Wednesday, May 07, 2008

"TxDOT answers only to its political masters — and then only to some of them. "

Why does the Lone Star State allow TxDOT's bureaucratic arrogance?


Ken Allard
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

The headlines might have read, “No Hope, No More,” but we have been on a collision course over the future of TxDOT ever since Gov. Perry's dismissal last week of interim commissioner Hope Andrade.

She succeeded chairman Rick Williamson, whose last wish was that his embattled agency might engage in a creative dialogue with its critics. He even reached out to ask for my help in connecting the agency with “some of the best minds at UTSA,” but his untimely passing prevented those possibilities.

The widely respected Andrade tried to continue his initiative, but certain fundamentals have emerged. Among them: to the extent that it can be controlled at all, TxDOT answers only to its political masters — and then only to some of them. When hauled before the Texas Senate earlier this year, agency leaders had no good explanations for some outrageous failings, including a billion-dollar accounting error and millions more wasted on lobbying for dubious pet projects.

Had a similar situation occurred in Washington, indictments might well have followed. But not in Texas.

Sen. Glenn Hegar recently wrote that lawmakers' “concerns about the Trans-Texas Corridor, the agency's policies, funding schemes, budget and construction priorities have (often) been met with contempt and disdain by TxDOT officials.”

The mystery is why such bureaucratic arrogance is tolerated in the state that produced the legendary “Lonesome Dove” figures of Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae.

But if you think the agency isn't listening to your concerns, don't feel too badly. They don't listen to the Texas Legislature, either. In an interesting twist, Sen. Hegar also sits on a sunset committee charged with identifying “waste, duplication and inefficiency” among state agencies.

Ironically, TxDOT's turn for review comes up this year. Can you think of some issues the sunset commissioners might want to look into? What kinds of minds produced the “My Favorite Martian” School of highway design, bewildering tourists and locals alike as they try to escape from the San Antonio airport? Even more interesting: Why is there apparently a requirement that all TxDOT engineers be Aggies?

There are, of course, far larger issues because if TxDOT and toll roads are the only answers, we're probably not asking the right questions. County Judge Nelson Wolff recently raised the possibility of light rail. Until recently, there was the assumption that toll roads were the only alternative or, according to Sen. Hegar, “selling our highway infrastructure to the highest bidder, usually a foreign-owned company.”

Like a mule's first kick, paying $4 for a gallon of gas is an educational opportunity that ought not to be missed. So, too, are the unmistakable signs that the real poverty in this area begins with our thinking. Simply go out U.S. 281 to the areas around Evans and Bulverde Roads to glimpse urban sprawl at its ugliest, a spectacular failure of zoning, planning and land use but, most of all, of common sense.

Forget the obvious threats to the aquifer, to the environment, and even to public safety if the sprawl zones ever had to be evacuated. It is as if the developers had abandoned all thought of San Antonio and were busily building the new and glorious Newark-Upon-the-Guadalupe.

As a wide-eyed schoolboy back east, I learned Texas history from afar, especially that part about lines being drawn in the sand. With the governor, the bureaucrats and the developers now on one side of that line, what a joy, what an honor it is to be here and on the other!

Retired Col. Ken Allard is an executive-in-residence at UTSA. E-mail him at

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