Texas Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee Chair Senator Tommy Williams told the Houston-Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council on Friday that the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature will face a challenge in development of the budget for the next biennium. Listen: RealPlayer MP3
"There's been a lot of talk about; whether we have an $18 billion shortfall or a $21 billion shortfall," he said, noting a diversity of opinion on the way the shortfall is being calculated. "What I would say is, we really don't know yet."
He reviewed the history of the Texas highway system and discussed its future.
"My generation inherited a highway system that had excess capacity; it was paid for, it was well maintained, and that highway system, along with public education and higher ed system, laid the foundation for this economic prosperity that we have today," he said. "I don't think that we have the funds today to construct new highways without borrowing money. We haven't done that for some time now and we are rapidly approaching the point; if we haven't already reached it now, that we are not going to be able to maintain our highway system."
He noted that the Texas Highway Commission earlier this year diverted about $1 billion that had been targeted for maintenance to go for "critical new construction" on new projects to mitigate very serious safety and congestion problems.
Williams urged the TPC to continue to monitor and communicate with the Legislature.
"I think it's great that our region works together so cooperatively on transportation issues; and I think it's the people in this room that really are responsible," Williams said. "Now, it's not always pretty, but we always get it worked out."
TPC Chair James Patterson thanked Williams for his service in the Legislature. "We appreciate you being here today."
The council also heard a report from the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County.
Listen: RealPlayer MP3
"When the mayor asked me to serve on METRO we knew there were going to be a lot of challenges at METRO," said Gilbert Garcia, chair of the METRO Board of Directors. "All of us knew that and we had just a few things that we were going to concentrate on right away; and they seemed very easy and simple, but they're not."
Garcia said the New METRO is working to regain the public trust, improve employee morale, secure the full-funding grant agreement from the Federal Transit Administration and to be better stewards of taxpayer dollars.
"We created a new set of strategic priorities," added METRO President and CEO George Greanias, reporting that he has also introduced new operating principles, a new organizational structure, new financial strategies, and will soon be introducing a new set of leadership practices; stressing that it is a long-term project that requires a "twenty-four to thirty month cultural change."
Members of the TPC were receptive to the presentation.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he has known Greanias for several years.
"By my knowledge and by reputation, you could not have chosen a more respected person for this position," Emmett said to Garcia. "He and I will have disagreements, as all of us do, but the really good thing about him is, the disagreement will always be based on some intellectual decision and we will move on from there."