Wednesday, March 04, 2009

"The Texas Transportation Commission hardly seems prepared to make the right call at this stage."

Questions about those highway dollars


Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2009

In the Capitol hearing room, state Rep. Jim Dunnam came loaded for bearskin. Texas Department of Transportation officials didn’t have so much as a rug under which to hide.

Dunnam is chairing the select committee on spending Texas’ share of federal stimulus dollars.

TxDOT officials, who’ve made some controversial proposals regarding that money, didn’t have convincing answers for him.

For instance, using the agency’s own matrix for judging projects, Dunnam showed that the expansion of Interstate 35 through Waco was rated higher than a project near Tyler endorsed by the agency. McLennan County would receive virtual goose eggs.

Dunnam hammered TxDOT officials Amadeo Saenz and John Barton over the fact that location in economically distressed areas didn’t factor into the recommendations. In a Trib interview, he said it’s unclear how that would affect Waco’s hopes, but that federal law requires such a consideration.

Dunnam derided the fact that of the $1.2 billion worth of projects up for approval this week, $841 million are “toll-related.”

Thursday the Texas Transportation Commission is supposed to vote on these proposals. From Barton’s and Saenz’s responses to the questions of Dunnam and state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, the commission hardly seems prepared to make the right call at this stage.

TxDOT’s Barton, for instance, said that McLennan County’s concerns about being aced out regarding I-35 money might be met with the “Solomonic” approach of allowing McLennan County to be in a “partnership” with Bell County and get half of the $140 million TxDOT has proposed for I-35 expansion in that area. To this, Dunnam responded that Solomon “didn’t split the baby.”

If sharing Bell County’s dollars is all that we can hope for, then let’s pursue that path. But as Dunnam pointed out, based on need and importance and by the agency’s own criteria, I-35 expansion here outranks others getting the go-ahead.

It is valid to worry that the heavy presence of toll projects, nine out of 21 of those getting the nod for stimulus money, reflects an institutional bias ingrained by Texas’ chief toll road booster, Gov. Rick Perry. Lawmakers have fought back against Perry’s toll-roads-or-no-roads mind-set, last session putting a moratorium on privately operated toll roads.

Texans should be concerned that an agency known for its tunnel vision is now hurtling toward a decision without all the right coordinates. TxDOT should apply the brakes and fully justify where it is headed.

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