Saturday, May 24, 2008

"TxDOT wanted to tell US what should be built in Texas. It doesn't work that way."

TxDOT tries to bridge rifts with Texans in Congress

May 24, 2008

Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
Copyright 2008

WASHINGTON — The Texas Department of Transportation, long viewed as hyperpartisan and arrogant by some members of the state's congressional delegation, has been trying to soften its image by reaching out to lawmakers of both parties in the nation's capital.

But while state transportation officials are having some success in easing the personal animus, they still face a stiff challenge in selling their policy agenda to the state's elected officials in Washington.

Many Texans on the Potomac cringe at the agency's embrace of toll roads, the controversies surrounding the Trans-Texas Corridor and TxDOT's resistance to many of the highway earmarks they deliver to constituents.

"I think it's a marriage that's on the rocks," said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "TxDOT has burned some bridges with the Texas delegation."

The charm offensive comes as Congress begins work on the reauthorization of the massive transportation legislation that expires in 2009. The reauthorization effort will chart priorities for federal highway spending and for programs into the next decade.

Transportation officials in Texas, who have been warning of highway funding shortfalls, hope to increase their share of federal dollars, which amounted to $3.6 billion in 2006. But they also want the flexibility to tap other sources of revenue, such as toll roads and private leasing of highways.

TxDOT has a lot of animosity to overcome. Democrats hold a grudge against the agency for ignoring them during the years of GOP dominance in the House and for using state taxpayer dollars to hire a lobbyist linked to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land.

"They bought the Kool Aid and thought Republicans would be in the permanent majority," said Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, referring to the GOP lobbyists hired by TxDOT. "It is no secret they didn't talk to Democrats."

Thawing relations

Lawmakers say the thaw in relations with state highway officials began last fall when the late Ric Williamson, the hard-charging and very partisan chairman of the state Transportation Commission, flew to Washington to make peace with the delegation after Democrats regained control of Congress. That effort continued after Williamson's death in December.

"There may be hard feelings about things that happened in the past, but we have significant challenges in the future," said Deirdre Delisi, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to lead the five-member Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT and the state's extensive highway and bridge system,

TxDOT also has taken action that appears to be aimed at placating Texas Democrats and acknowledging the party will likely remain in control of Congress for the near future.

In February, the agency quietly ended outside lobbying contracts, worth $117,692 a month, including one held by the Federalist Group, which is run by Drew Maloney, DeLay's former chief of staff.

Democrats had been miffed at the contract in part because Maloney had contributed $15,500 to Republican congressional candidates — including $5,500 to DeLay — since 2003, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Maloney also gave $750 to an opponent of Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, the top Texas Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

The same month it canceled the outside contracts, the transportation agency hired Rebecca Reyes, the daughter of Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, as one of its two staffers in its Washington office. Silvestre Reyes is an ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, who named the Texan to head the House Intelligence Committee.

The moves, said Chris Lippincott, a TxDOT spokesman, were not taken for political reasons. He said that the outside contracts were terminated because of budget cuts and that Rebecca Reyes was hired because she has a background in lobbying.

Silvestre Reyes defended the hiring of his daughter, saying she "went through the same rigorous hiring process as every other applicant who applies to work for the state of Texas."

Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Stafford, said it was "probably true" that TxDOT had experienced problems adapting to the new Democratic congressional leadership.

"There has been an expression of interest in coming here and building relationships," he said, "but I (still) haven't seen that happen at this point."

Lawmakers from both parties have a litany of grievances about the transportation agency's approach to Congress.

Edwards complained that agency officials "have been instructed to blame Congress for the inability to improve highway projects." In reality, he said, federal spending for highways in Texas has risen faster than state spending.

The friction with state highway officials came about, Poe said, "when TxDOT wanted to tell us what should be built in Texas. It doesn't work that way."

The Trans-Texas Corridor

Many lawmakers do not support plans for the Trans-Texas Corridor, envisioned by Perry as a project stretching from Texarkana to Mexico that would be operated by a private consortium. The corridor would include toll lanes for cars and trucks; tracks for freight and passenger trains; and space for pipelines, power lines and communications.

Landowners and local governments whose property would be affected by the project have angrily protested the routes in a series of town hall meetings.

"It is public enemy number one in my district," said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands.

Some lawmakers have signaled a willingness to meddle with plans for the corridor.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson, has introduced a bill that would prohibit federal funding for the project. The proposal is backed by Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, whose district runs from Austin to western Harris County and is a hotbed of opposition to the corridor.

As a pre-emptive move, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, inserted a provision in an appropriations bill that barred the state from putting tolls on existing highways for a year. The bill subsequently became law.

Texas' other senator, Republican John Cornyn, who is up for re-election, said he doesn't believe the corridor is a good idea.

"Obviously, we need more transportation infrastructure in Texas," he said. "But I don't think we need to plow up a bunch of new ground on private property across the state to get there."

Earmarks criticized

Another area of dispute has been the willingness of lawmakers to insert earmarks — orders funding projects — into transportation bills.

Lippincott said the earmarks, totaling $208 million for the state, often force the delay of other projects.

But some Democrats, such as Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, believe the earmarks are necessary to ensure a fair distribution of state highway funds.

"I'm going to support earmarks as long as I am here breathing," Johnson said.

Ned Holmes, a transportation commissioner and Houston businessman, said he believes the rift between TxDOT and the Democrats can be repaired through better communication.

Although he is a Republican, Holmes said he has remained on good terms with congressional Democrats and noted that he contributed $2,000 to Edwards' re-election campaign in March.

For years, Holmes said, "TxDOT was one of the most respected state agencies.

"I think it will be again."

© 2008 Houston Chronicle

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