Sunday, May 04, 2008

"Sen. Watson said he believes Delisi, 35, has the substance to do the job."

Can Delisi steer Transportation through all the potholes?

May 4, 2008

The Editorial Board
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

As the new chairwoman of the Texas Transportation Commission, Deirdre Delisi has to convince a corps of skeptics that she is up to the job.

Delisi was Gov. Rick Perry’s former campaign director and chief of staff, and her appointment was loudly criticized as the victory of politics over experience. The first person she and Perry had to win over was Austin Sen. Kirk Watson, who could have blocked her appointment. After long discussions, they succeeded in getting Watson’s approval for Delisi to succeed the late Ric Williamson, who had a contentious relationship with the Legislature. Williamson died in December.

Getting Watson’s blessing is a good sign because Watson, vice chairman of the Senate transportation committee, is no fan of the commission that runs the Texas Department of Transportation. Last year, the department pulled the plug on state funding for Central Texas highways, infuriating local leaders.

Watson said he believes Delisi, 35, has the substance to do the job and that she understands the problems the department has created over the years with its bullying tactics and lack of openness and accountability.

Central Texas is caught in a transportation bind and traffic worsens by the day. This region needs everything - more roads, completion of unfinished highways, better maintenance and more mass transit. It was a disaster when the Texas Department of Transportation claimed a $1 billion error that meant Central Texas wouldn’t get expected state highway money.

That accounting error, which many saw as a political power play by the transportation commission, was the perfect example of the dearth of forthrightness and accountability that has long defined TxDOT. It will be a stunning accomplishment if Delisi can rid TxDOT of its overbearing reputation and make peace with the Legislature and the communities the department is supposed to serve.

Watson said he was assured that Delisi also will involve local communities in highway planning. That, too, would be a major change for an agency known for imposing its will on highway planning and construction.

Though it is fortunate that Central Texas now has a presence on the transportation commission, Delisi still must show that she is more than a Perry pawn. Can she lead the commission? Can she push back? Can she be independent when she needs to be?

All that remains to be seen. Texas leaders and lawmakers have six months to judge Delisi’s performance before her appointment goes to the state Senate for confirmation in the 2009 legislative session.

We wish her well. Central Texas needs a strong voice on the commission, one that understands the needs of a growing community being strangled by traffic. And TxDOT needs a leader who can change its imperious and opaque culture.

Few state jobs are more important or more demanding than sorting through the myriad demands for highways and planning for the future in this booming state. We hope Delisi proves her critics wrong and justifies Watson’s faith in her ability to deliver a more open, accountable and effective Department of Transportation.

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