Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Perry pushes to preserve powers to appoint Transportation Commissioners

Governor rejects call for voters to choose TxDOT head

July 16, 2008,

San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — Lawmakers should look at allowing voters, rather than the governor, to choose the overseer of the Texas Department of Transportation, a member of a legislative body studying the controversy-stirring agency said Tuesday.

"I think that we ought to have everything on the table," said Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, a member of the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, at a hearing on possible changes at TxDOT. "We ought to look at leaving it like it is. We also ought to seriously look at an elected commissioner."

McClendon asked Sunset staff — who earlier issued a report urging other major changes at the agency, citing an atmosphere of frustration and distrust — to study the pros and cons of an elected commissioner.

Critics of TxDOT and the commission that oversees it applauded the idea, and one man said, "Amen!"

The idea was seconded by Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, who said the proposal would make a "bold statement" that the agency must rebuild trust and address the state's transportation needs. She said 76 percent of people who have commented during the review process want an elected commissioner.

"I think that if we did not look at that, we would be as guilty as TxDOT is of not listening to the public," Harper-Brown said.

The idea met with resistance from Gov. Rick Perry's office. His spokeswoman, Allison Castle, said that TxDOT "is part of the executive branch of government, and the governor believes that's where it should stay."

Sunset staff already has recommended a revamp of TxDOT's governing board, its project planning and its dealings with lawmakers and the public.

Transportation commissioners appointed by Perry have had a contentious relationship with lawmakers, who have sought to rein in privately run toll roads and have voiced concern over not having enough sway on transportation policy.

Commissioners have worked to carry forward Perry's transportation vision, which includes a reliance on private investment and on tollways as traditional funding sources, such as gas-tax revenues, fail to keep pace with transportation needs.

Commissioners also have worked to implement Perry's proposed Trans-Texas Corridor transportation network, which has run into vociferous public concern from landowners over its route, prompting adjustments.

The Sunset staff report said its review of TxDOT "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."

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said last month in the wake of that report, "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."

Sunset staff recommended replacing the five-member commission with a single commissioner, who would have a two-year term rather than the current six years, but would still be appointed by the governor. The shorter term would mean required Senate confirmation would occur more often, giving lawmakers more oversight.

© 2008, The Houston Chronicle:

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