From AP REPORTS

AUSTIN - The Texas Department of Transportation has hired a public relations firm to help prepare agency officials and a top aide to Gov. Rick Perry for appearances on radio to promote toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor.

The $20,000 contract with ViaNovo is part of the agency’s Keep Texas Moving campaign, a public relations effort touting its implementation of Perry’s transportation policy.

Some lawmakers and anti-toll activists have condemned spending state highway funds - estimated to be from $7 million to $9 million - on a public relations campaign.

But Rep. Mike Krusee, House Transportation Committee chairman, said the campaign is a response to lawmakers’ demands for the agency to improve its communication with the public.

“I think TxDOT’s doing exactly what the Legislature asked them to do, demanded that they do and legislators who now cry foul are being hypocritical,” said Krusee, R-Round Rock. “They were the ones that beat TxDOT over the head in public hearings for not explaining this.”

Toll roads and the state’s aggressive policies regarding the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor were among the major issues of the last legislative session.

Opponents questioned the agency’s decision to use tolling to fund new roads, the route and necessity of the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor superhighway, and the state’s partnering with private companies to run toll roads.

Perry and other state officials have argued that toll roads are necessary in the face of congestion and transportation needs outpacing gas tax revenues.

E-mails about the talk-radio section of the Keep Texas Moving campaign were obtained by the San Antonio-Express News and Houston Chronicle under the Public Information Act.

Coby Chase, director of the department’s government and public affairs division, wrote in a July e-mail that plans call for the state officials to start out on satellite radio, in part because “the listening audience is paying for radio so they might be more apt to pay a toll.” He wrote that the agency likely will buy advertising time on the satellite networks.

The plans call for several agency division directors, district engineers from Beaumont and Amarillo, agency interim Executive Director Steve Simmons and Kris Heckmann, a deputy chief of staff for Perry, to participate.

Department spokesman Chris Lippincott confirmed the participation of agency officials and Heckmann.

Lippincott said the contract for talk-radio training went to the Rodman Co. of Portland, Texas, which subcontracted with ViaNovo with the department’s approval.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who sought to freeze development of privately run toll roads, said there’s a “lack of faith” in the agency’s policies.

“The Legislature did not tell TxDOT to go on a media campaign explaining the pros of the Trans-Texas Corridor and private equity investment (in toll roads),” Kolkhorst said. “The Legislature said, ‘Please slow down, take a deep breath. We want you to pause while we make sure we are making the right decisions.’“

Sen. John Carona, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said the program should be judged on how the officials use their air time.

“I don’t think there’s anything inappropriate about them obtaining media training,” Carona said. “I think it’s important to share with the public TxDOT’s goals and missions.

“If what they do on these radio shows turns out to be nothing more than a PR initiative for their current tolling plans and other controversial initiatives, then I and other legislators, I think, would have a great problem with it,” he said. “Additionally, if they were to use TxDOT funds to buy radio time or anything of that nature, we would be very opposed to it.”

On the Net:

Texas Department of Transportation, http://www.keeptexasmoving.com

ViaNovo, http://www.vianovo.com