Monday, September 08, 2008

TxDOT on withholding $ 1.1 billion error: "We really wanted to make sure we got our explanation right."

Texas Department of Transportation deficient in competency, transparency


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

A state auditor’s report takes the Texas Department of Transportation to task for a huge $1.07 billion bookkeeping blunder that the agency kept largely under wraps for about four months before finally making it public.

We’re not sure which to be more disturbed about — the abysmal bookkeeping or the disappointing lack of transparency in state government. But on both counts, you can register us as alarmed.

As a result of the error, TxDOT officials believed in August 2007 that they had $4.2 billion available for contract awards for transportation projects, the report by State Auditor John Keel said. But by October, they realized that they had counted $581 million in bond proceeds twice and included $488 million in Texas Mobility Fund money even though those funds already "were required for existing projects," the audit said.

The result was that TxDOT had only about $3.1 billion for new contract awards for transportation projects, or about $1.07 billion less than it had projected.

TxDOT warned its district engineers and regional transportation officials in a Nov. 30 memo that the agency’s "immediate cash flow situation . . . is showing a significant downward trend." But the agency didn’t specifically disclose its $1.07 billion bookkeeping blunder until a Feb. 5 state Senate hearing.

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said the agency delayed the disclosure because "we really wanted to make sure we got our explanation right." Or perhaps the agency really wanted to avoid a major embarrassment.

In any event, TxDOT should have divulged to transportation officials and the general public in October that it suspected a major error in its funding calculations and would offer a more-precise final explanation after an investigation.

That would have been much more forthright — in other words, shooting straight with Texans whose hard-earned dollars finance road construction through their payments of state and federal gasoline taxes and toll fees.

TxDOT has taken some laudable steps toward correcting its systemic bookkeeping problems and making the agency’s operations more transparent.

It also should be noted that there was no evil intent associated with TxDOT’s erroneous funding calculations. Nor was any money stolen or missing.

The $1.07 billion blunder, and its delayed acknowledgment, undermined TxDOT’s credibility and raised questions about its competency. It must be more upfront about its problems in the future, lest its reputation be further tarnished.

© 2008 Fort Worth

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