Monday, March 16, 2009

Sam Rayburn rolls in his grave

Some on tollway board criticize Sam Rayburn name change


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

If the U.S. House of Representatives was once known as Mr. Sam's House, in recognition of North Texas native Sam Rayburn's 17 years as speaker, the state's largest, costliest and most controversial toll road may soon be known as Mr. Sam's Tollway.

On Monday, the North Texas Tollway Authority board voted 6-3 to rename the State Highway 121 toll road in honor of one of Texas' most dominant figures ever to serve in Washington. Effective immediately, the 26-mile toll road will be known as the Sam Rayburn Tollway. Signs will be erected within weeks, NTTA spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt said.

Rayburn was born and is buried in Bonham, Texas, about 50 miles northeast of NTTA's Plano headquarters. A mentor to Lyndon B. Johnson and a key ally of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the New Deal era, Rayburn is considered one of three Democratic giants to have represented Texas in Congress, along with Johnson and House Speaker and Vice President John Nance Garner IV, also known as "Cactus Jack."

Despite Rayburn's North Texas roots, naming the toll road after him was unusually divisive for the NTTA board. Three board members – including both representatives from Denton County and one of two from Collin County – strongly objected.

Denton County board member Dave Denison dismissed the choice as merely "nostalgic" and urged his colleagues instead to give the road a name closer to what most drivers already know it as, 121 Tollway.

"It is already known as 121, and it has been for years. It was called Highway 121 back when I was drag-racing on it 50 years ago," Denison said.

Denton County board member Michael Nowels told his colleagues he was dismayed by the vote to name the road after Rayburn, when the majority of the toll road runs through Denton County. Collin County board member Gary Base also voted against the change.

"I am disappointed and frankly surprised at how this is turning out," he said. "This road goes through Collin and Denton County, and the three board members who are from those two counties want it to be called 121. The other members are from someplace else."

NTTA chairman Paul Wageman, who also is from Collin County, noted that the toll road actually runs through Dallas County, too – albeit for just two miles.

What's more, he said, the only county commissioners court to weigh in on the naming – Denton County – voted unanimously to support calling it 121 Tollway.

"I would have much preferred it to be named 121," said Denton County Judge Mary Horn. "That's how it's been known for years now, and it's what everybody calls it."

Both Denton and Collin counties are heavily Republican, and Horn said if the authority was determined to name it for an individual, there were better choices.

"Personally I would have preferred Ronald Reagan Tollway," she said.

In the end, the strong objections from Base, Nowels and Denison failed to sway a single vote. Denison's motion to table the issue until a future meeting was also rejected, despite his pledge to his colleagues from Dallas and Tarrant counties that he'd go along with whatever names they wanted for the handful of toll roads under development in their counties.

"We're a regional authority and we are here making decisions on behalf of the entire region," Wageman said. "While we respect individual board members' views, and those of individual counties, ultimately we have to decide what is in the best interest of the authority."

Timeline: Sam Rayburn

•Born in Tennessee Jan. 6, 1882; moved to Texas at age 5.

•Elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1906, where he served three terms, including a short stint as speaker in 1912.

•Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1912 and served until 1961.

•Speaker from 1940 to 1947, 1949 to 1953, and 1955 to 1961, the longest tenure in U.S. history.

•Died Nov. 16, 1961. His funeral in Bonham was attended by 105 members of Congress and President John F. Kennedy, future president Lyndon B. Johnson, and former presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman.

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