INTERVIEWEE: David Stall (DS)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: February 24, 2008
LOCATION: Fayetteville, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Marcia Stirman and Robin Johnson
Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recording. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re in Fayetteville, Texas. Its February 24th, 2008 and we have the—the good fortune to be interviewing David Stall and he is the city manager for Shore Acres for his day job but as an avocation, has taken a good deal of his time, has been involved with Corridor Watch dot org which has been involved in trying to contribute to public information about the Trans Texas Corridor Project and I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk about that and teach us about this whole effort.
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DS: Well, always pleased to talk about the—this passion.
DT: All right. I—I think that one of the concerns that you and others have raised about the Trans Texas Corridor Project is that it hasn’t engaged the public as openly as it—as it should of and I was hoping that you could help walk us through the—the process of—of—of how this originally authorized and then the non-profit effort that you led to try to engage more people in a more open manner. Maybe you can take us back in time as well to give us a larger perspective of what sort of public engagement you can have and—and how (?) planned.
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DS: Sure and of course public involvement is—is something that’s my ben—bread and butter in my occupation as a city manager. I have thirty years in local government. And one of the things that really got me motivated in becoming active in this project was the—the process, the lack of public participation. The—the—I’m really offended by the process that removed the citizenry and their elected officials from participation in making these decisions. Often, the Texas Department of Highways, Transportation Department will say that they liken this project to an interstate and—and the objectors are categories—categorized like those people who objected to the interstate highways. And what I’d like to do is back you up and talk about how we got the interstates and the freeways as we call them today and how the process is vastly different than what we’re doing with the Trans Texas Corridor, which in itself is a project completely different than an interstate. President
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Eisenhower had fought a war in Europe and he was very impressed by the Autobahn and the road systems that were used there that were able to move manpower material for a ground war. And at the time he became president he would li—he wanted to develop a similar defense—a military defense highway and—and often the interstates called the—the United States Defense Highway System. That would allow him to defend the country—would allow future military officers to defend the country here in the homeland for a ground war. And so he wanted to develop a network of highways that would allow the—the free movement of manpower and material. Since his goal was a defense highway, it did not go to the major metropolitan areas;
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it crossed the country without going through cities because if you’re fighting a ground war, those metropolitan centers are—are choke points and they slow down the movement. If you have to fight your way through a city, it’s very slow going. So you want to bypass those to be able to move to wherever the front was at. And so he developed his—his highway system and—and pitched that and—and pro—proposed it. What a lot of people have forgotten is that when the interstate highway system was first proposed by Eisenhower, there was no funding to build it either and so it was proposed that it would be all toll. And so we had a toll road system that—from that perspective of where you built it and how you financed it—is very much like the Trans Texas Corridor. But what gets forgotten in history is that the Congress turned that project down several times and they went through a long debate on—on
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how this should develop. And the governors of states objected to it being a toll road. They did not want to—to restrict interstate commerce. They wanted the highway to not be a toll road. And the mayors of the metropolitan centers wanted that road to come to them because they wanted to use it for economic advantage of moving goods and services in and out of their—their city. And everyone knows that highways are an economic engine and so those cities wanted those highways to come through and not around. Out of that dialogue—out of that discussion—unlike what we’ve done with the Trans Texas Corridor, we ended up with freeways—we call them freeways today. And the governors were able to—to stop it from being toll roads and the mayors made sure they went through the cities—the hearts of the cities. And those are the freeways we drive today. The other thing that the
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interstate brought that was new to transportation was the system of having no intersections. The interstate greatly—vastly—increased highway safety in the United States by introducing the on-ramp and the off-ramp and the exchanges. When you drove highways—US highways across the nation and you came to towns and you came to other highways, you came to traffic signals and—and intersections and as we built more and more traffic on the roads, we had more accidents. And so it was innovative. Now we come forward to the Trans Texas Corridor and you have a project that has no innovation. It is conventional lanes and traffic like you have on interstate highways. It is conventional rail, which we’ve had for a hundred years even though you’ve now introduced a high speed rail element. We’re not talking
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about high technology rails. It—it does not envision mag-lev or—or some more efficient rail system. It’s a steel rail system that we’ve had for a hundred years. And this plan was developed out of the governor’s office, was sent to TxDOT [Texas Department of Transportation], with the—with the demand that they turn around and in ninety days deliver a plan to build this and that they do this as policy and not as politics…
DT: What time was this—that this was happening?
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DS: This was happening in January of 2002. The governor sent his letter to the Transportation Commission asking that in ninety days that they prepare a plan for the Trans Texas Corridor. Now they ran a little long, but un—under a hundred and fifty days, they produced a document—under a hundred pages—called The Crossroads of the Americas—The Trans Texas Corridor Plan. And that plan adopted in June of 2002 by the Texas Transportation Commission is the official plan. It—there’s not a single word in it that has been modified. It has been used for request for proposals, for TTC-35 and now TT6-69. It is the full twelve hundred foot wide footprint, ten lane, six rail lines and utility corridor. Interestingly enough it’s not even a super highway by any capacity regards because most of our interstate highways that go through major metropolitan areas have far more than ten lanes
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within their right of way, particularly if you consider the frontage roads as well. So its—it is smaller than our interstates in terms of—of traffic capacity. So it doesn’t even—it isn’t even really a super highway from that perspective. So, it is the whole process—a process of—Texas has the—Texas Transportation Institute at A&M is one of the preeminent transportation institutes in the country. It does a lot of work for other states and for the Federal Highway Administration. They weren’t even consulted. The plan wasn’t even run by the Texas Transportation Institute. It was not consulted with the metropolitan traffic planners of the major metropolitan cities or any cities or communities or regions in Texas. It was done in a complete vacuum in Austin by the Transportation officials at the direction of the governor’s office. So
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we have something that was not collaborative. It was never vetted with other transportation officials. It was never introduced to the public. It was adopted as policy in June of 2002. It was adopted as policy before it was even legal to do the project. It wasn’t until House Bill 3588 was passed that the project became legal to do. It required significant changes in Texas law to accomplish the project.
