Thursday, February 22, 2007

"I think we've created a monster. I think we're headed in a totally wrong direction. I'm not so sure we haven't already signed away the farm."

Senate committee grills two commission nominees over toll roads, other issues

Committee approves the two, now whole Senate must confirm

February 22, 2007

By Mike Ward
Austin American-Stateman
Copyright 2007

Two nominees to the Texas Transportation Commission got a jet-blast of criticism Wednesday from the Senate Nominations Committee, as lawmakers vented about road issues ranging from tolls to secrecy to big-ticket contracts.

The exchange in the nominations hearing marked the latest signal that many lawmakers are not happy with the transportation mega-agency, amid a continuing series of skirmishes between Senate transportation committee Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas, and Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson.

During the nominations hearing, Ned Holmes of Houston and Fred Underwood of Lubbock at times looked like deer caught in headlights, as senators grilled them about their views on controversies that have been swirling for months around the agency's management and operations.

In the end, assured by the two men that they support more openness and will get answers to lingering questions about tolls and financing, the committee voted unanimously to approve their appointments. Both need to be confirmed by the full Senate.

"I think we've created a monster" in the Texas Department of Transportation, state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, citing the agency's rush to approve toll roads and private financing packages that stirred continuing controversy.

"I think we're headed in a totally wrong direction," Eltife said. "I'm not so sure we haven't already signed away the farm."

Holmes and Underwood said they could not predict how they will vote on issues because they have just started understanding the complexities of Texas transportation.

At one point, though, Underwood expressed frustration about being unable to get answers to some of his questions.

"I'm hoping the two of you will bring us a fresh approach to this," Eltife said, adding later, "Just because they started this five years ago and it's almost under contract is not the right answer" to questions.

The commission has five members, all appointed by the governor.

Eltife blamed the Legislature for much of the problem facing the transportation agency, saying that refusal to approve an increase in the state's gas tax to pay for road-building programs resulted in the agency having to resort to controversial alternatives.

"We're either going to provide transportation systems, or we're going to live with an incredibly impaired system," Holmes said.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, quizzed the two nominees on whether they support more transparency in the operation of the regional boards that set tolls and make toll-road decisions.

Both indicated they do.

Watson also asked where they stand on a past agency practice of requiring local communities to make financial contributions if they wanted roads built immediately — "a hammer instead of an incentive," he called it.

Other senators criticized that practice as unfair to rural counties and those that cannot afford to pay, even if they desperately need new highways.

"I don't think it should be used that way," Underwood said.

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman: www.

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