Tuesday, August 07, 2007

"What does it take to get TxDOT to listen to the will of the legislators?"

TxDOT rides in hot seat as lawmakers fume


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

IRVING — Just two months after the state's transportation department got its latest marching orders from the Legislature, a leading state senator said Tuesday the agency is as arrogant as ever.

At a hearing of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas, accused Texas Department of Transportation officials of circumventing legislative intent and even refusing to explain what they're up to.

"What does it take to get TxDOT to listen to the will of the legislators?" he said. "It is a core attitude of arrogance that I believe still exists."

Carona made the same complaint last spring during a wild legislative session in which more than half a dozen bills gained traction to reign in the department's toll-road policies.

Surviving a gauntlet of political maneuvering was Senate Bill 792, which shifted some tolling powers to local agencies, limited what contracts can do and stopped leasing of toll roads — though there were many exemptions — pending further study.

Then came surprises from TxDOT officials, who said:

The moratorium on toll leases won't affect any contracts for toll roads or rail lines for the Trans-Texas Corridor route that will parallel Interstate 35, though those projects weren't exempted.

They might be able to get around the toll-lease ban by collecting the tolls themselves and then paying private developers returns based on traffic flows, an arrangement called availability payments.

They plan to move forward with a $2.5 million program to test speed cameras on Texas 6 near College Station and on I-10 in Hudspeth County, despite a law passed this year to prohibit cities from using such cameras.

Carona decided it was time for an update, and called a hearing on the first day of the annual Transportation Summit, which TxDOT boycotted two years ago because of disagreements with Dallas area leaders over where the Trans-Texas Corridor should go.

At the hearing, held at a Westin Hotel, Carona protested that his letters and phone calls to TxDOT about its speed-camera project have been ignored.

"All we're asking for is the courtesy of an explanation," he said.

He cast doubt on TxDOT's hope of using availability payments.

"What I heard was you found another way to get around us," he said.

State senators Robert Nichols, R- Jacksonville, and Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, the only other committee members there, also fired shots.

Nichols, who has served on the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, said using availability payments would be like the state co-signing private loans.

"I'm not so sure you have the ability to do that," he said.

After Carona noted that he couldn't make TxDOT play nice but he sure could turn up the heat, Shapiro flashed a friendly smile and chimed in: "I think he speaks for most of us."

Speaking for TxDOT, Assistant Director Amadeo Saenz and Transportation Commissioner Fred Underwood emphasized there's a severe shortage of funds, which means toll roads are needed.

"Texas is facing enormous and rapidly increasing transportation needs," Underwood said. "Achieving our goals will require a long-term program of investment in our transportation system by state, local governments and, we believe, by private participants."

Carona said he wasn't directing his attacks at Underwood, saying he's too new on the commission to have caused problems, or Saenz, saying he thinks the world of him.


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