Perry steered transit plan into ditch
Rick Perry launched his Texas gubernatorial campaign in 2002 with an idea that he hoped would become his legacy: a 4,000-mile-long, 21st century transit network on which motorists would drive 90 mph on toll roads 10 lanes wide, high-speed trains would hum alongside, and there would be room for electric power lines, broadband fiber and pipes to pump oil, natural gas and water to a rapidly growing state.
Perry called it the Trans-Texas Corridor, and advertised his blueprint as “bold” and “visionary” -- a “plan as big as Texas and as ambitious as our people.”
And it would all be done without raising taxes, thanks to partnerships with the private sector. The entire venture, priced at more than $200 billion in today’s dollars, would leave the old interstate highways in the dust and provide, in Perry’s view, a model for the nation.
Then “they rolled the thing out and it just blew up,” said Bill Allaway of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Assn., a pro-business think tank in Austin. “The Trans-Texas Corridor turned out to be a political disaster for him.”
What happened to the most controversial initiative of his 11 years as governor provides a window into a style of management that doomed not only the transit corridor but has contributed to the severe turbulence that has wracked his presidential candidacy. It is the sometimes lethal combination of inattention to detail and an insularity that blunts opposing views until it’s too late.
Unlike many governors, Perry has generally declined to involve himself in the day-to-day particulars of managing government, say those who have worked for or watched him over the years.
At the same time, he has surrounded himself with a small number of advisors who have remained by his side for many years, from before his election as lieutenant governor in the 1990s to his current foray as a Republican presidential candidate.
Few in his kitchen cabinet were closer to Perry than Ric Williamson, who roomed with him when they were both state representatives in the 1980s. Shortly after Perry became governor -- rising from his lieutenant governor post after George W. Bush was elected president -- he installed Williamson on the state Transportation Commission.
The transit corridor appealed to Perry and Williamson because it would address many of the state’s biggest challenges: relieving urban traffic congestion, keeping hazardous cargo out of populated areas, speeding freight north from the Mexican border and improving air quality, while creating, by their estimate, more than 2 million jobs.
And yet, the futuristic plan was really a throwback: the old idea of state government as a driver of economic growth.
“You’d be very hard-pressed to get Rick Perry to say that Washington will have a good effect on people’s lives,” said Chris Lippincott, a former official with the Texas Department of Transportation. “But his career is full of examples that government can have a positive effect on people.”
In sketching out their grand concept, Perry and Williamson bypassed former colleagues in the state Legislature who dealt with transportation on a daily basis, an omission that loomed large as details of the plan became known and it became obvious that the governor and his advisors had failed to think through the politics of their idea.
The vastness of the corridors -- nearly a quarter-mile wide -- meant that Perry’s plan could eat up more than 500,000 acres of private property. The biggest land grab in state history, opponents said.
Conservative property rights advocates were outraged. Rural landowners, who had supported Perry, a fellow rancher, ever since his 1990 election as state agriculture commissioner, exploded. The state’s largest farm organization, the Texas Farm Bureau, which had endorsed his previous campaigns, lobbied to block the plan. Even the state Republican Party, driven by conservative anger over the looming “confiscation of private land,” went on record in favor of killing it.
Perry failed, as well, to anticipate the opposition of vested interests -- like those tied to existing toll road authorities in Dallas and Houston -- who feared they would be left out once the project took off.
Those worries appeared to be justified when the Perry administration, in late 2004, gave a Spanish construction firm, Cintra, the lead role in building the system. The governor called it “one of the most significant days in the history of transportation.” But the decision merely intensified the opposition. It fed nativist fears, which had been stirred by descriptions of the plan as a “NAFTA superhighway,” a reference to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The governor’s project, to some, conjured up dark visions of Mexican trucks, loaded with foreign freight, barreling unchecked into Texas as part of a vague conspiracy to undermine U.S. sovereignty.
In late 2004, Perry began scaling back his grand vision. He quietly dropped the idea of building rail lines and highways side by side, shrinking the amount of private land that would be required. The governor “did a very effective job over time in backing away in steps from that idea, while keeping the concept alive,” said Allaway, who calls it one of the hallmarks of Perry’s style. “He makes a decision and he will back it until he can’t any longer.”
Mike Krusee, a former Republican state lawmaker, drew a comparison with Perry’s ill-fated executive order in 2007 that required girls in Texas to be vaccinated against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus. The mandate, which has backfired on Perry in the presidential race, was blocked by the Legislature after blindsided opponents rebelled.
“Again, he talks to people who are close to him -- whether it’s his wife or others -- he had a vision and put it out and then got push-back from the Legislature,” said Krusee, now a lobbyist in Austin.
Ray Sullivan, a Perry campaign spokesman and onetime chief of staff to the governor, acknowledged that in presenting the transit project, “we could have used more coalition-building and communications with citizens, elected officials, legislators and stakeholders prior to that major policy announcement being launched.”
He added that while it is “wonderful to live in a conservative state” like Texas, “it’s important to remember as well that conservatives can be as resistant to change as anybody else.” The governor, who according to the aide has never spoken at length about what went wrong, declined an interview request, as did several others who were top advisors at the time.
By 2007, it was clear that the Republican-dominated Legislature, which initially authorized the ambitious project, wanted nothing more to do with it. Lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to curb new public-private toll road deals.
Williamson, the man who conceived the plan and spearheaded the drive to build it, told Reason magazine in fall 2007 that the “retrenchment” would be temporary. Three months later, not long after being described by Texas Monthly as the “most hated person in Texas,” Williamson was dead of a heart attack.
A year after that, following a series of noisy public hearings around the state, his brainchild was gone too.
“The name Trans-Texas Corridor is over with,” said Perry in January 2009, as state transportation officials announced they were dropping the plan.
Sullivan points out that Texas is still building toll roads through public-private partnerships. “So even if one argued that the original plan was unsuccessful, the thrust and goals of the public policy have been achieved in a different way,” he said.
Still, even the wariest opponents say the governor’s dream is dead. Conservatives cheered last spring when the Legislature unanimously approved a measure expunging all references to the Trans-Texas Corridor from state statutes. On June 17, Perry signed it into law, effective immediately.