February 12, 2016

James Bass is a Texas transportation veteran, but in his new capacity as TxDOT’s executive director he is encountering a changing environment.

Despite voters approving additional money for roads with some notable strings attached, oil and gas revenues and push-back against tolling have made state funding a little less certain. Lawmakers – chief among them Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a former longtime state representative – argue that the transportation department needs to be acting a little less like the highway department. It should strive to reduce the need for more freeway lanes, they say, not just build more of them.

With funding from various sources and lawmakers coming to Austin with differing perspectives, Bass – promoted from his role as the chief financial officer for TxDOT – said transportation officials largely work with what they’ve got.

“TxDOT is not an independently created entity,” Bass said on a statewide conference call with reporters Thursday. “We are a creation of the state of Texas.”

Texas, incidentally, is where “people either want to own a horse or a car,” Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack told the Chronicle’s Mike Morris.

Bass said the department can provide information and perspective, but ultimately it implements policy rather than sets it. State lawmakers and voters do that.

“What they have spoken recently is we want that focus to be on adding capacity,” he said.

Voters and lawmakers spoke, however, after listening to TxDOT and others describe cities choking on traffic caused by lack of capacity. Critics say that is precisely the problem: The discussion is framed around adding capacity, rather than on identifying why so many solo drivers need to get on the freeway in the first place.

When lawmakers and voters approve hundreds of millions of dollars for congestion relief and specify that it can’t be used for transit or tolls, TxDOT puts together a plan to spend the money to widen or make freeways more efficient. Both Prop. 1 in 2014 and Prop. 7 last year passed with more than 80 percent of the vote, with many voters fully aware the money was just for highways.

Transportation officials, incidentally, identified $447 million in new freeway work in the Houston region at the same meeting where Turner tried to flip the funding script.

So the money for Turner’s “paradigm shift” that emboldened sprawl opponents will have to come from other sources. Given that transit funding proposals don’t enjoy a freeway-level of support with voters statewide or even in the Houston area, that could be a tough sell as taxes and revenue decline and workers fret about their own finances.

Still, Bass said the conversation is needed and it is important Turner touted options.

“We think it is a great conversation for policymakers to have,” Bass said. “We believe we have something to add to that conversation. We would welcome the opportunity to be part of that discussion.”

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