Saturday, November 17, 2007

"You wonder if TxDOT hasn't got so big, they're another branch of government we're not aware of."

TxDOT aims to tighten purse strings

Deficit may top $1.8 billion by fiscal 2012 with current slate of road projects

Nov. 17, 2007

By PEGGY FIKAC Austin Bureau
Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — The Texas Department of Transportation, working to fend off a funding shortfall, intends to cut hundreds of millions of dollars budgeted for everything from consulting engineers to right-of-way purchases.

The plan wouldn't affect existing road projects, and it's "difficult to say" what future projects would be delayed as a result, agency spokesman Randall Dillard said Friday.

Projections show that if existing plans on awarding contracts and expenditures were to go forward, the department would have at least a $1.8 billion deficit by fiscal year 2012 and at least $3.6 billion by fiscal year 2015, agency deputy executive director Steve Simmons said in remarks prepared for Thursday's commission meeting.

"We in the transportation world cannot wait until then to address the problem," Simmons said.

The move comes as TxDOT staff is poised to recommend to the Texas Transportation Commission, the department's oversight board, a separate $1 billion cut this fiscal year for new roads and expansion projects. Officials say funds aren't keeping pace with needs and must be focused on key areas like maintenance.

The chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee said a call from a reporter was his first notice of the agency's move.

"I'm kind of surprised they didn't talk to us about that," said Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa. "You'd think ... before they announced it they'd talk to the appropriators.

"It's almost to the point you wonder if the agency hasn't got so big, they're another branch of government we're not aware of," said Chisum, who previously has taken issue with such agency decisions as its projected expenditure of $7 million to $9 million to promote the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor plan and toll roads.

The Keep Texas Moving campaign, while not cited by Simmons in his prepared remarks, is on the table for reductions along with other agency programs, Dillard said, noting, "Everything's on the table."

Dillard said agency officials had sought to stir a public discussion on the funding issue and had called some lawmakers Thursday.

The chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee was aware of the agency's general direction regarding cuts and supports it in light of the funding situation, said Steven Polunsky, committee director.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, is "in complete agreement about prioritizing maintenance. He believes there is no project in Texas that is worth risking a Minneapolis bridge incident," Polunsky said. "When you're in a budget crunch, you've got to buy fewer things and scrub your internal budget. That's what TxDOT is doing."

The agency has an $8.3 billion budget this fiscal year, including $3.3 billion in federal money. Texas is getting less federal transportation money than previously expected, Simmons said. Another funding source that transportation officials had turned to was affected when lawmakers this year sought to rein in state partnerships with private entities on toll roads.

Carona worked for $5 billion in additional authority for road bonds approved Nov. 6, and he has talked up the need to raise the state's gasoline tax and for a constitutional amendment to prohibit highway funds from being diverted to other sources.

Planned agency cuts include a 57 percent reduction in this fiscal year's consultant engineering budget, to $250 million, and a cut in this year's right-of-way acquisition budget from $500 million to $275 million. Simmons said there is less need to spend money on such items if projects aren't being built.

The agency also is looking to cut its $22.4 million research budget in fiscal year 2009 by up to 50 percent, and it plans a hiring freeze to which only its executive director, Amadeo Saenz Jr., can make an exception.

Simmons said in his remarks, "Our districts and divisions will be notified that the administration in Austin will have to approve all purchases from bulldozers to paper clips."

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