Wednesday, August 22, 2007

State spending millions to push Trans-Texas plan - Road campaign draws criticism and praise from lawmakers

By PEGGY FIKAC - Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau - Aug. 20, 2007
AUSTIN — The Texas Department of Transportation, which complains about chronic underfunding, has launched a multimillion-dollar campaign that promotes the divisive Trans-Texas Corridor plan and toll roads.

The campaign is anticipated to cost $7 million to $9 million, according to a memo titled "Keep Texas Moving: Tolling and Trans-Texas Corridor Outreach" sent to transportation officials by Coby Chase, director of the agency's government and public affairs division.

Such use of state highway-fund dollars is drawing questions, but the department says it's an important effort to educate and engage Texans.

"It's a waste of money," said Rep. Warren Chisum, chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, "and they have no business out there trying to get public opinion to be in their favor."

The money would be better spent fixing roads, said Chisum, R-Pampa.

But Rep. Mike Krusee, House Transportation Committee chairman, said the campaign addresses lawmakers' concerns by explaining new financing methods.

"The Legislature has been beating TxDOT over the head for two years, telling them they need to explain what the Trans-Texas Corridor is and why it is necessary to the public. They've been telling TxDOT they are moving too fast — they are moving before the public and the Legislature has the chance to understand what they are doing and why," said Krusee, R-Round Rock.

If the outreach is effective, Krusee said, it could save money in the long run.

"Texas is losing money for roads by the hundreds of millions of dollars every year simply due to delay because the Legislature and the public don't understand the need to move to a new finance method. And so an expenditure of a few million dollars could literally save hundreds of millions of dollars per year," Krusee said.

The agency's budget is more than $7 billion for fiscal year 2007 and more than $8 billion for fiscal year 2008.

The Trans-Texas Corridor and toll roads have been championed by GOP Gov. Rick Perry and others as necessary in the face of congestion and gas-tax revenues that can't keep up with huge transportation needs.

But the initiative has drawn widespread criticism over the potential route and state proposals to partner with private companies to run toll roads. Lawmakers this year sought to rein in new private toll projects.

The new campaign, as outlined in the memo obtained by the Houston Chronicle, started June 1 with TV, radio, print, billboard and Internet advertising meant to push people to the Keep Texas Moving site (

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who fought for a moratorium on privately run toll roads, said the initiative needs a hard look.

"TxDOT is consistently telling us we have no money to build highways, yet they seem to be spending a lot of money on internal audits and also ad campaigns. That's something that the Legislature needs to look at," she said. "I don't know that we would approve any other agency to do a $7 (million) to $9 million campaign on an initiative as controversial as the Trans-Texas Corridor and tolled roads."

She added that the cost "is a lot of money, and I would hope since it's taxpayer dollars they would approach it with a balanced approach to tell the pros and the cons of toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor."

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott defended the campaign. "The clearest and most-often repeated criticism of the department during the legislative session was that we needed to do a better job of engaging the public," he said. "We heard that message loud and clear, and we're acting on it."

Read more in the Houston Chronicle

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