Thursday, April 02, 2009

"The status quo is not acceptable.”

Fixing TxDOT before dusk. Isett possible?

TxDOT's sunset bill to be Picketted apart in committee.


Ben Wright
The Newspaper Tree
Copyright 2009

House Bill 300 is a big deal for both the Texas Department of Transportation and Texas.

According to it's author state Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, it would “change the agency from top to bottom” creating a “whole new paradigm” that would allow localities to “chart their own destinies” when it came to transportation planning.

“Our vision for this bill is to transform this agency (TxDOT) from one that now acts as the final arbitrator … to one that acts as a partner with our local communities,” Isett told reporters after a public hearing for the bill yesterday.

The Lubbock representative added the bill would make TxDOT more transparent by creating an online reporting system to show the progress of projects.

“Every Texan will be able to get online and look at their project and see the process,” he said.
The most obvious and potentially controversial provision of HB 300 would do away with the five-member Texas Transportation Commission, which El Pasoan Ted Houghton currently sits on, and replace it with a single commissioner appointed by the Governor. Another provision would create a Transportation Legislative Oversight Committee consisting of six appointed state reps and senators.

TxDOT would be headed by a single administrator while the committee would be there to ensure accountability.

The bill represents several years of work and research into TxDOT, one of the state agencies up for review and possible elimination this session by the Sunset Advisory Commission. According to Sunset’s website, the commission's staff produces a report with recommendations on agencies under review. The report then goes to the commission, made up of members of the Texas House, Senate and members of the general public. (See document below.)

The commission, which votes on its decisions, can accept or reject any aspects of the staff report in crafting legislative recommendations. HB 300 represents “verbatim the recommendations of the commission,” Isett said. As such, the author does not agree with everything his bill would do, particularly the downsizing of the Texas Transportation Commission from five commissioners to one. “I personally don’t support that. I know that the Senate does not support it so we’ll just have to see how that plays out,” said Isett, who believes more commissioners means more input from different parts of Texas in TxDOT decisions.

“Multiple commissioners give El Paso a commissioner. They give Lubbock a commissioner. They give Central Texas a commissioner,” Isett said.

Furthermore, Isett believes only having one commissioner could jeopardize TxDOT’s transparency. Because the transportation commission has five members, it is subject to the Texas Open Meetings Act, and its decisions are made, “in the light of day,” Isett said.

But the five-member commission has hardly been transparent, argues Terri Hall, representing the group, “Texas Turf” at Tuesday’s hearing. Hall wants to see the five-member TTC replaced by a single elected commissioner.

“I think an agency is more accountable, more efficient and more streamlined when you have elected leadership,” Hall said after the hearing. She also called HB 300 “woefully inadequate” and questioned whether the bill truly represented the Sunset Commission’s recommendations. “I’m hearing from people on that commission that ‘this is not the bill we wanted. … It’s Isett’s bill, not necessarily the commission’s bill,’ ” Hall said.

Hall’s testimony at the hearing raised concerns about how the Bill. Texas TURF concerned about a clause which would require TxDOT to maximize alternate (private) sources of investment in road building. “How is the agency supposed to do that without toll roads?” Hall said, arguing that toll roads are “taxation without representation” and make TxDOT a “de facto taxing agency.”

Hall said if private entities want to build toll roads fairly, they should offer landowners market rate for rights-of-way, finance the deals themselves, and recoup their investment through toll revenue.

But according to Hall. That is not what happens.

Because TxDOT has become the “arm of private toll operators,” such companies are able (through TxDOT) to use eminent domain to take the land, pay for nothing and run roads for profit.

“That is not only un-Texan. It is an outrage,” said Hall.

The bill will now be worked on by the House Transportation Committee, chaired by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. On Tuesday, testifying witnesses and committee members all agreed that, as-is, HB 300 isn’t a done deal.

“In my opinion, the bill needs to address a lot of the questions brought up here today,” Pickett said.

But the key to fixing TxDOT may have nothing to do with the number of people on the TTC, how many private contracts are doled out, or the number of toll roads that get built.

Pickett wants to roll his own bill, HB 2589,, into HB 300, to change formula funding and hand more decisions on spending transportation dollars to local communities. In essence, that would mean more money would come to the local MPOs and less would go to TxDOT’s discretionary pot.

By putting controversial decisions like toll roads and private contracts in the hands of the local communities, Pickett thinks that many of the problems associated with TxDOT would be eliminated.

“I believe if we use and strengthen the language I‘ve got in (HB) 2589, then a lot of the other issues we’ve got become a moot point.” Pickett said.

Isett seemed open to that idea Tuesday. Regarding HB 2589 and HB 300 he said, “we have to make sure all the pieces fit together.”

But Hall remains cautionary. While believing HB 2589 could go a long way to improving HB 300, she was keen to stress elected leadership as the solution for TxDOT.

“We’re trying to make it very clear that the status quo is not acceptable,” said Hall. “We’re already at the point where we would like to see TxDOT scrapped completely. They are a king on a high throne and they don't answer to anybody."

Link: Sunset's Jan 09 report on TxDOT

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