State Road Officials Balk at a Few Straight Questions About that "Blacklands" Toll Road
Sooner or later we're going to find out who's really pushing behind the scenes for that private "Blacklands" private toll road they want to build northeast of Dallas from Rowlett to Greenville. And I don't mean the private dudes who want to build it for profit. I mean who in local government has been carrying their water.
Amy Silverstein told you here at the end of October that the very unpopular toll road idea, which was supposed to be dead on arrival, hadn't arrived and wasn't dead yet. State Representative Cindy Burkett, Republican of Sunnyvale, was trying to get state highway officials to explain why they seemed to still be pushing for it and who put them up to it.
This is the private toll road idea so hated by the region it's supposed to run through that fire officials had to shut down a public meeting because too many people showed up to express their hatred. Supposedly the regional agency that does road planning did a big apology dance after that and promised to deep-six the whole idea.
Later, as Silverstein reported, Burkett found out the Texas Department of Transportation had gone ahead and included the supposedly dead toll road route in a key statewide road-planning document. It was a big find.
Being on that list is what makes a project eligible to proceed. Not on the list, you're dead. On the list, you're not dead. Getting put on that list meant the toll road project wasn't dead at all, no matter what local officials here were telling us. The state list served as a kind of deep-freeze where the project could be kept alive, out of view and in suspended animation, while officials here told us suckers in the cheap seats it was 6 feet under.
Burkett asked state officials to explain why they would put something on that list knowing that people in the region hate it. She wanted to know in particular who here asked them to do it.
Lieutenant General Joe F. Weber (USMC retired), executive director of TxDOT, known behind his back as G.I. Joe, sent Burkett a letter in which he said ... well, he said all kinds of stuff that didn't quite make sense. First he said TxDOT only put the road in its statewide planning document because TxDOT always defers to local officials and local officials had made the route "a priority." Then he said he also knew that those same officials, at the North Central Texas Council of Governments, had recommended that the project not be included in their own list of stuff to do. Hmm.
Then he said state officials put it on the statewide list with less oversight and public debate than they might have otherwise because it was a private project and didn't require state money. Then he said the state had total oversight and responsibility for approving private projects. Hmm.
Then he said now that state officials know the local officials who had asked them to put it on the state list don't want it on their own local list, state officials might take it off the statewide list, maybe, if local officials asked them to. Mmm-mmm.
On November 13, Burkett wrote him back (letter below) and expressed her confusion over his response. "It brings a concern that transparency is a bit convoluted in this process," Burkett told Weber.
She went on to ask Weber more pointed questions about NCTCOG, the local planning agency, and its role. She wanted to know who at NCTCOG told state officials the toll road was a priority. Was he talking about the executive committee made up of local elected officials authorized to vote on and make official decisions? Or was he talking about the staff?
And let's not be too terribly coy about what this is about. This is about Michael Morris, the hired transportation director of NCTCOG, the staff guy who seems to have more power than the elected officials he supposedly reports to. Burkett didn't say it, but everybody and his dog in the opposition group thinks Morris is the behind-the-scenes Jesus, the guy who can pronounce a project dead and then bring it back to life after the heat dies down.
When Burkett demanded answers in writing to her questions, many people including me were salivating to see what kind of letter she got back. What would G.I. Joe tell her? Would he tell her the executive committee of NCTCOG had asked state officials to keep the toll road alive in their deep freeze while they told the locals it was dead? Or would he put it on Morris?
Ten days ago G.I. Joe wrote back (letter below) telling Burkett he didn't want to put his answers in a letter. He suggested a meeting instead.
Of course he didn't want to put his answers in a letter. You know how it is with those damned letters, all in writing and such, discoverable by reporters under state public information laws. How much more convenient to have a closed door meeting where you can just sit there with your lips zipped and give the representative your best screw-you smile.
I asked Burkett's staff yesterday to ask her if she was going to accept the meeting and not the letter she had demanded. I'll let you know what she says. She's been tough on them so far.
It's amazing sometimes. If eight guys in headbands and giant earrings showed up outside my house and offered to resurface my driveway with a secret formula, I bet I could get straight answers out of them quicker than we can get to the truth about this toll road.
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