Texas DOT promises reform amid public outcry

| 7/16/2008

Public trust in the Texas Department of Transportation has eroded over the years, but officials say it’s not too late to turn things around.

Projects such as the Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposed network of toll roads and railway lines linking the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas with inward states, have drawn their share of controversy and public outcry.

Discussions about the oversight process for TxDOT culminated on Tuesday, July 15, during a marathon public hearing in Austin by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission. The commission, created by the Texas Legislature in 1977, reviews state agencies every 12 years and makes recommendations to the Legislature to abolish wasteful or mismanaged agencies.

Sunset commissioners called the hearing to discuss an official report by Sunset staff that calls for TxDOT to reform. TxDOT officials issued their official response to the report at the hearing, defending the way they do business but also admitting to problem areas including the issue of public trust.

Commissioner Linda Harper-Brown, a Republican state representative from Irving, TX, highlighted the amount of public distrust outlined in the report.

Harper-Brown fired off words like disconnected, unstructured, disjointed, insufficient and difficult to describe TxDOT’s dealings with the public. She also said TxDOT lacks efficiency, transparency, organization, training, communication and providing understandable information.

“Other states have oversight committees. Other states approve their plans before they go to appropriations,” Harper-Brown said. “Other states’ transportation departments actually have a plan that shows what funds are going to be spent that year and presented to their appropriations committee, and they have in statute that there can be no earmarks.”

TxDOT’s processes and policies are currently determined by the five members of the Texas Transportation Commission, who are appointed by the governor.

One of the Sunset Commission’s recommendations is to abolish the Transportation Commission and replace it with a single commissioner. Opinions vary as to who should select the commissioner.

“What I am hearing from the public is that they want to see an elected commissioner,” said state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio. Her comments drew audience applause. Many of the 80 people signed up to speak about the Sunset report agreed that the transportation commissioner should be elected publicly.

An organization called Corridor Watch submitted public comments that urged the Texas Legislature to replace the five appointed transportation commissioners with seven elected commissioners.

The Sunset Commission presented a total of six issues, each with subcategories and demands for reform, and asked TxDOT to conduct a self-evaluation.

TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz provided TxDOT’s official response, which began with a “no comment” on the issue of replacing the Transportation Commission with a single commissioner.

Saenz instead spoke about how TxDOT has already begun working on issues of accountability, transparency and public trust. He said the department is developing an official public complaint process. A frequent complaint is a lack of access to certain information regarding road projects, he said.

“The department has made several efforts over the past few years to obtain a more meaningful public involvement by making information available related to Transportation Commission meetings,” Saenz said.

Joining Saenz at the hearing was Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi. She was appointed to the position by Gov. Rick Perry earlier this year following the death of former Chairman Ric Williamson.

“There will be disagreements along the way. There will be bumps along the way, but my commitment to the members of the Legislature is that, as we go forward, if there are issues to be resolved or questions that you will always get from me open and honest answers,” Delisi said.

“We plan to put up the resources to make the necessary changes sooner rather than later.”

A major point of contention with the public is the Trans-Texas Corridor.

A series of town-hall meetings and public hearings from January through early March this year drew thousands of speakers and generated nearly 28,000 official written public comments on the TTC-69 phase of the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor.

“When have you ever heard of 28,000 comments on one project? That’s impressive,” said Sunset Commissioner Lois Kolkhorst, a Republic state representative from Brenham, TX.

Delisi said TxDOT is listening to the public. One of Delisi’s first actions as chair of the Transportation Commission was to get TxDOT to adopt a list of tolling principles.

“We’re trying to make these (toll agreements) as transparent as possible,” she said.

Texas resident Terri Hall, founder of a grassroots organization called Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, is adamantly opposed to the Trans-Texas Corridor. She criticizes TxDOT for spending public dollars promoting toll roads. Hall has challenged the agency in court about what she says is illegal lobbying, but her lawsuit was recently dismissed by a judge.

Hall says accountability in TxDOT begins with elected officials.

“The new head of this agency needs to answer directly to the people of Texas through statewide election,” Hall wrote in her prepared testimony. “We need an independent representative who answers to the voters and who represents the entire state, as a whole.”

Sunset commissioners spent time discussing a $1.1 billion “accounting error” within TxDOT, and the fact that nobody was terminated over it.

“I don’t care if there was a miscommunication; somebody needs to go,” said Sunset Commissioner and Texas state Sen. Glenn Hegar Jr., R-Katy.

Denton, TX, resident David Smith, an independent consultant, has kept a close eye on TxDOT over the years. He said the Sunset Commission recommendations don’t go far enough.

“I was disappointed to read that staff believes that TxDOT can be ‘reformed’ in four years,” Smith stated in his testimony. “The staff’s recommendations were completely inadequate in and of themselves. A good starting place, yes. But only a starting place.”

The Sunset process for the TxDOT review includes an additional seven days of public comments.

Click here to read the Sunset Advisory Commission’s report on TxDOT and click here to send a public comment to the commission.

– By David Tanner, staff writer