Monday, February 4, 2008

Dewhurst has doubts about TxDOT numbers

By Ben Wear - Austin American Statesman - Monday, February 4, 2008
Count Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst among those skeptical about the Texas Department of Transportation’s claims that the till is nearly empty.

Dewhurst, whose main duty as lite guv is to preside over the 31-member Texas Senate, sent Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Hope Andrade a letter late Friday expressing his “concern” over what TxDOT “is portraying as a serious and immediate shortfall in funding for transportation projects.”

Dewhurst, in the letter, referenced TxDOT deputy executive director Steve Simmons saying the agency, based on the current spending plan and the agency’s estimates of incoming money, would have a $3.6 billion shortfall by 2015. How is that a problem, Dewhurst wondered, when the Legislature has given the agency tolls allowing it to borrow up to $9 billion additional dollars? He said that available money wasn’t included in the evaluation showing the shortfall.

He’s referring to $5 billion in general fund borrowing authorized by voters in November (although the Legislature would have to act to make that happen, Dewhurst and others have said that is a near certainty), $1.3 billion of additional borrowing capacity in the Texas Mobility Fund and $3 billion in additional authority to borrow against future gas tax revenues. Dewhurst said he and other legislative leaders made it clear last fall in private meetings with the late Ric Williamson, then chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, that the Legislature would do whatever it took to back that borrowing as well.

“I’m at a loss to see why they’re saying (that) now when we’ve given them additional tools they’ve chosen not to take advantage of,” Dewhurst said in an interview late Friday afternoon. “It appears they haven’t used them. Maybe we’re wrong.”
TxDOT officials were not available early Monday for comment. But I’ll be hearing from them later in the day and will post what they have to say.

TxDOT announced late last year that it would suspend awarding new construction contracts as of Feb. 1. By no means did that bring everything to a halt, however. Projects that already were under construction, or far enough down the procurement line, will still be finished. And there are other projects, such as the Trans-Texas Corridor tollways paralleling Interstate 35 and in the notional I-69 corridor, that are steaming ahead on their environmental and design work. And in the Dallas area, there is $3.2 billion available that the North Texas Tollway Authority just agreed to pay TxDOT for the right to build and profit from a key tollway. That money remains available.

But other projects — including several in the Austin area — have been put on hold, and legislators are both unhappy and suspicious about it all. So suspicious, in fact, that the Senate Finance and Transportation committees will hold a joint meeting Tuesday morning to grill TxDOT officials about all this.
Read more in the Austin American Statesman

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