Friday, September 07, 2007

Perry staffer, TxDOT officials get tax-funded training to push the TTC in costly public relations campaign.

Before going on air, TxDOT hears static

Officials getting coached by pros on how to promote controversial plans


Peggy Fikac Austin Bureau
Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Top state transportation officials and Gov. Rick Perry's deputy chief of staff are being trained by political and corporate strategy pros before deploying to talk radio programs to promote the Trans-Texas Corridor and toll roads.

The airwave ambassadors are being schooled by experts from ViaNovo as part of a $20,000 consulting contract included in the agency's multimillion-dollar Keep Texas Moving ad campaign, which promotes the divisive transportation plans championed by Perry.

ViaNovo is led by a team that includes former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd, but Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Chris Lippincott said two other firm leaders — Blaine H. Bull and Julie Hillrichs — are doing the training. He confirmed the participation of agency officials and Kris Heckmann, a deputy chief of staff for Perry.

Plans call for several TxDOT division directors, district engineers from Beaumont and Amarillo, agency interim executive director Steve Simmons and Heckmann to start out on satellite radio — in part because "the listening audience is paying for radio so they might be more apt to pay a toll," according to a July e-mail from Coby Chase, director of the agency's government and public affairs division. He wrote that the agency likely will buy advertising time on the satellite networks.

Strong criticism

The Trans-Texas Corridor — an ambitious transportation network — and toll roads have been touted by Perry and others as necessary in the face of congestion and of gas tax revenues outpaced by transportation needs. But the initiative has drawn strong criticism over the potential route and the state partnering with private companies to run toll roads.

The Keep Texas Moving campaign, estimated to cost $7 million to $9 million from state highway funds, has drawn concern from anti-toll activists and some lawmakers who question the cost of what they see as a public relations campaign. Its defenders, including Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, House Transportation Committee chairman, said the initiative stems from lawmakers' call for the agency to better communicate with the public.

Opinions continued to be divided Thursday as details of the talk-radio part of the campaign emerged through agency e-mails obtained under the Public Information Act.

Lippincott said the contract for talk-radio training went to the Rodman Co. of Portland, near Corpus Christi. Rodman subcontracted with ViaNovo with TxDOT's approval.

Company experts providing training are Bull, a founding officer of Public Strategies Inc. who worked with SBC Communications and before that was legislative director for former U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen; and Hillrichs, whose experience includes being a director in Public Strategies' Dallas office and managing media relations for former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm.

"I think TxDOT's doing exactly what the Legislature asked them to do — demanded that they do — and legislators who now cry foul are being hypocritical. They were the ones that beat TxDOT over the head in public hearings for not explaining this," said Krusee, who added that specialized training makes sense.

Legislators disagree

But Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who fought for a moratorium on privately run toll roads, said: "The Legislature did not tell TxDOT to go on a media campaign explaining the pros of the Trans-Texas Corridor and private equity investment (in toll roads). The Legislature said, 'Please slow down, take a deep breath. We want you to pause while we make sure we are making the right decisions.'"

Kolkhorst said TxDOT is a "fabulous agency" but there is a "lack of faith in the policy."

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who heads the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, and pushed for a toll-road moratorium, said the proof will be in how officials conduct themselves on air.

"I don't think there's anything inappropriate about them obtaining media training," Carona said. "I think it's important to share with the public TxDOT's goals and missions.

"If what they do on these radio shows turns out to be nothing more than a PR initiative for their current tolling plans and other controversial initiatives, then I and other legislators, I think, would have a great problem with it," he said. "Additionally, if they were to use TxDOT funds to buy radio time or anything of that nature, we would be very opposed to it."

Talking points provided to those being trained were positive about toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Lippincott said the campaign is an effort to educate people and address their concerns, as lawmakers said the agency should.

"People need to understand what we're doing and why," he said. "They need to be part of the process. We will never solve the transportation challenges that face our state without public information and public awareness."

But Terri Hall, founder and executive director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, which opposes toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor, said: "It's clear that TxDOT is not interested in listening to the people. That's how they've gotten such an image problem. They could certainly use a PR campaign to clean it up — but not with my taxpayer money."

Public Strategies Inc.

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