Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"With all due respect, this isn't our first rodeo..."

TxDOT Elimination Urged

Claims that agency is 'too corrupt' to be fixed


By Jim Forsyth
WOAI (San Antonio)
Copyright 2008

Toll road opponents today will ask the Sunset Advisory Committee of the Texas Legislature to abolish the Texas Department of Transportation, saying the agency has become too corrupt and too dysfunctional to fix, 1200 WOAI news reports.

"We want to see elected leadership at the helm of TxDOT," says long time toll road opponent Terri Hall, the founder of the citizen action group Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.

"We are done with this unelected bureaucracy that is just an arm of private road building companies and the lackeys of this governor."

The idea of eliminating TxDOT and establishing a new agency to manage the state's highways is not beyond the realm of possibility. Some of the 15 members of the Sunset Commission have expressed support for replacing the current Texas Transportation Commission with a new agency, headed by one Commissioner appointed and accountable tot he Legislature.

Hall says she will show the committee 'secretly recorded video' which she says shows TxDOT commissioners hiring lobbyists and guiding lobbying campaigns to convince local officials to back the idea of building the Trans Texas Corridor and other toll roads. It is a clear violation of state law for a state government agency to hire registered lobbyists.

"We have a transportation commissioner admitting that they have hired registered lobbyists," Hall says. "They have hired at least five registered lobbyists, on the taxpayer dole, and up to $100,000 a month was what they were paying these lobbyists."

Hall and other toll road opponents say the lobbyists were hired not necessarily the public, but to sway local transportation planning agencies, called Metropolitan Planning Organizations, to support the construction of toll roads in their specific regions.

Hall said she will also claim that the plans for building toll lanes on U.S. 281 in north Bexar County is also a violation of toll road guidelines which specify that 'existing highways' should not be tolled. Hall says what the 281 North toll road plan would do is rebuild the highway and leave what are essentially the access roads non tolled. She says that flies in the face of promises made by elected officials and mandates issued by the legislature against tolling 'existing roadways,' because the main lanes of U.S. 281, which are now free lanes, would be tolled under the project given the okay last December.

© 2008, WOAI: www.radio.woai.com

Lawmakers take up report on inadequacies at TxDOT

July 15, 2008,

Associated Press
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — Lawmakers raised the possibility Tuesday of making the state transportation commissioner an elected position as they plowed through a proposal to revamp the Texas Department of Transportation governing board and its dealings with lawmakers and the public.

The proposal is part of a blistering report by the Sunset Advisory Commission that characterized the transportation agency as agenda-driven and untrustworthy. The state agency has come under scrutiny recently over planned public-private toll road partnerships, the route of the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor superhighway and a billion-dollar budgeting error.

The report says "tweaking the status quo is simply not enough."

The Sunset Advisory Commission periodically reviews government agencies to determine whether they should continue to exist and makes recommendations for improvements.

The sunset staff recommended replacing the five-member commission that oversees the transportation agency with a single commissioner who would have a two-year term rather than the current six-year term.

But, the commissioner still would be appointed by the governor, drawing concern from opponents of the transportation department's policies.

"What I'm hearing from the public is that they want to see an elected commissioner," said Democratic Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, as the audience burst into applause. "I think that we ought to keep everything on the table. We ought to seriously look at an elected commissioner."

Other members of the commission, including Republican Rep. Linda Harper Brown, echoed support for considering an elected commissioner.

Proposed changes for the department will be considered by the Legislature when it meets in 2009.

The review "occurred against a backdrop of distrust and frustration with the Department and the demand for more transparency, accountability, and responsiveness," the report says. "Many expressed concerns that TxDOT was 'out of control,' advancing its own agenda against objections of both the Legislature and the public."

Lawmakers have accused the agency of falsely blaming the Legislature for its own poor financial planning and creating an exaggerated public impression of budgetary woes to promote private toll roads.

The agency had repeatedly warned of a budgetary shortfall, including a December decision to postpone new highway projects and instead focus on existing roads. But lawmakers argued that the dire warnings did not include more than $9 billion in bonds approved by the Legislature, including $5 billion already approved by voters.

Newly appointed Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi assured the commission that the agency had taken measures to be more transparent and accountable under her leadership.

"What better time for the agency to become more transparent and efficient than now, with new leadership," Delisi told the commission. "I can tell you from my perspective that several positive changes are already under way."

But Republican Rep. Carl Isett, chairman of the sunset commission, was skeptical.

"With all due respect, this isn't our first rodeo," he said. "How do you respond to the idea that we're kinda cynical about whether or not those kinds of changes are" actually being made or just talked about?

Delisi again said the agency is committed to putting forth the necessary resources to implement changes sought by the Legislature.

"The agency is there to affect policy passed by the Legislature and when that trust is lost, then there needs to be moves to restore that trust that the Legislature has in dealing with this agency," Isett said.

Other proposed changes include increasing legislative oversight through a new House-Senate committee; making transportation planning and project development more open and easily understood; enhancing public involvement; and improving contract management.

