Thursday, August 23, 2007

"The tone of their public relations campaign seems to be to sell Texans on a very unpopular transportation scheme."

Touting tolls

TxDOT pitches virtues of Trans-Texas Corridor, tolls

August 22, 2007

Longview News-Journal
Copyright 2007

For years, the Texas Department of Transportation has cited a lack of funding as one reason that Texans should get behind the plan to pave our state with toll roads in the future.

If that is so, we'd sure like to know where it came up with the estimated $7 million to $9 million it is spending on a publicity campaign to pitch toll roads in general and Gov. Rick Perry's controversial Trans-Texas Corridor project in particular.

There are a few Texas bridges and highways that could be fixed with that kind of spare change.

Part of the idea behind TxDOT's "Keep Texas Moving: Tolling and Trans-Texas Corridor Outreach" is to answer the concerns raised by lawmakers during the most recent session of the Texas Legislature.

TxDOT officials say the campaign will be used to educate and involve Texans in the discussion about changes in the way future highway projects should be funded.

This effort is clearly designed to sway not only public opinion, but in the eyes of a key legislative backer of the Trans-Texas Corridor to sway his skeptical colleagues, as well.

It appears that Perry, who suffered some embarrassing (but apparently not humbling) setbacks during the recent legislative session has recruited some lawmakers and some state bureaucrats to carry the water for him on the tolling of Texas.

Of course, it might have been TxDOT officials who originally convinced Perry that tolls are the way to go. In the past few years we have criticized the stands taken by several state bureaucrats including Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton, a Perry appointee who two years ago was reported to have told a group of local officials in South Texas: "I-69 is dead in the state of Texas. The road fairy has been shot."

A year before that, we lamented a report by Northeast Texas Regional Mobility Authority leader Jeff Austin III that Texas Highway Commission Chairman Ric Williamson had turned the old "My way or the highway" adage into a new saying: "It's toll roads or no roads."

So perhaps TxDOT and the governor might understand if we, like many Texans, are skeptical about the educational intentions of the new public relations campaign the department launched earlier this summer.

Apparently there's not much that Texans can do about this use of highway funds to pitch the governor's pet project. The spokesman for one government watchdog group in Austin, Texans for Public Justice, told the Houston Chronicle that state law doesn't prohibit the campaign even though it appears to go beyond simply providing information.

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

The TxDOT campaign relies upon just about every media available, including junk mail, to reach Texans. Readers who haven't seen one of the billboards or ads for the campaign can always go to the Web site being used to extoll the virtue of tolls:

Just remember to ask yourself as you surf the site: Are you being educated or are you being sold?

If the answer is the latter, do you really think that's the best use of your tax dollar — especially by an agency that has been pleading poverty for years?

We don't.

© 2007 Longview News-Journal:

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