Saturday, November 27, 2004

"If commissioners had to answer directly to the public, they'd be humming a different melody."

A call for electing toll road makers

Board and commission appointees are less accountable, critics say

November 26, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

The recall effort against three Austin City Council members, spurred by their support of toll roads, is based on the idea that if you don't like the decision, change the decision-makers.

Some toll road opponents who nonetheless oppose the recall argue that such an extreme step should be reserved for instances of political malfeasance or incompetence, not differences of opinion. As a consequence, an alternate approach to the toll road question has emerged: If you don't like the decision, change the way the decision-makers are chosen.

Colin Clark, spokesman for the Save Our Springs Alliance, had two such recommendations at a "summit" earlier this month of various groups opposed to the proliferation of toll roads in Texas.

Clark suggested that the five-member Texas Transportation Commission, the overseer of the Texas Department of Transportation, which, since its creation decades ago, has been peopled by gubernatorial appointees, should instead be made up of elected officials. Further, Clark said, the boards of regional mobility authorities, essentially adjuncts to the state Transportation Department, should have elected officials serving on them rather than appointees by the governor and county commissioners courts.

"When officials in important positions are elected, they are more accountable than when they are appointed," Clark said in an interview this week.

The state commissioners, all of them appointees of Republican Gov. Rick Perry, are tireless advocates for toll roads, a position mirroring that of the man who put them on the panel. The commissioners, though professing to have nothing to do with local transportation decisions, have used the considerable road-building funds at their disposal to make toll roads the new norm for building Texas highways.

While acknowledging that no one really likes to pay a toll, commissioners argue frequently that gasoline tax revenue, absent a highly unlikely rate increase by the Legislature, will inevitably fail to keep up with state highway needs. Tolls, they say, will get more roads built and get them in place years sooner.

Toll opponents listen to all that and reason that if commissioners had to answer directly to the public, they'd be humming a different melody.

This is more than mere gum-flapping.

State Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, chairman of the state House Transportation Committee, has been hearing rumbles about legislation along this line, particularly involving regional mobility authorities, and fully expects to be handling such bills in the session next year. But Krusee said both ideas, despite the furor over toll roads, are flawed.

Only two state commissions are elected, the anachronistically named Texas Railroad Commission, whose three members mostly regulate the oil and gas business, and the 15-member State Board of Education.

Krusee said doing the same with transportation would result in all the positions being filled by Dallas or Houston residents, where the votes are. Prospective commissioners would tend to be ambitious politicians looking to use the board as an entry-level statewide position, the pattern with the Railroad Commission over the years, rather than becoming dedicated transportation wonks. And, he says, the money for a statewide race would come from the most interested constituency: road construction and engineering companies.

It'll never happen, he says.

"You go to House members and say, 'Do you want to elect them?' and everyone who's not from Houston or Dallas is going to say no," Krusee said.

SOS spokesman Clark's response: elect them from geographic districts, like state school board members.

As for regional mobility authorities, Krusee and members of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board say the current setup combines autonomy and accountability.

"The RMA board is appointed so that there can be some assurance that there are business people on it, as opposed to the more random selection of local elections where you don't always end up with a critical mass of business professional types," says authority board member Lowell Lebermann, chairman of Centex Beverage Inc. and a former Austin City Council member.

The mobility authority, created two years ago, has seven members on its board: three appointed by Travis County commissioners, three named by Williamson County commissioners and one chosen by Perry. Aside from spending its time up to now creating bylaws and policies and hiring an executive director, the board has moved toward construction of the U.S. 183-A toll road to Leander.

It probably will issue about $200 million in debt for that road early next year and would operate some of the tollways in a controversial plan approved this summer. Over the years, the board will set toll rates and enforcement policies for those roads, among other duties. Officials argue that too much political influence, such as would occur with elections or appointments to the board of elected officials (the model created by the Legislature in 1997 for the Capital Metro board) could even drive tolls up by increasing risk in investors' eyes and, thus, interest rates for borrowing.

Of course, the local board that made the key decision on tolls this year, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, has 21 elected officials among its 23 members, including Krusee, and that didn't stop a comfortable majority of them from deciding, against overwhelming objections from the public, that toll roads were the way to go.

"There's certainly no confusion about whom to hold responsible for tolling decisions," Krusee said. "People understand it's the members of (CAMPO), and they know exactly who's on there."; 445-3698

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