Monday, January 21, 2008

"A lot of people are really scrambling right now, fearful about what's going to happen."

TxDOT cuts have engineers on edge

Agency announced 57 percent cut in engineering contracts in November, leading to layoffs, transfers - and dread.

January 21, 2008

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

Sitting in the rarefied air of the Texas Department of Transportation's commission chambers in November, it was easy to look at the 57 percent cut in engineering contracts in a political context. Cut $250 million from the agency's budget for such expenditures, I wrote at the time, and you get the attention of the Legislature.

Maybe so. But you surely get the attention of the engineering firms and the individual engineers who make their living designing and inspecting construction on Texas highways. For them, the announcement was more than merely political hardball in the department's ongoing bout with lawmakers over private toll roads .

To many Texas civil and structural engineers, the decision has meant layoffs, transfers to other states, reduced income or, for the luckiest among them, no immediate impact other than dawn-to-dusk fear that the layoff train is headed their way.

"They're calling it the 'Black Christmas,' " said Lisa Powell, owner of PE Structural Consultants in Austin, a 14-person firm that in good times gets 90 percent or more of its business from TxDOT. "A lot of people are really scrambling right now, fearful about what's going to happen."

Steve Simmons, TxDOT's deputy executive director, revealed the engineering cut in a briefing to the commission Nov. 15. The agency would also trim right-of-way purchases by 50 percent, he said, and reduce internal agency expenditures by 10 percent.

Why design roads or buy land for them when you don't think you'll have money to actually build them, Simmons wondered.

Then the agency in late November told its district engineers to cease awarding contracts for new construction beginning Feb. 1. The agency says its money, now and especially in coming years, is running out for a number of reasons. But the most politically loaded is the Legislature's 2007 decision to substantially curtail TxDOT's ability to reach long-term leases with private companies to build and operate toll roads.

Engineers, who like almost everyone don't have the access or expertise to audit TxDOT's claims about its financial state, feel like they're caught in the middle of the argument. They strongly suspect that the size of the cut was designed for its shock value, with little regard for the lives affected or what it might do to drain badly needed technical talent from the state.

"We have some concern about how this happened," said Steve Stagner, president of the Texas Council of Engineering Companies, "and whether it couldn't have been brought to a softer landing."

The Austin district's engineering budget for 2008 has been cut from $45.2 million to $19.6 million, causing a slowdown on design for adding lanes to MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and a scramble to find some way to design planned tollways and free roads.

Central Texas engineers won't be the only ones affected by that particular Christmas present.

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