June 03, 2008
Sunsetting TxDOT

There may or may not be a change of direction afoot at the Texas Department of Transportation, but there will be some changes coming whether TxDOT wants them or not.

Saying big changes are needed to restore trust in the Texas Department of Transportation, the Sunset Advisory Commission staff is recommending a revamp of its governing board, project planning, and dealings with lawmakers and the public.

The commission's report, to be released today, comes in the wake of controversy over planned public-private partnerships on toll roads, the route of the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor transportation network and questions concerning agency funding figures. The Houston Chronicle obtained a copy of the report.

"The Sunset review of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) occurred against a backdrop of distrust and frustration with the Department and the demand for more transparency, accountability, and responsiveness," the report says. "Many expressed concerns that TxDOT was 'out of control,' advancing its own agenda against objections of both the Legislature and the public."

The report says, "tweaking the status quo is simply not enough" to restore trust.

The report is here, in all its 157-page PDF glory. The Texas Politics blog has a brief bullet-point summary.

Among the proposed changes, the staff recommends replacing the five-member commission with a single commissioner, who would have a two-year term rather than the current six-year term. The shorter term would put the required confirmation before the Senate more often, giving lawmakers more oversight.

"We wouldn't have a problem with that," said Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, of the proposal to change from five appointed commissioners to one.

The commissioner, however, still would be appointed by the governor, leaving room for concern by opponents of TxDOT's policies. That's because the policies pushed by the Texas Transportation Commission are in sync with those of Perry, who names the commissioners. Opponents of those policies would prefer an elected commissioner or commissioners.

"I wasn't as much of a stickler on whether there was one, three or five. The most important thing is that they're elected positions," said Sal Costello of TexasTollParty.com. "It gets right down to who's accountable."

Making the position of TxDOT Chair an elected one is certainly reasonable; I've seen similar and also reasonable proposals to make Secretary of State and HHSC Commissioner elected positions as well. It must be noted that the ability to make such appointments is one of the chief powers explicitly granted to the Governor; taking that away would significantly weaken the office. That may be appealing when the governorship is held by the likes of Rick Perry, but it may lose some of that luster when the office is occupied by someone who actually cares about good governance. That doesn't mean I wouldn't support this idea - I consider myself neutral on it for now - but it's not something that should be undertaken lightly.

On a related note, Burka thinks that TxDOT Chair Diane Delisi's recent statements means that the Trans Texas Corridor - by which he means "the grandiose plan conceived by Ric Williamson -- a network of privatized toll roads criss-crossing Texas with a 1,200-foot right of way, and funded by upfront payments" - is dead. I hope he's right.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 03, 2008 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles