potentially had a different outcome because the people of Texas adamantly oppose it, and he repeatedly stated that ‘the TTC is dead.’”
During a public comment period on TTC-69/I-69, citizens submitted 28,000 comments against the highway. Opponents included ranchers and farmers, who objected to the confiscation of their property under eminent domain, as well as many Texans who objected to the loss of sovereignty over its public infrastructure.
During this legislative session, on June 17, citizen-activists got the TTC repealed from a state statute.
Trade with China is the motive for the TTC, intended to bring cheap goods from that country through the Panama Canal, which China now operates, through a Mexican port and up through Texas.
At one point, Hall says, a Texas U.S. senator tried to convince Americans to “beef up” the Mexican infrastructure with U.S. taxpayers’ funds so that the goods could enter the U.S. at the public’s expense.
“We supposedly don’t have money for our own roads, and that’s their excuse for privatizing everything, yet we have enough money to build Mexico’s infrastructure to benefit multinational corporations that want to get cheap goods into this country?” asks Hall. Those multinational corporations have a higher profit margin when they sell goods made with cheap Chinese labor and materials in the U.S. market.
The part of the highway that’s going to become a huge part of I-69/TTC in the Rio Grande Valley is being put out for bids now, Hall says. The highway boosters got the message that the public opposed the highway, and, according to Hall, “they’re just going to [build] it using a different name; they’re going to be more sneaky about it. They’re going to call it I-69 instead of TTC 69.”
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), which is in charge of the project, has not come up with any funding for the rest of the highway.
Hall says TxDOT is starting the highway from the southern tip and working its way north. TxDOT seems to think it will receive more money for the highway project during the next legislative session, and they’ll continue to build it piece by piece, using public-private partnerships or whatever means they can to move it forward.
"They don’t care how it gets built, they don’t care if we sell off our sovereignty, they don’t care if it means toll rates that are unaffordable to the average Texan or the average American, they don’t care, the don’t care – they just want it built."
At the forefront of activity for I-69 is the Alliance for I-69, run by a lobbyist, Gary Bushell, Hall says, whom TxDOT hired illegally with public money at one point. He lobbied all the county judges in the TTC corridor.
“The guy still runs the Alliance for I-69,” Hall says, “and still lobbies on behalf of all these big-money people who want this road built. He was all over the capital and made sure all [the] road segments were included in the bill.”
“They don’t care how it gets built, they don’t care if we sell off our sovereignty, they don’t care if it means toll rates that are unaffordable to the average Texan or the average American, they don’t care, the don’t care – they just want it built.”
Hall thinks that most Texans believe what Rick Perry says, that the TTC is dead since it’s out of the code now. The public doesn’t understand that “it’s going to be pieced together, segment by segment, under the radar,” according to Hall.
TxDOT won't say it’s a "foreign-owned toll road” or that people will have “huge swaths” of land taken away and given to a foreign corporation. “They don’t disclose this information; you have to know what to look for,” she says.
Perry’s plans to toll Texas roads don’t stop with the TTC. In San Antonio in 2009, TURF turned out 800 citizens for a hearing in an auditorium that held 600. The region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) voted to keep the toll roads in its Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) despite the fact that 96 percent of the public comments opposed slapping a toll on Texas’s existing freeways. All kinds of people attended the hearing – Tea Partiers, environmental groups, taxpayer organizations, “everybody under the sun,” says Hall.
“If we hadn’t killed the legislation, they’d be building I-69 [today] as a public-private partnership,” Hall says.
“We’re doing our best to stay on top of this,” Hall says. “They fight the grass roots at every turn, but Texans are staying vigilant and stand ready for battle.”
American Stewards of Liberty (ASL), a conservative, property-rights organization, has been a help to people fighting the TTC and other projects around the country that involve confiscating private land. It’s used parts of federal and state statutes to help form regional planning commissions that brought state and federal agencies “to the table” and demand that they “coordinate” with each other. As the ASL Web site defines it:
“Federal and state statutes require administrative agencies to work coordinately with local government – to “coordinate” with local government in developing and implementing plans, policies and management actions.”
The statutes create a process through which local government has an equal position at the negotiating table with federal and state government agencies.
“They create a process,” the website says, “which mandates agencies to work with local government on a government-to-government basis.” Implicit in the mandate of coordination is the duty of the governmental representatives to work together in an effective relationship to seek to reach agreement on consistency between federal, state and local plans and policies, Hall says.
The ASL Web site goes on to day, “The coordination process is the most effective method for protection of the rights of citizens to own and use property. It provides a process through which local government can bring administrative agencies to the negotiating table on issues related to the community’s economic stability and social and cultural cohesiveness.”
A legal definition of coordination exists under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a 1976 federal environmental law that established a national policy promoting enhancement of the environment.
"We’re doing our best to stay on top of this. They fight the grass roots at every turn, but Texans are staying vigilant and stand ready for battle."
With regard to coordination, Hall says, “When it’s government to government, it’s different than when it’s you and I the citizen or disgruntled taxpayer to government. The judges can’t ignore it. They have to deal with the issues brought up by both parties.” The parties also have to answer the public’s questions as part of the coordination process.
Through coordination, Hall says, “we stopped TTC highway 35.” Two cities or counties formed a regional planning commission and expanded their jurisdiction by adding water and school districts, “so it became a huge wall that TxDOT couldn’t get around,” according to Hall. The commission passed a resolution stating no part of the TTC could traverse their jurisdiction.
“All they needed to say, 'You can’t put the TTC through here, period,” Hall says. “That put the cabash on it.”
Coordination “takes it outside the political process to a huge degree,” she says, and has worked every time it’s been tried.
It took two years, but the Subregional Planning Commission formed by the local government in central Texas to stop the TTC collected all the information from the coordination hearings and issued a notice of intent to sue if TxDOT didn’t pull the project.
The Federal Highway Administration “wasn’t going to go down for TxDOT, so they said, ‘Forget this, we’re pulling the plug,’” says Hall.
Neither TxDOT nor the Federal Highway Administration can build a road that’s not in a local Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP). Last year the Bloomington Metroplitan Planning Organization voted to exclude I-69 from its TIP. Not willing to take no for an answer, the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) has requested that Bloomington’s MPO reconsider its “no” vote or face cuts to other transportation projects under the TIP. The next MPO vote is scheduled for November.
According to federal rules, if INDOT can’t fund the project, it can’t be included in the TIP, Hall points out. INDOT has stated publically that it has no funding for sections 5 and 6 of I-69.
Hall predicts that INDOT will do in Indiana what TxDOT has done in Texas for six years: wait until members of the MPO are “recycled” out. They have given terms of office; some are elected officials.
“They wear you down, they wear the elected officials down, and a lot of times they just wait them out by attrition," she says. "They have a new elected official come in, someone else who’s friendly to their cause or some big-money person [who] help[ed] fund their campaign for the specific purpose that they’ll change the TIP.”
Keeping I-69 out of the Bloomington TIP means “you can keep winning,” Hall asserts. The problem in Texas is that the highway projects are already in everybody’s TIP, and “we’re trying to get them out of there.”
Linda Greene can be reached at .