in Houston, Texas

Can Austin lawyer Howard Wolf remake a dysfunctional TxDOT?

by flickr user ahknight
Wednesday, Aug 18, 2010, 11:15AM CST
By Mark Lisheron

As if to prove just how urgent the message, Howard Wolf stuck the first decoration to his office wall with a four-cornered welter of wide blue painter's tape.

"It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out," the framed quote from Machiavelli's The Prince begins, "nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things."

Dangerous? Perhaps not. But Wolf doesn't underestimate the difficulty or overestimate his chances for success in remaking the 
Texas Department of Transportation. The job is as politically fraught as any in state government. The agency, employing 11,000 people statewide with a budget of nearly $9 billion a year, is as entrenched as any in state government. And while everyone seems to agree change is long overdue, there is little consensus from without and within as to what to do or how to do it.

Howard WolfWOLF

Wolf says he knows of only one way to start. "As I see it, my job is to get the Texas Department of Transportation to see their own future, to see the future of mobility in Texas," Wolf says. "I can show people my vision for Texas but if people at TxDOT don't buy it, what good is it? Any change that is going to come is going to come from within TxDOT."

This theme of changing from within has been sounded over the past several years by a growing chorus of critics. In 2008 the state's Sunset Advisory Commission issued a report to the Legislature charging that the Department of Transportation was no longer trusted by its political overseers and the public. 
Sunset Commission staff called for sweeping reforms from the top down, recommending the Texas Transportation Commission be replaced with an appointed transportation commissioner and a legislative oversight committee. 

The Sunset Commission went on to say the Department of Transportation had no long-term plan and that its short-term project planning was indecipherable. Public trust was at a low ebb because the planning process rarely included public input, the report said.

These criticisms were elaborated upon in 
a $2 million study by the government analysis company, Grant Thornton, commissioned by TxDOT. The 628-page report said the culture of the department developed around engineers rather than long-range planners. New senior leadership - change agents, the report called them - were needed to help develop a vision for Texas transportation in the future, to establish an environment of trust inside and outside the department and to help reconnect with the Legislature and the public.

The question of what to do with the Grant Thornton findings was answered in early July when the Transportation Commission went looking for someone to head an implementation committee. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst recommended to Deirdre Delisi, the Transportation Commission chairwoman, his 75-year-old friend, corporate attorney and the man who headed his transition team when he was elected Texas Land Office Commissioner in 1999.

Wolf, who began practicing law in 1959, had long established a reputation for complicated corporate reorganizations. At one point in the 1970s he found himself the president of the Texas airline that would become Continental.

"Humorously, I told Deirdre Delisi that if she couldn't hire the legendary Jack Welch (former head of General Electric) a close second would be Howard Wolf," Dewhurst says. "He is a man of great intelligence and integrity, with intensive experience with business turnarounds and reorganizations."

But because of the close relationship between Wolf and Dewhurst, the commission sought more political balance by persuading Jay Kimbrough to sign on as Wolf's chief of staff. As a favorite of Gov. Rick Perry, Kimbrough developed his own reputation as a reformer with the Texas Youth Commission and at Perry's alma mater, Texas A&M University. This week, at the suggestion of House Speaker Joe Straus, David Laney, a Dallas attorney and former Transportation Commissioner, will join Kimbrough and Wolf in the offices of what Wolf is calling the Restructure Council on the eighth floor of the Sam Houston State Office Building next door to the Capitol.

While Kimbrough is working on a contract for the Transportation Commission valued at $303,000 for the next 14 months, Wolf says he wanted to make a statement about his independence by accepting $1 for his work. It is just the sort of gesture that won Wolf admirers when Dewhurst made him his citizen appointee to the Sunset Advisory Commission in 2003.

Wolf also made enemies of some lawmakers when he issued a position paper attacking the system of liquor regulation as corrupt. He and Sunset Chairman Kim Brimer, the former Republican state senator from Fort Worth, stopped talking to one another when Wolf insisted that Brimer attach his paper to the Sunset's final report. Instead, Brimer issued no final report to the Legislature.

Joey Longley, who served as executive director of the Sunset Advisory Commission when it produced the critical report on the Department of Transportation, says that if anyone can pierce the nearly impenetrable department it is Wolf. Longley, who left the commission after 30 years, said Wolf was one of Sunset's best and most outspoken citizen members.

"In my opinion he was the quintessential public member of the commission," Longley, now a lobbyist, says. "He challenged the legislative members of the commission to do the right thing. He was very outspoken, but nonpolitical. He's taking on a department that isn't trusted by the Legislature, that doesn't want to listen to the Legislature. I'd expect him to handle himself in the same way with this new committee as he did on Sunset."

'A rendezvous with destiny'
Those around Wolf are careful when discussing the threat of politics to the process of reforming the Department of Transportation.
Delisi says she understood what might be said about Wolf and Dewhurst. "Could politics get in the way?" Delisi says. "I guess so. But I would not have pushed so hard for him if I didn't think his credentials stood head and shoulders above anyone else's. You can't quibble with his qualifications."

Rep. Joe Pickett, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has no quibble with Wolf's qualifications. Nor does he argue with the need for changes to be made with how the Department of Transportation operates. His quibble is with a Transportation Commission made up of Republican political appointees who have no more credibility in some legislative quarters than the Department of Transportation. Pickett says he expects there to be as much discussion in the next legislative session of Transportation Commission reform as there is TXDOT reform.

However effective Wolf, Kimbrough, Laney and the rest of the council when it is selected are, they will not effect change if Delisi's Commission won't permit it.
"It's not like this commission didn't know what was going on over there," Pickett, D-El Paso, says. "The stuff in the report - one hand not knowing what the other was doing - the commission knew all about that. They could have done a lot more before this committee was formed."

Wolf says he does not intend to be distracted by political interference. And he believes he has an ally in forecasts that say Texans will not be able to afford to simply keep adding miles of new highways. The 2030 Committee, formed by Delisi, estimated in 2008 that Texas needed to spend $315 billion, or $14.3 billion a year, between 2009 and 2030 just to keep up with the state's needs. The Department of Transportation currently spends less than half that on construction, planning and maintenance, according to figures provided by TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott.

Wolf calls this the perfect storm tsunami. Politicians don't take it seriously because they exist in two- and four-year election cycles. TxDOT doesn't take it seriously because the department exists in three- to five-year planning cycles. 

On a month-long vacation to Maine after his appointment, Wolf picked up "The Power Broker," a long and intensely reported biography of Robert Moses by Robert Caro, biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson. Moses ruthlessly realized a dream, spending billions of dollars to pave New York City with highways, creating gridlock and debt wherever he imposed his will.

The book was a revelation to Wolf. The best news for Texans, Wolf says, is that there won't be enough money to do here what Moses did and that the Legislature will not have the political courage to impose new taxes to get the money.
"We have a rendezvous with destiny," he says. "The Robert Moses effect is not good for the people of Texas."

What Wolf will try to do in the coming months, he says, is to encourage Department of Transportation leaders this coming storm presents tremendous opportunity to transform the way they think about how people are connected to one another in Texas and the role of technology in that connection.

"This will not be easy. But the fact that it is difficult only amplifies its importance," Wolf says. "I want to get in there and work with these people. I'll consider it a victory if I can get them to think beyond the next legislative session."
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or
Photo of a State Highway 155 sign by flickr user ahknight, used via a Creative Commons license.
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