Plans for Texas' First Private Toll Road Roll On -- and Right Over People in its Path

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For the people who live in the countryside east of Lake Ray Hubbard and Lake Lavon, the appeal is in the quiet rural roads, dense trees, wild animals in the woods and bright stars shining in the night sky.

To a Dallas company called the Texas Turnpike Corp., all that open space is a sign that not enough stuff has been built yet. "A review of an aerial map of the metroplex shows that there is a lack of development to the north and east of Dallas," said a report the corporation prepared and sent in 2012 to the mayor of Lavon, a small town on the eastern shore of the lake. "Lake Ray Hubbard and Lake Lavon have blocked access to the area and stifled growth."

Texas Turnpike Corp. had a fix for that "lack of development:" a private toll road, developed by none other than Texas Turnpike Corp. The corporation's report pointed to wealthier Collin County suburbs as an example of the positive effects of toll roads: "Similar to the lack of growth in northwest Collin County prior to the opening of the Dallas North Tollway, the area northeast of Dallas has not grown due to lack of adequate transportation infrastructure."

It's true that Lavon is no Frisco, for better or worse. The town in southeast Collin County has little in common with the paved, wealthy suburbs farther north. It's just 1.3 square miles and home to 2,400 people who live in an assortment of upper middle-class housing developments and cheap trailers deeper in the country. "You've got people out here that when gas hits four dollars a gallon, they have to decide whether they're going to quit their job or not," Mayor Chuck Teske says.

Teske and the other officials in Lavon had never heard of the Texas Turnpike Corp. until the company's executives got in touch with them in the fall of 2012, asking to meet with the City Council in both private and public. The corporation already boasted support from local transportation agencies and planned to start construction on the state's first private toll road in 2014. Still, the corporation's founder, John Crew, sent Teske a report detailing the need for a toll road, in hopes that the Lavon City Council would pass "a formal indication of support on the project."

The toll road was supposed to extend somewhere from Lavon to Greenville in order to relieve traffic on Interstate 30. Teske was open to the idea at first, he says, especially after getting assurances from the company in an early meeting that Collin County Commissioner Cheryl Williams supported it. "'In fact, we're sponsoring a table for her at a Republican fundraiser,'" Teske says project developer Neal Barker assured him.

At a later public meeting, however, the City Council found that Barker offered few specifics about the road -- the exact path hadn't been chosen and no engineers were on staff, recalls City Councilwoman Jenny Bodewell. The company still couldn't promise there would be any access ramps serving Lavon. The corporation promised to fund the road itself, at no expense to taxpayers, but also said it had the power of eminent domain, unusual for a private company.

And while other county commissioners had come out in support of the project, Commissioner Williams was hesitant. Barker backtracked his claim about having her support, Bodewell recalls. (Asked about that meeting, Barker now admits that "perhaps it was miscommunicated that she somehow supports the project" and adds that "any statement by me or anyone in our company that she did was wrong.")

To Bodewell, passing a resolution supporting the project with so few details felt like approving a blank check -- or a "shotgun wedding," as Teske saw it. The council voted not to take any action.

After his company's first failed attempt to win the city's support, Barker continued to politely press Lavon officials, asking for a chance to tell residents about the new toll road in a citywide newsletter. Barker even suggested the bullet-point facts about the toll road the city could include. The points, however, were similarly vague: "The ultimate alignment, not yet chosen, will be where public input and feasibility are maximized," was one. The company "expected" to have on-ramps in Lavon.

Barker reached out to the city again a few months later, emails show, asking for a private meeting with Mayor Teske and another chance to have the City Council to vote on a resolution supporting the road. The mayor refused, saying he needed more specifics. "I'm not inclined to bring it before the council again until we have better public disclosure in terms of what we are building, how it's being financed, who benefits and why some terms of the deal remain private," Teske wrote back.

