Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"You believe this is an organization that’s going to change on a dime? I don’t see that happening."

Some at Austin hearing question TxDOT's competency

Jul. 16, 2008

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — One of the Texas Department of Transportation’s newest board members questions whether the agency’s senior employees can fix their deeply rooted financial and planning problems.

"Do we have the core competency leadership skills to make change?" Bill Meadows of Fort Worth, who was appointed to the Texas Transportation Commission three months ago, said during an interview Tuesday. "Our commission has got to ensure that the senior leadership has the competency to implement our policy. It’s not personal. It’s about the business of the people."

Meadows made his comments during a break at a Sunset Advisory Commission hearing. Under the sunset process, state agencies are reviewed to determine whether they’re functioning properly.

The sunset commission issued a scathing report last month that called for the Transportation Department’s five-member board to be replaced with a full-time appointed transportation czar who would answer directly to legislators.

The report — likely to become a bill during the 2009 legislative session — also recommended that the department’s planning process be simplified and that leaders do a better job reaching out to the public. The sunset commission met for over 10 hours Tuesday. About 80 members of the public signed up to speak, most of them staunch opponents of the Transportation Department’s plans to build toll projects such as the Trans-Texas Corridor.

State Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, a sunset commission member, said he was disappointed that the Transportation Department’s executive director did not fire any staff members after learning in September that planners and financial officers had overestimated the money available for road work by $1.1 billion. The discovery led to a near-shutdown of statewide road work.

"Somebody is to blame," Hegar said. "Those are taxpayer dollars."

'Serious questions’

Meadows, of Fort Worth, didn’t testify during the hearing but watched most of it from the gallery. During a break, he said he was frustrated that he had been on the board for three months and still didn’t understand the agency’s plans.

"I have serious questions about the planning process and our plan for the future. I’m unclear about it."

Amadeo Saenz Jr., the Transportation Department’s executive director, later responded to Meadows’ comments with the same assertions he made during nearly three hours of testimony to the sunset commission. Saenz said his staff is working to combine several cumbersome plans — some thousands of pages thick — into a single document that Texans may use to more easily understand when and where roads will be built and how they will be paid for. Saenz also said his agency intends to combine some operations in the 25 districts statewide to save money.

"Right now we still have a ways to go," Saenz said. "We’re running a very decentralized system."

Options considered

Some at the hearing called for abolishing the Transportation Department while others strongly supported replacing the five-member commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, with a single commissioner who would be elected statewide.

David Smith, a Denton financial analyst who traveled to Austin to testify, said he doesn’t trust the existing leadership. "You believe this is an organization that’s going to change on a dime?" Smith testified. "I don’t see that happening."

State Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, said he supports an overhaul of the Transportation Department but opposes abolishing the five-member commission. "I finally have a Fort Worth commissioner that just got appointed," Brimer said, referring to Meadows.

Brimer and other sunset members are exploring whether to form a new legislative body to oversee Transportation Department decision-making. Under one proposal the sunset commission is considering, specific road projects would not be funded without the legislative body’s approval, although members would not be allowed to add "earmarks" — pet projects — to the list.

North Texas’ concern

Tarrant County officials are watching the proposed changes at the Transportation Department with extra concern, hoping to avoid delays on several toll projects scheduled to be built in the next year or two. Among them: the expansion of Northeast Loop 820 and Texas 114/121 in Grapevine, and the construction of Southwest Parkway in Fort Worth.

While people in other parts of Texas have often spoken against tolls in the past few years, the Metroplex’s Regional Transportation Council embraced the state’s desire to use tolls and private-sector financing to pay for roads. Now, with the sunset commission poised to recommend sweeping changes to the Transportation Department, Tarrant County officials are concerned that those long-awaited projects could again be delayed.

GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

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