Texas-Sized Irony: "The motley crew that assembled to take down Rick Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor might be seen as the Tea Party's beginnings."
By Matt Dellinger
For Texas Governor Rick Perry, Republican Primary debates have been a little rocky. So far he’s been made to answer for mandating an HPV vaccine, and for granting undocumented immigrants in-state tuition breaks. Equally vexing for Perry may be the Corridor question, which will require the same difficult maneuvering between the choices he made as governor of a large, diverse state, and the the choices that appeal to Republican primary voters whose appetite for big government, or any kind of government, is at one of its lowest points in modern history.
Eventually, Perry will be asked to defend his Trans-Texas Corridor program, an infrastructure initiative that was expensive, disruptive to private property, and proposed at least partly in the name of facilitating NAFTA trade (though not, as some protesters would have it, part of a plot to dissolve America’s borders).
Perry may succeed in demonizing the federal government in cheering for states’ rights, but he may have to defend criticism that he ran his state (which likes to think of itself as a nation) in a manner that threatened local decision-making just the same.
Perry first floated his Texas-sized transportation plan in 2002, during his first campaign for Governor (he had already ascended to the position in 2000 with the departure of Governor George W. Bush to the White House). The Corridor was “the largest engineering project ever proposed for Texas, a world-class concept,” a now-infamous report (pdf) explained. “The Trans Texas Corridor is an all-Texas transportation network of corridors up to 1,200 feet wide.” The criss-crossing network, totaling 4,000 miles, “will include separate highway lanes for passenger vehicles and trucks, high-speed passenger rail and commuter and freight rail. The corridor also will have a dedicated utility zone.”
The TTC, as it came to be known, was Perry’s and his Department of Transportation’s answer to the challenges of a growing state economy. Following its cover page, the report offered an epigraph quoting Sam Houston, who, as a U.S. Senator in 1852, said that Transportation was “of vital importance, and we must all lay our hands to it as a great and mighty work of national interest and concernment, divested of everything sectional or local in its character. If its accomplishment is to be secured, it must be done with united hands and united hearts, with reference alone to the public good and its accomplishment on the most reasonable terms that the national resources will justify.”
It was the “divested of everything sectional or local” part of this mission statement that caused Perry the most trouble. The Trans-Texas Corridor would cost an estimated $183.5 Billion, TxDOT’s report said, but the proposal included changes to state law that would encourage the private sector to undertake these costs and, in return, to make a profit from tolling the corridors and building any number of service facilities along them. The necessary enabling legislation sailed through in 2003, while the state capitol was distracted by a battle over redistricting. Evidently, few legislators knew what the bill contained. By the time TxDOT began holding public meetings about the Corridor, in early 2004, the sudden possibility that private companies, some of them foreign, might exercise eminent domain to build huge swaths of infrastructure for profit took voters by surprise. Local county toll authorities in Dallas and Houston began complaining that the state was bullying them into contracts with private companies, and voters began pressuring their legislators to repeal the law that made those contracts possible.
Perry had installed his friend and fellow former legislator Ric Williamson as Chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, and Williamson (now deceased) took the kind of straight-talk, tough-love approach to transportation policy that Perry now seems to be taking on Social Security. The gas-tax system wasn’t sustainable, and people needed to know it. Williamson didn’t refer to public highway funding as a “ponzi scheme,” but he did tour the state telling local officials that they had to choose between “toll roads, slow roads, or no roads.” “There is no road fairy,” both men were fond of saying.
The public didn’t much enjoy the Perry Administration’s approach. David and Linda Stall, two citizens from Fayetteville, formed an online group called CorridorWatch and held a series of meetings across the state to educate the public on the details of the plan. They succeeded in whipping up outrage that at times exceeded their own: Their public appearances became rallying points for a new coalition of rural landowners, anti-“North American Union” conspiracy theorists, Ron Paul supporters, and members of the John Birch Society. The next session of the semi-annual state legislature, in 2005, was dominated by efforts to repeal the Corridor plan (which was laid to its final rest this year). State legislators, who were complicit in passing enabling legislation if not in setting the my-way-or-the-highway tone of Perry’s policy, neutered the Governor’s transportation agenda and humbled TxDOT. In the next gubernatorial election, in 2006, Perry’s unpopularity inspired independent challenges by Kinky Friedman and Carol Keeton Strayhorn (who as state comptroller had fought the Corridor), but in the end Perry won a plurality of just 39%.
Though Perry has come to embrace—and be embraced by—the conservative Tea Party movement, the motley crew that assembled to take down the Trans-Texas Corridor might be seen as its beginnings. (In fact, there were local anti-corridor groups that called themselves the Austin Toll Party and the San Antonio Toll Party.) For those who object to top-down transportation planning in America, Perry’s performance in Texas raises the question of whether starving the federal program might only multiply the problem by fifty.
Candidate Perry has yet to articulate his current vision for transportation in America, but it would seem he’s equipped to do so: His campaign’s policy and strategy director is Deidre Delisi, Perry’s former chief of staff whom he appointed as chair of the Texas Transportation Commission in 2008, after Williamson’s death. As chair (a five-year appointment) Delisi has presided over the dismantling of the Trans-Texas Corridor effort and the creation of a kinder, gentler TxDOT more committed to honoring local input.
Back in February 2005, the Governor seemed receptive to raising his state’s gasoline tax by pegging it to inflation. Evoking Sam Houston’s rousing call to pursue “a great and mighty work of national interest” would seem to suggest Perry shares with President Obama an appetite for big, bold infrastructure building. He clearly believes, or once did, that the transportation system could use a heavy dose of additional investment—across multiple modes.
On the other hand, in 2009, he spoke out vehemently against federal stimulus, and even mused aloud that the “federal budget mess” might inspire Texans to secede from the union. According to Perry, when Texas joined the United States in 1845, he said, “one of the deals was we can leave anytime we want. So we’re kinda thinking about that again.”
Perry had his state history a little wrong. The annexation treaty did not allow for secession. It allowed Texas, if it later chose, to split into four different states—something which the local city-states of Dallas and Houston, who felt manhandled by Perry, might have longed for back in 2004.
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