Perry says Sunset recommendations for TxDOT are a bad idea and unlikely to pass, then admits campaign donors drive his transportation policies.
The Dallas Morning News
Gov. Rick Perry sat down for an hour-long interview with Transportation Writer Michael A. Lindenberger of The Dallas Morning News last Tuesday, just as President Obama’s inauguration got underway. Here is the transcript of his answers, slightly reorganized with minor redundancies omitted.
I. Outlook in the Legislature for North Texas transportation priorities.
The News: Let’s start with discussing the session, and a few areas of concern to North Texas.
Well, first, thanks for doing this, by the way. This is an issue that too many people don’t understand. And it’s good to have a relatively unbiased intellectual discussion about transportation infrastructure because it is one of the most important things we do as a state.
Officials in North Texas are looking for support for a Rail North Texas plan that would give counties there authority to hold elections on whether to raise local taxes or fees to pay for rail and other transportation needs. Do you support their efforts?
Having local elected officials, having the individuals who are influenced at the local level making those decisions — one of the things we have really pushed for is creating that type of approach to … I mean if the solution is to be found for that type of transit it will be found at the local level with a regional approach.
The plan would give locals control, but it would also allow them to raise taxes — something you’ve consistently opposed.
Yes, but I don’t have an entrenched opposition to allowing people at the local level deciding how they are going to build their transportation infrastructure. What I do acknowledge is that there is no fairy that comes in the night and builds these big projects. They have to be paid for. … I always thought whoever came up with the name freeway should be strung up.
Will you support the bill?
Well, I want to see the legislation, but I go back to the idea that the folks at the local level are going to make that decision. There are three things that I have kind of encompassed — three pillars or principles on transportation infrastructure: One has been competition, one has been regionalism — which is what we are talking about here — and the other has been user fees. The folks at the regional level will decide what the appropriate user fee is to build that infrastructure.
North Texas officials could really use an ally on this bill. How much help can they count on you for?
I think my help is when a piece of legislation comes across my desk and it has had a good, hearty and full transparent debate, and people at local level are for it, I would be hesitant at that point to say I am against it. That’s regionalism, what you just described there is one of our tenets that we strongly support. If the folks in that region want to do this, and they have the support of their people, I would be — well I would not be serving those individuals well if I were to block that. … I support them controlling their own destiny, and if one of the ways to control their own destiny in that region is to raise the dollars that they need to build the transportation infrastructure, I am not going to block that.
Another way of looking at the bill is a sign of frustration by locals who have given up on ever getting the kind of funding they need from Austin. Have state leaders given up on paying for local needs?
If I were not willing to lay down a vision in 2002, think about how much farther behind this state would be. My instinct is that you would not have anywhere near the announcements of economic development in the North Texas area or in Texas, had we not put out a transportation infrastructure vision and then had we not seen parts of that vision become a reality. …
We recognized a long time ago, as (former lawmakers and Perry friends) Ric Williamson and Cliff Johnson were learning this place and its idiosyncrasies, arcane rules and etc. back in the ’80s, that Texas had a transportation system that was becoming antiquated. And that if we had a growth spurt, that we were going to have to build roads.
Through the ’90s, no one did anything about it. And in 2002 I saw that if Texas was going to be a location where people wanted to come raise their families, build their businesses or expand their businesses, we had to have a transportation infrastructure system in place that could move people and products safely and expeditiously. And that is what we did.
Recognizing also that with technologies we have today and the efficiencies we have in the modern vehicles that we drive, that the gasoline tax — which had been the historic underpinning for financing of transportation infrastructure — was going to be a decreasing asset into the future, even with increased miles driven and increasing people.
The other option was to wait for Washington to send down this big goose that was going to lay this very large golden transportation egg. Well they laid an egg, but it wasn’t golden.
So what were the options we had? One of them was to come with the ideas that we have laid out since 2002, and we even started some transportation legislation in 2001, that kind of set the stage for the 2003 and 2005 sessions and in 2007.
In 2007, the Legislature gave local toll authorities like the NTTA a leg up against the private toll road companies you’d like to see building Texas roads. Do you want to see that so-called local primacy removed in this session?
Here is what I think is a reality. We are all in this together. We are partnering with them on the (State Highway) 161 (toll) project up there now, and there is a point in time when whether or not I have primacy, I don’t have the money to do it.
I have enough appointees on the NTTA (board) to know their mentality well enough. … I think the question of primacy, of who gets first bite at the apple, is no longer important because we have so many needs, and the costs of these projects are so expensive. My instinct is that their response is that, ‘We have plenty to say grace over right now, we are not too worried about arguing with somebody about whether we get this next big project.’
True enough, perhaps, but primacy is a legal advantage NTTA is not likely to surrender unless it’s taken away.
