Sunday, April 29, 2007

"Perry's Trans-Texas corridor plan is tinged with cronyism and infected with campaign donations."


Taking its toll

Legislature and governor poised for a damaging clash over state highway funding.

April 29, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

The English poet A.E. Housman lamented what he perceived as a "land of lost content, I see it plain, the land of happy highways where I went and cannot come again."

He might have been commenting on the penurious state of highway funding in Texas and the acrimony between the governor and Legislature over how to pay for needed roads.

Fearful that Texas drivers will wind up padding private investors' pockets to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, the Texas Senate last week approved a two-year moratorium on private financing of toll roads. The measure goes to the House, which can accept it or negotiate a compromise with its own transportation bill.

The legislation is a backlash against Gov. Rick Perry's plans to let foreign interests partially finance and profit from the first of his Trans-Texas corridors. The state would have to pay huge penalties to reacquire control of the right of way if it was dissatisfied with the contractor's performance, and public roads in the vicinity of privately operated turnpikes would be discouraged.

Rural residents feared the corridors would amount to grabs of private land to be turned over to favored investors so they could make huge profits.

Kathleen White, chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the Senate legislation would interfere with Houston's attainment of federal ozone standards, perhaps subjecting the region to the loss of federal highway funds.

Former Texas Department of Transportation Chairman Johnny Johnson of Houston told the Chronicle editorial board that the bill would hold up the building of vital infrastructure. Other sections of the bill would hand federal funds to local toll road authorities, leaving the state no way to vouch for their use and threatening the system of federal-state highway funding.

Johnson also pointed out that the bill would expose highway funding to the direct influence of contractors' campaign donations to county officials.

Perry, who hints he might veto the bill, has himself to blame for much of the backlash. If the bill would allow highway routing and contracts to be determined by campaign donations, Perry's Trans-Texas corridor plan is tinged with cronyism and infected with campaign donations.

Given the legitimate questions about the terms of contracts with private companies to build and operate the corridors, a two-year moratorium on private toll road financing would not be the end of the world. However, the Legislature should not pass legislation that would interfere with the state's ability to direct and audit federal highway funds. That would do more harm than directing Texans' tolls to foreign investors, not to mention threatening the attainment of clean air standards.

If the Legislature and governor really want to curb pollution while providing Texans with better transportation, they would pay more attention to mass transit and high-speed trains that would advance both goals.

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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