Greasing the Wheels

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

Gossage responded in an e-mail obtained by the Dallas Observer, "Very alarming! I have some state senators, state reps, ready to weigh in. What do I need to do? This cannot be pulled from September. Please advise immediately, and I will mobilize the state elected officials. Enough is enough." On September 7, 2000, the state approved the project just as speedway owners had hoped.

Gossage's agreeable tone toward the county was changing in summer 2000, just before the project got under way. He was bemoaning the amount of money that the speedway had already spent on the interchange. In an e-mail to the commissioners, Gossage said the speedway committed $1.9 million as its share of the project and that he did not want to pay an additional $350,000 in engineering fees. Carey reviewed the letter for Gossage.

"This brings Texas Motor Speedway's contribution on this project to more than $2.3 million since we have already paid for engineering and design work," he said. Then, with the speedway's original promise of paying "100 percent" apparently long forgotten, he wrote in all uppercase letters, "FROM THE SPEEDWAY'S PERSPECTIVE, WE ARE ALREADY $700,000 OVER BUDGET."

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.

The $350,000 fee, which ended up being about $200,000 because it's a percentage of the total final project cost, eventually was waived, a state official says.

Land was being cleared for interchange roads even while questions about rights of way continued. Gossage claimed that the county had assumed responsibility for getting the rights of way, which wasn't something the county has ever agreed it did.

"This project has been a difficult one from the beginning...It has also gone well over budget, all at the speedway's expense," Gossage wrote in another e-mail to Polster. "This is hardly an acceptable track record. We would urge the county to quickly secure the land parcels, utility easement and the movement of utilities at no cost to the speedway. Additionally, we would hope that Denton County would assume a leadership role in making sure this interchange is open in time for the mid-September race weekend."

Polster responded in kind, telling Gossage that the county never made a deal to buy rights of way, and a flurry of e-mails between them followed.

Ray Roberts, a former candidate for county judge in 2000 and a frequent critic of the county's politicians, got a copy of Gossage's letter and e-mailed the commissioners court. Roberts, a Denton resident, said then that it appeared Gossage was angry about money he had to spend on his own project. Roberts says he still feels the same way.

"We threw away 3 million bucks there, three-and-a-quarter, and my road right out here is terrible. That's what bothers me," he says. "They took our money that we had voted for bonds to take care of our county roads and literally gave it to the speedway. Right down the line. That was intended for...that speedway, and that's all you can use it for."

Luther "L.J." Lee, the 84-year-old owner of the property where the new "Dale Earnhardt" exit was built, says he never agreed to donate his land for the project. He allowed engineers onto the property, but he didn't agree to sell it.

County commissioners in August 2001 thought they could buy Lee's property for as little as $8,000 an acre. At one point, the county tried to get Lee to sell his 11.3 acres for $91,000.

Lee refused. He filed a lawsuit against Denton County and then threatened to close off the access road to the interchange during the next big NASCAR race.

"It took an incredible tour de force, political power to get the state of Texas, the Department of Transportation, the federal department of transportation, Denton County, Tarrant County, Northlake and everybody together to help condemn this land, and they did," says Trantham, Lee's lawyer. "They had to convince the feds to allow them to build an intersection closer than it ought to be done at what at the time was cow pasture and still is for the most part."

The property was actually worth at least 10 times what the county offered, and in June 2002, before Eddie Gossage was scheduled to give a deposition in Lee's case, Denton County settled. Behind closed doors, the county commissioners met and agreed to pay Lee $556,000, bringing the bill for the interchange up to about $4 million. As part of the settlement, the speedway also paid Lee $556,000.

"I think it solved a transportation problem in that area and is an element of the southwestern Denton County transportation plan," says Commissioner Jim Carter, who originally called for funding the interchange as part of his plan to improve traffic in the county's southwest corner.

Scott Armey is among those county officials who approved funding for the project, and he maintains that it has general public value.

"I looked at it as far as, is this a public improvement that's number one; is it justified and is it worth the investment on that globular scale? I thought it was," Armey says. "We're talking about public improvements and public safety. Sure the speedway enjoys those benefits a couple of weekends a year, but the rest of the 360-some days it's for the general public to utilize."

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