That may be one of the interesting process questions, but the result is they know they can’t do all these projects. So that is not a hill worth dying on, for either side, I think.
I mean, I am sure not going to say, ‘We are going to change the primacy law and you can’t have it.’ The reality is that we are all working together to find the solutions. They may be able to help us on an issue, and we may be able them.
II. Key proposals to reorganize TxDOT are doomed in the Legislature, Perry says
The Sunset Advisory Commission has introduced legislation that would replace the five-member Texas Transportation Commission with a single appointee. Do you support that?
I shouldn’t laugh. I am not poo-pooing it, but I just think that the members in Houston, the members in Dallas, and in the Valley, and the members — I just covered 85 percent of the state, haven’t I — are not going to want to give up their regional input on that commission.
The commission has also recommended a legislative oversight committee that would monitor the department closely.
The Legislature already has pretty substantial oversight at TxDOT, just like they have oversight at the UT board of regents, or have oversight over hundreds of other agencies where the governor appoints, the senate confirms and these bodies are policy-making boards.
My instinct is, having been a legislator and kind of thinking through how legislators respond and react, is I am not sure they want to go down the kind of slippery slope of having the Legislature oversee this commission, because then, where do you stop? Why not have the Legislature on a daily basis overlooking the Department of Public Safety board, of the UT board of regents?
The Legislature wants to send a message to TxDOT that we are unhappy with some of the ways you do business and get your act together. With the current makeup of the commission — I think Mrs.(Deirdre Delisi’s leadership has been very complimentary to the Legislature and there is a feeling of mutual trust and respect — we have gone a long way a long way with addressing some of those concerns they had before.
Does that mean you think it’s a bad idea, or just unlikely to pass?
Can I say both?
..One of the reasons that most Texans like to live in Texas is we are not like Washington, we actually get stuff done. If you want a full-time legislature, this is a step in that direction. I think most Texans would say we are not really in favor of a full-time legislature.
III. Perry’s support for an incremental increase in the gas tax rate, tied to inflation.
Some opposition to private toll roads appears to have softened. Top Democrats in the Congress, as well as some of your foes from 2007, now accept that private firms will inevitably build some of our roads and bridges. But even those who have softened say you pushed too hard for private toll roads or no roads. Did you push too hard?
I will let somebody else be the judge about whether I pushed it too hard. I know what I believed in, and I knew that Texas had to have transportation infrastructure … The easy way would have been to say let’s not do anything, and continue to see the state choke on congestion and continue to lose business to other states.
I didn’t get in this business for any other reason than to be consequential in the debates and discussions. So I accept any criticism that comes my way, but I look at those mostly as process. And the result is we are building more lanes of road than anybody else in America. … So I would do the same things if I were to be asked again.
And I have always said, if anyone had a better idea about how to build transportation infrastructure, bring them forward. And I have yet to see a solution.
You say you are for using every tool in the co-called tool box. But you’ve never supported the many attempts to raise the gas tax to help raise the funds you say TxDOT so badly needs.
The gas tax is no longer the major foundation of road building that it used to be. But if you wanted to make it so again, you’d have to raise it by upwards of a dollar …
It would take a lot less of an increase than that to reduce the pressure on higher toll rates. Even a small increase would provide significant new dollars.
Well, then say 50 cents. I know these people (lawmakers). … I look at the gas tax kind of like I do wind, solar, nuclear fuel, biofuel. We are going to need it all, just like we are going to need all the different ways build our infrastructure.
But you’ve never supported a gas tax increase? Isn’t that one of the tools?
If the Legislature has a various package to raise appropriate resources that are better than a user fee, then … well okay here is my problem with the gas tax, just a flat gas tax increase: Does the guy in Van Horn need to be paying for the roads in Dallas? No.
That’s the reason, the political reason, that you are not going to see some big gas tax increase.
It doesn’t have to be a big increase. Sen. John Carona’s plan is to raise it in small steps by indexing it to inflation.
I would not block that type of discussion, nor that legislation if it came to my desk. Obviously it would have had a very vigorous debate. But I do have a problem with forcing someone whose transportation needs are being met to pay for somebody’s transportations needs that are not being met.
IV. Rural vs. Urban. Should rural Texas help pay for easing traffic in big cities?
You say rural towns shouldn’t pay to ease Dallas traffic? Don’t they depend on Dallas being able to have a thriving economy? Hasn’t Austin been dominated for too long by rural influence?
If you look back, (former House Speaker) Gib Lewis was from Fort Worth, (longtime Lt. Gov.) Bill Hobby was from Houston, (Bob) Bullock was from Austin, (former Gov. Bill) Clements was from Dallas, Ann Richards was, well basically, from Austin, or Austin and Waco. George Bush was from Dallas. With the exception of (former House Speaker) Pete Laney and me, you haven’t had any leadership since the late ’70s that was from rural Texas.
