Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"Many Texans have absolutely had their fill of TxDOT and, fairly or unfairly, will never buy a word of what they're selling."

Choosing sides in the toll road debate could leave an aftertaste


Jaime Castillo
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Monitoring the court fight between activist Terri Hall and the Texas Department of Transportation is a lot like staring at a buffet line full of warmed over hospital cafeteria food.

On the one hand, you're hungry and interested in eating.

But on the other, you really can't get excited about the choices before you.

It's tempting but unpalatable to root for Hall, who has adopted the noble cause of trying to stop TxDOT from spending millions of dollars on a PR blitz to build support for toll roads.

Despite Hall's impressive gifts of organizing, public speaking and rabble-rousing, she is a one-issue ideologue.

For evidence, one only has to look at recent elections where her organization, San Antonio Toll Party, has endorsed some otherwise weak candidates as long as they opposed toll roads.

Similarly, it's equally difficult to crave a victory for state highway officials, who are now dealing with a problem of their own making.

Say what you will about rising construction costs, inadequate gas taxes and high population growth, the fact of the matter is state officials have acted arrogantly on the toll road issue.

They long ago decided that the only answer to the state's transportation woes is toll roads and now, after deciding what medicine is best for motorists, they want you to be quiet and swallow it.

Well, politics doesn't work that way.

Positions are so entrenched on toll roads in Texas that it makes the tired old red state vs. blue state model seem like a pillow fight.

At its heart, the court battle being waged in Austin is about whether TxDOT can legally spend $7 million to $9 million in state highway funds on a campaign, called "Keep Texas Moving."

Hall, who represents both the Toll Party and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, lost Round One on Monday, when a judge rejected the idea that the spending is an illegal use of public money.

To their credit, TxDOT officials smartly refused to gloat and took the incremental legal victory in stride.

But, while the legal wrangling is probably long from over, let us assume for a moment that TxDOT prevails and continues its public relations campaign.

From a practical standpoint, does it matter how much TxDOT spends?

I mean, Tony Sanchez spent $60 million and couldn't convince more than 39.96 percent of the electorate to back his 2002 candidacy for governor.

Ross Perot spent many millions on kamikaze bids for the presidency.

And nobody hated Sanchez or Perot.

But many Texans have absolutely had their fill of TxDOT and, fairly or unfairly, will never buy a word of what they're selling.

And, to make matters worse for TxDOT, toll roads and projects like the Trans-Texas Corridor have legions of bipartisan detractors.

Nothing makes conservatives and liberals see red like private property rights, foreign investment and privatizing the construction, maintenance and toll collection operations of public roadways for decades.

I'm prepared to be proven wrong, but state highway officials appear to have a dog candidate on their hands.

The candidate already has high negatives and the feel-good part of the campaign is starting about two years too late.

The scary thing from a policy perspective is that TxDOT could spend many millions of dollars and never move the needle on public support of toll roads.

And then what?

To contact Jaime Castillo, call (210) 250-3174 or e-mail His column appears on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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