Friday, August 15, 2003

Ric Williamson talks about HB 3588 and the Texas Mobility Fund

Interview: Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson

by David Guenthner and James A. Cooley

August 15 2003

The Lone Star Report
Volume 8, Issue 3
Copyright 2003

One year ago, LSR produced a widely acclaimed special edition on transportation in Texas. The centerpiece of that issue was an extensive interview with former Rep. Ric Williamson , Gov. Rick Perry ’s point-man on the Texas Transportation Commission.

A lot has happened since then, so late last week, on the eve of the annual Texas Transportation Summit in Irving, LSR went back to Williamson for a follow-up.

Because of the length of the interview, we have broken it into two parts. This week’s installment covers the omnibus transportation bill and the Texas Mobility Fund. Part two focuses primarily on the mechanics of the Trans Texas Corridor.

LSR: Assess the session from TxDOT’s perspective. How did it alter the direction of transportation in Texas?

Williamson: I don’t think there is any question that the last two and a half years – not just the recently concluded session – have been the most significant for transportation leadership in the history of the state. I say that because it all began with the governor’s commitment to three things of note in the transportation world.

First, laying out the Trans Texas Corridor – laying down the blueprint for how we will build for the future and basing that blueprint on three important principles. First, that railroads will be as important as vehicle roads in the future. Second, that large assets and costly infrastructure of the future will be built with a public/private partnership – a recognition that the taxpayer is unable and willing to pay general taxes to support the type of transportation infrastructure that is required 50 years from now, but that the private sector is willing and able to take a risk to make that infrastructure work. And that third, the transportation infrastructure of the future will focus as much on economic development as it does on relieving congestion. Those were the three main points of the Trans Texas Corridor.

Beginning with that, and then taking a strong stand on public transit and its role in addressing air quality problems in urbanized Texas, and generally advancing the notion that the transportation grid in our state has to be redesigned over the long haul to address air quality.

The governor started laying that out 2-1/2 years ago. The legislation of 2001 began the first steps. Then the governor laying out the Corridor, the focus on public transit, the focus on air quality, and campaigning through those issues; and then the recently concluded legislative session which brought all of those concepts together and packaged them as not just executive policy but legislative policy – and presumably constitutional policy if the Ogden bond bill passes.

LSR: Were there tools that would have been helpful to TxDOT that the Legislative didn’t give you?

Williamson: No. I think that [House Transportation Chairman] Mike Krusee and [Senate Infrastructure Development & Security Chairman] Steve Ogden did a remarkable job of balancing the needs of the state and the fears of individual members, the desire of the business community and the reluctance of the business community to take too much of a risk in public policy.

For example, Sen. Ogden is less than enthusiastic about movement towards rail – not because he opposes rail but because he doesn’t believe he has been shown from an engineering perspective exactly why a robust rail system will result in less congested vehicle roads. But he was able to a great extent to put that fear on the back shelf and say, OK, we can start with certain things – buying the right-of-way, preparing the road bed, staking the locations of where rail will be, and a certain amount of rail construction that can be funded through tolls on the rails themselves. That was a remarkable step for the senator and for a whole lot of legislators who were not yet convinced. But they were willing to risk that this might be the right path.

Krusee was able to balance his concerns about TxDOT’s being still too slow to act and too process-driven, and his belief that regional mobility authorities (RMAs) ought to be completely and totally independent of TxDOT and be allowed to work in a whole host of areas themselves. It was a remarkable job by both of those men in leading their respective bodies.

It can honestly be said that everything we need to take us for the next 10 years, those tools are in various parts of the bills passed. The funding of the [Texas] Mobility Fund, the possibility of the Ogden bond program, shadow or pass-through tolls, expansion of RMA authority, validation of the Trans Texas Corridor, moving public transit in the state other than the sales tax for the metros over to TxDOT...

Forcing public transit to plan along with transportation infrastructure is a major step that has received, really, very little attention, but the fact that [Reps.] Arlene Wohlgemuth and David Swinford could see that the relationship between public transit and the transportation infrastructure itself made a difference to each ... and start to send the planning process to TxDOT where it belongs is a significant step.

But, again, all of this is because the governor was elected 2-1/2 years ago to make transportation infrastructure in the future one of the four most important things in his administration, and I would suggest it may be the legacy he wishes to leave the state.

LSR: The technical corrections on the omnibus transportation bill have been hung up due to the Senate Democratic walkout. How is transportation affected if those corrections fail to pass?

Williamson: There are three pretty critical parts to it. One, the first two years of the Mobility Fund, in some people’s eyes, is confusing. It is not confusing in the third year. In fact, all of the bond companies – one or several of whom will eventually advance us the debt for the Mobility Fund – are in complete agreement that in the third year and out there is no confusion. We can move forward with encumbering those funds, raising money, and building roads and laying railroad. But for the first two years, there is some confusion in some eyes about where that money is deposited and how much access TxDOT has to it for debt purposes. That needs to be clarified in the technical corrections bill.

Inadvertently, the senator, the House member, and the governor’s office did not list among the sources of revenue for rail direct grants from the Federal Highway Administration. And the inadvertence is, up until this year, the Federal Highway Administration has not made it abundantly clear that they have highway trust funds earmarked for rail projects that are available to the states.

Most of us, because we’re such a limited rail state ... look to the rail authority for funds and grants to help us build rail – not thinking the Federal Highway Administration has a large amount of money, which they do. The Federal Highway Administration has a lot of earmarked money for rail projects that can be demonstrated to actually take cars off of roads. That source of revenue for TxDOT was inadvertently left out of the bill. That should be corrected, if for no other reason than to give us access to that federal money if we have projects that make sense. It is, after all, money that we pay into in our gasoline tax.

