Monday, December 13, 2004

"Sweeping new policy became law without public demand or awareness."

This session, tolls will get full attention

Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2005

When I moved back to Austin about 16 months ago after living elsewhere since early 2001, everything I saw and was told indicated that Texas had a discussion about toll roads while I was gone and decided that turnpikes were the wave of the future.

Texas 45 North was under construction, and bulldozers were warming up for Texas 130 and the MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) extension. A route had been picked for Texas 45 Southeast, and a newfangled thing called a "regional mobility authority" was hard at work planning another toll road. Several months earlier, in the 2003 session, the Legislature had overwhelmingly passed a huge transportation bill that, in a variety of ways, prepared the ground for turnpikes.

As state Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said to me last year about toll roads: "That's state policy. And I think the public needs to accept that."

The toll road storms of 2004, here and in Dallas, Houston, El Paso and various other locales, indicate that a large chunk of the public hasn't accepted it. And part of the problem may be that this is a rare example of a sweeping and fundamental new policy, one that will affect people every day of their lives, that became law without public demand for it or even much awareness that it was happening.

Think back to the 2003 legislative session. What do you remember about it? Well, Ardmore, Okla., mostly. And the stories weren't about how Democratic House members, trying to foil GOP redistricting plans, got caught in Interstate 35 traffic on their way to Oklahoma and wished they'd been able to take a toll road instead. Oh, and there was that budget problem, too, about $10 billion worth, and school finance.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, and Ogden, chairmen of the two committees overseeing transportation, were knee-deep in a 300-page transportation bill, House Bill 3588, that beefed up regional mobility authorities, made possible Gov. Rick Perry's 4,000-mile Trans -Texas Corridor toll roads, and gave the Department of Transportation all sorts of new powers. That bill passed the House on May 10, two days before the Democrats absconded. Something tells me the Democrats were more interested in their stealth travel plans, and the Republicans in congressional districts, than in the details of HB 3588.

The press, for its part, wasn't paying a whole lot of attention, either. The Austin American-Statesman's transportation reporter left for the Peace Corps as the bill was passing the House and was gone when it passed the Senate, was amended in conference, and became law. The state's other major newspapers don't have transportation reporters in Austin, and the Capitol bureaus were focused on redistricting and the budget.

So toll roads became state policy while almost no one was looking. Everyone's looking now, however, and HB 3588 is likely to undergo significant change in the coming session. Some lawmakers will try to defang it, while toll road supporters actually want more money for tolls and more flexibility. We'll be watching this time.

Getting There appears Mondays. For questions, tips or story ideas, contact Getting There at (512) 445-3698 or

Copyright (c) 2004 Austin American-Statesman: