Monday, December 17, 2007

Ric Williamson: "We fully expect to be treated to another round of nonsense from people who don't want to accept responsibility for their actions."

What did TxDOT not know, and when?

Steamed senator wonders why TxDOT pulling funding for toll road plan after politically risky vote in October

December 17, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Kirk Watson is not happy.

State Sen. Watson, you see, and 14 of his Central Texas colleagues pretty much put their posteriors on the line in October, approving a toll road plan despite gathering evidence that voting for tollways can be hazardous to your political health.

Then, in late November, less than two months later, the Texas Department of Transportation decided to cut off spending on new construction starting in February, a move that could threaten those Austin toll projects.

What Watson has asked TxDOT, and what others are wondering: What exactly did TxDOT not know about its financial pressures around Columbus Day, when the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board he chairs was authorizing five toll roads that TxDOT had conceived and pursued for four years?

That toll road vote, as Watson repeatedly pointed out in a letter last week to Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Amadeo Saenz, was based upon a commitment from TxDOT that it would furnish up to $700 million of the $1.45 billion cost.

In fact, the words "committed," "commitment" and "commitments" appear a total of nine times in the three-page letter from Watson. The senatorial grinding of teeth jumps off the page.

Watson's angst results from the TxDOT decision late last month to issue no more construction contracts for new or expanded roads after Jan. 31. That would include the five Austin toll roads, in theory, but it would also knock out several key non tollway projects, including a widening of FM 1460 that helped persuade Seton to build a hospital on the two-lane road east of Round Rock.

"What specifically has changed in the mere two months since the Department committed to providing $500 million to $700 million to fund the highway improvements it requested?" Watson asked in the letter, one of 21 questions he had for the agency.

TxDOT officials had been saying since the legislative session ended in May that money was tightening up, due, they said, to rapid inflation of highway costs, cutbacks in federal transportation grants and increased maintenance costs. And also because of — the element that conspiracy theorists believe is motivating all of this — the Legislature's decision in the spring to block some of the private toll road contracts the agency had in mind.

The Transportation Department says that its financial plans were based on raking in billions of dollars in concession payments from the private companies that would build and operate a couple of dozen Texas tollways for a half-century or more. Much of that money, unless and until the Legislature loosens the reins, would be gone.

But the immediate crunch also was affected, to the tune of $1 billion, by a decision made by TxDOT itself. The agency, saying highway pavement was deteriorating, elected in the past few months to spend $2.1 billion on maintenance this year rather than $1.1 billion.

The agency put out a report in the spring on pavement conditions (right during the heat of the legislative toll road debate) showing that the percentage of Texas roads rated "very good" or "good" had decreased from 87.93 percent in 2005 to 87.22 percent in 2006. That 0.8 percent degradation was enough, apparently, to spur a near doubling of maintenance spending.

The state has also lost $666 million in federal funding over the past year, with another $259 million cut imminent and strong prospects for another $700 million loss next year. All told (or tolled, if you will), that's another $1.6 billion gone.

TxDOT officials have been talking about those federal cutbacks, the whole thing, for the past year, and the pavement discussion dates to the spring.

Even so, the commitment for the Austin toll road plan was presented as solid, as money in hand.

Saenz hasn't replied to Watson's letter, though he and his staff are working on it. Twenty-one answers to a steamed senator can't just be dashed off.

But I asked Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson about this last week. Williamson, who usually can be counted on to offer a fascinating mix of political polish and combativeness, didn't disappoint.

"We fully expect to be treated to another round of nonsense from people who don't want to accept responsibility for their actions," Williamson said, prefacing that with an assurance he wasn't talking about any specific individual. Of course. "So TxDOT becomes the repository of fear and suspicion and whatever else."

D'oh! Watson, along with an overwhelming majority of the Legislature, voted for the bill that limited private toll road contracts. Then Williamson opened his fist, figuratively speaking, and gathered up an olive branch.

"We don't blame Kirk for being mad," he said. In fact, Williamson said, cities like Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth that have made "aggressive and perhaps painful efforts" on tollways can expect favor from the commission.

Not quite a guarantee to give Austin the promised money, but close.

As for what changed in the past two months, well, TxDOT's basic explanation is that the agency has been trying to analyze and react to a rapidly changing fiscal picture and that it took until November to decide what to do.

That's unlikely to be much comfort to any CAMPO board members who find themselves giving concession speeches on election night in the next year or two.

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