Greasing the Wheels

How Texas Motor Speedway got Denton County to pay for a freeway exit to nowhere—except, that is, to the speedway

Auto racing tycoon Bruton Smith stood in a massive parking lot helping direct traffic away from his brand-new Texas Motor Speedway six years ago. He wasn't happy about it. The first-ever NASCAR race at the speedway just north of Fort Worth had arrived in a mess and ended the same way. Traffic was crawling onto the only available freeway interchange.

Interstate 35W and other roads near the speedway were jammed to a near standstill. Officials from nearby Roanoke lodged a formal complaint about the mess. Neighbors complained. Worst of all, the fans, who left urine, litter and their cars on the roadside, complained.

The speedway badly needed another freeway interchange, one to the north of the track to complement the existing one at the south. Unfortunately for the speedway, as far as federal and state governments were concerned, the proposed interchange was in the wrong place and unjustified for the typically light everyday traffic and sparsely populated farmland around it. Salvador Deocampo, urban programs engineer for the Dallas/Fort Worth area with the Federal Highway Administration, says federal funding for interstate projects is based on public need, and the speedway interchange did not meet the criteria.

A barricade marks the end of the road at an Interstate 35 interchange built for the benefit of Texas Motor Speedway. Denton County taxpayers paid for the lion's share of the freeway exit, which gives motorists easy access to the speedway--and nowhere else of consequence.
Mark Graham
A barricade marks the end of the road at an Interstate 35 interchange built for the benefit of Texas Motor Speedway. Denton County taxpayers paid for the lion's share of the freeway exit, which gives motorists easy access to the speedway--and nowhere else of consequence.
Attorney Bill Trantham says Denton County officials were more starstruck than sensible in their dealings with the Texas Motor Speedway.
Mark Graham
Attorney Bill Trantham says Denton County officials were more starstruck than sensible in their dealings with the Texas Motor Speedway.

"If it's strictly a benefit to the developer, or in this case the Texas Speedway, I don't believe we have [provided funding], but if there actually is a need, I think we can pay," Deocampo says. "In this case we did not."

Although no federal or state dollars were used, today a brand-new interchange sits on the site. It was built quickly and paid for mostly by Denton County taxpayers, and it connects to a state-financed road that leads to just one place, the speedway. How did that happen? A lawsuit filed by a man who said the interchange project was partially built on his land without permission offers a partial explanation. Public records, including campaign donation and expense reports and official correspondence, calendars and diaries from the project fill in much of the rest of the picture. In a nutshell: The speedway wanted the interchange badly, but rather than pay for it itself, race track managers and supporters instead wooed county officials who made the decision that the $6.4 million interchange was a vital public project.

The speedway could not get any money from the feds or the state, but Denton County had just approved $85 million in bonds to improve county roads. The myriad bond projects in the 1999 bond vote did not include the speedway's interchange, but a load of road money was suddenly available, and Denton County commissioners had some discretion in how to spend it.

About the time speedway owners were looking for public financing for the interchange, county commissioners started getting campaign donations from those with an interest in the speedway and surrounding developments. The speedway paid a consultant $100,000 in "success fees," with success based on how much he could milk from the county--at the same time he was on the county's payroll.

The county commissioners who would talk for this article said they did not know that Jeff Carey, the consultant they had hired to secure more road money for the county from the state for other projects, was also on the speedway's payroll to secure county funding for the interchange.

"I really did not know that Jeff Carey was being paid by the speedway," Commissioner Sandy Jacobs says. "To be quite frank with you, it's quite a surprise to know that he was getting something called a 'success fee' for money on the interchange."

Carey wasn't the only person on the county payroll to benefit from the speedway's largesse, however. Eddie Gossage, speedway president, and Bruton Smith, who built the speedway and owns another one like it in North Carolina, treated the county's commissioners like VIP guests, providing them with entry to the exclusive speedway club overlooking the track for lunches and meetings with political backers. Until about that point, the summer of 1999, the speedway's only interchange-financing agreement with the county said the speedway would pay for everything.

"SMI (Speedway Motors Inc.) agrees to provide 100 percent of the costs of all non-donated right of way, including acquisition costs, clear of obstruction and free of cost to the county or the State of Texas," the 1996 signed agreement between Denton County and the speedway says in part. "SMI agrees to provide 100 percent of the construction cost, estimated at approximately $3.3 million to construct the interchange and connecting ramps on Interstate 35W."

Then, with hardly any public discussion or any justification of urgent need offered by officials, Denton County's commissioners in 1999 volunteered to pay for most of the project. Before the interchange was done, the county would spend about $4 million. The state would spend $1.7 million on a frontage road leading to it and waive a $200,000 engineering fee usually paid by developers when they build a road. Incredibly, at one point, speedway owners would complain about being "over budget" and having to pay too much for their share of their own project.

Consultant Carey was paid his "success fee" on the same day the county commissioners voted to approve county money for the speedway project. He then dumped thousands of dollars into commissioner campaigns, money with little government restriction and even less general public oversight.

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