This story is part of KXAN’s “TxTag Troubles” investigative project launched May 7, 2023. Following related reports in recent years, our team rededicated its resources to this major consumer issue, after hundreds of viewers complained to us about resurfaced billing and customer service problems with the state’s tollway operator and its contracted vendors. During our reporting, the Texas Department of Transportation began reaching out to viewers who had contacted KXAN to resolve their issues, and state lawmakers renewed their approach to fixing future TxTag problems.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — All five members of a commission tasked with overseeing the Texas Department of Transportation — and by extension, its troubled TxTag toll system — appear to have little or no prior experience with transportation but collectively donated nearly $1.5 million to Gov. Greg Abbott, who appointed them, a KXAN investigation found.
The Texas Transportation Commission, or TTC, has the ultimate oversight over TxDOT. It is responsible for policies regarding our state’s highways and developing statewide transportation plans. None of the commissioners list any prior experience with transportation before they were appointed, according to their public biographies.
KXAN asked each member, among other things, about any experience that isn’t listed. While Chairman J. Bruce Bugg Jr. was the only one who responded, through a spokesperson, his statement — and public comments made by others — said having private sector experience in unrelated fields is actually a good thing.
KXAN sent at least five emails over three weeks to TxDOT asking to interview Bugg. Without a response, we informed TxDOT we would be at the next TTC meeting to try to talk with the chairman about customers’ concerns with TxTag billing problems.
“Chairman, before you were appointed, what transportation experience did you have?” KXAN investigative reporter Matt Grant asked after the meeting ended.
Bugg walked away without answering that question. When not on the commission, the chairman’s other job is president of Southwest Bancshares, a Texas bank holding company for Texas Partners Bank, and CEO of Argyle Investment Co., LLC, a private investment firm.
Another member coming from the banking world who Abbott recently chose to sit on the commission, and was recently confirmed by lawmakers, is Alejandro “Alex” Meade. Meade, a former city manager for the city of Pharr in South Texas, is the executive vice president of economic development at Texas Regional Bank.
In addition to banking and politics, other members on the commission come from sectors like oil and gas, business and commercial real estate.
The common thread: Campaign finance records show the five members, collectively, donated nearly $1.5 million — $1,449,944 — to Abbott since 2011. Abbott was elected governor in 2013.
- Robert Vaughn: $525,000
- Steven Alvis: $462,610
- J. Bruce Bugg, Jr.: $299,845
- Alvin New: $160,489
- Alejandro “Alex” Meade III: $2,000
Meade and Alvis were both appointed to the commission by the governor on March 21 and recently confirmed by the Texas Senate.
‘Let’s set up an appointment, OK?’
At the TTC meeting, KXAN tried to ask Bugg what he and the commission are doing to fix TxTag. Bugg said he had to go to another meeting and quickly left, leaving us to question TxDOT’s communications representatives instead.
When asked how large donations to the governor could impact the commissioners’ objectivity and decision making, spokesman Adam Hammons responded that he “can’t speak to that.”
“I don’t know their background,” he said.
“That’s not our place to say,” interjected Diann Hodges, TxDOT’s director of communications.
“Well, that’s why we wanted to talk to the chairman and ask these questions to him,” Grant responded.
“Great,” said Hodges, smiling. “Well, let’s set up an appointment, OK? OK. Thank you.”
Hodges grabbed and patted Grant on the arm several times before walking away.
Despite sending a follow-up email to set something up, that interview never came. Instead, TxDOT sent us written responses to our questions on the chairman’s behalf.
Through a TxDOT spokesperson, Bugg said he serves “at the pleasure of the governor,” who appointed him, and works “every day to earn the trust and confidence” of Abbott and Texans by “working in the best interest” of everyone.
In his statement, Bugg said it is “extremely valuable” for TxDOT to have commissioners with “different experiences and backgrounds to give a variety of viewpoints when leading the agency.” He said his experience in banking brings a “unique” perspective to the board.
“As commissioners, we count on recommendations and expertise of TxDOT staff to advise on any transportation issue that may arise,” Bugg wrote in the statement. “My experience in the private sector and my leadership positions in the financial industry help bring a unique perspective that complements TxDOT staff transportation expertise.”
The governor’s office, in a statement, agreed.
“TxDOT’s Commission contains a wealth of knowledge — from finance and legal backgrounds to former rural mayors and economic developers, who all bring unique attributes to the table from varied viewpoints to best guide our state’s policy,” said Andrew Mahaleris, a spokesman for Gov. Abbott. “And TxDOT staff’s diverse expertise spans roadway safety, engineering and construction, which the Commissioners are able to utilize to make the best decisions for Texas.”
