The Austin Chronicle

TxDOT Defies Stimulus Stipulations

By Lee Nichols, March 13, 2009, News

Time waits for no man, and neither does the Texas Department of Transportation.

Last week, brushing aside pleas from environmentalists, anti-tollers, and some legislators to delay and re-evaluate its road plans – and ignoring concerns that it might be violating the law – the Texas Transportation Com­mission, which oversees TxDOT, committed $1.2 billion in federal stimulus money to various roadway projects around the state. This follows previous approval of $500 million in stimulus money for maintenance projects.

It ended a rough week for TxDOT but may have been only the beginning of a rough legis­lative session for the agency, which faces Sunset review this year. Early in the week, Waco Rep. Jim Dunnam, chair of the House Select Committee on Federal Economic Stabilization Funding, tore into TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz when the latter admitted that, despite what the Ameri­can Reinvestment and Recovery Act requires, his organization had not considered "economically distressed areas" when prioritizing how to spend the $500 million. "We are subject to being charged back this money if y'all don't spend it in compliance with statute," Dunnam complained. Later, Houston's Gar­net Coleman read a resolution on the House floor declaring that "the failure of the commission and the department to conduct the people's business in a fair, open, and accountable manner has lost them the confidence of the House and of the people of Texas." Coleman eventually pulled it down, because some felt the language was a bit much, but the point was made.

To ameliorate the concerns, TxDOT retroactively added 10 projects to the original 266 maintenance items, all in counties meeting the economically distressed area definition. On the new roadway projects, the department added six to the original 23 staff recommendations, four of which are in economically distressed areas.

It was pretty obvious early on how the commission would vote. Local officials pleaded with commissioners to approve projects in their areas, and more than one jokingly were asked by Ted Houghton of El Paso, "So you'd like us to delay this, right?" When environmentalists and anti-toll-roaders went to the mic, Houghton lost his smile and became combative, calling one a "bigot" for objecting to foreign-owned toll roads.

The changes did not mollify Dunnam, and it's not clear if they'll satisfy the feds, either. "The requirement of the federal act is, before approving any projects, they give priority to economically distressed areas," Dunnam said. "They went in after the fact and added a few for appearances' sake." Asked the question many have wondered for years – "Is TxDOT out of control?" – Dunnam said: "No, I think frankly the governor is out of control. They report to him, they are really accountable only to him, and he continues to drive this toll-road agenda right down everyone's throat despite overwhelming public opposition, overwhelming opposition in the House and Senate. Blaming TxDOT is really missing the big picture."

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