Sunday, June 19, 2005

Chronicle files freedom of information request with TxDot


Texas transportation officials should follow Attorney General's opinion and release secret Trans-Texas Corridor contract provisions.

June 19, 2005
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

The Houston Chronicle filed a freedom of information request with the Texas Department of Transportation seeking secret provisions of a state contract with a Spanish consortium to build and operate the Trans-Texas Corridor, a web of tolled transitways across the state.

In response, officials from TxDOT and the consortium, Cintra-Zachry, appealed to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to allow them to withhold the documents from the Chronicle and other newspapers that filed requests. Even after a sweeping rejection of the claims in an opinion from Abbott on May 31, TxDOT officials are considering going to court to prevent the release of the information.

The public has a right to know on what terms a consortium is being given a contract to build and operate toll roads in the state for the next 50 years. Abbott's opinion left no doubt that TxDOT and Cintra-Zachry's arguments lack a valid basis.

The opinion said TxDOT failed to demonstrate how disclosing the contract terms harmed it. Although state officials claimed the pact with Cintra-Zachry was not completed, the opinion found that for legal purposes it was a final contract. Cintra-Zachry argued that trade secrets would be revealed by release of the contract provisions, but the Attorney General found that the company had failed to provide any evidence to back up its allegations.

In order to challenge the opinion, TxDOT officials have until the end of the month to file suit in a Travis County court. The agency has already missed a state-mandated 10-day deadline in which to file a lawsuit and get the full benefit of such an appeal.

A spokeswoman for TxDOT says its officials are still trying to decide on a course of action. If they continue to withhold the information but file no suit, newspapers that filed freedom of information requests can take legal action to force release of the contract.

The solution is simple. Instead of going to court and spending taxpayer dollars on an attempt to keep citizens in the dark about public business, TxDOT should immediately release the documents. Continuing to deny journalists the information only fuels suspicion that there's something in the Trans-Texas Corridor contract that state bureaucrats don't want us to know.

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