Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"The so-called response merely re-presents TxDOT talking points that have been circulating for weeks and months... "

Watson miffed at TxDOT's 'so-called response'

Senator says agency still hasn't clarified decision to stop contracts for new and expanded roads in Austin area in February.

December 26, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

State Sen. Kirk Watson's war of printed words with the Texas Department of Transportation escalated over the long holiday weekend with a TxDOT reply to an earlier Watson missive about Austin-area toll roads and Watson's stinging evaluation of that "so-called response."

Aside from the substance of the Dec. 21 TxDOT letter — which Watson deemed "very disappointing" in an e-mail to other local transportation leaders — the Austin Democrat found the six-page letter's timing suspicious. His office received it about 5 p.m. Friday as the bulk of Texans — and media — hunkered down for five days of travel and Christmas festivities.

The TxDOT letter was shared with reporters three days later, on Christmas Eve.

"I'm concerned that the delay was intended to postpone broadcast of this letter to a time where as few people as possible would be aware of it," Watson said in his e-mail to members of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board. Watson is chairman of that board.

"The timing isn't ideal," TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said in a call to the American-Statesman on Monday after sending out the letter. But he said the department got it done as quickly as possible and produced the letter about two weeks after Watson had sent the agency a letter with 21 questions about why Austin might lose TxDOT funding.

"We were committed to get an answer to (Watson) before the holidays," Lippincott said.

The to-and-fro between the senator and TxDOT arose from the agency's decision in late November to issue no more contracts for new and expanded road construction beginning Feb. 1, aside from projects previously committed under certain bond programs. That decision seemingly threatens $500 million to $700 million that TxDOT had promised for a five-road, $1.45 billion tollway plan approved by the CAMPO board in October.

The core of Watson's earlier letter: What did TxDOT not know about its emerging financial plight on Oct. 8, when he and his CAMPO colleagues made a difficult vote authorizing the five toll roads, that it learned in the subsequent two months? TxDOT's latest letter, by Watson's lights, ignores that and other requests for information in his earlier letter.

"The letter provides no specific clarification and fails to answer most of my questions," Watson said in his e-mail to CAMPO members. "The so-called response merely re-presents TxDOT talking points that have been circulating for weeks and months. ... "

The TxDOT letter, signed by executive director Amadeo Saenz, specifically declines to answer the Watson questions point by point, saying that "a simple question and answer format does not convey the whole story." Saenz then walks through the various financial challenges facing TxDOT: lost federal funds, maintenance needs, inflation and the Legislature's decision this year to limit the agency's ability to reach long-term toll road leases with private companies.

"We believed (and still do) that ... all Texans would benefit from such an arrangement," Saenz wrote about private tollway contracts.

So, will Austin get the promised $500 million to $700 million for the toll roads? Saenz's letter doesn't specifically answer that question. But he does say that the 11-county Austin district was to have had $720 million for new construction between 2005 and 2015, but that the figure now will be $443 million, absent further developments. About $191 million of that is already committed to ongoing projects, Saenz wrote, leaving $252 million for the next eight years., 445-3698

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