Letters to TxDOT "cover the spectrum from polite and well-reasoned to death threats."
Comments to TxDOT show scope of opposition to convert interstates
Sept. 21, 2007
By POLLY ROSS HUGHES
Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — Angry citizens protesting toll road plans for existing interstate highways might think their letters to state transportation officials are tossed in the trash, unread and unnoted.
In fact, records obtained under the Texas Public Information Act show state transportation officials forwarding citizen e-mails to each other that bashed them as "morons" and "greedy dogs."
The citizen comments came in response to a little-noticed Texas Department of Transportation report to Congress earlier this year called "Forward Momentum." In it, TxDOT urged lawmakers to allow states to buy back parts of interstate highways and convert existing lanes to toll lanes, possibly run by private companies.
"FOR GOD'S SAKE. ... STOP THIS TOLL ROAD FIASCO NOW," said an e-mail from Sadlstar. "GOVERNOR (GOOD HAIR) PERRY NEEDS TO RESIGN. AND TXDOT NEEDS TO BE REMOVED. WHAT OUTRAGEOUS BEHAVIOR."
Sometimes TxDOT officials added their own sarcastic remarks for internal consumption — "Oh lord, now they're asking about my homeland!!!" Cindy Mueller, head of strategic partnerships at the Texas Department of Transportation, noted above one citizen complaint.
But officials also plotted strategies to turn staunch toll road opponents into advocates of letting local voters decide tolling matters, which state law already requires.
The Houston Chronicle obtained copies of the public's overwhelmingly negative comments about TxDOT's toll-road initiatives as the issue heads to district court in Austin Monday.
From politeness to threats
A citizens group wants a judge to bar TxDOT from using taxpayer dollars to lobby Congress on federal toll road conversions or for ads promoting toll roads to the public.
"I've been reading the comments we've been receiving from (generally) the San Antonio area regarding our proposed federal agenda," Coby Chase, director of TxDOT's government and public affairs division, wrote to colleagues.
"They cover the spectrum from polite and well-reasoned to death threats," he said. "Nothing like public service; it's why we're paid the big dollars."
The citizen e-mail actually contains two references to hanging. The most pointed was written by someone identified only as John Hutson: "If I had anything to say about TxDOT, I would suggest an old fachion (sic) necktie party. Of course you would be the guest of honor."
Patrick Dossey of San Antonio compared TxDOT officials to a rogue state: "THE CURRENT EFFORT OF YOURS TO CONVERT FEDERAL HIGHWAYS TO TOLL ROADS PRESUMABLY OWNED BY 'FRIENDLY' PARTIES IS AN ABOMINATION. SADAM (sic) WAS HUNG FOR FAR LESS THAN WHAT YOU ARE DOING TO OUR COUNTRY."
Citizen insults hurled at TxDOT often followed statements evoking the image of a wounded taxpayer.
"Enough already," said a writer called wildchildmdc. "Now you want to purchase existing highways from the government. YOU GREEDY DOGS ARE SO DISGUSTING."
TxDOT officials decided it would be a good idea to write replies to citizens, thanking them for commenting. Mueller suggested varying the response "depending on the severity" of the comment, but added, "This way, they'll know we actually read what they wrote."
Chase said it might be interesting to ask toll road opponents a question and see how they respond.
"If we were able to buy back portions of the Interstate, we couldn't toll it unless local voters approved it," he said, noting in parenthesis "that's in state law."
"Without revealing it's in state law, I'd like to know what some of these opponents think about voter approval," he said.
A repeated refrain from citizens was fierce opposition to the state's idea of selling portions of tolled federal highways to private companies.
"This is an outrage!" wrote TheJollyRoger1. "How can you justify giving private companies perks on the taxpayers' dime WITH NO ACCOUNTABILITY! Where's my tax break for being a good citizen ... This is how nations fall apart, rotting from the inside out all in the name of GREED."
Mueller, of TxDOT, referred to the following letter as her "new favorite":
"If you value your nation and state, and if you have a decent conscience, please make known, and fight the forces that are operating covertly against the common taxpayer," wrote E. Hauschild of Seguin, noting the problem of "tremendous" citizen apathy about participating in their government.
"I know you know what I'm talking about," Hauschild added. "You wouldn't be where you are if you didn't."
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