"The latest act in an Austin political drama in which lawmakers and transportation officials have tried to cast one another in the villain's role."
Friday, June 6, 2008
Here's a thought to blow a gasket: state lawmakers as micromanagers of Texas' highway agency.
A legislative oversight panel wants a massive overhaul of the transportation department, reflecting years of mistrust and spiteful relations.
Lawmakers say, with some justification, that TxDOT invited the wrath in this week's scathing 146-page report. But like responsible adults, legislators mustn't get so angry that they lose their heads. Their idea of a "legislative conservatorship" could trade one problem for another.
TxDOT is now overseen by a five-person board appointed by the governor. The new proposal gets drastic. It would wipe away that board and install one appointed executive who would report to a special panel of lawmakers.
A better approach would be to address the criticisms of TxDOT. Many are serious, like concerns about efficiency, transparency, cooperation and methods of setting understandable priorities. There's also TxDOT's embarrassing $1 billion bookkeeper error.
As for governance, today's five commissioners at least ensure Texas' varied interests – urban vs. rural, for example – and the major metro areas are represented in policy decisions. It's frightful to think how a lone commissioner would behave if his or her strings were pulled by multiple political overseers whose chief concern was their own turf and the next election.
The new report is the latest act in an Austin political drama in which lawmakers and transportation officials have tried to cast one another in the villain's role. State fuel taxes have lagged behind road-building needs, but the Legislature has not boosted them in 17 years.
To fill the void, TxDOT turned to aggressive development of toll roads using financing tools (here's an irony) that the Legislature itself provided. Complicating matters, plans for privately run toll roads include Gov. Rick Perry's massive showcase project, the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor.
An inflamed public has inflamed lawmakers, who say they can't come to grips with things without reliable data from TxDOT.
Taxpayers deserve better. Lawmakers and TxDOT must figure out how to act more like partners than rivals.
© 2008, The Dallas Morning News www.dallasnews.com
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