By Linda Stall
Hempstead, TX – Some attendees at nighttime town hall meeting in Hempstead were forced to park a quarter-mile from the meeting and walk while countless others were turned away. Before the first question was asked the narrow dead end road leading to the hall was choked with vehicles that had no place to go and could only see the flashing emergency lights of a police vehicle ahead. Citizens like Sara Barnett who arrived in Hempstead with her 88 year old mother found they could not get to the meeting hall. They and others lost their opportunity to attend, ask their questions, or hear the discussion.
Those 800 or more who did make it into the hall heard largely defensive and argumentative ‘answers’ to their questions, particularly from Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton of El Paso. Reinforcing the concern of many that these town hall meetings would be nothing more than a sales pitch, Houghton called it a return to “Marketing 101.” “We did a pretty horrible job with public relations,” admitted Houghton.
David Stall of CorridorWatch.org says, “Houghton completely misses the concept of involving the public in the decision making process.” “He came to Hempstead to defend the Commission’s decisions and not to discuss the issues,” Stall said.
Often talking over citizens at the microphone Houghton appeared driven and at times agitated by the questions being asked.
When asked about NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the need for TTC-69 to move containers from Mexico Houghton answered, “[it’s] not about cargo and containers” then summarily cut the citizen off by abruptly saying, “next question.” Houghton took and defended the position that TTC-69 is not and would not be a NAFTA highway. Later in the evening another citizen asked Houghton “why is it not part of NAFTA?” Houghton’s answer, “It doesn’t connect to Mexico,” caused the room to erupt with astonished laughter. The man at the microphone told Houghton that the map that he had shows TTC-69 going to Brownsville. Houghton quickly responded that it stops in the city of Brownsville or stops in the city of McAllen which prompted the citizen speaker to retort, “that’s pretty close to Mexico.” A chastising Houghton replied, “Well it’s close, but it doesn’t, so lets get the facts right.”
Stall called the NAFTA exchange a classic example of how the Commission and TxDOT are intentionally distorting information to mislead the public and their elected officials. “They are playing word games that come dangerously close to outright lies,” said Stall. He says that more important than whether TTC-69 will be a NAFTA highway or not, is that the discussion be honest. “Apparently they are willing to tell us anything to keep the public from being involved and raising their concerns,” said Stall. He points out that numerous TxDOT documents, including materials handed out by TxDOT in Hempstead during the meeting, make open reference to TTC-69 moving goods from Mexico. “What good are public forums with TxDOT if you can’t trust them to give honest answers?,” he asked.
One need not speculate on whether or not the decision to build TTC-69 has been made, Houghton was quite clear that it would be built. The only decision he left open for discussion was how to pay for it saying, “[the] choice is private sector or gas tax.” Even that wasn’t really left much in doubt since TxDOT told the audience that they were moving forward to reach agreement with a private partner to develop TTC-69