"The Trans-Texas Corridor hits Perry where he lives."
Governor emphasis on tollways, private road-builders has generated urban and rural unrest
August 20, 2006
By Ben Wear
Rick Perry's political problem with transportation, to the extent that he has one, may be that he's trying to douse a fire in 2006 that won't ignite for another 10 to 20 years.
His critics say, no, the problem is that Perry wants to charge us for the water.
What isn't in dispute is that the Republican governor and his appointees over the past six years have turned Texas transportation on its head, moving the state from financing public roads solely with taxes to a system that would be heavily dependent on tolls and private road operators.
What has this revolution in transportation policy earned Perry, who faces re-election this fall? Well, precious few plaudits from the general public, although the business community and the road construction industry have been solidly in his corner.
His policies have birthed several grass-roots groups committed to snuffing out Perry's toll plans and, while they're at it, his political career. The nascent Trans-Texas Corridor twin to Interstate 35, and the prospect that thousands of acres would have to be purchased to build it, have taken an undetermined chunk out of Perry's natural base of support in agricultural Texas.
And the Perry transportation agenda has handed his three principal challengers a hefty political club to wield as they campaign for his job.
"That's why you don't see a lot of big changes in public policy, because they are risky," said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies for the California-based Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. "It may be that the general public isn't yet persuaded that this is a crisis. In day-to-day, average-person political terms, traffic congestion may not be bad enough yet."
Perry, with his famously well-coiffed look and perfectly tailored suits, surely doesn't look the part of a revolutionary, and he rejects that characterization. But he acknowledges that transportation is the area where he made the most "wide-sweeping" changes.
Perry declared the gasoline tax a lame duck, dismissing talk of raising it. Perry and his allies decreed that all new road projects would be evaluated for tolls. They contemplated slapping tolls on existing roads, then backed off after a public outcry.
Perry in early 2002 outlined what seemed to be a pie-in-the-sky plan for 4,000 miles of rural toll roads called the Trans-Texas Corridor. After hearing people scoff for more than two years, Perry introduced some Spaniards who said they'd spend $7.2 billion on the first 300-mile piece, including a $1.2 billion payment to the state. And Perry's Department of Transportation declared Texas "open for business," inviting private companies — foreign or domestic — to privately finance and operate the next generation of Texas expressways and railroads.
"What is happening in Texas on public-private partnerships is being watched by every state in the union and several foreign countries," Perry said during a late July interview in his Capitol office.
"When I parachuted in here on Dec. 21, 2000, I inherited a state that had huge infrastructure challenges."
Gas tax not enough
Evaluating just how huge that challenge was — is it a crisis or just an emerging problem? — has involved an escalating war of statistics over the past couple of years.
The state's population has increased more than 20 percent since 1990 and annual miles traveled on the state's roads have gone up about 50 percent. Meanwhile, the Texas highway system, with increasing maintenance costs and more expensive urban construction needs, grew only 4 percent during that decade and a half.
The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from those numbers, one borne out by most people's experience behind the wheel, is that Texas roads are more congested than they were 15 years ago.
The state Transportation Department's budget, meanwhile, has tripled since 1990, including an 80 percent jump from the budget Perry inherited from George W. Bush to this year's $7.7 billion spending plan.
Perry and his people say that's still not nearly enough to deal with the state's transportation needs now or, especially, in the future. Using figures gleaned by asking local transportation planners what they would build if money were no object, they say the state will have $86 billion in unmet transportation needs over the next 25 years.
They say the only way to close that gap, to extinguish the blaze, as it were, is to put tolls on every road you can and recruit private capital to build as many new toll roads as possible. Increasing the state gasoline tax, frozen at 20 cents a gallon since 1991, is not an option, Perry and his fellow GOP legislative leaders say, particularly with unleaded gas selling for close to $3 a gallon. But that was already his position when gas was selling for well under $2 a gallon.
Perry's November challengers Carole Keeton Strayhorn, an independent, and Chris Bell, a Democrat, agree with him on that point, as does Libertarian James Werner. Only independent candidate Kinky Friedman says he would be open to increasing the tax.
"Frankly, I think Texans will go for raising it a few cents rather than having toll roads," Friedman said.
A few cents, in Perry's view, would be irrelevant. Each penny raises about $100 million in a year, or enough for one fair-sized freeway interchange with flyover bridges. So a 20-cent increase, which would give Texas the highest gas tax of any state, would bring in an extra $2 billion a year. Perry says that wouldn't be nearly enough to return Texas' transportation system to its former lofty status among states, particularly as hybrid vehicles and other improvements from Detroit increase gas efficiency and cause gas tax revenue to sag.
A 20-cents-a-gallon increase in the tax would cost the average driver about $100 a year. That's much less than a driver regularly commuting on a toll road would pay. The U.S. 183-A tollway due to open next year will cost $2 for one trip through, or about $1,000 a year for a five-day-a-week commuter.
Strayhorn's and Bell's combination of stances — against toll roads but also against raising the gasoline tax — is the crux of Perry's electoral pitch against them.
"If someone has a better idea . . . please lay out that plan," Perry said. "None of them do. My point is, if you're going to be afraid to lay out plans to take the state forward, you might choose a different line of work."
Strayhorn, at least, says she has a plan. And she charges that Perry and Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson are overstating the state's transportation needs to bolster their case for toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor.
