Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Perry touts Trans-Texas Corridor plan in campaign.

Many state candidates not driven by traffic

Transportation is high in list of state's problems, but few stump on issue

Kelly Daniel, American-Statesman Staff

February 27, 2002
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2002

The folks at the top of the ballot, who can do more about one of the largest issues facing Texas, don't mention it as often as the folks at the bottom, who can't do nearly as much about it.

Transportation, it seems, can't quite find its place this election season.

Texans increasingly rank traffic as one of the largest problems facing the state. It's at the top in cities such as Austin, where Interstate 35 is the most congested in its Mexico-to-Minnesota route. Still, transportation is overshadowed in statewide elections by such high-profile issues as education, health care or taxes.

Just one of the major statewide candidates has made transportation a key campaign topic, with Republican Gov. Rick Perry promoting his idea of creating 4,000 miles of corridors for toll roads, high-speed rail lines and pipelines. The governor typically lists education, transportation and health care -- in that order -- as priorities for a full term in office.

Tony Sanchez and Dan Morales, two Democrats vying to take on Perry, and the three major contenders to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm do not bring up transportation unprompted -- even though those offices carry the potential to attract the most transportation money, and thus make the biggest impact on traffic projects.

The governor and senators also will be looked to for help as the state tries to win back some of the estimated $600 million in federal highway money the Bush administration proposes to cut from Texas .

But transportation doesn't lend itself to quick fixes, and therein lies the problem for politicians.

"It's an issue that you shouldn't be promising solutions to," said Glenn Gadbois of Just Transportation Alliances, an Austin-based transportation advocacy group. "Because there aren't going to be any solutions in at least your first go-round on the job."

That hasn't stopped all campaigners. Traffic was a major issue in the Houston mayoral race last year, where winner Lee Brown pledged to "end the gridlock" after an annual poll by a Rice University professor found that Harris County residents are most worried about traffic. Crime and the economy had topped that poll in the past.

The same trends are seen nationally: A 2000 poll by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism found that traffic and sprawl tied crime and violence as respondents' top concerns.

But voters can have a hard time viewing transportation as a statewide problem because it is such a personally felt issue, political scientists and traffic experts say. One region's traffic quagmire doesn't necessarily resonate elsewhere, particularly in West Texas where traffic is so light that 75 mph speed limits can be installed.

"Maybe it's one of those issues that people just don't notice until it becomes a problem," said Jerry Polinard, a University of Texas -Pan American political science professor. "You don't see it in statewide terms. You are most likely to interpret it in your local terms."

And indeed, traffic talk dominates Central Texas county commissioner races, where Williamson County candidates argue how best to spend $350 million road bonds and Travis County candidates square off over removing roads from long-term transportation plans.

Some Texas Legislature campaigns also touch on transportation, but only after the traditional stumping ground of education. Candidates for state House District 46, in Hays, Caldwell and Blanco counties, talk of constituents' worries about paying for the Texas 130 toll road, while candidates in the state Senate District 25 race tell voters they'll focus on gaining more transportation money for the district, which stretches from South Austin to San Antonio.

Those down- and mid-ballot races can control how local and some federal money is spent on traffic projects. The legislators also have a say in the state budget. But the governor helps set the direction of the Transportation Department by appointing its commissioners and by fighting for, or against, the department's budget.

Texas now has U.S. senators with some clout when it comes to transportation and the money to pay for projects, with Gramm on the Senate Budget Committee and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Whoever takes Gramm's place in the Senate will be in office to vote on a new, six-year allotment of transportation money that pays for everything from highways to transit systems to road safety projects. That bill is paramount for traffic projects at the state, regional and local levels across the nation.

Typical of how the Senate candidates treat transportation is Democrat Ron Kirk, who said his campaign priorities are security issues prompted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, preservation of Social Security and cheaper prescription drugs for the elderly. And education, "the ball of wax for Texas ," he said.

Transportation, which the former Dallas mayor dealt with constantly, is somewhere behind all those issues -- even as Kirk doesn't miss a chance to remind voters of Dallas' successes in starting light rail, commuter rail and high-occupancy-vehicle lane networks.

Opposing Kirk are U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen, who touts his involvement in trying to build Interstate 69 in South and East Texas and his support of a light-rail system in Houston, and Victor Morales, a teacher and 1996 Senate nominee, who tells voters that he already would have worked on transportation issues for six years if they had let him beat Gramm. Perry, who is unopposed in the March 12 primary, has concentrated on selling his 50-year Trans -Texas Corridor plan.

Dan Morales, meanwhile, says Texas should explore running high-speed rail along current highways and expanding capacity on current roads, rather than follow Perry's suggestion of creating new, quarter-mile-wide corridors . Sanchez questions the money needed for the governor's idea, which is perhaps $175 billion.

"Perry's transportation plan, I mean, on its face, I guess it sounds grand. But in my judgment, we've got to fix the education problem first," Sanchez said. "That and the health issues we're facing. If I could wave a magic wand -- what do you want to do first? -- I want to insure the children first. You can't teach a child that's not healthy. Secondly, it's education."

Sanchez and Morales are about to embark upon a weekend of debates after spending most of their recent campaign time criticizing each other's records. Transportation so far has not been part of the rhetoric.

"Nobody's talking about it, and I'm not hugely surprised," Gadbois said, adding, "It's all political cost and no political gain."; 445-3618

Copyright (c) 2002 Austin American-Statesman

Austin American-Statesman: