Federal Highway Funding Showdown is Latest TxDOT Budget Scramble

As Congress barrels toward a Friday deadline to fund the nation’s highway system, transportation experts across the country are responding to ever-tighter budgets with simple but significant cost-saving changes.

 Illustration by Todd Wiseman

WASHINGTON — As Congress barrels toward a Friday deadline to fund the nation’s highway system, transportation experts across the country are responding to ever-tighter budgets with simple but significant cost-saving changes. 

In Texas, federal funding makes up about a third of the Texas Department of Transportation's $23 billion two-year budget. While TxDOT has shouldered criticism for recent spending decisions, the agency touts a few examples of successful moves to pinch pennies.

By shedding a fifth of the bulldozers, wrecking machines and other heavy equipment in the agency’s fleet and putting in place a plan to rent the machinery on an as-needed basis, the state is saving $50 million annually since the plans were implemented in 2013, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

Until 2012, TxDOT policy required all yellow vehicles owned by the department to be painted with a particular, standardized shade called Federal Yellow.

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“Why in the world are we doing this?” Lauren Garduño, the department’s procurement chief, asked in a phone interview. “Someone just woke up,” he said of the change in policy.

Since the department amended the rule to allow all shades of yellow, new vehicles do not need to be taken to a contractor and repainted. This saves between $1.5 million and $2 million a year, according to Becky Ozuna, a spokeswoman for the department.

“Thin overlay mixture” is another good example of cost-saving measures the state is using. This dull-sounding industry jargon simply translates to using better asphalt for resurfacing cracked roads, but less of it. It saves Texas $9 million each year, TxDOT officials in Austin said.

The higher-quality mix relies on granite rocks, which are harder than the type normally used. The tar that binds the rocks together also contains more rubber and plastic than traditional asphalt mixes do, making it more resistant to extreme temperatures.

Thin overlay mixture has allowed roads on the Interstate 35 corridor between Austin and Dallas – a major route for heavy freight — to last seven years without maintenance. Before the new asphalt was laid in 2008, Texas DOT officials said, repairs were needed as soon as 18 to 24 months after construction.

“For something that’s so mundane that people see every day, it’s amazing how much science is really in there,” said Carter Ross, vice president for communications at the Maryland-based National Asphalt Pavement Association.

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Recycling pavement is another favorite way to cut costs. Budget hawks like this practice because it makes use of old materials that would otherwise be discarded. Environmentalists like that it trims waste.

The Texas Department of Transportation reuses around 1 million tons of recycled concrete each year, cutting down on the production and transportation of new material and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 46,000 metric tons. 

Despite these success stories, TxDOT has sparked concern over the past few years that it is not spending wisely. In March, the agency announced it was refunding $1.7 million to drivers who had been overcharged by the new tolling system, which was being operated by Xerox as part of the agency’s $100 million contract with the company.

A bill the Legislature passed this year provides another example of disillusionment with the agency’s spending. House Bill 20, which passed both chambers easily, created oversight measures to limit what critics saw as unfairly concentrated decision-making power for infrastructure spending.

“Some of the decisions being made about which roads you put money in, there wasn’t a real process behind it,” said state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, chief author of the law, in a phone interview Monday. “Either one of the commissioners wanted it done in their area or ... a powerful senator called and said, ‘Hey, I want this done in my area,’ and TxDOT was caught in a bad spot because they get appropriations from the Legislature.” 

The Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, is scheduled to discuss the agency's plans to comply with HB 20 at its monthly meeting on Thursday. 

Back in Washington, the outcome of federal highway funding legislation remains unclear. On July 15, the House passed a short-term patch to provide money until December, but Republicans in the Senate are working to pass a six-year highway funding bill. Federal funds for state highway projects will stop flowing on Friday unless Congress approves a bill. 

Officials at TxDOT aren’t ready to panic. Last week, they would not say whether they were worried about stalled highway repairs as a result of the gridlock on Capitol Hill. 

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“Until we have a definite direction from Congress, we will not speculate on the effect this bill will have on Texas transportation,” Ozuna said.