Saturday, August 04, 2007

"Money would be better spent engaging people in a meaningful dialogue as opposed to propping up a flawed project that flowed from a flawed process."

TxDOT spends $9 million on public relations effort


by Christine DeLoma

Volume 12 Issue 4
Lone Star Report
Copyright 2007

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) wants you to know that there’s no new money available to pay for non-tolled road construction. That’s why it is spending up to $9 million on a new ad campaign promoting toll roads and the unpopular Trans-Texas Corridor.

While critics call the TV, radio and web advertising campaign a waste of taxpayer dollars, the agency argues it has no other choice but to tell its side of the story.

Said TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott: “This is a direct response to one of the most frequent criticisms our agency receives, which is we are not responsive to the public, that we don’t do a good job of communicating what we’re doing and why, and we’ve taken those criticisms in stride.”

Corridor opponents are predictably criticizing TxDOT’s new touchy feely approach. David Stall of Corridor Watch, called it a “propaganda campaign to sway public opinion.”

“I think the money would be better spent in engaging people in a meaningful dialogue as opposed to propping up a flawed project that flowed from a flawed process,” Stall said.

The public relations campaign, called Keep Texas Moving, was launched in June and is expected to cost between $7 million and $9 million. It is aimed at addressing top concerns regarding the Trans-Texas Corridor and toll roads in Texas - both of which have come under criticism in mostly rural areas.

Several 30-second radio ads feature the voice of Transportation commissioner Fred Underwood. One spot called “Fair Treatment” describes what is characterized as TxDOT’s tradition of working with landowners to negotiate right-of-way purchases that are fair and equitable.

Another ad, called “Trans-Texas Corridor,” tries to assuage rural concerns that the Corridor could divide counties. The ad says TxDOT will work with county officials and landowners to provide crossovers and local road connectors.

The ads tread on touchy subjects for rural folks who believe their voices have not been heard in past. To Stall, the public relations campaign is about trying “to justify the ends that they have already concluded.”

In addition to the corridor, TxDOT’s PR campaign is pushing toll roads. “We have to use the tools the Legislature has provided us,” Lippincott said. “They provided some guidance in terms of how we should engage the private sector, but the reality is, as long as TxDOT is authorized to construct toll roads, we have little choice but to pursue that option when and where it is appropriate.

“That’s why the commission identified more than 80 projects across the state, and we’re working with our local partners to start developing those projects.”

Is TxDOT running out of money?

The Texas Transportation Commission considered Aug. 23 shifting $6 billion from its construction budget to its maintenance budget over a five-year period - a longstanding discussion topic on which the commission took no formal action.

“That’s just to maintain the system that we have, in fact it takes money away from our efforts to battle congestion,” Lippincott said.

The problem, as he points out, is that state gas tax revenues soon won’t be able to cover the maintenance of state roads and the construction of new roads. The former is costlier than the latter.

“We will reach a point this year,” said Lippincott, “[that] the money that we receive from the state gas tax will only pay for maintenance of the system that we have. It will not pay for anything, for new capacity, for new lanes on existing roads or for new roads. So we have to come up with new resources.”

TxDOT is funded primarily by Fund 6, which is dedicated for the construction, improvement, and maintenance of the state highway system.

Funds are generated by state and federal gas tax dollars, motor vehicle registration fees, and sales tax on lubricants and federal funds.

The state constitution directs 25 percent of state gas tax revenues to be redistributed to education and 75 percent to Fund 6.

However, over the years the Legislature has dipped into the fund to pay for non-transportation related programs. In the 2008-09 biennium, for example, lawmakers siphoned off nearly $1.5 billion to pay for employee pay raises, retirement benefit packages, and ambulance services to match federal Medicaid funds at the Health and Human Services Commission.

According to TxDOT, federal money is also drying up. Over the past 18 months Congress has rescinded $666 million from Texas transportation funding. With the federal Highway Trust Fund expected to see red in 2009, state transportation officials expect up to $320 million in rescissions in the future.

With the Legislature seemingly unwilling to raise the state gas tax, TxDOT has tried to find “innovative financing” methods to finance new roads. This means entering into 50-year lease agreements (comprehensive development agreements) with private companies to design, bid, build, operate and maintain toll roads. In many cases, the agency has been met with resistance by the legislature over the details of these long-term lease agreements that give the state large upfront concession payments in exchange for giving private companies the right to charge tolls for a profit.

The legislature put the brakes on TxDOT’s use of public-private partnerships to build private toll roads, which include the Trans-Texas Corridor, in most rural areas for the next two years. Yet the agency can build segments of the project without using comprehensive development agreements.

In the wake of the recent Minneapolis bridge collapse, Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) has reiterated his call earlier this month for indexing the gas tax to inflation or the consumer price index. He picked up the support of the American Automobile Association of Texas on the condition that the gas tax funds be spent on transportation-specific projects.

Nonetheless, Lippincott points out that the House voted for a temporary gas tax cut for summer travelers. Had such a measure become law, it would have cost Fund 6 at least $700 million. The House also rejected an amendment by Transportation Committee chairman Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock) to index the gas tax.

“The reality is that we have come nowhere near meeting the demands for improved transportation across the state,” Lippincott said.

The population has grown 65 percent over the last quarter century while road usage has increased by 95 percent. During this same time period, road capacity has increased only 8 percent.

Lippincott also cited the increasing cost of highway construction. Since 2002, road construction costs have increased 73 percent, far outstripping inflation. This includes the costs of steel, concrete and asphalt, which is a petroleum based product, he said.

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