DT: Maybe you can talk about House Bill 3588, which I understand it was passed in 2003, to address some of the gaps in authority that TxDOT would need in order to build Trans Texas Corridor.
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DS: Right, in the—in the Crossroads of the America’s plan—its—has several sections and each section has a subsection called “challenges.” And the challenges were the changes in state law that would be necessary to—to make it possible to do the corridor as it was envisioned. And of course, as Linda had said, we were assured that the legislature would never give the Transportation Department such sweeping authority to make changes. And, unfortunately they did. And the kinds of things that were—were changed in House Bill 3588, is very broad. The—the way the roads are financed, the way that the state works with a private vendor to accomplish it, design, build and operate—those rules were changed. The way bidding was done would—allows bidding to be done in secret. It allows negotiations to be done in secret. It—there’s no pure agency review that TxDOT and the Transportation
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Commission can sign agreements that—it—it the 3588 could span fifty years. So they could sign a fifty-year concession agreement without any oversight, without legislative oversight that expanded the way they could treat eminent domain. It—it took provisions that had previously been in law but unused called “quick-take” which would allow for property to be taken instantly upon the filing of the—the proper paperwork with the court and—and the filing of a return so that they could condemn property and take it rapidly to move a project forward. It—it streamlined some of the environmental process. It provided for land banking—something that we didn’t do in Texas before. So that a project that you could presume was going to have a adverse environmental impact and you’d—you would do mitigation by setting aside other land in its place. It allows the state to purchase or take by eminent domain, or lease land in advance and set it aside so they have that land banked so when they
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run into an environmental snag they don’t have to slow down. They can steam forward and already have the land banked for that purpose. And they have already begun that process. They have thousands of acres in Ea—East Texas that has already been banked. So these were very sweeping changes. A lot of them were things that the legislature didn’t understand that we—you couldn’t understand in context because we’ve never done a project like this. I’ve read a lot of le—legislation and drafted legislation over—over the last thirty years and when I read House Bill 3588, there were sections that made no sense at all. It used terminology that I’d never seen used in Texas State law before and it was very difficult to understand why some of these provisions were put in place. And it wasn’t until we got a hold of a document from the World Bank—a bought document—a white paper
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that—that—that indicated what some of these terms meant and how they were used around the world. And it really was a third world government construction technique and it was a financing technique. It was in essence really giving away the farm to get a road. It allowed for numerous ways of collecting revenue because as we come to find out, the Trans Texas Corridor is not a transportation project, it’s a revenue project, albeit revenue that supposedly is going to go to transportation, but it is a revenue project. And so 3588 had revenue enhancers—all kinds of new ways to turn money that previously hadn’t been done. Impact of local governments for example, a utility that local government has that crosses under an interstate or a state highway today, they have to do it to the specifications of the state and—and
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maintain it. But there is no charge. In the future, any utilities public or otherwise that cross this corridor—not even run in the corridor—just cross the corridor—will have to pay a rent, an ongoing rent, a charge to cross the corridor. Every aspect of the corridor is toll—whether it’s the utility or the rail or the—or the highways. It’s all about the generation of money. And so this was adopted in 2003 by a legislature who was not only full of freshmen but was distracted by redistricting. You may recall this is a legislative session when we had one party take their—their members and go to Oklahoma out of the House and in the Senate, they went to New Mexico. So they could be out of state to prevent there from being a quorum in conducting business. And they did that in a battle over redistricting in Texas between the two—two political parties. But in the process, they stacked up a lot of legislation and they
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really got behind the eight ball. And then there was a lot of pressure to move legislation through and House Bill 3588—a very lengthy—over three-hundred page bill—is one of those things that got swept up and moved along in the wee hours of the morning, late in the session, so that they could get it out. And they did so without a full understanding of what that would be.
DT: And this authorizing language—whi—in House Bill 3588, also created a process for explaining—not necessarily taking comments or questions—but explaining the Trans Texas Project to the public and I was hoping that you could maybe take us to that stage, which I guess was in early ’04.
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DS: You know I wish there really was a stage in which the state went out to explain the project. What the state has done since 2004—repeatedly—and through the environmental process particularly, is try to justify the project. They’ve never really explained the project or the need for the project. As a matter of fact, this project was undertaken with no—no—no studies that showed where the traffic flow would be or the demand for the project. There’s no feasibility study. I mean, we’ve launched this project without any grounding of—of purpose that—that’s a transportation purpose—revenue purpose yes, transportation, no. So…
DT: Was there an argument made about the revenue generation that was needed just—just…
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DT: …on that?
