Sunday, August 19, 2001

Fourth Texas Transportation Summit is Held

Spending money to get money

Consultant helps city get road funds

August 19, 2001
Lee Powell Staff Writer
The Dallas Morning News Copyright 2001

They came from Arlington, Houston and Temple to hear about megaports, HOV lanes and intelligent transportation systems.

Members of Congress, hordes of state legislators and mayors all were there. The governor and the secretary of transportation made an appearance.

What brought all these folks together to talk about transportation ? And in Irving, no less?

On the surface, credit goes to last week's Texas Transportation Summit, now in its fourth year. But the three-day event represents perhaps the most public part of an intense campaign the city of Irving is waging for its share of transportation dollars.

It's a campaign that has involved lobbyists, thick reports and multiple trips to Austin and Washington, D.C., all at a cost to Irving taxpayers nearing $2 million. City officials and some Irving City Council members say the expense - nearly all generated by consultant David Dean's now $30,000-a-month fee - will be recouped many times over when $4 billion in projects get done and get done quicker.

"I believe David Dean earns every penny we pay him," said council member Linda Harper-Brown. "I believe his value is immeasurable. While we pay him a substantial amount of money, he has brought back to the city of Irving more money than we would have ever gained without his assistance."

Said City Manager Steve McCullough: "They have opened a lot of doors for us that we would not have thought to open or not been able to open."

Mayor Joe Putnam isn't so sure.

"I'm not sure what all is being done with that money," he said. "There are a lot of trips, meetings and a lot of events. I have not observed any real productive work."

Mr. Dean, a former Texas secretary of state who now heads up Dean International Inc., a Dallas-based public policy outfit, said Irving wouldn't be where it is in the transportation realm without his help.

When he started working for the city in early 1998, three studies of roadways and transportation corridors were under way to determine the city's eligibility for federal funds.

"That's impressive and unheard of," he said. "[The city] didn't have the staff or focus at the time to properly manage those three projects alone. All of a sudden here were three things that happened and they happened at the same time. But we have a high degree of expertise in the administrative and regulatory process."

Since the three major investment studies - looking at Airport Freeway, State Highway 114 and Loop 12 - Mr. Dean's scope has widened to include a host of initiatives, including State Highway 161, working with a residents advisory council and organizing the transportation summit.

Profitable contract

By the time the city's contract with Dean International expires in September, Irving will have paid the group $1.56 million for its services the last three years.

Close to $90,000 more has been paid so far to cover expenses ranging from airline tickets to copies and ribbon cuttings - including $978.30 for dignitary gifts at one event, according to invoices submitted to the city.

The City Council reduced Mr. Dean's latest contract by $120,000 but voted to give him a percentage of the revenue generated by the transportation summit.

The city did shell out $224,053 to the Omni Mandalay Hotel in Las Colinas for food and conference services and lent the help of staff members.

More than 500 people attended the summit, which was actually the brainchild of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, whose district includes much of Irving.

Still, Mr. Putnam said he's in favor of revamping how the city tackles its mobility needs, starting with fewer meetings and summits.

"We need to identify specific goals and targets instead of a shot-gun approach to transportation issues and instead of meetings and things like transportation summits that do little more than stroke egos but provide little return to the city of Irving," he said.

Recognition for city

Mr. McCullough, the city manager, said the summit brings recognition to Irving and gives city officials a chance to interact with those from state and federal agencies.

It was at the summit several years ago that Irving officials first learned about a program streamlining the approval process for projects. The project to rebuild Loop 12 was later earmarked for this designation, joining only 10 such projects around the country.

"These are things that impact people's daily lives in Irving and economic development and future development," he said. " Transportation is a key piece of Irving's future. We're blessed and we're cursed with the freeways we have. Access is good but it needs to be better."

Mr. Dean estimates the price tag for all the transportation -related projects planned for Irving to be about $4 billion.

He said Irving's focus on improving ways for the 1 million motorists passing daily through the city to get from here to there and drawing other cities into its plans is right.

"Their strategy has kind of been enlightened self-interest," Mr. Dean said. "They're in a better position to help themselves by helping others in the region solve our collective transportation needs."

Helping the region

North Richland Hills Mayor Charles Scoma said Irving's willingness to take the lead on transportation planning by providing financial resources has helped the region.

"The fact they've been willing to take on the vision of it with the rest of us and take on the financial responsibility to get it moving should be something they're commended for," he said.

Ms. Harper-Brown, who also co-chairs TEX-21, a statewide transportation advocacy group, said Mr. Dean and his group have produced results.

She points to the fast-tracking of Loop 12, the coming DART light-rail line through Las Colinas and potential federal funding to bring commuter rail up the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad corridor as examples.

"There aren't many other consultants you can hire that return dollars to the city," she said.

Mr. Putnam said he sees the lists of projects and talk of landing funds as little more than justifications for Mr. Dean's fees.

"He's a good salesman for himself and he'd have to justify it. How could you not?" the mayor said. "His best job has been selling to the council the need for his services at that rate."

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