State lawmakers have their own special vocabulary for describing the Texas Department of Transportation: Intractable. Defensive. Secretive. Broken.
Bill Meadows knows what they're getting at. “I don’t think we are fully succeeding,” says Meadows, a non-combative voice on the five-member Transportation Commission. “On our very best day we probably are getting a ‘C’.” If you listen to state legislators, even that constitutes grade inflation.
Meadows is hopeful systemic change can come from the top. As a newer commissioner with little political baggage — the Fort Worth businessman was appointed to TxDOT in 2008 — he has watched the relationship between the agency and the Legislature continue to devolve over controversies like eminent domain, toll roads and gasoline taxes. Senators and representatives, Democrats and Republicans, have called for reform and transparency. Well-liked by members on both sides of the aisle, Meadows hopes that he can begin to repair legislative-transportation relations, and some lawmakers seem willing to give him a shot. “He knows, maybe better than any other commissioner, that the personality of that agency has run amok,” says Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham.
TxDOT is in the crosshairs this year and next. It's one of the biggest government entities going through a review by the Sunset Advisory Commission, in which it has to prove its worth or get reorganized, restructured or (unlikely but theoretically possible) put out of business. The process provides an opportunity for legislators to express the wishes and ire of their constituents over things like privatized highways, traffic jams and road construction. Lawmakers tried to drive TxDOT through Sunset and then the Legislature last year, but proposed changes and reforms fell apart at the end of the session and are back for another attempt this year and next.
Meadows and his fellow commissioners are trying to get things in order. The first step, he says, is embracing the reality: TXDOT isn’t meeting the transportation needs of Texas citizens. “I think a good dose of straight up honesty is the way to go,” he says.
The second step: diagnosing the problem. TxDOT's greatest strength — its long-tenured employees — is also its greatest weakness, according to Meadows. For instance, two TXDOT officials now in senior positions started their careers with the agency while they were in high school. That sort of institutional loyalty is incredibly valuable, Meadows says, but also creates a culture of insiders and outsiders that hinders working relationships with the Legislature and the public. “We have over time been a little more defensive than we needed to be,” he says. “We have been a little more argumentative than we needed to be.” When Meadows suggested the agency conduct day-long workshops to explain its business and plans in detail, some employees were aghast at the idea that those meetings would be open to the public. “I went, ‘So?,’” he says, pausing. “We’ve got to work through some of the personalities.”
Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, says some of the damage from that approach will take a long time to patch. “Many people are so wrapped up in negative feelings toward the agency that it is difficult at times to put those aside and work towards fixing the problem,” he says. Carona adds that some of that trouble comes not from the agency's staff but from the Transportation Commission itself, which is perceived as being a mouthpiece for Gov. Rick Perry. “The commission has become far too politically charged to do the job,” Carona says.
A wholesale re-do?
Other legislators direct their ire at the agency's executives. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, says even if commissioners like Meadows have good intentions, that won’t necessarily stop the staff from interfering with policy. “The commission is the commission and the staff is the full-time professional staff, and they ought to be professional about it,” he says.
Watson says he worked with TxDOT to find discretionary money for the rail relocation fund, which will help rail in the state. Now, he says, TXDOT is arguing against that implementation of the bill. “TXDOT was advising me on how to make this bill workable, only to figure out ways to screw it up when the legislative session was over,” he exclaims.
The distinction between staff and leadership can be dramatic. Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, worked with Meadows during her time on the Fort Worth City Council, and she has nothing but kind words for him. "He has a way about him," she says. "He works in a way that doesn't threaten the interests that other people bring to the table." But when it comes to working with TxDOT staff, her story is similar to Watson's. Regarding her bill to place gas pipelines in a TxDOT right-of-way, she says she didn't feel the agency “had been an honest broker with me. It became clear when it got to the governor’s desk that they actively worked against it even though they professed to support the final version, [which had] their input.”
Kolkhorst says the agency has taken some of the criticism to heart. “When you ask a question, you get an answer. That is a new revelation for me,” she says. Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, believes the whole agency needs changing, from the top down. “I don’t see [the relationship] changing until there is a wholesale re-do,” says Pickett, who, like the others, was in the middle of last year's Sunset fight over the agency.
Meadows argues the criticisms aren’t exactly fair. The agency doesn’t have the money to meet lawmakers’ expectations, he says — a point Kolkhorst and Carona acknowledge. He points to the 2030 Committee, which plans for future transportation needs, and the bleak shortages projected. “What I know is, whether it’s $86 billion or $350 billion or whatever billion, you’re still so far short it’s almost an academic exercise,” he says.
And when staffers do try to do something innovative, he says, the Legislature doesn’t give them a chance.
Take the Trans-Texas Corridor: The effort to create a new approach to statewide travel has been universally bashed for its infringement on private property and its reliance on toll roads — so much so that Perry, its biggest promoter, has abandoned the project. “Did Trans-Texas fail because of bad process," Meadows asks, "or because it was a bad idea? It has caused this agency to be criticized and damned, but that doesn’t mean the efforts are bad.”
If lawmakers aren’t going to allow for creative ways to find revenue, Meadows says, then it makes the agency's relationships with them all the more important. The Legislature is “far and away” the best place to secure funds, he says. “I’ve never forgotten that.”