On the Road (and Rail) Again

Watson's take on transportation reform

Sen. Kirk Watson
Sen. Kirk Watson (Photo by John Anderson)

Transportation reform in Texas is a lot like driving on I-35 at rush hour: a lot of noise, a lot of energy, and a lot of time spent behind the wheel. But as Texans lose the luxury of throwing money at highways, Senate Trans­port­ation & Homeland Security Committee Vice Chair Kirk Watson suspects this may be the time for a real discussion about road, rail, and decision-making.

Watson admits he was frustrated last session by Texas Department of Transporta­tion's "total lack of communication except for, 'Here's how it's going to be, and if you don't like it, get out of the way.'" But he's seen improvements since the April 2008 appointment of Texas Transportation Com­mis­sion Chair Deirdre Delisi: "Sometimes it means taking the first step to get some of that communication, but ... it's the difference between being able to open the door and last session [when] it was always locked."

While he remains unconvinced about replacing the five-member Texas Transporta­tion Commission with a single elected commissioner ("Having had the experience of running statewide and knowing how expensive and difficult it is, I worry about who would have resources to run," he said), Watson is looking to clarify accountability in the agency. "When the place was at its worst," he said, "even a guy who's vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee would get conflicting answers."

If accountability is to be more centralized, Watson wants decision-making better distributed. He proposes giving more authority to the metropolitan planning organizations (the next task, he said, is to make the "P" in Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization "really mean something"). After decades of legislator frustration with TxDOT's "one-size-fits-all" model, Watson said, he's even seeing support for localized fundraising, such as gas tax and vehicle registration charges. "It may be the old mayor in me," he said, "but I really believe in this concept of local control, as long as you build in mechanisms of accountability."

Watson is also optimistic about the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund. Austinites may be waiting to see how many passengers use the new Capital Metro­Rail, but with three lines open in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and three more to open by 2013, Watson says an increasingly densely populated Texas is learning the mass transit lessons the East Coast learned decades ago. "Think about tying Austin and San Antonio together with a real commuter rail line," he said. "Think about what that would mean in terms of the efficient use of dollars."

Watson has some advice for doubters. "Go stand at the corner of Sixth and MoPac when those freight trains go through, and count the number of containers on those rails. Then think about what would happen if we had better freight carriage so you could carry more containers, so we could reduce those numbers of big ol' trucks that are on the road."

While money will be a fight, Watson detects a change in the Lege from examining programs in isolation to looking at long-term, statewide benefits. Last session saw greater investment in crime prevention and rehabilitation. More recently, Lt. Gov. David Dew­hurst has sung the praises of preventative medicine. With provable savings to be made from investing in freight rail (fewer heavy trucks means fewer new roads and less costly damage), "Instead of being penny-wise and pound-foolish," Watson said, "put the money in so that you're saving money over the long haul."

With so little state cash around, the biggest initial outlay may come from the billions of transportation dollars in the Amer­ican Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That's not just bailout cash for old programs, Watson argues: "If we're smart about it, it's money that will be spent on things that will help our economic development and quality of life for a long time."

As for Gov. Rick Perry's vocal opposition to the bill, "Regardless of whether he disagrees with [it], there's going to be a stimulus package," Watson said. "When it's paid back, nobody in D.C. is going to look at Tex­as and say, 'Your governor didn't want any of this money; you don't have to participate in the repayment.'"

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