Dunnam Tries to Put Brakes on TxDOT

Democratic leader says transportation agency spending federal stimulus money without oversight

Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, at Monday's committee hearing
Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, at Monday's committee hearing (photo by Jana Birchum)

Gov. Rick Perry may not want to spend all of the Obama stimulus money, but the Texas Department of Transportation apparently does – and a little too quickly for the liking of Waco state Rep. Jim Dunnam.

It’s not that Dunnam doesn’t want Texas to use the stimulus cash – in fact, he aired his grievances this morning at a press conference held by several Democrats begging the governor to take all of the Washington cash it can. But Dunnam is none too pleased – in fact, wicked pissed would be more apt – that TxDOT has apparently spent some of the money with no legislative input and possibly in violation of the federal stimulus act.

Dunnam said that yesterday, before the House Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding which he chairs, TxDOT officials said they had already voted to spend $500 million of stimulus money on maintenance projects. (Texas could receive about $16 billion total, $2.25 billion of which is supposed to go to transportation.)

“What it appears to be is a rush to spend these funds and obligate them before the Legislature can see how the money is going to be spent,” Dunnam said. “They’re using an Article 9 rider that is supposed to be used when we’re not in session to allow people to spend federal funds. The rush to spend the money is clearly an effort to avoid transparency and accountability on transportation dollars.”

Dunnam said the maintenance money is being used to “fill holes created by the Republicans,” who he says failed to adequately fund transportation projects in previous sessions, rather than on stimulating the economy.

“No consideration was given to any of those projects to which would create the most jobs. No consideration was given about making sure that priority was given to economically distressed areas, which the stimulus act specifically mandates be given a priority. They also admitted yesterday that in regard to the priority projects, of which 70% are toll-related, no consideration was given to the federal mandate that you prioritize economically distressed areas. They also were unable to answer any questions about what particular projects, how many jobs they would create, versus other projects that might create more jobs that were not approved.

“In other agencies we’re not seeing this. We see other agencies are prioritizing things to meet the goals of the stimulus package, which are different than the everyday needs of a state. We’re supposed to specifically be looking at spending this money this money where it’s needed most, to create the most jobs, that will create the most long-term impact on our economy. Instead, TxDOT is just intent on spending it without giving the Legislature … an opportunity even to see what they’re doing.”

He said the committee convinced TxDOT to hold off on priority project approval for at least a week, “but frankly, they need to do more than that just to simply comply with the act. If they don’t factor in what the economically distressed areas are – and they didn’t have a map of that even until yesterday – then they’re not in compliance with the act.”

“I’ve never heard so much doubletalk in my life” listening to the TxDOT officials, Dunnam said. (Click here to watch the archived video of Dunnam ripping into TxDOT executive director Amadeo Saenz and his assistant, John Barton.) "Thank goodness we have a Sunset bill coming through this session that will give us the opportunity to finally bring some transparency and accountability to TxDOT."

(Monday's revelations, by the way, had Dunnam singing a very different tune from last week.)

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