Greasing the Wheels

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

On September 30, 1999, the Federal Highway Administration said the project wasn't needed, according to federal guidelines. Among other things, the administration stated in a letter, the interstate by the speedway was in a mostly rural area that probably would not have enough traffic to justify the interchange based on projections. It also said that the new interchange would be too close to the existing one. An interchange in a rural area should be located about 1.5 miles north of where the speedway was proposed, according to federal guidelines. A report prepared by consultants hired by the speedway was supposed to explain to the federal government why a new access point should be built on the public highway, but it failed to do that, according to federal reviewers.

"The text of the report, along with current and future traffic data, does not appear to identify a need for a new interchange," the highway administration letter says. "Based on your data, it appears that a new access point will not provide an appreciable betterment for regional traffic."

In the case of the speedway interchange, the initial justification report did not show public benefit, says Deocampo, one of the federal reviewers.

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.

"It didn't address an analysis of the interchange and what it was going to do and how it was going to benefit. I pretty much told them they had to follow the criteria," he says.

During the weeks that followed the arrival of the feds' letter, Wilson was scheduled for meetings with property developers and with Gossage. He was invited to be a guest of Gossage and Bruton Smith at the Bluebonnet 300 at the speedway, according to Wilson's calendar from the time. Other commissioners also received--and still receive--the special invitations to the speedway.

One insider, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, says the races that commissioners attended are well-appointed affairs with plenty of good food and liquor and where politicians, wealthy Texans and special guests socialized. He says the list of invitees to the VIP suites is exclusive with strict security and only "certain" very particular people allowed entry.

In fall 1999, Wilson and other county commissioners started getting money from those with an interest in the interchange and the area around it, too. Between Carey, Gossage and speedway-area developers, a total of about $8,000 was spread out to commissioner campaigns.

Carey was, unknown to the commissioners, working with Gossage and was talking about trying to get money from the county for the project, and he was meeting with commissioners to talk about it. In a letter dated November 22, 1999, Carey tells Gossage, "I cannot get more than $3.3 million. As it is, I think John Polster [the county's road consultant who hired Carey] may present some resistance. I think I can smooth it over."

Gossage tells Carey in another letter that for their meeting with county officials the following day, they should point out to commissioners that the county could get valuable advertising at the speedway, like the words "Denton County," which could be placed on a raceway wall. He thanks Carey for his hard work.

Carey billed Denton County $325 for meetings the next day with Wilson, Armey and Polster. Carey says the meetings were related to the state infrastructure bank (SIB) loan that he was originally hired to try to obtain.

All the talking and meeting apparently had an effect on commissioners. During the last commissioners court meeting in December 1999, Jim Carter, commissioner presiding over the district where the speedway is located, introduced a new road plan. He called it a "preliminary plan to improve the safety and traffic flow for residents and commercial entities in southwest Denton County." The speedway interchange was nestled neatly among Carter's other road projects in the plan. Denton County's share of the interchange was proposed to be $3.3 million, just as Carey had promised in his letter to Gossage the previous month.

Money would come from "excess funds" in other road bond projects and from "special projects" funds or separate bond accounts that commissioners could spend on road projects of their own choosing. Wilson and Jim Carter each donated $125,000 and Sandy Jacobs donated $50,000 from special projects to the speedway interchange.

"I think that it answers a problem that is created during races and at other events there at the speedway that inhibits local residents' ability to travel," Carter says. "Is it a benefit to the speedway and the properties there? Yes, it is. But it has a multiple purpose...The state is the one who made the final decision, and obviously they thought so as well."

Carter gave fellow commissioners the official request to use $3.3 million in taxpayer money for the interchange. Carey gave Gossage his request to be paid his $100,000 "success fee" for securing $3.3 million from Denton County, according to a letter from Carey to Gossage. Carey asked Gossage to pay him on January 18, the day commissioners were scheduled to vote to approve project funding and legally bind the county to pay.

An attachment to Carey's letter to Gossage shows a pay schedule and lays out the amounts Carey was to be paid with the amounts decreasing the longer it might take to secure funding. If Carey had only gotten $2 million in tax money for the interchange, for instance, Gossage would have owed him $50,000. But, Carey was entirely successful and got his full payment from Gossage. The county's taxpayers were on the hook for the $3.3 million and state taxpayers for $1.7 million for a frontage road, but the speedway was still looking at paying $1.7 million unless Carey could work his magic again.

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