“You’re going to get calls from constituents that say, ‘70 percent of these funds were spent on toll roads. Why did you allow that to happen?’ ”
By Tim Woods
A resolution co-sponsored by Rep. Jim Dunnam critical of the way state transportation officials are deciding how to spend $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds was withdrawn Wednesday amid criticism that its wording was too harsh.
The action on the floor of the state House came on the eve of an expected vote by the Texas Transportation Commission on disbursement of the federal transportation funds.
Dunnam, D-Waco, and state Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, have led the charge to sway commission members’ opinions and to bring greater transparency to the Texas Department of Transportation’s decision-making.
Since the Feb. 26 announcement of the department’s recommendations for the funds, which did not include any McLennan County projects, the two have sunk their teeth into the issue, speaking with commissioners and decision-makers, chairing hearings and helping introduce House resolutions.
Local officials requested more than $200 million to widen Interstate 35 north of Waco. That request was not granted on the transportation department’s preliminary list, though $121 million was recommended for an I-35 project to the south in Bell County.
Averitt said he has had daily conversations with commissioners and the department about McLennan County’s exclusion.
“While I am not yet satisfied with all of their answers, I recognize that managing our state’s transportation infrastructure is a difficult task, and I am confident that at the end of the process our discussions will be fruitful,” Averitt said.
Dunnam has headed a select committee looking at the disbursements and has criticized the department’s handling of the funds since last week’s announcement of the proposed projects.
On Wednesday, Dunnam co-sponsored a resolution, introduced in the House by Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, that sought more transparency and communication between the department and lawmakers in the department’s decision-making process.
The resolution, HR 709, was criticized by some House members for being too strongly critical of the transportation agency.
“The last line says that the House, by passing this today, declares that the failure of the (Texas Transportation) Commission and (transportation agency) to conduct the people’s business in a fair, open and accountable manner has lost them the confidence of the House and of the people of Texas,” Phil King, R-Weatherford, said at the hearing.
King added, “I’ve been one of the first ones to complain about TxDOT, but is that your intent today, to ask the Texas House to declare as a body that we believe that the commission has lost the confidence of the House and the people of the state of Texas? Is that really where we’re trying to go with this resolution? It’s a strong declaration.”
Dunnam, a lawyer, was delayed by an appeal hearing in Waco, so King’s question was fielded by Coleman, who repeatedly explained that the resolution was meant to improve communication between the House and the transportation department.
A representative asked Coleman and Dunnam, after he arrived, whether they believed the resolution would affect the commission’s vote today. The representative also asked why the vote on the resolution couldn’t be delayed until today so House members could read and discuss the document.
“On Friday, you’re going to get calls from constituents that say, ‘For some members, 70 percent of these funds were spent on toll roads. Why did you allow that to happen?’ ” Dunnam said. “They’re not going to blame TxDOT, they’re going to blame the members of this body. (They’ll ask), ‘Why did you allow them to spend money on projects that didn’t include our district? Or why did you allow them to spend this one-time federal money, 70 percent of it, on toll roads?’ ”
Dunnam added that the resolution was the only mechanism by which legislators could try to influence transportation officials before the meeting. This way, legislators could tell their constituents they tried to do something.
“If the members want to wait, we can wait, but TxDOT will have already voted,” he said.
After further debate, Coleman withdrew the resolution, citing the concern about its wording.
Dunnam said Wednesday that, aside from his concern about McLennan County being left in the cold, he worries the transportation department may not be complying with the stimulus act’s requirement that the funds be used in economically distressed areas.
“Our concern is that they’re not complying with the act, and that is a transparency and accountability issue because we’re going to have to testify to the federal government that we have complied with the recovery act,” Dunnam said. “They’ve received a great deal of criticism for that because it’s jeopardized the funds.”
U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., confirmed Dunnam’s concern Wednesday, sending him a letter that states, “The Recovery Act specifically requires that . . . states give priority to projects that are located in economically distressed areas.”
Dunnam said Wednesday evening that McLennan County is on the U.S. House’s list of economically distressed counties and that Bell County, to which the agency’s staff recommendations allot funds, is not.
Department spokesman Chris Lippincott has said the department has had discussions over several months with metropolitan planning organizations and conducted research into where the funds would be best allocated. The agency had to act quickly once the money was delivered to comply with the act’s requirements, he said.
Dunnam said he hopes the commission will delay today’s scheduled vote on the recommendations or at least strongly consider Oberstar’s words when awarding projects.
© 2009 Waco Tribune-Herald: www.wacotrib.com
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