Wednesday, August 30, 2006

"Perry's deception is going to backfire on Election Day."

A political ploy or a genuine break on SH121 tolls?

Perry says collections' delay till mid-November about bugs, not election

August 30, 2006

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

COPPELL – Gov. Rick Perry unveiled a surprise Tuesday during a formal dedication ceremony for the new State Highway 121 toll road.

Glitches in the all-electronic toll collection system mean motorists won't pay to use the road until at least mid-November, he said.

"Today we've got some great news for you. I am announcing today the state highway will continue to be toll-free throughout the fall, so continue to enjoy that," he said. "I applaud TxDOT, especially since SH121 will become a model for toll roads."

Mr. Perry's political opponents seized on the announcement, labeling it little more than a ploy to curry favor with voters before the Nov. 7 general election. Earlier this summer, Texas Department of Transportation officials said toll collections would begin Friday.

"This delay is just another election-year gimmick," said Laura Stromberg, a spokeswoman for Kinky Friedman, an independent candidate for governor. "Perry underestimates the voters of Texas, but they're smart enough to see through the politics as usual. His deception is going to backfire on Election Day."

State Highway 121 in Denton County, nicknamed the "Golden Corridor" by state transportation leaders, is becoming a campaign battleground for Mr. Perry's plan to build more toll roads in North Texas and across the state.

As Mr. Perry spoke to 200 supporters at Coppell Middle School North, about 10 toll road protesters picketed on the sidewalk.

Protester Gary Maddux of Farmersville said the state started building the Denton County portion of Highway 121 as a freeway and then decided later to charge tolls to raise revenue for other projects.

"Our taxes already paid for it," he said. "The general public is not aware of what's going on."

The other independent candidate for governor, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, has scheduled an anti-toll road rally Thursday next to Highway 121 about a mile from where Mr. Perry gave his speech.

"Clearly, they're pushing this problem past the November election," said Mark Sanders, a Strayhorn spokesman. "It's cynical and disrespectful to the voters to not admit this is the truth."

With all the attention on State Highway 121, Democratic candidate Chris Bell also thought about making an appearance on Highway 121 but couldn't fit it into his schedule, said spokeswoman Heather Guntert.

The delay in collecting tolls "seems a little too convenient," Ms. Guntert said. "They're now going to wait until mid-November to charge Texans to drive on Texas roads."

Testing the road's electronic systems could even push back the start of toll collection until January or February, said Ric Williamson, a former Republican state representative who became Mr. Perry's appointee as chairman of the Transportation Department.

Mr. Perry said he stands behind the decision to delay collections. He said the Transportation Department made the decision, not him.

"This is a political season, and I expect to hear everything from my political opponents with the exception of pats on the back," he said. "We make decisions on good public policy. TxDOT makes decisions on good public policy. I'll let the critics stand on the sideline and criticize."
State officials said they could not get all the electronic equipment installed and working by the Sept. 1 deadline. They also said they need time to make sure the billing system works.

With crews still installing overhead structures to hold the high-tech equipment, some delay is probably warranted, said Randy Jennings, founder of

"I don't think some delay is politically motivated, but waiting until after the election is probably politically motivated," Mr. Jennings said.

Highway 121 opened to traffic in early July, giving drivers a direct route between Coppell and north Carrollton. When tolls begin, motorists with toll tags through the state or the North Texas Tollway Authority will pay 75 cents to drive on six miles of the new toll road. A comparable trip in a vehicle without a toll account will cost $1.

The toll road will be the first in Texas without coin baskets or toll plazas. It also will be the first toll road in the nation to feature all-video toll collection. Cameras will read license plates and use that information to deduct toll fees from customer accounts linked to a vehicle's license plate.

For people without toll accounts, cameras will read license plates and send them their bills.


© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co