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DS: Yes. The justification there has been that we—we collect certain taxes that go towards road construction and maintenance. We have vehicle registrations, we have sales tax on auto parts and then most notably, we have gasoline tax. You pay 38-point cents per gallon for every gallon of gasoline you buy in Texas. Eighteen point four cents of that goes to federal government and then gets reapportioned back out and we get a—we get most of that back in Texas. The twenty cents per gallon is a state tax. That state tax has not been raised since 1991. Certainly we’ve had inflation since 1991. The total dollars have gone up and the reason the total dollars have gone up is because the number of vehicles on the highway has increased and therefore the amount of fuel consumed has increased and therefore the dollars have increased. That said, we have not kept up with the rate of inflation that there has been diminishing funds over time, all of that twenty cents does not go to
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transportation, twenty-five percent goes to education, and then there have been raids on that fund for other things in the state. So they have a legitimate argument that there’s not as much funding available and so their solution to that is tolling. 3588 not only introduced the Trans Texas Corridor but it introduced a—a whole new philosophy that every new road project in the State of Texas would be looked at first as a toll road and it also allowed for a toll conversion—taking existing state highways—mostly they looked at nearly complete highways, but it allowed any state highway to be converted to a toll road. And so it was a complete change looking to go towards a user fee. And you know, that may or may not be the right decision, but it—but the decision was made without any public discourse, without any discussion, without looking at other alternatives and that’s really what our issue is.
DT: You said that these—these hearings that were held, I guess beginning in February of ’04 of—managed to be more like a public relations justification for the project rather than true explanations, and I was hoping that you might be able to talk about that—those hearings, such as they were.
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DS: Okay. Yeah, those—those hearings were a requirement of House Bill 3588. One of the provisions said that before a project would—was done in a county, that there would be at least one—one public hearing held in that county. And that’s kind of humorous to us because when that was originally written and drafted, it said that there we—there had to be one meeting and one of the legislators objected that one meeting wasn’t enough and so they changed the language to say at least one. And it doesn’t take an attorney to know that one meeting and at least one meeting is still just one meeting. And you and I might look at that and think that we would get to a point where they’re really considering building a road and they would come and they would have a public hearing in that county about the road they’re considering building, but if you wanted to avoid any public input or public opposition or—or slow
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your project down, you would use the tactic TxDOT did and you would blitzkrieg. You would hold a meeting in every single county to eliminate ever having to go back and have a discussion in that county again and you would do it at a time when nobody knew what the Trans Texas Corridor was and if you don’t know what it is, you can’t hardly object to it. And that’s exactly what TxDOT did. The law was passed in June of 2003 and in February of 2004, they went to all 254 counties in Texas and in 28 days held a public hearing. Some days they held as many as 32 public hearings in a single day. Those public hearings consisted of showing a—a video presentation—a short video presentation—the person who was holding the hearing reading a prepared script and then handing out six pages of paper. One of which was a color artist’s rendition of the—of the Trans Texas Corridor, a couple
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pages of bullet points and then a—a cover page and then the page that we like to refer to as the coloring book page. The coloring book page has an outline of the state of Texas which everyone recognizes, whether you’re from Texas or not. It had 18 black dots that were labeled as cities. It didn’t show a single river, didn’t show a single highway, didn’t show any other land marks whatsoever. And at the top left hand corner of this page were instructions and it said, “Draw three lines where you think we need to build corridors.” Now if you were in a courtroom, that’s called directing the witness. And so what they did is they handed these out and they got people to draw three lines on there. And they used that as evidence that we need these corridors because everybody drew three lines on a map. And not exactly scientific, and they did prepare a—a chart for this and presented it proudly to the Texas Transportation Commission as a demonstration of the need to move forward
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with the corridors. Now, most people have no idea what the Trans Texas Corridor was. These meetings were very poorly attended. Average across the state was 17 people at each county meeting. Interestingly enough, those numbers are very skewed because a thousand of those people that attended the meetings were in Fayette County alone. A county of 22,000—the Corridor Watch organized attendance at two meetings—it’s the only county that had two meetings. We had approximately 80 at the first meeting, which was held in February to which our county judge who wasn’t even notified there was going to be a public hearing—we notified the county judge that they were holding the hearing on Ash Wednesday and he came to the meeting and he demanded that there be a second meeting so that everyone in his county that wanted to attend could. And at the second meeting in March, the only meeting held in March, 800 people came and they were interested and that 800 is in
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the total of 4,000 statewide that attended. And, the attendance was very poor. And—and yet TxDOT will hold that up as the example of their outreach—their citizen outreach. One of the things that we discovered through open records request was that since they were holding so many meetings and they were all delegated to district engineers’ offices to do that, that they would send five or six TxDOT people out to hold the meeting. All five or six of those people would sign the sign-in sheet and the same five or six people would do two, three, four, maybe five meetings and every time they signed in, they got counted again as if they were a new Texan who was part of the public hearing the process. And that was their citizen outreach. And it wasn’t really telling anybody about the Trans Texas Corridor. It was just checking off the box so they’ve held their public hearing and they never have to come back.
DT: And—and at these hearings—they provided the—the coloring book and it’s like—I guess that was submitted to TxDOT, but were there other comments or suggestions or questions that were raised about the project?
