Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Doing so much of this in secret and treating our farmers and ranchers as just so much road kill ... bothers members on both sides of the aisle here."

U. S. House Budget Committee Holds Hearing on Surface Transportation Investment

Congressman Doggett in a smackdown with Secretary of Transportation over tolls and the Trans-Texas Corridor

October 25, 2007

Transcript courtesy Terri Hall
Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (T.U.R.F.)

DOGGETT: Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman. And thank you, Madam Secretary, for your testimony and your service. I must say that I'm a bit surprised by your use of the term "tax and spend," because, of course, as you know from your long career, the tax-and-spend approach had its origin under Dwight David Eisenhower, who felt that the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act should be paid for as you go, and that the pay-as-you-go approach was the appropriate one as the Highway Revenue Act was enacted at the same time in 1956.

It is true that in the last seven years on everything this administration has preferred a borrow-and-spend approach for all of our national needs. But it would seem to me that the more fiscally responsible one is to pay for our highways as we determine we need them.

Now, there is an alternative model that Texas has really been pioneering with. And as you know, we have a governor in Texas who seems to have never met a highway that he didn't think he could toll. If he had his way, we would have toll roads blossoming in Texas like the wild flowers in the spring.

I have some concerns about the fact that the administration in its budget proposal really seems to want to incentivize more toll roads such as by its proposal to tax and spend for grants for high- tech electronic toll booths that would encourage states to use that means of finance.
Let me ask you if you support the requirement that no tolling occur on federal highways in the state of Texas or anywhere else.

PETERS: Congressman, I'd be happy to answer your question. The answer is no, the administration does not support that provision, and let me explain why.

DOGGETT: Well, because my time is short, and I'll give you an opportunity to elaborate at the end -- but do you support prohibiting states from buying back federal highways that the taxpayers have already paid for in order to toll those highways?

PETERS: Congressman, we prefer to let states make those decisions, and I think one of the fundamental problems that we have today is that decision-making in too many cases has been moved away from state and local government and decisions are being made at the federal level.

DOGGETT: Well, I guess the concern is that these highways were paid for with federal tax dollars. You're proposing in your budget to encourage the states to toll more highways, and you've just indicated by your answers that you do not support restricting tolls on federal taxpayer-financed highways, and that approve of the practice of the states coming and buying back highways taxpayers have already paid for and tolling them.

And I find that to be very problematic and something that I'm hearing from many people in Texas is not the way to go. And the partner to the tollway on every highway that the taxpayers have already paid for in Texas is, of course, the very controversial Trans-Texas Corridor, where the same governor is proposing to take swaths of land as wide as 10 miles that would separate someone's century-owned farm or ranch home from their pastures and their field.
This has been a very secretive process. As you know, the House has also passed bipartisan language concerning the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Is there any federal money of any type going into the planning of the Trans-Texas Corridor at present?

PETERS: Congressman, I will have to check on that. I know at one time there was, but let me check on that and get back to you.

DOGGETT: All right. The approach of doing so much of this in secret and treating our farmers and ranchers as just so much road kill when it comes to participation in the process is one that I know bothered not only me -- bothers not only me but bothers members on both sides of the aisle here.

That's why the House overwhelmingly approved legislation directed to the so-called NAFTA superhighway. I know the administration doesn't concede there is such a highway.

But as relates to participation in working groups concerning the Trans-Texas Corridor and the NAFTA superhighway, if it's to extend beyond Texas, does the administration support the amendment that the House overwhelmingly approved in that regard?

PETERS: Congressman, I would say that we have not taken a position on that issue yet, but let me explain...

DOGGETT: Well, we passed it a long time ago. Do you plan to take a position as this measure moves through conference one way or the other? Do you object to the restrictions that the House approved by a vote of 362-63 in July concerning this matter?

PETERS: Congressman, we believe that state governments should have much more latitude than they have today to make decisions.

DOGGETT: So it sounds to me like you want to give them the authority to have a secretive process, to build a 10-mile-wide highway, tearing up farms and ranches and rural communities where these people will not even be able to access the tollway, perhaps built by a foreign firm -- that as long as that's the state decision, you're content to let them do whatever they want to do?

I think we have some responsibility with federal tax dollars to try to safeguard property rights and involve the public in participation in these decisions.

Let me just close, because I can see my time is up, and I know the vote is under way, by also commenting about what you call your dirty little secret on earmarks.

It is not a dirty little secret that both of the federal transportation authorization acts were approved by Republican Congresses with Republican chairs, that the so-called Bridge to Nowhere was the project -- a totally Republican project.
There is not one earmark in either of these transportation acts that would be there if this administration and the Republican leadership had wanted to cut them out.

Why is it that the administration has been so quiet for so long and has not done anything about these earmarks until the fact that we now finally have a Democratic Congress?

PETERS: Well, Congressman, let me take two answers. First of all, with all respect, you misinterpreted my comments about the Trans- Texas Corridor.

Second, there is no NAFTA superhighway. There is no NAFTA superhighway at all. And we certainly believe in public disclosure as projects are developed.

This administration also has a long record, a long, long record, in speaking out against earmarks, speaking out against using the public's money in a way that is not publicly disclosed. And we will continue to stand behind that opposition.

DOGGETT: Just specifically on the NAFTA superhighway, then, is there anything, since you believe in letting the states do essentially whatever they want in this area, to prevent the Trans-Texas Corridor, when it goes from Mexico to the Oklahoma border, from being connected to an Oklahoma Trans-Oklahoma Corridor, and then a Kansas Trans-Kansas Corridor, all the way up to the Canadian border?

PETERS: Congressman, there are restrictions about connecting to interstate highways, access points to interstate highways. Any time that a road accesses or intersects with an interstate highway, that does have to be approved.

DOGGETT: But you are putting money into -- you have put money in the past into the Trans-Texas Corridor.

PETERS: As I said sir, I will research that and get back to you.

DOGGETT: I think you said you had done it in the past. You weren't sure if you were doing it now.

PETERS: I said I thought we had, sir.

DOGGETT: And you said that I have not correctly interpreted your comments about the Trans-Texas Corridor. Would you just elaborate on what your position is on the Trans-Texas Corridor?

PETERS: I would be happy to, sir. We believe that there should be a full disclosure process, a process that involves not only the potential users of a highway but those who are affected by the highway. This is required by the National Environmental Protection Act.

And those types of processes, those open public processes, where the public has an opportunity to participate in decision-making, is absolutely something that we do support.

DOGGETT: Thank you very much. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, Madam Secretary.

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