State transportation officials and advocates stood with Gov. Rick Perry at a news conference Wednesday to tout the early progress in developing the Texas portion of a new interstate highway system while warning that more funding was needed for the $16 billion project to continue.
Supporters of the Interstate 69 project envision it stretching 1,600 miles from South Texas to Michigan and serving as a key trade corridor for truck traffic to and from Mexican and Texan ports while also boosting infrastructure in key regions. In the last year, the federal government has designated portions of U.S. Highway 77 in South Texas and U.S. Highway 59 near Houston as part of I-69. Projects totaling $637 million, coming from state and federal coffers, are currently under way to further expand the highway's footprint in Texas.
“What I-69 does [is] it connects the part of Texas that have not had interstate access, from the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo, Brownsville, all the way up Corpus [Christi], Houston, East Texas, Lufkin, Nacogdoches, up to Texarkana,” Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Austin said.
Perry called the project a “vital component” in positioning the state for future economic growth. Yet for the massive project to ever be completed, it will need billions more in funding at a time when the Texas Department of Transportation says it is on the verge of seeing its highway building budget drop severely starting in 2016 unless lawmakers find some new revenue.
“We’ll have to deal with our transportation needs if we want to keep our winning streak going,” Perry said.
I-69 has been on TxDOT's drawing board for years. It was even included in Perry’s original Trans-Texas Corridor plan in 2003 that drew sharp opposition from around the state and eventually lost all political support.
After 20 years of meetings, committee hearings and studies, the I-69 project has recently seen a burst of progress, aided in part by a line in a federal transportation funding bill signed by President Obama last year. The bill removed the requirement that a highway segment must be connected to an existing interstate highway before it can be added to the interstate highway system. Since then, 70 miles of the I-69 route, all around the Houston and Corpus Christi areas, have been designated as part of the system.
TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson said the designations have helped the project's momentum and “allows us to take one bite at a time” rather than try to plan or fund the full project at once. Large portions of state highways along the planned I-69 route, including U.S. Highway 84 near Nacogdoches and U.S. 59 near Texarkana are being improved to get them to interstate highway standards, he said.
The project still remains decades away from completion. TxDOT Chief Planner Marc Williams estimated the Texas portion of the project will ultimately cost $16 billion. The current goal is for about half of the Texas portion of the highway to be completed in 20 years, assuming state and federal planners can locate about $400 million a year for it, Williams said.
The project has been moving in fits and starts in other states for years. Lawsuits or funding challenges have recently slowed down progress of portions of the highway in Indiana and Tennessee.
Perry reiterated his recent calls for allocating $3.7 billion from the Rainy Day Fund for infrastructure projects and allocating $1.3 billion in gas tax money to transportation that currently funds the Department of Public Safety. Lawmakers would have to find a replacement for the DPS funding elsewhere in the budget. Lawmakers are discussing several ideas for creating a new revenue stream for transportation include raising vehicle registration fees and dedicating the sales tax paid on vehicle purchases to the state’s highway fund.
Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, said the Legislature must not let the momentum on projects like I-69 falter.
“What we have to focus on now is how are we going to fund all these infrastructure projects,” Nichols said.