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DS: Well they had a comment form. They—they would solicit your comments on the project. But one of the things that’s very disturbing to us, was they held these public hearings and not—not a single one of the 254 public hearings did they have a copy of the Crossroads of the America Trans Texas Corridor Plan. They didn’t even have a copy of the executive summary, which is a—about a ten page version of that. And so the person who’s giving the presentation reading the prepared statement knew nothing about the project beyond that prepared statement and the video, could answer—couldn’t answer a question if they wanted to, had no backup documentation, couldn’t refer you to this—say here’s the document—I don’t know anything about it, but look in here and see if your answer’s in here. And so, there wasn’t any information to be shared and so if someone who did come and have
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legitimate questions or concerns, they couldn’t get an answer and yet that was their public hearing. And in those counties, as far as a public hearing on whether you want or need the project, that was your only opportunity, never to be repeated again. The public hearings that they’ve had since then and they’re having today and TxDOT will tell you that they—they’ve had lots and lots of public meetings. All of those public meetings are environmental meetings. Those are mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1968. They didn’t want to hold any of those. They’re required because they’re using federal funds. And—and there again, just checking off the box—it’s a perfunctory requirement that they have to do and they’re doing the minimum and—and you get your opportunity to make your comments in that process but you’re only commenting on things like alignment. You’re not really commenting on any legitimate alternatives—no—no serious alternatives are being
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presented through that environmental process. And so it’s—we liken it to they decided to buy a car and they’re going to let you help pick the color of the car, they’re showing you five black paint chips and you get to pick which color of black you like.
DT: About this same time—I think in February of 2004, when these hearings were being held, you and your wife, Linda, started a group called Corridor Watch dot Org and I was hoping to know why you did that and what sort of response you got when you started to publicize your efforts.
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DS: Well you know we were offended by the project for a number of reasons. We were offended by the—the process—the—we thought it was bad public policy. We thought it was—have a negative impact on the state, the environment to a—the local economies, the state economies and—and we felt a responsibility. We felt like we were—we really and truly were in many cases the only people in communities that knew anything about the project. And we felt a personal responsibility to warn our neighbors about this project—to let them know what it was. And—and we had a hard time drawing a line. We live in a very small rural community. And after you share with your neighbors the impact that this corridor could have on them, how do you not share that with the rest of the county? And then, how do you not share it
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with the neighboring counties because we’re all going to be affected. And it turned out we’re going to be affected whether it comes through your county or it doesn’t—that the impacts are tremendous. And so, we really just couldn’t stop. We felt a personal responsibility to tell people what this project was about. Fortunately we were able to use the Internet so that we could have a—a good reach and we could do this on a shoestring and with a very small organization and rapidly that organization grew. We ended up with members across the entire state. Today we have members in 199 counties—199 out of 254. That’s actually more than the 118 counties that have any projected corridor to be in them. So it has become a real statewide issue. Our goal is education. Corridor Watch was not—not—did not set out to impact the political process. We were interested in sharing information and
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being a resource. One of the things that was very disturbing is to find out that our elected officials knew as little about the project as the citizens. Even those who voted for 3588 had no idea how it would be applied. It wasn’t obvious on its face. You could not read that legislation and see how the Transportation Commission and TxDOT was going to apply it and how it was going to be such a tremendous departure from projects of the past. And so, the legislature needed education as well. And Corridor Watch set out to do that and to provide a resource. We—we have amassed examples and—and documents and experiences in these kinds and other kinds of allied projects a—around the world and have served as a resource now to—to citizens and elected officials as they—as they struggle with “is this the right thing to do.” And one of the things we’ve always said is if everybody knew what this project was, and they knew what the potential impacts were and they decided they
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wanted to do it anyway, that we’d get out of the way because what our goal is is to have people make informed decisions and to understand how it will impact them and if they want to make a bad decision, that’s their right. We just want to make sure they—they have all the information to make the bad decision or the good decision in front of them.
DT: Well when you were circulating this information through the Internet and personal appearances, what sort of impacts have you been able to—to disclose and what sort of impacts have come resonating with people? What do you think really concerns people?
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DS: Well you know the—the first thing that’s the most sensitive is when it impacts your own property—your own real estate. When this is going to take land that—that’s yours or your family’s or—or been in the family for years. Unfortunately that has allowed some people to characterize this as a “not in my back yard” or a “nimby” issue or that it is the same kind of objections people have to the interstate. That doesn’t diminish that impact. That’s a very real impact. It’s also a very real impact when you consider where—where this is going. I mean these are not highways that go between our metropolitan centers where the traffic generators are at. This is a project that intentionally goes through rural Texas and it goes through people’s
