Friday, February 08, 2008

"Senators see the agency as hostile to any alternative they come up with to tolling."

Senators express lack of trust in TxDOT


by William Lutz
Volume 12, Issue 24
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2008

Lawmakers have expressed anger at officials with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Texas Transportation Commission before.

But at the joint hearing of the Senate Finance and Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committees Feb. 5, Senators of both parties expressed a complete lack of trust in the agency.

Both the agency’s new executive director Amadeo Saenz and the commission’s new chairperson Hope Andrade told Senators they want to work with the legislature. But Senators aren’t so sure.

“Frankly, I don’t have a lot of confidence in what’s coming out of that shop over there [at TxDOT],” said Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands).

What caused the latest breakdown in trust between TxDOT and lawmakers?

The Texas Department of Transportation, once it knows how much money it has, decides the dollar amount of road construction contracts it can let. Only toward the end of December 2007, lawmakers were informed that TxDOT’s first public estimate of this amount was too high by about $1.1 billion. This means the agency has delayed several planned highway construction projects.

Finance Chairman Steve Ogden (R-College Station) took a careful look at the financial data provided by the agency. “This is screwed up,” was Ogden’s view of the matter.

TxDOT executive director Amadeo Saenz told senators he has consolidated TxDOT’s planning functions to ensure this kind of mistake does not occur in the future. But lawmakers – quite directly – questioned the motives of the agency.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) noted that quotes from agency officials in her local newspaper attributed the reductions to a lack of funding. She asked to see a copy of the agency’s talking points distributed to district engineers and then blasted those talking points.

“It is also highly irresponsible and intellectually dishonest to blame Congress or blame the Legislature for what basically is caused by poor planning,” she said.

Several Senators called the reductions a “ploy” designed to pressure the legislature into supporting privatized toll roads. “This commission is not playing as an honest broker on how to help meet the needs of this so-called second-largest transportation system in the world,” said Sen. Kirk Watson to Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton. “Instead, the commission and you in particular, since you cited my name, have an agenda. And that agenda is to privatize that second largest transportation system in the world. And you’re hell-bent for leather on doing that up to and including issuing reports like we got at the end of last year so that you will force the hand.”

What really upset the legislature is a policy disagreement between the Office of the Governor and the Legislature on whether or not to issue the full amount of short-term bonds authorized under Proposition 14 from 2003. “Our cash flow projections indicate that the department’s limited resources will need to be dedicated to maintaining our existing assets over the next few years,” said Andrade in a letter to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. “If the department were to borrow an additional $3 billion for new construction, the debt service (about $240 million per year for 20 years) would necessarily come from funds needed to maintain the existing system.”

Senators, however, are upset about the failure to issue the bonds because they see the agency as hostile to any alternative they come up with to tolling.

Ogden told the agency not to compromise safety.

But some senators explicitly asked whether the department’s desire to increase its maintenance budget is driven by safety concerns or by a desire to promote toll roads.

Senators, and by extension the lieutenant governor, have made it crystal clear that they believe the Texas Department of Transportation doesn’t work and play well with state lawmakers.

The one remaining question is what are the Senators willing to do about this state of affairs. Are they willing to take on the governor in late May? Would they be willing to force a special session? What changes are in store for the agency? Stay tuned to find out.

© 2008 The Lone Star Report:

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