Barker responded that he could disclose more about the project later, only if the mayor would agree to meet with him. "I am asking if it's possible to have a discussion about what Lavon would want should there be a new road connecting the city with I-30," Barker said in an email. "I think after we talk you will see that I am more than willing to disclose all pertinent details."

Teske had lost trust in Barker and ignored him. Now, those "pertinent details" of exactly who this toll roads benefits and where it's going to go remain a mystery to Lavon and other towns that may be in the path, even as Lavon residents have recently discovered workers hired by the Texas Turnpike Corp. placing survey markers through town.

Brenda Short and her husband purchased 32 acres in a rural, unincorporated section of Hunt County in August 2012, trading the convenience of their old home in Rockwall for the chance to raise their kids on the peaceful country property, surrounded by lots of land.

Their home is in the country, yet not too far from her husband's job in Greenville or their church. It was at church six months later that Short heard about the toll road, through a friend who just read the local newspapers.

Short did the research herself and found that Neal Barker was going around to city councils stretching from northeast Dallas County to Hunt County, pitching them on the toll road and getting some to pass resolutions supporting it. "I think it will help us because anytime you have a new thoroughfare come through, you have restaurants, businesses that come with it," says Keith Koop, the mayor of Josephine. His City Council passed a resolution supporting the toll road after the Texas Turnpike Corp. promised to back off from an earlier route proposal that would have divided Josephine's downtown in two, he says.

Most of the other councils had the same reaction as Lavon: The plan was too vague to warrant approval yet. "We'd like to be able to tie the sort of spaghetti lines on the map to some properties and to some real locations on the ground," says Rick Crowley, the city manager of Rockwall, the suburb east of Lake Ray Hubbard that has also refused to support the project.

The only thing that seemed sure about the tollway's path is that it would run parallel to I-30. And Brenda Short knew in that case her property would be in the way. Barker's presentations at the time said that the toll road would be within the right-of-way of an abandoned railroad, what was once the Cotton Belt rail line. To save the line from being taken over by a private developer in 1995, Texas formed a new government agency called the Northeast Texas Rural Rail Transportation District, or NETEX, to oversee it, protecting the government's right-of-way in the area for potential future train routes. Instead, however, the NETEX board agreed to lease the area to the Texas Turnpike Corp. in 2011.

Short, a former computer software engineer, knew that a part of the NETEX right-of-way ran through her land. So she studied and struggled to make sense of the layers of transportation bureaucracy in Texas, figuring out why roads get built and who decides where they go. She learned about the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the government agency tasked with the powerful job of divvying up federal transportation dollars. For urban planning enthusiasts in Dallas, NCTCOG's unelected transportation director Michael Morris has recently become a frustrating symbol of suburbia and unhealthy sprawl, for his refusal to take seriously the idea of tearing down I-345 in downtown Dallas and his insistence that the controversial Trinity toll road get built between the levees near downtown Dallas.

Out where Short lives, Morris would soon become notorious for almost opposite reasons: his embrace of a private toll road that seemed to benefit commuters going from Dallas to Hunt County at the expense of all the rural people in the middle. "We bought that land for a reason," Short says. "We were trying to get rid of big roads."

Short began sending newsletters out to other people who lived along the NETEX right-of-way and formed a website called NoTollRoad.com to post news clips, documents and information about upcoming government meetings.

Calls and emails came in immediately from others who lived on what they thought would remain undisturbed acres of land for years. "Nobody had any idea about it," Short says. "I couldn't find one person who already knew about the plan for the road."

Short came with other opponents to speak at county commissioners court meetings, where Hunt County Judge John Horn has been supportive of the road for providing his constituents with another fast route to Dallas. In Horn's meetings, "we were called conspiracy theorists and fear-mongerers," Short says.

In March 2013 Short and the toll road opponents finally had a breakthrough. At a Council of Governments meeting, Morris acknowledged the large public outcry and an-nounced that his agency would slow down and study whether the toll road idea was even necessary.