I think probably the third correction that is fairly important to our progress is clarifying that if we accept a private sector proposal for a toll road – for example, from Dallas to San Antonio – and we have a proposal to finance the Grand Parkway around Houston, that if for financing purposes we need to link those projects together, we can. The law inadvertently did not allow us to do that. The law has to positively allow us to link those projects in order for us to link them from a debt perspective. The addition and deletion of a few words will make it clear that if it is necessary to link projects across the state that are not physically connected for the purposes of debt, that’s OK.

LSR: But these are not controversial things.

Williamson: No. These are not controversial things. This is cleanup. Absolutely. Now there are other pieces of legislation and other parts of the cleanup bill that one could opine are controversial and need to be fully discussed.

LSR: This session, the Legislature found a revenue stream for the Texas Mobility Fund. How much bonding authority do you think TxDOT will be able to leverage? When will TxDOT take out those bonds? What types of projects will the Mobility Fund be used for?

Williamson: As to the amount, we think it is not unreasonable to expect $2.5 billion-$3 billion in leverage available through that stream of revenue. We expect that we will ask for bids or be receiving bids from the various bond houses before the end of the calendar year to fully leverage the Mobility Fund.

The types of projects will be primarily urban Texas projects that have been deferred because of lack of cash flow from the gas tax and motor vehicle tax that fall into two categories. One would be instant congestion relief. In other words, a grade separation or an overpass that we know, without a doubt, when it’s built will relieve congestion on a main arterial. Or second, in assistance with [North Texas Toll Authority, Harris County Toll Road Authority, Central Texas] RMA, or any other RMA that forms to build a toll road that would do the same thing in quick fashion.

It’s really important to get this out: We think ultimately the Mobility Fund could become as important a source of revenue as the gas tax or the motor vehicle registration fee, but our pledge to legislative leadership and the governor was, to the extent humanly possible, to use that money instantly to reduce urban congestion.

We do have some massive urban congestion problems in this state – many of which can be relieved not by building the next Katy Freeway expansion but by building short loops, spurs, grade separations, bridges over roads. The best example is Westheimer [in Houston]. Heaven only knows how much better traffic would flow with twin overpasses for crossing streets where major lights sit that disrupt the flow of traffic today.

LSR: Would you also see safety and air quality improvements on some of these projects?

Williamson: We can argue the safety and air quality, but the truth is that there are certain projects that lend themselves to a much safer result than others. There are certain projects that lend themselves to a much quicker clean air result than others. And there are other projects that lend themselves to congestion relief and mobility increase more so than others. And if we were to rank those three with regard to the Mobility Fund, I think it’s clear that we’re going to be focused on relieving congestion and improving mobility, which will have some side safety and air quality benefits, but not the same safety or air quality benefits as if we forgot the congestion for a moment and just said, what things can we do that result in a much safer benefit? What things can we do that result in a much cleaner air quality benefit?

We have other plans for safety and air quality. The Ogden bond initiative will be focused primarily on safety projects in its first years if the voters choose to pass that in September. O

The Lone Star Report:


Sixth annual Texas Transportation Summit

Official: I-35, I-69 both needed for NAFTA

August 14, 2003


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2005

IRVING--A long-standing argument between the Metroplex and Houston over whose freeways should be expanded to handle truck traffic from Mexico may end in a draw.

Mary Peters, head of the Federal Highway Administration, said Wednesday that there will be enough gridlock for both metropolitan areas to share. Truck traffic is expected to double in 15 years statewide because of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which encourages trade with Mexico.

"Given the amount of traffic that Texas is going to see, I think it's going to take both I-35 and I-69 to handle it," said Peters, who was in Irving on Wednesday attending the sixth annual Texas Transportation Summit.

Much of the traffic currently moves on Interstate 35, which connects the Mexico- Texas border with Fort Worth-Dallas. Plans to expand I-35 have been stalled for years because of a lack of funding. At the same time, the federal government has been working quickly to design a new Interstate 69 freeway connecting the border to Houston, Shreveport, La., and ultimately Detroit.

"I know we're working very closely on the I-69 corridor because it's more in the developmental stages right now," Peters said.

Along the I-35 corridor , initial plans to expand the four-lane freeway to as many as 12 lanes have changed in recent years, said Michael Behrens, executive director of the Texas Transportation Department.

The state is leaning toward expanding I-35 to six lanes from the Waco area to the Metroplex. In addition, a toll road, possibly with four lanes, would be built parallel to I-35 from San Antonio to Denison. That toll road would hook to one already being built between San Antonio and Austin, with plans to connect it to the Mexico border, Behrens said.

It is expected that long-distance haulers would use the toll roads to save time.

"You would still have three lanes in each direction [on I-35] to take care of local traffic," Behrens said. "With the Trans Texas Corridor , that would take care of [truck traffic], which I would prefer."

Supporters of expanding I-35 say they are concerned about the momentum of the I-69 project, which President Bush chose last year to be "fast-tracked" through the environmental process. It could be ready for final design within two to three years.

The Fluor Corp., which is building the I-35 Austin toll bypass, is also leading a consortium interested in building the toll road all the way to Denison. The state Transportation Department is seeking competitive bids for the project, and a decision on a builder could be made within six months.

U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Highland Village, said he will continue to fight for I-35 funding. Burgess has filed a bill to rewrite the nation's funding of "borders and corridors " projects so more money goes to states bordering Mexico. He says he still hopes to get funding for I-35.

Burgess said he wants to learn more about how Gov. Rick Perry's Trans Texas Corridor plan affects the Metroplex's future as a free-trade hub.

"We're all still in the talking stages," Burgess said.

Gordon Dickson, (817) 685-3816

Fort Worth Star-Telegram: