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Texas DOT Slammed by Sunset Panel
Texas legislative committee recommends harsh reforms after state transportation department over deceptive toll road marketing effort.

Sunset report cover
The Texas state legislature's Sunset Advisory Commission released a report yesterday slamming the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and its high-level focus on toll financing. In a blistering 157-page report, the commission condemned the agency's attitude and argued for shakeup in the way the department does business.

"Early concerns about the department's approach to toll roads and its interest in public-private partnerships have become a deep-seated distrust of TxDOT's motives and direction, as reflected in the legislature's insistent drive to recapture policy ground lost to the department," the report explained. "Many expressed concerns that TxDOT was 'out of control,' advancing its own agenda against objections of both the legislature and the public."

Texas law requires that each state governmental agency come before the Sunset Advisory Commission every twelve years to outline how it is serving the public good. An agency unable to come up with an explanation that convinces lawmakers to pass legislation to continue its existence is automatically closed. This threat gives the sunset commission the persuasive authority needed to force bureaucracies to adopt proposed reforms. In TxDOT's case, the commission insisted that the agency only receive a four-year extension of operations so that the commission could maintain more leverage to ensure operational changes are made.

Specifically, the sunset commission wants major policy decisions to be made by elected lawmakers, not TxDOT. It would replace the Texas Transportation Commission with a single commissioner responsible for TxDOT oversight, saving $488,856 per year. The sunset commission also insisted that TxDOT provide a regularly updated transportation plan so that lawmakers and the public could have a clear understanding of the agency's goals and project selection process. TxDOT will also have to provide "more meaningful public involvement efforts agency-wide." The report also included a long list of minor recommendations such as the elimination of a requirement to advertise contracting opportunities in print newspapers. This change alone would save $950,000 a year.

The sunset report explained that one of the primary reasons that the public and legislature distrusted TxDOT was the agency's November 2007 announcement that it was out of money and would cut back on freeway construction and maintenance by $1.1 billion. TxDOT made this a key selling point for its toll road agenda, but the commission noted that TxDOT officials had known a full month earlier the $1.1 billion shortfall was the result of an accounting error. Even so, the agency continued publishing the shortfall figure until a February 2008 state Senate Transportation Committee hearing.

"Only after this hearing and at the direction of the committees did TxDOT revise its discussion points to include an explanation of the error as a factor contributing to the shortfall. However, significant damage had been done," the report stated. "The reaction of several key members of the legislature indicated serious concerns regarding TxDOT's financial operations."

The Sunset Advisory Commission will hold a hearing on its TxDOT findings on July 15. The full sunset report is available in a 1.8mb PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Staff Report: Texas Department of Transportation (Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, 6/3/2008)

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