Wednesday, November 09, 2005

TxDOT: “The road fairy has been shot.”

‘I-69 is dead’

road fairy

With lawmakers wary of both tolls and taxes but wanting roads, magic might be the only option.

State, federal officials disagree on status of road

By Matt Whittaker
The Monitor
Copyright 2005

WESLACO, November 9, 2005 — There are not enough federal dollars for an Interstate highway to the Rio Grande Valley, state officials said Tuesday

“I-69 is dead in the state of Texas,” Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton told about 75 area city officials and business leaders at a lunch discussion about transportation issues. “The road fairy has been shot.”

But federal lawmakers said the project to create an Interstate linking major commercial centers in Mexico, the United States and Canada is still alive and is reaching a point where it’s time for Texas to carry its share.

The state is considering a Trans-Texas Corridor, separate from the Interstate system, that would be built by the private sector and paid for through tolls.

Interstate 69, a 1,600-mile highway connecting the three North American Free Trade Agreement countries, would have to be paid for by Washington and the eight states involved in the project. The Interstate would extend from South Texas to eastern Michigan. But its completion isn’t likely, according to Texas officials.

The initial study area for the Trans-Texas Corridor is roughly 1,000 miles long. Routes under consideration in South Texas include U.S. 59, U.S. 281 and U.S. 77. The Valley is the only metropolitan area in the state without direct access to an Interstate highway.

The state corridor could enter near Texarkana and end up somewhere in the Valley, Houghton said. In January, the Texas Department of Transportation could begin searching for engineers and exploring route locations and environmental impacts, he said.

Waiting for federal funds is futile, said Houghton, who is one of four commissioners on the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT. Gov. Rick Perry appointed Houghton to the commission in December 2003.

A spokesman for Perry, Robert Black, said the expectation that Washington might spend as much as $7 billion for the I-69 system inside the state is unrealistic.

“From our perspectives, we agree with the commissioner,” Black said.

The federal and Texas governments don’t have the money for an I-69 system, he said. The state isn’t getting enough federal dollars to maintain the systems it already has.

But that doesn’t mean the concept of running a major roadway to the Valley is dead, Black said. The Trans-Texas Corridor would be one option.

“If we want to make I-69 a reality, then we’re going to have to look at a number of other tools,” he said. Possibilities include tolls.

But some of Texas’ lawmakers in Washington disagreed with the state officials about the status of I-69.

“The project’s not dead,” said Ciaran Clayton, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes. “It’s going a lot slower than we’d like.”

Some of the project within Texas is already happening, such as the widening of U.S. 281 to make it Interstate compatible, she said.

A $300 billion highway bill approved by Congress in July carved out $50 million for studies on the I-69 project. The money is on top of more than $20 million from the previous three years.

Once environmental studies are finished, the state will know where the highway is going to go. Then Hinojosa would work with other lawmakers to determine when construction would start and find the money for it, Clayton said,

The highway bill increases Texas’ rate of return on gas tax dollars sent to Washington from 90.5 percent under the previous highway bill to 92 percent by 2008. The new reimbursement rate will increase Texas’ share of highway funding to $2.89 billion.

Now that more federal transportation dollars are flowing to Texas, “at this point the state needs to decide whether I-69 is a top priority,” said Chris Paulitz, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

“For decades, TxDOT has shortchanged the Valley,” U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said in an e-mailed statement. “The resources that should have gone to construct an expressway connecting us to the rest of the state went instead to Dallas, Houston and elsewhere. Since TxDOT will receive a significant increase in federal funding from the new transportation bill, the question for I-69 should be not where’s the funeral but when is the ribbon cutting."

Houghton blamed federally funded transportation projects in Alaska and Massachusetts for the lack of money for the I-69 project, but some in Washington say most of the money was never really expected to come from Congressional earmarks.

Funding for state transportation projects could come from several sources, Houghton said, and local communities need to be involved with voicing their transportation needs and creative with ways to fund them.

He mentioned funding could come through tolls, bonds or raising taxes and fees on water, electricity or cable bills.

The Rio Grande Valley Partnership, a chamber of commerce for the Valley, and the Rio Grande Valley Mobility Task Force, a lobby group, hosted the luncheon.

Texas would benefit from a corridor through the state because it would make it easier to move goods from Mexico and overseas out of the state.

“If you want commerce, you’ve got to move it faster,” he said. “We are going to be the trade corridor for this hemisphere.”

Partnership president and CEO Bill Summers said he was surprised by Houghton’s remarks.

“I don’t think it’s dead, I just think we’ve got to find another source of funding,” he said after the lunch. “It might be dead for a while. The concept of I-69 is not dead.”

Whether funded by the state or federal governments, there will eventually be a major highway connection to the Valley, he said.

“They’re not going to take that dream away from us.”

© 2005 The Monitor