May 08, 2009
Sunsetting TxDOT

Yesterday was Day One of the debate over HB300, the TxDOT sunset bill. The Lege is on Day Two now, and if you look at all the amendments they've gone through, you can see why this is taking so long. Some massive changes have been proposed and adopted, staring with this.

The first amendment to the bill, authored by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon and amended by Rep. David Leibowitz, makes an even bigger change than the base bill proposed, completely transforming TxDOT's leadership structure.

Under current law, there are five TxDOT commissioners, all appointed by the governor. The base bill proposed maintaining five commissioners, allowing the governor to appoint three and allowing the lt. gov. and the speaker to appoint one each. And McClendon's amendment would have replaced the five appointed commissioners with one elected commissioner.

She said she wanted to "restore public trust" to TxDOT by allowing the public to choose its commissioner.

Enter Leibowitiz, whose amendment to the McClendon amendment made an even more radical proposal. Rather than have a single elected commissioner, his amendment provided for the election of 14 regional commissioners and one commission chair elected at large.

Leibowitz said he didn't think it was a perfect proposal (they'll have time to tweak it later, since the bill is on second reading), but said it was "a step in the right direction."

I like the idea and think it would have the potential to make TxDOT more responsive to localities than it has been. That's the hope, anyway. It was adopted, as was a subsequent amendment aimed at red light cameras.

The Texas House late last night voted to strip cities of control over their red-light camera programs, granting the jurisdiction to the Texas Department of Transportation.

The change came in the form of an amendment, offered by state Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, that moved authority over the cameras' specifications, operations and maintenance to the transportation agency as part of its overall sunset bill.

An amendment to that measure, which was opposed by the city of Houston, also bans the installation of any new red-light cameras statewide after June 1.

Elkins told members that his amendment wouldn't affect any current camera systems (the city has 70), but rather just allow the agency to craft one set of rules statewide.

"When you go from one city or the next, you don't know if you're in compliance," he said. "The state needs to establish the policy."

Presumably there's a lot more to come. An overview of the base bill, pre-amendments, is here on the DMN's Transportation blog, which has several other entries of interest as well. EoW and McBlogger have more.

UPDATE: HB300 passes to engrossment.

The House tentatively approved a Texas Department of Transportation "sunset" bill in a non-recorded voice vote. The proposal also calls for the election of 14 regional commissioners.

Currently the governor appoints a five-member transportation commission, so the House move limits Republican Gov. Rick Perry's power over an agency that's widely criticized as dysfunctional. The bill still must have another House vote before moving to the Senate.

The sweeping TxDOT overhaul vote came in response to a scathing state sunset report that called for a revamp of the department's governing board and its dealings with lawmakers and the public.

The bill by Rep. Carl Isett, R-Lubbock, removes some duties from the agency, including driver's license oversight. It also would establish a legislative oversight committee, made up of six members, to study and make recommendations for the operation and needs of the state transportation system.

"No longer will the public be in the dark about construction projects in their own towns," Isett said as he introduced the legislation. "No longer will the public trust be disregarded."

One amendment attached to the bill would prohibit the state or local governments from adding automated cameras at intersections to catch traffic violations. Contracts for current red light cameras also could not be renewed once the bill becomes effective.

Lawmakers also added a provision that would require contractors for road construction projects to pay damages to businesses that have been adversely affected by project delays.

Obviously, there can still be changes made, and the Senate still needs to take action. More here, here, and here.

UPDATE: The AP story linked to in the first update contains a line that says the bill "removes some duties from [TxDOT], including driver's license oversight". That isn't entirely accurate. I received an email from the office of State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who was on the Sunset committee for TxDOT, which gave the following clarification:

TxDOT now has no oversight of driver licenses, although in many states the Department of Motor Vehicles does administer that function. The driver license functions are housed at the DPS, and the TxDOT Sunset Bill would not make any change in that regard, at least not this Session. The changes coming about in regard to the new DMV concern the permitting and titling of motor vehicles, salvage vehicles, the Auto Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, and similar related matters. Those divisions would move over from TxDOT and become part of the DMV, in order to house the administrative functions in an agency dealing directly with the public, private and commercial vehicle owners included. That would leave TxDOT in a better position to concentrate on infrastructure planning, design, maintenance and construction.

My thanks to Rep. McClendon for the information.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 08, 2009 to That's our Lege
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