What I Want to do With My Life
Selections from a 'Chronicle' interview with District 52 state Rep. Mike Krusee
Nov. 30, 2007
The following is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation with Rep. Mike Krusee, primarily for clarity and length. – News Editor Michael King
Austin Chronicle: Was the decision to step down personal or political?
Mike Krusee: I'm not sure I know the difference. Over the last few years, kind of ever since I became chairman [of House Transportation] in 2003 – [the chairmanship] took me down a path I never dreamed I'd be on.
When I first ran for office, and throughout the Nineties, I didn't have any interest in transportation. I don't think I recognized its importance, and certainly didn't understand how it worked. I've come not only to recognize its importance, but to develop a passion for it, and recognized that there is a funding crisis that's upon us, and that's important: important for quality of life, and more significantly, its impact on the economy and people's jobs and the future prosperity of this nation. ... I've come to appreciate that, and I've been fortunate to be put into a position where I can have an impact nationwide.
Being on the National [Surface Transportation Infrastructure] Financing Commission, appointed by Mary Peters [Secretary of Transportation], I go to D.C. about once a month. Our charge – we're going to make recommendations to the administration and Congress for the next reauthorization – which basically means, we're trying to figure out how we're going to finance surface transportation across the United States for the next 50 years. Do you raise the gas tax, do you shift to another type of system – what do we do?
That's what's rewarding about public life, when you get to recognize a problem and then tackle it. It's not giving speeches and running for election.
AC: Some people will certainly presume that you're not running because the district is changing and it's too difficult for you to win another term.
MK: It's a fact that that district is changing, but that didn't really have any impact on my decision. I've always believed that if I wanted to run a hard race, I'd win. Or at least, if I thought that the best remaining way for me to have an impact was to continue serving in the Legislature, I would run hard, whether I thought I could win or not.
AC: How do you account for your passion for transportation?
MK: When I got into transportation, a friend of mine, Scott Polikov (who now lives in Fort Worth) – I got to know him on CAMPO. When I became [Transportation] chair in '03 – he kept telling me you can't just look at building a road between point A and point B. You have to look at the development that goes on around it. He would say, I know you're looking at the impact of road infrastructure on economic development, but you need to look at it in terms of land use.
Scott was a proponent of Smart Growth. We all look at things through our own lenses. I looked at it, I'm a Republican: "Smart Growth – that's just a bunch of communists." I'm being facetious. But that's people who want to control the marketplace and how people want to develop. And my perspective was that the free market should take care of all that, and people should develop their own land with their own money as they see fit.
Scott said, you need to go see Andrés Duany. There was a Smart Growth seminar, four to five days long. We went to D.C.; it was at the Kentlands, a Duany development outside D.C. I spent those days listening to Duany explain what New Urbanism was, what sprawl really was in terms of design and its impact. I came away from that a convert, in just five days. It was right after or before my chairmanship – I knew I was going to be chair.
That has developed into probably my strongest passion right now: New Urbanism. Andrés Duany, a year or two later, put me on his national board, of the Congress for a New Urbanism. That's probably my greatest thrill in public life now, is serving on that board. It's more meaningful to me than my seat in the Legislature, because of the impact that it has nationwide, and even worldwide, on people's lives.
AC: In the last  session, you were kind of left holding the bag on toll roads – all these folks who had assigned you the job were saying, in effect, "That's Krusee's deal, that's not us."
MK: There's a lot of myths about it. ...
We passed that bill [HB 3588] about five times. They saw that bill over and over again. I was on the floor for something like seven hours. We took an entire day, the full Legislature sitting there, we're going over it line by line, scores of amendments.
We did it again in '05. Whoever was upset about toll roads was already upset about it, and we met with everybody and got something that everyone could agree on. We went through the bill and did all sorts of compromises, made sure property rights were protected, and so on.
Now in '07 – it's really popular to use a perfect storm as an analogy, and that's kind of what it was. There are certain rural political segments that are always against new roads. They were against the interstate system, they were against the farm-to-market system, ironically, and so of course they're against a new system of roads. The finance system really has little to do with it, or the form of participation has little to do with it – those are kind of side issues – they just don't want the roads.
