Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"An agency that ignores the public and legislature shouldn't use tax dollars for freeways to spend lobbying and selling their unaccountable schemes."

Don't like toll roads? TxDOT is talking to you


Peggy Fikac, Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — The Texas Department of Transportation, which complains about chronic underfunding, has launched a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign that promotes the divisive Trans-Texas Corridor plan and toll roads.

The campaign is anticipated to cost $7 million to $9 million, according to a memorandum titled "Keep Texas Moving: Tolling and Trans-Texas Corridor Outreach" sent to transportation officials by Coby Chase, director of the agency's government and public affairs division.

Such use of state highway fund dollars is drawing concern and questions from some. Others, including the department, say it's an important effort to educate and engage Texans.

Put Rep. Warren Chisum, chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, in the first category.

"I wonder what for? So people wouldn't hate 'em so bad?" he said of the campaign. "It's a waste of money, and they have no business out there trying to get public opinion to be in their favor."

The money would be better spent fixing roads, Chisum, R-Pampa, added: "It would probably take care of three or four potholes."

But Rep. Mike Krusee, House Transportation Committee chairman, said the campaign addresses lawmakers' concerns by explaining new financing methods.

"The Legislature has been beating TxDOT over the head for two years, telling them they need to explain what the Trans-Texas Corridor is and why it is necessary to the public. They've been telling TxDOT they are moving too fast — they are moving before the public and the Legislature has the chance to understand what they are doing and why," said Krusee, R-Round Rock. "I think it is the Legislature that has pressured TxDOT to do this sort of program."

If the outreach is effective, Krusee said, it could save money in the long run.

"Texas is losing money for roads by the hundreds of millions of dollars every year simply due to delay, because the Legislature and the public doesn't understand the need to move to a new finance method. And so an expenditure of a few million dollars could literally save hundreds of millions of dollars per year," Krusee said.

The agency's budget is more than $7 billion for fiscal year 2007 and more than $8 billion for fiscal year 2008.

The Trans-Texas Corridor — an ambitious transportation network — and toll roads have been championed by Gov. Rick Perry and others as necessary in the face of congestion and of gas tax revenues that can't keep up with huge transportation needs.

But the initiative has drawn widespread criticism over the potential route and the state partnering with private companies to run toll roads. Lawmakers this year sought to rein in new private toll projects.

The new campaign, as outlined in the memorandum obtained by the San Antonio Express-News, started June 1 with television, radio, print, billboard and Internet advertising meant to push people to the Keep Texas Moving Web site ( www.keeptexasmoving.com).

That site compares the Trans-Texas Corridor to "Eisenhower's Interstate System." Its toll road section lists a slew of benefits including "A Choice to Go Faster" and "More Roads, More Choices, More Time."

The campaign also will include direct mail pieces on Trans-Texas Corridor segments known as TTC-35 (parallel to Interstate 35) and TTC-69 (from East Texas to Mexico); training for agency representatives to appear on talk radio; and ads, events and guest editorials surrounding hearings on TTC-69.

Sal Costello, who founded the TexasTollParty.com group because of anger over the way tollways were being planned under Perry, said, "I just don't think an agency that has been ignoring the public and ignoring our representatives for years should be able to take our tax dollars intended for freeways and spend one dime on lobbying and selling their unaccountable schemes."

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said the aim of the campaign is to address concerns that the agency hasn't done enough outreach and the public hasn't had enough input. State law allows the agency to spend money on marketing toll roads, he said.

"The clearest and most often repeated criticism of the department during the legislative session was that we needed to do a better job of engaging the public. We heard that message loud and clear, and we're acting on it," he said. "You're going to see us expanding the way we talk with people instead of at people. We think that's really important."

Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, which tracks money in politics, said the campaign appears to go beyond providing information, which he said isn't right although he knows of no law to prevent it.

"The tone of their public relations campaign seems to be to sell Texans on a very unpopular transportation scheme," he said. "That is, they are using our money to make us happy about spending money for every mile we drive through tolls."


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