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homes and communities that are not easily replaced, where displacement has a—creates a much greater hardship. When you go through a—you know, taking anyone’s home is—is a hardship. But when it’s a tract home in a metropolitan or suburban area where there are other tract homes that you can go and purchase with the—with the proceeds from—from your sale of your land or—or from your condemnation, you can go replace that. When you come to rural Texas people’s homes are not just their homes, it’s their livelihood—it’s their ranches or their farms. And they can’t just go find another ranch or farm and—and plug themselves back in. So you not only take their home, you take their heritage, you take their ability to earn a living and support their family. One of the insidious things about this project is it’s nearly a quarter-mile wide, which is so wide as to create a barrier—a barrier to transportation, a social barrier, a wildlife barrier and it—it divides a piece of property
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that’s used for ranching or for farming. It can destroy the economic viability of that farm. If you were to take a 800-acre farm in—in the Black Lands of Texas, and divide that in half with a quarter-mile swath where you have no access from one side to the other—no reasonable access—two 400-acre farms don’t have the same financial viability as one contiguous 800-acre farm. The equipment that you have is sized to your acreage. You don’t just go buy another set of equipment, because the set you have is going to be oversized for 400 acres. You can’t move large equipment and combines from one side of a major highway to another. It—it introduced those all kinds of new complications that an interstate never would. One of the things about the corridor is it’s flat—it’s at grade. The rail elements really put physical engineering constraints on the corridor. High-speed passenger rail doesn’t like to make turns so that your corridor ends up straight. High-speed freight rail—we’re
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talking about 200 mile an hour freight rail—doesn’t like grades. It likes a one percent grade plus or minus so it’s very flat. So the topography is going to dictate the location and then you’re going to have this very flat at grade corridor. Unlike interstates, interstates you—you do cut and fill and you have elevated portions and you have areas where you cross that the wildlife can go underneath or you—you—you have a lot more opportunities to have crossings whether that’s traffic crossings or wildlife crossings or crossings to adjacent properties. You know when they built the interstates they put a lot of cattle tunnels in and they made places where people can cross in low spots underneath the interstate so they could move cattle back and forth. This corridor won’t give you that same ability. A quarter-mile is an awful long tunnel and it—it just isn’t going to be practical at all. And so just by design, it’s going to have a tremendous impact. It’s a hazardous materials route. It’s a designated hazardous materials route. They’re talking about allowing heavier trains and heavier trucks and larger trucks on this route. They’re going to put hazardous materials into the areas of Texas that are the least prepared to respond to that. It’s
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a closed corridor—the risks to people are going to be much more significant. In a metropolitan area, you have lots of side streets and other avenues and routes that escape from a hazardous materials incident. In rural Texas in a closed corridor, you’re going to stack vehicles up at 80—80 miles an hour behind this into densities that far exceed what you have in urban densities and people will be in cars. And cars are not shelter in—in place types of a—they’re not designed for shelter in place. I mean anyone who has smelled a skunk along side of the road knows that a car is not a place to be to be protected from—from chemical vapors. And so it’s going to create greater hazards and create them in places where people are ill resp—prepared to respond or to provide emergency services. You know, the—the putting disparate elements together in a single corridor creates tremendous hazards. One derailment can impact the utilities and impact the—the highways. The potential for—for disaster
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there and for ecological disaster again, in a place—places where you’re—you’re not well prepared is tremendous. There are—it—it—you know, we can just go on endlessly with the impact of the physical corridor, the economic impact, the social impact, none of which has been fully vetted. I mean if we’d had this discussion in an open dialogue with the citizens and elected officials, these things could be looked at and they could figure out ways to address them and—and we could move into a project with—with our eyes open. But that’s not happened. This is a project we’re charging headlong into without exploring all of those pitfalls and without solving those problems and yet we’re moving forward with—with great speed to acquire the land and begin the process.
DT: So far we’ve talked about the—the origination of the Trans Texas Corridor and the creation of the authority for it and then the subsequent creation of the—of CorridorWatch.org group that—that you and your wife, Linda created and which you successful in getting a lot of attention disclosure of what was going on. Maybe you could take us to this next stage in—in ’05, I understand that the legislature returned (?) has a session and passes House Bill 2702 and maybe you could talk about what sort of changes that had to…
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DT: …the project.
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DS: You know, our education effort was a very slow, painful process. We were really starting from behind the curve—they’d already passed legislation, they already had a plan and now we’re trying to educate people on something that had been launched. And in that session, we—we were really just starting to—to get some cracks in the wall. There were some bills introduced that would of put a moratorium on the Trans Texas Corridor. There were some bills that were introduced that would have stopped it altogether, none of which saw the light of day. The only bill that was going to see the light of day was the one that was championed by the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, which was House Bill 2702 and largely it expanded the powers and authorities despite the fact that TxDOT had gotten
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everything that they had wanted in 3588, they wanted even more. And one of the examples of that is they want to increase the length of their ability to do these comprehensive development agreements—the CDA’s—the—the public private partnerships—and in total in particular they wanted to move that from 50 years to 70 years. And 2702 did just that. So in some regards it expanded the powers. But 2702 also provided a vehicle by which we were able to successfully—and in some cases unsuccessfully—get amendments attached. It was a bill that had already come out of the House Transportation Committee—a committee which the leadership was not going to allow any adverse bills to come out and—but once it was out, there were floor attachments and amendments. And we did get some positive changes.
