Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Corridor foes take on Texas capital

Toll road foes take on capital

May 4, 2005

Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

AUSTIN -- They were scared and angry Tuesday, gathering on the front steps of the Capitol to demand that Gov. Rick Perry and lawmakers slow down state toll road plans.

Hundreds of protesters showed up, most wearing yellow T-shirts to symbolize caution. Many of the shirts were emblazoned with a stop sign and a message to stop the Trans Texas Corridor.

The corridor is a 4,000-mile network of toll roads, rail lines and utility lines that Perry proposed three years ago as a cure for the state's ailing highway system. Private companies would fund most of the estimated $184 billion in construction, building it over 50 years.

Opponents fear the state will give away too much authority to private interests and that the corridor 's full impact on farmers, wildlife, towns and urban areas hasn't been scrutinized. They're urging a two-year moratorium to take a closer look.

''It's scary,'' said David Stall of Inc. ''We need a legislative change.''

Many also want to boot Perry out of office as well as legislators who they feel are marching to orders of the road-construction industry and forcing toll roads down Texans' throats.

''People need to know how evil, evil has crept into our country,'' said Betty Meischem, 57, of Bellville, her voice rising to a high pitch as she repeated the word evil.

Moments later, she whispered that this was the first time she had attended a protest.

''I feel that strongly about the issue,'' she said.

Meischem and others had to shout their one-line messages above the din. Chants sporadically broke out. Signs waved like a phalanx of spears.

And that was the warm-up for the rally, which was organized by Citizens Against the Trans Texas Corridor .

Soon, a string of speakers, led by state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and several state legislators, keyed up the crowd.

Strayhorn, a frequent critic of Perry and a potential challenger in next year's governor's race, called the Trans Texas Corridor the largest land grab in Texas history and a form of highway robbery of motorists.

People should vote on whether to build toll roads, she told the crowd, which roared with delight.

''We call it Trans Texas Catastrophe,'' Strayhorn said. ''You can't tell Texans to give up their land and then pay to drive their tractor across it.''

The amplified speeches and howls of protesters echoed along Congress Avenue as pedestrians casually went about routines.

Perry, reportedly in the Governor's Mansion a block away, probably was out of earshot. But governor's spokesman Robert Black responded, saying Strayhorn did an about-face on her 2001 review of the Texas Department of Transportation, in which she recommended more toll roads be built.

''This is a good example of the difference between fast talk and straight talk,'' Black said in a prepared statement.

Strayhorn's office issued a rebuttal that says Perry's staff distorted the truth about her 2001 report. That report stated facts about toll roads such as the ability to build some highways faster and cheaper, but it made no recommendations on toll roads, a statement said.

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News: