Monday, November 15, 2004

"Anybody who doesn’t toll isn’t going to get any of the money."

Tactics to promote toll roads upset El Paso lawmaker

October 14,2004

Elizabeth Pierson
The Monitor
Copyright 2004

AUSTIN — An El Paso lawmaker said on Wednesday that the Texas Department of Transportation is using heavy-handed, misguided tactics to get local governments, including those in the Rio Grande Valley, to develop plans for toll roads.

State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said TxDOT is quietly forcing counties to develop Regional Mobility Authorities by telling them they won’t get part of a $3 billion Mobility Fund for roads if they don’t make an RMA, Pickett said.

Chambers of commerce and elected officials in Texas “are being told by TxDOT, ‘Anybody who doesn’t toll isn’t going to get any of the money,’” Pickett said. “TxDOT has gone around and threatened everybody.”

This month, Cameron County became the fourth area to develop an RMA. Hidalgo County is working on a plan for an RMA, said Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia.

Unlike the older Metropolitan Planning Organizations, RMAs have the authority to finance road projects locally and pay for them through state grants, local tolls or other means. Their boards are appointed by county commissioners, and the chairman is appointed by the governor.

RMAs do not have to develop toll roads, but they have the authority to do so.

Cameron County Commissioner John Wood, who helped develop the Cameron County RMA, said they did so because they wanted to have another option for building roads if the state couldn’t pay for them from its road fund.

TxDOT told officials there that RMAs were a possibility for local control in a time of tight state budgets, Wood said.

“I don’t think any ax was held over our head,” Wood said. “This was the way TxDOT was going, and we chose to get on board.”

Leaders in Hidalgo County know they don’t have to develop the RMA for roads, Garcia said. He has visited with TxDOT officials to help develop an RMA for Hidalgo County that will allow for the eventual construction of a truck bypass from the Pharr Bridge to Expressway 83, he said.

“Nobody’s holding a gun to our head,” Garcia said. “We understand the issue, and we’re trying to be as cooperative as we can because the reality is that we need roads and we can’t wait 10 years.”

The Hidalgo County proposal will include a pass-through toll, Garcia said. Pass-through tolls do not charge trucks or cars as they pass, but allow the state to count traffic and reimburse the local RMA to pay for the road if the road meets a certain traffic level, said Gabby Garcia, spokeswoman for TxDOT.

Pickett supported legislation in 2003 that allowed for the formation of the RMAs, but he didn’t think TxDOT would make local officials feel they had to develop one just to keep their road funding, he said.

Gabby Garcia said TxDOT is using tools given to it by Legislature to implement the RMA programs. She called Pickett, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, a “friend of the department.”

“We have a different view of how this should get done, but that’s not such a bad thing, is it?” she said. “It just means we’re going to continue to dialogue with him and the other members of the Legislature to do what’s best for the state.”

Pickett said he is not opposed to toll roads. Rather than RMAs developing into “fiefdoms,” each with their own plans and administrative expenses, the state should develop a plan to put toll roads only where they would generate a substantial return.

According to Pickett’s plan, money from the toll roads would go to a statewide fund to maintain roads, rather than keeping the money in the regions. In return for giving up their toll revenues, TxDOT could ensure local RMAs it would fund 100 percent of needed road construction projects out of its $6 billion budget, Pickett said.

Pickett pitched his idea for transportation funding to the Texas Motor Transit Association, which represents the trucking industry, on Wednesday in Austin.

Pickett said he is not proposing massive changes be made to legislation that made the RMAs possible. He would rather see TxDOT change its policies.

Gabby Garcia said there are no immediate plans for that, and TxDOT is moving forward with its current plan.

Elizabeth Pierson covers the state capital for Valley Freedom Newspapers. She is based in Austin and can be reached at (512) 323-0622.

© 2005 The Monitor