February 27, 2007
More big news in the Senate on transportation today.In a story posted on the Austin American-Statesman website, Senator Steve Ogden declared that the Texas Department of Transportation “is out of control.” (You can read the story at statesman.com – click on their “Postcards from the Lege” blog.) Sen. Ogden is the chair of the Senate Finance Committee. That means he can do more to rein in TXDOT than most – he will have a lot to say about how much money the department will get over the next two years, and where it will be allowed to spend it. Specifically, the Chairman said TXDOT has too much leeway to build highways, and has been too willing to assign this critical state function over to private companies. He said there are as many as 21 such projects under consideration – an astronomical and unsettling number. “I’m trying to correct the sins of the past,” Sen. Ogden said.This is the latest skirmish in a controversy that’s been raging all session between the Senate and the Department of Transportation. Senator John Carona, chair of the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee I serve on, has been especially critical of TXDOT and its chairman. Senator Kevin Eltife declared in a committee hearing last week that lawmakers have “created a monster” in giving TXDOT so much power. I agree with all of these assessments. It’s simply too hard to get straightforward answers to basic questions, or to know exactly how much Texans will be asked to pay and where that money will go. Not only is TXDOT increasingly perceived as a closed, unaccountable agency, but its leadership appears indifferent to the widespread concern over this. Texans need to know that the investments they make in transportation – in projects that will define their lives and their children’s future – will do more to serve them than tax them. They need to know they control the money the state is raising, and they need to know the price is right. TXDOT doesn’t work for the Governor or even the Legislature. It works for Texans. I don’t usually think it’s productive to rattle sabers. I always first seek consensus in policy disputes and avoid winner-take-all politics. I also try to create and not eliminate tools that, used properly, may be beneficial. That’s been my approach on this debate, too. But with its “Don’t ask, just tell” policy on so many things, TXDOT has created this problem – not with the Senate, but with the people of Texas.