The Texas Department of Transportation is calling upon one of its own to serve as an interim leader, while the agency continues to undergo an organizational makeover after years of complaints by lawmakers and the public about financing, pursuit of toll roads and other hot-button issues.
John Barton, a 25-year employee who previously served as assistant executive director for engineering operations, was promoted to interim executive director Thursday by the agency's governing board, the Texas Transportation Commission. Despite the temporary nature of the job, Barton will be paid a salary of $192,000 per year, according to terms of a unanimous vote by the five-member panel during a meeting in Austin.
Barton told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram he is also a candidate for the permanent executive director job.
"I have submitted my resume," he said.
A national search firm is identifying other candidates for the job, but that firm's work is scheduled to conclude in September.
"I know the commission is eager to move forward quickly," Barton said. "I expect the interim position to be for a couple of months, at least, just from the technical part of it. I know they're considering candidates as we speak."
Barton's appointment came just hours after commission members said goodbye to Amadeo Saenz Jr., who has served as executive director of the agency since 2007 and is retiring at the end of the month. Saenz took the helm during turbulent times, as lawmakers and residents accused agency officials of misspending millions of dollars in gas tax revenue, and pursuing toll road projects such as the Trans Texas Corridor that the public didn't want.
One of Saenz's proudest moments came before he was promoted to the agency's top job, commission chairwoman Deirdre Delisi said. In 2001, Saenz was a district engineer in Pharr, and he was credited with quickly rebuilding the Queen Isabella Causeway after it collapsed, leaving South Padre Island disconnected from the rest of Texas.
"Amadeo pulled together resources from across the state and had the causeway repaired in under two months," Delisi said.
Also retiring at the end of the month is Steve Simmons, a former Fort Worth district engineer who served as Saenz's No. 2 man.
As an assistant director, Barton has overseen the department's work on matters such as aviation, bridge, design, environmental, rail, right of way, transportation planning and the state turnpike division.
He grew up in Archer City, near Wichita Falls, and graduated from Texas A&M University with a civil engineering degree.
He has worked at the transportation department for 25 years. Commission members have previously mentioned that they're comfortable with Barton's calming influence and vast experience.
However, Barton isn't a shoo-in for the permanent top job. A panel appointed by state leaders to give the transportation department a makeover has often cited the agency's build-from-within mentality as a weakness, and has recommended that new blood be brought in to the agency's top leadership to give it new ideas and a fresh approach.
Also Thursday, the commission was briefed on plans to lease two more highway projects to private developers. Supporters hope Grand Parkway in Houston and Interstate 35E in Dallas/Lewisville/Denton can be under contract with a private developer in about a year.
However, the state transportation department can't get too far along on its I-35E planning until the North Texas Tollway Authority waives its "primacy" -- its authority under state law to have first dibs on any toll-related project in the four largest North Texas counties. The Plano-based tollway authority has asked for six more weeks to finish up its own study of the I-35E corridor.
The so-called public-private partnerships, or comprehensive development agreements (say those names five times, fast!) are already being used to speed up work on Loop 820 and Texas 121/183 in Tarrant County (the North Tarrant Express), Texas 114/121 in Grapevine (DFW Connector) and I-635 in Dallas (LBJ Express).