Sunday, May 22, 2005

Texas Lawmakers Have Their Own "User Fees"


The financial contributions of special interests speak louder than citizen protests when it comes to legislative support for the Trans-Texas Corridor.

May 21, 2005

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2005

As Texas geared up to launch the biggest public construction project in the nation, perhaps it was inevitable that the prospect of $175 billion or more in government contracts would create a traffic jam of special interests outside theoffices of elected officials in Texas.

The project would build a web of multipurpose tollways across Texas. The plan pushed by Gov. Rick Perry would allow a Spanish consortium, Cintra, to build and operate the system of 1,200-foot-wide transitways, including road and rail, and collect revenues for the next 50 years. A bill authorizing aspects of the project is cruising through the legislative session, fueled by nearly $3 million in campaign contributions over the last four years to officials from the governor down to key state representatives.

A broad-based but cash-short alliance opposes the Trans-Texas Corridor. The alliance includes conservative municipal officials whose cities and towns might not have easy access to the system; ranchers and farmers along the routes whose land is threatened by condemnation; and environmentalists who fear the impact of the giant ribbons of concrete on the ecology of the state. So far their protests seem to be having little effect inside the state Capitol.

A new study by the nonpartisan Texas government watchdog group Campaigns for People helps to explain why. Entitled "Big Money Paves the Way for the Trans-Texas Corridor," it tracks how the corridor's proponents have utilized the time-honored Texas method of "pay to play" to nudge government along in making the project possible. Teams vying for the franchise recently awarded to Cintra contributed heavily to lawmakers who voted to give the state expanded power to acquire land for the tollways and broad authority to privatize public roads and highways and convert them into toll roads.

According to the report, "in the process of creating new financing mechanisms for building Texas highways, legislators rewrote Texas' laws to the advantage of private corporations that will build, maintain and toll not only new roads as part of the TTC, but also existing and even partially built roads that may be converted into toll roads."

Top construction firms and teams bidding on the TTC contributed $1.2 million between 2001 and the end of 2004 to state government leaders, ranging from the governor to Speaker of the House Tom Craddick, and nearly $1.5 million to key state senators and representatives. One of Gov. Perry's aides, Dan Shelley, previously worked for Cintra and introduced its representatives to state transportation officials.

Houston state Rep. Garnet Coleman co-sponsored a bill in the current session that would have required more public hearings before corridor construction commenced and would have prohibited the conversion of existing public roadways into privatized toll roads. The bill died in committee without even getting a hearing. A well-publicized rally by rural landowners at the Capitol drew 500 activists from across the state and calls for the governor's impeachment, but
had no visible impact on the Trans-Texas Corridor's support inside the Legislature.

While lawmaker opposition is muted, two statewide officeholders who may run against Gov. Perry next year are criticizing aspects of the corridor. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced an amendment to a federal transportation bill last week that would ban tolls on existing federal highways. She said tolling existing roads to pay for new ones amounts to double taxation.

Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn also has come out strongly against what she called "The Trans-Texas Catastrophe," describing it as "the largest land grab in Texas history."

Hopefully the public will get a chance to express its views on the Trans-Texas Corridor in next year's state elections, since special interest cash and lobbyists seem to have a stranglehold on the issue in Austin at the moment.

© 2006 Houston Chronicle: