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Toll-road collision 


Read my lips, no meddling: Mary Peters. Photo by Keli Dailey
In journalism it’s called the “press gangbang,*” when a swarm of hard up, anxious reporters outnumber the object of our assignment.

Last March, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters was l’objet d’bang. The unassuming (and new) Bush Cabinet appointee had a moving wall of business reporters on her sensible heels during her tour of the Southern Warehousing and Distribution’s facility on the East Side, while she stumped for a cross-border pilot program that would let Mexican trucks into the U.S.

I was only there to gauge whether Madame Secretary was as enraged as Governor Perry was about our runaway Texas Legislature’s plan to freeze privately financed toll roads until the 2009 session. In previous mobility posts, Peters made no secret of her belief in the private sector (which some regard as the fox) to solve transportation problems for the public (the hens).

The nation’s supreme transportation chief fielded my question, and said that it was up to the state to decide how it wanted to proceed in the financing, construction, and oversight of toll projects built by the private sector, like the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, a network of roads from Laredo to just shy of Oklahoma City, the first segment of which Cintra/Zachry will oversee.

Well, last week Peters and her charge at the Department of Transportation (and its subagency the Federal Highway Administration) got called out by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Congressman Nick Lampson (aka “Tom DeLay’s Democrat replacement”) for interfering with none other than Texas’s House Bill 1892, a two-year, private toll moratorium. (The bill would have major implications for San Antonio’s tolls, halting our 281 and 1604 proposed toll projects.)

In a four-page letter dated April 25 to Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Michael Behrens, the FHWA Chief Counsel James Ray said federal funds for Texas highway projects would be blocked if the ban passed. They’d make government-to-government arrangements harder to get if we didn’t unquestioningly embrace government-to-private-firm contracts, some agreements lasting for 50 years and requiring noncompete agreements on nearby nontolled roads.

The lege defied the feds and the governor’s veto threats and still supported HB 1892: 27-4 in the Senate and 139-1 in the House (the lege recently worked up a compromise bill).

Kay Bailey, usually a cheerleader for the Bush Administration, this time sided with the home team.

“While the administration plays a valuable role in providing technical guidance and assistance for states considering legislation which may impact federal funds,” Senator Hutchison wrote an FHWA administrator in early May, “there is a fine line between analysis and advocacy in those deliberations.”

The letter prompted Madame Secretary to bow to Hutchison (a presumed gubernatorial candidate) in a letter dated May 9: “HB 1892 would not affect the State’s eligibility for funding under the Federal-aid highway program.” The next day a letter from the FHWA went to the agency in charge of implementing the state’s transportation laws, TxDOT, again threatening federal sanctions related to the state ban.

Congressman Lampson confronted Peters at a transportation hearing last week.

“Secretary Peters, I would like to raise an issue that is very contentious in Texas at the moment, and that is whether Texas elected officials can proceed to make policy decisions without interference from the Federal Highway Administration.

“Secretary Peters, I must confess I am confused. Statements by Mr. Ray in his May 10 letter seem to run counter to — if not directly undercut — the position you expressed to Senator Hutchison in your letter to her. Can you give me your reassurance that TxDOT can implement HB 1892 in such a way that would not affect Texas’s eligibility to receive Federal-aid highway funds?”

Does it matter how she responded? There’s now a substitute for HB 1892 and anyway, Peters’s promises not to meddle don’t mean much.

*(A horrible phrase, isn’t it? I picked it up from a professor who lived by the 3 T’s — tits, tots, and tears sell newspapers, he said. He made his bones reporting Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination for the Los Angeles Times.) 

 — Keli Dailey

Saddle Up For A Special Session?

Last week, it appeared as though a special session of the Texas Legislature might be inevitable this summer as Texas Governor Rick Perry threatened a veto of House Bill 1892, the much-touted transportation bill that would place a two-year moratorium on toll roads and has received significant support in both chambers.

“This isn’t about the moratorium,” Perry told a press gaggle last week. “I’ll sign a moratorium tomorrow,” he said. “This bill has huge problems,” Perry continued his gripe, using dubious arguments like the loss of federal transportation dollars to problems with the Environmental Protection Agency as reasons for not signing HB 1892 into law as-is.

As a result of Perry’s veto threat, lawmakers in both chambers spent much of last week trying to forge a compromise with the governor’s office in hopes of staving off a special session, which Perry said he’d call.

That solution came in the form of a retread. On Monday, the Senate unanimously passed a substitute version of Senate Bill 792. SB 792 was a companion bill to HB 1892 and the Senate used it as a vehicle for the ultimate compromise. The bill has been sent to the House’s County Affairs Committee and could make it to the House floor this week.

Beyond calling a special session to deal with the transportation issues stirred up by SB 792 and HB 1892, speculation in Austin has been rife as to what else might be tacked onto the call. A number of A-Town insiders say that since we’re heading into a presidential election they imagine voter ID will be tacked to the call. House Bill 218, a major piece of legislation favored by Republicans and part of a national trend to require photo identification at the polls, remains stalled in the Senate after having passed the House.

Another possibility would be further reform of Child Protective Services, a focus of major reforms in 2005, and an agency that has once again been in a harsh limelight for various accountability issues. In San Antonio, CPS was heavily criticized in the deaths of Sariyah Garcia and Sebastian Lopez, the Southside infants police officials said were beaten to death by their mother. Alerted to possible abuse, CPS caseworkers attempted but did not make contact with the household.

— Vince Leibowitz

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