Now in '05 we handled that with compromises, so everybody comes away with a little bit, and property rights are respected, and so on. But this time we had that [opposition], and we were ready for that. But TxDOT got in a fight with both Dallas and Houston, with the NTTA [North Texas Tollway Authority] and HCTRA [Harris County Toll Road Authority] in Houston. There were big pissing matches over who was going to build the roads. Those local agencies had been building their own for decades, strictly as a toll road agency, not as an entity charged with the responsibility for mobility in their region. So yes, HCTRA built the Grand Parkway, or parts of it, but they weren't looking at, gee, how do we solve all that problem on Westheimer. It just wasn't their deal.
They wanted the toll roads, but TxDOT says we're going to do them in a way that generates enough money to fix all the other routes. NTTA wants to do [SH] 121, but not to generate any funds for anything else. We were going to build six other free roads with the cash from 121. That was the nature of the fight. ...
They had long-term relationships with their local legislators, they got all those legislators whipped up about it. I think we could have handled working with the Farm Bureau for changes – but fighting with the farms, rural opposition, Dallas, and Houston – you just can't win that fight, it's just too much. No one could have foreseen that before January of '07. It was very frustrating for me because it was just a fight between a state agency and two local agencies, that I didn't have a lot of control over. ...
They came up with a bill [two-year moratorium] that says no more toll roads – but basically everyone that had a toll road that was ready to be built, exempted themselves.
AC: Where does that leave Texas on highway policy?
MK: When I came in, I started working with the agency, and forecasting revenues and costs. I don't want to be too simplistic, but in the past TxDOT essentially just took their budget and spent it, on the theory that more will be coming in the future – because it always has. But we started forecasting both our costs and our revenues, and instead of just building roads as they come up, developed a more strategic plan, saying our goal isn't just to build the roads that are on the planning books; our goal is to reduce congestion, or at least not see it increase. So where do we need to invest our money to do that?
We looked at the next 20 years – maintenance costs, and how much additional money there was. There was this huge shortfall. I tried to talk the Legislature into increasing the gas tax, but they said no. The only thing left was private investment, or what we call the concession model. Our long-range forecast was to bring in a lot of private money. Now that there's a moratorium – we have to take that money off the books, because we can't guarantee that the moratorium will be lifted. All kinds of roads have been taken off the books, that were going to be built [with private investment based on tolls].
We're just in a huge hole now, because that money is gone. But there are a lot of options out there. We can pass a whole lot of bonds, but the question is, what money backs up those bonds? If it's the gas tax, it doesn't really do us a lot of good, long term. It just digs a hole for our kids. Bonding tax money is probably the least responsible way to do it. The Legislature can give general revenue money, but that is not something you can count on for planning purposes, so it's not a responsible way to plan. Or we can go back to asking the private sector to participate.
AC: At the Chronicle, we tend to see those freeways as effectively welfare for the suburbs.
MK: They are! They are, absolutely! That was the more bizarre thing to me, when I'd go around and do speeches. I don't understand why Democrats [haven't seen it]. Speaking in general terms, the inner cities are in general more Democrat, suburbs are more Republican. The way our growth model works in Texas, and generally around the country: developers seek cheap land, on the periphery; they develop it in a manner that's accurately called sprawl, and in a manner that generates thousands of [vehicle] trips. And this is where Duany's really taught me, in his book called Suburban Nation – it really changed my outlook completely.
Everything you do in life [in the suburbs], you have to get in your car, go down your street, get on a collector, and then get on a highway. The suburbs – every time you go to school, to shop, to work, to play – anything you do, everybody is loaded up on this freeway. So all that's being built – this is being simplistic – for the Republicans. And it's enormously expensive. These interchanges that we then have to build, as we come in and retrofit for all the growth that's going on – a single interchange in Texas costs hundreds of millions of dollars. So, who's paying for this?