Now certainly the state has its very strong proponents of rural Texas, and you are talking to one, who understand the importance of rural Texas and a driver of our economy … It needs to be remembered and supported.
When you see what’s happening in wind power. … With the exception of Fort Worth where they are drilling for gas right underneath people’s homes, rural Texas is where a huge amount of where our energy and food comes from. They are already doing their part.
So rural Texans’ pay their share?
This is the beauty of (the reliance on toll roads). My dad says, (lowering his voice) ‘I ain’t never going to drive on a toll road.’ You know what? He doesn’t have to. That the beauty of what we have created here. For those who for philosophical or any other reason don’t want to drive on a toll road, they don’t have to. It’s the beauty of choice.
I can promise you that folks that live in Georgetown that want to go to use the Austin Bergstrom Airport because their business requires them to travel a lot, they love being able to hop on that toll road and 20 minutes later be at the airport taking off for their destination to do business.
V. Origins of Trans Texas Corridor idea
Where did the idea of privatizing toll roads originate?
Williamson and I lived together from 1987 to 1990, and we served in the Legislature together and were on the appropriations committee. He was chairman of the transportation budget oversight subcommittee, so there was a lot of transportation oriented sessions through the ’80s as we lived together and even afterwards when I was in the Ag shop (as secretary of agriculture) and they cooled off in the mid 1990s because he was on the wrong side of the speaker’s race, so when I augmented back into an executive branch job, a legislative branch job as lieutenant governor (in 1988) those discussions started rolling again.
The conversations go back to simplistic things, when we used to say, ‘Gee, if we are ever around here long enough to make a difference, we are going to do things differently.’ Because we had tried to pass some of the reforms to make TxDOT be more transparent, to open competition on the bidding process, etc, and I think there is probably some tire tracks on my back where we got run over as young legislators with those ideas.
But some of those conversations a decade plus later are now statutes and are making our state more competitive. We have always — and when I say we, I mean that group of guys I served with — been a bit of a de facto kitchen cabinet about public affairs and legislative issues — Cliff Johnson, Richard Smith, all the “pit bulls.”
(Note: in the 1980s, several lawmakers became known as the Pit Bulls for their willingness to challenge what they saw as government waste. They included then-Democratic newcomers to the Legislature Williamson, Perry, Cliff Johnson, Ron Lewis and Mike McKinney and Republicans Richard Smith, Chris Harris and Jim Tallas — plus an older member Republican Mike Toomey.)
The real question needs to be what is the result, not the process.
An analogy would be, I had laid out in my mind’s eye, and even made it public, that this is the big mansion that I want to build. Here are the house plans for this really magnificent place I want to build for my family and the people I love.
Well, you start the process and there are a lot of changes that occur, for whatever reason. Your wife didn’t like that bedroom being there, she wanted … way too big a game room and not big enough utility room. … whatever. All these things that go on in people’s real lives, that’s what went on with this.
I recognized a legitimate real problem that is congestion and the loss of economic development in this state because we did not have a transportation infrastructure in place, had not kept up with it through the years, and that was costing Texans their lives, costing us business. And I addressed it.
I laid out a very broad-based, 50-year plan — and a lot of times people missed the 50-year part of it, they thought, ‘They are going to build 4,500 miles in 10 years and, oh my God, my farm is gone.’ The chances of us building more roads between Abilene and El Paso even in the next 50 years may be a bit of a stretch, but it was worth laying out the concept, the vision if you will. And the result is we are building the needed transportation infrastructure in this state, and frankly we are not building it as fast as we need to.
Despite the changes you championed, a recent panel named by TxDOT says we are woefully behind in paying for the roads we need. Despite paying more and more tolls, drivers in Dallas and Houston are seeing traffic get worse, not better. And the pavement scores on our roads are declining, not improving. How can that be a success?
What I look at is: What would the result be had we done nothing?
There would not have been the (economic development) announcements last week. Texas would not have been since 2003 leading the nation in job growth. The idea that you can say that Texas has not led this nation in economic development and job growth — well, they either have a political reason for saying that or are completely naive to the facts. That is a fact.
And the reasons, I would suggest, one of the main reasons is that people saw out of Austin, Texas, people making decisions that built transportation infrastructure, that let people keep more of their money, that had a fair and balanced regulatory climate as well as a legal system, and that continued to put dollars into an accountable public education system where people can send their kids.
That is why we found ourselves as America was losing 2 plus million jobs over the last couple of years, we created over 220,000 new jobs.
I mean had we not had that vision of transportation infrastructure, I fear our state would have been at a great disadvantage. But we are not.
