Rep. Poe on TxDOT: "They’ve gotten too big for their britches. Obviously.”
By Charles Davis
Texas Public Radio
Last month members of the Texas congressional delegation received an unusual letter from the Texas Department of Transportation.
In the letter TxDOT is demanding that Texas congressmen seek approval for all transportation projects with them in Austin before obtaining federal funding.
Republican Congressman Ted Poe of Humble, Texas, said that’s not how the funding process works. He was blunt about what he thinks of TxDOT’s demands.
“They’ve gotten too big for their britches. Obviously,” Poe said.
He argues only lawmakers should choose what projects are built because only they are accountable to their voters.
“TxDOT is an administrative group and they are to spend the money as we direct that they are to spend it, whether they like it or not. Their responsibility is not to determine projects. Their responsibility is to build bridges and roads and freeways,” Poe said.
TxDOT spokesman Randall Dillard says the agency just wants to make sure that those bridges and roads are built where they are most needed.
“We didn’t mean to offend anybody by the letter. We’re certainly sorry if it did offend people. Our intent is just to make sure that we can advance transportation projects here in Texas,” Dillard said.
But unless TxDOT compromises on their position, some lawmakers feel funding for their districts could be in danger.
San Antonio Democratic Congressman Charlie Gonzales thinks TxDOT’s letter was strange, and says the agency’s position could hurt the state.
“For TxDOT to basically say ‘don’t send us any federal dollars’ is not truly in the best interests of Texans and our communities that are petitioning and requesting their representatives here in Congress to seek those funds.” Gonzales says he understands TxDOT’s concern over which projects get federal funding. But he argues that Congress only appropriates money where it’s needed.
“Obviously we’re not asking for these funds unless someone has brought some great need to our attention,” Gonzales said.
South Texas Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar said he is also upset at TxDOT. But he’s more diplomatic about it.
“I understand and respect the Department of Transportation for the position that they’ve taken. But for us to pre-clear everything through them – it’s just not the way things are done,” Cuellar said.
Cuellar said he thinks TxDOT won’t actually turn down any federal money. He says the agency needs to work closer with Congress to determine the state’s most pressing needs.
“You know we can also set priorities, that if they have a difference I think they can sit down with us. But to send a letter like they did, without even talking to us; I think was not the right thing for them to do,” he said.
TxDOT receives about 40% of its budget from Washington. But the agency usually needs to match those funds, sometimes for projects that might not be a priority. Spokesman Randall Dillard says TxDOT wants to ensure lawmakers work together for the state, not just their district.
“We just want to make sure that when our congressmen and women in Washington are securing dollars for specific projects, that those projects are coordinated and that we’re all working to advance that same project,” said Dillard.
According to the US Census, Texas’ population is growing by almost twice the national average. Dillard says Congress needs to work closely with TxDOT to find the best solutions to the state’s growing transportation needs.
“Every three years we add the equivalent of a city the size of San Antonio to our population. So the challenges are out there, and it’s a situation where with the rising congestion it’s impacting peoples safety, it’s impacting air quality, it’s impacting the overall quality of life for millions of people,” said Dillard.
But lawmakers argue that TxDOT officials aren’t elected, so they shouldn’t choose which projects are built.
Congressman Gonzales says he and other lawmakers wrote a letter to TxDOT explaining their concerns.
“I thought it was a very polite letter saying, ‘look, what do you mean by this and it doesn’t make any sense,” Gonzales said.
“Do you really want us to stop attempting to gain federal dollars for Texas highway dollars when we have every other state in the union fighting for the same dollar?’
Most lawmakers think their dispute with TxDOT can be worked out before federal transportation dollars are threatened. But almost a month after their letter was sent, they say they have not even received a response.
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