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Pay to Pave

More energy producers are making "donations" to the Texas Department of Transportation to fix roads torn up by gas well operations.

Cracks have formed in the asphalt on Bayou Wood Circle near County Road 687 south of Angleton, Texas Tuesday Aug, 2, 2011.

Ever driven along a bumpy pothole-strewn road and wished you could just pay to fix it yourself?

For some Texas energy producers, that’s become the easiest way to get around a growing transportation problem until the Legislature can take more decisive action next year.

The Texas Department of Transportation recently launched a concerted effort with industry groups and other state agencies to better address the damage done to public roads and bridges by natural gas drilling and other truck-intensive operations around the state. In the meantime, some companies are pulling out their checkbooks.

John Barton, TxDOT’s Assistant Executive Director for Engineering Operations, says his department has seen an increasing number of companies offering to donate money to fix or widen specific roads. In about half the cases, the work is needed because the road has been torn up by earlier energy sector operations.

“We do have a lot of these private sector entities that are approaching us, wanting to financially participate in helping to address some of these roadway impacts that are being caused by the energy sector,” Barton told the state House Transportation Committee last month.

The Texas Transportation Commission has rules allowing it to accept a donation if it feels the donation will benefit the public and won’t create a conflict-of-interest situation for TxDOT. Via an “expedited donation process,” TxDOT can get Commission approval for a donation and get a project launched in about 30 days, Barton said.

In one recent case, Barton told the committee, an energy producer operating oil and gas wells in South Texas wanted to pay for some improvements to routes that they were using including “the entrances and exits to their field.” A district engineer figured out how much the project would cost and the company made the donation.

“And we’re in the process of taking that contract forward,” Barton said.

State Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, expressed surprise that the projects could advance so quickly and still comply with all of TxDOT’s guidelines and bidding requirements.

“So given the inclination and the project, TXDOT can address in a quick manner to address a specific concern in an area,” Darby said. “Interesting.”

To be sure, the donations from energy producers are isolated cases and aren’t expected to properly address the widespread road damage that has developed in parts of the state, most notably in the Barnett Shale and Eagle Ford Shale natural gas fields.

Small rural roads in both fields bear the damage of thousands of trucks passing through to access newly developed gas wells. The damage from such operations is expected to only increase as the current natural gas boom continues. While the damage has irked local officials and residents, it’s also brought about problems for some of the energy companies who are finding it difficult to access well sites.

Pressure is growing on the Legislature to come up with a permanent fix that will generate funding to fix the roads while not deterring energy production. 

Barton said the sense he got from a meeting with energy industry officials last week is that the industry is ready to help pay for the improvements.

Until a plan moves forward, more companies are likely to try to fund the road repairs themselves.

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