The Texas Transportation Commission turned to home-grown talent on Thursday, making James Bass the Texas Department of Transportation’s 21st executive director.
Bass, a 49-year-old University of Texas accounting graduate, has been with the 11,775-employee agency for 30 years. He has been in charge of the agency’s massive budget since 1999, first as finance division director and then chief financial officer — with the exception of a few months in 2013 and 2014. During that time he served as interim executive director of the agency, giving him the unique status as both the predecessor and successor to outgoing executive director Joe Weber.
Bass, who will be paid $300,000 a year, has handled TxDOT’s money through a period of fundamental change. Since its 1917 inception, the agency had operated on a pay-as-you-go basis, using tax funds as they appeared and eschewing debt, until it turned to toll road debt and other borrowing in a big way beginning in 2001. The agency now carries at least $20 billion in debt, and spends more than $1 billion of its annual $11.5 billion budget paying back that money.
But the Legislature in the past three years, along with the voting public, has been turning back the clock on that model. As such, Bass and his staff will find themselves with considerable added resources. Constitutional amendments passed in 2014 and this year will be feeding an additional $4 billion or more a year into highway spending, and Congress recently passed a five-year federal transportation bill likely to boost TxDOT spending still more.
Bass’ elevation continues another trend: non-engineers in charge of TxDOT. The agency, whose primary business is to design, construct and maintain highways, was legally required to have a licensed engineer in charge until the Legislature removed that provision in 2011.
Phil Wilson, who took over in 2011, was a former political aide and lobbyist. Weber, who got the job in April 2014, was a career Marine and retired as a lieutenant general.
Funding approved for Texas 45 Southwest
The Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a key $60 million state loan for Texas 45 Southwest and a $28.9 million grant, lining up the last pieces of funding for the four-lane tolled expressway that would connect South MoPac Boulevard and FM 1626.
The $110 million project already included $15 million from Travis County and $5 million from Hays County, and the $28.9 million grant had been allocated by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board.
The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which plans to build the 3.6-mile toll road, needs to complete a final design and select a builder for the project. Officials hope to start construction in the summer of 2016.