Sen. Hutchison Beating the Dead “Trans-Texas Corridor” Horse

The battle for Texas governor is now officially underway, with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s long-expected announcement yesterday that she would be taking on current Gov. Rick Perry in the Republican primary. Unfortunately, Sen. Hutchison’s campaign seems to be intent on ingratiating itself to a fringe assortment of generally unhelpful and misleading anti-toll-road activists, as evidenced by the campaign resuscitating and beating the dead horse formerly known as the “Trans-Texas Corridor.”

As my colleague Bob Poole recently wrote here, the controversial initiative was essentially abandoned by the Texas Department of Transportation not too long ago because:

[…] Gov. Perry’s overly ambitious plans for the Trans-Texas Corridor called for several multi-modal super-corridors running north-south and several more running east-west. To accommodate all the modes, a right-of-way take 1,200-feet-wide would be needed, far more than if the plan had been just for new toll roads. (And ironically, toll roads turned out to be the only viable use in these corridors.) That stirred up powerful opposition from conservative, mostly Republican, ranchers. And since the first corridor was to run parallel to congested I-35 from the Mexican border to Oklahoma, it fell afoul of right-wing conspiracy theorists who portrayed it as a “NAFTA Superhighway” that in their view was part of a master plan to merge Canada and Mexico with the United States and eliminate border controls. When a team led by Cintra, from Spain, won a concession contract to plan that initial corridor, this only fanned the flames of populist, anti-foreign company sentiment.

Long story short, even though the TTC is essentially toast at this point, Hutchison’s campaign is still trying to use it to hammer Perry. Helpfully, Dallas Morning News editor Ryan Rusak took a close look at the Hutchison campaign’s TTC argument and offers another side of the story—and an accurate one from my vantage point:

The claim: “Texans deserve a straight yes or no from Rick Perry on whether he still supports his controversial Trans Texas Corridor plan to confiscate nearly 600,000 acres of land,” a Hutchison campaign news release says.

The facts: Perry hasn’t said specifically whether he still supports the Trans-Texas Corridor plan. Though he bowed to the political reality that it couldn’t be done, he hasn’t publicly retreated from the position that it was a good idea.

But the 600,000-acre figure is misleading at best. While the original Trans-Texas Corridor maps included wide swaths of territory, they were only conceptual, and were later scaled back to 1,200-foot-wide right-of-ways. Last year, the state Department of Transportation even dropped that width, saying the agency would build what it could within the existing right-of-way. Perry has long since acknowledged that the Trans-Texas Corridor as originally envisioned is dead.

Bottom line: Voters can judge whether Perry’s original concept was flawed, but it was just that — a concept.

Rusak’s bottom line is spot on. The TTC was a bold idea, but like many bold ideas in government didn’t exactly pan out the way policymakers thought it would. Due diligence on the financial end determined that the concept as originally outlined would probably not pencil out, and public misunderstanding over the proposal blossomed into a simmering controversy that still exists out there in some quarters, despite the abandonment of the plan.

To the toll road critics, I would suggest strongly that they start learning a bit more about what they’re talking about. Put simply, these folks freaked out when they saw large “corridors” drawn on the original TTC maps, but many of them must have been newbies to the transportation world, because pretty much every Major Investment Study and Environmental Impact Statement—key analyses done for most major state highway projects under federal law—start with the same kind of wide study corridor and then slowly whittle that down throughout the planning process until a final road alignment (path) is determined and approved.

Hence, for those in the know, it was immediately clear that while the original TTC maps showed a lot of land within study “corridors,” these corridors outlined a fuzzy boundary within which planners could determine a much smaller road alignment along the way, even at the scale of the TTC concept. But the state would have never acquired all of that land, and public hysteria was essentially a by-product of a misunderstanding of the way governments usually build highways in the U.S. Unfortunately, the anti-tollers took advantage of the public’s general lack of understanding of transportation planning and finance.

The worst part of the TTC controversy to me is that Gov. Perry, TXDOT and other proponents have been beaten and raked over the coals for essentially trying to be proactive, for building a plan to help Texas citizens and business get around. Practically every state is facing a major transportation funding crisis, and Texas finally decided to do something about it and think outside the box for better procurement approaches. Texas’ taxpayers put more money into the national highway system than they get out, and are being robbed (to her credit, Hutchison has co-sponsored legislation in Congress to let Texas opt out of the federal program, though I won’t be holding my breath for passage).

The Texas-Trans Corridor was an example of a Governor trying to offer a solution. We need more of that, not less, and I hope the demagoguery on display from Hutchison’s campaign doesn’t do even more damage and give future leaders pause in advancing similarly bold transportation ideas.