But just earlier this month, you killed the Trans Texas Corridor.
Bob Bullock had an extraordinary plan for water he laid out in 1987, and it has been tweaked and changed and we still have water needs in this state. But it’s not to say we aren’t addressing our water needs. … If someone is trying to get hung up on the name of something, I can’t help them there. I can help them with moving their family and products efficiently and safely.
(When an alternative to I-35 is built in Austin in a few years …) When a mom is out there with their 16-year-old who is learning to drive, and they don’t have to be on I-35, there is going to be a lot of mothers saying thank you for not putting my kid out here with the 18-wheelers. And there will be 18-wheelers going outside of Austin saying thank God, I am five hours ahead of schedule because I am not stopped in Austin traffic.
Still, it seems clear that something fell apart politically for you in 2006, when you faced strong opposition in your re-election campaign, and then in 2007 when lawmakers rebelled at the idea of bringing foreign companies to Texas to build and operate toll roads — for a profit. Did you have the wrong spokesman for your idea? Ric Williamson was a lightning rod.
Well he obviously was a lightning rod, but I guess I think we are spending a little bit too much time looking backward and not looking forward. If Ric Williamson was part of the problem, well God rest his soul, he’s been dead a year.
We have a new commission chairman who by all reports I get is working well with the Legislature and we are still building roads. We are going to see CDAs (comprehensive development agreements with private toll road companies) continued, we are going to see competition, regionalism and user fees all still very much at the epicenter of transportation in Texas.
That’s what I look at. Is the name still around? Are the same people that were mad two years ago still mad today? I would suggest to you no. There have been a lot of things that have been cleared up. We have worked with folks and we have pursued transportation infrastructure in places where we see we can go forward and continued to build out the needed infrastructure. It’s a big ol’ state. It’s got a lot issues.
It appears that some criticism of TxDOT among legislators has cooled, and Deirdre Delisi gets a lot of credit. Did you have a specific conversation with her about the need for her to spend the past year mending fences with lawmakers who were angry at Williamson’s take-no-prisoner approach?
Deirdre Delisi has been working in this building for better than 10 years. She didn’t need a lot of instructions.
Among the most persistent complaints among the grass-roots opposition to the Trans Texas Corridor has been your relentless push for not just toll roads, but for privatization, too. Among the criticism has been the observation that you have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from some of the same companies that went on to win contracts to build some of these roads. Is that a fair criticism?
People contribute to my campaign because they like my philosophy and they like what I implement. It’s when they don’t contribute to me that I would have a … they’d be sending a pretty strong message that, hey, we don’t like the direction you’ve taken our state. …. And if the grass-roots toll groups and bloggers had substantial influence, we wouldn’t be building any roads at all — they would have killed (our efforts) —and we are. Sal Costello had to move out of the state, it got to be such a poor way to make a living.
(Note: Costello, founder of a group called Austin Toll Party, is credited with helping stop some taxpayer-funded roads in Austin from being converted to toll roads. His blistering attacks made him a prolific anti-toll road gadfly. He announced earlier this month he had moved to a small town in Illinois and given up what he called his costly “obsession” with campaigning against toll roads.)
…That is what I hope people at the end of the day will look at. This governor has given me a choice. I can either choose to use the toll road, which a huge number of driving Central Texans have made that choice, or not. And it’s true in North Texas, too.
The session has already begun. Is your view of transportation still something worth fighting for?
Oh yeah, nothing has changed for me. Here’s the interesting thing. What we laid out in 2002, when you really look at the big principles — do we have competition in our road building today, do we have regional decision-making in our road building and do we have user fees? — those were things that were totally foreign to Texas prior to 2001. And the overwhelming answer is now yes. I mean CDAs, (metropolitan planning organizations) nobody even thinks about them now. From that perspective, we are probably not going to fight over that ground this time. It’s sort of done.
The big debates on transportation infrastructure have already occurred. I would suggest to you that we are on the back side of transportation policy discussions now. Those were in ’03, ’06 and ’07, and the battle has been fought. … I don’t think there are going to be any big fights over grandiose principles.
So you expect the Legislature to extend authority for TxDOT to partner with private firms to build toll roads?
Sure, CDAs are going to be extended.
VI. Views on the possible 2010 gubernatorial campaign against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Sen. Hutchison has said she may run against you. If she does, she’s sure to hit you for your support for private toll roads. Is that going to make your campaign a tough one?
Just, tell me what you would have done different, senator? And why didn’t you send more money?
I have had lots of tough races, and I am very proud of what we’ve done in this state. We’re focused on this session, and good policy always makes good politics. So I am not going to get distracted by who may or may not run, but instead focus on being the best governor I can be and continue to move this state forward. I am really proud of the record we’ve put together here.
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