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We did get the ability to protect the groundwater under the corridor. The amount of land taken for the corridor—146 acres per lane mile—is a tremendous amount of land and in Texas you have the rule of capture on water. And what we discovered was that the concessionaire of this—this private concessionaire would be able to drill water wells along the entire route of the corridor and do so on state land being exempt from groundwater conservation district regulations and that was a big problem. And so one of the things that we got passed in that legislative session was a bar of taking any water out of the corridor and using the rule of capture to remove water. Now water lines still remain in the corridor—very large water lines—to move water around inner basin and perhaps even out of the—the state and as we’ve—we learned later even out of the country is not prohib—prohibited. So we have other issues. But we started—we started the process, we started raising awareness,
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we started getting some positive changes. We started doing what I like to call “rifle shots”—taking out some of the most egregious issues and start to work on those things that will help slow down the process until we get a—a more open debate. That was the 2005 session. We worked through the interim. We continued to build momentum. There were environmental meetings that happened during the interim that allows us to—to reach more people and raise the issue and raise the concern that this is a real project. It’s really happening. It’s not 30 years away, it’s of the size and scope and scale that we’ve been talking about and we moved into the—our third legislative session in—in this—this history, the 2005. And we were on a roll. We started 2005 with far more support than we had in tooth—in 2007 than we had in 2005 and—and we started gaining momentum. We had more bills introduced. All
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together there were nine bills that were introduced or had attachments on them to create a moratorium—a two-year moratorium on the Trans Texas Corridor. Ultimately one of those bills made it to the floor of both the House and Senate and passed overwhelmingly—only later to be vetoed by the governor. Another version of the bill—moratorium bill—passed with a lot of exceptions and it excluded TTC-35—the only one really that in the next two years was up for construction contracts. But we did slow the process down. We—we exposed a lot of—of issues and concerns to the legislature where they had not really expected it to lie. One of the things that came out during that session was an auditor’s report. And the auditor had been asked to look at the TTC-35 project and to see what the whole total costing of that
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project was going to be. And it turned out on a project that was supposed to be in double-digit billion dollars, they extrapolated out that the cost of the Trans Texas Corridor at 35 elements—600 miles from Laredo to the Red River was going to be 107.5 billion dollars. This took a project that in the year 2002 when it was proposed was estimated at 184 billion dollars and using those same numbers extrapolated this out now to a 750 billion dollar project statewide. The numbers are staggering. Not only were the numbers staggering, but the auditor also pointed out that the citizens of Texas may never know how much the project really costs because of the way the accounting was being done, that all the costs were not being borne by a private operator, as they would have you to believe. That in fact, there was public money put in there, that there was tax dollars already being spent on this project in the
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millions of dollars. That there was government loans that were being applied for by the private concessionaire. The private concessionaire was applying for a 300 million dollars in federal TIFIA loans. So there was public money going in, despite the fact this was supposed to be private financing. Most disturbing was the internal accounting at TxDOT. They had done a—a sampling of expenditures as you do in an audit. And I believe they pulled 35 invoices. And out of the 35 invoices, they found discrepancies and I believe the correct number is 26—26 out of 35 had discrepancies. And some of these discrepancies were really troubling. Some of them were—they were miscoded—they were coded to projects other than TTC-35 or they were coded in one particular case—an invoice had been coded as engineering and the expenditure was for public relations. The very effort to sell people on the project
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and was being coded as engineering. And so there was—there’s no confidence in the numbers coming out of TxDOT on this project. We also learned through the audit that there was an attorney that had been hired to do the legal negotiations with the concessionaire on this project and that that attorney—a single attorney—a California attorney—had a contract with TxDOT who would not disclose his hourly rate and refused to disclose it in a Senate hearing that they had a con—a contract with him that guaranteed him 32 million dollars—one attorney on one project. And that to date he had been paid already in excess of ten million dollars on that contract. These were shocking revelations. They were even shocking to those members of the Senate Con—Transportation Homeland Security who were sympathetic to TxDOT.
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It was hard to justify the direction that this was headed. And so those things added fuel to the fire, added to the skepticism, demonstrated the—the dramatic shift in philosophy at our Department of Transportation and that it wasn’t business as usual. It wasn’t the way we have done things in the past and that they needed to pay attention. Unfortunately, that laid—you know, required a lot of time to soak in and we got to the end of the session before we really had arrived at the enlightening. That’s happened now though. We have now ended that session. As soon as the session ended, the—the legislature believed that they had passed a moratorium on the Trans Texas Corridor. And as soon as the session ended, the Department of
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Transportation who instead of disclosing during the session any particular failures that may have been in the law in terms of intent, then disclosed that it had no impact on TTC-35, that the moratorium was completely ineffective and they would continue to move forward. And within weeks, they announced 86 new toll projects across the State of Texas. And—and—and in effect snubbing their nose at the legislature. And then time went by and they did even more than that in—in what appears to be retaliation. They started cutting projects in districts across the state that had already been announced as projects that were going forward. And they—and so that raised again concerns with—with the legislature. And I think all those things have been good things. They’re bringing to light the—the very issues that we have been beating the drum about for literally now years. And we’re starting to turn
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the corner and we’re starting to—to not have to be the driving force behind all of the investigation that is taking on a life of its own. And—and we’re very pleased with that.
DT: Now we’re in 2008 and the—the Sunset Advisory Commission is holding its periodic Sunset Review of the Texas Department of Transportation as sponsor for the Trans Texas Corridor Project. And I was curious if you could tell me what this process involves and what do you think it might expose and—and what the—the end result of this whole Sunset Review might be.
