"Did Texans vote on the Trans-Texas Corridor? Not in any real sense... Who knew? Almost no one."
October 16, 2006
Do you remember voting on the Trans-Texas Corridor?
Me neither. But I think I might have. Sort of.
One of the moderators relayed a question from a McKinney woman asking why Texans haven't gotten to vote on the "Trans-Texas Corridor and related toll highways."
The corridor is Perry's 4,000-mile plan of tollways, railroads and utility lines.
The governor's response was deft.
"First and foremost, the people of Texas had the opportunity to vote on a substantial amount of that in a constitutional amendment," he began, going on to say that the Legislature had debated and passed toll laws in several sessions. The voters, he said, "sent a clear message of how we're going to build infrastructure."
What actually happened is that in a September 2003 election, 810,855 Texans said yes to ballot language that only the most wonkish among them could have known authorized wholesale borrowing for toll roads. The 45 words on the ballot, in fact, do not include the words "toll" or "turnpike."
Here's what Proposition 14 proposed:
"The constitutional amendment providing for authorization of the issuing of notes or the borrowing of money on a short-term basis by a state transportation agency for transportation-related projects, and the issuance of bonds and other public securities secured by the state highway fund."
I was told at the time that the purpose of this was to allow the agency to borrow here and there against future gas-tax revenue to address cash-flow problems. And that, in fact, is what the first part of the language refers to.
But then there's a comma, and some more words. Some technical but powerful words that amounted, apparently, to the electorate saying, "Whoo-eee, slap some toll roads on us, baby!"
Now, Texans did approve another constitutional amendment, this one in 2001, that created the Texas Mobility Fund, and it actually said the money could go to "state highways, turnpikes, toll roads, toll bridges, and other mobility projects." A total of 543,759 Texans said yes to that one.
In 2003, lawmakers dedicated some fees allowing that fund to borrow $4 billion or more.
And as the governor said, that same year the Legislature approved a huge bill allowing the creation of the Trans-Texas Corridor. That bill, passed in a session marked by Democrats fleeing to Ardmore, Okla., and a $10 billion budget gap, got little press coverage.
Did Texans vote on the Trans-Texas Corridor? Not in any real sense.
Did we vote on a "substantial amount" of the toll road revolution? Yes, technically, in a special September 2003 election with predictably poor turnout and all the focus on other amendments, we gave the Texas Department of Transportation carte blanche to borrow for roads and charge tolls.
Who knew? Almost no one.
© 2006 Austin American-Statesman:
For more on Perry's stealth proposition in 2003