Wednesday, June 04, 2008

"Every civics student knows, Texas has four branches of government: executive, legislative, judicial and the Texas Department of Transportation."

New tune at TxDOT?

June 04, 2008

Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2008

As every civics student knows, Texas has four branches of government: executive, legislative, judicial and the Texas Department of Transportation.

All right. That last one isn’t a branch. Sometimes it doesn’t even appear to be attached to the tree.

Texas’ ungainly transportation agency is under Rick Perry’s wing. At times the two have acted as if it answers to no one else.

In the last session of the Texas Legislature, lawmakers took both of them to task for the one-note dance number they’ve been playing, the solitary note being toll roads.

Without question, Texas needs toll roads, but not to the exclusion of more traditional forms of building highways. To plead otherwise is a sad charade in a state with immense resources and low taxes compared to its peers.

Because of lack of funds, the agency recently said it must choose between maintenance and construction. Lawmakers assailed it for a $1 billion bookkeeping error.

All amounts to a lack of leadership to deal with something a state must.

But money isn’t the only issue. Openness is one. Another is building consensus while building roads.

Last week, the Texas Transportation Commission met under new chairwoman Deirdre Delisi and announced a set of principles that showed finally someone at the agency has taken out the ear plugs.

It responded to concerns that when it considers major projects like the Trans-Texas Corridor it hasn’t given sufficient weight to existing highway corridors. It said it would start doing that.

It said that only new highway lanes, and not existing lanes, would be tolled.

It signaled that it would be more transparent in setting initial tolls. Critics say it’s not enough simply to announce future toll rates. It’s more important for the public to be directly involved in setting them.

Part of the problem is Perry’s predilection for contracting with the private sector in ways that exclude the public.

When state lawmakers put a moratorium on new toll roads, lawmakers cited an auditor’s report that Texas was giving away the farm, so to speak, with too-generous deals with contractors.

That’s one way of pointing out that toll roads are just another tax. No road comes free. It makes no sense to preclude options like highway bonds and an increase in the state motor fuels tax.

There’s also the glaring problem of gasoline-tax money being siphoned off by state budget writers for non-highway needs like the Department of Public Safety.

The fact is that the Texas Legislature needs to take the lead in this whole endeavor. Does the state transportation arm need to be restructured to make it more responsive to public needs?

The 81st Legislature should be coined the transportation session. That’s Job 1, if Texas hopes to go anywhere soon.

© 2008 The Waco Tribune-Herald

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