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Texas Toll Road Storm Now a Transportation Tempest

Leonard Gilroy
May 13, 2009, 6:52pm

What started as a storm in Texas over privately-financed toll roads has now devolved into a tempest that threatens the future of the state's transportation system. 

A few weeks ago, I commented that, "a number of Texas legislators have made a huge mistake in allowing themselves to be captured emotionally and politically by a disproportionately vocal, but unfortunately misguided, coalition of anti-toll activists." The emotional overreaction in the legislature has now morphed into to a freakish mob hysteria, as a pointed editorial in today's Austin American-Statesman explains:

The road to hell is paved not by good intentions but by the Texas Legislature.

The Texas House of Representatives has approved and sent to the Senate a bill with an awful provision to reorganize, or maybe deorganize, the Texas Transportation Commission. The Senate should kill it.

Under the plan, voters statewide would elect the head of the Texas Transportation Commission, which governs the Texas Department of Transportation, or TxDOT, which spends about $8 billion a year and has about 14,500 employees. The plan also would create commissioners elected from 14 highway districts.

This new mini-house of horrors for highways would replace the current five-member commission whose members are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Texas Senate.

You don't need to be a political scientist to know what would happen in the real world: Engineering companies, paving contractors and others that make up the highway construction business would soon be tapped — heavily — for campaign contributions to the dozens of candidates who would emerge to run for these 15 commissioner slots.

Voters already dazed and confused by campaigns for dozens of offices on the ballot, everything from governor to water conservation district board seats, would be trying to figure out who they think would do the best job in Austin of getting state money to pay for widening their own road.

Once elected, the 15 commissioners would set to work arguing over whose new highways or expansion projects were absolutely, positively critical to the future of Texas. And, of course, the backroom deal-cutting would begin. [...]

Legislators appear to be taking an indirect shot at [Governor Rick] Perry, but in so doing aim a direct hit at Texans who use roads for transportation and not for political leverage.

The Dallas Morning News also weighs in:

Someone call the grownups in the state Capitol. Members of the House have made a mess, and it looks like they've left it to the Senate to clean up.

Lawmakers who had been itching to take their licks at the Texas Department of Transportation got their chance, with a House bill aimed at tightening up the agency's governance. But things got out of hand, and by the time lawmakers were done this week, their handiwork was an example of how not to govern. One member called the bill "sloppy and mob-driven."

Exhibit A is the notion to abolish the five-person Transportation Commission, one of dozens of governor-appointed boards that run state government. As brought to the House, the TxDOT bill kept the commission but shortened its leash by giving lawmakers more control of appointments. That proposal would have been fine.

But that didn't satisfy anti-TxDOT zealots, who might have been driven by anger at toll roads or Gov. Rick Perry's interest in privatization. Or maybe they were tired of complaints from back home that highways aren't getting built fast enough.

Whatever, the House overwhelmingly backed the idea to wipe out the commission in favor of a single new, elected state highway commissioner. What an awful mix – a highway czar, political contributions, campaign promises of new roads.

The House was on a roll. Members added 14 more elected transportation commissioners, to be chosen from districts that have yet to be drawn. The amendment's author said he was not wedded to 14 districts, but no one seemed interested in debating the number, so 14 it was.

Wait. There's more – including a new "legislative oversight committee," which could hire its own staff and outside consultants to tell the new elected officials how to be more efficient. Why do we doubt that multiplying government and adding politics will do better in stretching pitifully thin state highway dollars? [...]

Bitterness at toll roads popped up like springtime dandelions through 203 bill amendments over three days. The House ultimately reined in a useful toll-road financing method used in North Texas, but only after agreeing to politically convenient exceptions for projects in different members' districts.

TxDOT has plenty of faults and, like any level of government, needs to constantly work to improve accountability.

Passage of the TxDOT bill may give self-styled reformers the ability to claim victory. But whether lawmakers admit it or not, inadequate highway funding is at the root of their anger. It's the reason toll roads have proliferated and constituents are steamed. The sooner lawmakers reckon with that the closer Texas gets to clear-headed lawmaking.

More to come on this later as the story unfolds. Hopefully the Texas Senate will adopt a more mature positionand work to salvage some semblance of serious transportation policy out of the House's mess. And hopefully the Senate will realize something apparently lost on the House—if your goal is to expand Texas' transportation system, the last thing you should be doing is trying to further politicize it.


Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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