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Gravel Plan on Pause, but Political Fallout Continues

Debate over the Texas Department of Transportation's controversial plan to convert some damaged asphalt roads to gravel has come up in a fight between the House and Senate to boost the agency's funding.

A driver maneuvers around a badly damaged portion of the IH 37 frontage road south of FM 99 in Live Oak County, TX on Firday, August 16, 2013

Initially just a public relations headache, the pushback against the Texas Department of Transportation’s plan to convert some badly damaged paved roads to gravel is now getting in the way of the agency’s efforts to address the issue that prompted the controversial policy in the first place.

From the moment TxDOT Deputy Executive Director John Barton announced the plan to convert 83 miles of paved road in South and West Texas to gravel in July, it drew scorn and outrage from lawmakers in Austin. Barton and other officials have explained that the agency lacks the resources to maintain the roads, which have experienced a surge in truck traffic related to a historic oil drilling boom. Converting the roads to gravel (“high-end unpaved” in TxDOT parlance) not only provided a smoother ride than cracked and pockmarked pavement, but also widened the roads, reducing the likelihood of accidents.

After two short road segments were converted, TxDOT implemented a 60-day moratorium, which ended this month. No more conversions are currently in the works, according to TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman.

During this year’s legislative sessions, lawmakers appropriated $225 million for state roads impacted by energy sector development, a fraction of what TxDOT officials had said was needed to tackle the problem. Last month, state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, offered TxDOT the chance to more than double the agency’s budget to address the problem.

At the Senate Select Committee on Transportation Funding hearing, Williams pointed to $250 million in extra vehicle registration fees sitting in the state’s coffers and directed TxDOT’s leaders to formally request the money from the Legislative Budget Board for energy sector road work. He made the funding contingent on TxDOT promising to hold local hearings before converting any more road segments to gravel.

“I’m prepared today, if you guys will draft the request for us, to appropriate that money to address this specific need,” Williams said. “I think that the lieutenant governor shares my concerns about this.” (Williams has since resigned from the Senate.)

TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson sent the request to LBB the same day. Earlier this month, he heard back from LBB Director Ursula Parks.

“The Legislative Budget Board has reviewed your request and disapproves the request at this time,” Parks wrote. She was relaying the decision of the 10-member LBB, which is split between representatives of the House and Senate but tends to approve things unanimously.

Spokesman Jason Embry said House Speaker Joe Straus, a member of the LBB, had some “reservations” about TxDOT’s spending request.

“For one, he is concerned about the practice of spending hundreds of millions of dollars outside of the normal appropriations process,” Embry said. “In addition, he is not convinced that TxDOT's plan to convert some paved roads to gravel is necessary, and he continues to hope that TxDOT officials will offer a permanent solution to that issue.”

For now, the funding request remains in limbo. State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, represents many of the South Texas counties in the center of the drilling boom. He said he is hopeful the impasse can be resolved and TxDOT can get the extra $250 million for energy sector projects.

"I drove the roads just yesterday, and some of them are being paved and being maintained and some of them are rough,” he said. “A lot of them that are falling apart.”

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Transportation Texas Department Of Transportation