COMMITTEE CONSIDERS TRANSPORTATION FUNDING
(AUSTIN) — The Senate Finance Committee held a joint hearing Tuesday with the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee in order to hear testimony relating to a possible shortfall in transportation funds for 2008-2009. A Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) internal memo issued in November last year warned district engineers of an impending shortfall in road construction and maintenance fund for the upcoming biennium. Tuesday's hearing gave TxDOT officials an opportunity to explain how the agency arrived at its prediction of a shortfall.
The memo, issued on November 30, 2007, said that due to inflation, diversion of federal funds, and diversions from the state's transportation fund, TxDOT would be short of the money it needs to adequately address transportation issues. According to the memo, TxDOT may have to cut funding in critical areas, like right-of-way acquisition and road maintenance. Legislators budgeted $16.9 billion to transportation needs last session in the general appropriations act; coupled with more than $3.2 billion in concessions paid to the state from private road construction process and $3 billion in bonding authority over the next two years, TxDOT has about $23.2 billion in funds for the 08-09 biennium, according to Thomas Galvan of the Legislative Budget Board.
Legislators expressed confusion over the predicted shortfall. "There is a disconnect between what we appropriate, and what TxDOT does," said Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden of Bryan. Legislators must craft an appropriations bill, he said, where the appropriated funds match internal procedures at the Department of Transportation.
Other lawmakers put more blame on TxDOT. "I don't have a lot of confidence in what's coming out of that shop," said Senator Tommy Williams of the Woodlands. "I think there's a very serious issue as to whether we have proper control of this agency." He recommended an immediate audit of TxDOT to ascertain the actual shortfall, if any. Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini wondered if the agency had an ulterior motive in issuing statements related to funding shortfalls. "The impression out there is that really this is a ploy to put pressure on [the Legislature] to go back to the toll road plan."
Ogden pointed out to TxDOT commissioners that they had not included billions in bonding authority granted in the general election last year. He added that economic stimulus of new road construction would offset interest costs to infrastructure projects. He asked commissioners to go back and review their revenue forecasts, and decide whether they will issue the additional bonding debt available to them to make up any shortfall.