"Everyone should keep a wary eye, not only on TxDOT, but the Lege as well..."
El Campo Leader-News
There was much rejoicing when the much-criticized Trans-Texas Corridor, a pet project of Gov. Rick Perry, was declared a dead deal by the Texas Department of Transportation.
The proposed 12,000-foot wide amalgamation of car, truck and rail traffic as well as energy transmission lines was to be partly a toll road (for cars and trucks) and would've been built and owned by a foreign company but paid for by taxpayers and drivers.
In its place TxDOT gave us a new name and plan - Innovative Connectivity in Texas. Many of us were so busy rejoicing over TTC's demise, we didn't bother to search for details of the "new plan."
TxDOT officials pointed to the huge public outcry against TTC and said that they'd taken a "practical lesson" from the experience and they needed to do a better job of communicating and of listening. They did say they'd still look to public-private partnerships to build roads.
Rep. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) said TxDOT needs to do more than just change the name. "Is this an admission of error or a strategic maneuver to repackage? Unfortunately, there is a distrust of the department." Kolkhorst wants the state to retain ownership of new toll ways, so revenue can be invested in more roads instead of "allowing the profits to go off potentially to other countries to investors."
At about the same time these news reports of TTC's demise and "Innovative Connectivity's" rise, there was another story that, while unrelated, touched a cynical nerve in my brain.
That story dealt with a warehouse fire in a Houston suburb. The fire was in an external power supply box and after putting it out, insisted to the "caretaker" of the building they must enter to make sure the fire hadn't spread nor done damage inside. The caretaker reluctantly surrendered the keys and disappeared while firemen checked inside where they found about 200 marijuana plants in an elaborate greenhouse, complete with special heating and insulation, grow lights and an internal irrigation system. The "weed" was in the early stages of growth and had an estimated street value of $10,000. The property ownership was listed as "MJJ Innovative Investments LLC." Hmmm. Two innovative equals too innovative?
Now, why would rejoicing over the supposed TTC demise be premature? First of all, TTC is worth too much to just walk away. Some big companies have already invested a lot in lobbying for it as well as toll roads. Secondly, the governor has spent some political capital in not just TTC but this private-public partnership of toll roads as well.
In the name of full disclosure, let it be known that my home is, depending on whose map you believe, within one to 15 miles of the proposed TTC route. And, in an April 2008 column, I took Perry et al to task on the potential for abuse of eminent domain in getting the right of way necessary to build TTC. I wasn't alone in that concern. Thousands of Texans, through various organizations, raised Old Billy Ned about grabbing land, particularly productive farms and ranches that have been in families for generations.
A lot of ideas are being floated about how to go about upgrading Texas highways without giant tollways and private public partnerships.
In lieu of the economic stimulus possibilities out of Washington, some have suggested establishing true public works projects to build toll-free highways, at the same time creating jobs in Texas.
Another idea is to raise the gas tax that is supposed to be for roads and maintenance in Texas, an idea it is said that would also discourage gas consumption and, at least indirectly, advance the ideas of alternative energy.
The Texas Legislature (Lege) has been diverting highway funds for other purposes (also mentioned in a previous column) and there is sentiment to outlaw that diversion. There are those who want to revamp TxDOT, particularly after last year's fiasco of "misplacing" a billion dollars. Still others say more funds could be available for highways if the state did more to ensure the collection of traffic fines.
Then there are the wishful-thinking ideas: abolishing access to politicians by lobbyists, and voting toll road and TTC supporters out of office.
Everyone should keep a wary eye, not only on TxDOT, but the Lege as well. They are in session.
Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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