When you're driving your car, you're paying like two cents a mile, in gas tax. We generated a computer model at TxDOT to figure out actual highway costs, because there's all this talk, "We already paid for this road!" We can take any section of state road in all of Texas, any section from point A to B, anywhere you want, and we can tell you how much it costs to design, build, and maintain that road over 40 years, and then we can calculate how many cars are on it, what their fuel efficiency is, what kind of tax they're paying therefore, over 40 years, how much is being paid. Not a single road in Texas pays for itself. None. Not even close – most are under 50%. That begs the question, how is that possible? How can we sustain a system that doesn't pay for itself?
The first answer is, you can't sustain that system, and we've reached that point, it's unsustainable. That's what congestion is: a big line, produced by a shortage [of highway miles] – we can't sustain that system. The other answer is: They're being subsidized, by people who are paying the gas tax when they're driving a car on a city street. So all these inner city people – this is what baffles me about the Democrats – just to generalize: They're inner-city, they're poor, they are hit in so many ways.
First of all, their car's older. They're not driving a brand-new Prius that gets 50 miles a gallon. Their car's older and in disrepair, so it's getting really crummy gas mileage. Secondly, they're driving and stopping-starting on their own city streets – they're not driving 60 miles an hour on this 100 million dollar road we built for them. That's bad gas mileage. And then, all the money that they're paying in gas tax, doesn't go to the streets that they're driving on.
Now it's true that everyone benefits from the system, because the system brings in food and commodities and so on – but that's true for everyone. So everyone is benefited on that level. But these people that are driving in our cities are not having billion-dollar roads built for them. And they're not causing these roads to be built – the people in the suburbs are.
So – toll roads. Where do we build them? We build them where the need is, and where the congestion is, in the suburbs. So we are, for the first time, charging people for their use, instead of having the poor subsidize them. It just amazes me. The Democrats understand, it's an article of faith for the Democrats that the sales tax is regressive. The gas tax is much, much more regressive. The gas tax is literally a transfer of wealth from the poor to the middle class – to the upper middle class.
Think of the other things Democrats care about, like pollution and so on. We're not making polluters pay – we're subsidizing driving in the suburbs, taking long trips, driving cars with low gas mileage. We're making that easier to do; we're subsidizing all those habits.
AC: Planning is always long term, but politics is always short term, and right now, the only available politics is "toll roads are bad." Do you think you can win that argument over time?
MK: These arguments have to gain over time, if for no other reason, the economics of oil. Fuel efficiency alone is going to wipe out the efficacy of the gas tax. The other thing that is really killing it now, that we didn't foresee at the time, is inflation, for road building. People think of inflation as two or three percent; but that basket of goods [used to calculate the inflation rate] includes food and other commodities actually going down in price. ... Basically, the inflation for the basket of goods for building the roads is not two or three percent, it's 20 or 30 percent a year. Steel didn't change in absolute terms for like forty years, and then [because of international demand, mainly China and India] it doubled in two. That was the first whiff of it that we really got at TxDOT – people who had signed long-term contracts to provide that material for guard rails at a steady price that hadn't changed in 40 years – those people were going bankrupt. That's when we started to notice this. ...
The good news is that free trade is a wonderful thing for mankind. Our clothing is better quality and cheaper, our furniture is, our food – all these things, our electronics. It's just great – increasing the standard of living for all people throughout the world. But it does have this side effect: increasing the costs of building infrastructure.
AC: In terms of regional planning, aren't you in danger of reversing the historic imbalance – pushing the poor people into the periphery when the wealthy people move into the city?
MK: Well, gentrification – that's a whole different subject. Tarrytown, Hyde Park, Travis Heights – people want to live there because those parts of town are designed properly, not just because they're close-in to Downtown. The reason that they become gentrified is that people want that kind of walkable community, which is in short supply, because all our builders are building this sprawl. The answer is not to try to manipulate the market and stop gentrification – I don't think that's going to be successful. How do you lower, and keep low, the prices of all the housing in the central city? I don't think that's an ultimately sustainable plan.
