Monday, August 07, 2006

Perry ducks public hearings on TTC-35

TxDOT hands Perry foes a forum

August 07, 2006

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

In case you hadn't noticed, Rick Perry's Texas Department of Transportation has spent the past several weeks putting on campaign rallies for Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

OK, not exactly. But it's pretty much worked out that way.

What the agency technically has been doing is taking a federally required step in the labyrinthine environmental clearance process for a tollway twin to Interstate 35. That road would be the first piece of Perry's transportation centerpiece, the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Back in April, the Transportation Department released a draft environmental report about a 10-mile-wide study area from Mexico to Oklahoma. The state — well, probably its partner Cintra-Zachry, a Spanish-American company — will build the turnpike somewhere within that area.

So, to finalize that fat report, the agency had to hold public hearings seeking comment. They planned 54 of them from July 10 to Aug. 10, from Gainesville to Laredo.

The problem, from the governor's political point of view, is that the corridor plan is about as popular as bull nettles in the rural lands east of I-35. Through the first 44 meetings, almost 12,000 people had turned out, including a staggering 1,589 in Temple. What politician could possibly resist showing up at such a gathering?

Well, Perry, for one. The governor has stayed away, leaving Transportation Department officials to show the flag. Not so with Strayhorn, the Democrat- turned- Republican- turned-independent who has popped up at 10 hearings so far to press the flesh for the 90-minute open house portions and to deliver a well- honed three minutes on what she calls the "Trans-Texas Catastrophe."

"Let's do another 54!" Strayhorn said to me last week while on her way to the hearing in Bastrop. Not likely.

So far, Democrat Chris Bell and independent Kinky Friedman have skipped the hearings, though a Bell spokesman said last week that he would come to some this week. A number of candidates for lower offices, most of them Democrats and virtually all of them against the corridor plan, have also taken their turns at the hearings.

Based on media accounts, speakers and a showing of hands at some of the meetings I have attended, sentiment among the crowds has been overwhelmingly negative about the tollway. Under the federal environmental process, one alternative is always "no build."

Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission and a longtime Perry ally, was asked recently at a briefing for transportation reporters whether the corridor road can or should be built, given the collective thumbs down at the hearings.

Yes, Williamson and agency officials said. The transportation needs of the state trump such opposition.

"The purpose of the public hearings is not to take a poll or survey or to estimate the supporters or detractors," Williamson said.

True. That poll will occur Nov. 7.

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