If NCTCOG found the toll road was feasible, then it would go in the region's Mobility 2035 plan. From there, an agency called the Regional Transportation Council, the transportation planning body within the NCTCOG made up of lawmakers across the region, gets to vote on whether or not to approve the mobility plan. The extra time hasn't been much, but Short has taken advantage of it to organize more opponents of the project, building her NoTollRoad Facebook page to 1,000 fans and balancing updates with homeschooling her kids. In the meantime, the NETEX announced that it would save the right-of-way for possible public transit use later on, and the corporation moved its proposed study area off the right-of-way, in an alignment that's still uncertain but that appears to be at least a few miles from Short's land.

Even though her property appears to be safe from being cut in half by a toll road, she keeps at the activism. "When a private company comes in and says we want to build a road for our private profit, and we're going to do it on the backs of your private property, I don't agree with that, whether it's going through my yard or not," she explains.

In September of this year, Morris said he finally had the results of his agency's feasibility study ready. The Council of Governments scheduled a meeting to announce the results in a joint meeting with the Texas Turnpike Corp., making it clear to opponents like Short where the regional transportation agency's loyalty was.

In early October, The Dallas Morning News published a March 2013 email that NCTCOG senior program manager Tom Shelton sent Texas Turnpike's John Crew, assuring him that NCTCOG's feasibility study would probably work out in the company's favor: "We want to craft the language referencing the project that creates the least amount of risk for you," Shelton wrote.

The lawmakers who sit on the Regional Transportation Council, chaired by Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell, come from all over the region and haven't offered their opinion on the project. At an RTC meeting on October 9, Morris' pitch promoting the tollway went unchallenged by the RTC board.

In 1913, Texas passed a law explicitly giving private companies powers to build roads wherever they saw fit. It wasn't until 1991, almost as an aside, that Texas lawmakers repealed what they described as "an outdated statute authorizing private corporations to build toll roads in the state." That statute was repealed in a bill that created the Texas Turnpike Authority, the state's government tolling agency.

The repeal didn't apply retroactively. And so, one day before House Bill 749 went into effect, investment banker John Crew formed the Texas Turnpike Corp. under the 1913 legislation that was about to expire.

"If you look at that 1913 legislation it has very broad authorities in it," Collin County Commissioner Williams says. "In recent times, we're not really aware of anybody out there with this kind of authority."

That authority comes with the power to use eminent domain to force property owners to sell, which the Texas Turnpike Corp. promises to use fairly, even though the company has yet to confirm which owners should get ready to pack their bags.

Crew's background is in investment banking at firms such as Dillon, Read & Co. The Texas Turnpike Corp. is just one of many companies he's formed. The corporation is often confused with Public Werks, a consulting and operating firm Crew formed that shares an address with the turnpike corporation.

Crew also has his hand in energy. Republic Power Partners, another one of his corporations, in 2009 announced plans to raise funds for a broad assortment of alternative energy projects around West Texas. The company partnered with the local utility to form a nonprofit, which then issued itself bonds to purchase two existing power plants near Odessa. It was a deal that critics said seemed to benefit the company more than the taxpayers. Facing public criticism, the utility backed out of its arrangement and Republic Power Partners and Lubbock have been fighting each other in court over the broken agreement ever since.

Crew's Texas Turnpike Corp. kept a low profile until 2000. It was then that an industry publication called TollRoadNews reported a corporation that was "previously inactive" presented an idea to the public to construct a private toll tunnel through the middle of Highland Park, underneath very expensive homes.

Unsurprisingly, the wealthy residents hated the idea of a tunnel under their mansions. "The project was not acceptable. People didn't like the project," the corporation's Neal Barker now says.

For the last two years, the face of the newer turnpike project has been Barker, a mild-mannered board member of the Texas Turnpike Corp. and vice president of Public Werks who appears more than happy to talk to reporters and residents about the toll road even as he deflects questions about specifics, such as why his corporation has been pushing to get approval for the road before telling people the exact route.

