Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"TxDOT spends millions of dollars of public money to make you feel better about the public information it fought to keep you away from 2 years ago."

TxDOT's 'outreach' plan reaches deep into taxpayers' pockets


Jaime Castillo
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Even if it's just for a moment, let us give credit where credit is due.

The Texas Department of Transportation has realized — finally — that it has an image problem when it comes to convincing Texans of the need for a vast network of toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor.

The realization, however, comes with a price tag of $7 million to $9 million that, rather than going to build highways, will fuel an advertising campaign centered around a memo titled, "Keep Texas Moving: Tolling and Trans-Texas Corridor Outreach."

This is where I get off the track. Outreach?

The nerve of state highway officials to use such a term after years of helping fan the flames of skepticism among Texans for a tolled highway system.

The time for outreach would have been, say, two years ago, if not more.

Take, for example, the Trans-Texas Corridor, the 50-year plan favored by Gov. Rick Perry to build a superhighway of toll roads and rail and utility lines.

For more than a year and a half, Cintra, a Spain-based company, and its minority partner, Zachry Construction Corp. of San Antonio, fought tooth and nail in court to keep certain things — like how it would be financed — out of the public eye.

During that time, Texans also were expected to swallow other problematic revelations concerning the deal.

Those included the news that Dan Shelley, Perry's onetime liaison to the Legislature, left the governor's office to become a lobbyist for Cintra, where he had worked as a consultant prior to joining Perry's staff in the first place.

Then, 40 days before the Nov. 7, 2006, general election — a campaign which saw Perry vilified for his support of toll roads — TxDOT suddenly released the details of the Cintra/Zachry pact as if to say all's well that ends well.

To put the whole situation into perspective, TxDOT now wants to spend millions of dollars of public money to make you feel better about the public information it fought to keep you away from two years ago.

But TxDOT is hardly the king of hypocrisy in this situation.

Consider state Rep. Warren Chisum, chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee.

Not that I disagree with Chisum's summation of the need for a public relations blitz.

"I wonder what for?" he was quoted in Tuesday's Express-News as saying. "So people wouldn't hate 'em so bad?"

But Chisum went on to say that the money would be better spent fixing roads.

What a great idea! Surely Chisum used similar logic when he helped write the state's latest two-year budget.



Continuing what has become a biennial shell game, Chisum participated in crafting a budget that diverts one-tenth, or $1.6 billion, from the state highway fund to pay for things that have nothing to do with building and maintaining roads.

Sadly it's nothing new.

From fiscal year 1986 to 2005, nearly $8.7 billion of the fund was spent on non-highway items, including state historical and arts commissions and law enforcement functions with the Department of Public Safety.

In other words, Chisum, a Pampa Republican who was first elected in 1989, has been there nearly every step of the way as the Legislature as a whole became all too accustomed to robbing money from the state highway fund.

The state has grown by leaps and bounds, while the gas tax — the main source of revenue for highway building — has remained stagnant since 1991.

But thanks to the decisions of top elected officials, it's doubtful whether all the advertising pros in the world can put this Humpty Dumpty together again.

To contact Jaime Castillo, call (210) 250-3174 or e-mail

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