Wednesday, June 04, 2008

"Even TxDOT's most strident critics turned out to have understated their case."

Texans must demand more from TxDOT, politicians and themselves


Ken Allard
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

Hotly debated public policy questions are rarely settled so decisively, so cleanly, so unanswerably. But Tuesday's Sunset Commission Report on the Texas Department of Transportation read like an indictment.

Its overall finding: the agency is “out of control” and desperately needs new leadership. TxDOT apologists must have felt as though they had been presented with DNA evidence that Dad had never married Mom: because even the agency's most strident critics turned out to have understated their case.

There was, of course, the small matter of the billion dollars mislaid by TxDOT, as well its nasty habit of spending public monies to advocate pet projects like the Trans-Texas Corridor, justifiably despised by many citizens. But the report also found TxDOT's strategic planning is “disjointed;” its project selection not “understandable or transparent.” Even in the information age, agency planning is so chaotic that there is only limited public access to “objective and reliable information about the state's transportation system.” Bottom line: TxDOT is simply not trusted by Texans or the people we elect to the Legislature. Gov. Rick Perry must have anticipated the stinging rebuke. On Monday, he suddenly left for Europe, there to boast about Texas business and to participate in the annual D-Day commemoration. (Hint: the Germans lost there because, among other things, we bombed their transportation networks into oblivion.)

Back home, where each day roughly 1,200 new Texans join the hordes already jamming state roads, bad planning is building toward gridlock levels usually produced by war or natural disaster. While we may need something like TxDOT, what would a more effective agency look like? Because the Sunset Commission report marks only the start of that larger debate, there are some basic questions about the future that Texans should begin considering carefully:
  • Appointed or elected? Who is in charge and who put them there are basic questions at TxDOT or anywhere else. Leaders naturally owe their first loyalty to whoever they feel is most responsible for selecting them, whether governor, legislature or the electorate. So whose loyalty should govern the decisions TxDOT commissioners typically make? For example, do you think the present incumbent, a thirty-something whose sole qualifications are her ties to the governor, could win statewide election to the office? (I don't either.)
  • One or Many? Travel here more than five minutes and you become aware that Texas is a subcontinent in its own right, with every conceivable kind of terrain and transportation challenge. We are rural and urban; coastal marsh and upland desert; piney woods and endless prairie. So why do we think a Soviet-style central planning bureau like TxDOT is the appropriate model for such a diverse and often fractious state? There have been ample precedents here for local planning authorities. Why not empower them with more decentralized planning and execution responsibilities, maybe even electing local transportation leaders as well?
  • Strategy or Tactics? Straighten out the structure and you also enable more precise divisions of labor. Elected local authorities are far better able to decide small but urgent issues, like building a ramp to the Dominion versus one connecting Loop 1604 with U.S. Highway 281. A reformed TxDOT could then focus more effectively on the overall system, including vital strategic questions like road versus rail or even the injection of new technologies like high-speed, magnetic-levitation trains. Eventually we might even engineer roadways that didn't look as though they had been designed by Martian bureaucrats.
  • Who pays and how? Like it or not, we need more and better roads as well as the means to pay for them. Texans, tolls and taxes have never gone well together, but even less so with gas climbing steadily toward $5 a gallon. So how do we raise the money, especially with fewer prospects for bailouts from Washington? Creative financing is one thing, but public expenditures always mean debt or taxes.
So let's begin by demanding better accountability from our public servants and our political leaders. But most of all, from ourselves.

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

© 2008 San Antonio Express-News

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