Page 10


partnership names, vying for the contracts. Sometimes they’re winners. Sometimes they’re losers. Either way, they walk away with a hefty bundle of cash. The millions in stipend payments are small change compared with the billions that will be spent on toll roads, multimodal corridors, rail lines, bridges, and port expansions in the coming years. Perry’s signature project, the Trans-Texas Corridorreally a series of superhighways crisscrossing the statecould cost more than $36 billion, by one company’s estimate. That’s greater than the entire annual budgets of some countries. “Texas is on the leading edge in the use of tolling and publicprivate partnerships to improve the highway system,” says Bob Poole, director of transportation studies for the Los Angelesbased Reason Institute, a public policy think tank with a freemarket philosophy. It’s all part of a global effort by investment banking firms and multinational companies to convert public infrastructureroads, bridges, tunnels, airportsinto private, moneymaking ventures. “Hundreds of billions of dollars are moving around world markets looking for long-term investments,” D.J. Gribbin, a division director of Macquarie Holdings, recently told congressmen on Capitol Hill. Gribbin, whose company is part of the Australian-based Macquarie Bank, likened infrastructure in the United States to the “dead capital” created by Third World squatters who build homes on property they don’t own. Without clear title, the squatters can’t borrow against their homes or sell them. Thus the investment is “dead capital,” he explained. “Highway infrastructure here in the United States is analogous. Inadequate markets and legal systems in this country have locked up billions of taxpayer dollars in our transportation infrastructure,” said Gribbin, a former chief counsel of the Federal Highway Administration and former national field director for the Christian Coalition. The effort to privatize infrastructure dovetails nicely with the agenda of public officials who want to build new roads and repair old ones without increasing taxes. “What we’re seeing,” says Pat Choate, an economist, author, and Ross Perot’s vice presidential running mate in 1996, “is an era in which governments will be selling off their infrastructure to keep their no-tax pledges.” Multinationals from Spain, Sweden, Japan, the Netherlands, and Australia have rushed to Texas to help liberate the state’s dead capital. The problem is that once freed, much of that capital won’t be staying in Texas. For the next 50, 75, or 100 years, it’ll be flowing overseas to its liberators. Last spring Rep. Krusee, author of the transportation bill that is making Texas’s massive road-building binge possible, spoke at a gathering of transportation officials in Santa Monica, California. Krusee had been taking a beating from bloggers and anti-toll advocates in Texas for his role in creating the private-public partnerships that will cannibalize the state’s roads and gobble up millions of acres of farmland. After receiving a warm round of applause, Krusee launched into a lengthy discussion of how it all began: “Everyone’s wake-up call is different. For Texas, it was Dell computer locating their expansion in Nashville, Tennessee, because Austin’s roads were inadequate. On that one day we lost 10,000 jobs. We did not have the enormous funds it took to fix it, and the timetable stretched for decades. We knew that in time, we would lose more business, more jobs, throughout our state. So we discovered the magic, and the necessity, of private sector financing and tolls.” Dell Inc.’s rather mild criticism sent local and state officials rushing about like Henny Penny. Roads, roads, roads, they concluded, would keep good corporate citizens like Dell from leaving. But they needed more money, and that would mean raising the gasoline tax. \(Currently, the gas tax is 38.4 cents a gallon, with 18.4 cents going to the feds and 20 cents to the state. A fourth of the state’s share, in turn, goes for “A political calculation was made that large-scale increases in gas taxes would be politically impossible. So the choice in Texas was taxes versus tolls, and the choice was made to go with tolls,” said transportation guru Poole, who has advised four U.S. administrations on transportation and privatization issues, and currently acts as a consultant to a number of states, including Texas. That “choice” was made by a powerful clique of state officials and business leaders, not the public. Taxpayers may well have been receptive to a big, messy debate about future transportation needs and the gasoline tax, but they were never asked. For Republicans, though, the prospect of raising taxes was akin to heresy. So state officials snuck innocuous-sounding constitutional amendments onto the ballot in 2001. Proposition 2 allowed the state to issue bonds for road projects in border colonias. Proposition 15 created the Texas Mobility Fund, a bank of sorts that is funded by a stream of tax revenue and can make grants and loans, and issue bonds to finance the construction, reconstruction, acquisition, operation, and expansion of state highways, turnpikes, toll roads, toll bridges, and other mobility projects. Voters approved both amendments in a low-turnout election. Effectively, just 2 percent of the state’s population voted for the ballot measures, hardly a mandate. The Trans-Texas Corridor was never mentioned in either proposition, and the word “toll” appeared only in passing. Still, Perry and others now point to them as proof that voters have approved his administration’s behemoth road-building program. Afew months after voters approved the constitutional amendments, Perry rolled out his Trans-Texas Corridor plan. The text of his press release made it clear that extensive discussion had been going on behind the scenes with investment-banking types interested in resuscitating the state’s “dead capital.” Perry tossed around terms like “toll equity” and “exclusive development agreements,” and introduced a new political animal called a “regional mobility authority.” \(Regional mobility authorities are quasi-governmental bodies that act as local 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 15, 2006