Big change at the top of transportation committee

Posted in 81st Legislature, Around The State, Commentary, Privatization, Road Issues, Transportation, Uncategorized at 1:59 pm by wcnews

The new chair of the House Transportation Committee is a Democrat from El Paso, Rep. Joe Pickett.

El Paso state Rep. Joe Pickett will lead one of the most powerful committees in the Texas House, overseeing a multibillion-dollar transportation department that he once chided as a bully and has lambasted as secretive.


Long considered an expert on transportation issues, Pickett, who is also chairman of the El Paso Municipal Planning Organization, said he was honored that Straus chose him to lead the committee.

“It’s a big deal,” Pickett said. “It’s something that I’m very passionate about and I’d like to think I’m prepared to do. It’s a huge honor and a huge responsibility.”


Pickett has also chastised the Transportation Department for not being open enough about its spending and for having what he considers an insatiable appetite for toll roads.

Despite past unpleasantness, Pickett said, he hopes to create open lines of communication with the department to try to handle the state’s growing transportation needs.

“A lot of members think I’m going to go over and set fire to the place and see who survives the blaze,” he said. “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to find things we can all agree on and go from there.”

Pickett said his first priority for the committee would be ensuring that Texas communities have the resources they need to put federal economic stimulus dollars to work right away on transportation projects.

El Pasoan Ted Houghton, a member of the Transportation Commission who has in the past been on the receiving end of Pickett’s ire, said he was confident Pickett would “do the right thing” with his powerful new position.

Pickett’s appointment, Houghton said, is good for El Paso.

“Anytime you get placed in a leadership position, you get a lot of opportunity and you get to see a lot of things and effectuate change and help your community out at the same time,” Houghton said.

Gone are the days of the false free market, toll everything, GOP lunacy running the House’s transportation policy.

To get a better feel for what Pickett’s philosophy is it should be noted that he voted for HB 3588 in 2003, as did most in the legislature. No excuse, but he appears to have soon after realized the problem with the legislation and how TxDOT was going to use it. From a 2004 interview:

Initially, it started a couple of sessions ago when we talked about toll equity and Sen. [ Florence ]Shapiro had pushed to get the foot in the door which we did, and then there was a constitutional amendment which was kind of a straw poll vote, and then the last session, we came in with some funding for that. I was on transportation at the time, and I was fine about the toll equity issue. And the selling point that I gave the other members of the committee…was, if an area wants to toll, that’s O.K…

I support toll equity, I support people wanting to do a toll, let them do that. It will put more money into the pot for non-toll projects.

That didn’t happen. After all this stuff passed, then TxDOT’s policy is: ‘Not only will we commit $40 million to you, we’ll get you even more money if you will toll.’ And that’s causing a problem now, because I think we’re going to have an unbalanced infrastructure system in Texas. And as much as TxDOT has scared communities in trying to toll, there’s been a lot of misinformation out there.

Initially, they came to my area and said, ‘You’re going to lose all this money,’ and they came up with a dollar figure, and it scared the chambers of commerce, and it scared the local leaders. ‘If you don’t toll, you’re going to lose these millions of dollars.’…


And going back to trying to keep this simplified, TxDOT had been telling everybody that this was just a tool, and this was a way for areas that were accepting of tolls to go ahead and expedite those, and the pot would become bigger for non-tolled projects. And right now, TxDOT almost never talks about non-tolled projects.

Essentially saying what was supposed to be an option for areas that wanted to toll, a tool, turned into TxDOT using tolls as a toll to, more or less, bribe areas into tolling. And he explains how tolling went from just a tool in the tool box, to the toll everything philosophy that became so infamous in Texas.

Pickett went on the battle with TxDOT, and Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton, in El Paso against creating a Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) for the city.

However, the plan is not without its critics: State Rep. Joe Pickett, who serves on the El Paso MPO, a long-range planning entity that helps plan and rank projects for funding, questions whether an RMA is the right way to fund projects, and said he had concerns about creating an authority with long-term powers and appointed board members. In addition, he has that the Texas Department of Transportation was using its funding authority to strong-arm communities into forming RMAs.

Of the meeting Monday (June 12), he said, “they’ll try to sell the public on it and take potshots at me. So it’s a done deal. It’s over, it’s done, and we will have our RMA next month. I won’t be able to say I told you so. It will take five or six years to fail big time, to cause more congestion and get so bad someone will say ‘I thought someone was going to fix it.’”

However, Pickett said, there is momentum building statewide as toll projects come under increasing scrutiny.

“Here in Austin people are starting to stand up and listen … eventually it will start coming to the forefront, but it wont do any good for the next several years until (TxDOT director) Rick Williamson and (Gov.) Rick Perry are gone,” Pickett said. He said that TxDOT would “stop doing improvements to roads that will compete with their toll projects.”

Pickett also has been at odds with Ted Houghton, one of three commissioners on the Transportation Commission. During a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee a couple of weeks ago, representatives requested TxDOT officials be present. Houghton appeared, but did not speak before the committee. “I had a flight that I had to take to get back to El Paso,” he said.

As for tolls in El Paso, Houghton said, “In Texas we’re doing toll roads all over the state. Why should El Paso be any different? It doesn’t make a difference they’re not popular. It’s a matter of there’s no money. So what are you going to do, let (projects) languish and don’t maintain roads? It gets real simple.”

While it’s clear that Pickett is much different then his predecessor, he’s still has a GOP Speaker, Lt. Gov., and Governor to deal with. As well as a 6 - 5 GOP majority on the committee. While he may be an expert on transportation, and know what to do to fix our current problems, he’s still facing an uphill battle.

At this point there’s little pointing to where he stands on the gas tax, but there is this from 2008, The Road Fight Goes On Forever:

However, Pickett says it’s “hypocritical” to rail against raising gas taxes while mortgaging roads for quick cash.

“We’re borrowing too much money. We try to hurry up and build stuff, and we forget the future,” he says. “Well, someone’s got to pay the piper. We can’t keep borrowing our way out of trouble.”

Even if he was a vehement supporter of raising and indexing the gas tax, it’s extremely unlikely to become law. Even if it got out of this committee, it would have to go all the way through the legislative process, and certainly override a veto from Gov. Perry. That would only happen this session if the people showed up with torches and pitchforks and that’s not likely.

I wish chairman Pickett well and hope, for the good of our state, that something positive is accomplished this session in regards to transportation. Reforming TxDOT, and making sure transportation funds are no longer diverted would be a good start.

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