As he witnesses the roads around his South Texas farm crumble and deteriorate, Dane Elliot is aware that he is both a victim of the problem and part of it. The farmer and rancher in Live Oak County also owns a small trucking company that hauls oil field equipment.
"My wife works in a local hospital and she has to take our son to daycare," Eliott said. "It worries me every day with the traffic and road conditions. It weighs on my mind, not only from a maintenance standpoint for my trucks but a safety standpoint for my family.”
The sharp increase in heavy traffic from a historic oil boom has damaged many farm-to-market roads in South and East Texas. The damage related to energy development has become so extensive that state and local authorities lack the funding to make all the repairs. Last month, the Texas Department of Transportation announced plans to convert more than 80 miles of paved roads to gravel. The conversions are expected to start Monday, TxDOT officials said. But the plan has been met with criticism from lawmakers and some of the farmers and ranchers who live near those roads.
"Since paving roads is too expensive and there is not enough funding to repave them all, our only other option to make them safer is to turn them into gravel roads," TxDOT spokesman David Glessner said.
Dimmit County, near the Texas-Mexico border, will be hit hardest by TxDOT’s decision. More than 30 miles of the county’s farm-to-market roads are slated to be turned to gravel.
“We want the state to continue to maintain those roads as they are now,” said Dimmit County Commissioner Mike Uriegas.
In the final days of the 83rd regular legislative session, lawmakers found $225 million to repair county roads affected by energy development, and the same amount for repairs to state-owned roads. That funding, though, was only a temporary fix. Efforts to increase taxes on the companies that are profiting from the energy boom to cover the road repair costs failed to gain traction. TxDOT said repairing and maintaining the oil field roads into the future will cost about $1 billion a year in additional funding.
The conversions will affect roads in four South Texas counties — Live Oak, Dimmit, LaSalle and Zavala — and two West Texas counties — Reeves and Culberson. Glessner said the farm-to-market roads that will be turned to gravel were picked, in part, because they are rural routes that are ineligible for federal funds.
State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, whose district includes Dimmit County, is one of the harshest critics of the conversions. He said TxDOT did not consult lawmakers and community leaders before unveiling the plan.
“By failing to do so, the agency imposed a unilateral solution on these communities with no notice, no opportunity to seek alternative solutions, and no clear understanding of what to expect in the future,” he said in a statement.
Uresti and Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, have helped coordinate a meeting Tuesday in San Antonio between county commissioners from the affected counties and TxDOT officials.
Along with converting the roads to gravel, TxDOT plans to reduce the speed limits in some segments to 30 mph. Elliot said he doubted that oil field workers would abide by the lower limits. If they did, he said, gravel roads would be better than the current paved ones.
“It’s the people aspect of the situation right now that causes most of the problems,” he said. “These oil field guys aren’t used to working where there’s a lot of agriculture traffic. You get people trying to run over you, or running you off the road or trying to pass you when they shouldn’t be and they cause an accident.”
Darlene Meyer is a 77-year-old rancher whose property sits along a portion of FM 469 in LaSalle County that is marked for conversion to gravel. She has lived in the county since 1960 and said the current road conditions are the worst she has seen.
“Texas used to have the best roads,” she said.
Meyer said she worries about breaking an axle or popping a tire on the dilapidated paved roads. When they are converted to gravel, she said, she is concerned about the impact of the lower speed limit and about rocks that might crack windows, about potential increases in insurance rates and heavy rains that could flush out the gravel and make the roads impassable. She said she is also worried that living near a new gravel road will reduce her property value.
Dimmit and Zavala county appraisal district officials said they do not expect that the road conversion will prompt immediate changes in area property values, but it is unclear how the changes will affect property values in the future.
With the current oil boom and politicians touting Texas as a thriving, economically sound state, Meyer said she doesn’t understand why TxDOT is converting paved roads to gravel.
“I just can’t believe the Department of Transportation is going back to the dark ages,” she said.