December 27, 2007
State Sen. Kirk Watson earlier this month had asked for answers from the Texas Department of Transportation about why the agency is several hundred million dollars short for Austin toll road projects. Based on Watson’s response to TxDOT’s Dec. 21 answer, he isn’t satisfied with what he’s heard so far.
Aside from the substance of the six-page TxDOT letter on its financial challenges, which Watson deemed “very disappointing” in an e-mail to other local transportation leaders, Watson also found the timing suspicious. His office received the letter about 5 p.m. Friday as the bulk of Texans — and media — hunkered down for four days of travel and Christmas festivities.
The TxDOT letter was shared with reporters three days later, on Christmas Eve.
“I’m concerned that the delay was intended to postpone broadcast of this letter to a time where as few people as possible would be aware of it,” Watson, D-Austin, said in his e-mail to members of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board. Watson is chairman of the CAMPO board.
“The timing isn’t ideal,” Transportation Department spokesman Chris Lippincott told the American-Statesman on Monday after sending out the letter. But he said the department got it done as quickly as possible and produced the letter 11 days after Watson had sent the agency a letter with 21 questions about why Austin might lose TxDOT funding.
“We were committed to get an answer to (Watson) before the holidays,” Lippincott said.
The to-and-fro between the senator and TxDOT arose from the agency’s decision in late November to issue no more contracts for new and expanded road construction beginning Feb. 1, aside from projects previously committed under certain bond programs.
That decision seemingly threatens $500 million to $700 million that the Transportation Department had promised for a five-road, $1.45 billion tollway plan approved by the CAMPO board in October.
The core of Watson’s earlier letter: What did TxDOT not know about its emerging financial plight on Oct. 8, when he and his CAMPO colleagues made a difficult vote authorizing the five toll roads, that it learned in the subsequent two months? The department’s latest letter, by Watson’s lights, ignores that and other requests for information in his earlier letter.
“The letter provides no specific clarification and fails to answer most of my questions,” Watson said in his e-mail to CAMPO board members.
The TxDOT letter, signed by Executive Director Amadeo Saenz, declines to answer the Watson questions point by point, saying “a simple question and answer format does not convey the whole story.”
Saenz then walks through the financial challenges facing the department: lost federal funds, maintenance needs, inflation and the Legislature’s decision this year to limit the agency’s ability to reach long-term toll road leases with private companies.
“We believed (and still do) that … all Texans would benefit from such an arrangement,” Saenz wrote about private tollway contracts.
So, will Austin get the promised $500 million to $700 million for the toll roads?
Saenz’s letter doesn’t specifically answer that question. But he does say that the 11-county Austin district was to have had $720 million for new construction from 2005 through 2015 but that the figure now will be $443 million, absent further developments.
About $191 million of that is committed to ongoing projects, Saenz wrote, leaving $252 million for the rest of the period.