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DS: Well the Sunset Review is a—a reauthorization and those people that aren’t familiar with that in the case of TxDOT, every twelve years they come under Sunset Review and it requires legislation to be passed to reauthorize the agency to continue. So that requires a affirmative action on the part of the legislature. Out of that they also get to make adjustments and changes to the structure of the organization. I would say most times that—that’s pretty cut and dried. They’re very minor adjustments or tinkering that’s done there and—and it moves forward because a—an agency the size of TxDOT with the billions of dollars that it manages and the highways is going to get reauthorized. We’re going to have a Transportation Department in the future. It’s—it’s not some insignificant agency that can just
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disappear or be rolled into another. However, TxDOT is going into this Sunset Review under a cloud. They have a very unpopular project that they have been pushing in the face of not only the citizens, but now the elected officials. There have been some examinations of the way that they do their internal handling of the project and the funds and—and other funds. They have recently fallen on the sword and said they’ve made a one point one billion dollar accounting error of double counting bond money. There is serious doubt by cer—certain Senators that they really did make an error—that they’re using it as justification for cutting projects in retaliation for the legislature’s failure to authorize everything that they want and so
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there’s this big pushback. And I think this Sunset, unlike previous ones, is going to be much harsher—take a much closer look. Already the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House has called for full top to bottom aud—audit of TxDOT, not just the Trans Texas Corridor, but the entire agency and the way it conducts its business and the internal management of—of their business. And so we see all those playing in now to a very significant audit then—er—Sunset process that could have sweeping changes. And—and some of those changes we advocate for ha—are—are consistent across the board with the Trans Texas Corridor and everything else and that is accountability and transparency. Under 3588, a lot of TxDOT’s business now is conducted in secret—is not subject to public disclosure. They are able to award bids not based on lowest bid but some subjective standard that TxDOT gets to determine
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of what’s best value. And so projects now are being awarded to—to vendors with no explanation to why one vendor gets it over another. So there’s—there is no transparency. And there’s no accountability. The legislature sent very clear signals in the last session of what direction they expected TxDOT to take. They—they put a moratorium on a project that TxDOT now is ignoring. They authorized the issuance of bonds to continue road construction and TxDOT has decided they don’t want to issue the bonds, that they’d rather do tolls instead of the bonds. And so they’re refusing to issue public bonds to build projects and in—instead canceling them and—and because there’s not an increase in the gasoline tax or authorization of the tolls. And so they’ve created a climate that is going to be unfriendly for—for Sunset and we hope to see some changes there. And on the accountability perhaps as we get
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away from having a Transportation Commission who is exclusively appointees of one person—the Governor—who feel like they are only answerable to the gov—Governor and not to the legislature and certainly not to the people. We have a—a—a Transportation Commission who says that the needs of the state trump the opinion of the citizens. We don’t think that’s right. And we think maybe Sunset won’t think that’s right. And maybe one of the things that comes out of this is an elected body much like you have a Railroad Commission who might look at transportation and give some accountability back to the people or back to the legislature. So we think that there could be—could be sweeping changes and certainly there will be—a spotlight will really be put on the agency in a way that has never happened before and will make much more difficult for them to continue in the direction they’ve been going.
DT: Let me ask you a—a question that turns the spotlight from TxDOT and the Sunset Review you just mentioned and—and turns it back on yourself and Linda and the—the Corridor Watch organization. You’ve been successful in—in—in slowing down this—this sort of juggernaut, I guess, but that must be very frustrating to those that—that want to sponsor and—and see the project move forward. Have you gotten some criticism, blowback, from—from your efforts?
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DS: Well of course we have. You know, we don’t really think of ourselves as martyrs in this process. We—we’re grassroots activists. We feel like we’ve been like—like a lot of people we’ve just been put in a position where we—we have no choice but to continue on and to fight the fight. We have suffered the slings and arrows of those who would like to discredit us. We knew that was going to happen at the very beginning. We are—are often painted as black helicopter conspiracy theorists. We—we welcome the opportunity to address that with anyone who—who is willing to discuss that because we—we certainly don’t think that that’s the case. We have been threatened with—with lawsuits and litigation. We’ve gotten, you
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know, certified letters in the beginning on a pretty regular basis from attorneys who threatened to sue us and who wanted us to disclose our membership records and wanted to make it very difficult for us to operate and for us to—to continue to—to educate people. We have—we have the luxury of living in rural Texas. With that comes a sense of community that provides us with a sense of security that you might not have in other places. The—the people here that we live amongst are the very people that we’re—we’re working very hard to protect from this project. They recognize that, they respect that. They support us. Our employers support our efforts and so there’s—there’s really not much of an avenue to attack us. And we have tremendous faith in the citizens of Texas and—and we have tremendous faith in
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doing the right thing. If you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons, then you should be secure in that. And—and we do take heart to that and—and we’re concerned about—not as much our own property and—and our own—ourselves—as we are for our children and our grandchildren and our neighbors and their children and their grandchildren.
DT: Let me ask you something that goes back a little ways. You used a word—monetize—and that—that this Trans Texas effort was part of a—a more general trend to take things that were I guess in the commonwealth and the—the (?) public trust—like the highway system. But I guess in—in other regards, I guess there are a lot of things that the government does for us and—and turning it over to the private sector. Can you help us put this in a bigger context?
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DS: Yeah. It’s a—it’s a philosophical shift. It’s I think a dangerous philosophical shift. You know, there’s—there is a school of thought that we should operate government like business. And having been involved in local government for thirty years, I think that’s a very poor shift. Businesses operate different than government and government should not operate like business. Business has the luxury of making business decisions. And they have the luxury of deciding who they want to serve and who they don’t want to serve. And government’s not in the role. And this term monetization is one that’s being bandied about and that they look at the existing highways and future highways as an asset and that they—they should monetize that. In other words, pull the greatest value out of that road as—as possible and maximize its return. And government’s not about maximizing return or
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extracting money from citizens. Government’s about providing service. And there is a structure that was set up in the last legislative session that really speaks to that. Senate Bill 792 created a thing called market valuation for these new toll road projects. And what that says is that you do a financial analysis and you figure out exactly what the value of the road is and you set your tolls to recover that full value. So instead of paying what you need to pay to have a road and maintain it, you now are—are going to be forced to pay the absolute highest amount to use the road. Not, you know, which is well in excess of building and operating and maintaining and even paying a profit margin. It is to extract money beyond that. There’s the monetization—to pull other money out of that project that can be spent elsewhere, theoretically for transportation. But even so, we don’t think this is the—this is the right project—process. This is saying we tax you to the absolute maximum.
