Saturday, March 25, 2006

"The Trans-Texas Corridor is a product of the culture of corruption."

Political trio hits the road – and the governor, too

Saturday, March 25, 2006

By Mike Anderson
Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2006

SEATON, Texas – Three gubernatorial candidates Friday night raised their voices in a chorus of opposition to the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor and the Republican governor who crafted it.

About a thousand people gathered at Seaton Star Hall, near Temple, to hear speeches by Democratic candidate Chris Bell and independent candidates Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman focusing on the increasingly controversial transportation plan.

Gov. Rick Perry, who proposed the corridor in 2002 as a way to accommodate the state's projected trade and population growth, didn't attend Friday's event.

The proposed corridor would bisect Texas from the Mexican border to Oklahoma and bring together highways, rail and utility infrastructure in a 1,200-foot-wide tollway. The corridor is expected to parallel Interstate 35 and pass through McLennan County. State highway officials could announce the 10-mile-wide environmental impact study area for the corridor in the next few weeks.

Friday's program was hosted by the Bell County group Blackland Coalition, formed in April 2005 to oppose the corridor plan. Coalition chairman Chris Hammel said the group opposes the proposal in part because it would use eminent domain to acquire private property for the corridor when existing right of way is already available along I-35.

The group also objects to the possibility that a portion of the corridor passing through Central Texas could be operated as a toll road by a Spanish company, Cintra.

Rather than engage in debate, each of the gubernatorial candidates walked to the podium, discussed his or her opposition to Perry's corridor plan, then launched into other issues ranging from crime to school finance before quitting the hall.

Calling Perry's proposal "the Trans-Texas Catastrophe" and "the biggest land grab" in Texas history, state Comptroller Strayhorn said she was adamantly against the tollway project.

"Texas property belongs to Texans, not foreign companies," she said. "You cannot ask Texans to give up their land, then expect them to pay toll to drive their tractors across." Instead, she said, Interstate 35 should be expanded.

Peppering his comments with the humorous one-liners that have characterized his campaign, country-western musician and mystery novelist Kinky Friedman also expressed reservations about the tollway, including its operation by a Spanish firm.

"Folks, this is a bad idea," he said. "It's like having Dubai run the ports of America. I have an idea. Instead of the Trans-Texas Corridor, take four highways across Texas, name them after Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Bob Wills and Buddy Holly, none of them toll roads."

Friedman then talked about biodiesel fuel, an alternative fuel touted widely by Nelson.

Like Strayhorn, Bell criticized Perry for going to court to withhold details of the state contract with Cintra. He said Perry's handling of the corridor proposal has led many Texans to distrust their state government. He suggested the plan ought to be put on hold and taken to the Legislature to rework.

"I think the Trans-Texas Corridor is a product of the culture of corruption," Bell said. "Rick Perry's toll road boondoggle doesn't make any sense except for the road builders who've poured money into his campaign coffers."

Falls County resident Calvin Whatley said he was afraid the proposed corridor would cut through the farm that has been in his family 145 years.

"The main thing we are after is anything that will prevent this damnable highway," he said, adding that this included supporting anyone who could defeat Perry in the November election.

Milam County resident Stanley Glaser echoed Whatley's sentiments but said he also feared Friday night's trio of candidates will split the vote and ensure Perry's victory.

Hammel said the coalition invited Perry to speak at the event but never received a response from his campaign. Hammel said he believes Perry might have been afraid he would be ambushed by three candidates and a room full of people who oppose a project he proposed.

"If the governor came and wanted to defend the Trans-Texas Corridor, it would be our responsibility as hosts to make sure he got an open opportunity to share his views," Hammel said. "You get 1,000 people in a room, you can't guarantee someone won't give a catcall or something, but we would try to make sure that didn't happen."

Perry campaign manager Robert Black said Perry's absence was driven by pressing duties in the public school funding crisis rather than any fear of being ganged up on by corridor opponents and gubernatorial rivals.

"It's more of a situation that we are a few weeks from a special session and that is where his focus is right now," Black said. "However, this group does tend to be particularly hostile towards finding solutions to the transportation needs of Texas."

Hammel said the coalition has formed a political action committee and plans to again invite each of the four candidates to speak on separate occasions as the governor's race progresses. Based on their comments, the group will then pick one to endorse and will contribute campaign funds, he said.

Sixty-two corridor opponents contributed money to the PAC Friday night, Hammel said.


© 2006 The Waco Tribune-Herald