Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Has Texas toll road rage subsided? Not so much.

Texas lawmakers to focus on transportation politics


The Associated Press
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN, Texas — If anyone wondered whether Texas toll road rage had subsided or lawmakers' irritation at the Texas Department of Transportation had eased, those questions got answered a few days before Christmas: Not so much.

Denouncing the massive transportation agency as dysfunctional and out of control, a group of lawmakers reviewing the department said it will be intensely debated in the legislative session that begins Jan. 13.

"This is a big agency that is a mess," said Rep. Carl Isett, a Lubbock Republican and one of the leaders of the Sunset Advisory Commission that periodically examines state agencies. He said it may take several legislative sessions to repair Texas transportation.

Though legislators agree there are problems, they don't always agree on how to fix them.

Lawmakers are still reeling from the 2007 legislative session and their public feuds with the late transportation commission chairman Ric Williamson, a friend of Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed him to shepherd Perry's vision for Texas highway construction. New commission chair Deirdre Delisi, another longtime Perry associate, has been trying for months to ease tension between lawmakers and the agency.

"We've been working very hard to improve our communications and make what we do as an agency much more understandable to the public and the Legislature," Delisi said in a recent interview. "I think our efforts have been paying off."

But frustration continues over Perry's proposed Trans-Texas Corridor road network that threatens to overtake private farm land, and legislators keep bringing up the agency's $1 billion bookkeeping mistake. They are calling for more transparency and accountability.

Perry will be watching the Legislature's actions closely. Road-building is a cornerstone of his administration and is certain to be an issue in his 2010 re-election bid. Potential primary opponent Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison also has said transportation should be one of the state's top priorities.

For years Perry has said the major north-south highway Interstate 35 and other Texas roads are so choked with traffic they can't handle the state's population growth and commerce.

His proposed Trans-Texas Corridor — envisioned as a huge set of highways, rail and utility lines crisscrossing the state — has been under fire almost since its inception. Some lawmakers are pledging to try to abolish it. Perry's advisers acknowledge the corridor may not need to be as extensive as initially planned.

But they say the part of the corridor that will parallel I-35 is essential to alleviate traffic and that Interstate 69, proposed to run through East Texas and into South Texas, is an important trade route.

Delisi said since taking the helm at the transportation commission last April she has tried to work with legislators to figure out ways to leverage limited money to build and improve roads.

"We've got billions and billions and billions of dollars of state needs," she said.

In mid-December, a citizen's committee made up of Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane and other business leaders outlined for the commission $313 billion in road and bridge needs between now and 2030. While some spoke about the astronomical dollar figure, Delisi asked, "What's the cost to the state of not doing it?"

Meanwhile, lawmakers on the sunset panel recommended in a narrow vote to do away with the existing five-person commission that oversees the transportation department and replace it with one commissioner named by the governor — much like the insurance commissioner operates. That transportation head would have to be reconfirmed by the state Senate every two years, and there would be more legislative oversight of the agency.

Isett and several senators disagreed with the one-commissioner structure, so dissent over the recommendation could erupt in the full Legislature. Isett argues that representation from several regions of the state is essential.

Other House members want an even bigger overhaul.

"The commissioner's office is where the buck ought to stop," said Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, a San Antonio Democrat, who wants to abolish the five-member transportation commission and replace it with an elected commissioner, similar to the role of the elected state agriculture commissioner. "The public pulse favors an elected commissioner."

Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, an Irving Republican who has been outspoken about problems at the agency, said she may work with McClendon on her proposal during the session.

Traditionally, the governor has appointed powerful, well-connected business people to the commission.

Displaying some gallows humor over the legislative proposal to abolish the panel, commissioner Fred Underwood recently quipped that he feels like he's done more for the transportation department "than the Titanic did for the cruise business."

Delisi has not waded into the debate over how the agency should be governed and is putting her attention on funding.

Some quick turnaround projects have been identified and submitted to the federal government in hopes of getting economic stimulus package money.

For their part, Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick announced that they are united on three transportation fronts in the 2009 legislative session:

  • Ending the practice of diverting $1.2 billion in gas taxes every two years to the Department of Public Safety and using the money instead for road construction
  • Creating a transportation finance entity to encouraged Texas-based investment funds to put money into road projects, and
  • Passing legislation authorizing use of bonds approved by voters for road projects in 2007.

© 2008 The Associated Press:

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