I think a much better plan is to encourage good planning throughout your region, so that everyone has an opportunity [for sustainable communities], and also to provide mass transit. That's another one of my big changes I went through, probably beginning around 2001, when Lee Walker and I started talking. I've actually been pushing Lee and Cap Metro to be much more ambitious. The last election was for the commuter rail – [now] we've got to have a Downtown circulator, we've got to go to Elgin and Manor, we've got to go to the airport, we've got to go to Mueller.
AC: Do you think there's the political will to do that now?
MK: Yep. There is. I pushed as hard as I could at that time for the election to include all those things. I've been pushing all those things, even hurting relationships a little bit – I wanted to do those things two years ago that we're going to do next fall.
AC: You were at the center of two of the most bitter floor fights in recent legislative history: redistricting and the Democratic quorum break (in 2003), and the fight over [Tom] Craddick's speakership in the 2007 session. Any reflections?
MK: I could explain redistricting, and my goal in that process was to be as fair as possible. My efforts were toward making it fair. But you just can't make that argument. People are so emotional about redistricting – I could make those arguments and it just falls on deaf ears; everyone's got their minds made up. Put it this way. The final outcome was not my doing – I was involved in it to a certain extent, and then other forces took over and took redistricting into a direction I didn't want it to go.
It's above my pay grade, exactly who did it. I don't know who did it. I met Tom DeLay and got input. It was finally done over at the LRB [Legislative Redistricting Board] – who drew the maps that way, who contacted Carole [Strayhorn] and David [Dewhurst], I don't know. I got left out of the process at that time.
When they [the Democrats] left for Ardmore and stuff – I respected that, and I wasn't one of those giving quotes and saying ugly things about my colleagues. When they came back, at 7am, I was there to greet them at the bus, and shake their hands as they came off the bus, and welcome them back. And I worked very hard with people like [Democratic Caucus Chair, Waco Rep.] Jim Dunnam to restore an atmosphere of comity among us all.
AC: And the speaker fight?
MK: The Craddick deal – I've never seen the House so unproductive. We in the Legislature often do political things, and I have not been immune from that. That's just the nature of all politics. Bobby Kennedy, my hero, he did it too. But I've never seen it that bad – not just on transportation, but on every issue across the board. There was no real communication between offices on any issue. It was very demoralizing. And the people that I respected most in the Legislature – "demoralized" doesn't even begin to describe how badly everyone felt about seeing what was happening to an institution that those of us who have been there a while really love. ... We fight and debate, we compromise and work together. That all broke down.
AC: Do you think there will be a new speaker?
MK: There's no sense in me speculating about that.
AC: Do you think there should be?
MK: I'm not sure it's productive for me to talk about that.
AC: How does it happen that Bobby Kennedy is your hero, and there are these photo portraits of him prominently displayed in your office?
MK: I was born in 1959, and politics was a different animal back in the Sixties. My mother instilled in me a great respect for the Kennedy family. She said, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, look at this family, that has incredible wealth and doesn't have to work a day in their lives, and whether in war or in politics, they've just basically sacrificed their lives. So I became very interested in politics from reading Time Magazine, about from the age of eight. One of my first images was seeing Bobby Kennedy in Appalachia, in a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, walking in Appalachia and talking to those kids. That was the moment that I thought, that's what I want to do with my life.
AC: Yet you were never considered being a Democrat?
MK: I was just someone really interested in policy and issues, and I wasn't really leaning Republican or Democrat, until 1972, when in my opinion the Democrats walked away from fighting the Cold War, and fighting communism. Not just the Vietnam War, we can disagree on that – the McGovern movement, in my eyes, was just disengaging altogether from the struggle with communism and the Soviet Union, and I thought that was wrong. I guess I could have been a [Washington Sen.] Scoop Jackson Democrat or a [Georgia Sen.] Sam Nunn Democrat, but those people were not relevant in the Party. Maybe it's hard for people to imagine, but at the time, the Cold War is all there was. The Republicans, I thought, were in the right on that, so that's where I landed.