April 22, 2007
Thanks for having me here today. Let me also say welcome to Austin. I’m pleased to be asked to speak to you. I’m particularly happy to speak on the topics you guys are discussing. The title of your conference is, “Aligning strategies in dynamic environments,” and the subject they gave me to talk about is, “Evolving public debate over transportation funding, tolling and concessions.”Well, it is a dynamic environment. We live in an interesting time when it comes to transportation issues. There’s been a big leap in the speed in which transportation infrastructure can be built, big changes in the way things can be and are designed, and a fundamental shift in the way we pay for it all.With these shifts comes an earthquake. Road building has always had its share of controversy simply because roads go through places that didn’t have roads before. But, right now – at least in Texas – the controversy seems to be much hotter than ever before. And as big as Texas is, it’s hard to find a corner of this state that hasn’t been singed. You guys should pay attention to this. With all due respect, let me say it this way – you should not look at this simply as engineers, where you think you can add up our needs and your tools and come up with an easy answer. If there was ever a time when the old phrase “it looked good on paper” gets you in trouble and leads to something much more than a paper cut, it’s now.You all have chosen, and created, a powerful industry. You change real things for real people with what you do and what you build. You have power to transform. You also have enormous power to disrupt. As a society, we need the change you can provide. In just a generation, many of us who hardly knew congestion or gridlock now feel like we live in it. At the same time, we’ve grown used to speed in virtually every other part of our lives. The speed of the information superhighway drives our expectations of the old concrete highway.There ain’t nobody taking “Sunday drives” any more. Who wants to piddle around slowly in a car? Particularly with all the weekend traffic. If I can have instant access on my Blackberry – I want instant access to where I’m going. But your industry faces another challenge of change. We, at least in Texas, face a funding crisis. Our largest source of funding for roads and transportation infrastructure, the gas tax, has been frozen for 16 years – think about that, 16 years – by what can only be considered a knee-jerk anti-tax attitude. At the same time, that gas tax has been siphoned off to pay for other things the State needed but elected officials refused to pay for. Elected and appointed officials were essentially dishonest about the needs of a rapidly growing state, and that dishonesty has left the rest of us in a hole they dug. A hole that requires tens of billions of dollars to fill. That’s deep. And, some of those folks who still have the dirt of that hole under their fingernails are shocked to see their “private development agreements” and other new funding schemes don’t have credibility. As you may have guessed, my position for some time now has been that current transportation policy, and particularly the proposed system of toll roads, is not as open and accountable as it should be. There is, indeed, an “evolving public debate over transportation funding, tolling and concessions.” Take that to heart. It’s evolving. It’s different. It’s change. That requires you to educate, assure transparency and accountability, and work for public acceptance of the plans and tools that can be used.I believe we will need every tool we can get to address the many issues that are touched and shaped by transportation. But if tolling is used as a tool for funding roadways, it must be done as openly and accountably as possible.Beginning in at least January 2006, I started looking into the raging so-called “toll debate” that had consumed our region. I became frustrated fast. It was pretty obvious to almost everyone that it was very, very hard to get clear answers to basic questions. All of our region – really, a lot of the state – had become stuck with a “Don’t Ask, Just Tell” toll road policy that lacked the transparency and accountability it needed.Somehow, lots of people were surprised that this was controversial. All of those factors have contributed to a fundamental loss of trust between the people who build our roads and the people who drive on them. As I’ve said repeatedly, we will never have the comprehensive transportation plan that every region in Texas needs and deserves if a handful of folks in Austin keep telling people what to do without asking them what they need or want. I started circulating a set of principles back last summer that set some goals for openness. I’ve now passed legislation out of the Texas Senate that would codify those principles.Among other things, my bill would:
Guys, these are basic. They are common sense. They are nothing more than letting people be involved in the decisions of how their communities will look and feel. I don’t believe the best way to address the challenges we face is with better public relations. We need better information. Better communication. Better accountability and transparency. So right about now, I imagine a few of you are wondering what this has to do with you. You are not politicians. What do you care about government transparency or accountability – except when it comes to your tax bill?Well, there’s a fundamental truth about your industry that no one talks about very much. The fact is, you aren’t just in this business for yourselves or your agency. You’re in business for all of us.Very few people have as much to say about where we all will live, work, and play as you do. Roads drive development. That’s not a bad thing. Texas is a growing state, and a whole lot of us are working to optimize that development. We could not do that without you all.But that great power gives you all a great responsibility when it comes to the future of this state. And you, who know better than anyone how powerful these new tools are, have a duty to make sure we are using them to protect the very people you are trying to serve.We need your help ensuring that your projects will serve the communities they pass through, and will not cut those communities off from the fruits of the growth you’re delivering to them. We need your help protecting the rural culture that means so much to so many – you all need to be in the middle of that issue, not off to one side of it. And we need your help making sure that our 21st Century transportation tools aren’t being undermined by a 19th Century planning process. Not one person in this room would feel proud of the brand new highway they built if it became lined with colonias and truck stops. Nor would you relish crossing your beautiful new bridge if it didn’t bring down the terrible economic walls that separate people from one another. Not only do you have a role to play in these addressing these challenges, but you have access to perspective and innovation that could make a real difference in resolving them. We badly need that right now, maybe more than we ever have. People say frequently that you all are changing the face of Texas or whatever state or country you’re working in. That’s true. This state is going to be a very different place because of the work you’re doing. But these changes must be healthy and sustainable. Texas or your state can’t just be different – it must be better. We need to make sure that in 20 or 30 years, when we all look in the mirror at this changed face you’ve given us, we’ll all feel proud. And we can’t do that without your help right now.So, in closing, please consider the role you can play in assuring that all of our new tools will turn roads and other projects into true assets, not simply assets defined by what they cost, how many cars they hold, or how much money they make.As much as any single industry, you are responsible for the face of a community. You are NOT just about building infrastructure. You are also about building places. Please take that responsibility seriously. Thanks for listening. Thanks for all you do. Good luck and God bless you.