Monday, May 03, 2010

TxDOT taking rail funds for roads

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(The following column by Sens. Jeff Wentworth and Wendy Davis and Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon appeared May 3, 2010, in the Houston Chronicle. State legislator Wentworth is a Republican from San Antonio, Davis is a Democrat from Fort Worth, and McClendon is a Democrat from San Antonio.) Transportation advocates won a hard-fought victory during the 2009 legislative session by securing $182 million in financing for the Texas Railroad Relocation and Improvement Fund, created by the voters through a constitutional amendment passed in 2005 but never funded. Sadly, the state's transportation bureaucracy at the Texas Department of Transportation is using a budgetary shell game to thwart the will of the Legislature and steal this victory from the public.

"This is wrong," as Chairman John Carona told the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee last fall. "It smacks of trickery."

The case for improving and expanding the state's railroad infrastructure is compelling. Dollars spent on rail reduce traffic congestion, get trucks off our crowded highways, move hazardous materials out of populated areas, improve safety and air quality, provide new corridors for passenger rail and offer significant economic development opportunities. With Texas facing a doubling of population and quadrupling of NAFTA trade flow over the next two decades, rail is a critical component of our transportation future.

But under pressure from the highway lobby, the short-sighted TxDOT bureaucracy - which spends $2 billion every 90 days on roads - is resisting even this small percentage of their overall funding for rail improvements.

The $182-million budget rider passed by the Legislature was contingent upon a finding by the state comptroller that there was at least as much money available for roads in the current budget (2010-11) as was available in the last session's budget (2008-9).TxDOT actually worked with legislators negotiating in good faith to create this formula, and the conditions were clearly and unequivocally met. Until the Legislature left town, that is.

After the session ended, TxDOT subsequently came up with the disingenuous argument that money allocated to run the new Department of Motor Vehicles was a diversion from TxDOT and should count against certification of the budget rider-ignoring the fact that when the Legislature transferred funding to the DMV it also transferred all of the functions and employees to the new agency: a net zero of budgetary impact.

Even the new chairman of the DMV - the honorable Victor Vandergriff - recognized this accounting trick as a ruse intended to deny rail advocates their victory and so testified to the Senate Transportation Committee, prompting Chairman Carona to say that "the game was rigged" against rail funding.

TxDOT officials have used these accounting gimmicks before, managing the agency's accounts internally and adjusting the books in whatever manner suits their purposes; that may explain why they have had a hard time remembering what they told legislators during the session. You may recall that these are also the same folks who lost a billion dollars just over a year ago.

The comptroller has now asked the attorney general to interpret the precise application of the rail-funding rider, and that opinion is pending. The legal questions relate to the language of the rider, and the timing of the funding provided to the DMV. Legal briefs have been submitted that make a strong case in favor of funding the rail rider and debunking the diversion arguments set forth by TxDOT.

But there are larger, more important issues in play here. The Legislature and the public have demonstrated in vote after vote that they understand the need for more transportation alternatives and more transparency-even if TxDOT does not. This debate is not about spending more money; it is about allocating a small portion (less than 2 percent) of our overall transportation funding to improving the state's critically underfunded rail infrastructure. And every part of Texas will benefit from improving rail infrastructure. TxDOT should be a partner in that effort, not obstruct it through accounting trickery.

The attorney general should pierce the veil of TxDOT's shell game, and the comptroller should certify financing of the Texas Railroad Relocation and Improvement Fund. The voters have been waiting since 2005 to see their wishes implemented, and TxDOT should not be rewarded with an additional $182 million for more roads while defying clear legislative intent.

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