TxDOT Texas Department of Public Transportation

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) www.txdot.gov/ is a powerful state governmental agency. TxDOT is the “Department of Transportation” as is responsible for multiple forms of transportation, not just roads, although this is not usually apparent, particularly in the Houston District.

TxDOT is governed, to some extent, by the five-member Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) and an executive director selected by the commission. The governor appoints commission members who serve overlapping six-year terms with the advice and consent of the Texas Senate. Here is a link to the TTC website. You can watch meetings, read agendas and minutes, and get hearing information and evidence: http://www.txdot.gov/inside-txdot/administration/commission.html

Houston is in the Houston District which includes these counties: Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Montgomery and Waller. http://www.dot.state.tx.us/local_information/houston_district/

TxDOT is viewed my many as a project manager which outsources virtually all of its work. Some of its design and engineering contractors are very fine and maintain excellent websites, such as the HNTB www.my290.com as only one example. The practice is currently for TxDOT to set up a website for each major project. Some of these get 4, if not 5, stars, even if you are anti-road. Other firms are not at all forthcoming about what they do or get paid by TxDOT, particularly those involved in Comprehensive Development Agreements or construction contracting.

As for roads, TxDOT generally works on federal aid highway projects and state projects. The federal aid highway projects, such as US290/610, IH-10, US288, IH-610, US59/69 are usually the big ticket projects.

Federal aid highway projects carry specific responsibilities including environmental clearance and mitigation of flooding, noise, air pollution. FHWA did have oversight of these projects. Generally for the Houston District of TxDOT, this oversight will no longer be present. TxDOT, on its application, was chosen to develop its own projects without FHWA oversight or responsibility except to the extent the projects were specifically left under FHWA authority.

23 U.S.C. 327 set up a Pilot Program in 2005 for 5 states to assume federal responsibilities for certain federal aid highway programs. Texas is one of those five states. Initially Texas declined to participate in the pilot even though it had lobbied hard for it because it did not want to have to waive its sovereign immunity from lawsuits.  Now TxDOT and FHWA have entered into a blanket Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) dated Dec. 16, 2014, and executed by FHWA and TxDOT for TxDOT to assume the federal responsibilities for the 290/610 highway project and other not excluded projects. TxDOT may enter into such agreements for other Houston District projects.  (To read or search the 24 page MOU, click here  https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/txdiv/finalnepa-mou.pdf

CTC sees no benefit or good for such development for either the citizens or businesses who lack political pull. This is generally NOT a good thing for Texas residents in terms of environmental impacts such as air pollution, flooding and drainage, noise, and other impacts. The move on its face is thought to reduce federal costs and TxDOT time in litigation. TxDOT had to waive sovereign immunity and agree to be sued in federal court. Whether this will increase the level of transparency and honesty remains to be seen.

Certain toll road projects such as Westpark Tollway and Sam Houston Tollway are county projects and are authorized by separate specific state statutes. These are not TxDOT projects.

TxDOT participates in TranStar. http://www.houstontranstar.org/about_transtar/
The Houston TranStar consortium is a partnership of four government agencies that are responsible for providing Transportation Management and Emergency Management services to the Greater Houston Region. The following agencies have signed an interlocal agreement to share their resources and find solutions for providing these services to the citizens of the region.

The Texas Department of Transportation
Harris County
The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County
The City of Houston

As a result of public involvement laws recently passed in Texas, the Commissioners’ meetings are open and agendas for meetings and hearings (usually about funding and finance) are available through audio real time, and usually through video. In contrast, for environmental issues, TxDOT makes a legalistic distinction between meetings and hearings usually with regard to environmental and neighborhood impacts arising from its projects.

The appointed Commissioners sometimes are independent citizens and sometimes very powerful land speculators. In contrast, the Texas Railroad Commission, which used to be as powerful an agency, is an elected body, and there have been initiatives (unsuccessful to date) to make the Transportation Commissioners run for office or at least reduce the Commission to one person with a professional staff.

TxDOT spends most of its time, money, and enormous political clout dealing with the construction and maintenance of the highway system within Texas. Some of the roads are state roads and the major ones are federal, but are maintained and built by TxDOT. In determining which projects will be built, TxDOT has enormous amounts of money and power including the powers derived from both federal and state law.

The agency also took control over aviation, rail, and public transportation systems in the state. (Several public transportation authorities have been carved out from this jurisdiction including regional toll roads and public transportation authorities such as Metro.)

One of TxDOT’s recent, major initiatives was the Trans-Texas Corridor which was a “pave the earth,” land grab initiative. It made the cover of several magazines and newsletters and Trans-Texas Corridor was on the the way to both being a national laughingstock for real estate boondoggles and being built. Huge amounts of farmland and other undeveloped lands would be condemned. Utilities and railroads, now under the jurisdiction of TxDOT as to state issues, would be urged to site their facilities down the middle of the corridor and pay a fee. TxDOT had taken over railroads (they were taken from the Texas Railroad Commission) so this was not absolutely as far fetched as it would seem. TxDOT has a dog in the manger-ish attitude toward rail. TxDOT insisted on control over rail but does nothing to promote rail as a mobility mode other than keep other folks away from it. Usually when a road project is defeated in the public arena, TxDOT will just back up and try again perhaps segmenting (breaking up) a project or re-labeling it.

The State Legislature will attempt to control TxDOT from time to time. Generally if such legislation is adopted, it will be repealed in the following session. The State Legislature recently passes a law giving local governments (such as counties) “primacy” (essentially a right of first refusal) to take over toll roads within the local jurisdiction. The Texas Sunset Commission attempted to impose transparency and accountability on TxDOT and change its basic method of operations. This was defeated without any real substantive improvement. (CTC participated in this as an Advocacy project.) Most major federal and state agencies have an oversight staff, usually called The Office of Inspector General. In the 82nd Legislative Session, a bill to force TxDOT to create and Office of Inspector General was defeated by TxDOT, so no inspector general.

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