Will the Commission to Rebuild Texas follow through on its charge to help the state recover quickly and equitably?

 

The state’s draft action plan for spending $57.8 million in federal disaster recovery funds was released on Jan. 18. The Texas General Land Office, which oversees the administration of the federal funds, has given the public 14 days to comment. Every day untilFeb. 1 Feb. 13, we’ll be asking fundamental questions about the action plan as we draft our own comments to the GLO to advocate for equitable disaster recovery for all Hurricane Harvey survivors. 

The Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas has been charged with “marshal[ling] state agency resources in order to coordinate the statewide effort to rebuild public infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Harvey…”  This charge is critical when considering how infrastructure that doesn’t perform and inadequate planning and mitigation contributed to historic floods across southeast Texas.

On October 31st the Commission released a report detailing infrastructure needs in Request for Federal Assistance Critical Infrastructure Projects. This $61 billion request containing 281 projects were, according to the Commission’s Request, “selected…based on an extensive survey of locally identified needs conducted…by the Commission to Rebuild Texas.”

Experts on the Commission use “four guiding dimensions” of evaluation criteria (there are actually 5 in the request):

  1. Degree of Flood Impacts Avoided
  2. Economically Justifiable
  3. Technically Feasible
  4. Equity and Fairness
  5. Environmentally Sound

We have learned that despite the Commission making claims about their aim to help the state invest in infrastructure projects that protect communities and promote equity, the cumulative requests are a contradiction to their mission and goals stated in their report. We conducted an analysis of the Commission’s request that shows the report to be inaccurate, incomplete, arbitrary and deeply flawed. In summary, we find that the request consists of a seemingly random list of projects that are not prioritized, many of which fail to support the stated mission of “future-proofing.” The request also underrepresents and excludes many cities, counties, and regions with known disaster needs. You can read our report below.

Who are the experts evaluating the infrastructure requests?

Despite two public information requests, the Commission did not produce responsive information regarding the “panel of experts” consulted by the Commission to evaluate and score the projects for inclusion into the Request.

How did the Commission select 281 projects of the 2,200 submitted?

Texas Housers submitted a public information request to the Commission seeking information about the commission itself, the methodology used to select projects, how local governments were surveyed, and a list of projects that were not included in the request and why. Our first attempted was not fruitful.

A subsequent response produced two useful pieces of information: the “survey instrument” used to collect projects and their details from local entities. We also received a complete list of all projects submitted with an indication as to whether the project was included in the Request, as well as the project priority ranking assigned by the locality or jurisdiction that requested it.

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Shown above is the survey. It is hard to believe that the Commission was able to solicit sufficient information about a project to evaluate it against the large list of criteria listed in the Request narrative.

What made it into the request and what didn’t?

We reviewed the complete list of projects submitted by all entities and found significant inconsistencies in how projects were chosen to be included in the Request. In all, over 2,200 projects were submitted by 273 entities. Only 281 total projects were included in the request. That means the Commission chose 12 percent of projects submitted to be in this request. We would expect that the ones selected would be the highest priority or those that scored the highest according to the criteria listed. That’s not the case.

Of the 275 priority one projects submitted by entities, only 73 were included, meaning 202 top priority projects as deemed by local governments and entities were not included. In all, 167 entities didn’t get any of their top priority projects included in the Request (the great majority of entities overall — 214 — submitted only one priority one project). Nearly half of these entities, 129 submitting a total of 747 projects, did not have any of their submitted projects included in the request.

On the other end, 19 entities had four or more projects included in the request, including eight for Fort Bend County and nine for City of Beaumont. Yet in the nearby City of Port Arthur, ranked second among all cities in Texas in number of homes damaged, no projects were submitted to the Commission to even be considered.

So what does this mean to the State Action Plan?

Many low-income communities have endured with inadequate infrastructure, yet the Commission and many local governments did not make addressing these issues a priority as demonstrated through the prioritized projects. The General Land Office, responsible for administering block grants that will be spent on housing and major infrastructure, will make assessments of how to prioritize projects based on what this request says. We ask that the GLO not take this request at face value. If state officials will be spending billions of dollars on the projects in the request, they have to take into account that an analysis of need is not included in this report. .

We ask that the Commission take its charge to rebuild Texas seriously. There’s a disconnect between the proclamation and the narrative of the request and then the actual projects that are included in this request. The Commission should therefore be forthcoming and completely accurate about what this request is. It is a wish list and not much more from what we can tell.

Finally, we ask local officials — and local community leaders — to pay attention to what is in the request and speak out if projects that would truly benefit the people most in need have been left out. Find the list of accepted projects here. We created a chart of all jurisdictions that submitted projects that shows the ranking of those projects as well as which projects were ultimately included in the Commission’s request. A legend for the matrix is at the bottom of the document. By comparing the two documents, you can make note of affected towns and counties that have been left out of the Commission’s request and which projects have taken priority. Think about what needs of affected communities have been overlooked.

This Request is not just indicative of the inadequate job done by the Commission to prioritize the best projects, but also of the questionable prioritization of projects by local governments. It should worry every Texan living in disaster-affected areas wondering whether their communities will be adequately protected from the next disaster.

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