Thursday, May 17, 2007

Rep. Mike Krusee splits hairs for Governor Perry in media attack on HCTRA

If approved, plan would pour billions into toll roads

May 17, 2007

By Dave Fehling
11 News KHOU-TV (Houston)
Copyright 2007

If you want to see where your local politicians are spending your money, just take a drive on one of Harris County’s toll roads.

Realtor Alicia Sermon drives them every day, paying hundreds of dollars in tolls for the privilege.

“It all adds up,” she said.

Adds up like you might not imagine.

And there’s a new proposal: Harris County’s Toll Road Authority would, in the next decade or so, build or improve toll roads on the Grand Parkway, Highway 290, Highway 288, Fairmont Parkway, the Westpark and the Hardy — projects that would cost nearly $21 billion.

That’s billion with a “b,” more money to be spent on roads in one county than in many states.

“Billions of dollars of dollars more than the vast majority of states,” State. Rep. Mike Krusee said. In Austin, Rep. Krusee chairs the powerful House Transportation Committee and does not like what he sees.

He said it’s not just the amount of money, it’s who would hand it out.

“Five people,” he said.

The five members of Harris County Commissioners Court.

You vote them into office. But who pays for their campaigns? And how does that relate to who gets the billions to design and build all these toll roads?

Already, the people and companies that design roads in Harris County — the architects, engineers and the lawyers who represent them — donate heavily to the campaigns of the Harris County Commissioners.

Tens of thousands of dollars a year, as 11 News found in some campaign finance reports.

Critics say that’s troubling because when those firms ask for work, commissioners pick who they feel is best qualified not who submits the lowest bid.

At the state level, the Texas Department of Transportation’s commissioners do it the same way, but they are appointed by the governor, not elected.

“We don’t allow TxDOT Commissioners to take contributions from the people they award contracts to,” Rep. Krusee said. “We shouldn’t allow Harris County Commissioners to take those contributions either.”

But doing so is asking for trouble said former TxDOT Commissioner John Johnson of Houston.

He wrote to lawmakers: It “can lead to the public’s perception that it is an open door to corruption and influence peddling.”

So what do Harris County Commissioners say about all this?

“It’s open to the public,” Judge Ed Emmett said. “Commissioners have to say these are people who gave me money.”

11 News: “Why not say ‘because we deal with so many road dollars here on the commission, we just won’t take money from these people we’re giving contracts to?’

EE: “Well, frankly because that’s unconstitutional when you get right down to it. People have a right to participate in government.”

Emmett sees no threat of corruption because who gets picked is done in open meetings and who gave what can be found on the Internet, which is how 11 News came across PBS&J.

It’s a big national firm whose former employees got into trouble in Florida for allegedly giving money illegally to political candidates.

“The example you just gave is why the process works,” Emmett said. “It’s open, you know who gave money to who.”

A proposal to outlaw contractor contributions to County Commissioners just failed overwhelmingly in the State House, so for now the donations will continue to flow from the people are being paid millions to design our roads.

© 2007 KHOU-TV:

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