Gubernatorial candidates offer opinions about the Trans-Texas Corridor
Aug. 05, 2006
By GORDON DICKSON
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Transportation is a fiery issue in the governor’s race, especially the hotly disputed Trans-Texas Corridor.
“It’s one of the top three or four issues,” said Harvey Kronberg, an Austin political analyst. “There’s transportation, cronyism, parks and wildlife, stem-cell research, the tax bill, home insurance rates. If I had to bet today, I’d bet on transportation, because there’s already so much passion for it.”
Traffic usually doesn’t veer into state politics. Why now?
Part of it is timing.
This summer, just as the five-person governor’s race heats up, 54 hearings are scheduled on Trans-Texas, a proposed statewide network of toll roads and rail lines that could cost $184 billion over 50 years. The subject of the hearings is the first piece of the project: a toll road from the Oklahoma border to San Antonio.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry unveiled Trans-Texas in 2002, saying it would generate billions of dollars in private investments for Texas roads.
The other candidates mostly hate the idea. Supporters of Democrat Chris Bell and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman are packing Trans-Texas hearings, demanding that it be stopped.
Libertarian James Werner favors private investment in roads but worries that Trans-Texas would be a land grab.
Plus, observers say, it was only a matter of time before traffic became a top issue in statewide political campaigns. Drivers are sick of the daily battle not only in Dallas-Fort Worth, but all over the state. And it’s only going to get worse, because the number of vehicles on the road is expected to double in the next quarter-century.
So who’d be the best governor when it comes to gridlock?
The Star-Telegram chatted with candidates and their supporters in an attempt to boil down their positions on Trans-Texas and other transportation topics.
The Texas Department of Transportation is spending money inefficiently, which reduces the amount of road work that can be done, and is due for new leadership.
Even though the department turned over the highway funding selection process three years ago to local leaders in the state’s eight largest metro areas, the decision about where to spend money is still too political — and favors those with the best Austin connections.
A motor-fuels tax increase may be needed to generate more highway money.
Local officials should have the power to hold referendums asking voters to raise sales taxes by a half-cent for transportation needs, including commuter rail. Currently, this can’t be done because state law caps the tax at 8.25 percent.
The Trans-Texas Corridor is the wrong approach for reducing truck traffic on existing highways because it lacks government oversight. There’s too much secrecy and potential for corruption.
The state is moving too fast to privatize highways and turn them into toll roads.
Foreign companies should not be awarded primary contracts to manage toll roads.
“Traditionally, with transportation we’ve controlled our own destiny,” Bell said.
Toll roads are OK in areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, where residents want them, but they should be a last resort on the state highway system. They are unfair to people who can’t afford tolls.
“I think Perry’s approach, which is let’s make everything a toll road, is wrong,” Bell said. “There’s not a whole lot of other options being discussed. The problem with that idea is, you’re making transportation a battle between the haves and have-nots.”
Platform problems: Opposes the Trans-Texas Corridor but must be pressed for details about what he would do alternatively to relieve congestion. He can be inconsistent. During a recent interview, he spoke with grave concern about raising the gas tax in this $3-a-gallon era, but minutes later he advocated higher gas taxes at the local level to pay for transportation needs.
Not only should plans for toll roads be scrapped, but existing toll roads such as those built by the North Texas Tollway Authority should be converted into non-toll highways. Friedman wants to name the roads in honor of musicians such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Bob Wills and Buddy Holly.
The state motor fuels tax, currently 20 cents a gallon, should possibly be raised a penny or two to increase highway funding.
Production of biodiesel fuel, including fuel made by processing corn and recycled vegetable oil, should be dramatically expanded. Co-ops should be established to organize farms.
The Trans-Texas Corridor, which could cost $184 billion over 50 years, should be stopped immediately. Friedman calls the project the “Santa Ana Highway,” citing its convenience to Mexico. He says Trans-Texas lacks oversight and is prone to corruption between government officials and private companies investing in it. He also opposes foreign control of toll projects.
“The price tag is almost as big as Iraq,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing a failing governor does to take the focus off education and the environment.”
