Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"I don't have lot confidence what's coming out of that shop over there. Get the state auditor's office over there."

TxDOT not broke, but it is broken, lawmakers say


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyriht 2008

Poor planning inside the Texas Department of Transportation -- and not a shortage of state or federal funding -- is to blame for an ongoing cash crunch that led the agency to stop most road work in 2008, members of two state Senate committees said.

"I think we have an agency in turmoil. I think we have an agency in chaos," state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said during a joint meeting of the Senate finance and transportation committees in Austin. "I think it's intellectually dishonest to blame Congress or the state Legislature for problems caused by poor planning."

Bad estimates

Transportation officials acknowledged that they had made planning mistakes -- for example, they overestimated how much they would receive from bond sales by hundreds of millions of dollars because they counted some proceeds twice.

But Executive Director Amadeo Saenz Jr. reiterated that the overall funding situation is grim through 2015 because of rising road work costs and the declining reliability of state and federal gas tax dollars.

"If we don't have money to build them in the future I can't commit to build them today," he said.

Late last year, transportation department officials announced they had uncovered a $1.1 billion shortfall for 2008. They responded by postponing many road projects not yet under way statewide. At the time, they blamed a host of factors, including state legislators for curbing the agency's powers to build toll roads, and the federal government for rescinding previously committed dollars.

But on Tuesday, Saenz acknowledged this his agency had uncovered its own internal problems.

He said that the agency previously used estimates from three officials to determine cash flow projections, but that in the future all projections would come from one source: Chief Financial Officer James Bass.

Better communication

Saenz also said the agency would work on improving communications internally, as well as with lawmakers. But members of the Senate finance and transportation committees didn't buy the agency’s cash flow complaints. Instead, senators pointed out that they had appropriated $23 billion for transportation in 2008-09, $7.5 billion more than the previous biennium. They also said transportation officials have not used billions of dollars in voter-approved bond capacity for road work.

Zaffirini accused transportation department officials of fabricating the cash crunch as "a ploy to put pressure on us to go back to toll roads." She was referring to a decision by lawmakers in 2007 to rescind some of the transportation department's powers to lease toll projects to private companies, some foreign-owned.

State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said the transportation department has lost the trust of lawmakers.

"It doesn't matter what they come up and tell us at TxDOT if they have poor internal controls. I will tell you for the record I don't have lot confidence what's coming out of that shop over there. Get the state auditor's office over there. There's a lot of money that flows through this agency."

Saenz said he welcomed a state audit, to show lawmakers "how we do things."
Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816


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