State senator accuses TxDOT of ignoring lawmakers

| 8/9/2007

A Texas state senator is accusing the Texas Department of Transportation of doing its own thing despite the wishes of state lawmakers.

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, made no bones about the relationship between lawmakers and the state DOT on Wednesday, Aug. 7, during a panel discussion before the Texas Senate’s Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, which was part of the 10th annual Texas Transportation Summit in Irving, TX.

“In order to maintain a good relationship with TxDOT, which is what I think every one of us wants, what does it take to get TxDOT and the commissioners to listen to the wishes of the legislature?” Carona asked to panelists Fred Underwood of the Texas Transportation Commission and Amadeo Saentz, assistant executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Carona accused TxDOT of doing its own thing by testing speed cameras despite opposition to such cameras from lawmakers.

“This is the treatment that we get, and yet you all like to feign disbelief that you have such a poor relationship with the legislature, and I’m still waiting on the courtesy of a reply,” Carona said.

Saentz fielded the question about the cameras.

“What we were trying to do with this research study was to find out how effective speed cameras were,” he said. “When we use speed cameras in construction projects, we don’t send letters (fines) to anybody.”

Saentz said TxDOT intends to approach the legislature next session with a camera proposal.

“We wanted to see if we could see a change in behavior,” he said.

Carona said he wanted more dialogue and communication from transportation officials. In opening remarks during the 50-minute panel discussion, Carona said he was denied information from TxDOT about the condition of the state’s bridges.

“The answer was, ‘we can’t give you that information, it’s confidential,’ ” Carona said.

“If the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee can’t get that – or its members – who does get it?”

Saentz said certain bridge information in the database is protected for security reasons.

“If you put out this bridge and the thing that makes it weak, someone knows where to go to do something to the structure,” Saentz said, adding that the information should be available to lawmakers but not the public.

Carona wanted to know locations of bridges in need of repair or replacement.

According to the U.S. DOT Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2,219 of the 49,518 bridges in Texas are structurally deficient – about 4 percent. Nationwide, 12 percent of bridges are rated structurally deficient by the DOT bureau.

The topic turned to toll roads and Senate Bill 792, signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry to establish a two-year moratorium on private investors building or operating toll roads.

Underwood provided the committee with a list of ongoing TxDOT projects that he said were exempt from the moratorium. Some of those didn’t sit well with Carona.

“What I heard was, ‘we’ve found another way to get around this because you all put roadblocks in front of us with (Senate Bill) 792,’ ” Carona said.

Carona said TxDOT seemed to be doing its own thing despite the moratorium.

“It is a core attitude of arrogance that I believe still exists, and I guess I should expect it to exist because none of the characters have changed,” Carona said.

“We have some ‘new’ characters,” he added, drawing uneasy laughter.

Underwood replied good-naturedly, saying, “I think that’s the nicest thing I’ve been called in the last month.”

Carona’s reply was curt, drawing more laughter.

“I’m not talking about you, because you’re new ... but you will be corrupted in time.”

Carona returned to a serious tone.

“All we’re asking for is the courtesy of an explanation,” he said. “Meeting us halfway is the respect to at least send a letter and explain yourselves. I certainly don’t have the power to sit here and mandate that you do it. I certainly have the ability to turn up the heat if you don’t. So I would just urge you to take that message back to your commissioners. We want to be partners with you, but partners have to be able to communicate with one another.”

The senator did thank the panelists for fielding his questions and comments, saying at one point to Saentz, “Every once in a while, we put you in the hot seat, but we love ya.”

Hoping to end with a mutual understanding, Saentz reiterated a previous point about a funding shortfall for transportation projects.

“We’re going to have to make some adjustments. Something’s going to have to be done at the federal level, otherwise we’re going to have more projects than money to build them in the years to come,” Saentz said.

Carona took one last opportunity to make a point.

“In a perfect world, we’d simply do away with the federal portion, we’d contribute not a nickel and we would tax ourselves at the state level and get our projects done,” Carona said. “But, I assume we don’t have that option.”

– By David Tanner, staff writer