Saturday, December 20, 2008

“Having a single commissioner in effect puts the transportation department in a legislative conservatorship.”

TxDOT could see changes in 2009


By ASHLEY TOMPKINS, Managing Editor
The Sealy News
Copyright 2008

In a 7-5 vote this week, members of the Sunset Advisory Commission voted to recommend replacing the five-member appointed Texas Transportation Commission with a single commissioner.

State Sen. Glenn Hegar, who serves as vice-chair of the advisory commission, and member State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, were two of the seven who voted in favor of the change, which still has to win approval by both the Senate and House during the 81st session.

Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said the recommended change is a way to restore the public’s trust in the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

“I believe that the Texas Department of Transportation has gone through some tough times and is in need of change. We’ve heard the outcry by the people,” she said.

If approved by the full Texas Legislature, the appointed commissioner must seek Senate approval every two years.

Hegar, who pushed to make the change happen, said he thought long and hard on how to handle the situation. He said there has been a disconnect between TxDOT, its staff, and the five-member commission.

“There’s a disconnect often between the three. Sometimes, the three go in different directions. That’s not good,” he said.

Hegar noted staying with a five-member commission wouldn’t solve the problem.

Several senators voted against the proposal during this week’s two-day commission meeting, raising questions of whether the idea will gain much support in the Senate.

TxDOT is up for Sunset review, along with several other commissions and departments, in the coming session. The periodic review allows lawmakers to determine whether a state agency should continue operation and if changes need to be made.

The massive transportation agency has come under fire in recent years from the public, and legislators, over toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor highway system, along with recent financial woes and accountability.

“Having a single commissioner in effect puts the transportation department in a legislative conservatorship,” said Kolkhorst, “and gives the Legislature some more control back over this agency that has seemingly spun in a different direction than what our constituents want it to be.”

The public no longer trusts TxDOT, according to a Sunset report, she said, and the same goes for the Legislature.

“The report talked a lot about trust. There is no trust in the Texas Department of Transportation. In order to build that trust back up, we have to make changes,” Kolkhorst explained. “The people of Texas deserve a well functioning transportation department. Right now we’re not there.”

Kolkhorst was quick to point out staff in the districts are not the problem.

“They are doing a great job. They are the soldiers out there in the field,” she said. “It’s the highest level, the administrative level in Austin that is the problem. That’s what we’re trying to push through.”

She said the Texas Transportation Commission, which pushed the Trans Texas Corridor, despite opposition from representatives like Kolkhorst and senators, is partially to blame for that trust being lost.

Members repeatedly would not listen to those who didn’t support the super highway, she said.

“When the original document came out and (the TTC) kept that contract secret from everyone, that gives the perception that they’re hiding something, and then the public loses faith in that agency,” she said. “Transparency is the key.”

The proposed bill would require there be an outside audit and management firm to go in and assess TxDOT. The governor would appoint the single commissioner. After four years, TxDOT goes back to the Sunset review and the five commissioners could be put back in. The bill makes it mandatory for the comptroller and attorney general to sign off on big development agreements.

“We’re asking for a top to bottom, bottom to top approach,” Kolkhorst said.

The proposal still has a long way to go before it’s approved.

The Legislature convenes Jan. 13.

“Having one single commissioner who also functions as the executive director, all rolled into one, at the end of the day there is accountability there. If there is an accounting error that is $1.2 million dollars, somebody needs to be accountable for not connecting the dots from the left hand to the right hand,” Hegar said. “With one person, we’ll know who is accountable.”

He acknowledged the change might not be the “silver bullet” that fixes the problem, but said it is a step in the right direction.

“Out of all the options I had, I felt like this was the best one,” he said.

© 2008 The Sealey News:

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