This isn’t the first time a KXAN investigation found top-dollar donors to the Republican governor receiving appointments to a state board. Last year, KXAN found seven members of the Texas Medical Board — also appointed by the governor — collectively donated at least $393,103 to Abbott’s campaign.
Transportation watchdog Terri Hall, who heads Texans for Toll-free Highways, said appointing generous donors creates the appearance of a “pay-to-play” system, which doesn’t sit right with her.
“Gov. Abbott is not unique to this, unfortunately. It was Gov. Rick Perry who brought us down this road of ‘pay-to-play,'” Hall said. “These guys don’t come from the transportation world, so I don’t think there’s like a quid-pro-quo of any sort that you could equate here. But, at the end of the day, he’s certainly continuing a problem.”
KXAN asked, but the governor’s office did not address Hall’s concerns regarding the appearance of a “pay-to-play” system or whether donations to the governor can impact the commission’s objectivity and decision making.
“Governor Abbott will continue working to appoint members with diverse professional backgrounds in order to help promote his policies and develop new, innovative solutions to keep Texans moving safely and reliably,” Mahaleris said.
Addressing TxTag ‘totally unacceptable’
While Hall is pleased with the commission’s job overall, she said it’s not doing enough to address financial concerns with TxTag.
“Oh, it’s totally unacceptable. There’s no question, the billing problems have just spun out of control,” she said. “There’s lots of ways they can solve this problem. But, at the end of the day, they have to have the will to do it.”
“They can certainly do more,” she added.
Bugg, in his statement through TxDOT, downplayed the TxTag problems hundreds of KXAN viewers detailed.
“TxDOT has more than 6 million customers and while some customers have experienced difficulties with their toll bills, most have seen significant improvement in the process,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “Since we have terminated the contract with IBM in late 2021, TxDOT staff and our consultants have been diligently monitoring TxTag systems and customer feedback to make improvements. As with most systems, there are occasional issues that must be resolved. And each individual’s case is unique and must be researched. That’s why it’s important for drivers to let us know when they have difficulties so we can determine the cause of these problems and address them.”
KXAN reached out by email and, in some cases, in person, to members on the commission, including the two new members after they were appointed. We asked what they are doing to fix the ongoing TxTag issues, how donations to Abbott impacts their decisions, why it’s a good idea for the governor to appoint donors, and what prior experience with transportation qualifies them to help solve these ongoing problems.
Chairman Bugg’s statement is the only one we received.
At a Texas Senate hearing to discuss his nomination on April 17, Meade touted his private and public sector experience as a positive. Meade is the executive vice president for economic development with Texas Regional Bank.
Meade said he was appointed to serve on “numerous” state boards, including the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners, Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas Oversight Committee and Gov. Perry’s Advisory Board of Economic Development.
“Having managed cities, having managed economic development entities, and dealing with a need to be competitive — you know, TxDOT is a big economic development entity. At least in my mind, that’s how I see it,” said Meade during his testimony to lawmakers. “And, so, we need to remain competitive. And in order to do that, we have to learn to be efficient.”
His appointment was praised by State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
“There is no doubt that he has the experience from the public and private sectors that have prepared him for this position,” Hinojosa wrote in a Facebook post after the nomination hearing.
The governor’s other recent TTC appointee, Steven Alvis, appeared before lawmakers a week later. Alvis is the co-founder and managing partner of a commercial real estate company that has been called “the largest privately held shopping center developer in Texas.”
Alvis told state senators during his April 24 nomination hearing that his real estate background will be an asset to TxDOT.
“Having developed my company and built projects all over the state of Texas, I had to learn to solve problems. I had to learn to meet deadlines with construction,” Alvis said in his testimony. “I had to learn to make sure they were on budget. So, that, I think, makes me uniquely positioned to serve.”
Alvis serves on Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s Transportation Advisory Board, according to his bio.
Since December 2020, he served as Chairman of the Texas Facilities Commission overseeing the management of state government buildings — a position Abbott also tapped him for — until his term ended on Jan. 31, 2023.
Less than two months later, Abbott nominated him to serve on the TTC.
How do other states handle transportation oversight?
For a comparison, KXAN looked at how every other state operates. Twenty-one states have toll roads and a similar transportation commission. Of those, almost all members are appointed by the governor, the legislature or both.
Maryland requires one of its members have expertise in structural engineering, one in transportation planning, one in land use planning and one in finance. In California, the governor has to “make every effort” to appoint diverse members who have “expertise in transportation.”
North Carolina requires disclosure forms if a nominee, or a member of their family, ever donated to the governor.
Most states we looked at only required the board be balanced along political and geographic lines. Our state has no such requirements.
However, like in Texas, we found nothing in other states that would prevent donors from being appointed, and serving, on other state boards.