Friday, October 19, 2007

Ken Allard: Give TxDOT red light before it goes too far

By Ken Allard - San Antonio Express-News - 10/17/2007

Forgive me, fellow Texans, but I'm just a newcomer who looks ridiculous in a cowboy hat and doesn't even own an SUV. Quickly recognizing Eastern transplants, tourist shops try to sell me bumper stickers: "Wasn't born in Texas, but I got here just as soon as I could."So can you help me connect these dots while we wait for the daily Boerne-Loop 410-airport-Seguin-San Marcos traffic jam to clear up?

News item No. 1: Pleading a funding shortage, the Texas Department of Transportation announced it will cut $1.8 billion in road construction, including at least $57 million (apparently earmarked in a weak moment) to widen clogged San Antonio highways.

News item No. 2: Today, Travis County District Judge Orlinda Naranjo will decide if TxDOT officials acted illegally in spending taxpayer funds to drum up political support for toll roads (TxDOT's preferred solution to the state's transportation crisis).

News item No. 3: A private contractor received more than $750,000 from TxDOT to send road condition surveys to 150,000 presumably startled motorists whose license plates were "randomly recorded" by TxDOT surveillance cameras hidden in orange barrels on Interstate 35 from Laredo to Dallas.

As a one-time regular on his MSNBC simulcast, I would often hear radio shock jock Don Imus exclaim, "You just can't make this stuff up!" Indeed you can't when it comes to TxDOT, which gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase "out of control."

Has no one in the Lone Star State ever heard of "checks and balances"? (Hint to local high schoolers about to endure new rounds of standardized testing: This term does not refer to financial matters!)

Had TxDOT somehow been cast as a character on "The Sopranos," the only question would be: How long before Paulie Walnuts takes 'em out to get whacked?

While the arrogance of government agencies and personalities is the hardiest of all perennials, there is always the inevitable downside.

A powerful congressman such as Wilbur Mills winds up cavorting with stripper Fanne Fox in the Tidal Basin. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is eventually revealed to have had a fondness for basic black, apparently accessorized with really nice pumps and pearls.

So just how far can TxDOT push its luck before somebody wakes up and gives the agency its long overdue comeuppance?

Had anything like the trifecta of excesses outlined above occurred in Washington rather than Austin, the offending agency director would have been instantly summoned to appear before investigating committees, with the usual tiers of media mavens and photographers-in-waiting. With cameras scrutinizing every flinch, the tough questions for the TxDOT director would begin.

Who decides which road improvements are funded by your agency — and with whose concurrence? What public input is solicited, and why should the public believe TxDOT when you say you're running out of money?

What gives you the idea that a taxpayer-funded public agency has any business using those tax dollars to lobby for its own interests? And why waste almost a million dollars on a "Big Brother" survey about road conditions that your department should have understood to begin with?

Until such questions are asked and answered, simply think of TxDOT as a state agency being gradually auctioned off to a hot-bidding coalition of builders, developers, heavy equipment contractors and construction magnates.

One thing is certain: We are quickly losing much of San Antonio's special character to chaos — unbridled expansion, high-density housing and utterly unplanned growth. Despite growing questions about its transparency and competence, TxDOT acts as an obliging accomplice while fields, forests and the last remnants of an irreplaceable frontier culture are bulldozed into 24 lanes of privatized, toll-bearing concrete, complete with access roads.

Know what San Antonio will look like if these guys win? Houston!

Know what we are if we let that happen? Stupid!

Reasons enough to demand that our political leaders bring TxDOT's antics to a screeching halt before it starts putting up toll booths at the end of your driveway.

(Got here just as soon as I could to warn you.)

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