Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Audit highlights "a fundamental lack of trust" in the figures coming from transportation officials.

Audit: $86 billion transportation funding gap overblown

Report says that more than $45 billion of the estimate is either in error or undocumented.

May 01, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

The state auditor's office on Monday challenged the validity of more than half of a purported $86 billion shortfall in Texas transportation funding over the next generation and cautioned that the estimate "may not be reliable for making policy or funding decisions."

That $86 billion, based on 2004 figures, has been cited repeatedly by Texas Department of Transportation officials and some legislators as a major reason for the state's increasing need for new toll roads. The number is a compilation of estimates from local transportation planning agencies around the state that were produced at the behest of the Transportation Department.

The estimates were not lists of specific unfunded projects. They were based on broad calculations of how much money would be needed through 2030 to eliminate serious congestion on all highways at all times, including during rush hour.

The auditor said in a report released Monday that the need for $36.9 billion in projects in metropolitan areas and smaller cities was "undocumented" and that $8.6 billion of the overall total should not have been included because of mathematical errors and other flaws.

"The accuracy of the estimated costs for metropolitan and urban regions cannot be determined because of the lack of supporting documentation," the 23-page report says.

Michael Behrens, the Transportation Department's executive director, said that even if the shortfall is smaller than $86 billion, the state still has a substantial and growing problem in paying for new roads.

Behrens called the audit report "further documentation of a multibillion dollar funding gap between the transportation system our state deserves and the one we can afford with current resources. No matter what number you choose, Texas has a big problem: more people, in more cars, driving more miles on an already congested highway system.

He said the agency will incorporate some of the auditor's suggestions for "refining the methodology to draw a clearer picture of the state's mobility needs."

The audit's release during the late stages of what has been a volatile legislative session for transportation was ill-timed for toll road supporters. But even state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who carried a bill this session to temporarily halt private toll road contracts, said the findings do not concern him greatly. Estimating the shortfall, he said, is complicated and subjective, and the figure is still in the tens of billions of dollars.

"If someone wants to put it at $50 billion, power to them," Nichols said. "Or if someone wants to say it's $100 billion, I wouldn't argue with them. The main thing is it's a huge funding gap."

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the audit highlights "a fundamental lack of trust" in the figures coming from transportation officials.

The report follows another state audit, released Feb. 23, that said the Transportation Department had downplayed the potential costs of the Trans-Texas Corridor — Gov. Rick Perry's plan for a network of cross-state tollways and railroads — and potentially inflated expected gains for the project. The earlier audit became grist for legislators looking to roll back powers granted to the Transportation Department in earlier sessions.

The Austin area's contribution to that $86 billion figure was about $13.8 billion, according to the report, and the entire $8.6 billion mistake was laid at the feet of the local Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. According to the report, CAMPO erred in including $4 billion for highway reconstruction and $900 million for relocating the Union Pacific railroad because that spending did not specifically increase highway capacity. CAMPO also made a $3.7 billion mathematical error on freeway interchanges, the report said.

CAMPO's executive director, Michael Aulick, said his agency had already caught the $3.7 billion error: Staff members had estimated the number of flyover bridges needed and then multiplied that number by the construction cost of an whole interchange, which is much larger.

As for the $4.9 billion, Aulick disputes that an accounting of future costs of mobility should exclude them. And he said that the agency provided all its backup materials to the auditor and that he has no idea why CAMPO would be included on the undocumented list.

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

Future transportation costs under scrutiny

A state audit questions $45.5 billion of a purported $86 billion shortfall in Texas transportation funding. That includes:

  • $8.6 billion that the audit says shouldn't have been included, all of it in the Austin area. Includes $4 billion for highway reconstruction and $900 million for rail relocation that were not supposed to be part of the spending estimate's scope and a $3.7 billion mathematical error.
  • $27.9 billion from estimates made by metropolitan planning organizations. Five of the eight areas (including Austin) did not retain documentation, the report says, to back up the estimates.
  • $9 billion of estimated spending in smaller Texas cities. The estimate was made by simply doubling the spending over the next 25 years that is fully funded, an assumption that the Transportation Department admitted was 'a simplified method' that it plans to make more rigorous.

Source: Texas state auditor's office

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman: www. statesman.com

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