March 06, 2009
Activists tell TxDOT to slow down and be open

The following is a press release from a coalition of activists, including the Sierra Club, Environment Texas, Independent Texans, Houston Tomorrow, and the CTC:

Representatives of a broad coalition of quality of life, political reform, and environmental groups and citizens from across the state are requesting that the five Commissioners of the Texas Transportation Commission (the Commission) slow down and revisit the transportation projects that they will vote on Thursday morning at 10:00 AM to include in Texas' request to the Federal government for use of American Economic Recovery Act transportation funds. The Commission has the authority to delay the vote and tell the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to reconsider the project list.

With $1.2 billion of stimulus funding at stake, many Texans, including Texas legislators, have raised red flags, citing a lack of transparency and fairness in the process led by the TxDOT and culminating in the vote by the Commission today. The concerned groups charge that TxDOT failed to address environmental and quality of life issues, including development of alternative forms of transportation.

That vote was taken yesterday, and TxDOT went ahead with its original plans anyway. The fight isn't over - as noted before, among the projects in scope for this is the Grand Parkway Segment E, for which there are still many hurdles to be cleared, and thus many more opportunities for the public to push back. TxDOT is also still subject to a sunset review this session, and their actions here can and will be used as evidence of whether or not they've made any substantive changes as they'd promised.

The rest of the release is beneath the fold. I will note that if you're one of those people who thinks Metro should have been more transparent in their negotiations with Parsons, you ought to be holding TxDOT to a similar level of scrutiny. It's still the public's money, after all.

Quality of Life and Environment at Stake with Bad Projects

The coalition is asking TxDOT to delay its vote tomorrow and expressing concerns about quality of life and environmental impacts from new roads that drive sprawl development in sensitive, uninhabited areas of Texas. The groups point out that such projects pose serious risks to the climate, to Texans' quality of life, risks to groundwater quality and quantity, air quality, habitat and species diversity. The coalition asserts that the current list of projects will encourage a new wave of inefficient housing development at a time when foreclosures are widespread and the market is moving away from such development. The groups are asking TxDOT to provide transportation infrastructure closer and more connected to schools, jobs, and services in places where people already live.

"What we build now will determine where we work and where we live for decades to come, as well as determining our quality of life," said Jon Boyd, Advocacy Chair for the Citizens' Transportation Coalition. "Bad transportation projects squander taxpayers' money, and sever neighborhoods and habitats. TxDOT needs to slow down and think carefully about the project list. Stimulus funding should address the needs of all Texans - not just developers, contractors, and special interests."

Instead of considering true environmental impacts, TxDOT's short list is biased toward new highways in uninhabited places and it includes projects that are actively opposed by citizen groups. Among other projects, many Texans oppose the Grand Parkway and feel that it will destroy the heart of one of Texas' ecological treasures, the Katy Prairie.

"TxDOT proposes highway robbery by destroying Houston's beautiful Katy Prairie, encouraging energy wasteful sprawl, and paving empty spaces. TxDOT should fix the roads where people already live and not build new 'Roads to Nowhere,'" said Sierra Club's Brandt Mannchen.

Comparing an earlier TxDOT list submitted to the Texas Select Committee on Federal Economic Stimulation, and its later short list, new construction now takes precedence over rebuilding bridges and other proposals to fix existing transportation systems. TxDOT never considered transit, sidewalks, complete streets, or other multimodal solutions, even though this pool of stimulus money was designed for shovel-ready, green projects, such as Houston's innovative light rail expansion.

"There are better and more responsible ways to spend this money that create more jobs and reduce our burden on the environment," said Alejandro Savransky, Environment Texas Field Organizer. "If we continue with business as usual - more highways and toll roads to nowhere - we will be laying the groundwork for decades of increased global warming pollution and dependence on oil. We should instead choose a different path. Public transportation and transportation alternatives mean more and better jobs now, as well as less global warming pollution, fewer asthma attacks from air pollution, and lower dependence on oil."

Lack of Accountability and Transparency Put Stimulus Funds at Risk

Many of the groups involved have been closely following the TxDOT Sunset Review Commission's numerous recommendations for reform of TxDOT principal among those being to include more public input. These recommendations are under consideration in current legislation.

"The people of Texas and the legislature spoke clearly and comprehensively to the Texas Sunset Commission about their concerns with TxDOT behavior." says Jay Blazek Crossley of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit that works on transportation and urban planning issues in Houston. "Texans are asking the agency to address the multimodal transportation needs of all ages, lifestyles, and abilities, to overhaul its public participation process, to develop long range planning processes that Texas communities feel have a positive impact on their future, and to stop advocating to the public in favor of any particular policy alternative,"

TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz claims to have achieved an "open, in-depth, and transparent" process in developing the stimulus funds list, however the 'delay the vote' coalition group representatives have experienced differently. TxDOT representatives have not addressed citizen concerns, have not explained how TxDOT prioritized projects for stimulus funding, have not explained a process for working with citizens and the legislature to use these funds to build a stronger Texas. Instead they have belittled those who have complained. In line with the Sunset Review Commission's mandates currently in process in the Legislature, the new stimulus funds tracker from the Texas Comptroller's office asserts, 'At both the state and federal levels, transparency and accountability are critical parts of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act.'

The Texas legislature and federal congressional delegation should work with the federal and state administration to ensure that Texas stimulus funds create good jobs, preserve Texas land, and provide efficient transportation in a way that the public feels is open and transparent.

"I hope all Texans - regardless of their politics - go to to contact Vice President Joe Biden, who was appointed by the President to be in charge of the stimulus funds," said Linda Curtis with Independent Texans. "Let the Vice President know that federal intervention is warranted if TxDOT doesn't slow down and take the 120 days they have to hear citizens' real and justifiable concerns."

The Commission is scheduled to vote at 10:00 AM on Thursday in Austin (125 11th Street). Representatives of the coalition will show up to request a delay.

Reporters and interested persons can compare TxDOT's original list,
with TxDOT's current, short list, (which is the one they will vote on Thursday), to see what was dropped:

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 06, 2009 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
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