Thursday, January 24, 2008

"TxDOT has a lot of explaining to do."

TxDOT toll efforts rapped


Peggy Fikac, Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — A state Senate committee chairman said Wednesday the Texas Department of Transportation may have stepped over a legal line as it pushes the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor and toll roads.

"There is a possibility they may well have crossed a legal threshold because of the restrictions that exist in lobbying by state agencies," said Sen. John Carona, Transportation and Homeland Security Committee chairman.

"The even greater issue is just why they would continue with an agenda that is so unpopular with the public. That is the most distressing thing of all," Carona, R-Dallas, said after an anti-toll activist group released documents obtained from TxDOT in an ongoing lawsuit against agency officials.

The TxDOT documents include invoices from a firm that the agency contracts with totaling $63,450 including lobbyists and a poll, and an e-mail on "draft quotes" sent to local officials for their approval or edits.

The poll was conducted by Baselice & Associates. Mike Baselice also is Gov. Rick Perry's pollster.

Noting a Feb. 5 joint hearing on TxDOT by his committee and the Senate Finance Committee, Carona said, "TxDOT has a lot of explaining to do.

"In this next legislative session, I look to see even tighter reins placed upon TxDOT and the commission by both the House and the Senate, and I think that's regrettable" because it shows a loss of trust, he said.

Ted Houghton of the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, said he's confident the agency hasn't violated the law as it works to secure resources and inform the public.

"We rely on outside expertise to guide us and help us," said Houghton, of El Paso.

Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, or TURF, contends in its lawsuit that TxDOT officials violated a ban on lobbying and on using their authority for political purposes.

The lawsuit was sparked by the agency's estimated $7 million to $9 million Keep Texas Moving campaign to promote toll roads and the proposed highway network, both championed by Perry, who appoints the Transportation Commission. The lawsuit also was fueled by agency efforts to get more state tolling authority from the federal government.

Backers of the corridor and tolls say they're necessary in the face of congestion and insufficient gas-tax revenues. Critics have blasted the potential corridor route and the state's partnering with private firms to run toll roads, which lawmakers sought to rein in last year.

The state agency is holding a series of public meetings on the corridor, and TURF used one as a forum to release the documents.

The documents "show a concerted, premeditated effort on the part of our highway department to directly lobby elected officials, which is against the law. They are pushing a political agenda and legislation that would give them the Trans-Texas Corridor and privatized toll roads and an open door to an endless revenue stream from Texas taxpayers and motorists," said TURF's Terri Hall of San Antonio.

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