Senators Trounce Transportation Officials

Politicos field tough questions during three-hour grilling

Officials from the Texas Department of Transportation fielded tough questions during a three-hour grilling before a joint Senate committee last Tuesday morning, and one of the toughest lines of inquiry came from Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Watson has plenty of reasons to be unhappy with the transportation department. In TxDOT's new world of transportation funding – the world with all those toll roads and public-private partnerships – Central Texas leaders have put their credibility on the line, most recently with a vote last October to, once more, approve a set of toll roads. Unknown to them, though, TxDOT already was planning major budget cuts that were going to trickle down to Central Texas. Watson was more than miffed. He was angry during the joint committee meeting of Senate Finance and Senate Transportation and Homeland Security, coldly leading TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz and Chief Financial Officer James Bass through a series of questions about what they knew and when.

"Why is it we should trust you?" Watson asked agency officials and three commissioners from the Transportation Commission. "During this entire process, we have been completely relying upon you guys to be honest with me – then you change your mind after the fact."

Senators took turns with the agency, scolding it for failing to disclose financial problems and expressing suspicion about the motives behind the announcement. Watson, for one, said he's suspicious the agency might be using this recent budget shortfall to force Central Texas to convert its toll roads to public-private partnerships. "I think there's potential – and I'm not even sure that's a good word – that what you did to the Austin region is geared at getting toll roads into the Transportation Improvement Program so that you can attempt to privatize those," Watson said. "As long as I'm chair of the [Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization], we will strip those roads out of the TIP so that it cannot occur."

Commissioner Ted Houghton noted the Transportation Commission has identified 87 projects for possible alternative funding – only a tiny fraction of the state's entire road system. Watson balked, saying it might be a small part of the state's roads, but it's a big part of his own district.

During the hearing, Saenz revealed TxDOT had made a significant error in reconciling its projects and revenues, leaving the agency with $1.1 billion less than anticipated. Saenz, who's been on the job since last October, said the agency already has moved to address the issue, making sure that all relevant divisions report to Bass and that Bass be the point person for all future budget projections.

What chairs Sens. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and John Carona, R-Dallas, want to see is the Transportation Commission refrain from redirecting project funds to maintenance unless absolutely necessary and begin issuing the $5 billion in bonds approved by voters last November. "We expect to see that debt issued," Carona said. "It's no secret the gov­ernor's not supportive of that, but the fact of the matter is that this Transportation Commis­sion has to work with us and not against us. The tool of unissued debt is enormous, and we expect you to issue that debt."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas Department of Transportation, Kirk Watson, Amadeo Saenz, James Bass, Ted Houghton, Steve Ogden, John Carona

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