Monday, November 12, 2007

"Citizens have come to distrust the Texas Department of Transportation. And TxDOT has earned their suspicion."

Texas' road troubles an issue of leadership


San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

Citizens have come to distrust the Texas Department of Transportation. And TxDOT has earned their suspicion.

For more than a year, TxDOT fought Attorney General Greg Abbott, journalists and landowners in an effort to keep details of the Trans-Texas Corridor secret. The project, to be constructed and operated by the Cintra-Zachry consortium, includes hundreds of miles of toll roads.

Then TxDOT officials allocated $9 million of the agency's limited resources for an advertising campaign to promote toll roads. That was shortly after the media learned TxDOT was pressing Congress to allow the state to buy federally constructed freeways and potentially turn them into toll roads.

So when the Express-News reported recently that TxDOT had inked an agreement in March with Cintra-Zachry concerning Texas 130 — the state's first major toll-road privatization project — people were understandably skeptical.

The agreement includes financial rewards for TxDOT to lower speed limits on Interstate 35 and penalties for expanding or building some nearby roads that could compete with Texas 130 toll traffic.

From a cynical perspective, it creates incentives for TxDOT to drive traffic onto Texas 130. But a TxDOT spokeswoman denied that the agency would make transportation decisions based on the profit motive, a point convincingly explained in a letter to the editor Monday by Texas Transportation Commissioner Hope Andrade.

The underlying problem is that Texas isn't spending anything close to what is needed to build and maintain public roadways.

State motor fuels taxes and vehicle registration fees are supposed to go into a dedicated fund for transportation infrastructure. But lawmakers regularly pilfer this fund for other purposes, 25 percent of which is diverted to public education alone.

TxDOT has to find dollars where it can to build badly needed road capacity — in toll projects and in public-private partnerships, such as the one with Cintra-Zachry. If the state is going to turn to partners in the private sector to build and operate roads, their investment has to be based on an expected rate of return, which is essentially what the Texas 130 agreement defines.

TxDOT's problems are public relations problems.

The transportation problem in the Legislature and the Governor's Mansion, however, is a leadership problem.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News:

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