"Rick Perry’s 'small-government' record has yet another blot.... It’s called the Trans-Texas Corridor."
By KENDRA MARR
Rick Perry’s small-government record has yet another blot.
It’s called the Trans-Texas Corridor.
The governor’s 2012 rivals have latched onto his executive order mandating the HPV vaccine and his advocacy for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, while little has been said about his unrealized 1,200-foot-wide toll road project that would have swallowed more than 500,000 acres of Texas farmland and wildlife habitats. But as the focus of debates increasingly turn toward President Barack Obama’s jobs agenda — a plan calling for a heavy dose of infrastructure investment — that may change.
“Pay to play, cronyism — all those charges can be found right here in the Trans-Texas Corridor,” said Terri Hall, founder and director of Texans United for Reform and Freedom, a group that fought the project. “We had a Texas-sized uprising.”
In 2002, Perry unveiled his $175 billion blueprint for Texas transportation, calling for 4,000 miles of new toll roads, high-speed rail lines and pipelines “as big as Texas and as ambitious as our people.” Not unlike Obama, Perry envisioned a government role in cultivating private-sector investment in infrastructure.
But awarding new toll development to a Spanish company stoked nativist fears — and questions about a revolving door to the governor’s office. His massive land grab through eminent domain, the practice of government seizing private property for public use, incurred the wrath of farmers, environmentalists and members of his own party.
Nearly 10 years later, Perry signed the death certificate for his brainchild, scrubbing all references of the corridor project from state statutes during the most recent Texas legislative session.
“I supported the ban of ever making a taxpayer-paid road a toll road. You cannot do that in the state of Texas,” he said in an August interview with Des Moines-based WHO Radio, stressing that tolling alternatives are raising taxes, asking Washington for money or waiting for the “asphalt fairy.”
Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan said the failed initiative ultimately fostered conversations about how to fund road projects without increased taxes or relying on the Federal Highway Trust Fund.
“We would describe it as one starting a very important, robust public debate and discussion of financing and developing transportation infrastructure,” he said. “While the corridor concept is dead, the debate has resulted in more transportation funding options and high-priority projects going forward with some private financing and strong state and local cooperation.”
Tolling and public-private partnerships have helped the state’s infrastructure keep up with the big influx of people moving to the state, Sullivan said, adding that the debate had evolved in such a “positive way,” the governor “could agree with the legislature that the corridor was no longer the right approach for the state.”
It’s clear that Texas needs to do something about its crumbling and aging transportation network. The state added 4 million people over the past decade, and its population explosion isn’t expected to slow down. Nearly half of the state’s major highways are congested, and one-third of its major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
At the same time, the state has borrowed heavily to fund its road projects since 2003 and will owe $17.3 billion by the end of next year.
Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor proposal — launched during his first gubernatorial campaign — would have run from the Mexico border to Oklahoma. It was the answer to the challenges of a growing state that was expecting increased international traffic under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Perry envisioned separate lanes for cars and trucks, as well as a rail system. The project was also slated to carry water pipes and utility lines. It was the “largest engineering project ever proposed for Texas,” according to one transportation department report, promising to reduce congestion, cut pollution, improve safety and speed up trade routes.
Given the state’s budget difficulties, Perry’s financing schemes included public and private money, including some toll roads. Republicans took control of the state Legislature in 2003, pushing the Trans-Texas Corridor project through both chambers as part of an omnibus transportation bill. But evidently, few lawmakers knew what the bill contained. When the state Transportation Department began holding public meetings about the project in early 2004, voters were fuming at the possibility that private corporations — particularly foreign ones — might exercise eminent domain to build massive amounts of infrastructure for profit.
“His plan was meant to be bold, get one’s imagination working, and it turned out to look scary to people,” said Matt Dellinger, author of “Interstate 69,” which details the fight over the Trans-Texas Corridor. County toll authorities in Dallas and Houston complained the state was forcing them into contracts with private companies, while voters began calling their legislators to repeal the law. David and Linda Stall, a Republican couple from Fayetteville, Texas, formed a group called CorridorWatch.org, which held meetings across the state about the details of the plan and whipped up outrage.
Environmental groups objected to the wildlife being lost, and farmers turned on the former state agriculture commissioner, calling it an abuse of eminent domain.
“It would have claimed a lot of farm and ranch ground — some of the best in farm and ranch country in the entire state,” said Jim Sartwelle, director of public policy for the Texas Farm Bureau.
Perry’s decision to award development rights to a Spanish company, Cintra, only tapped into anxieties about immigration, free trade and border security. Conspiracy theorists dubbed it the “NAFTA Superhighway” and protested the alleged plot to dissolve the nation’s borders.
And voters cried foul when it came out that one of Perry’s top aides, Dan Shelley, worked for Cintra until three months before the company was selected for the state road project. When Shelley left the governor’s office, he signed a lucrative lobbying contract with Cintra. But the Perry administration held its ground. Texas Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson, one of Perry’s closest advisers and friends, frequently intoned, “There is no road fairy.” “We either build toll roads, slow roads or no roads,” Perry said in 2007.
Ultimately, the uproar forced state officials to scale back the proposal. In 2007, the Legislature dealt a blow to the main tenant of the corridor by placing a moratorium on public-private toll partnerships. In 2009, Perry’s Transportation Department officially killed it off with a “no build” recommendation on the corridor’s first segment, which was being handled by Cintra.
It was one of the most controversial issues of Perry’s gubernatorial career — yet he emerged from the fight relatively unscathed.
During his 2006 reelection, there wasn’t a strong Republican challenger to bring up the Trans-Texas Corridor. Perry, who continued to support the corridor, won the four-way general election with 39 percent of the vote.
During his 2010 gubernatorial fight, Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison aired a biting attack ad accusing Perry of tolling roads for the benefit of foreign companies. Hutchison lost, and while the Democratic nominee, then-Houston Mayor Bill White, also ran an attack ad on the project, Perry won easily.
By the recent midterm election, the issue was too old to cause much damage. Yet tea party activists were still vocally hesitant at what they viewed as the government’s big private-land grab.
Will it damage Perry’s national ambitions?
“Rick Perry talks a good game about getting government out of your life, but if there’s any utility at all for him to put government in your life, you’ve got government in your life,” said Leland Beatty, who worked for Perry’s agriculture predecessor Jim Hightower. Hall fumes that some public-private partnerships are still alive and well in Texas — even if the corridor project is dead. “There are all these sweetheart deals for all his corporate cronies,” she said.
Meanwhile, others have forgiven.
“Were there disagreements in the middle of the process? Certainly,” said Sartwelle. “But it never happened. The bottom line is it never happened.”
Kirby Brown of the Texas Wildlife Association insisted that “the governor got bad advice.” But he admitted, “There’s no question, we have members who are still mad about it, and they didn’t like the way it played out.”
Dellinger offered this defense: “I could see Perry’s eventual answer being like his HPV response: ‘My heart was in right place, but I went about it all wrong.’”
© 2011 Politico: www.politico.com
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