Capitol Offense

Road Kill
by Published on

Although the current Legislative session is only a few weeks old, Ric Williamson, the embattled chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, has already incurred the wrath of numerous state lawmakers intent on curbing the Department of Transportation’s plans to pave the state with toll roads and a network of superhighways known as the Trans-Texas Corridor.

If recent incidents are harbingers, the road warriors at TXDOT will be forced to jettison their own aggressive agenda this session and focus on protecting the new powers they were handed just four years ago to radically alter the way roads are financed and built.

The showdown began a few weeks ago when Williamson, a friend of Gov. Rick Perry and an ex-legislator himself, failed to appear at a budget hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. One senator, pointing out that it’s customary for department heads to be present when their budgets are being considered, asked Mike Behrens, TXDOT’s executive director, where Williamson was. Behrens explained that Williamson’s schedule was too full, a remark that touched off an angry round of muttering. “Make sure he’s here on March 1st,” snapped one senator.

On March 1, the Lege will hold its first public hearing ever on the Trans-Texas Corridor and the plethora of privately operated toll roads being planned for the state. TXDOT has spent millions of dollars on advertising and consultants trying to convince the public that the best solution for Texas’ massive traffic jams is allowing private investors to build toll roads. But its public relations campaign has backfired, managing to enrage not only large segments of the driving public, but also state legislators, congressmen, and scores of local officials who sit on city councils, county commissions, and transportation councils. The chickens, as Malcolm X once said, have come home to roost.

Nearly a dozen bills have been introduced to rein in TXDOT’s plans, and more are expected. Leading the effort is Republican John Carona, a Dallas businessman and chairman of the Senate’s Transportation and Homeland Security Committee. Said Carona, “The Transportation Commission and the governor’s office are so focused on short-term cures that they have not studied the long-term ramifications of what they’re doing. And I think the long-term ramifications are disastrous for this state.”

Sen. John Carona

Carona has filed several bills that would severely curtail the profits that toll-road operators can make on their pay-as-you-go highways.

Under one measure, tolls could only be raised to cover the cost of repairs and maintenance. A second would ban noncompete clauses that basically prohibit TXDOT from building free roads that might reduce traffic on the tolled highways. A third would forbid TXDOT from signing contracts for more than 30 years. (Currently the department has signed deals for 50 to 70 years and wants to enter into contracts that could stretch into the next century.)

A week after his no-show before the Senate committee, Williamson did appear in front of the much friendlier House Transportation Committee. (Under the direction of the current chairman, Round Rock Republican Mike Krusee, that committee hammered out the mammoth transportation legislation in 2003 that spawned the current toll-road binge.) While Williamson was testifying before Krusee’s committee, Carona walked up onto the dais and took the seat of a member who had just left the room.

Carona listened patiently for a while. Then Krusee asked the senator if he had a question. Carona glared down at Williamson and said, “I’ve been trying to get an appointment with this gentleman, and I understand his calendar is booked up through March. I’m just wondering if I could ask you, Chairman Williamson, if we can meet this week on important transportation issues?”

Williamson, who has a boxer’s thick neck and a military-style buzz cut, gazed at Carona in disbelief. His face reddened. “You are a clever guy,” he finally stuttered.

Carona pushed on: “I think you and I recognize we have a difference of opinion. But we might find we have more in common than we realize. I’d be grateful for the meeting. And I know my colleagues in the Senate would, too.”

Williamson told Carona that he’d call him, but emphasized that he couldn’t commit to a meeting. Then Carona exploded: “You say you have one boss that you work for, but you really don’t. You’ve got the people of the state and 181 members of the Legislature. This kind of lack of commitment and artful dodging has created the hostility and friction that exists right now. The fact that you would sit there and be so arrogant as to not meet with me is very troubling.”

Williamson sunk into a stony silence. Carona pressed him again for a meeting. Williamson finally said, “I’m speechless.”

“Thank you,” responded Carona, who then got up and left the room.

Another senator gunning for TXDOT is Steve Ogden, a tall, angular Republican from Bryan Station who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. With his thick accent and white hair, Ogden seems like a good ole boy who’s got nothing more on his mind than the Friday night football game. But the U.S. Naval Academy graduate spent nine years as an officer in the nuclear submarine force. He knows how to operate in tight quarters and keep his feelings tamped down.

But when the subject of TXDOT comes up, Ogden can hardly restrain himself, in part because it was Ogden who encouraged his Senate colleagues to pass the massive transportation bill that freed TXDOT from the old rules and soon had the department’s stodgy road builders lunching with Wall Street financiers.

