"State transportation officials have abruptly ended a program aimed at prettier, safer and historically relevant."
Program cries foul after state denies millions for transportation enhancements
Nov. 29, 2006
By MARK BABINECK
Past expenditures under the Statewide Transportation Enhancement Program have included:
• Planting: $1.1 million for trees and beautification along the Hardy Toll Road connector to Bush Intercontinental Airport.
State transportation officials have abruptly ended a program aimed at making roadways prettier, safer and historically relevant, blaming federal budget pressure caused by war and hurricanes.
But the Texas Historical Commission's director said Tuesday the state Department of Transportation purposely targeted millions in proposed "transportation enhancement" initiatives because agency officials have never liked the program. An agency spokesman denied the claim.
"People can philosophically have that position, but this money was appropriated by the U.S. Congress, which had a big debate over whether to continue it," said Larry Oaks, executive director of the historical commission, which had projects among the hundreds denied funding by the Texas Transportation Commission's decision to cut back enhancement projects and focus on congestion relief.
"It's not just about driving on the roads. It's about having a great experience as you travel America," Oaks said.
A letter sent last week by Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson told the historical commission and others hoping for enhancement money that it was merely responding to three Federal Highway Administration requests this year to give up more than $305 million promised to Texas, "with the majority of the cuts coming from the Transportation Enhancement program."
"The spending authority withdrawn by the FHWA is due in part to hurricane response and the continuing war on terrorism," Williamson said.
The letter went on to tell applicants that because of "unstable and unreliable" federal transportation funding, state officials won't pursue future enhancement projects unless mandated by law.
Mark Cross, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, noted that it has passed along $466 million to 505 different enhancement projects through the years. And he rejected Oaks' assertion that the department opposes such expenditures.
"The enhancements program has been one the department and the commission have held very near and dear since its inception in 1991," Cross said. "It's been a very popular program and one we were glad to be a part of."
In a written statement, the Federal Highway Administration said the rescinded funding was mandated by Congress.
"We are anxious to learn more about the recent announcements made by the Texas Department of Transportation and are eager to work with the agency to address its concerns," the statement said.
A list of enhancement proposals was not immediately available Tuesday, Cross said.
The state began soliciting nominations for federal enhancement funds in November 2005. Eligible projects include provisions for bicycles and pedestrians, preservation of transportation facilities such as railways, control or removal of billboards and acquisition of scenic easements.
A group working to establish a Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum submitted a $1.5 million bid under the "establishment of historic museums" category. The nonprofit entity is renovating a two-story building in Cuero — on a roadway that's part of three federal highways that run concurrently through the town — to house a museum dedicated to the region's role at the beginning of the fabled trail.
It's the type of project that could put Cuero on the map for travelers along U.S. 183, 87 and 77 Alternate, said Robert Oliver, the group's chairman.
"Instead of passing through and gassing up and going down the coast, there's a reason now to stop," Oliver said.
U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, the South Texas Democrat who represents Cuero, blamed Republicans' unwillingness to properly account for the costs of war when writing budgets.
"Today, several communities in Texas paid the price for the administration's continued push to fund the war in Iraq through emergency supplemental provisions rather than including the cost of the war in the regular budgetary process," said Hinojosa, who added that cuts ultimately were made to money previously promised to states.
All candidate projects were not guaranteed any of the money, and Oliver said it has received healthy amounts of private philanthropy and is in the running for funding from the U.S. Commerce Department.
But Oaks said his commission's heritage tourism program was counting on "probably four-fifths of the money" from enhancement funds and that the Republican-controlled Congress did its part. "Congress said it should be one of the tools for historic preservation," Oaks said. "And (state highway officials) figured out a way to decimate it."
© 2006 Houston Chronicle: