"A force which actually could derail Rick Perry's transportation vision."
How a home schooling mom from California taught Texans a lesson in democracy
by Jim Forsyth
1200 News Radio
WOAI (San Antonio)
It was not long after Terri Hall moved with her growing family from northern California to Spring Branch that she learned that badly needed expansions to US 281, which was to be the lifeline between her family's new home and the restaurants, shops, and entertainment of San Antonio, would involve toll lanes. With a lifelong interest in public policy and a desire to get involved in her new community, Hall, an English major at UCLA, attended a couple of public meetings held by transportation planners and noticed something disturbing.
"We were talking," Hall recalls. "But they weren't listening."
Three years after those fateful meetings, if toll road planners from Regional Mobility Authority Chairman Dr. Bill Thornton to Texas Department of Transportation Chairman Ric Williamson could get one do-over in life, it would undoubtedly be to pay more attention to the woman in row seven.
Because while construction of new toll roads in Houston, Dallas, Ft. Worth, even in usually contentious Austin, have been little more than photo-ops where men in suits can smile while holding golden shovels, in San Antonio it has turned into the first truly citizen driven open discussion about the proper role of government and the future for quality of life issues in this region since the Applewhite Reservoir debates of the mid 1990's. And for forming, molding, and leading the most effective grass roots organization since Ernie Cortez was exchanging pennies at Frost Bank in 1975, Terri Hall is the 2007 San Antonian of the Year.
In a wide open, amazingly disparate place with absolutely no viable public transportation, the builders of highways have wielded enormous power in Texas since the start of the last century, a power over the life or death of local economies not seen since the heyday of the railroad.
When the decision was made by the Texas Department of Transportation shortly after Rick Perry became governor in 2000 to pursue the toll option for quick expansion of highways to serve a rapidly booming population, the decision was also made to use a different approach to promote a concept which was relatively new to Texas.
Rather than the previous procedure of centrally planned highway projects coordinated from Austin, the department used the Vito Corelone touch. Putting their arm around local economic development leaders who have long been accustomed to puckering up before TxDOT, they spelled out two visions of the future. You don't want the Toyota plant to be at the end of a gravel road, do you? How about all those new jobs at Ft. Sam, that won't work without new highways, will it? Now, the Don needs a favor.
Shown the harbor and the cement overshoes, local leaders, not TxDOT, became the public face of ambitious toll projects, and shadowy groups like the RMA and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, filled not by publicly elected officials but with paid employees and placeholders, even with employees of TexDOT itself, suddenly took the reins of multi billion dollar construction projects.
The argument became not one of the viability of toll roads and the ethics of double taxation, but one of local control, the same powerful siren song of Texas populism which has enabled the clumsy and wasteful system of allowing 18 separate school districts to exist in Bexar County to survive unchallenged for so long. "If we don't do this ourselves," came the argument made to local people by local officials, "we will surrender our control and state officials will do this to us and the profits and the decision making will leave the local area."
But TxDOT was playing a double game. While the local toll road boosters. men and women putting their credibility on the line on behalf of the toll road dream, were telling anybody who would listen, for example, that existing roads will never be tolled, 1200 WOAI news broke what may have been one of the major news stories of the year, that TxDOT in fact had circulated to members of Congress a secret plan to buy back existing highways so they could be tolled.
TxDOT and local toll supporters were suddenly on the defensive, and all this played directly into Hall's hands. Smart, telegenic, with a devout and heart-felt Christian faith which helped reassure and galvanize south Texans, and amazingly slim after giving birth to her sixth child in January, the 38 year old rookie activist was able to quickly seize control of the debate, leaving TxDOT flat footed and allowing her anti toll organizations, the San Antonio Toll Party and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom to move from those early days when they were ignored by toll road planners, to being ridiculed, to being truly feared as a force which actually could derail the state's carefully crafted transportation vision. At the MPO toll road vote earlier this month, toll road planners spent more time refuting TURF's arguments than forwarding their own.
So many speakers blasted Governor Perry's ambitious Trans Texas Corridor project during a series of public hearings across the state that Perry was reduced to making the bizarre comment, in an interview with 1200 WOAI news, that the public hearings were really not about gaining public input, but were actually 'to see if anybody had any better ideas, and I didn't hear any.' Both the Republican and Democratic parties have approved resolutions opposing toll roads, and San Antonio's anti toll fight has been used as a model for other populist groups statewide and around the country.
But despite all this, the toll road juggernaut rolls on. The MPO this month approved the construction of $1.3 billion in toll lanes on US 281 and Loop 1604 over the coming decade, and officials hope to begin construction in the spring. Hall's group has had mixed results in its efforts to unseat pro toll members of the legislature, and many key decision makers, like Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, continue to ridicule the anti toll group's efforts.
It remains to be seen whether Hall can keep the toll road builders honest over the long run, and whether she can channel the passion she has brought to the anti toll effort into other populist causes, which is frequently the ruin of citizen action groups. She'll also have to avoid the tendency to fall prey to black helicopter conspiracy theories, like the bizarre claim that the Trans Texas Corridor is really part of a sinister plot to combine Mexico, the U.S. and Canada into a single nation. But Hall has in very many ways written the new guidelines for effective bottom up community and political organization in the 21st Century: Seize the issue, attack it with a clear and simple message repeated over and over again, understand the media and know how to create a story, and appeal to a populist agenda. Whether you're selling soap or opposing a toll road, that is a pretty effective battle plan.
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