Toll road boondoggle scheme still dogs Rick Perry
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By KELLEY SHANNON
The Associated Press
Gov. Rick Perry ditched his plan to build a $175 billion network of toll roads that would crisscross the state after it ran into strong opposition, but he hasn't been able to shake the issue altogether.
Perry cast his Trans-Texas Corridor project as a way to relieve Texas' traffic congestion by building highways in a state growing by 1,000 people per day.
But he had to scale down the project considerably after it ran into opposition from farmers and ranchers, who said it threatened their land, and open government advocates, who derided its secret contract with a Spanish company.
Now a fellow Republican, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, has seized on the road project as she seeks to take his job, saying the project and Perry's transportation policies smack of arrogance.
"It's part of the overall argument — he's been there too long and look at the things he's failed at," Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said in describing Hutchison's strategy.
Toll roads and transportation alone may not be enough to turn an election, but Hutchison seems to be using them as a way to raise questions about Perry's competence, Henson said.
Perry, the state's longest-serving leader who is seeking a third full term, faces Hutchison and party activist Debra Medina in the GOP primary in March. Though recent polls have shown Perry with a lead over Hutchison, they also show large numbers of undecided voters, indicating the public isn't fully paying attention yet. The Republican primary winner is expected to be the favorite heading into the fall 2010 general election.
Perry proposed the sweeping toll road and high-speed rail corridor in 2002. The name "Trans-Texas Corridor" is now gone, but two key roads in the project — one parallel to Interstate 35 and another that is to be Interstate 69 running from northeast Texas to the Rio Grande Valley — remain in the planning stages.
"We have to continue to move people and the products of companies that call Texas home," said Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner.
Hutchinson has yet to present her own plan but she says she wants to reform and expand a state transportation commission. Her campaign says she opposes toll roads unless local officials and voters agree to them, and they say she worked in the Senate to halt federally funded toll roads.
"It is time to return to our tradition of free, quality highways and roads," Hutchison said in kicking off her campaign last month. She calls the Trans-Texas Corridor "the biggest land grab in the history of Texas."
An interest group that opposes toll roads, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, is looking closely at candidates from both parties, said its founder and direct, Terri Hall.
"Most of our supporters are well aware that we're in the anybody-but-Perry mode," Hall said. The group has not endorsed anyone in the governor's race, but a Democratic candidate, Hank Gilbert, is active in the group.
In arguing against state-orchestrated toll roads and for private property rights, Hutchison plays up her close ties to the Texas Farm Bureau, which opposes the toll road corridor. She sides with its stance on eminent domain, and pointed that out following Perry's veto of a property rights bill the bureau backed in 2007.
Perry, too, is trying to show he cares deeply about property rights, and earlier this year voiced support for a state constitutional amendment banning the government from taking private property and giving it to a developer to boost the local tax base.
This isn't the first time Perry has defended himself on toll roads in an election. Independent candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn unsuccessfully ran against Perry in 2006 by attacking his toll road project.
Strayhorn's campaign privately acknowledged at the time the strategy might help win over rural voters, but not the urban voters who are key to victory. And those are voters Hutchison will need in March.
Perry's spokesman equates Hutchison's toll roads complaints with Strayhorn's.
"It's almost identical," Miner said, "and it shows that criticism is not a solution."
© 2009 The Associated Press: www.ap.org
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