by Sito Negron
If the Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) debate resembles a war, then the last few months have seen skirmishes and battles, intelligence operations, and fierce competition to create and maintain alliances.
Given that scenario, a major battle in the war is to be joined at the next meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), coming Friday (July 28). The agenda calls for an action to oppose the creation of an RMA, and to change its “priority project,” considered the most pressing, from the Southern Relief Route, an $800 million project to expand the Border Highway, to the Northeast Bypass, which would allow heavy traffic to go around the city and to New Mexico through the Anthony Gap. [agenda]
In addition, one MPO board member who supported the RMA has been kicked off the board -- on Monday (July 17), the county voted to remove Bob Geyer from the MPO. And mayors of small towns have been lobbied, including offers of projects they have been working for years to get.
The El Paso MPO is a 24-member body that includes 19 elected officials from El Paso city and county, staff from those entities, and elected officials from Dona Ana County and small towns around El Paso -- Clint, Socorro, Anthony, Vinton, Sunland Park and Horizon City. It also includes the TxDOT district engineer for El Paso and the NMDOT district engineer, who is based in Deming. [members]
The MPO is meant to plan and coordinate transportation projects around the region, and there is concern about its role in relation to the RMA, an entity that can build and maintain roads, generally through tolls. The Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) on June 29 gave the city of El Paso approval to create an RMA; however, the priority project/s must match those identified by the MPO, which might complicate things if the MPO changes its priority project/s. [ttc minute order]
“It’s pretty clear in the minute order there is an RMA formed in El Paso, but you can’t have a project unless the MPO approves it; but that’s any RMA,” said Ted Houghton, an El Pasoan and member of the Texas Transportation Commission.
The MPO previously passed a resolution opposing the RMA in a meeting June 23, leading to the TTC stipulation June 29. [background]
The opposition to an RMA is led by state Rep. Joe Pickett. He has been involved in a protracted fight with the Texas Department of Transportation, which he says is using threats and bribes to promote RMAs across the state. He has joined with County Judge-elect Anthony Cobos and likeminded politicians such as city Rep. Eddie Holguin, as well as small town mayors who distrust the concept because they fear it would focus on the city of El Paso to their detriment. Also in that mix is U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, who wrote a letter opposing the idea.
The proponents of the idea include: TxDOT, and Gov. Rick Perry; Houghton; El Paso state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh; Mayor John Cook and most members of City Council; and the Greater Chamber of Commerce, the Paso del Norte Group and other business organizations.
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“They have the right to change it if the correct information wasn’t provided to them when they voted to make the Southern Relief Route the priority. There may be a different set of facts ... that cause them to revisit the Southern Relief Route versus the Northeast Parkway,” said Roy Gilyard, MPO director, of the meeting scheduled for Friday.
He said that his staff was working on figures to compare the financing of the two projects, but didn’t have the information prepared yet.
Pickett said “I am suggesting for the whole region that I have a better idea then what TxDOT has.” He has argued that the case for an RMA is financially flawed, and that in order to make appear to work TxDOT has had to shift money from other projects. In a year or so from now, he said, “Once they get started with the RMA, it can’t be stopped, and if they can’t fix the numbers and the financial people come back and say ‘No’ TxDOT still will kill more projects to get this done.”
Veronica Callaghan, who is chair of the mayor’s task force on transportation, as well as a member of the Foreign Trade Association and the PDNG, agreed with one part of Pickett’s statement -- that the financiers of toll roads, those who buy the bonds, will have the final say. “The biggest test is investment bakers who will check the numbers.”
However, she said, Pickett is pursuing funding sources that simply are not there.
“I’ve told him ‘If you think there’s money in some pots, we’ll go to Austin and fight with you. In the end, nothing happens, and we have to move on,” Callaghan said.
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“I’m not voting against anybody. The way I’m voting is for the city of Socorro. I need projects done in the city of Socorro. We have been ignored forever,” said Socorro Mayor Trini Lopez. He said he had been offered projects for his support of an RMA, although he declined to say who made the offers.
He said he also has been lobbied by supporters on the merits of the project, whose names he did not remember. It’s been a difficult decision, he said. The vote to oppose the RMA, which he voted for, was his first meeting on the MPO, and he is trying to learn quickly, he said.
Callaghan was one of the people who lobbied Lopez. She said she tried to explain the benefits of an RMA. “It’s hard to make people understand, especially if they’re being told it’s another tax. You don’t have a choice with a tax, that’s one thing. The difference between express lanes and regular is they are on same road system, and you have a choice to pay to go faster or not. On the Internet, for example, I’m willing to pay to go faster, that’s all it comes down to.”
Another benefit of an RMA that supporters have been touting is local control. If a toll road is built without an RMA, it is under the control of TxDOT. Such a distinction may not matter to those who oppose an RMA. The city names RMA board members, with the exception of the chair, who is appointed by the governor.
El Paso Mayor John Cook said the city will consider all qualified applicants. He hopes to name a board by September. The criteria and applications are on the city’s Web site. [link]
While there has been lobbying, pointed agenda items and pointed comments, there are other tactics, as shown by Monday’s removal of Geyer from the board by County Commissioners. The item was pushed by County Judge Dolores Briones.
While multiple sources have said Geyer was removed for his support of the RMA, Commissioner Larry Medina said he was supporting Briones’ item. Dan Haggerty was the only no vote. The item replaced Geyer with Manny Rivera, who heads the county road and bridge department.
“Most of us thought that Manny would be a better fit because of his work with roads and bridges,” Medina said. He acknowledged that “it did look suspicious but that was the answer given on the public record.”
Geyer could not be reached for comment.
Cook said that “I’m not sure what to think of it. I haven’t had a chance to talk to Dolores or anyone else. I’m not going to mess in the county’s business and the rural mayors’ business. I’ll appoint who I want and they can appoint who they want.”
Of the battle ahead for Friday, Cook said: “What I’m hoping happens this Friday is we postpone it for month and let cooler heads prevail.”
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Sito Negron can be reached at email@example.com.
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