Barker describes his idea for the toll road as if it came on a whim. On drives down I-30 to visit his family in Sulphur Springs, he says, it occurred to him it would be good to have another route. He looked at a map with the old NETEX right-of-way and saw the possibilities. Barker showed the idea to Hopkins County Judge Cletus Milsap, a NETEX board member and family friend (Barker says Milsap lives next door to his uncle). Milsap liked it. So did Hunt County's John Horn and other officials in Hunt County who said they wanted a faster route to Dallas. In 2011, before many people even knew about the project, the NETEX board agreed to lease the right-of-way to the corporation.

The project, now called the Northeast Gateway, is supposed to span 27 miles from the President George Bush Turnpike to Farm to Market Road 1570 in Greenville.

Barker has told city councils that he expects construction to cost around $500 million and has promised that taxpayers won't be on the hook for any of it. But private toll roads have a poor track record in Texas. At a Rockwall meeting this year, minutes show that when a council member asked what tollways in Texas have been entirely privately funded and have been successful, "Mr. Barker indicated that there have not been any so far."

In 2012, TxDOT partnered with a private company from Spain called Cintra on a toll project stretching 41 miles on State Highway 130, between Austin and Guadalupe County, near Seguin. The tolled section has an 85 mph speed limit that the company had said would be appealing to truckers and others trying to escape congestion on I-35. Yet in late 2013, the credit-rating company Moody's said that traffic in that stretch was less than 6,000 vehicles a day -- one-eighth the highway's capacity. In June, Cintra filed for bankruptcy on another toll road project it operated in Indiana, and Moody's predicted that the S.H. 130 would soon default on its loans.

Barker's background is in business consulting, he says, but he ended up in transportation because he wanted to try something new. His father-in-law is Stephen McCullough, the former city manager in Irving who moved over to the Texas Turnpike Corp. to work as an executive. Barker followed McCullough to the company five years ago and spent the last two focused on his own turnpike idea. "It's been a whirlwind kind of education in that in a couple of years," Barker says.

When Michael Morris and his North Central Texas Council of Governments said this fall that they finally finished their study about the toll road proposal, people were asked to come to a gym in Lavon if they wanted to hear the results and make a comment. So many people showed up that the local fire marshal said the crowds were unsafe. The COG rescheduled the meeting to September 22, in the 1,500-seat Rockwall Performing Arts Center. Even the bigger venue was packed.

Morris' feasibility study was just a series of PowerPoint slides, detailing all of the 2035-era transportation needs for an entire area identified as the Blacklands Corridor. The toll road that people came to the meeting for wasn't mentioned until the end of the presentation. "New Location Freeway/Tollway" said a PowerPoint listing NCTCOG's final rec-ommendations.

There were maps in the slides of squiggly lines connecting the Bush Turnpike to Greenville, but they were still all "Subject To Further Study," the maps said. Still without committing to a specific route, the Council of Governments rested its case on the necessity of a new road on population projections, claiming that as many as 72,300 drivers daily will use State Highway 66 at County Road 6 in Lavon in 2035 -- six times the 12,000 that go the same route today.

The hundreds of people who lined up for hours to make public comments after NCTCOG's and the Texas Turnpike Corp.'s presentations were virtually all opposed to the road. They described the idea of giving a private corporation the power to use eminent domain as un-American. They derided suburban cities like Murphy and Plano, saying they moved east of Dallas to get away from that type of atmosphere.

One woman, Christine Hubley, said that when she asked the Texas Department of Transportation for the original hard data described in the PowerPoint slides, she was told it wouldn't be ready until December. She asked why the exact route still wasn't publicly available, even as the company is getting closer to building.

"What am I supposed to comment on here and what are you supposed to vote on next month?" she said. "I demand that the public is given a public meeting after the study has been finished and made available to us." Then she read off a list of traffic estimates from TxDOT showing that the state agency had projected much lower numbers for the area than NCTCOG had. One TxDOT statistic said that there would be 22,880 drivers on S.H. 66 in 2030, a fraction of NCTCOG's 2035 estimate.

