Point Austin: The Usual Suspects
On trying my best to be scandalized by the comptroller's report on the CTRMA
The Toll Road-eo hasn't started until the fat lady sings, and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn chimed in on cue last week, delivering an "audit" of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority that reads more like a random issue of the National Enquirer. "Leave it to Carole," muttered a Chronicle colleague. "Ask her for an audit and she gives you a TV Movie of the Week." This week's thriller, released with the usual press conference headlines, is formally subtitled "A Need for a Higher Standard," but brazenly flagged "WRONG WAY" in order to serve as a platform for Strayhorn's anti-toll road diatribe. (See "Strayhorn Takes Toll on the CTRMA," p.32.)
No doubt the CTRMA could use plenty of oversight, especially since it's the first of what promises to be a slew of these quasi-governmental road-building agencies across the state, and Lord knows Texas has a long tradition of pouring the concrete and spreading the cash with equal abandon. But Strayhorn doesn't even attempt to disguise the fact that the report is primarily a political document. The first section, "Double Taxation Without Accountability," is simply an attack on the state policy and legislative action that created the toll road plans and eventually the CTRMA. All six of the recommendations under that heading involve changing state law including constitutional amendments. That raises the obvious question, does Strayhorn think the folks over at the RMA should now ramble down to the Lege and start lobbying to abolish themselves?
Maybe she thinks state Rep. Terry Keel, who with Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken requested the audit, has the Republican stroke to repeal Gov. Perry's toll road plan all by himself. In fact, the audience for this goat-and-pony show isn't Keel or McCracken or even the rest of their more malleable colleagues at the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. It's GOP primary voters, whom the comptroller is hoping will turn to her as an alternative to Trans Texas Perry. In the meantime, maybe she'll figure out a way, in this era of "no new taxes," to go right on dispensing Suburban Republican Welfare: "free" highways.
Send in the Clowns
That's not to say there isn't plenty in the report to provide entertainment about all we can hope for these days from our otherwise unresponsive state government. The most diverting sections have to do with the cronyism and profiteering inevitably associated with big highway schemes, which form the basis of Strayhorn's most melodramatic recommendations: that CTRMA board Chair Robert Tesch and member Johanna Zmud resign immediately, "Tesch because of the potential for self-enrichment and Zmud because she is precluded from serving by TxDOT regulations." The report has a lot of fun with Tesch, describing in detail his land holdings "in the vicinity" of U.S. 183-A that have skyrocketed in value as the plans for the highway have borne fruit including a couple of tracts that have appreciated 400% and 989%, respectively. (The putative sins of Zmud pale by comparison.)
The report also takes a passing shot at Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein, who rose to his current position after enthusiastic highway promotion at the Williamson Co. Commissioners Court, including votes to establish and create a board for the CTRMA itself. (In defense of the WilCo commissioners did I ever think I'd have occasion to write those words!?! one might readily argue that the RMA's exec, in theory, should be precisely somebody with Heiligenstein's experience.)
Even funnier is the curious history of Amos "Pete" Peters, that venerable Williamson Co. political operator, veteran of some 600 campaigns, who has back-slapped, glad-handed, and promoted probably every GOP politician in the state. Peters also happens to have "a 20-year criminal record, including charges for check fraud/swindling, fraud/illegal use of credit cards, larceny and DUI," including three felony and three misdemeanor convictions. Yet here's ol' Pete again, dipping into the contracting money generously flowing out of the CTRMA.
The comptroller is shocked, simply shocked and she points, by contrast, to the "No Criminal Conviction" certification required by her agency. Good on her.
This is highly entertaining reading, and I recommend it to anyone interested in how regional government really works especially as a window into the curiously incestuous relationships between government, real estate, and highway contracting in that Wild West outpost known as Williamson County. The only problem with this exposé, alas, is that it has all the revelatory power of Claude Raines in Casablanca shrugging over the crime scene and declaring, "Round up the usual suspects." Is it news that Texas highway construction projects are riddled with insider trading, dubious management, real estate speculation, and rampant politicization? By God, they had a party at the Four Seasons, and served snow crab! They bought dinner at Sullivan's! Did the comptroller just fall off the turnip truck?
I know, I know, this is about tolls. Clearly the losing side at CAMPO God bless the boys from the Austin City Council and Terry Keel and Todd Baxter is hoping that the comptroller's meat axe will spill enough political blood to make the regional reps hesitate over the toll booths in the 2030 Immobility Plan, and simultaneously provide enough political cover to make the state Transportation Commission slow to yank Austin's highway chain.
But at bottom, the toll road debate is about policy, not corruption or at least not personal corruption. Under the new Republican Dispensation confirmed this week with the passage of House Bill 3 the few will continue to ride on the backs of the many, and the toll roads are but the most visible manifestation of how that system works. Business will continue as usual, the concrete will continue unabated to flow, and Joe Six-Pack in his smoking Chevy will pay at the same, "equal" rate as Dave Snow-Crab in his gleaming Navigator.
Thus was it ever in Texas, and thus it remains. Better start stockpiling quarters.