Page 31


man, 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 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,” 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, 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 FEBRUARY 23, 2007 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17