Thursday, June 05, 2008

"The concern about the Department and the direction of State transportation policy is deep and undeniable."

Sunset report: Kill the Texas Transportation Commission

When: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 - 9:00am
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Download: Sunset Commission report

June 4, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

The five-member commission that oversees the Texas Department of Transportation should be abolished and replaced with a single commissioner accountable to the governor and lawmakers, according to a 157-page report by the staff of the Sunset Advisory Commission, the panel created by the Legislature to regularly assess state agencies. The commissioner should be appointed by the governor, the panel suggested. And every two years, that commissioner would report to -- and be subject to removal by -- the Legislature.

In addition, the report said, the Legislature should create a new oversight committee that will more closely monitor the agency and in many ways take over the policymaking and project priority-setting roles now filled by the Texas Transportation Commission.

The Sunset Advisory Commission reviews every state agency, usually every 12 years. The staff recommendations, such as the report issued today, are reviewed and often modified by lawmakers and other members of the commission. A reauthorization bill is then recommended to the Legislature. If it doesn't become law, the agency ceases to exist.

Few agencies have been allowed to die, however, and some survive with few changes.

The staff recommendations regarding the TxDOT and the Transportation Commission, subject to changes by Sunset Commission members, will be incorporated into a bill in next year's legislative session.

The Transportation Commission is the policy-setting board that governs TxDOT. All five current commission members were appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, and it is loyalty to the governor’s vision of using toll roads to finance tens of billions of dollars of unfunded road needs that has most characterized their tenures so far.

The report also recommends that the TxDOT's next sunset report be delivered in just four years -- in essence, putting the agency on probation.

At the core of the staff report is the question of trust -- and the authors' contention that the agency's full-speed-ahead approach to private toll roads has eroded trust among lawmakers and members of the public.

"Early concerns about the Department's approach to toll roads and its interest in public-private partnerships have become a deep-seated distrust of TxDOT's motives and direction, as reflected in the Legislature's insistent drive to recapture policy ground lost to the Department," the report says. "

Sunset staff concluded that the intensity and high level of concern about the Department demanded decisive action to rebuild trust and confidence in TxDOT. The recommendations in this issue offer strong measures to accomplish this.

The report says the staff review of the agency "occurred in an atmosphere of extreme legislative and public distrust about the Department and the way it operates. While Department staff cooperated and gave time generously to assist in the review, the concern about the Department and the direction of State transportation policy is deep and undeniable."

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said the agency will continue to work with the commission as its members -- who include Rep. Linda Harper Brown, R-Irving, and Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth -- take up the staff recommendations. A public hearing on the proposals is scheduled in Austin for mid July.

"The confidence of the Legislature and the public are very important to us," Mr. Lippincott said. "We still have work to do, but we are confident that our ongoing efforts to improve the transparency and accessibility of TxDOT are making a positive impact. We look forward to our continued work with the members and staff of the Sunset Commission."

Five senators and five state representatives serve on the Sunset Commission along with one member from the public. In addition, Houston real estate developer Michael Snow Stevens had been on the panel until his death last month from cancer.

Texas Transportation Commissioner Bill Meadows of Fort Worth said the proposals are strong medicine for the agency. But he said review process should be thorough, and perhaps even painful.

"Some of the proposals are not going to sit well with the commissioners," he said. "But the process is a good process. It was designed to be challenging." He said one advantage of the current system is that it puts five volunteers from throughout Texas directly in charge of setting policy for what is one of Texas' largest agencies. "You get a lot of geographic diversity, and that is a good thing," Mr. Meadows said. "I know a heck of a lot more about the roads and the priorities in North Texas than my good friend (and fellow commissioner) Fred Underwood in Lubbock."

Mr. Meadows, formerly vice chairman of the North Texas Tollway Authority, was appointed to the commission last month by Gov. Rick Perry.

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News

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