"Where are you getting these numbers?" she yelled, ending her speech to enthusiastic applause.

"I would like to be able to respond to each of your particular questions," Morris said to her after the crowd died down. "Do we have your email address?" He agreed to give Hubley his email address instead after people laughed and booed at his response.

In an interview after the meeting, Morris said that NCTCOG and TxDOT have different figures because they used different methods to calculate the population growth. He said his agency is finished with hosting public meetings on the toll road because it e to "digest" all the public comments. The NCTCOG plans to vote on whether to include the toll road in the 2035 mobility plan this November.

He agreed to provide the Observer the original report he got his higher traffic projections from. The demographic forecast that a NCTCOG spokesperson sent over describes a complicated software program that uses various statistics from 1994 to 2005 to calculate future population growth.

Barker, at his sleek Texas Turnpike Corp./Public Werks office overlooking Turtle Creek, characterizes the people who came to speak as being opposed to all growth in the area. "I think we're getting blamed for not being transparent when we're actually more transparent, because we're going out talking to these communities well in advance, telling them what we're thinking, what's going on. Well, the people get riled up, and you know, I don't know how you get around that."

Whatever the population increases actually are, many locals say more traffic is coming. Officials in the corridor point to two major industrial developments as the reason for the increased traffic. One is 6,700 acres of land in Greenville purchased a few years ago by Walton Development, a firm in Canada that has quietly been buying empty land across Texas.

In 2011 the city of Greenville predicted that the development would have "tremendous impact" on the city and Hunt County, anticipating that Walton would turn the unde-veloped land into a community of 21,000 houses.

And in Wylie, the Kansas City Southern Railroad company recently purchased space and began plans to start operating a shipping, trucking and warehouse facility. "We're going to be faced with that trucking problem in a very short period of time, and I believe that as many people who are upset about this toll road as I'm hearing from, I'm going to hear from many, many people who are very upset about the clogging of [Highway] 78 with trucks," says Williams, the Collin County commissioner.

Williams would like to see some sort of project that relieves the truck traffic on Highway 78, but finds the idea of a private company getting to do it "distasteful." On the other hand, she doesn't think she has much choice in the matter and is hesitant to criticize the Texas Turnpike Corp. "I think they can pursue this effort with or without the blessing of local government," she says. "I think that Michael and the RTC [Regional Transportation Council] did a very good job of slowing them down."

That public process has remained unimpressive to Teske, the Lavon mayor. If the toll road becomes the main thoroughfare in town, he's certain that the poorer residents who can barely afford gas would never be able to use it. "I get more and more sad about the whole thing," he says. "It's not really what I envisioned for the people out here."

In October, a Lavon resident named Sean Walker found orange survey markings directly behind his neighborhood. He followed the path in his car to the next survey markings and found he could draw a line through them. The marks were made by Huitt-Zollars, a construction firm that the Texas Turnpike Corp. has employed. At another meeting the TTC hosted in Rockwall a few days later, Walker asked Barker if the survey markers were the location of the official route of the toll road. Barker, he says, assured him that no route has been chosen yet.

"My answers in Rockwall were sincere that we have not chosen a route," Barker added in a follow-up email after the meeting. "I am meeting with my team tomorrow to find out exactly what is happening with these paintings on the ground and I owe you an answer as soon as I get it."

Barker still hadn't given Walker an explanation about the paintings when the Lavon City Council decided to write a resolution opposing the toll project this October. Around 50 people showed up to the gym where the City Council meets, thanking them for taking a stand.

The City Council unanimously passed its resolution opposing the roll road. Teske admitted before the meeting, though, that the resolution would be largely symbolic.

"I think that maybe the ship has already sailed, and all these meetings out there, the public comments, it's putting a check in the box," he says. "I really don't think they care what the residents out here think."

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