Friday, September 21, 2007

"Selling toll roads like soap is an outrageous use of the taxpayers' money."

Toll road foe sues over TxDOT ad campaign


Peggy Fikac Austin Bureau
San Antonnio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — An activist outraged over state transportation officials' multimillion-dollar campaign to promote toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor is taking her fight to court.

Terri Hall of the San Antonio Toll Party and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom wants a state court order to halt spending on the "Keep Texas Moving" campaign because, she contends, it violates a state prohibition on state officers or employees using their authority for political purposes.

"Unlike purely educational public relations efforts such as the 'Don't Mess with Texas' campaign, the KTM campaign is a one-sided attempt to advocate one political point of view on a highly controversial matter that is far from politically decided," Hall said in her court petition.

She also wants to block lobbying attempts by the transportation officials to persuade Congress to allow more tolling, such as a proposal on tolling interstates.

The state is asking that Hall's claim be denied and her petition dismissed, saying the Texas Department of Transportation is allowed by law to promote toll projects and that its campaign is responsive to a call from the public and elected officials for more information on road initiatives.

"Merely because plaintiff disagrees with the tolling of roads in Texas does not provide her with an avenue for relief," said the filing by the state attorney general on behalf of Steven Simmons, interim executive director of TxDOT, and Coby Chase, director of the agency's government and public affairs division.

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said, "For quite some time now TxDOT has heard calls from elected leaders and the driving public to explain what we are doing to improve mobility in our state and why we are doing it. The 'Keep Texas Moving' public involvement campaign is an effort to engage Texans on these issues and seek their participation in solving some of our state's most serious problems."

A hearing had been scheduled Thursday, but the state objected to the case being heard by a visiting judge. The hearing was delayed until Monday.

"Selling toll roads like soap is an outrageous use of the taxpayers' money. Whether or not it constitutes highway robbery under the law is a question best left to the judge," said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, which tracks money in politics.

Toll roads and the ambitious proposed transportation network known as the Trans-Texas Corridor have been touted by Gov. Rick Perry and others as necessary in the face of congestion.

But the initiative has drawn widespread criticism over the potential corridor route and the state partnering with private companies to run toll roads.

The campaign includes a range of advertising and elements, such as training for officials who will appear on radio talk shows. It is estimated to cost $7 million to $9 million in state highway funds.

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