Texans may be shocked to learn city and county officials they elect at the polls are only partially responsible for transportation spending. In North Texas, forty-four officials and bureaucrats run the Regional Transportation Council (RTC), an unelected body that controls funding for every project in the sixteen-county region.
This means that, in order for a project between cities to receive state and local funding, the regional government has to approve it.
A long time ago in a smoke-filled room far, far away, the Texas legislature agreed to pass legislation alongside Congress to create the RTC and Texas’ twenty-four other regional governments, also known as Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO).
While proponents claim these nebulous entities were “necessary” to allocate federal highway funds, they ultimately exist to take decisions out of the hands of locally elected officials — thereby circumventing direct taxpayer accountability.
Each chaired by a federal bureaucrat, regional governments make it easier for Washington D.C. to influence state and local spending decisions. It’s why the Dallas Observer referred to Michael Morris – the head of North Texas’ RTC – as the “King of DFW Politics.”
For every tax dollar in North Texas wasted on pedestrian bridges to nowhere, beautification, hiking trails, bike lanes, toll roads, and train tracks, the RTC voted to fund it. Unbelievably, the RTC approved a proposal to spend nearly $20 billon on government trains, despite failing to explain where the money would come from.
Unfortunately, there is no written record of how RTC members actually vote on projects, making it impossible for taxpayers to see what individual members support or oppose.
Regional governments provide political cover for local officials outside the RTC, who rarely oppose their policy edicts. Not only does the RTC serve as a scapegoat for spending waste, they leverage power in how they redistribute regional toll revenue for pork projects local officials don’t want to pay for out of their own budgets.
And for those who publicly oppose the RTC’s spending decisions, they risk losing funding for projects their local citizens actually need. This explains why Tarrant County’s $1 billion TexRail boondoggle has faced little opposition from city and county officials, even though the transit agency who plans to build the line admits it won’t reduce traffic congestion or air pollution.
Taxpayers should know the members of North Texas’ RTC are responsible for approving every project in the region, even though none are elected by voters on a ballot to serve in this capacity.
In the interim, taxpayers should ask local officials to represent their interests, and not those running the RTC. But unless lawmakers empower taxpayers by returning governing power – and accountability – back to locally elected officials outside the RTC, the federal government will have undue influence in how state and local transportation dollars are spent.