Platform problem: Abolishing toll roads would be enormously expensive, and Friedman didn’t seem to realize that a penny-per-gallon motor fuels tax would raise only about $100 million — a drop in the bucket for a state that spends $6 billion a year on roads. He declined to comment on a proposed half-cent sales tax increase for regional rail in North Texas, saying it was “local stuff” that didn’t concern him.
To aggressively court the private sector to spend money on Texas roads, relieving taxpayers of the burden. He also welcomes foreign investment but is optimistic that U.S. companies will join the competition.
To let market forces shape the future of Texas transportation. He believes that Texas must take advantage of economic opportunities in the next half-century, particularly with free trade among the U.S., Mexico and Canada. He also believes that the best way to embrace impending change is to effectively convert the state’s transportation grid into a giant, multipurpose port.
Perry believes that the key to reducing congestion is to build toll roads, which allow businesses and private citizens who can afford it to buy their way out of traffic while keeping the existing freeway system available to Texans who don’t want to pay or can’t afford tolls — and prevent higher taxes for everyone.
“The single biggest impediment to addressing congestion and economic opportunity in our state right now is congestion on Interstate 35 today, and congestion that will occur on Interstate 35 in the next 25 years if we don’t do something right now,” said Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford.
Perry appointed Williamson to implement the governor’s transportation plans.
“It’s not a matter of us not having sympathy for those who don’t want their land lost.. A lot of us farm on the side. Every one of us has land. Rick Perry is from a farming community. There is no one who doesn’t feel pain on this. But with that understanding, somebody has got to do something about I-35, not 10 years from now, not 25 years from now, but right now,” Williamson said.
Perry strongly opposes raising motor fuels taxes, which he believes are a dwindling source of highway money because of improved fuel efficiency.
He also opposes raising the sales tax, even in a local-option referendum, for transportation needs. He believes that metro areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth could pay for needs such as a commuter rail system by inviting the private sector to build toll roads and divert some of the toll revenue for local needs.
Platform problems: Perry’s campaign is taking a public relations beating this summer as opponents flood Trans-Texas hearings to rail against not only the plan, but Perry himself. His state Republican Party opposes Trans-Texas. Even if his transportation plans work, the benefits won’t be known for many years, so some voters may view it as a leap of faith.
The state should not build toll roads to relieve congestion. State law allows for many other ways to raise more highway funds. However, local elected leaders should be allowed to build toll roads within their metro areas if they wish.
The Trans-Texas Corridor project should be immediately stopped, and all confidential documents about Cintra Zachry’s master finance and development plans should be immediately made public.
“If they were serious about this push for transportation, the first thing they’d do is make the contract public,” she said. “Instead, they’re tying it up in court, trying to get it past the Nov. 7 election.”
The state Transportation Department needs a leadership change, including executive staff and appointed commission members.
Texas should expand highways by using federal Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle (Garvee) bonds, which allow states to borrow money for highway projects and repay the loans with future gas taxes.
The Texas Mobility Fund, which was created by voters in a 2001 constitutional amendment, should not be used for toll road projects. Instead, the money should be used for non-toll highways. “When we were asking the people of Texas to approve the Texas Mobility Fund, not once were they told toll roads were part of it.”
Platform problems: Critics say Strayhorn switched positions on some transportation issues. In 2001, in her duties as state comptroller she published a review of the Transportation Department. The review, titled Paving the Way, advocated tolls as an alternative to the gas tax and also touted private investment in roads — concepts she now speaks against.
Private investment in toll roads as an alternative to raising taxes.
To rely less upon the taking of private land through eminent domain to build the Trans-Texas Corridor.
“As a Libertarian I oppose the seizure of private property in almost all .” he wrote in an e-mail. “I do, however, like the idea of a . circumstances . Trans-Texas Corridor. I fully expect that land use issues could be resolved between current owners and the management firm that hopes to build and operate most of this road system.”
Less reliance upon motor-fuels taxes to pay for transportation. His proposal calls for a flat consumer sales tax on all new goods and services, and an end to property, business and other taxes.
No increased tax support for commuter rail, which he calls “a terribly inefficient way to manage our transportation challenges, and tends to favor the wealthy commuter at the expense of the less well off.” But he would favor expansion of private bus routes.
Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816
© 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram: