Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"Perhaps that whistling we’re hearing is Perry boiling in the pot."

New Anti-Toll Slang


Keli Dailey
San Antonio Current
Copyright 2007

For starters, no one’s called it “the Trans-Texas Catastrophe” since Granny Strayhorn’s failed bid for governor. And the word “boondoggle,” as it applies to the Trans-Texas Corridor network of superhighways and railroads, is going the way of “bling” and its wearying Urban Dictionary variations (“bling blung” … “bling bling silver spring”).

Don’t Trans-Texas watchdogs deserve words that “break like a bull through the hall … like a gull takes to the wind?” They especially need a New Slang now that state legislative momentum is building against privately financed toll roads. There are a dozen or so bipartisan bills challenging the TTC and the Texas Department of Transport-ation’s toll-road mandate … creating the perfect opportunity for anti-toll rebels to abandon necro’d and stale soundbites and invent some vibrant slanginology. Let the linguists at the Current show you how.

ABBA-ttack — The Current was subjected to the sugar-dispensing Europop group ABBA while a DVD of their videos played on a flat screen at Boston Nails on Broadway last week. Held captive in the pedicure spa chair for 30 vibrating minutes, and suffering a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome while the Swedish song birds sang their under-appreciated and final single, 1982’s “Under Attack,” we found the inspiration for this word: ABBA-ttack. As in, “TxDOT’s privatization efforts are under ABBA-tack this session.”

There are two bills that have TTC opponents particularly geeked up with excitement: Republican state Senator Robert Nichols’s Senate Bill 1267 and the companion bill from Republican state Represent-ative Lois Kolkhorst, House Bill 2772. Filed last week, the bills call for a two-year ban on new contracts for privately built tolls and “[the establishment of] a study group appointed by the Governor, Lt. Governor and Speaker of the House to evaluate the long-term [e]ffect of privatizing toll roads.”

Forget, for a moment, that Governor Perry and Speaker Tom Craddick always side with the free market, even at Texans’ expense. (We ABBA-ttack the governor for privatization experiments like last year’s Health and Human Services debacle, in which Bermuda-based Accenture LLP denied qualified applicants their welfare benefits. Afterward the governor’s spokeswoman, Kathy Walt, told blogger extraordinaire Off the Kuff that “the governor certainly believes that privatization is an appropriate cost-saving approach.” Expect any toll-study group Perry appoints to be as toothless as the Baker-Hamilton Commission.)

A-gangers — Of all the branches of the U.S. military (Army. Navy. Air Force. Marines. Privately contracted mercenaries.) the Current likes NAVspeak best. Their “A-gangers” refers to the Navy’s Auxiliary Division of the Engineering Department, what Wikipedia defines as “the only gang on the boat.”

The first notable TTC opposition was touched off by a former city manager of Columbus, an East Texas Republican named David Stall, who formed a TTC study group in 2002 months after Governor Perry announced his super-corridor.

“We were a voice in the wilderness at that point,” says Stall (mixing up our watery A-ganger metaphor). Stall and his wife Linda started Corridor Watch in 2004. Other A-gangers climbed onboard, including Sal Costello’s Texas Toll Party, its splinter group the San Antonio Toll Party, Environmental Defense, Citizens Against the TTC, the Independent Cattlemen Association, and free radicals working their skinny asses off to rally NAFTA-bashing protectionists (afraid the TTC will create a North American Union and an express route for Mexican immigrants) alongside people legitimately threatened by Texas’s most ginormous public-works project ever.

Eight hundred outraged citizens attended an eight-hour state-senate transportation hearing on tolls March 1, more than 3,000 protestors marched on the Capitol the next day, rally organizer Hank Gilbert told reporters. Most of the lawmakers responding to grassroots transportation policy pressure should be referred to as “B-gangers.”

Buffalo Steamer — The roots of this reference are pretty nasty. And fitting when you’re describing a report that disproves TxDOT’s “toll roads, at no cost to the taxpayer” claims, one that A-gangers can use to call the state agency a liar and smear its chest with excrement, metaphorically speaking. February’s state auditor’s report, for example, is a Buffalo Steamer. First off, it caught TxDOT’s bad bookkeeping on the TTC-35 project, a 50-year leased tollway that Spanish company Cintra and local Zachry Construction Corp. are set to build from San Antonio to Oklahoma: $4.3 million in invoices were coded to incorrect projects. It’s not a lot of money when you consider TxDOT handled a third of all state contracts last year and its overall budget is $11 billion.

“But if a private corporation did this they’d be in jail” for mislabeling expenses, says plucky A-ganger Terri Hall of the SA Toll Party. “They cooked the books.”

The real price distortion worth noting from the audit, however, we borrow from the trucker-friendly Land Line Magazine:

“The Texas Department of Transportation estimates the cost of the [TTC] to be about $184 billion, while state auditors found that one section alone — approximately 14 percent of the proposed corridor — would cost $105 billion.”

Nibblas — This is a fairly easy slang definition to explain. The unrestricted period for introducing bills just ended and there are 5,922 bills gestating in the state Capitol’s pink granite uterus. A few just “nibble around the edges” of TxDOT’s ability to privatize highways. Nibblas include the riders fixed to appropriations bills that won’t have to pass through Round Rock Republican Mike Krusee, the pro-toller gargoyle sitting atop the House Transportation Committee.

One lawmaker notes that nothing anti-toll will make it out of any committee if Speaker Craddick doesn’t want it to. If that’s the case, then those bills out to kill the TTC aren’t going anywhere. That includes Kolkhorst’s HB 1881 and Democratic State Representative David Leibowitz’s companion HB 857, which both call for a Back to the Future-like revision of the transportation code that gave birth to the TTC — that would jeopardize its very existence! Kolkhorst’s HB 1880 would prohibit public-pension funds from investing in private toll-road projects, effectively starving the TTC of billions of yummy dollars.

Pulling an Oppenheimer — The Current is always looking for an opportunity to mention Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb.” WMD Bob did an about-face after helping wipe out Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and spent his post-war years lobbying against atomic energy and the nuclear genie he unleashed.

The parallel between Oppenheimer and State Senator Nichols only has to do with a perceived change of heart. Nichols served six years on the Transportation Commission and supported toll roads and privatization back when Perry unveiled plans for the TTC in 2002. This year the senator filed a pair of bills proposing a two-year moratorium on the privatization of tolls and SB 1268, preventing existing roads from being tolled.

His spokesperson, Alicia Phillips, explains the Oppenheimer move this way: When Nichols left TxDOT in 2005, toll-road contracts were still in negotiation. He had no idea how “alarming” the provisions would be, particularly the non-compete agreements which limit the expansion of nearby freeways, and the lack of a road buy-back provision in case the state wants out of the comprehensive-development agreement legally binding it to private companies like Cintra — who just won a bid to build and collect tolls for 50 years along on State Highway 121 north of Dallas.

“These contracts can tie the state up in courts for years,” Nichols’s spokesperson said.

Potboiler Perry — The Current was listening to Arcade Fire’s first album, Funeral, one rainy night (see a review of their latest, Neon Bible, on page 47) and thinking up slang. “A watched pot won’t ever boil,” sang Win Butler. “Just like a seed down in the soil, you gotta give it time.”

The effort to slow down or stop Perry’s signature project, the TTC, has taken patience (and conventional wisdom says anti-toll opponents will get some modest satisfaction by the end of the 80th lege). But there’s something else that’s taken time: James Richard “Rick” Perry has been governor since 2000, since George W. Bush left for a higher branch (there’s a German proverb that comes to mind: “the higher the monkey climbs, the more it shows its behind,” but we digress). And this year, Perry’s handling of the HPV mandate, the coal-plant fast tracking, and the Texas Youth Commission sex-abuse scandal has created “near-universal animosity toward the governor,” reports Texas Monthly canary Paul Burka. Perhaps that whistling we’re hearing is Perry boiling in the pot.

© 2007 San Antonio Current: www.sacurrent.com

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