Sunday, August 3, 2008

Last message on July 15 TxDOT Sunset Hearing, public testimony, part 2

This is the fourth and last report on the July 15 TxDOT Sunset Hearing, beginning with the remainder of TURF’s Terri Hall’s presentation.

An update to the previous message: TURF has moved the information about the depositions of TxDOT officials (TxDOT Top Brass Commit Perjury) from their home page. To see it, go to
and scroll down to the You Tube clip.

More dynamite testimony from Terri Hall

Another topic introduced by Terri Hall was the conversion of US 281, a freeway built and open to traffic for decades, to a toll road. Her testimony shocked the Sunset Commission, and there was much discussion between the Commissioners and Hall. The Commissioners also brought Saenz back to the testimony table for extensive questioning.
Rep. Harper-Brown said that TxDOT seemed to be in violation of a state law, HB 2702, that prohibits converting a freeway to a toll road and requires that TxDOT leave the free lanes that existed before the toll lanes are built. However, as Hall’s material showed, every main lane on 281 will be tolled. The free lanes will be the access roads with lower speed limits and traffic signals. Harper-Brown commented, “If you don’t want to sit through all of those lights, you have to pay the tolls.”

(For the information of Austin-area residents, this is also the design for Austin’s 290 East, from US 183 to SH 130.)

Kolkhorst said, “I would like to give TxDOT the chance to respond to this. This goes to the heart of the Sunset Report—lack of trust.” Sen. Hegar said that the intent of the legislature was that free lanes would remain free. Rep. Flynn asked Saenz, “Did you not understand the legislative intent? We pass a law, you believe you’re doing certain things, then the Legislature is gone and it is interpreted differently. This is the disconnect that the public has and the Legislature has with this agency.”

Rep. Ruth McClendon doubted that Saenz really could not recall the details of this project, as he kept saying. TURF has provided a clip that begins with Chairman Isett saying that TxDOT changed “the terms of what an existing road means,” shows Rep. Flynn discussing TxDOT going against “legislative intent” and then shows McClendon’s very informative and entertaining questioning of Saenz about 281.

McClendon asks, “When you build these free side roads would that be a straight shot and you don’t have to ever stop?”

Saenz: “I would have to look at the schematic.”

McClendon: “Amadeo, please. We are talking about being truthful and being honest. . . . I know you know up and down what 281 looks like, and I think it’s unfair that you sit before this commission and try to pretend that you are not aware of what your department is doing. . . . I think it’s so unfair that we try to have a new day and you continue in the same vein with this dishonesty that we have gone through over the last several years.” [much applause from the audience]

Elected vs. appointed Commissioner or several Commissioners

There was discussion among the Sunset Commissioners and the public about the Sunset staff recommendation that there be one Transportation Commissioner, appointed by the Governor and approved by the Senate. Some were in favor of the recommendation, some wanted one elected Commissioner, and some proposed several Commissioners elected from state regions.

Kolkhorst expressed concern about a single elected Commissioner: “Cities have a huge impact. I am concerned about an elected official being more attuned to needs of urban centers. I have concerns about rural membership [on the Transportation Commission].

David and Linda Stall of Corridor Watch both testified. David Stall noted that former Chairman Williamson had said he only answered to one person [the Governor]. Stall said, “We believe we need a structural change, a State Transportation Board elected regionally.” See the Stalls’ complete recommendations at

Sen. Hegar was concerned about making a single Transportation Commissioner an elected official: “Metropolitan areas overwhelm the areas I represent.” Linda Stall responded, “This is why we are advocating regional representation.” David Stall added, “Let’s not forget TTC-35. There were 14,000 at those public hearings, and the TTC-35 plan has not changed. Black [Gov. Perry’s spokesman] said there are sufficient votes in Dallas/Fort Worth to override 14,000 along the Corridor route.”

Two former TxDOT employees testify to corruption

Two former TxDOT employees testified separately about the corruption that began in 2002/2003 when long-time professional employees were replaced with political hires. Jose Torres, an engineer, called it a “crony system” and a “misuse of taxpayers’ money” and referred to the corruption case in South Texas. Larry Cherkovski agreed with the comments of Torres and advised, “Clean house. Start at the top.”

TxDOT planning Rural Planning Organizations in contravention of legislation—testimony from Hank Gilbert

Hank Gilbert, former Democratic nominee for Agriculture Commissioner, testified about the proposed Rural Planning Organizations (RPO’s). He is especially interested in the RPO’s because of the possibility that the RPO’s are being pushed by TxDOT in an attempt to make the public believe that they are the same as the 391 Sub-Regional Planning Commissions. Gilbert is president of one of these new 391 Commissions, the Piney Woods Sub-Regional Planning Commission.

This is a very important issue. If TxDOT is behind the formation of RPO’s, the RPO’s will be controlled by TxDOT through the regional Councils of Government (COG’s). On the other hand, the 391 Sub-Regional Planning Commissions are formed by the citizens through their local governments, and they have their own powers, given to them by statute.

Gilbert said, “I don’t believe he [Saenz] exactly told the truth a minute ago. Chairman Delisi, she wanted to make this a love fest today and she committed to honesty. But they have already broken that honesty when it was brought up about the RPO’s earlier today. We had a person at that meeting [on RPO’s] who sent me an email of what went on at that meeting on July 10. TxDOT, specifically Amadeo Saenz, addressed this and said they had come up with money at TxDOT to help fund and reimburse the COG’s if they created an RPO.”

Gilbert continued, “What’s important is that TxDOT has promulgated regulations to create RPO’s, which legislation actually failed last session. . . . So TxDOT decided to push the RPO issue forward so when the legislature comes into session they are having the legislation filed to authorize by statute what they have done by regulation. Then, they will pull the COG RPO’s into the Transportation statute and totally control all of the RPO’s. They’ll be nothing but a sounding board instead of a real board.”

Saenz contradicts Gilbert

After Gilbert’s testimony, Saenz then returned to the testimony table. “What Mr. Gilbert just presented is not factual. First of all, for the commissions, we have not adopted or done anything with the RPO’s. This was a conference, there is a mechanism in there that if they would be formed, which is one of the recommendations, then we can use state planning funds from the federal side to be able to cover their planning needs. But we have not taken any action on anything like that.”

Kolkhorst said “I’m not sure I’m for these RPO’s. . . Let’s not move forward on these RPO’s quite yet until we get through this.” Another Sunset Commissioner commented, “They need legislation to do it.” Kolkhorst replied, “I think what Hank [Gilbert] was trying to say is they’re doing it before we get there.”

Gilbert documents his testimony

Gilbert had documentation from the RPO conference including the agenda showing that TxDOT sponsored the meeting, that Saenz was on the agenda to speak about RPO’s, and info from COG’s about their new efforts to form RPO’s with the assistance of TxDOT. The list of attendees listed 45 TxDOT employees out of 200 registered in attendance at the meeting. Gilbert provided copies of his documentation to the Sunset Commissioners—the proof that his information IS “factual.”

TxDOT is already working on a plan to create its own system of RPO’s so that residents will think they are getting their own powerful Sub-Regional Planning Commission that represents them, but they will really be getting an RPO that represents TxDOT.

Conclusion of hearing

Chairman Isett explained what will happen next. “This is an advisory commission. We will draft legislation based on findings of the commission, and we will take it to the legislature. We think you will see that process will work. I’m looking forward to effect the changes we put forward. There is the legislative will to make some fundamental and significant changes in the way this agency operates.”

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