Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"We have to send a really dramatic message to the public."

Lawmakers upset over Perry's push for private toll roads vote to abolish transit board


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

Any lingering doubt that some lawmakers remain furious over Gov. Rick Perry's push in recent years for private toll roads disappeared Tuesday when a state board voted to abolish the Texas Transportation Commission.

The five-member commission serves as the face of the Department of Transportation, and in voting to replace it with a new, single commissioner far more closely monitored by the Legislature, lawmakers hoped to underscore just how frustrated they are with the sprawling agency.

Tuesday's vote forecast a contentious fight when the Legislature meets next month, when all options for overhauling how the state builds highways may be on the table.

"We have to send a really dramatic message to the public," said Rep. Ruth McClendon, D-San Antonio. She was one of seven members of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which periodically evaluates all state agencies for efficiency and recommends changes, to vote for the overhaul. Five members voted against it.

More oversight

The single new commissioner would be appointed by the governor but subject to approval by the Senate every two years. Most important, he or she would answer to a new legislative oversight committee that would be granted sweeping powers to transform the transportation department, including reducing its nearly 15,000-member staff and streamlining the building of highways.

Even among those voting no, sentiment was clearly in favor of making big changes at an agency many lawmakers believe has all but ignored their frustrations over toll roads and the highly controversial Trans-Texas Corridor.

"Our goal is to move this agency forward, to significantly change it," said Sunset chairman Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, who opposed the single-commissioner proposal.

Mr. Perry did not immediately take a position on the proposed changes, but aides said he'll be working with the full Legislature come January.

"The governor looks forward to working with the Legislature on this issue; however, the governor's focus isn't on how many commissioners are at TxDOT but rather how Texas will finance the transportation infrastructure that we must have," said spokeswoman Allison Castle.

The Sunset recommendations won't be law unless they are approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor. But they have the advantage of being part of a bill that state law says must be approved, or else TxDOT will be closed down. Lawmakers will probably amend the proposal and could change it altogether.

Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, a member of the panel who had pushed for more changes still, said she's not sure whether the majority of House and Senate members will back the idea of a single commissioner. But she's ready to start lobbying her colleagues.

"I can't really tell you where the will of the Legislature is on this," the Irving Republican said. "But it's time now for us to sell our colleagues on our ideas."

Proxy fight

The fight over the structure of TxDOT remains what it has been for months, a proxy fight over how Texas will build the new roads, bridges and other infrastructure it so badly needs. For more than two years, the agency has maintained that anticipated tax revenues will fall short of transportation needs by more than $80 billion over the next 20 years or so. Officials are set to announce today that that number has grown.

To address that shortfall, which critics say has been inflated, Mr. Perry has supported the rapid expansion of toll roads throughout Texas with the idea of charging higher tolls than ever and then borrowing against those future revenues to pay for badly needed roads elsewhere. To do so, he has argued that the private sector should be allowed to build and operate many of those same roads.

The public, however, has reacted with anger to many of those plans, especially the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor. Lawmakers rebelled in 2007, placing roadblocks in front of many of the governor's plans for privatization.

But instead of giving up on private toll roads, the agency only pushed harder for most of 2007. That has looked like intransigence to some lawmakers, and threatens to make 2009 as contentious a session as 2007 was on transportation.

Changing tone

In recent months, Mr. Perry has appeared to slow his push for private tolls. Among other things, he has installed new faces on the Texas Transportation Commission and struck a more conciliatory tone.

Whether those steps have been enough to appease lawmakers and prevent the kind of sweeping reforms envisioned in the Sunset recommendations remains to be seen.

When lawmakers return in mid-January, the debate over the role of privatization will probably resume where it left off two years ago, only perhaps louder. A special panel on private toll roads was created by the last Legislature, and its findings have yet to be released.

Once they are, lawmakers will probably take up the question anew, and fight again over what role private companies should play, if any, in building and operating toll roads in Texas.

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News:

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