Yesterday (Wednesday) was a tough day for TxDOT. After the usual routine of resolutions congratulating this and that, and welcoming these and those, the House session ended with a resolution aimed squarely at the transportation agency. Dunnam, Coleman, and other lawmakers are unhappy that TxDOT rushed to decide how to use its $1.2 billion in stimulus funding without consulting with the stimulus committee – even though the federal law allows the agency 120 days (until June 17) to obligate half of the money. TxDOT decided on February 26 to use $500 million for maintenance projects and announced its intention to allocate the rest of the money today.
One of the things that has lawmakers upset is that TxDOT plans to use $841 million of the $1.2 billion for toll road projects. Toll roads are not popular, and lawmakers fear that they will feel the heat. By obligating the money immediately, TxDOT was able to cut the Legislature out of the process.
Speaking to the House on Tuesday, Dunnam noted that TxDOT obligated the maintenance money without giving any indication of following the mandates of the federal legislation to consider distressed areas and maximization of new jobs. Coleman ran with his resolution on Wednesday, which ended with a sharp rebuke of TxDOT: “[The House] declares that the failure of the commission and the department to conduct the people’s business in a fair, open, and accountable manner has lost them the confidence of the House and of the people of Texas.” (Some would say that TxDOT had lost that confidence years ago.) Phil King and Jim Keffer decided that this was too inflammatory, and Coleman pulled the resolution down.
It wasn’t clear exactly what the lawmakers were trying to accomplish, but TxDOT’s defenders were concerned that what some legislators wanted wasn’t just a slower timetable. It was earmarks: specific transportation projects for their districts. Apparently TxDOT was getting pressure from members. This is bad business–and, to be fair to Coleman, he was the first to say so. We don’t want to go back to the days when lawmakers assembled local delegations to lobby TxDOT and kiss the ring in hopes of getting pet projects built–as opposed to TxDOT’s taking on projects in the order of their priority and affordability.
TxDOT won the battle, but the big war has yet to be fought. That, of course, is the TxDOT Sunset bill, which poor Isett is going to have to carry (by choice) in the face of a surly House. This episode was one more indication of the considerable antagonism toward TxDOT in the Legislature, which runs deep for reason such as an exchange that took place in the stimulus committee. Carole Kent asked if a particular project was a toll road, and the TxDOT witness said no. That was not a true answer. The project involved managed lanes–which are tolled. Episodes like this explain why TxDOT has lost the confidence of the Legislature, and why the antangonism it generates is not going to go away.