© 2008, The Associated Press: www.ap.org

Texas lawmakers hear ideas to reorganize TxDOT

July 15, 2008

Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

Behind all the fiery rhetoric aimed at the Texas Department of Transportation at a hearing today, the question hovering over the future of the 14,000-employee agency really comes down to a question of who can best be trusted to govern it.

The Sunset Advisory Commission, charged with deciding how and even whether the agency should continue, is asking whether TxDOT should continue to be led by a five-member panel appointed by the governor. Or should lawmakers instead oversee the department themselves?

The latter proposal was part of the series of recommendations made last month by the advisory commission’s staff, suggestions that will serve as a basis for a proposal ultimately decided upon by Texas Legislature when it returns to Austin in January.

In opening today’s all-day hearing on those recommendations, state Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, praised the sunset advisory commission staff for being “bold and aggressive.”

Still, he urged caution as members weigh giving the Legislature direct oversight of the agency.

“There is tension here over how we oversee the agency, and whether or not we want to actually manage the agency,” said Mr. Isett, the advisory commission chairman.

But for some of the 12 commission members, 10 of whom are lawmakers, the hard-charging attitude adopted by TxDOT since Gov. Rick Perry was first elected has left them convinced it can no longer be trusted to manage itself. They appeared to embrace the idea of replacing the Texas Transportation Commission, whose members have all been appointed by Gov. Perry, with a leader more directly accountable to themselves.

State Rep. Linda Harper Brown, R-Irving, said the sunset report revealed an agency whose leadership has failed it. “Here are some of the words used to this report … ‘distrust, frustration, disconnected, inaccessibility, unstructured, undefined, unrealistic, disjointed, ineffective, unpredictable, outdated and difficult,’” she said.

Some eighty speakers had signed up to speak before the commission, and many of them used the occasion to blast the agency. Most faulted it for its hard push for private toll roads, an issue that roiled the 2007 Legislature and has continued to be controversial since.

Still, it was far from clear today that the criticism contained in the sunset report will translate into the sweeping legislation that would be required to remake the agency.

For her part, Transportation Commission chairwoman Deirdre Delisi acknowledged that the agency had lost the trust of key members of the public and lawmakers alike. But she defended steps she said the agency has taken in the past several months aimed at restoring that trust.

“We are all 100 percent committed to doing the right thing at this agency,” said Ms. Delisi, a former chief of staff for the governor who was named to the leadership post this spring. “We recognize that it’s up to the Legislature to determine the policy and our role is to implement that policy and that is our commitment to you.”

Lawmakers are still upset about what they called the arrogant handling by Ms. Delisi’s predecessor, former state lawmaker Ric Williamson who had led Mr. Perry’s push for private toll roads for years until his death by heart attack in December.

“It comes down to how we have been treated in the past,” said State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. “In my relationship with your predecessor I was not given straightforward answers.”

© 2008, The Dallas Morning News: www.dallasnews.com

Elected State Transportion Commissioner Proposed

Would replace Texas Transportation Commission appointed by the governor


By Jim Forsyth
Copyright 2008

Member of the Texas Sunset Commission today recommended 'radical' changes in the administration of the Texas Department of Transportation, including placing the troubled and controversial agency into a four year legislative 'receivership' and abolishing the Texas Transportation Commission, which runs TxDOT, and appointment of a Transportation Commissioner who would be answerable to the Legislature, 1200 WOAI news reports.

But Sunset Commission member Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio) suggested going one step further.

"What I am hearing form the public is that they are wanting to see an elected commissioner," she said to loud applause from the TxDOT opponents who packed the hearing room in Austin.

"Yes, we ought to look at leaving it like it is, that's an option, but I also think we should seriously look at having an elected commissioner," she said.

The Texas Transportation Commission members are currently appointed by the Governor, and there have been allegations that members appointed to the Commission are required to follow Governor Perry's policies, especially when it concerns the controversial issue of toll roads.

Sunset Commission member Rep. Linda Harper-Brown (R-Irving) echoed McClendon's proposal for an elected Transportation Commissioner.

"I think this would send a bold statement to the agency too, to show that they need to rebuild the trust of the people," Harper-Brown said.

Members of the Commission repeatedly blasted TxDOT fro it's lack of 'transparency and accountability.'

Another proposal, also floated by McClendon, was to remove all responsibilities for vehicle registration, titles, and other vehicle matters from TxDOT and to create a separate agency, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles.

"Infrastructure maintenance, engineering, and construction would remain TxDOT in order to improve it's efficiency," she said.

Texas had a Department of Motor Vehicles until the early 1990s, when it was abolished and combined wit the old Texas Highway Department to create the new Texas Department of Transportation.

The proposals will be compiled by the Commission and presented to the legislature later this year for action in the session which begins in January.

Much of the opposition to TxDOT and the calls for an elected commissioner stem from outrage over aggressive toll road construction plans throughout the state, including the US 281 North project in north Bexar County, and the Trans Texas Corridor.

© 2008, WOAI: www.radio.woai.com

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