Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs) tasked with transportation projects in certain areas of the Lone Star State are engaged in waste and incompetence that would make TXDOT blush. Even worse: our state transportation dollars subsidize the waste, meaning that when an RMA wastes money, all Texans pay.
In 2003, the Texas Legislature passed the Regional Mobility Authority Act. This law, codified as Section 370 of the Transportation Code, spells out the powers, duties and operations of RMAs. TXDOT’s general overview of RMAs can be found here.
Operating under the approval of the Texas Transportation Commission, RMAs essentially perform many duplicative functions of TXDOT, only with a much higher potential for waste, fraud, and abuse.
The Governor and the Commissioners Courts of county governments in an RMA appoint directors for the agency. Directors of RMAs serve two-year terms and answer only to the politicians who appoint them.
The powers granted to RMAs under state law are extensive. Compared to TXDOT, RMAs have a virtual carte blanche on a number of important powers relating to transportation projects and facilities. In fact, RMAs are even able to build, own, and operate utilities. With tolling authority, bonding authority, building authority, and practically no voter accountability, RMAs are an ideal vehicle for a taxpayer funded, special interest feeding frenzy.
Ironically, RMAs also have the ability to lavishly spend tax money on high-dollar Austin lobbyists, something TXDOT is legally forbidden from doing. With all the state money that RMAs receive, their lobby expenditures are, without doubt, a clear violation of state law.
Even more troubling, Texans who do not live in a RMA still contribute tax dollars to these profligate agencies. RMAs typically use their local dollars to “leverage” state funds from TXDOT for transportation projects. This implicit subsidy means that every Texas taxpayer funds RMA waste.
Just about every one of Texas’ eight currently operating RMAs has a different story of waste.
Most recently, the Northeast Texas RMA (NETRMA) recently received $55 million in loan “forgiveness” from TXDOT for debt it held on a sparsely used toll road southwest of Tyler, Texas. NETRMA is also gaining a flair for the absurd in its recent plans to spend $400,000 converting an eight mile section of old railroad right-of-way into a hike and bike trail (at a cost of $50,000 per mile).
San Antonio’s Alamo RMA has racked-up massive, seven figure expenses for posh Austin lobby firm Locke, Lord, LLP to make its interests known in the State Capitol. To garner favor with the public, Alamo RMA has also spent nearly $400,000 on a massive multimedia public relations campaign to promote the tolling of US Highway 281 in San Antonio.
Alamo RMA’s extravagant public relations campaign even came with a staff presentation on how to address “the opposition” to the project. In a briefing slideshow we obtained, PR consultants for Alamo RMA’s US 281 tolling project characterized citizens opposing the toll as “[taking] take every opportunity to delay, rile the public and create misleading or downright false information.” On the same slide, consultants urged the RMA to “reinforce,” through its messaging, the false “notion that this is a done deal and we’re ready to get moving.” As of now, the project is anything but a “done deal” with environmental review approval still pending.
El Paso’s Camino Real RMA became the envy of theme parks everywhere by recently securing nearly $100 million of state funding for a six-mile street trolley planned in downtown El Paso.
Based in Austin, the Central Texas RMA became the focus of a conflict-of-interest investigation by the State Comptroller in 2005. Since then, the RMA has improved its reputation by being at the center of a 2011 bond-rigging scheme by banks financing its debt.
Citizens living in Bexar County can take comfort in the fact that shortly after the SEC fined two banks $51 million for their involvement in the CTRMA scheme, the Alamo RMA hired one of the banks involved for financial services.
Even a pedestrian observation of these missteps could quickly turn any citizen into a skeptic of RMAs.
As is usually the case, the biggest victims of RMAs abuses are taxpayers. With large amounts of money, the power to raise it, and little or no accountability, it is no wonder Texas RMAs are in dire need or sweeping reform if not complete abolishment. Citizens in an RMA should ask their county officials how they could abide with such flagrant waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars through RMAs.