Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Citizens disagree with pro-Corridor column

There were several letters to the editor in the Taylor Daily Press responding to the pro-Corridor column by Philip Jankowski.
For the beginning of the Corridor letters, scroll down to the fourth letter.
Thanks to Ralph Snyder (board member of the Bell Co. Sub-Regional Planning Commission), Cynthia Ross, Janna Hafernik, and Angela Kopit for their great letters! I have heard from others, including Linda Curtis, founder of Independent Texans, who have submitted letters to the editor, so perhaps we will see some more responses to the original pro-Corridor column.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Taylor Press pro-Corridor column, opposing view

I have received calls and emails concerned about the recent column in the Taylor Daily Press, “A Case for the Trans-Texas Corridor."

For a good opposing viewpoint and round-up of the facts about the design of the TTC and its impacts on local communities, I refer you to yesterday’s post on the Eye on Williamson blog.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Update to previous post

Correction—I had thought that both Chairman Delisi and Executive Director Saenz had stayed for the entire hearing. At the beginning of public testimony, Sunset Chairman Isett thanked Delisi and Saenz for their “commitment to stay with us.” Saenz was recalled to the testimony table a few times to answer points that had been made by the public. I couldn’t see from my vantage point, and I assumed that Delisi was still there.

Thanks to Agnes Voges, Blackland Coalition Secretary, who testified at the hearing, for letting me know that Delisi left before the public testimony and did not return, to the best of Agnes’ knowledge. Agnes was positioned where she could see the comings and goings, and she says, “That contingent pulled an ‘Elvis has left the building.’”

This makes Rep. Linda Harper-Brown’s observation at the beginning of the public testimony even more important: “There are a few people here from TxDOT. I notice a TxDOT contingent left. They may need a break. Are they coming back? One of the issues here is lack of communication.” Sunset Chairman Isett agreed, calling it “a reasonable question.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sunset Commissioners question Delisi, Saenz

. . . a continuation of the report on the July 15 Sunset Commission Hearing on TxDOT. The first message covered the presentation by the Sunset staff. This message covers the questioning of the new Transportation Commissioner Deirdre Delisi and TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz. Both Delisi and Saenz started out with statements, generally expressing their willingness to work with the legislators to make some changes in TxDOT. In addition to Delisi, two more—Bill Meadows and Ted Houghton—of the five Transportation Commissioners were in attendance.

Sunset Chairman Carl Isett said to Delisi that she needed to realize that legislators had gotten “skeptical of hearing ‘they’re working on it,’” when they asked questions about things they had asked TxDOT to do. Delisi responded, “We realize that changes need to be made, that there are expectations from the Commission that the agency will follow through.”

Isett discussed past TxDOT behavior of “retaliation and retribution. Now it’s a different game. We are interested in significant reform. We are thinking about significant changes in structure.” He said emphatically to Delisi, “You must show complete resolve.”

Sen. Glenn Hegar mentioned his disappointment with two TxDOT actions related to the TTC-69 Corridor. TxDOT first announced they were scaling back TTC-69 plans to follow existing highways, followed shortly by the announcement that TxDOT had awarded the contract for the Comprehensive Development Agreement (CDA) for TTC-69. This was a continuing example of TxDOT saying it would do what the public and legislators wanted, then going against the express will of the Legislature.

Hegar also asked if TxDOT had terminated the employee responsible for the $1 billion accounting error. Saenz said no, and Hegar told him, “Somebody has got to be accountable.”

Rep. Linda Harper-Brown asked Delisi about TxDOT’s lobbying in Washington, including the T2 situation. Even after being sued by TURF over using taxpayer money for illegal advocacy activities, TxDOT joined a lobbying organization called Transportation Transformation (T2) that included private financing firms like Goldman Sachs. T2 lobbied the U.S. Congress on behalf of the private CDA’s.

Delisi responded that TxDOT’s goal was the interests of Texas rather than private business. Harper-Brown followed up: So TxDOT won’t be promoting investment groups? Delisi said no. Harper-Brown said that she had not been happy to find out about the T2 lobbying: “. . . something I’d never heard of—Texas promoting Public Private Partnerships. That is totally inappropriate.”

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst addressed Delisi: “With the previous Commissioner there seemed to be an agenda. Do you have an agenda toward private equity? Do we really start with a clean slate?” Delisi responded that her agenda was to deliver the best transportation system.

