Sunday, October 17, 2010

Rick Perry's transportation legacy: Tens of billions of dollars in toll road debt

Perry built roads, and road debt


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2010

I went to last week to see just how prominent a place transportation has among the many pressing concerns of our governor as he runs for re-election.

Very prominent, it turns out. Well, kind of. Last week, anyway.

The pull-down menu choices across the top of Perry's campaign home page included among 11 items one focusing on vehicles and long-distance travel. "NASCAR," it said.

I clicked on it and was treated to a series of photos of Perry appearing at the Texas Motor Speedway near Fort Worth, where Bobby Labonte drove the Perry-for-governor No. 71 car in April. Labonte came in 23rd.

Perry, on the other hand, has an unblemished record of taking the checkered flag, and it absolutely has nothing to do with left turns — on transportation or any other issue. (Sadly, NASCAR had been banished from the home page by Sunday, for some

And that's for what he has done and how he did it (toll roads and debt), and for what he wanted to do but backed away from after the public and its elected representatives said no thanks.

Under Perry, if you adjust for inflation, the Texas Department of Transportation has spent almost 50 percent more each year to build new roads and repair roads than it did under George W. Bush: an average of $4.9 billion a year in constant 2010 dollars for Perry versus $3.35 billion in the Bush years.

And that doesn't count much of what the various regional mobility authorities — local toll road agencies created under Perry-backed legislation — have and will spend on new roads.

Or the billions that private toll road operators are spending on the extension of Texas 130 southeast of Austin and on several projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Or much of the $3.2 billion stockpiled for more Metroplex road projects after the North Texas Tollway Authority outbid a private company for the right to build a lucrative toll road in Collin County.

Or the hundreds of millions of dollars city and county governments have spent on new roads based on promises from TxDOT to pay them back under yet another Perry program.

Despite all the talk of a road funding crisis during the Perry years, the reality is that there has been a dramatic increase in such spending. And a lot of new roads.

What most of that spending has in common, however, is that it came from borrowed money. TxDOT and the state's general fund currently are on the hook for more than $13 billion in transportation bonds (including $2.2 billion for three of the five toll roads here in Austin), and that number is likely to reach $20 billion within the next three or four years. TxDOT will be making debt payments of about $300 million a year over the next 20 years — about 10 percent of what it takes in from the state gas tax — for just one of the several road-debt programs set up under Perry.

And then there's the late, unlamented Trans-Texas Corridor. White, at least, has been talking about it some on the campaign trail, trying to remind voters of Perry's 2002 plan to build 4,000 miles of toll roads, railroads and utility lines crisscrossing the state. In its original 1,200-foot-wide incarnation, that plan would have consumed more than a half-million acres of Texas farm and ranch land.

I could find no mention of the corridor plan on Perry's website, including on the transportation issues page. The word "toll" appears only once in the paragraphs written by Perry's staff.

Even in the 2006 governor's race, when his corridor vision was fully alive and generating considerable umbrage in rural counties, Perry comfortably prevailed over a troika of legitimate candidates all trying to make electoral hay out of it. Now the plan is dead, killed by legislative opposition in 2007 that was fueled by the earlier tumbleweed rebellion.

That, too, will be part of Perry's transportation legacy.

For questions, tips or story ideas, contact Getting There at 445-3698 or

© 2010 Austin American-Statesman:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE