Page 19


Lege, continued from page 9 ventilation, or air conditioning. A 1998 state Comptroller’s report, based on a survey of 614 districts, pegged the cost of repairing Texas schools at about $9.1 billion. In 2000, the National Education Association estimated the figure at more like $9.5 billion. Districts with the least property tax revenue faced the worst problems. In El Paso’s Ysleta district, for instance, 58 percent of the school facilities were “markedly unsatisfactory,” Dietz’s ruling noted. Problems included major structural flaws, pest and rodent infestations, leaky roofs, and problematic wiring. Since it will require money to remedy these problems, don’t count on the Texas Legislature to do much this session. COAL HARD FACTS Never have the dire consequences of global warming been as widely grasped as they are today. Much of Europe is moving to control carbon emissions. Even Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has joined the fray. Drought, heat waves, rising seas, and monster hurricanes are but a few of the weather abnormalities that torment the planet and its inhabitants. Meanwhile, here in Texas we are poised to license 18 new coal-fired power plants that promise to pump out greenhouse gasses for decades to come. Call it the beauty of a free market. When the Legislature deregulated the electricity industry in the 1990s, lawmakers of both parties ballyhooed the notion of letting the market, rather than government, decide what type of power plants should be built to feed the state’s insatiable appetite for energy. So electric companies now want to build plants that use the cheapest fuel and generate the highest profits. Wind, solar, and natural gas didn’t make the cut. Coal won. Plans are on track to build 18 more coal-fired plants as quickly as possible, and they won’t even have the latest antipollution technology. The plants are expected to spew more than 78 million tons of carbon dioxide a year into the atmosphere, the equivalent of 14 million new cars worth of pollution, according to Environmental Defense, a public interest group. Frighteningly enough, Texas already leads the nation in greenhouse emissions. Meanwhile, state government’s role has been reduced to approving or denying air and water permits through the industry-friendly Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Critics contend that TCEQ has failed to study or consider the cumulative impacts of the coal plants, or require power generators to use the best available pollution-control technology. Momentum is growing in the Legislature for a resolution calling on the TCEQ to institute a moratorium on building seven of the proposed coal plants. A “Clean Air Caucus” is springing to life, comprised mostly of urban and suburban lawmakers representing areas such as Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, which are under federal pressure to clean the air, and cities like Austin or Waco, which are flirting with becoming federal “non-attainment” areas. What influence these opponents of the plants will have with state leaders remains to be seen. They might have some luck in the relatively nonthreatening area of energy efficiency. Calls for some form of re-regulation of electricity will perhaps fare less well. In the end, this battle will more than likely be decided in the courts instead of the Lege. STREETS OF GOLD Since 2001, a clique of powerful Texas officials and their friends in the business community have been laying the legal and legislative groundwork to build a network of superhighways and toll roads. One of the most ambitious roadbuilding plans in the world, the for-pay highways will suck up thousands of acres of farmland, induce development, and do little to reduce congestion along the state’s most glutted highways, most notably Interstate 35. In the process, thousands of miles of state roads that have already been paid for by motorists through gasoline taxes will be turned over to multinational firms that will collect tolls for the next 50 years or so. The deals have drawn plenty of criticism, but with the help of state legislators and a fleet of Madison Avenue-styled public relations firms, highway officials so far have succeeded in steamrolling the opposition. The current leadership authored the plan and has shown little willingness to back away. New highway proposals are on the drawing board, and portions of State Highway 130, which will likely be the first leg of what’s called the TransTexas Corridor 35, are already open. Perry, Round Rock’s Republican state Rep. Mike Krusee, and Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, are the three officials primarily responsible for pushing this new world order. In the coming weeks, the Texas Department of Transportationan agency with annual revenues greater than the entire income of some states will be back at the Legislature trying to widen its powers. It will also be asking for millions to fund a new entity called the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund, which basically will help two of the largest rail carriers in TexasBurlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. and Union Pacific Corp. upgrade their rail lines and cash in on the staggering growth in freight transportation projected for the next 10 years or so. TXDOT wants to lift the cap on the 50to 70-year contracts so it can negotiate more contracts lasting for as long as 100 years with multinationals from Spain, Australia, and Sweden. TXDOT also wants to amend state laws so it can perform its own environmental reviews and approvals. It might seem like an obvious conflict of interest for a department whose main function is to bulldoze and pave, but TXDOT says it could use the latitude to build projects faster, thereby reducing congestion, improving air quality, and enhancing safety. Though deals are being drawn up, contracts signed, and concrete poured, there’s still time to rethink the toll roads if legislators decide to enact a moratorium and demand an open and honest debate with the public about how to address transportation gridlock. Then 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 26, 2007