Official testimony of senior Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) leadership at a recent House hearing revealed seemingly contradictory Prop 1 claims, a complete lack of thoughtful policy discussions, and major inconsistencies in project evaluation by the agency. These comments solidify the conclusion that the agency must be overhauled with proper processes before it can produce better outcomes for Texans.
TxDOT’s top brass detailed many facets of agency funding and practice in approaching state transportation needs. Legislators generally chastised the agency for some recent, well-publicized gaffes.
The chief financial officer of TxDOT, James Bass told lawmakers that fund-swaps could essentially fund just about anything the agency desires despite legal eligibility criteria for certain funding sources.
Minutes later, Bass went on to assert that Proposition 1 funds could not be used for tolls. Absent from this claim was any discussion addressing the likely possibility that the new cash infusion would indirectly incentivize tolled projects by “freeing-up” dollars otherwise used for tolls either by the agency or local transportation authorities known as Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs).
When asked about project approval by the Texas Transportation Commission (TTC), Commissioner Victor Vandergriff lamented to lawmakers that the commission rarely discusses or debates any projects. “The commission only votes on what is presented before it,” said Vandergriff. His statements implied that the commission simply rubber-stamps projects and policies it is given.
According to Vandergriff, a numerical process for “scoring” and prioritizing potential projects exists within the agency but there are many projects approved by the TTC that don’t even undergo this process. Vandergriff also reported that the commission doesn’t actively prioritize important state needs such as energy sector roads.
It has been the unchanging position of this publication that until the agency fully implements an objective, apolitical, and data-driven process for scoring and prioritizing all projects that is also publically transparent; they will likely keep with their trend of expensive public missteps.
This current lack of dependable process and heavy-handed manipulation by a few TTC members could be the reason TxDOT threw nearly half of a billion dollars to wasteful transit boondoggles without a legally required public hearing.
Along with a call for reform, critics should note that only one solution will “fix” TxDOT: an improved process. If reformers focus solely on remediating poor outcomes or throwing money at the system in lieu of establishing a consistent process, they will get both process and outcomes wrong, while wasting even more money.
While many TxDOT critics seem to be fully prepared to legislatively kneecap the agency, this misses the important opportunity for reform. Simply “punishing” the agency will be a lose-lose for both legislators and taxpayers and more money given to the current system only fuels further dysfunction.
Some have used TxDOT’s blunders to suggest that a large portion of transportation dollars should bypass the agency altogether and go directly to Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs) and local planning bodies called Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) for projects. Proponents of this plan want as much as 60% of new revenue dedicated to “new construction” to go straight to these agencies. Given the track records of these organizations and their absence of any major oversight, it is likely that this alternative would actually worsen Texans’ current transportation woes.
TxDOT has the potential to use capable staff and valuable tools to effectively serve taxpayers. Texans must demand reform for TxDOT. Reform for the agency is simple: instill a proper process for evaluating expenditures, use objective factors to prioritize projects, protect taxpayers from abuse, end political manipulation, and let the staff do their jobs for the people of Texas.