Ogden now feels he was duped, and said as much at the Senate Finance Committee hearing. The 2003 transportation bill arrived in the Senate two weeks before the session ended, Ogden recalled, and was sold as a way to get roads built quickly without any public money. (In reality, the toll roads that will be operated by private companies will still be subsidized by taxpayers through tax breaks, low-interest loans, tax-exempt bonds, outright grants and in some cases, the actual pavement itself.)

In 2003, there also was no talk of privatizing the roads, he added. “The fact that it wasn’t brought up and we never got an opportunity to chew on it has created a huge political problem for us.”

Ogden glared at the cluster of TXDOT operatives. In another time, he might have ordered them to walk the plank or had them lashed to the sails. As it was, the only punishment he had available was a tongue lashing. “It’s not what TXDOT tells you. It’s what they don’t tell you,” he complained. He chided the department for its sneakiness and encouraged its bureaucrats to be more open about what they’re doing. “Running your own plays and hiding them from us is no way to run state business.”

TXDOT’s not saying anything publicly about the frontal assaults. (“I never comment on what legislators do,” Williamson said of Corona’s ambush.) But it’s safe to say that they’re not happy. Just a few months ago, the department rolled out its own legislative wish list. High on the list was getting a revenue stream for the Texas Rail Relocation Fund so the state and its private partners can build several new billion-dollar-plus railroad projects, which one industry insider collectively referred to as a “huge fat pig.”

But TXDOT will have its hands full fending off Carona, Ogden, and a raft of Democratic legislators aiming to take down the imperious department and its autocratic commissioners. Joe Pickett, a Democratic representative from El Paso who once was virtually the only legislator willing to speak out against the behemoth department, welcomes the backup. “The whole agency needs a complete work-over from top to bottom,” he said.

Pickett has introduced a measure that would replace Perry’s five-member Transportation Commission with an elected transportation czar. State Rep. David Leibowitz, a Democrat from San Antonio, has drawn up a bill that would do away with Perry’s coveted Trans-Texas Corridor, a network of superhighways that will stretch from the Mexican border toward Canada. The TTC is being sold to Texans as a way to reduce congestion, but in reality appears to be a system of trade routes designed to circumvent the glutted West Coast ports and get foreign goods into the United States by way of Mexico. A third Democratic state representative, Houston’s Garnet Coleman, is sponsoring legislation that would place a two-year moratorium on the further construction of toll roads. (Coleman is fuming over TXDOT’s plan to replace the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on some Houston freeways with toll lanes, which he calls “Lexus lanes.”)

Meanwhile, Carona, a bespectacled and mild-looking businessman, is quickly gaining rock-star status on the Internet, and recently was featured on YouTube. Carona, who has the ability to speak in paragraphs and can read spreadsheets with ease, has been projecting the numbers into the future and sees a day when the state’s free roads will be potted and pitted, the billions in up-front concession fees will be spent, and Texas motorists will still be forking out millions of dollars in tolls to foreign corporations and bankers. “This is the most reckless transportation policy this state has seen in its history,” he said.

He continued, “While the Transportation Commissions likes to tell you that all transportation issues have now been decentralized and now reside in local communities, in fact that’s not the case. TXDOT allows local decisions as long as those local decisions agree with the philosophy and direction of the Transportation Commission. If local decisions made through local transportation authorities differ from what the commissioners would like to see, they simply withhold funds. They leverage the outcome by controlling the purse strings in Austin. You see that in issues like toll equity where the Transportation Commission determines what portion of money it will make available to subsidize a road project in a region. Virtually every major roadway under consideration today in Texas is being advanced as a toll project.”

The toll-road developers, Carona said, have claimed that they will need a 12 percent return on their investment. Using that figure, Carona calculates the tolls on the private roads will be 66 percent higher upon opening than what tolls on state-constructed roads would cost. What’s more, he said, the private toll operators will be able to raise their rates to whatever the market will bear. By contrast, toll hikes on state-owned roads are limited to recovering the cost of maintenance and repairs. “The reality is, we’re building roads in the most expensive fashion of all—through tolls—instead of calling it taxes,” he said.

Carona favors raising the gasoline tax so that it keeps pace with inflation. (The tax has been unchanged for the last 15 years—20 cents for the state and 18.4 cents for the feds per gallon.) That way, the state would have enough money to build all the roads it’s going to need over the next 25 years. The average motorist would probably wind up paying an extra dollar per month for fuel, but Carona said in the long run it’ll be cheaper for drivers.

Even with an increase in gasoline taxes, it’s unlikely that toll roads, and perhaps even the loathed Trans-Texas Corridor, will vanish from the map. Carona is confident, however, that the Legislature will be able to enact some meaningful reforms in the coming weeks. “We’re at a crossroads in transportation policy,” he said. “We can either get it right or get it wrong.”