March 29, 2007
After all is said and done, the moral of this unending, debilitating toll roads war might be this:Road builders want everything government has to offer, except the democracy.I wanted to update you all on a baffling new dispute over Senate Bill 668, the bill I’ve authored and written about previously that would put far more transparency and accountability into toll roads – and give local elected officials a stronger voice in their creation and operation. The bill strikes me and other legislators I’ve talked to as good policy. But TXDOT, along with local tolling authorities including some on the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board, apparently has problems with it. They’re not so worried about the drivers and voters, who under my bill would have a far better grasp on the tools and laws that are transforming our region and our state. No, they’re thinking about bond lawyers in New York, who just can’t understand why these appointees shouldn’t have dictatorial control over public money. Last week, a couple of hours before a bill I filed a month before was to be voted on by the Senate Transportation Committee, TXDOT representatives approached my staff and said they’d like to discuss some concerns they have about the bill.First of all, TXDOT’s approach is, again, their way or no way. Most agencies don’t act this way. Some dialogue about issues raised by bills is great, but it usually stops before the agency comes out in opposition. Second, I’ve been talking about the principles in my bill for months, and we’ve met with literally dozens of stakeholders in recent weeks to address concerns in a timely way. Instead of working with us, TXDOT started raising questions at the very last minute – late enough to potentially stall the bill for at least a week, which can be a lethal delay with two months left in the legislative session. Well, this morning, they finally stopped by with their suggestions. It was pretty simple: just gut the relevant parts of the bill. The last week of delay has resulted in nothing more than a week of delay. Also last week, a lawyer who represents several Regional Mobility Authorities, including the one in Central Texas, sent a letter to the Transportation Committee members outlining concerns about the bill. In itself, that wasn’t as frustrating – I’ve met with this guy and other Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority staff, and we’ve discussed their issues with the bill. I listened and made some changes based on their suggestions. And they suggested other changes that would have gutted most of the accountability provisions. I rejected those changes, but at least it was a dialogue. What’s frustrating is this ongoing refusal to accept the most basic levels of accountability and transparency. The letter said RMAs should be allowed to continue tolling a road once it’s paid off, continue diverting tolls from one project to another, and continue treating regional transportation planners as nothing more than menu-writers who give RMAs the ability to do pretty much whatever they want – all without input from local elected officials. I understand that some RMA board members also don’t like the requirement that elected officials would have to serve on these boards to make them more accountable to voters.”All of these will contribute to the perception of increased risk for RMAs in the capital markets,” the letter said. It didn’t dwell on the perception of trustworthiness among the public, although such concerns prompted both the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Council of Austin – both of which are pretty astute on financial matters – to endorse the principles in this bill. No one will or can say even generally how much transparency and accountability will cost them. Nor can they say why their bond lawyers in New York don’t trust elected officials to weigh in on critical issues of financial and transportation policy or make “sound and economic business decisions.”But they do, unequivocally, feel that opening a few key policy issues to elected officials will unnerve the financiers, most of whom will never see these toll roads.I’ll keep working with these constituents to find a policy that’s transparent and accountable, that does more to serve the public than to tax it, and that treats drivers as valued constituents and not resources to harvest. And I’ll definitely agree to disagree with them on occasion.What I won’t do is debate unspecific fear tactics and back-door stalling maneuvers. This is the exact kind of thing that leaves the public so distrustful of TXDOT, the CTRMA, and other tolling agencies. They’ll come to you late with an emergency, but they won’t tell you much about it other than how terrible it is. They’ll talk far more about the money they want to raise than the people they’re supposed to serve. And no matter how far they’ve worn down their credibility, they’ll protest the very same windows and levers that have allowed citizens to watch and control the construction of public works for centuries. I am convinced that eventually, these agencies will stop trying to put the biggest price tag they can find on democracy and start building the comprehensive transportation system that we all need and want.At that point, maybe we’ll actually get it.