Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"We are desperately trying to restore the trust of the people."

State advisory panel calls for a transportation czar


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — In the latest toll-road backlash, lawmakers say they want to fire the leaders of the Texas Department of Transportation and replace them with a transportation czar.

The czar, who would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, would spend the next four years overhauling the agency, which has come under tremendous fire for pursuing development of toll roads — especially the Trans-Texas Corridor — and for making a $1.1 billion budget error, causing a yearlong cash flow crisis that shut down many road projects.

"We are desperately trying to restore the trust of the people," said Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham.

The move to fire the five-member Texas Transportation Commission passed the Sunset Advisory Commission on Tuesday by a 7-5 vote. Lawmakers serving on the sunset commission said they would take their proposed overhaul of the Transportation Department to the state Legislature during the session that begins next month.

Commissioner Bill Meadows of Fort Worth, who attended the meeting, has said he is open-minded about changes at the agency, even if his position is eliminated.

The czar would have the option of firing the Transportation Department’s executive director, who traditionally has come from within the department’s engineering ranks. The current director is Amadeo Saenz.

Among those who opposed a transportation czar were Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, and Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, who heads the sunset commission. Isett said he is concerned that hiring a czar wouldn’t address the key problem at the department.

"My problem is with the culture within this agency and the way they manipulate their information," Isett said. He said taking away power from the five-member commission "gives all the power to the bureaucrats."

The vote in favor of a transportation czar was one of more than a dozen major changes approved for the Transportation Department during a daylong sunset hearing in Austin, including:

  • Removing the Transportation Department’s responsibility for vehicle registration and creating a department of motor vehicles to handle duties related to the regulation of drivers. That department would also handle overweight-vehicle enforcement and auto theft prevention.
  • Creating a legislative committee to work closely with the transportation czar and oversee the inner workings of the Transportation Department. The committee would ensure that the desires of state lawmakers are being met.
  • Hiring a consulting firm to map an overhaul of Transportation Department management and win back the confidence of Texans.
Despite the sunset commission’s recommendations, those who favor doing away with the transportation commission in favor of a single commissioner face an uphill battle in the state Legislature. Many lawmakers would prefer that the Transportation Department be governed by commissioners from diverse backgrounds across the state.

It’s unclear whether the czar would still be required to hold public meetings. Traditionally, transportation commissioners have held monthly meetings in Austin and other cities to allow residents to speak out about projects. However, critics have long argued that many road deals are done behind the scenes and that the content of the commission meetings is mostly for show.

Sunset hearing The Sunset Advisory Commission periodically reviews state agencies to ensure that they are still necessary and functioning properly.

In addition to the decisions made Tuesday regarding the Transportation Department, the sunset commission also deliberated — but took no action — on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Commission on Fire Protection, and Commissions on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education.

GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

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