"Having the governor's paws on this department just has got to stop."
By Peggy Fikac
San Antonio Express-News Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — Saying big changes are needed to restore trust in the Texas Department of Transportation, the Sunset Advisory Commission staff is recommending a revamp of TxDOT's governing board, project planning and its dealings with lawmakers and the public.
The Sunset staff report to be released today — and shared with the San Antonio Express-News by a source close to the process — comes in the wake of controversy over planned public-private partnerships on toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor and questions concerning agency funding figures.
“The Sunset review of the Texas Department of Transportation occurred against a backdrop of distrust and frustration with the Department and the demand for more transparency, accountability, and responsiveness. Many expressed concerns that TxDOT was ‘out of control,' advancing its own agenda against objections of both the Legislature and the public,” according to the report.
It says that “tweaking the status quo is simply not enough” to restore trust.
TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said Monday, “The confidence of the Legislature and the public are very important to us. 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.”
Among changes, the staff is recommending replacing the five-member commission with a single commissioner, who would have a two-year term rather than the current six years. The shorter term would mean required Senate confirmation would occur more often, giving lawmakers more oversight.
However, the commissioner still would be appointed by the governor, a concern for opponents of TxDOT's policies.
That's because the policies pushed by the Texas Transportation Commission are in sync with those of GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who named the commissioners. Opponents of those policies would prefer an elected commissioner or commissioners.
“The most important thing is that they're elected positions,” said Sal Costello ofTexasTollParty.com. “It gets right down to who's accountable.”
“We wanted a single, elected commissioner who answers directly to the people of Texas ... Having the governor's paws on this department just has got to stop,” said Terri Hall of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. She added, however, that proposed changes constitute “a step in the right direction. I'm glad the committee seems to be hearing what the public outcry is.”
The staff also proposes increasing legislative oversight through a new House-Senate committee; making TxDOT's transportation planning and project development more open and easily understood; enhancing chances for meaningful public involvement; improving TxDOT's contract management; and reviewing the agency again in four years, rather than the usual 12, to ensure needed changes have been made.
Agencies are reviewed periodically by the Sunset commission to see if they should continue to exist and whether changes are needed. Changes proposed by the commission will be considered in 2009 by the Legislature.
Lawmakers on the commission said it's clear that change is needed, although they'll need to weigh input including staff recommendations.
Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said he wants to give new Texas Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi a chance to improve agency operations but that he likes the direction of Sunset staff proposals.
Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, said straightforward, public accountability is key.
“There is obviously a great amount of distrust between the Legislature and the agency, as well as the general public. Something obviously needs to be done — major — to change the way this agency is doing business,” she said.
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