San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

Central Texas leaders hope to snag part of an "extra" $2 billion in road funds recently discovered by the Texas Department of Transportation to improve Interstate 35 corridor through the area. The congested north-south highway is shown here south of downtown Austin. COURTESY PHOTO.

by AMAN BATHEJA

The Texas Department of Transportation, which often argues that it lacks the money to properly maintain its network of roads, surprised many state leaders in March when it announced it had an extra $2 billion.

In a state with a population growing faster than its transportation system, extra cash for transportation projects was welcome news.

But for some lawmakers, the announcement also reignited an old frustration over accounting at TxDOT. State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, described it as a “perception problem.”

“We’re out of money, but the public is going to hear that y’all found $2 billion,” Pickett said at a House committee hearing.

The extra financing stems from a mix of good fiscal management and factors out of the agency’s control, TxDOT officials said. For transportation advocates, the situation is a textbook example of how difficult it is to explain to the public how its government pays for new roads.

The largest portion — $750 million — is federal money, a revenue source that normally makes up a third of the state’s transportation budget but has been fluid in recent years amid Congressional gridlock. James Bass, TxDOT’s chief financial officer, said the agency had planned conservatively in case Congress followed through on calls by some members to drastically cut financing.

“The ability to forecast what Congress is going to do is not really a science,” Bass said. “It makes it difficult to lay out a plan when we don’t know what that funding partner is going to decide.”

Another $650 million is a result of bills for current transportation projects coming in cheaper than expected, Bass said. Refinancing the department’s debt at lower interest rates freed up another $600 million in borrowing.

The $2 billion will be spent on projects around the state, most of them aimed at reducing congestion in urban areas or providing rural communities better access to the rest of the state.

TxDOT’s windfall reminded state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, of the $1.1 billion the agency inadvertently double-counted in 2007, prompting the agency to abruptly pull some projects. Bass said the agency then reorganized departments to ensure that such an error would never occur again.

“An agency that can miss a billion dollars and then find a billion dollars has got some problems,” Simpson said.

State lawmakers increased TxDOT’s 2012-13 budget by nearly $3 billion to $19.8 billion last year, though most of the boost came from borrowed money. In order to maintain the current transportation system, the state needs to invest billions of dollars more per year in transportation, according to a recent report by a state committee set up at Gov. Rick Perry‘s request.

“Two billion dollars is a lot of money,” Bass said. “When put into the context of the overall transportation needs of the state, it’s not as large as one might think.”

When the Legislature convenes in January, various groups hope to see lawmakers approve a reliable source of new revenue for TxDOT.

Pickett can already predict one of the arguments that will be made against giving TxDOT more money.

“Maybe if they shake a few more trees, they’ll find another $2 billion,” Pickett said.”That’s what I’m going to hear.”

AMAN BATHEJA reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.

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9 thoughts on “For TxDOT, a $2 billion ‘perception problem’

  1. Glad at least one of the legislators remembered the 2007 fiasco-TXDOT had lost more than a billion dollars! What is going on with this state agency?! and how many more agencies are in a similar state of mismanagement? And what does this mean: “The extra financing stems from a mix of good fiscal management and factors out of the agency’s control, TxDOT officials said.”? Baffling.

    Did any heads roll back in 2007 for this huge error? It is so difficult to get a job with the state, but apparently once you’re in you can stay indefinitely if you’ve got the right friends.

  2. So they had about a 10% miscalculation in their budget. Big deal. Anyone who has ever managed a construction project knows that sometimes happens.

  3. Misplacing a billion of the public’s money sounds like a big deal to me. This sounds much more like the kind of inefficiencies you see with bureaucratic monopolies, especially the government ones that are playing with house money and almost no repercussions if they do not spend wisely…all they need do is go shake the people down for more, so why should they be careful? For as much as you go on about the free market I’m surprised you would dismiss this so lightly…

  4. If you’re talking about privatizing TxDot, that’s not going to happen. Having been close to a few TxDot projects I don’t find them to be extravagent or horribly mis-managed. I imagine they’re one of the more complicated agencies in terms of number and variety of projects, number of specializations required, types of funding… They’re an easy one to pick on because we all use their product and we all have our pet grievances. This is a political hatchet piece typical of the Texas Tribune.

  5. So why can’t that money be applied to improving existing roads instead of illegally turning them into toll roads, like they plan to do on US 290, east of Austin?

  6. Ya – toll roads just gall me. I can afford to use them but so many people who work as hard and as long as I ever did cannot afford the tolls – so they ply the potholed city streets and overloaded secondary roads and non-toll lanes. So what’s next – charge a toll to drive into the city as they may be doing in London? Those with money can do anytime without a care. Those without money & the power to defend themselves with political donations and lobbyists are stepped on again.

  7. What better motivation could there be for a young person to apply themselves and make good choices than the prospect of being able to drive on toll roads or bring their car into the city at their leisure?

  8. How about the proposed “added” lane on MoPac? They re-stripe it to “add” a lane, and then want to use a variable tolling system so you never know what you are going to be paid.

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