Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Bridge to Deception

Court looking at state's promotion of toll-road plan

TxDOT coached on thwarting toll foes on talk radio

Oct. 17, 2007

Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — When Texas transportation officials talk about bridges these days, they don't necessarily mean steel spans and concrete girders. Instead, they are being taught how to "bridge" from off-message questions to their own talking points in a toll-road campaign.

"You will often be asked questions that don't get to the points you wish to make or that you don't wish to answer," says a "radio interview techniques" section of Texas Department of Transportation documents released under the Public Information Act. "You can use bridging to turn the question to your points."

One useful phrase, suggests the document — prepared by consultants who are to be paid $24,500 for talk-radio training for the campaign, and tweaked by the department — is this: " ... I think what you are really asking is ... "

The document also offers this timeless advice: "Keep calm. Leave wrestling to the pigs. They always end up looking like pigs."

The training document is part of the multimillion-dollar Keep Texas Moving campaign, the subject of a court hearing today.

The hearing comes after activist Terri Hall of the San Antonio Toll Party and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom filed a court petition to stop the agency from spending public funds on the campaign, projected to cost $7 million to $9 million in highway money.

Hall also wants to block any lobbying attempts by transportation officials to persuade Congress to allow more toll roads.

The Keep Texas Moving campaign has a focus on toll roads and the proposed transportation network known as the Trans-Texas Corridor. Both are touted by GOP Gov. Rick Perry and others as necessary in the face of congestion and gas-tax revenues that fall short of meeting road needs. Criticism has centered on the potential corridor route and on the state partnering with private firms to run toll roads.

In her court filing, Hall contends that transportation officials, in promoting the initiatives, are violating a ban on lobbying and on using their authority for political purposes.

Hall also has filed a complaint with the Travis County district attorney's office, which is looking into the merits of the case, said Assistant District Attorney Beverly Mathews.

The state says that TxDOT is allowed by law to promote toll projects and that its campaign is a response to a call from the public and from elected officials for more information on road initiatives.

State District Judge Orlinda Naranjo of Travis County last month refused to order an immediate stop to the spending. Naranjo today will consider a state request that she dismiss the case.

The state contends the legal complaint is moot because an existing contract for media services was due to end Sept. 30.

Thompson Marketing of San Antonio got a state contract of nearly $2 million last year for the first phase of the project, which included a marketing development plan and such items as TV and radio spots, print ads, Internet banner ads and billboards.

The company billed the agency in March regarding a Senate transportation hearing and in April and May for "legislature, media monitoring for strategic planning, messaging." Lawmakers this year worked to curb new private toll projects.

The state plans no more spending on "any future media placement under the current Keep Texas Moving campaign," but still needs to pay Thompson Marketing for some previous work, said an affidavit by Helen Havelka, the campaign's manager.

The agency also has a $20,000 contract for talk-radio training for transportation officials with the Rodman Co. of Portland, which subcontracted with ViaNovo, whose team includes former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd. It plans another $4,500 training class and the two consulting companies plan two telephone town-hall meetings at a cost of $17,480.

Rodman and ViaNovo worked on the radio training guide, said TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott, who also had input on the document, "Talking on Talk Radio."

"The talk radio environment runs the gamut from productive and thoughtful to vitriolic and silly" Lippincott said. "We certainly want to prepare (agency spokespeople) for all possibilities, and that includes everyone from a skeptical talk-show host to an outright hostile caller."

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE