CAMPAIGN 2012:

Perry's proposed road had few friends and could still take a political toll

The less the Trans-Texas Corridor is brought up during the Republican presidential primaries, the better for Rick Perry.

Although it was officially killed in the most recent Texas legislative session, the proposed massive transportation and infrastructure project and ensuing debacle could still end up being a thorn in the governor's side as he preaches his anti-big government mantra on the campaign trail.

As originally proposed and backed by Perry, the state of Texas would have taken more than 500,000 acres of private land to build the 1,200-foot-wide toll road. The majority of those acres were agricultural lands and wildlife habitats, and many are part of the state's Blackland Prairies, some of the richest farmland in the country.

"It was so expansive and so wide, unlike any highway ever built. It was an enormous size," said Terri Hall, founder and director of Texans United for Reform and Freedom, a group that has opposed the project. "A fully built-out interstate is only about 400 feet wide. It was a huge land grab."

There is no argument that Texas needs to do something about its roads. In the past decade, Texas has added more than 4 million people to its population, stressing the transportation infrastructure well beyond state coffers.

The state's population is projected to grow further, and most of the growth is expected to occur in the north-south corridor from San Antonio to the Oklahoma border.

To fund road projects, Texas has borrowed heavily, and its debt will be $17.3 billion by the end of 2012 for road repairs made since 2003 (Greenwire, Aug. 17).

In 2002, Perry proposed the $175 billion, 4,000-mile Trans-Texas Corridor, which would have carried Texans from the Mexico border to Oklahoma. Perry envisioned separate lanes for cars and trucks, and a rail system to be built in the middle. The project would also have potentially carried water pipes and utility lines.

With the state's budget difficulties, "the tolling aspect was one of the selling points from Rick Perry's perspective," said Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Once Republicans took control of the state Legislature after redistricting in 2003, the TTC was pushed through the House and the Senate as part of an omnibus transportation bill that allowed for the private funding of public highways, the tolling of such a road and the use of eminent domain to acquire land for the project.

"It was not until lawmakers got back home that they discovered what they had done and there was going to be pushback," said Harvey Kronberg, editor of The Quorum Report, an online Texas political tip sheet.

And there quickly was plenty of pushback. Environmental groups objected to the wildlife habitat that would be lost and advocated for expanded public transportation rather than allowing more cars. Others objected to tolling as a means to raise money to build highways.

And when Perry awarded the development rights to a Spanish company, Cintra, there were complaints that foreign interests were taking over American roads and that Perry was rewarding his cronies. A former legislative director of Perry's, Dan Shelley, went to work for Cintra after leaving the governor's office.

Jim Sartwelle, public policy director at the Texas Farm Bureau, said that his organization is not necessarily anti-toll road. For farmers and ranchers, the problem with the project was the taking of so much agricultural and ranch land -- and the fact that Perry himself is a former farmer heightened their outrage. Some of that land had been in families for hundreds of years.

"Agriculture's biggest concerns were property rights concerns," Sartwelle said. "What happens if the state takes a large piece of property and cuts it into two pieces? It leaves a landlocked piece with no access. Now the land's not worth as much. ... It was an extremely emotional issue to many of our members."

Perry spent two terms as agriculture commissioner in the 1990s, his first statewide post. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1998 and became governor after George W. Bush was elected president in 2000.

Leland Beatty, who worked for Perry's agriculture predecessor Jim Hightower, looked at the TTC as Perry betraying the state's agricultural interests.

"Once he became lieutenant governor, agriculture never mattered in any way, shape or form," Beatty said, who also is the retired communications director for the Environmental Defense Fund. "He had always been a big property rights fan, he was always talking about farmers' right to defend against condemnation. Once he became governor and had a big chance to do the toll road deal, he didn't care."

The project became one of the most controversial issues of Perry's tenure as governor. But while it generated a lot of acrimony and played a huge role in state legislative elections, Perry emerged relatively unscathed.

"There was a lot of screaming and yelling and complaining, and legislators just wanted to eviscerate the TTC. But there was no penalty against Perry," Kronberg said.

When he was up for re-election in 2006, Perry had no effective Republican primary challenger to bring up the issue. He won the four-way general election that year with 39 percent of the vote.

By that time, the pushback against the project forced state officials to scale back their proposal. One part of it, Texas Highway 130, was begun as a tolled bypass around Austin. The scale was nowhere near that of the original plan.

The TTC concept was shelved in 2009 when legislators decided not to pass a public-private toll bill that would have made it possible. In the 2010 gubernatorial election, Houston Mayor Bill White, the Democratic nominee, did run an ad attacking Perry over the project, but bigger issues dominated the dialogue, and Perry won easily.

"Talk has died down because it was so thoroughly trashed by so many people," Kramer of the Sierra Club said.

This past legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill repealing the TTC, ending years of dispute.

The mood of the Legislature was, "If it ain't dead already, we're just going to formally say we're putting a nail in this coffin," said David Weinberg, president of the Texas League of Conservation Voters.

Farmers and ranchers won another victory this legislative session with the passage of long-awaited eminent domain reform. Sartwelle of the Farm Bureau said that there is not much acrimony left toward Perry within the agriculture community.

"It was a mistake that was never made," he said of the TTC.

But those watching the Republican presidential primaries say it is likely Perry has not heard the last of the Trans-Texas Corridor. Because the nature of the TTC was essentially government taking over private land, there is the possibility that it could turn away tea party members who would otherwise support Perry.

"It could be brought up," Sartwelle said. "Anything would be fair game. I don't know if it would get a lot of traction. It's not easily explained off, but it's easily accounted for. We had a problem, this was a way to deal with it, it was met with widespread disapproval, and the governor stayed with it all the way to the end until it was completely removed."