Star-Telegram: Perry's Commissioner says FOREIGN company supercedes the PUBLIC on deciding toll road routes

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Toll-road issue growing heated
June 1, 2006

AUSTIN – Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, running for governor as an independent, was teed off Wednesday over Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s state transportation commission chairman’s remarks that a foreign-owned company could supersede local officials in deciding where new toll roads are built.

Commission Chairman Ric Williamson, a Perry appointee and longtime friend, rejected pleas by North Texas leaders last week that a road-building consortium partly owned by a Spanish firm be forced to locate a new tollway system closer to the population centers in Fort Worth and Dallas. When courting private companies to construct highway projects, Williamson told about 100 officials, “you can’t tell them where to build the road.”

Strayhorn emphatically disagreed.

“To me, that is absolutely shocking,” Strayhorn said during a news conference at her campaign headquarters. “Texas property belongs to Texans, not foreign companies. Texas freeways belong to Texas companies.

“Apparently, the governor and his transportation chairman believe that what a foreign company wants, a foreign company gets,” she added. “And Texans have no say over our freeways and critical infrastructure.”

Williamson said Wednesday that his remarks, which were first reported Friday in the Star-Telegram, were intended to make clear that private companies in the toll-road business must have the latitude to ensure that their ventures with the state are profitable.

Perry’s campaign spokesman Robert Black said that a private contractor working with federal environmental regulators would narrow down proposed routes for any new tollways, but that state officials will determine where the roads are built.

“Ultimately, the state of Texas will have the final call,” Black said.

The North Texas officials, including Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief and state Sen. Kim Brimer, want Cintra Zachry to rethink its plans to route new toll roads well east of Dallas. Such a move would encourage so-called leapfrog development away from the urban centers and into rural prairie, officials told the commission.

Cintra is a Spanish-owned company; Zachry is based in San Antonio.

Strayhorn used her news conference not only to chide Williamson’s response, but also to demand that Perry instruct the transportation commission to release all portions of its contract to build toll roads connecting San Antonio to North Texas over the next decade. The projects would be built with private funds and would be worth an estimated $6 billion to the consortium, which would pay the state $1.2 billion to collect tolls for 50 years.

A year ago, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled that the contract must be made public. But the consortium and the transportation commission have filed suit to overturn that ruling on grounds that it contains sensitive proprietary information.

Black said that the bulk of the contract is accessible on a state-operated Web site. But like any state deal with a private concern, information that could compromise a company’s profitability is protected, he said.

“Carole Strayhorn is angry and wants attention so she launches a shrill, trumped-up attack,” Black said.

Black also resurrected Strayhorn’s archived news releases from the late 1990s and early 2000s that show Strayhorn — then a Republican — had been an early champion of toll roads to ease urban congestion and an advocate of increased foreign investment to boost the Texas economy.

In January 2001, her office urged the transportation commission to “adopt innovative financing tools, such as Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle (or GARVEE bonds), build more toll roads and tap into a new line of credit through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act,” according to one document distributed by Black.

Strayhorn said that Perry’s toll-road plan, the Trans-Texas Corridor, is far more aggressive than anything she has proposed.

“Perry’s … Trans-Texas Corridor, which I call a trans-Texas catastrophe, is going to be 4,000 miles long,” she said. “More mileage than Texas’ 3,200-mile share of the interstate system.”

Perry has touted the proposal as a visionary strategy involving highway and rail construction projects designed to ease Texas’ burgeoning traffic congestion.