Greasing the Wheels

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

Two days after he was paid his success fee, he wrote Gossage: "We got the $3.3 million, the agreement with TxDOT and agreement making Denton County responsible for the ROW [right of way]. I have a few ideas on how to reduce the $1.7 million for TMS [Texas Motor Speedway]. I will be sending you an invoice and an additional contract tomorrow. I will continue to work vigorously on all other aspects of the project. You have my loyalty."

Also for his work as a county subcontractor in 1999, Carey was paid $21,000 in Denton County money. The money the county paid for the speedway's interchange and for Carey came from the same voter-approved road bonds.

During the immediate months after getting his "success fee" check from the speedway, Carey donated a total of around $23,000 to the campaigns of the county's commissioners and to Sandy Thurman, who was running for Armey's soon-to-be-vacant commissioner's seat in the March primary. Thurman received $16,796 in February and March. Commissioners Jacobs and Armey each received $1,000, Carter received $500 and Krueger got $4,000. In a Dallas Morning News article that pegged Carey as a top donor to the county's commissioner campaigns that year, Carey explained the donations by saying he'd done well in the stock market.

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.

Gossage got into a giving mood after the vote, too. He gave $1,000 to each of the four sitting commissioners and Thurman $500 during the two to three weeks after the money was approved.

The interchange still needed to get the go-ahead from the federal government and fast-track approval from the state to get onto the approved-projects list by September 2000. The federal government had no financial interest in the project, but the highway administration oversees the interstate system and enforces construction standards.

In February 2000, the interchange-enthusiastic Carter wrote U.S. Representative Dick Armey for help. A meeting was called with the speedway and county consultants and state and federal officials. A representative from Congressman Armey's office attended the March 8, 2000, meeting, which was hosted by the speedway. The feds were concerned not because they were paying for it but because their job is to ensure that an interchange built so close to an existing interchange in a rural area would not cause traffic problems, Deocampo says.

"If they can demonstrate the proposal, in this case the interchange, would not impact the safety and operation of 35W, then we can approve the access point," he says.

Deocampo says that the point was clarified during the meeting and that congressional intervention was never necessary and would not have done any good anyway. The presence of a representative of Dick Armey's office would not mean the project would get "special preference," he says.

"Whether or not Dick Armey's representative was there or not, they would have had to go through the same procedure. I think they were interested in what actually was the procedure to get the interchange approved," he says.

In a second report to the highway administration, project engineers hired by the speedway argued that the interchange was not just needed for race days, it was needed for the future of the area. While the project site is rural now, it has huge potential for growth, they said. The March 16, 2000, report also said that the speedway was picking up the tab and cited the "majority of the construction funding to be provided by the private sector" as one of the reasons the project should be approved.

"The total cost of the proposed interchange is estimated at $6.5 million for right-of-way acquisition, utilities and construction. The Texas Motor Speedway will fund the construction of the interchange and associated ramps," the report says. "Additionally, it is expected that the approximately 18.2 acres of right-of-way required for the project will be donated by adjacent landowners."

That wasn't true, and the benefit to the general public was still murky, but after the second report was submitted that addressed federal concerns, the project's unjustified status quickly changed. Representative Armey wrote Carter to say that the project had been approved by the federal government and that it was "exciting whenever private entities step forward to fund a significant portion of a public transportation project."

Carey had also been in contact with Dick Armey about this time, and he billed Denton County for it as part of the work on the state loan that he was supposed to be doing. A representative of the state infrastructure bank department says Dick Armey had absolutely nothing to do with the Denton County loan that Carey was working to secure.

Even though the feds finally gave the project the nod, at one point it appeared that the interchange might not make it onto the state's department of transportation projects list in September 2000. That meant the interchange, which would take 274 days to build, might not be done in time for the speedway's NASCAR race in 2001. Polster told Gossage that the project might be delayed and that he would have to "push the matter to the 'nth' degree."

The state was legally required to preside over construction after the federal government approved. Once federal and state engineers signed off, then the interchange had to be approved by the three-member Department of Transportation commission. The commission meets just once a month, a department spokesman says.

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