"This lipstick has already been put on this pig. Now the only way to stop this boondoggle is to send Rick Perry home in November."
Aug. 23, 2006,
By R.G. RATCLIFFE
Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN - One out of every eight votes in Rick Perry's margin of victory in the 2002 race for governor came from the rural counties along the Interstate 35 path of Perry's proposed Trans-Texas Corridor.
Now, as he seeks re-election, Perry's long-range transportation vision may be turning into a political liability for the Republican chief executive.
More than 14,000 Texans — almost all opposed to the Trans-Texas Corridor — turned out at Texas Department of Transportation public hearings this summer to express their displeasure with the highway and the governor.
"I'd like to admit that I made one big mistake in my life. I voted for Rick Perry," Rogers-area farmer Leonard Cobb testified at one hearing.
All four of Perry's re-election challengers oppose the corridor. Democrat Chris Bell, independent Kinky Friedman and Libertarian James Werner all have spoken out against it. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, running as an independent, attended many of the hearings and called the project the "Trans-Texas Catastrophe" while promising to stop Perry's "land-grabbing highway henchmen."
One of Perry's fellow Republicans on the statewide ballot — U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison — also has criticized the project, saying it imposes too heavily on rural landowners.
The Republican Party of Texas in June passed a plank in its platform calling for the repeal of legislation authorizing the Trans-Texas Corridor. The Texas Farm Bureau — a longtime Perry political supporter — wants the state to scrap the project.
The 'blue line'
A dozen alternative routes for Trans-Texas Corridor 35 are under consideration. The toll road corridor would run parallel to Interstate 35 through rural areas from Oklahoma to Laredo, bypassing city congestion to become the new trade highway.
Many of those at the hearings referred to the top alternative on the color map of the Trans-Texas Corridor as the "blue line," a pathway of eminent domain that would take homes and farms and churches for a toll road that likely would be built by a consortium headed by a Spanish company.
Farmers contend the 600-mile long swath will cause the condemnation of about 136 square miles of land, could divide farms and force rural school buses to go miles out of the way to get from one side of the corridor to the other. Many local officials fear it will remove land from their local property tax base.
"This lipstick has already been put on this pig. Now the only way to stop this boondoggle is to send Rick Perry home in November," Mark Wilson testified at a Waco hearing.
Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said the corridor concept is the only feasible means of easing congestion on state highways while guaranteeing future expansion when needed.
"For every 14,000 people who congregate and protest, there are 1.4 million in downtown Dallas and Fort Worth that recognize congestion on 35 is a problem and somebody's got to do something about it," Williamson said.
Dallas-Fort Worth area officials have been generally neutral on the corridor concept, but questioned the specific plan because its route bypassed the cities and would have done little to relieve local congestion. Perry last Friday ordered the corridor study to include an alternative route proposed by local officials.
Dallas County Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield, a Republican, said he thinks people in the Metroplex would largely oppose the plan because it relies heavily on tolls and has included little public input.
"I dare say, if you took a vote in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, it would be voted down," he said.
Two on drawing board
The Trans-Texas Corridor is actually a series of new transportation corridors proposed across Texas that would be financed and built by private contractors and likely paid for with tolls. The corridors would probably be about 1,200 feet wide, to accommodate separate lanes for truck traffic, passenger traffic, freight rail, commuter rail and utilities.
So far only two projects are even remotely on the drawing board. TTC-69, which would run from Mexico north past Houston, likely using either the Grand Parkway or Beltway 8 as part of its route, is in the preliminary planning stage.
TTC-35, running parallel to Interstate 35, is further along. The state has contracted with a consortium led by the Spanish company Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte to develop a master plan for the corridor. That plan is what has been the subject of public hearings and angst this summer.
"Fourteen thousand people is a nice turnout, but the fact of the matter is we're looking for input, any better ideas," Perry said of the hearings.
"Those that came out are just against — you know, the agin'ers. It's easy to turn out a bunch of people who are just agin a particular project," the governor said.
Perry said the population growth in the state and traffic congestion demands additional highways and that toll roads are a good way to pay for it. He said most of his political opponents have offered no alternatives, chiding Strayhorn for supporting the expensive double-decking of I-35 without explaining how to pay for it.
"As the chief executive officer of the state, as a person who has laid out a vision ... I think it makes sense for most communities. I think it makes sense to build toll roads."
But the road for Perry's election may not be that easy on this issue.
'Got some explaining to do'
On Monday, Strayhorn outlined a plan to scrap the project and improve I-35 in the existing right of way with additional lanes and double decking in places. Perry has contended that double-decking would be prohibitively expensive, but Strayhorn said it would be more appealing to affected Texans.
State Rep. Dianne White Delisi, R-Temple, the mother-in-law of Perry's chief of staff, Deirdre Delisi, appeared at a Temple public hearing to say the state should concentrate on improving traffic flow on I-35 before seriously considering alternative highways through the countryside.
Gene Hall, spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau, said the farm and ranch organization is supporting Perry because he has been good for agriculture on a wide variety of issues. But he said the Farm Bureau opposes the Trans-Texas Corridor concept not only along I-35 but statewide.
Hall said it is difficult to know whether rural areas will abandon Perry over the issue.
"He's got some explaining to do as far as the corridor is concerned," Hall said.
Greg Gerig, a corn farmer and a director of the Blackland Coalition opposed to the corridor, said there is a feeling state officials have been arrogant.
"Perry has in effect said, 'We don't care what people at the hearings said; we're going to build it anyway,' " Gerig said.
Perry said he thinks he can persuade voters to look at his entire record.
"If it is just a single-issue person who doesn't want toll roads, I'll do everything I can to explain to him why it is good, thoughtful public policy for the entire state of Texas," Perry said.
"But I hope the vast number of people who go to vote look at an economy that ... is doing as well as it has in a decade or better. I'm proud of the record I've run on."
© 2006 Houston Chronicle: