Saturday, March 25, 2006

"This area went Republican in the mid-1990s, but they better watch their step or it might not be for long."

Candidate forum focuses on Trans-Texas Corridor

Bell, Strayhorn, Friedman rail against toll roads, Perry

March 25, 2006

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Staesman
Copyright 2006

SEATON — The parking lot, and the clock, said it all.

At 6:05 p.m. Friday, almost an hour before the start of the Blackland Coalition's gubernatorial candidate forum on the Trans-Texas Corridor, the asphalt outside of the Seaton Star Hall east of Temple was already half full of pickups and cars. Outside, representatives of writer and musician Kinky Friedman and Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn were gathering petition signatures in their efforts to make the November ballot as independents and unseat Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn, both seeking to make the November ballot as independent gubernatorial candidates, came to- gether Friday in Seaton, east of Temple, to share their views on Gov. Rick Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor. In different ways, both showed aversion.

Inside, many of the 750 chairs were filled already. Folks in gimme caps, black Stetson hats and jeans were munching on sausage wraps and, when she happened by, listening to Strayhorn make her pitch one-on-one. Friedman and Democratic candidate Chris Bell showed up later in time to speak to the crowd, making it the three challengers' first joint appearance of the campaign.

By 7 p.m., the room was full, and the response to the challengers during the next two hours was full-throated, giving at least some indications that Perry has genuine political work ahead.

His plan for a network of cross-state toll roads and rail lines has many rural Texans in an independent frame of mind.

"This area went Republican" in the mid-1990s, said Inez Cobb, a board member of the year-old coalition formed in opposition to the corridor plan. "But they better watch their step or it might not be for long."

The path of the first leg of the corridor plan, to be called TTC-35, will parallel Interstate 35 and probably will pass within a few miles of Seaton.

Perry and legislative supporters of the corridor plan have been at pains over the past year to adjust it to address rural concerns, assuring people that most state and farm-to-market roads would connect to the corridor or pass over it.

They have strengthened protection for landowners who would have to give up land for the road.

Strayhorn spoke first, sprinkling toll and corridor talk amid a wide-ranging stump speech.

"Gov. Perry and his land-grabbing highway henchmen want to cram toll roads down Texans' throats," she said. To her right, there was a placard and seat for Perry, who was invited but did not attend. "In a Strayhorn administration, (the corridor) is going to be blasted off the bureaucratic books."

Friedman, next up, only lightly grazed the subject of the evening among a blitz of jokes.

"This is a bad idea," Friedman said and then hit on what is becoming a familiar theme among Perry's critics: that having Spanish company Cintra build and run the corridor project is wrong. "It's like having Dubai run the ports of America. It means we'll be paying tolls to a cowardly Spanish company for 70 years."

Bell told the crowd that he was there "to ask you to fire Rick Perry and stop the Trans-Texas Corridor. . . . We need roads, we all know that. What we don't need is to have our land taken away to benefit a private business."

Strayhorn, whose intention to supplant Perry in the Governor's Mansion has been well known for a couple of years, has periodically hammered Perry over his preference for toll roads as a solution to the Texas highway crunch.

She was quoted in January saying, "This voice is dead set against toll roads."

But the Perry campaign says that wasn't always the case, noting news releases and reports out of her office in 2000 and 2001 touting toll roads as the way to get roads built quickly and boost the state's economy.

That was, of course, before the Legislature overhauled transportation law and transformed toll roads from a concept into a reality.

"Carole Strayhorn's opposition to toll roads is a complete fraud," Perry spokesman Robert Black said this week. "She's been calling for toll roads for years."

Black said the corridor plan, despite demonstrations of widespread rural discontent such as Friday night's, won't hurt Perry in November.

"The governor believes that the vast majority of Texans, including rural Texans, understand that with a population expected to double in the next 40 years, the current Texas infrastructure can't handle that increase," Black said. "Something has to happen."; 445-3698

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