Saturday, June 07, 2008

"TxDOT — which spends $8 billion annually —is clearly hell-bent on pushing an agenda that few outside of the road-construction industry agree with."

TxDOT's problems warrant not just a fix, but replacement


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

Outside its own, its contractors' and Gov. Rick Perry's offices, the Texas Department of Transportation doesn't exactly have a bunch of fans.

That was apparent earlier this week when cheers erupted statewide after the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission released its blistering 159-page staff report on the agency.

Created by the Legislature in 1977, the Sunset Commission reviews each of the state's 150 agencies every 12 years, looking for waste, inefficiency and duplication.

The commission's 12 members often tweak staff recommendations, then fire them to the Legislature before the agencies are reauthorized.

If an agency is not reauthorized, it dies. This seldom happens, but Sunset recommendations have led to changes, even a few important ones.

One big reason TxDOT's evaluation got so much ink and air time is that it is unusually harsh and extensive. But it also confronts incredibly contentious Texas issues: TxDOT's relentless drive to build toll roads, privatize state roads and build the Trans-Texas Corridor that will cut through thousands of acres of private property.

TxDOT's ham-handed actions have created a broad and deep-seated distrust of the agency, so it wasn't surprising to read in the staff report's second paragraph: “Sunset staff found that this ... distrust permeated most of TxDOT's actions and determined that it could not be an effective state transportation agency if trust and confidence were not restored.”

And if that isn't clear enough, ask the thousands who attended TxDOT's public hearings on these issues and were treated rudely and then blown off entirely, or the reporters and others who sought public information only to be stonewalled.

TxDOT — which spends $8 billion annually — is not only dysfunctional, it is clearly hell-bent on pushing an agenda that few outside of the road-construction industry agree with.

But the Sunset report also excoriates its secrecy, and disingenuousness, and for how it remains unaccountable, even to the lawmakers who appropriate its budget. It also details management, bookkeeping and policy-development practices that are, at best, questionable.

TxDOT's projected $86 billion shortfall, for example, was even disputed by the Governor's Business Council Transportation Task Force before the state auditor faulted its seriously flawed methodology.

And what about that $1.1 billion accounting error that TxDOT kept under wraps for months? Or the instances in which the propriety of expenditures — like spending millions to promote and lobby for the Trans-Texas Corridor — have been seriously questioned?

And some of its practices have also made it difficult, if not impossible, to verify if appropriations are being spent for their intended purposes.

When the Sunset Commission meets in August to review this report in Austin, they can count on drawing a big crowd.

But replacing the five-member, governor-appointed Texas Transportation Commission with a single commissioner — the Sunset staff's principal recommendation — doesn't address long-term issues that need attention now.

Lawmakers need to replace this insular agency entirely with one that does not view itself as a self-governing road-building entity that lets private-sector vendors write its policies. In today's fast-changing world, Texas must deal with transportation more comprehensively by seriously incorporating rail and other public-transit options into its plans.

And if we don't, our grandchildren will inherit a huge system of largely underused highways that either will be controlled by unaccountable private-sector operators from who knows where, or will have been sold back to the state but their debt will remain unpaid for generations to come.

What kind of future is that?

© 2008, San Antonio Express-News

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