"Our room is reserved under the name ViaNovo, because 'Mile-Wide NAFTA Drug Corridor Conspiracy' wouldn't fit on the reservation card."
Sept. 7, 2007
By PEGGY FIKAC, Austin Bureau
Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express-News
AUSTIN — Gov. Rick Perry's deputy chief of staff decided to skip Friday's public-relations training session meant to prep officials for talk-radio appearances promoting the Trans-Texas Corridor and toll roads, a spokeswoman said.
"With the workload he had, he wasn't able to give up a half-day," Perry spokeswoman Krista Moody said of deputy chief of staff Kris Heckmann, whom she described as Perry's point person on transportation.
The Houston Chronicle reported in Friday's editions that the training by political and corporate strategy experts from ViaNovo is part of a $20,000 consulting contract included in the agency's multimillion-dollar Keep Texas Moving campaign. The campaign promotes the divisive transportation plans pushed by Perry.
The campaign's estimated cost of $7 million to $9 million in highway funds has been criticized by anti-toll activists and some lawmakers, who question the use of public funds on what they call a public relations push.
Supporters said it answers lawmakers' demand for the agency to do a better job of communicating with Texans.
Perry and others have championed toll roads and the ambitious transportation network known as the Trans-Texas Corridor as necessary to ease traffic congestion and boost highway funding that lags behind road needs. The initiative has sparked worry and outrage over the corridor's potential route and the state's decision to partner with private firms on toll roads.
Friday's training session was the third for various Texas Department of Transportation division directors, two district engineers, the agency's acting executive director and media and marketing staff.
Heckmann's decision doesn't imply any criticism of the training, Moody added.
"Kris has great communication skills already. It certainly doesn't hurt anyone to receive formalized training. We think it's definitely going to be very beneficial for the policy professionals and policy wonks to get a better grasp on how to communicate their message and their vision to Texans," Moody said.
She said Heckmann "has been our transportation guru for some time. He's invited all the time to give speeches and interviews regarding transportation issues in Texas."
She said Heckmann would treat requests to talk publicly about the Trans-Texas Corridor or toll roads as he always does.
"He's been our transportation guru for some time. He's invited all the time to give speeches and interviews regarding transportation issues in Texas," she said.
Coby Chase, director of the agency's government and public affairs division, said training session participants were picked because "You have a title that is impressive or is tailored to a specific audience ... You generally try to figure out what is coming out of the Greer Building (state transportation headquarters) and attempt to explain the company message to others."
The divisiveness of the transportation initiatives was the basis of an e-mail joke by TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott as he let people know about one of the training sessions, which was at the downtown Austin Club.
"Our room is reserved under the name ViaNovo," he quipped, "because 'Mile-Wide NAFTA Drug Corridor Conspiracy' wouldn't fit on the reservation card."
'KEEP TEXAS MOVING' PR TRAINEESCoby Chase, director of the TxDOT's government and public affairs division, described in an e-mail some of the reasons people were asked to attend training sessions:
• "You have a title that is impressive or is tailored to a specific audience"
• "You generally try to figure out what is coming out of the Greer Building (state transportation headquarters in Austin) and attempt to explain the company message to others"
• "You're not easily intimidated"
• "You're an agency team player"
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