Kolkhorst told Delisi about relationships in the past: “It’s how we have been treated. I don’t want to be mad anymore.” Staring intently at Delisi, Kolkhorst said, “You must rebuild trust.”

revisited the points about TTC-69 that Hegar had made. TxDOT pulled back, then announced the CDA. Kolkhorst said strongly, “It was not like the staff said, not a miscommunication. We said stop!” [meaning the legislature’s moratorium on CDA’s]

She then asked about TURF’s lawsuit against TxDOT. Delisi said only, “It has been dismissed by the court.” This was not a fully responsive answer, and it was brought up later in the public testimony by TURF’s Terri Hall.

Kolkhorst said that TxDOT had been manipulative with legislators. “Glenn [Hegar] and I, we could bring [former representative] Robby Cook in here, and you wouldn’t believe the stories we could tell you.”

Rep. Dan Flynn asked, “Why are no Transportation Commissioners here? This is a pretty important meeting.” Someone said that two couldn’t be here and that two were there for at least part of the time.

By this time, it was 3:30 p.m., and Isett announced that public testimony would begin, and that there would be a three minute time limit.

Although Delisi and Saenz stayed for the whole hearing, and were called back a few times to answer points brought up by citizens, most TxDOT people left. Harper-Brown noticed: “The TxDOT contingent left. Are they coming back to listen to the public testimony? One of the issues here is lack of communication.”

There is so much material that came out of this Sunset hearing that I will finish up with a third message that will cover the public testimony. Some of the material presented contradicted previous TxDOT explanations, and Delisi and Saenz were called back to explain discrepancies, which led to some interesting exchanges, to be covered in a later entry.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Staff report on TxDOT to the Sunset Commission

I attended the TxDOT Sunset hearing on July 15 and will give the highlights. The TxDOT part of the hearing began at 10 a.m. and did not conclude until about 10 p.m. There is so much material here that I’m dividing it into parts. I will begin with the report of the staff to the Commission members.
The hearing began at 9 a.m. The Sunset Commission considered Racing Commission matters before they took up TxDOT. I arrived at 8:30 and managed to snag one of the last seats in the hearing room. About 90 people were seated in this room with 20 standing at the back, and there were overflow rooms.
Our HD 52 Representative Mike Krusee arrived about 9, left and returned a couple of times, and was in the room by 10, when the Commission started considering TxDOT. He left and returned some more, finally leaving before the staff report was finished and not returning.
The Sunset staff report was presented by Director Joey Longley and Senior Manager Jennifer Jones. Longley set the tone by saying that his staff had never before encountered anything like the scope of what needs to be done with TxDOT. “We suggest a four-year legislative conservatorship; there is bold decisive action in front of you.” He asked the Commission “to keep your eye on the prize and return control of the transportation policy of the state to the legislature where it belongs.”
Then Jennifer Jones briefly set out the major issues covered in the written report:
1. Replace the Transportation Commission with a single commissioner.
2. Jones described TxDOT’s planning efforts as “disjointed,” and the staff recommended bringing “transparency and accountability” to TxDOT.
3. Jones recommended improving TxDOT information efforts.
4. She said that TxDOT is the largest user of contract services of all state agencies, and the staff recommends improving oversight of this.
Commission Chairman Representative Carl Issett complimented the staff report. He said, “You capture the dissatisfaction of legislators and citizens. We need to restore the trust of the legislature. You have brought us provocative ideas to consider.”
Rep. Ruth McClendon addressed replacing the Transportation Commission. She said to great applause, “The public wants an elected commissioner. We should look at an elected commissioner.” She asked the staff for the pros and cons of an elected commissioner, and Chairman Isett asked the staff to “bring that back to us as a modification”
Rep. Linda Harper-Brown noted that 76% of the people who commented wanted an elected commissioner.
Rep. Lois Kolkhorst said she “has distrust in TxDOT’s financing because of their one billion accounting error.” She asked if TxDOT was immune from the prohibition on lobbying. She said, “The Keep Texas Moving campaign seems like advocacy,” and asked, “Do other agencies have websites that advocate certain positions?” Jones answered no. Kolkhorst related discussions she has had with other legislators, who have told her that they would like to support her efforts to reform TxDOT, but who were threatened. “There were threats of not getting a road widened if they stood up against TxDOT.” She asked the staff to check the question related to lobbying of the legislature, and she recommended an “inspector general.”
Rep. Harper-Brown recommended an “auditor general. I would like to review TxDOT again in two years.” Isett asked the staff to look at that.
New public member Charles McMahen said the transportation problems are mainly with urban areas. He questioned the competence of TxDOT’s financial staff. “You bring about discipline and competence by firing people who are not doing their jobs. The problems are so systemic, I question whether management can do the job. They are wasting taxpayer dollars when we need roads.”
Regarding the issue of planning, Jones recommended updating the ’94 state transportation plan and bringing in local planning. Harper-Brown said there should be planning before budgeting. “Set goals, then do appropriations for plans, not just give TxDOT money and they spend it.”
On the issue of information, McClendon declared, “The culture within TxDOT needs to change.” Kolkhorst, noting that TxDOT’s website is inadequate, said, “I can’t find the minute orders from the website. There are 67 employees in their government and public affairs division, the biggest of any state agency.” Legislators wondered why TxDOT couldn’t do a better job of public information with so many employees.
Regarding the contracting process, Harper-Brown said the risk will increase dramatically for Comprehensive Development Agreements. A DeLoitte audit showed them vulnerable to fraud, with large financial implications for TxDOT. She asked the Sunset staff to consider if “we should create a department of contracts and procurement, a separate department to ensure that we have limited exposure for the state and its citizens, to oversee the more complex financial tools. We need to return TxDOT to what they do best, build roads.” Isett asked the staff to look at this issue.
Kolkhorst said, “There is no other agency that is looking at 50 year contracts. Last session they mentioned 70. A toll project in Chicago is 99. Our children and grandchildren will be responsible. Let other state-wide people sign off on these, like the AG, Comptroller, Governor’s Office.”
Kolkhorst also said that more information needed to be disclosed about these large contracts. She mentioned the TTC-35 contract over which TxDOT “sued to keep from going public.”
The Sunset staff presentation finished up during the noon hour, although the hearing did not break for lunch. The Commissioners worked straight through the day. After the staff members left the testimony table, their places were taken by Deirdre Delisi, the new Transportation Commissioner, and Amadeo Saenz, TxDOT executive director. I’ll cover their questioning by Sunset Commissioners in a later message.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Preliminary TxDOT Sunset Report

