Updated 5:45 p.m.
A panel of outside experts is calling for an executive house-cleaning at the Texas Department of Transportation, to regain the Legislature’s and the public’s trust in the oft-criticized agency.
"Change will come from identifying new business-oriented leadership within and outside TxDot," said Howard Wolf, one of three members of the Restructure Council formed in July to delve into the department’s managerial inner-workings.
Amadeo Saenz, the agency’s executive director since 2007, didn’t comment on the report during a special Texas Transportation Commission meeting called Wednesday in Austin. It’s unlikely that Saenz or other department executives would be replaced before year’s end at the earliest, partly because another recommendation – that the executive director also get a substantial salary bump – would require legislative approval.
Later Wednesday, Saenz said in a statement: "I have not yet read the Restructure Council’s report. When I do, I will work with the Transportation Commission to determine the changes we need to implement to become a better agency. That remains my goal."
Wolf, Jay Kimbrough and Dallas resident David Laney were selected by the transportation commission – in consultation with the offices of the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker – to help reinvent the transportation department.
The embattled transportation department lost the public trust in recent years for miscalculating funds available for road work and pursuing controversial toll projects such as the ill-fated Trans Texas Corridor.
Regaining trust is considered a necessary step to ultimately increase funding for road work in Texas, where population and job growth continues and traffic is clogging streets and highways. The state faces a financial crisis, with very little money available for any new road work after 2012, and needs help from a skeptical state Legislature to find new revenue sources.
Although many management changes can occur internally, at least two recommendations require changes in state law.
That includes a proposed lifting of the state’s $192,000 salary cap for the top job at the transportation department. Critics have long said that someone with business management experience should be sought for the top transportation job, which traditionally has been held by a highway engineer who rose from within the department ranks. But that could mean a serious bump in salary – something more comparable to what a CEO in the business world would get working for a company that, like the transportation department, oversees more than $6 billion a year worth of work.
Another item that would need legislative approval is a proposed consolidation of the transportation department’s internal audit and internal compliance functions.
But Wolf said many other changes could be done by the five-member transportation commission.
Other recommendations in the roughly 70-page report include:
Consolidating all financial functions under a single chief financial officer.
Aligning the department’s five largest districts in Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio – so they can share expertise and personnel.
Escalating the use of technology to accomplish the department’s goals.
Wolf also noted that the agency has already taken some steps toward change. For example, a new chief information officer and chief administrative officer likely will be hired in early 2011.
And, the report included a miscellaneous note about the 2007 fiasco involving a $1.1 billion "accounting error" that briefly led to a statewide shut down of road work.
The report concluded that in fact there was no actual accounting error -- and the department didn’t actually lose $1.1 billion, as many critics have alleged. Instead, the department was in effect a victim of its own dissemination of inaccurate information.
In September 2007, the report noted, a memo was sent to all district engineers regarding the next year’s letting schedule. The memo informed them that $4.1 billion would be available for construction projects, but that figure was inaccurate because it included $600 million in bond funding that had been double-counted internally, and $500 million from the Texas Mobility Fund that wasn’t available.
Steps were quickly taken to correct the mistake and prevent it in the future, the report noted.
-- Gordon Dickson, 817 390 7796