Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Strayhorn: "I say to Governor Perry and his highway henchmen: Hogwash."

Strayhorn sides with angry landowners

Rally against toll roads calls for Perry's removal

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2005

AUSTIN - Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn got farmers, ranchers and small-business owners whipped into a frenzy at a Capitol rally Tuesday as they called for Gov. Rick Perry's impeachment over the land-condemnation provisions of his Trans -Texas Corridor plan.

"Perry and his hand-picked highway henchmen say we have a choice: no roads, slow roads or toll roads," Strayhorn said. "I say to Governor Perry and his highway henchmen: Hogwash. Vote our way today for freeways."

Strayhorn, a potential challenger to Perry in next year's GOP primary, never personally called for the governor's impeachment or election defeat. But she fanned the flames of a crowd that mostly came from Wharton, El Campo and Fayetteville and obviously was already against Perry.

The yellow-shirted people at the rally were Republicans and Democrats, members of the Texas Farm Bureau and the Texas Farmers Union and average people afraid they will lose their land.

"No more Perry!" the crowd shouted, "Impeach Perry!"

The crowd chanted "Clean house, clean house!" in a taunt for the Legislature.

Farm in the path

"I'll give my life so my son gets my farm and not Governor Perry!" shouted John Ricke, 66, a retired Houston firefighter who lives on his family farm in Bastrop.

Ricke said his 68-acre farm is in the potential path of a toll road being built from Dallas to San Antonio for the state by the Spanish firm Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte SA (Cintra for short). The company has the power to condemn land under state law.

Others in the crowd of about 300 feared potential condemnation for a proposed Interstate 69 project, the so-called NAFTA highway that would have a spur along U.S. 59 to the Port of Houston. Becca Socha, president of the El Campo Chamber of Commerce, said such a highway bypass would hurt small-town businesses.

"The Trans -Texas Corridor would be devastating to our community," Socha said.

The toll-road issue has the potential to take support away from Perry in rural areas. The rural vote was the cornerstone of Perry's base when he began his statewide political career as agriculture commissioner and campaigned for landowner property rights against government environmental regulations.

"It's not a critters, birds, bees, foxes, jaguars issue," Perry told a landowners rally near Austin in 1994. "It's about land control. You've got it, and the (federal government) wants to control it."

Toll roads promoted

Now, as governor, Perry is promoting a series of toll roads across Texas to relieve highway congestion, remove hazardous cargo from urban areas and promote Texas as a route of international trade.

"The critics of the plan have an obligation if they don't like it to offer an alternative for addressing not only the existing transportation needs but also the needs we're going to face in the future," Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said.

She said the alternatives to having private contractors finance and build toll roads are to raise taxes to buy up "some of the most expensive real estate" in the state to expand existing interstate highways. Walt said rural opposition to highway expansion is nothing new.

"If you go back to the '50s, there was similar opposition to the Interstate highways and the farm-to-market highway system," Walt said.

Strayhorn called Perry's toll-road plan the "largest land grab in Texas history."

She said he wants to turn the Texas Department of Transportation into "Euro-DOT." She also referred to his plan as the " Trans -Texas Catastrophe."

At one point, Perry press aide Robert Black handed out fliers to reporters showing past support by Strayhorn for toll roads. Strayhorn said the flier distorted her position. She said she is not flatly against toll roads. She said she opposes Perry's condemnation process and plans to put tolls on existing freeways.

When rally organizers asked Black to speak to the rally, he scurried back into the Capitol.

The focus of the rally was a bill by Democratic Reps. Garnett Coleman, of Houston, and Robby Cook, of Eagle Lake, to put a moratorium on toll-road construction for a two-year study. The bill likely is dead because it has not had a hearing in the House Transportation Committee.

Though the rally opposed toll-road construction, the Texas Association of Business put out a news release in support of the program.

"The Trans -Texas Corridor is the most realistic proposal on the table to quickly and efficiently move people and products through Texas ," said TAB President Bill Hammond.

Houston Chronicle: