Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Not all of the problems reside in the cavernous halls of the Texas Department of Transportation. A lot of them reside in the state Capitol."

Texas Department of Transportaton's highway fiefdom

December 17, 2008

The Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2008

Last session the Legislature clashed with the Texas Department of Transportation on issues ranging from toll roads to poor accounting, getting only partial satisfaction. This time lawmakers have the agency right where they want it:

It’s time for sunset review.

That’s what happens with agencies each 12 years. The state requires each to justify its existence and looks at ways to do things better.

A lot of things could be done differently in how Texas meets its transportation needs. Not all of the problems reside in the cavernous halls of the department. A lot of them reside in the state Capitol.

That said, one of the key objectives of sunset review should be to make the agency less insular and more responsive to taxpayers.

The process of financing highways and budgeting needs to have less intrigue, and fewer surprises, like the $1.1 billion accounting error last year that threw the state for a loop.

The transportation department has been a fiefdom in which too much power is vested in the governor and the chairman he appoints.

The five-member, governor-appointed commission is a dinosaur construct. It results in too little action and too much control by the governor.

Is the state’s toll-roads-or-no-roads approach an expression of the public will? Or is it simply the governor exercising his prerogative? State highway policymaking should be a dialogue, not a monologue.

Structurally, the whole approach of the agency is a recipe for gridlock. What the state needs is something more nimble and results-oriented: “We give you this much money. Tell us what you’ll accomplish with it this year and we’ll check back.”

Of course, money is a big reason why the agency can’t do all that Texas needs.

One major issue is that big chunks of highway appropriations — $800 million annually — are siphoned off to nonhighway purposes such as the Department of Public Safety. That’s lawmakers’ fault.

Another key issue likely to come up is local-regional funding.

There’s no reason why any metro area shouldn’t be able to assess extra auto registration fees or have a sales tax increment to address pressing transportation needs.

Indeed, the state needs to shift away from highway governance that’s gargantuan and monolithic to one that’s more regional and quick-footed.

Entities involved in highway construction contrast Texas’ plodding approach, with a huge bureaucracy that does everything from strategic planning to construction, with Florida’s. The latter has a much smaller highway department that makes the plans and seeks out innovations, but lets private contractors do the work. It operates more on a performance-based business model than does Texas. Let’s try it.

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