"TxDOT has become an agency that is focused on making money and deciding policy, and they need to get back to the business of building roads."
May. 31, 2008
By GORDON DICKSON
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
A legislative group will recommend next week that a conservator take over the Texas Department of Transportation, an agency under fire for planning toll roads in areas that don't want them and failing to keep track of its finances properly, officials said.
The staff of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which periodically reviews state agencies to see whether they're still functioning properly, is expected to release a report on the department next week.
The Transportation Department has been overseen by a three- or five-member commission with members appointed by the governor throughout its 91-year history. But several people who have reviewed drafts of the sunset report say one of the key recommendations is to replace the current five-member transportation commission with a single commissioner who would serve a two-year, paid term and report to the Legislature.
"TxDOT has become an agency that is focused on making money and deciding policy, and they need to get back to the business of building roads," said state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, who serves on the sunset commission.
Harper-Brown declined to comment on the report itself. But she said better communication with Texans -- especially lawmakers -- is crucial to the Transportation Department restoring its credibility.
"Whatever tools we give them, that's what they need to work with," she said.
Since 2003, transportation commissioners have succeeded in having laws changed, creating alternatives to the state's gas tax, including private investment in toll roads.
Opposition to those changes surfaced during the 2006 gubernatorial race, when three challengers attacked Gov. Rick Perry's vision for the Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposal to build a network of mega-wide toll roads.
Many lawmakers in 2007 said they regretted giving the Transportation Department more power in previous sessions, and the Legislature passed a bill that put a moratorium on toll projects.
Also last year, transportation officials were forced to cancel many construction projects statewide after realizing they'd overestimated their funds by $1.1 billion. They blamed miscommunication between the agency's planning and financial staffs, and promised to reorganize the department to prevent more mistakes.
The Sunset Advisory Commission will debate the Transportation Department's management during a hearing in Austin. Some recommendations could become state law during the 2009 legislative session, which begins in January.
Transportation commissioners and staff members say they're ready for a tense hearing.
"I'm sure the agency will be roundly criticized, and you know what? It's part of the public process," said Commissioner Bill Meadows of Fort Worth. "The sunset process is not something you should be afraid of. It's something you really should welcome."
GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816
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