Saturday, July 29, 2006

"The city does not need an RMA that is not elected by local residents."

TxDOT sparks debate on toll roads


Brandi Grissom
El Paso Times
Copyright 2006

In a warm-up for an expected transportation showdown today, El Paso's elected officials serenaded, lectured and thanked state transportation commissioners holding only their first regular meeting here since 2000.
Discussion of El Paso's projected transportation needs and of city plans to appoint a transportation authority with wide-ranging powers to plan, fund and build local roads dominated the first two hours of the meeting. While City Council has approved creating the Regional Mobility Authority, the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization has denounced the plan, creating a heated local controversy.

Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said he didn't want to involve himself in El Paso's fight over the RMA and possible toll roads, but urged residents and local officials to make their own decisions based on facts.

"Don't run and don't hide from the truth," he said. "The truth is there isn't some pot of money in Austin, Texas," that could be used to fund El Paso's transportation needs.

Chuck Berry, Texas Department of Transportation El Paso district engineer, outlined more than $1 billion in new construction the city will need over the coming decade. With more than 20,000 soldiers and their families coming to Fort Bliss, infrastructure requirements will balloon, Berry said.

Currently, El Paso gets about $20 million per year from the state to fund new construction, Berry
said, a virtual drop in the bucket compared to the cost of projects and road maintenance needed.

RMA proponents say the appointed body will be able to access money for construction more quickly by using both tolls and bonds to pay for projects.

Mayor John Cook thanked the commission for giving El Paso the authority to appoint an RMA, saying local officials would have better knowledge of local needs. He then picked up his guitar and sang a song he wrote about El Paso patterned after the Woody Guthrie folk anthem "This Land is Your Land."

Opponents say El Pasoans oppose tolls and the city does not need an RMA that is not elected by local residents. "El Pasoans do not want to pay for a toll road," said Anthony Cobos, county judge-elect, in a vitriolic speech. "They want a free outer loop just like other communities in (Texas)."

Today, the MPO, which is made up of local city and county elected officials, will meet to discuss a highway construction plan different from the one the RMA is pursuing that uses standard funding.

Brandi Grissom can be reached at; (512) 479-6606.

© 2006 The El Paso Times: pigicon