Monday, June 12, 2006

"TxDOT is using its funding authority to strong-arm communities into forming RMAs."

Pickett: El Paso Toll Roads Are “Done Deal”

June 12, 2006

by Sito Negron
Newspaper Tree (El Paso)
Copyright 2006

The Texas Department of Transportation is hearing comments on a Regional Mobility Authority, a body that would have the power to build roads and charge tolls to pay for them, a process that is being encouraged by the state.

The entity in El Paso would be known as the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority, and would be established with the blessing of the state by the city of El Paso.

Six of the board members would be appointed by the City Council. In addition to the board members appointed by the City, the presiding officer of the board will be appointed by the Governor,” states the public notice for the meeting, tonight (June 12) at 6 p.m. [public notice]

“The Camino Real RMA’s initial project is an approximately seven (7) mile project known as the Border Highway West Project, which is intended to complete the outer Loop 375 by extending the existing terminus of the Loop 375 at the downtown area westward to Interstate Highway 10 (I-10) at the US 85/NM273 interchange,” states the notice.

The proposal has become controversial, with many El Pasoans expressing a gut level distaste for toll roads. Proponents say existing roads would not be tolled, and the procedure is the best way to develop new highways that lead to economic expansion.

In an NPT article Oct. 31, Veronica Callaghan, chair of the mayor's transportation cabinet, said "it's the only way we're going to be able to expedite major infrastructure highway projects or even other kinds of transportation projects like mass transit or rail or whatever. We're going to be able to get funding and accelerate the implementation of some of these projects that sit on our to-do list forever." [article]

However, the plan is not without its critics: State Rep. Joe Pickett, who serves on the El Paso MPO, a long-range planning entity that helps plan and rank projects for funding, questions whether an RMA is the right way to fund projects, and said he had concerns about creating an authority with long-term powers and appointed board members. In addition, he has that the Texas Department of Transportation was using its funding authority to strong-arm communities into forming RMAs.

Of the meeting Monday (June 12), he said, “they'll try to sell the public on it and take potshots at me. So it's a done deal. It's over, it's done, and we will have our RMA next month. I won’t be able to say I told you so. It will take five or six years to fail big time, to cause more congestion and get so bad someone will say ‘I thought someone was going to fix it.’”

However, Pickett said, there is momentum building statewide as toll projects come under increasing scrutiny.

“Here in Austin people are starting to stand up and listen ... eventually it will start coming to the forefront, but it wont do any good for the next several years until (TxDOT director) Rick Williamson and (Gov.) Rick Perry are gone,” Pickett said. He said that TxDOT would “stop doing improvements to roads that will compete with their toll projects.”

Pickett also has been at odds with Ted Houghton, one of three commissioners on the Transportation Commission. During a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee a couple of weeks ago, representatives requested TxDOT officials be present. Houghton appeared, but did not speak before the committee. “I had a flight that I had to take to get back to El Paso,” he said.

As for tolls in El Paso, Houghton said, “In Texas we're doing toll roads all over the state. Why should El Paso be any different? It doesn’t make a difference they're not popular. It's a matter of there's no money. So what are you going to do, let (projects) languish and don’t maintain roads? It gets real simple.”

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Sito Negron can be reached at .

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