Getting Rid of the DOT Commission?

BILL WOULD ELIMINATE THE COMMISSION THAT SHIELDS POLICYMAKERS FROM ACCOUNTABILITY

There seems to be broad agreement (except, perhaps, among Statehouse legislative leaders) that the state’s road funding system needs structural overhaul. Structural reform at the DOT is no longer the foreign suggestion it was three or four years ago.

H.3703 would restructure the agency, most notably by abolishing the DOT commission. The bill would also enable the governor to appoint the agency’s secretary with advice and consent of the Senate, making the department solely accountable to one person. An auditor would be assigned to the department from the State Auditor’s office and DOT would be required to create a long-term statewide transportation plan that covers at least the next twenty years. This plan would include processes for consultation with local officials and metropolitan planning organizations. The department would also be required to make a priority list of the projects in the plan.

At present, the agency is an unaccountable mess. Under current law, seven of its eight commissioners are elected by the delegations of the seven congressional districts. The remaining commissioner is appointed by the governor. Prior to eligibility for election to the commission, a candidate must first be screened by the Join Transportation Review Committee (JTRC) – a committee made up entirely of legislators and legislative appointees, the majority of whom are controlled by the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem. Any citizen wishing to speak to someone actually responsible for policy and funding decisions will – let’s say – have a difficult time.

The DOT secretary monitors day to day activities and oversees the implementation of the transportation plan created by the commission. It is largely an administrative position. While the Secretary is legally empowered to approve emergency repairs and routine maintenance, the largest and most significant projects and expenditures are controlled by the Commission. H.3703 would make the secretary directly accountable to the governor – which is to say, to the entire state. The bill gives the secretary the added responsibility of developing the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan and the Statewide Mass Transit Plan, instead of only implementing them. He or she would also be granted the authority to push projects along to be accomplished in a timely fashion.

The underlying principle here is this: the less accountable an agency is, the more likely it is to make decisions suitable to the preferences of its managers – in this case, legislative leaders and commissioners – rather than the preferences of taxpayers. Under the current structure, that means prioritization of expansionary projects in politically important districts and a corresponding neglect of maintenance in other – especially rural – counties.

Unfortunately, the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) is not abolished in the bill – another much needed reform. The STIB contributes to financing eligible transportation projects as chosen by its board. The STIB has historically financed projects in only a handful of the state’s 46 counties, and it has never contributed financing to maintenance or repair. Recently, legislation has increased the STIB’s recurring annual appropriation.

Still, placing the DOT under the governor – and not subjecting the governor’s choice to a convoluted series of legislative approval, as is done now – would amount to genuine reform.

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