Thursday, August 11, 2005

"To have no one from TxDOT here is outrageous."

TxDOT officials blow off transportation summit

Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

IRVING — An eerie pall hung in the air at the eighth annual Texas Transportation Summit this week because, for the first time, nobody from the Texas Department of Transportation showed up.

TxDOT officials said they boycotted the state's premier transportation summit — called a national model by some — because they don't see eye-to-eye with a statewide coalition that grew out of the event.

"To have no one from TxDOT here is outrageous," said Kenneth Mayfield, a Dallas County Commissioner involved with the summit.

More than 1,100 government and industry officials from 35 states — including more than a dozen members of the Texas congressional delegation and the Legislature — have signed up for the event so far, which started Tuesday and runs through Friday.

It's the highest attendance ever.

But TEX-21, a coalition of city and county officials spawned by the transportation summit, has found itself in TxDOT's crosshairs.

State officials feel TEX-21 isn't open-minded enough about a proposed toll road that would parallel Interstate 35 to handle growing traffic congestion.

"We're operating on cross purposes," said TxDOT spokeswoman Gabby Garcia.

TEX-21 hasn't taken a position on the toll road, which is part of Gov. Rick Perry's Trans Texas Corridor.

But TEX-21 uses the lobbying firm of Dean International, which organizes the transportation summit and has helped Dallas and other cities voice concerns about the toll corridor's potential to divert traffic and commerce from I-35.

At a Texas Transportation Commission meeting last November, Chairman Ric Williamson told TxDOT staff to see him before participating in anything that Dean International is connected to.

"I don't have any patience for ad hoc, spur of the moment, last minute groups that spring up for no reason other than we've got to find a way to make a buck and scare people," he said.

TxDOT staffers have since stopped their quarterly meetings with TEX-21, said Mayfield, who chairs the group. And now, TxDOT has declined invitations to the transportation summit.

"I'm baffled, quite frankly," he said. "People aren't allowed to voice their concerns? Do we not live in America?"

The city of Irving, which sponsors the transportation summit and also hasn't taken a position on the Trans Texas Corridor, is caught in the middle, juggling a contract with Dean International and road projects with the state.

"It's very frustrating," said Irving City Councilman Rick Stopfer.

TxDOT officials showed up at the first seven summits, he said. Last year, 20 to 30 staffers were there and Williamson was a keynote speaker.

Meanwhile, some 20 to 30 TxDOT officials are on tap to attend the fourth annual San Antonio Regional Transportation Leadership Forum next month and Williamson has agreed to introduce Gov. Perry as the main speaker.

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