Cronyism and Rick Perry's Trans Texas Corridor

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Cronyism and the Corridor

Texas Monthly blog
This is a scary story. The Statesman reported yesterday that Governor Perry is removing Linus Wright, a former Dallas school superintendent, as chair of the board that oversees the $88 billion Teacher Retirement System and will replace him with a current board member who is also a member of Perry’s campaign finance team, Dallas real estate investor R. David Kelly. (Wright succeeded Jim Lee, who was one of three co-chairs of the Perry fundraising apparatus; Lee had resigned in the wake of news reports that he had run up six-figure gambling debts in Las Vegas.)

The removal of Wright occurred just a few days after Perry had announced the death of the Trans-Texas Corridor. The juxtaposition of events reminds me of the old Mark Twain line: “Reports of my death were greatly exaggerated.” The concern is that the governor’s office has installed a crony as chairman who will urge the board to invest retirement system funds in toll roads as a means to pump money into funding-starved TxDOT. Perry appointees who don’t go along–as we have learned in the case of board of regents and the Forensic Science Commission–are likely to find themselves replaced.

I’m not just being an alarmist here. Remember, in the summer of 2008, Perry, Dewhurst, and Craddick signed a letter agreeing to work together to find a way to pay for new roads. An earlier Statesman story about the agreement said:

One prong of the plan would create a Transportation Finance Corporation to allow state investment funds — including the state employee and teacher retirement systems, among others — to directly invest in state transportation projects. Combined, the two state systems manage $135 billion in assets.

But TRS and ERS officials “took a cautious view of investing in state projects in testimony this year before the Senate Finance Committee, saying a mandate to invest in Texas infrastructure could conflict with their duty to find the best return on investment for retirees.”

Toll roads are highly questionable investments. Their success depends entirely on the accuracy of traffic forecasts, which can be influenced by consultants who tell roadbuilders (and pension funds) what they want to hear. The industry newsletter TOLLROADS NEWS reported on October 9 that a major toll road in South Carolina is insolvent and about to default:

US Bank, trustees for the bondholders of Connector 2000 Association, the owner of the Southern Connector tollroad in Greenville South Carolina have issued an official notice that they expect a default Jan 1, 2010 with insufficient funds being available from the pike to make debt service that’s due.

Here’s another story of a toll road that failed to make projections, also from TOLLROADS NEWS. This one is in Jackson, MS. It never even got to the starting gate:

Mississippi DOT (MsDOT) have announced “suspension” of the procurement process for a private sector concession to build the state’s first tollroad in the modern era – Jackson Airport Parkway. The concession financing depended on federal TIFIA loan support which is only provided if the rating agencies provide an investment grade rating to senior debt.

Three shortlisted potential concessionaires told MsDOT they couldn’t get the needed investment grade ratings for their loan financing, an official told us, so they were not able to make proposals which were formally due next week – Sept 15.

A statement from MsDOT quotes Executive Director Larry L (Butch) Brown as “disappointed” but saying that the parkway “project, like many other greenfield toll road projects, is suffering from general economic weakness and tight credit markets which limit the amount of credit and capital available for new transportation projects.”

Brown is quoted further: “The private sector needs to demonstrate that it can deliver meaningful savings versus a traditional MDOT financing and delivery plan. For example, unless private sector bidders can genuinely deliver construction cost savings, operational savings, or financing savings, the numbers just don’t work. In this economy, revenue projections are under pressure and investment grade ratings for the project’s senior debt are difficult to obtain.

Trust funds should be invested conservatively — or, at the very least, in ventures that are medium-risk, not in toll roads and startups related to the governor’s Emerging Technology Fund, which, along with the Texas Enterprise Fund, suffered a $200M decrease in funding as punishment for Perry’s questionable wheeling and dealing. It will be very tempting for the governor to get Kelly to back his pet projects from the Emerging Technology Fund. These startups are likewise high-risk.

I don’t believe for a moment that Perry or TxDOT have given up on the Corridor. This paragraph from a 2008 article in the Star-Telegram is all you need to know:

Speaking on a conference call from Iraq, where he is visiting troops with other governors, Perry said highways that would run parallel to north-south I-35 are still needed. The state’s commitment to building roads is what attracts many companies and jobs to the state, he said.

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The thing I find most interesting is that Perry removed Wright and replaced him with a crony in the middle of a governor’s race. What does that tell us? I think it says that he is supremely confident and he is going to do whatever he feels like doing and doesn’t care what the media (much less bloggers) are going to say about it. He had to know what people were going to say about his replacement of Wright, especially coming on the heels of his evisceration of the Forensics Commission, and he did not care. Rick Perry is one tough guy. Don’t think I don’t admire that.