Our recommendations also call for the creation of two high-level policy advisory positions, mandated in statute, to advise the TxDOT commissioner or commissioners regarding environmental policies and public transportation policies.
“Ideally these would be professionals without a vested interest in the traditional road-oriented approaches taken by the agency and with extensive experience and/or knowledge in their respective fields. The state needs a fresh outlook on both the environmental aspects of transportation policy (including the potential impacts of climate change on transportation decisions), and the public transit opportunities that are being missed,” the Sierra recommendation says.
The Sierra Club also supports recommendations by the Sunset Advisory Commission for new opportunities for public involvement in transportation planning and establishment of a Rail Transportation Division within TxDOT to begin putting rail transit on a more equal footing with traditional road projects.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009 Following is a report from Jim Davis, a member of the Transportation Committee of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club:
Update on Texas Department of Transportation Sunset Review Bill (HB 300)
Research and policy development frequently clash with political reality in the Texas Legislature. Seldom has there been a better example than the current Sunset review process for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).
The Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter’s Transportation Committee participated actively in the Sunset review of the agency in 2007-08. We generally supported the recommendations of the Sunset Commission and its professional staff deigned to remodel the agency‘s structure, make it more open to public input and develop a transportation focus broader than simply constructing more roads.
Once hearings on the proposed legislation reached the House and Senate transportation committees this year, we presented oral and written testimony proposing some fine tuning to make TxDOT even more open and effective. We supported the proposal that the agency be run by a single commissioner, either appointed by the governor or elected statewide. We suggested creation of high-level positions to advise the commissioner on environmental and public transit policies. Then we watched the political process take hold.
On Monday, May 25, the Senate adopted a Sunset bill that would leave the agency run by five commissioners appointed by the governor, although with two-year rather than six-year terms. That compares with the earlier passed House bill favoring a 15-member commission with one member elected statewide and other from 14 regional districts.
Dozens of other differences were created as the House earlier added almost 200 amendments to the original bill and the Senate on Monday added almost 20 more, many of them having more to do with local issues or political philosophy than with efficient administration of TxDOT.
Senate leaders of the TxDOT legislation originally planned to severely limit amendments, but that was before many Senate-passed bills faced sudden death in the House due to deadlock over a continuous voter ID bill. Monday night senators desperately tried to add provisions of those bills to the TxDOT legislation.
Some, such as promoting statewide rail planning and coordination, seemed germane. Others focused on such things as promoting “Choose Life” license plates and banning intersection cameras that catch red light runners. Both these items were approved but the latter later was reconsidered and rejected.
Senators rejected attempts to remove two Sierra Club-supported provisions in the Senate committee bill: 1) local option taxes that could bolster rail projects in certain areas, and 2) removal of the long-standing TxDOT requirement that the executive director be an engineer. We also support the (flawed but important) other language more specifically promoting rail in the bill.
Now a joint conference committee will attempt to work out these differences between the two bills and have its product accepted by both chambers before the session ends on June 1. Under the theory of Sunset review, TxDOT could cease to exist on September 1, 2009, if that doesn’t occur. In reality, the Legislature would continue the agency until further action either in a special session or the 2011 session.
After all the amending Monday night, Senator Jane Nelson of Lewisville said what she had witnessed was “a poor use” of the Sunset process. Sunset should be a process that focuses squarely on agency structure and how well the agency is serving the public, she said.
Political reality, however, is likely to be front-and-center in the conference committee deliberations on the TxDOT legislation. Conferees are likely to be named in a day or two.
[The Lone Star Chapter’s Transportation Committee currently includes Dick Kallerman, Chapter Transportation Coordinator, Brandt Mannchen, and Jim Davis and is assisted by Chapter Director Ken Kramer and Chapter intern Jake Gulledge from St. Edward’s