Express-News story on TxDOT blocking citizen access to public information

Link to article here.

NOTE: Even TxDOT’s own lawyer says TxDOT’s reasons for keeping the information from citizens aren’t valid, “The public is entitled to consider the numbers that we’re considering and give us their feedback,” said TxDOT Attorney Sharon Alexander.

Gag law may hinder toll-study discussions
By Patrick Driscoll
Express-News Staff Writer
05/13/2006 12:00 AM CDT

A brewing controversy has shed light on a 1997 state law that could hamper public discussion of toll-road studies.

When Terri Hall of San Antonio Toll Party recently asked for a feasibility study on Bandera Road toll lanes, the Texas Department of Transportation demanded she sign an agreement that says she wouldn’t share the information with anyone without state permission.

“This is really crossing the line, for TxDOT to try and block us from finding out what they’re doing on something so major like this,” Hall said.

The law allows the state to copyright studies, maps, planning documents, designs, manuals and other materials and control how they’re publicly distributed, TxDOT attorney Sharon Alexander said.

Just how people are supposed to get permission to discuss or distribute copyrighted public records isn’t clear. Alexander said she didn’t see a problem with people reciting such information in speeches or debates but putting it on the Web would need state approval.

“I’m not trying to defend the idea, I’m just saying that’s my understanding of it,” she said.

Also, nobody has explained what’s so valuable about the Bandera toll-lane study. TxDOT engineers say they’re worried that the report, which is preliminary, could be construed as final. But Alexander said that’s not a legitimate concern under public information laws.

“The public is entitled to consider the numbers that we’re considering and give us their feedback,” she said.

The issue might have come up sooner when Hall asked for studies on toll lanes and ramps for U.S. 281, Loop 1604, Interstate 35 and Wurzbach Parkway, but Alexander said she believes those studies had already been made public and therefore didn’t seek a gag agreement.

On Thursday, the department determined that the Bandera Road study had also already been made public and decided to drop its request for a nondisclosure agreement.

But gaping questions remain on how a slew of additional feasibility studies for more than 70 miles of planned toll roads in San Antonio will be handled when completed. Multiple studies are expected in coming years for proposed projects overseen by TxDOT and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority.

Apparently, officials could opt for nondisclosure agreements on any or all of those reports.

“I don’t know,” mobility authority Chairman Bill Thornton said. “You’re hitting me with something I haven’t heard of or thought of.”

TxDOT officials couldn’t be reached for further comment.