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TxDOT caught violating the law, forced to pull plug on 281 toll road
October 2, 2008
by Terri Hall, Executive Director, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freeedom

TxDOT asks feds to pull clearance due to damaging evidence of rigged study and subsequent cover-up

Today, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) announced it is asking the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to withdraw its environmental clearance for the US 281 toll project in Bexar County. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit to halt the toll project and advance an overpass plan, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) and Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas (AGUA), believe TxDOT’s move is in response to an email they obtained from a TxDOT whistleblower showing a biologist at TxDOT hired her own husband to "fix" the environmental study for 281 in order to get federal clearance for tolling an existing freeway.

She did this at the direction of top management at TxDOT, like David Casteel, the former San Antonio District Engineer now promoted to a position as the right hand man to TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz in Austin. TURF recently uncovered even more damaging emails. In its recent motion to compel TxDOT to hand over other key documents, TxDOT was put on notice that TURF knew about this illegal behavior and were about to depose witnesses under oath about it. Rather than come clean, TxDOT is again trying to hide their wrongdoing blaming the halt on a “technicality” and procurement “irregularities.”

Law enforcement to step in?

“We need law enforcement to get inside TxDOT and confiscate all of these email records and shine the light on this corrupt organization. What we know is likely just the tip of the iceberg,” urged TURF Founder Terri Hall.

"Calling this ‘irregularities’ is their way of covering-up the fact that they broke the law to pre-determine the outcome of the environmental work on 281 (see page 3 of this document) and deliberately suppressed a study (read it here and here) that warned of the potential damage the aquifer. What TxDOT did is tantamount to fraud and collusion to break federal law. TxDOT has conducted itself illegally and shamefully, and you can bet we'll take them to task for this and so must law enforcement and the Legislature,” insists Hall.

TxDOT’s Spin

TxDOT’s Jefferson Grimes, Deputy Director of the Government and Public Affairs Division of TxDOT sent out an email stating:

“This week, the Texas Department of Transportation requested that the Federal Highway Administration withdraw its Finding of No Significant Impact on the U.S. 281 project in Bexar County.

“TxDOT recently discovered possible irregularities in the procurement of a scientific services contract that was utilized in the preparation of the Environmental Assessment.  TxDOT is currently conducting an internal audit to establish relevant facts and will release the audit when it is complete.  Following the conclusion of the audit, TxDOT will take necessary corrective actions and will work to prevent similar issues from delaying future projects.”

Background on the litigation

On August 7, 2008, TxDOT asked a Bexar County federal district court for a 60 day delay in the TURF/AGUA 281 toll road lawsuit so they could beg the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) NOT to yank their environmental clearance for the US 281 toll project. Through the discovery process of the lawsuit, Judge Fred Biery required TxDOT to hand over the complete administrative record for US 281, including all the financials and the documents from when the improvements were funded with gas taxes that would keep US 281 a FREEway. It was discovered that TxDOT withheld key documents not only from the public and TURF attorneys, but also the FHWA!

There is an email record that shows TxDOT tried to "fix" the environmental work for US 281 to pre-determine a "Finding of No Significant Impact" (or FONSI) BEFORE the environmental study was even conducted.

"They rigged it! That is a DIRECT VIOLATION OF FEDERAL LAW," says Hall.

TxDOT then hired a company, HNTB, to do the so-called "independent" environmental study even though HNTB has a MAJOR conflict of interest, in that, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA) also hired HNTB to do the preliminary engineering for all their toll projects. So HNTB had a vested interest in a "Finding of No Significant Impact" (or FONSI).

Then, it's also been discovered that TxDOT purposely withheld a key study from a geologist they hired that stated the potential “severe” harmful effects of the toll road on the Edwards Aquifer. Such a study didn't conclude what TxDOT wanted it to in order to get clearance from the feds, so they intentionally hid the report and failed to submit it to the FHWA who uses that crucial information in their decision on whether or not to give federal approval for the project.

TxDOT submitted these documents to the feds who completely re-examined its previous approval of the US 281 toll road. It's likely the feds were set to yank their environmental clearance for the toll road in light of this deception by TxDOT. As damage control, TxDOT beat them to it before the FHWA or the court did it for them. Of course, TxDOT and the RMA blame the citizens who brought TxDOT's deception to light for killing the toll project instead of their own willful dishonesty.

“They were FORCED to come clean through a lawsuit brought by concerned citizens, not by them being forthcoming," notes an outraged Hall.

TURF is seeking to have law enforcement get involved to prosecute the willful violation of federal law by TxDOT.

For more information on the TURF/AGUA US 281 lawsuit, go here and here.