TxDOT Officials Address Concerns on Cost-Cutting Plans

Texas Transportation Commission chair Ted Houghton, l, confers with TXDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson during the meeting on August 29, 2013 regarding budget shortfalls.
Texas Transportation Commission chair Ted Houghton, l, confers with TXDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson during the meeting on August 29, 2013 regarding budget shortfalls.

More than a dozen city and county officials from across the state urged the Texas Department of Transportation on Thursday to hold off on two controversial cost-cutting plans.

The monthly meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission, the five-member board that oversees TxDOT, was dominated by the agency’s plans to convert some paved roads to gravel and to transfer responsibility for maintenance of some popular thoroughfares to cities.

On the gravel plan, officials announced a 60-day moratorium on converting any more state roads to gravel so that TxDOT could get more input from the affected communities. The decision comes after the agency has already converted two road segments in South Texas — one in Dimmit County and another in Live Oak County. TxDOT officials said the agency lacks the funds to fix the damage occurring on the roads inflicted by truck traffic from an oil drilling boom.

Following the rural debate on the gravel program, officials from the state’s urban areas gave commissioners an earful on the future maintenance of more than 1,000 miles of roads that are technically part of the state-managed farm-to-market system. TxDOT officials have argued that those roads have developed into de facto city streets and that it may make sense for cities to take over maintenance. Transferring authority over those roads would save TxDOT $165 million a year.

“These highways are perceived by communities as local streets,” TxDOT Deputy Executive Director John Barton said.

Mesquite Mayor John Monaco, who is also president of the Texas Municipal League, took issue with Barton’s argument. He noted that cities have not asked TxDOT to take over maintenance of city streets that function more like state highways.

“We know better,” Monaco said. He echoed other local officials in describing TxDOT's proposal as an "unfunded mandate." 

Letters about the proposal that were sent to dozens of impacted cities earlier this month prompted many officials to worry that TxDOT planned to transfer responsibility of those roads to the cities. TxDOT officials said Thursday that the plan would be voluntary for cities and insisted that was always the plan.

“We acted in good faith with some groups that decided to define the message for us instead of having a conversation like we’re having today,” TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson said.

Some city officials said that the “voluntary” aspect of the program was not emphasized by TxDOT until recently.

Transportation Commission Chairman Ted Houghton agreed with Wilson that TxDOT’s message had been distorted, but Commissioner Victor Vandergriff said the agency could have communicated itself more clearly.

“I think we could have accomplished a lot more, faster and better,” Vandergriff said.

Port Arthur Mayor Deloris Prince said city officials “panicked” when they first learned about the turnover program two weeks ago.

“We have not come out of the panic mode yet,” Prince said.

Port Arthur’s unemployment rate is at 16 percent, and the city is already struggling to handle maintenance costs of city streets.

“There are no benefits that would make up for the financial difficulties cities would face if this was done on a mandatory basis,” Prince said.

The streets that Fort Worth would have to maintain under the plan would increase the city’s budget by at least $11 million a year, Mayor Betsy Price said. Taking on that added expense would force the city to raise taxes or cut city services, she said.

“We want to go forward but we want you to understand this is simply not a solution that the citizens of Fort Worth can afford nor will they afford,” Price said.

Denton Mayor Pro Tem Pete Kamp said Denton is interested in taking on responsibility of some of the streets proposed under the program so that city officials could have more control over regulation and development. She also argued that the controversy over the proposal could be good for the state in the long run.

“A lot of people are now understanding the challenges that TxDOT does have, and I think that’s a wonderful thing that has happened from this,” Kamp said.

Earlier this summer, TxDOT officials announced plans to convert some paved roads badly damaged by energy development into gravel and reduce their speed limits. Agency officials said that the money wasn’t there to maintain the roads properly and that so-called high-end unpaved roads would be safer. Some road segments could still be converted during the moratorium if there are safety concerns, agency officials said.

Barton emphasized Thursday that safety is the motivation behind the gravel initiative. The Texas Legislature budgeted several billion dollars less than TxDOT officials had told lawmakers it needed to maintain current congestion. Surging truck traffic has made maintaining roads a particular challenge in the portions of the state experiencing an oil drilling boom. Repaving methods that would normally last 20 years can be worn away in less than one year. 

Traffic on a Dimmit County road in the Eagle Ford Shale has jumped from 40 vehicles a day in 2012 to 730 vehicles a day this year, Barton said. The road damage has contributed to a surge in fatal accidents in those parts of the state.

Local and state officials criticized the agency for initially moving forward with a plan without discussing it with lawmakers and local communities.           

“I think it’s time for TxDOT to say we made a mistake,” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. “We’re not going to just tear all these roads up until we have town hall meetings, a buy-in from the local governments.”

South Texas officials and residents told the commission that the two roads that have already been converted to gravel do not look safer and argued that the images of the unpaved roads that the agency has released do not match their current condition.

“There was a lot of rocks on one of these newly completed high-end unpaved roads,” Holly Van Cleve Fries of LaSalle County said of the portion of I-37 in Live Oak County that has been converted to gravel. “It looked a lot different than what was presented.”

Residents also expressed concerns about the safety of school buses and emergency vehicles traveling on the unpaved roads, especially now that they lack the lane markings that were there before the conversions.

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