The Sunset Commission hearing on TxDOT was still going into the evening. The hearing started in the morning, and continued straight through, without a lunch break. The legislators are serious about this. For an account of a lot of the action, go to

At first blush, I would say that the legislators and the public members of the Sunset Commission are sympathetic to the public complaints against the arrogance of TxDOT and they are open to the criticisms of TxDOT in the staff report.

Executive Director Saenz and Transportation Commissioner Delisi seemed to shoot themselves in the foot (the feet?) even as they were trying to smoothe over the problems of the past and make a new start.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Send TxDOT riding off into the Sunset

The long-awaited Sunset Advisory Commission hearing for TxDOT is tomorrow, July 15. The info is below.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008
House Appropriations Committee Room
Room E1.030, Capitol Extension
1400 Congress Avenue
9:00 a.m.
1. Call to Order
2. Approval of Minutes
3. Commission Decisions
􀂍 Texas Racing Commission
􀂍 Equine Research Account Advisory Committee
4. Staff Presentation and Public Testimony*
􀂍 Department of Transportation
5. Other Business
6. Adjourn􀂊
* Witness Affirmation Form. If you plan to testify, please submit your Witness Affirmation Form 30 minutes before the start of the meeting. If presenting written testimony, please provide 15 copies.
Meeting materials will be available on our website Friday, July 11, at
Staff reports on the above agencies are available at
Internet Access to Meeting. The meeting is broadcast live on the Internet at

For information on the issues that folks will be testifying about, visit Linda Stall of Corridor Watch notes that even if you don't testify, your presence there is important. We can show up to show that we support the effort to reform TxDOT and to make its projects subject to the will of the people of Texas and to the oversight of their representatives.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Testing testing

ACRE stands for Anti-Corridor/Rail Expansion. It can also stand for the good things in our area of Eastern Central Texas--Art & Antiques, Crafts, Restaurants, Entertainment, etc. I have commented on the blogs of others, but this is my first post on my own blog. Let's see how it goes.