Strayhorn points to the Texas Mobility Fund, a state account authorized by voters in 2001 that has the capacity to borrow about $4 billion and pay it back with vehicle title and registration fees. She also notes that the Transportation Department can legally borrow another $3 billion. But those other bonds would have to be paid back from gasoline tax revenue — borrowing from future budgets, in other words — and don't really constitute new money.
Strayhorn also said there are "efficiencies to be realized" at the Transportation Department, something Bell points to as well. Strayhorn said she will release specifics about those potential savings later in the campaign.
But even with the borrowed money and that so-far unspecified cost-cutting, Strayhorn and Bell might be quite a few billion short. And that's assuming that the Trans-Texas Corridor would be canceled if Perry is not re-elected.
Yes, Perry acknowledged, that $86 billion estimate represents a sort of utopian transportation system. But even if that estimate is twice as large as is absolutely necessary for Texas, Perry said, "that's a lot of 'efficiencies.' " Strayhorn said in a recent interview that she is "absolutely opposed to tolls. I have never voted for a toll road."
Of course, Strayhorn, the state comptroller, has not technically been in a position to vote for anything since she left the Texas Railroad Commission in early 1999, and that body does not deal with highway policy. However, as recently as 2000, Comptroller Strayhorn released a well-publicized review of the state Transportation Department that endorsed toll roads.
Asked about that stance, Strayhorn said, "I will not as governor support a toll road."
It's far from clear what effect the combined toll road and Trans-Texas Corridor issue might have on the gubernatorial election.
Toll roads have been much in the news and generally unpopular in the Austin, San Antonio and El Paso areas, none of which are Perry or Republican strongholds.
"If I just had Travis County to worry about, I'd be a little concerned," Perry said. "You go to Houston and Dallas, and my instinct is they're not too afraid of tolls. They kind of like having that Sam Houston Tollway thing to get around town, versus being stuck on the Katy Freeway for hours."
Houston and Dallas have several toll roads apiece, some of them in service for decades.
The Trans-Texas Corridor, however, hits Perry where he lives, or rather where a whole lot of his longtime supporters live: rural Texas.
As proposed, the corridor of highways, railroads and utility lines could be 1,200 feet wide. Multiply that by the 4,000 miles in Perry's plan and more than 900 square miles of Texas farms and ranches disappear.
In reality, just 300 miles of road are on the table for the planned tollway alongside I-35 to be called Trans-Texas Corridor-35, and the farmland under imminent threat is probably less than 30 square miles.
But that was enough to bring out about 13,600 people to the 55 public hearings held this summer on TTC-35, and they were overwhelmingly against building the road. Will those people, as well as their peers who stayed home, vote against Perry?
Strayhorn (who was endorsed recently by the political arm of the Blackland Coalition of farm owners in the fertile area to be crossed by TTC-35) is certainly counting on it. She showed up at more than a dozen meetings, taking her three minutes at the microphone to pledge that in a Strayhorn administration the Trans-Texas Corridor would be "blasted off the bureaucratic books."
That might be easier said than done, or at least cheaper. The state has already awarded two contracts to Cintra-Zachry, a combination of Spanish toll road operator Cintra and its San Antonio-based minority partner, Zachry Construction Co. Strayhorn says she would "bust" those contracts, something likely to generate lawsuits.
Strayhorn says she would encourage Williamson and other Perry appointees on the Transportation Commission to find other pursuits in a Strayhorn administration, leaving her free to name commissioners less enthusiastic about toll roads. As for the 2003 law authorizing the Trans-Texas Corridor, Strayhorn says she would expect legislators to repeal that or face a governor brandishing a veto pen on other legislation.
But Strayhorn, or Bell, or Friedman would have to get past Perry first, and they'd probably need considerable help from rural Texas.
Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas government professor who has studied state politics for years, said the urban vote in Texas now outnumbers the rural vote.
"But in a four-way race, where everyone has a chance to approach double-digits, the rural vote is crucial," Buchanan said. "Perry's got a minor problem there. But he's protected by this three-way split (of challengers). And he's protected to some degree by his long positive association with rural interests."
The stance of the Texas Farm Bureau and its political action committee perhaps best illustrates how hard it is to determine whether folks wearing coveralls will desert Perry.
The organization's statewide delegates have voted to officially oppose the corridor plan, and Farm Bureau President Kenneth Dierschke testified against it at the TTC-35 hearing in Waco last month. But the bureau's political committee, made up of the Farm Bureau's board and known as the Ag Fund, voted in February to endorse Perry, who grew up in Paint Rock and for eight years was Texas agriculture commissioner.
"I'm pretty sure this is the biggest public taking (of land) in the state's history, at least potentially," said Gene Hall, a spokesman for the Farm Bureau. "And the whole notion of that, that their land could be taken, is something that farmers and ranchers despise. Is that going to be enough to influence their vote? I can't say. I know that Rick Perry still has a lot of supporters at the Texas Farm Bureau."
If nothing else, Perry cannot be accused of advancing his toll road and privatization offensive with Nov. 7, 2006, in mind. Or if he did, Perry and his advisers miscalculated just how much Texas drivers were willing to countenance to get more room between their headlights and the taillights of the car ahead.
Does he have any regrets about his transportation policy?
"If the question is, would I do it again, absolutely," Perry said. "I think our state's future demands it. Is it uncomfortable to change? Yes, it always is."
© 2006 Austin American-Statesman: