Rethinking transportation policy
Wed December 30, 2009 12:27 pm

Let's start by asking what is TxDOT's biggest problem. The answer is: the culture of the agency. It is impervious to change. The most important element in the plan that Hutchison announced yesterday was to bring in a professional manager -- a CEO -- to oversee the agency. While I believe that reshuffling the bureaucratic deck is rarely effective, TxDOT is the poster boy for why it is sometimes necessary. TxDOT's management structure ensures the continuance of the status quo. One reason that TxDOT still does things the way it has always done things is that it almost never hires top management from outside the agency, at the level of division director or district engineer and higher. Managers are promoted from within. The culture is self-perpetuating. Like virtually all state agencies, TxDOT is governed by a commission (the Texas Highway Commission, which once consisted of three members appointed by the governor but has been expanded to five, and which Hutchison would expand to nine), whose chairman shares management responsibility with a professional staff. But the commissioner form of government assures that the real power is punted to the bureaucracy. There is plenty of external pressure for the agency to modernize itself, from the Legislature and from the public, but the agency remains impervious to change.

What would a CEO-type do? The most obvious problem is that TxDOT has far more employees than it needs. The agency itself says that it has no money to build new roads. So what do its five thousand or so employees do all day? My guess is that they design projects that cannot be built under current financial circumstances. In my interviewing, I learned that there is no other transportation department in the state that operates this way: no city, no county, no toll road authority. And, for that matter, few state transportation agencies (perhaps CALTRANS would qualify as an exception, due to the power of state employee unions) that follow the TxDOT model. Cities, counties, and toll road authorities do not maintain huge bureaucracies that work on road projects that can't be built. There are two solutions to this situation: downsize or outsource. They amount to the same thing: using private sector engineering firms to do the work that state employees are doing now. I'm told that the savings would be something in the neighborhood of $200 million a year.

By comparison, the local toll road agencies around the state, particularly those in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas, do what transportation agencies ought to do. They identify the needs, they identify the projects that can meet the needs, they identify the funding sources, and they deliver the projects. What they don't do is the engineering work. They are lean. They contract with engineering professionals, allowing the toll authority to save money on personnel. Apparently, TxDOT thinks that everyone else is out of step except themselves.

Change at TxDOT is shaping up as Hutchison's best argument in this campaign. If she is going to have any chance to win the primary, she must shift the argument from Washington-based issues, which the Perry campaign has been capitalizing on for a year, to Texas-based issues. Transportation is Perry's most vulnerable area; it makes sense to start there. The Perry campaign's response to her plan -- that most of her recommendations were already state policy -- was not persuasive. She has already won this debate, because Texans who care about transportation issues know that as long as Perry is governor, nothing is going to change.

* * * *

A knowledgeable friend e-mailed me a couple of observations, which I will add to this post:

1. Governors tend to get what they want out of this agency, so it matters what their goals are. Richards wanted more browns, blacks, and women - and she got that. Perry wanted public private partnerships and the TransTexas Corridor - and he got that. So one might conclude that a governor who wants culture change and modernization might get that.

2. One correction: There are actually 14,000 employees at TxDOT. The 5,000 number refers to the number in the engineering and project delivery function. Another 5,000 are in maintenance and another 4,000 in administration and support (a staggering number in itself).

My comment: You would think that TxDOT could get by on less.

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