Friday, February 15, 2008

"All along it’s been pretty obvious they have an agenda and it’s toll roads... they’re pretty much a rogue agency."

TxDOT finances in dispute

February 15, 2008

James Osborne
The Monitor
Copyright 2008

McALLEN — Two local state senators are questioning whether the Texas Department of Transportation is exaggerating its funding crisis to garner public support for private toll roads.

“All along it’s been pretty obvious they have an agenda and it’s toll roads,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who along with Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, has joined a coalition of other legislators to challenge TxDOT.

“It’s amazing to us; they’re pretty much a rogue agency.”

At a hearing in Austin last week members of the senate’s finance and transportation committees cross-examined TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz about the agency’s projected $3.6 billion revenue shortfall over the next seven years. Lucio and Hinojosa both sit on the Senate finance committee.

The hearing followed a letter from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst stating TxDOT had failed to account for $9 billion in bond money set aside for them.

“TxDOT felt the shortfall and increased maintenance needs would require cuts in new construction letting for the foreseeable future. I am concerned the forecasting sheet used to produce that number does not include the complete financial picture,” Dewhurst wrote.

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said the agency did not feel it could either count on or responsibly spend the majority of the $9 billion that Dewhurst cited.

“It’s written into the DNA around here that we shouldn’t build (new roads) we can’t maintain,” he said.

The state Legislature placed a moratorium on new toll road projects last year.

While a number of counties were granted exemptions, partnerships with private road construction companies, which TxDOT has supported, are expected to be a contentious topic when the Legislature returns to Austin in January.

TxDOT itself is facing a potentially serious overhaul.

The agency is set for review under the sunset provision, which mandates evaluations of state agencies every 12 years. Last week, TxDOT admitted to a $1.1 billion accounting error and failing to foresee revenue decreases in gas tax and federal funding.

“In 2006 our construction program had $5.3 billion in contracts, almost double 2000,” Lippincott said.

“The system overheated, and our cash flow model failed to alert us in time. We delivered as many projects as we could, but our aggressiveness combined with the financial climate caused the spike in lettings to be more abrupt than anticipated.”

Local projects now put on the back burner include the expansion of 23rd Street between the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge and the McAllen Foreign Trade Zone; construction of overpasses along U.S. 281 through Falfurrias; and expansion of Expressway 83 between Rio Grande City and Laredo, said local TxDOT district engineer Mario Jorge.

TxDOT continues to examine the viability of I-69, which if built would be the Valley’s first Interstate. Public hearings ended Monday, but Jorge said the project “will be tied to finding financing.”

In the meantime, legislators have called for the State Auditor’s Office to review TxDOT’s financial records, a step Saenz said he will support.

“We are tired of the smoke and mirrors. We will work to update an outdated transportation agency,” Lucio said.

James Osborne covers McAllen and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4428.

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