Thursday, March 22, 2007

"TxDOT has certainly burned its bridges with a lot of members."

TxDOT directive drives Congress' Texans into tizzy

March 22, 2007

Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
Copyright 2007

WASHINGTON — Texas Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are hopping mad at the Texas Department of Transportation, accusing its leaders in Austin of trespassing on Congress' most prized power: doling out federal dollars.

A letter this month from TxDOT's executive director tells members of Congress that the department will no longer support their individual road projects unless they obtain state and regional approval before pursuing federal funding.

"Arrogant," fumed Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco. "A letter like this is not a way to build relationships," complained Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston.

Said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble: "TxDOT needs to understand the elected representatives make the decisions on what projects we do — not the bureaucrats."

Financial constraints

In his March 9 letter, TxDOT Executive Director Michael Behrens said that because of state funding limits, lawmakers need cited financial constraints in telling lawmakers to run individual projects past TxDOT district offices and local Metropolitan Planning Offices.

"Most, if not all, projects require matching funds," he wrote. " Earmarks subsidizing only a portion of a project simply do not justify that project's advancement if funding is not available to provide the remaining balance."

That message did not resonate with lawmakers who are proud of delivering millions of dollars in roads and bridges for their districts — with federal funds defraying a big chunk. Forty percent of TxDOT's funding last year came from Washington.

"To send a letter like this, it's almost saying, 'Well, members of Congress, we'll take your money, but we're going to decide what to do with it,' " said Green, estimating he's delivered $30 million to $40 million in federal highway money to his district.

Preparing a response

Delegation members are readying a response to be sent to TxDOT Chairman Ric Williamson to complain about the agency's stance.

"We are concerned that your letter reflects an unwillingness to work with us to secure future federal funding," says a draft of the letter obtained by the Houston Chronicle. "Considering the Texas congressional delegation provides almost half of your funds, we are surprised by the tone of your letter and sincerely question whether Texas commuters sitting in congestion share your perspective."

TxDOT spokesman Randall Dillard denied any attempt to intrude on lawmakers' turf.

"Certainly, we did not mean to offend any member of Congress," Dillard said. "We are simply trying to ensure that we are all working together to advance transportation improvements that provide the most benefit to Texans."

He noted the budget climate is a tight one — with TxDOT being ordered to return $288 million in federal funds by mid-April because of congressional cuts. That's on top of the $305 million lost through other cuts in the past 15 months, he said.

The lawmakers are irritated by the suggestion they don't already work closely with TxDOT district engineers and others.

Said Edwards: "TxDOT has certainly burned its bridges with a lot of members."

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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