"The department’s credibility, both with the public and the Legislature, is badly damaged."
June 4, 2008
By The Editorial Board
There’s no reason to think that radical changes to the governance of the Texas Department of Transportation, which spends $8 billion a year, alone would get this or that highway built or improved sooner than now, at least in the short run.
But it’s also clear that the department’s credibility, both with the public and the Legislature, is badly damaged. Unless it is restored, basic decisions about what to build and, ever more critically, how to pay for it will get put off - at a time when too many highways, especially in metropolitan areas, are overburdened.
The clash here isn’t between lawmakers and faceless highway bureaucrats, though both are players, but between Gov. Rick Perry and a Legislature that has rebelled against his policy of relying on tolls and privatization to build and maintain highways.
Over the last few years, the department has been embroiled in highly controversial projects - selling a new, future toll road to a private contractor with a foreign owner; attempting to rebuild existing highways as toll roads; and pushing the governor’s proposed Trans-Texas Corridor through rural areas over the fierce objections of many landowners.
Then, last fall, the department said it had no new money for road construction because it had diverted $1.1 billion to road maintenance - an announcement that particularly angered Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who had just spent months painfully reassembling a local highway construction plan that had been stalled by controversy over tolls.
Another blow to the department’s credibility came in February, when it announced that, because of an accounting error, it was short yet another $1.1 billion for new road construction.
Watson says the department is “broken,” in part because it has “virtually completely ignored local control issues.” Many lawmakers share his views.
The department is governed by the Texas Transportation Commission, a five-member panel appointed by the governor. Until December, when he died, Ric Williamson, a close friend of Perry’s, was chairman. Williamson was so disliked by so many that Texas Monthly last year called him “the most hated person in Texas.”
This week the staff of the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, an arm of the Legislature, recommended putting the department into a kind of “legislative conservatorship” to regain control.
The Sunset staff also recommended abolishing the transportation commission, replacing it with a single commissioner appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Texas Senate.
But it’s another Sunset proposal that especially reflects legislative impatience with the governor: The single transportation commissioner would get only a two-year term, and if the governor failed to nominate a successor, the lieutenant governor - who presides over the Texas Senate - would make the appointment. Last year, with the Legislature in town, Perry kept Williamson in office past the end of his term by declining to nominate a successor.
Perry has appointed a chairwoman, Deirdre Delisi, who used to be the governor’s chief of staff. She has said she will try to calm all the controversy.
Delisi’s success, however, will depend heavily on the willingness and ability of the governor and legislators to reach a more fundamental agreement about how to go about building highways - and how to pay for them.
© 2008 Austin American-Statesman www.statesman.com
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