Monday, April 27, 2009


TxDOT, transportation controversies revving up


by Andy Hogue
Copyright 2009

Plans to reform transportation funding in the Lone Star State seem to be moving along like an average morning commute on a busy highway — slowly, but with delays entirely possible.

"There’s still a very long road to go," according to the author of the transportation Sunset bill, Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) at the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee April 22.

Hegar’s Sunset bill, SB 1019, was left pending in the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security committee April 22, as members are now working to weave in amendments to the bill into a committee substitute bill to be addressed later.

Despite a few tense moments between legislators and witnesses, the tone of the hearings seemed amicable. It appeared for the moment there might be enough consensuses among committee members to send some bills to the floor. But, then, again, a traffic snarl could be just around the next corner.

Sun stands still for TxDOT

In its current incarnation, SB 1019 would continue the Texas Transportation Commission but without the five-member commission and the job of the executive director of TxDOT — replacing both with a single commissioner to be appointed by the Governor.

In addition, the Sunset bill calls for a legislative committee to oversee the workings of the transportation agency. Hegar said the bill provides for more accountability, responsiveness "and, simply, building projects."

Forty-six amendments were read during committee, before being withdrawn so a committee substitute bill could be drafted this week.

Amendments cover a wide range of options, including: replacing the five member commission with one commissioner or three commissioners; prohibiting the legislative oversight committee from directing TxDOT to build projects; and giving TxDOT greater authority to establish rail projects.

"The Devil’s going to be in the amendments," said Lauren Kennedy, of Texans For Safe and Reliable Transportation, a group that supports increased public-private partnerships in building roads and continuing a multiple-member transportation commission.

"If certain people had their way, they would put in an amendment that no one knows about … making into a staff-driven agency, or allowing the (legislative) oversight committee to take away the commission’s power to make decisions."

Amadeo Saenz, TxDOT executive director, said many of the changes suggested by the Sunset Commission earlier this year could be made without legislation, and many of them have been put into an action plan.

Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) asked Saenz about progress on hiring a management firm to review TxDOT. Saenz said at Carona’s request the department has sent out proposals for a management structure evaluation.

Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton said that "a lot of this is going to have to do with funding," drawing attention to what commissioners say is the greater issue.

James Bass, TxDOT’s chief financial officer, said SB 1 could determine everything for 2010. "If we look at the different versions of the House and Senate … (in the House) there is federal dollars for new highway construction but no state dollars."

Sen. Elliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) asked Bass to predict how much would be available for new construction. Bass said he could not say definitively, but he estimated $2 billion in new projects for 2010 and $1.7 million in 2011 — a number confirmed next day by a TxDOT memo that Shapleigh and other senators requested.

Carona called the funding situation "absolutely a near-term catastrophe in the making."

Houghton, after saying the transportation system will soon be "unable to continue," compared the current level of spending to a maxed-out credit card: "Do we want to keep swiping that credit card and hope someone is on the other end to pay for the bill?"

"We’re restricted," Houghton continued. "… Hamstrung."

How ‘hamstrung’ is TxDOT?

The requested memo, signed by Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi and sent April 23 to Carona and committee members, paints a grim picture for the agency. Whether enough legislators are buying it is a question yet to be answered.

In the memo, Delisi cited a variety of reasons that funds have fallen into short supply for state transportation projects: falling gas tax revenues, fluctuating federal funding, and decisions by budget writers. Delisi said "severe cuts" to maintenance projects may be the only short-term solution. Maintenance costs the state about $1.1 billion per year, TxDOT officials have stated in previous meetings.

"The Texas Mobility Fund, Proposition 14 Bonds, Comprehensive Development Agreements, and Pass-Through Financing helped get projects to construction more quickly than what would have otherwise been possible," Delisi wrote. "But we have reached the end of what we all knew would be a temporary spike in our contracting levels."

She referenced a speech to the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee on April 8 which predicted that by 2012 expenditures will surpass revenue ($2 billion in 2010 versus $1.7 billion in 2011).

Public trust deficit

There’s another deficit addressed during the Senate Transportation Committee meeting that wasn’t covered in Delisi’s memo: that of the public’s trust in TxDOT.

Carona, while commending the current commissioners, said much progress has been made in restoring the trust of the Legislature.

"There was an unfortunate period in the history of the commission," he said, "under leadership that is no longer leadership … things became entangled and relations with the Legislature became quite hostile. It didn’t have to be that way, it shouldn’t have been that way. But that was that individual’s personality. … but moving forward now, I think the commissioners, as well as chairman Delisi, are very accessible, and responsive to the Legislature …"

Carona said "that individual" is "no longer with us" – a pointed reference to former Transportation Commission Chairman the late Ric Williamson. (Williamson, a former state representative, was an advocate of going from the state’s pay-as-you-go system of transportation infrastructure funding to a private-sector approach reliant on toll roads and other public-private partnerships. He died December 30, 2007.)

Delisi’s tone in the memo was very similar to Williamson’s tactic of constant messages that TxDOT was low on funds and that toll roads are the only hope.

Hegar commended Delisi and other commissioners and hailed their responsiveness. But not everyone present felt that way.

"I have to say that the citizens of Texas don’t believe that anything has changed at TxDOT," said Terri Hall, of Texas TURF, testified before the Senate committee.

Hall took a shot at Carona, saying he did not see "the big picture." Before Hall could finish a list of grievances against TxDOT — "billion-dollar revenue mistakes … illegal ad campaigns, being called ‘bigots’ by a transportation commissioner …" — Carona interjected.

"I think it’s just as likely I see the picture as you standing here representing that yours are the views of all Texans. They’re not. They’re your views, and they’re views, I’m sure, of the small organization you represent …" he said.

"You think 100,000 Texans is small?" Hall replied, before Carona reminded her she had two minutes to testify.

In an interview with LSR, Hall said in 2007 Carona asked her group to bring TxDOT reformers to the Capitol. Carona’s hearing on March 1, 2007, filled a Capitol auditorium and two overflow rooms.

CDAs seem safe … for now

It’s been debated whether or not there is enough legislative will to continue the current limitations on Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) for transportation projects. By the looks of several pending pieces of legislation, CDAs might be around for at least another couple of years.

Carona’s SB 404 attempts to extend the authority of TxDOT to enter CDAs, though Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Forth Worth) offered a similar-in-scope amendment during April 22’s Sunset bill discussion in case SB 404 gets hung up (keeping in mind that amendments read at the committee meeting are eligible for discussion on the Senate floor later).

Hall said that’s a way of "sneaking" CDA extensions in. Bill Noble, executive director of Texans For Safe and Reliable Transportation said CDAs are important funding options to defend.

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