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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