Citing a funding shortfall and the impact of a historic oil drilling boom, Texas Department of Transportation officials on Thursday announced plans to move forward with converting some roads in West and South Texas to gravel.
Approximately 83 miles of asphalt roads will be torn up and converted to “unpaved” roads, TxDOT Deputy Executive Director John Barton said. The speed limits on those roads will probably be reduced to 30 mph.
“We would do these immediately, and I would suspect we would continue to convert other roadway segments as we continue to move forward,” Barton told the Texas Transportation Commission.
All of the affected roads have been so heavily damaged by truck activity related to oil and natural gas exploration that they have become safety hazards, Barton said. The process of converting the roads to gravel can be done quickly but will probably be delayed a few weeks as TxDOT gets permission from the commissioners to lower the speed limits on all of the impacted segments, Barton said.
The impacted roads are in four South Texas counties — Live Oak, Dimmit, LaSalle and Zavala — and two West Texas counties — Reeves and Culberson. The list of impacted roads includes a three-mile stretch of frontage road for Interstate 37 in Live Oak County. Barton said a plant that processes oil and natural gas has dramatically increased the truck traffic on that road.
“Instead of whipping in at 70 miles per hour, they’ll have to move in there at 30 miles per hour,” Barton said.
TxDOT also announced plans to implement stricter weight limits on 518 miles of road in the parts of the state undergoing a drilling boom. The process, called “load posting,” will restrict most energy sector trucks from those roads, prompting some companies to find alternate routes to drilling sites.
“If they choose to do that, they may increase deterioration on those routes as well and we would have to load-post them too,” Barton said. Companies will be able to pay for permits to get around the weight restrictions in some cases, he said.
In recent years, miles of rural roads in West and South Texas have been destroyed via the weight of thousands of trucks associated with the drilling boom. The damage to roads has contributed to a surge in vehicular accidents in some communities.
The transportation commission took Barton’s announcement as a sobering example of how funding challenges have hobbled the agency’s operations. Commissioner Jeff Moseley described the decision as a “historical moment” for the agency.
Commissioner Fred Underwood wanted to make sure the public understood the reasoning behind the decisions.
“This is a safety issue,” Underwood said. “It’s not ‘our roads are bad and we’re not going to keep them up.’ It’s ‘our roads are bad and we’re trying to protect the driving public.’”
The announcement came as state lawmakers are having trouble finding consensus on a measure that would provide TxDOT with nearly $1 billion more in annual funding. Gov. Rick Perry has threatened to call a third special session if lawmakers can’t find common ground on the issue before the end of the current special session.
TxDOT told lawmakers earlier this year that it needed $4 billion in additional annual funding just to maintain current congestion. On top of that, agency officials requested an additional $1.6 billion to address road damage from energy sector development. During the regular legislative session that ended in May, lawmakers found the agency $200 million a year for its overall roadwork and a one-time $500 million infusion for energy development-related issues.