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On TxDOT 's Personnel Volatility

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It is apparent that our new executive director recognizes the challenge of our evolving funding strategies. Lt. Governor Dewhurst brought this to focus during the last regular session of the legislature.

In the September/October issue, the title of my article was “Market Volatility.” In light of that and all the changes taking place over at the Greer Building, I think it only fair that this month I speak to you on “Personnel Volatility.”

When TxDOT staff decided it would be a good idea to hire an outside consultant firm named Grant Thornton to review their procedures, they had no idea what would evolve from what seemed to be a healthy cleansing of practices. Right off the bat, the five-member Texas Transportation Commission ruled that it should be conducted under the direction of the commission rather than department staff.

When Grant Thornton issued the report, there were hundreds of recommended changes. Perhaps most surprising was the recommendation to cycle out top administration in order to change the culture. The other surprising—and, indeed, dismaying—part of the report was that the department had insufficient overhead at the top and instead spent all of their resources in building highways.

As a result of that study and other factors, the top members of the administration made a decision to take retirement. In each case they had sufficient number of years of service with the department to obtain full retirement and had only been working because their love of building roads and bridges. We appreciate that professional zeal, and thank them for years of partnerships that are the envy of other states.

Several years ago, the legislature decided that the chief executive officer for the Texas Department of Transportation did not need to be an engineer, but a manager. It was the wish of the legislature that they provide sufficient funds to attract outside executives interested in running the department. The commission viewed the department as something much larger than just builders of a transportation system. It was their feeling that the department must delve into all kinds of financing and should have the personnel to manage both the financing needs of our transportation system as well as the building needs of our transportation system.

As the changes began to take place, we saw many very competent employees from TxDOT depart. In most cases these high level engineers will obtain jobs that pay substantially more than they were making at the Texas Department of Transportation.

After several months of reviewing resumes, the commission settled on Phil Wilson as the new executive director of the department. Phil comes to the department with executive experience, having been Secretary of State, Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Rick Perry, and a key executive with a major firm in private industry.

Phil brings to the department a new vision and a new sense the department’s ability to modernize over the next ten or twelve years. At his first commission meeting in October, he received permission to reorganize the top-tiered executive personnel, along with permission to pay those new posts competitive salaries. Better pay has been an objective of many of us for many, many years. However, in the past the legislature was not open to change. We applaud Phil Wilson for obtaining approval from the commission to pay top dollar for top people.

The new organization will include a deputy executive director with a salary up to $272,000 and there will be four key executives serving beneath the deputy executive director. First there will be a chief financial officer. Second, there will be an innovative finance officer responsible for the new and different financial mechanisms available to TxDOT. Third, and the only one required to be an engineer—a chief planning and projects engineer, John Barton. Of course, John brings experience from residency, the district, and the second floor of the department and will be able to coordinate the efforts of building our transportation system. The fourth and final executive in the leadership role has yet to be defined. Each of these people will have a salary cap at $250,000—substantially more than the executive director was being paid previously.

It is apparent that our new executive director recognizes the challenge of our evolving funding strategies. Lt. Governor Dewhurst brought this to focus during the last regular session of the legislature. The traditional funding mechanism of fuel taxes and license fees will be enough to handle maintenance and some rural projects, but real congestion mitigation must come from elsewhere. The Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M has been charged with identifying the most heavily congested areas and to develop a set of scenarios that could be used to address these congestion problems.

The puzzle pieces are beginning to fit together. As you can tell, Mr. Phil Wilson is structuring his team to address the future funding programs developing under legislative intent. It will be most interesting to watch things develop over the next six to eight months. One thing we can be assured of, however, is that change continues to be in the wind. And change is not necessarily all that bad.

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