May 29, 2010
The Texas Department of Transportation should significantly alter its leadership structure, reshuffle its executive ranks and reduce the role engineers play in leading the sprawling agency.
Those are among the recommendations of a 628-page audit of the department’s management and structure by accounting firm Grant Thornton.
Much of the audit focuses on the leadership of the department, which has been under fire in Austin for years, often because lawmakers and others see it as an agent of Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign to add toll roads throughout Texas.
Most criticism, however, was aimed at the long-tenured executives who run the agency day-to-day, not the five commissioners Perry has appointed to oversee the agency.
The audit notes that some of the most fundamental challenges faced by the department are an unsteady funding stream and soaring costs associated with road-building.
Texas cities are among the fastest-growing in America, and the state maintains more miles of highways than any other – an expensive combination.
But the report also states that a lack of trust by lawmakers and the public has played a critical role in preventing the agency from getting higher appropriations.
Some simply don’t believe the agency needs what it says it needs. Others, the audit said, say that until the department wins that trust back, it shouldn’t be given more money to spend – even if it clearly needs it.
The Transportation Department ordered the audit early last year while it was under the microscope of the Legislature’s Sunset Advisory Commission. That scrutiny will continue in 2011.
The audit recommends that the department:
• Significantly change its leadership structure, creating new executive positions that would answer to the executive director. These jobs should not be automatically reserved for current members of the administration, the audit says.
• Lessen its focus on engineering among its top leadership and throughout the agency. Engineers have been placed in non-engineering roles, making it hard for non-engineers “to be heard” no matter how strong their relevant, non-engineering expertise might be.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White was quick to cite the audit as proof that Perry has failed to develop a long-term transportation policy for the state.
Perry’s office responded that White hasn’t offered any transportation ideas.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the audit is more reason to remake the agency from the ground up.
“It’s time to strip TxDOT back to the engine block and rebuild it as an agency that can effectively serve Texas in this century,” Watson said.