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So we maximize the tax we can get from people. And then we turn around and we use that for good. So that’s a huge philosophical shift. We have transportation commissioners who stand up in front of groups and say that we’re not getting as much money out of this dirt as we could if we put this toll road here. And we have people in our rural communities who stand up and say it’s not dirt, it’s soil. It’s soil that produces food. It’s soil that supports our families and supports our state and tr—supports country, that it’s not about highest and best use as determined by someone who sits in Austin and has a—a private concessionaire who says I can build a toll road out here and make money and then I can control the access and we can make money on hotels within the corridor ancillary facilities which, ancillary facilities allow the taking of additional unlimited land even through eminent domain to benefit the corridor with commercial, industrial and—and agricultural purposes that generate
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money. It is about money. It’s kind of a shift that we see coming out of the Supreme Court in the New London verse—the Kelo versus New London, Connecticut case where people lost their private homes so that Pfizer could have an expanded parking lot because it would pay more taxes than the homes. And the Supreme Court held that the government can take private property if doing so creates more revenue for the government. We think that’s wrong. And that’s what the monetization is about. It’s about extracting as much money as you possibly can out of the users of that land, if you will. And I would submit it’s not a user’s fee, it’s not a user’s tax. Every good and service that—that uses that corridor whether it’s a utility
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or a rail or a truck, even if you never travel on it or you never see it, if those goods or services arrive to where you purchase them, you’re going to pay your share of the cost of living on that corridor. And so it’s really an insidious, hidden tax that everyone will pay and they’ll pay a profit margin on top of the tax and then the kickback goes to the state. And hopefully that money at least would get spent for—for transportation but we have a real problem with the whole philosophy of—of extracting the maximum amount people that you can as a good thing—as a—a goal.
DT: David, when we broke off just a moment ago, you were talking about this effort to monetize things that had formerly been publicly held and that that’s often the calculus people have for organizing their lives is—is trying to see what they can get out of something. And I think that you probably confuse some of your opponents in this by not having a clear benefit from this and I was—from this effort you’ve had in—in opposing Trans Texas. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is that you do get back, what sort of justification you have for—for being involved with it?
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DS: Yeah, our—our payback is just doing the right thing. And it isn’t an agenda that allows someone to undermine. It isn’t—what—there isn’t anything that you can throw into legislation or you can do in another direction that satisfies that of doing the right thing, other than doing the right thing. It—it is the lack of our—of our agenda, if you will, beyond educating and doing the right thing that allows us to attract disparate groups and our—our support. We put together a coalition of organizations that historically wouldn’t talk to each other and yet they can come together and support our effort to educate people on this project whether it’s—it’s environmental or it’s land rights or it’s wildlife or it’s farmers—it’s—you know, both sides of the aisles—it’s non-partisan—it’s—people can really coalesce around doing the right thing for the right outcome for—for Texas. And…
DT: What is the common thread do you think that runs through all the members of your alliance?
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DS: That it—that is a project that’s overreaching and unjustified and it doesn’t benefit any of them. That there are—there are more negatives to the project in the way it’s being approached, the way it’s being executed than there are positives. And we all might disagree on what the positives and the negatives are, but we all know this project, as it has been proposed, is not good for any of us.
DW: Who are some of these disparate groups that one might normally not think of coming together. Can you give us the a-to-z (?)?
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DS: Well we have—we have everything from—from motorcycle activists to land’s rights to—to ranching groups, to cattlemen’s groups to environmental groups—environmental groups that are—are very aggressive to environmental groups that aren’t aggressive, to citizen’s transportation groups, to county governments and school districts and cities who might be on the opposite side of issues with all of those groups, elected officials and volunteer organizations and other just grass root activists. It—it really covers the waterfront and it serves us well.
DT: Good. Well thank you very much for explaining this. I appreciate your time.
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DS: Anything to add?
DT: Is there anything that you’d like to add?
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DT: …that I—that I may not have addressed? I’m sorry.
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DS: Yeah actually I would say one more thing.
DT: Please do.
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DS: You know, we—we’re happy to fight this fight and we’re happy to fight it on behalf of other people to the full extent that we can. But we could always use help. We—we invite people, whether it’s this cause or another cause, to get involved and be active and stand up for what’s right. What’s right in their community, what’s right for environmental causes, what’s right for political causes—to get involved, to get engaged and stay engaged and do their part.
DW: Do you ever reach a point personally where you had to either walk away and give up—did you ever reach that wall where you just felt you couldn’t climb any higher on this and how—if you did, how did you get over that hurdle (inaudible)?
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DS: You know, there have been times—we have a great advantage of being a team and that whenever one of us gets discouraged or—or loses our motivation, the other picks up the slack and keeps it going. And over the course of the years, I can only think of one instance when we both kind of hit the low at the same time and it was pretty tough and—and we—we did step back. And—and our friends and neighbors and the people that we had built alliances with wouldn’t let us let go. It’s kind of like holding on to a—a balloon that’s going up into the air—you get high enough off the ground, you just can’t let go. And so we find ourselves back engaged and reenergized and we’re reenergized by the people who we originally energized and—and bringing on new groups of people and—and new participants. And—and growing the cause and I think we’re doing good work in the process.
DT: Well said. Thank you very much.
[End of Reel 2405]
[End of Interview with David Stall]