Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"How do we get TxDOT to level with us?"

TxDOT troubles mean it's time for changes


Ken Allard
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Can we talk?

An opening admission: When I first started writing about the Texas Department of Transportation, it was for comic relief from grimly worded columns about the war in Iraq, nuclear terrorism and looming conflict with Iran.

It was also a way to vent after surviving the everyday insanity of San Antonio traffic, featuring improbable feats of highway engineering and kamikaze Bubbas driving pickups. And how could any writer resist comparing those gut-wrenching skyways under construction at the airport to roller-coaster rides or carrier takeoffs?

But the irony is this: While the war in Iraq has finally turned in our favor, TxDOT is in serious trouble.

Think I'm kidding? Climbing gas prices and shrinking home values are not only troubling area voters, they are also raising new questions about the basic assumptions behind the sanctified strategy of using tolls to pay for new roads in a region rapidly approaching gridlock.

Worse yet, this newspaper noted in a Tuesday editorial that TxDOT has earned the distrust of Texans through a lack of transparency and bad relations with a public that, after all, pays the bills.

Given these shenanigans and the usual toll road mantras, it is as if TxDOT was hellbent on imitating the old Marx Brothers movie where Groucho pointed a gun at his head and shouted, "Stop, stop or I'll shoot!"

After digging yourself into a hole, the first rule of getting out is dropping the shovel (or maybe the bulldozer) and then stopping to listen. Regardless of what business they're in, effective information-age organizations know the value of "strategic conversations" — and listening as attentively as a buck before breaking cover during deer season.

One local church learned that lesson only after stumbling when replacing a popular pastor. Second time around, they began by listening more carefully to the congregation, discovering needs as well as commitments and eventually summoning leadership that needed to be bottom-up as well as top-down.

It's harder to apply those lessons to South Texas politics, though we hold lots of elections while settling few issues that really matter. So as a newcomer, may I make the naïve suggestion that we start a new dialogue, ideally one that includes TxDOT and its supporters and critics, as well as ordinary citizens rightfully suspicious of the whole bunch?

Before singing "Kumbaya" and getting all teary-eyed, I checked in with designated Aggie and Texas cultural adviser, Will from Hondo, to see where the common ground might be.

Ken: How do we get TxDOT to level with us?

Will: By making it clear that the people of Texas decide what roads will be built and how we are going to pay for them. While that might include tolls, we don't need the federal government, TxDOT or foreign companies dictating their preferred solutions.

Ken: So the Express-News is right in saying that the governor and the Legislature are partly to blame?

Will: Of course, but who elects them? If elected officials can't get it done, fire them and find new leaders who can. Because if we put people in office without holding their feet to the fire, then we deserve to sit in traffic jams.

Ken: Can new technology help?

Will: Absolutely. Light rail and elevated, magnetic-levitation trains could all help, although we always assumed Texans would never abandon their SUVs. But with gas prices, air quality and gridlock all getting worse, those assumptions might change.

Ken: Until then, how do we keep traffic moving?

Will: Don't issue contracts without performance penalties, and don't allow a few contractors to juggle multiple jobs between different locations. Way it is now, contractors come first, commuters last.

Ken: Do we need a new vision of the future?

Will: Think of San Antonio as a great inland port, but one determined to preserve its unique history, environment, security and quality of life. A new South Texas transportation authority charged with that mission might be worth trying.

Ken: Seems reasonable. Is that a new bumper sticker on your pickup?

Will: Yup, "Can't Fix Stupid." Because it seems like we've been stuck on stupid for a long time.

Retired Col. Ken Allard is an executive-in-residence at UTSA. E-mail him at

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