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Perry steered transit plan into ditch

His leadership style was partly to blame, say observers who see a similar pattern in his current campaign.

November 21, 2011|Paul West
  • An artist's rendering depicts part of Rick Perry's proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, which was introduced in 2002 and was off the table a few years later after much opposition.
An artist's rendering depicts part of Rick Perry's proposed… (Texas Transportation Commission )

AUSTIN, TEXAS — 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, November 22, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Rick Perry: A Nov. 21 article in Section A about Texas Gov. Rick Perry's failed plan in 2002 to create a massive transit system said the Texas Farm Bureau had "endorsed his previous campaigns." While the bureau had endorsed Perry in most of his races, it backed his opponent in the 1998 election for lieutenant governor.

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.

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