Monday, March 02, 2009

“Y’all know what ‘shall’ means?”

Dunnam: TxDOT Gets First $500 Million Wrong


Reeve Hamilton
The Texas Observer
Copyright 2009

The Texas Department of Transportation took a verbal beating this afternoon from the House Select committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding, and especially from its chairman, Rep. Jim Dunnam.

Last week, TxDOT was held up as a model of restraint for agreeing to hold off on allocating all of its its stimulus funds right away. Of over $2 billion available to them, the agency only dedicated $500 million for maintenance projects in its meeting last Thursday.

Their days being in the committee’s good favor came to a dramatic end when they returned for further testimony this afternoon and were told they went about spending that $500 million all wrong. The American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act that says that priority for funding “shall” be given to economically distressed areas. In appropriating the $500 million, TxDOT did not factor in economically distressed areas at all.

“What we are hearing is that, last week, 20-25 percent of the stimulus money was spent on maintenance projects in violation of the stimulus act,” said Dunnam said to TxDOT point man John Barton. “How can you assure us that we’re not going to be charged back $500 million in stimulus money for not complying with the act?”

Barton said that TxDOT is providing the Federal Highway Administration information regarding the economic distressed analysis of each project, but Dunnam wasn’t buying it.

“I don’t know how you give priority on a decision after the fact, which is what you’re telling me y’all are fixing to do,” Dunnam said. “And we’re going to have egg all over everyone’s faces if the [U.S] Department of Transportation says they want $500 million back.”

“If we complied with federal law, it’s by accident,” said Dunnam.

When asked why he did not tell the committee last week that the provision on economically distressed areas was a “shall” provision, Barton said, “I believe that I shared that it’s not a requirement of the bill that all projects be in economically distressed areas.”

“That sounds, no offense,” said Dunnam, “like a lawyer talking.”

It only got worse.

Dunnam chided TxDOT for including all of the transportation funding automatically reserved for rural areas in the $500 million and committing it all to maintenance projects, leaving none for new infrastructure, only eight days after the bill was signed into law.

He questioned the high prices TxDOT has been paying private contractors for maintenance projects, as reported last week in the Austin American-Statesman.

He scolded them for removing indications of which projects are toll roads from their project lists.

Rep. Carol Kent asked if a certain project in her district was a toll road, and Barton responded that it included “a component of a managed lane.” Rep. Garnet Coleman took Barton to task for his failure to call a spade a spade. Managed lanes are lanes on which some drivers, but not all, pay a toll.

Coleman said the agency had “lost some competency” because it had gotten “slick”.

“If you know what we’re talking about and what our concerns are, why don’t you just answer them?” Coleman asked. “Do they teach you all evasion when you come in to work for TxDOT?”

Even after TxDOT departed, the committee’s more cordial session with Texas Education Agency was peppered with references to what had just transpired. Dunnam made a point of asking TEA officials, “Y’all know what ‘shall’ means?”

TxDOT currently plans to allocate their remaining $1.7 billion at a meeting this Thursday.

A number of citizen groups will rally at the Capitol on Tuesday to encourage TxDOT to, according to a press release, “slow down and do this right.”

But, for the first $500 million, it might already be too late.

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