Thursday, December 07, 2006

Ric Williamson: "We believe the enhancement program has the weakest connection to our goals."

State to suspend road 'enhancement' program

State cities federal cut, congestion relief in targeting trails, beautification and tourist projects

December 07, 2006

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

Faced with a 2 percent cut in promised federal transportation funds, the state plans to take the money away from proposed trail, beautification and tourist projects rather than from highway expansion and repair.

Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson, in a Nov. 20 letter to the various government entities that had submitted requests for "transportation enhancement grants" totaling almost $688 million, said the agency "did not make this decision lightly."

The federal government's decision to cut $305 million from Texas' $14.5 billion 2004-09 allocation, Williamson wrote, "put us in the position of having to choose between congestion-relief projects and enhancement projects. . . . (We) believe the enhancement program has the weakest connection to our goals."

Under the Transportation Enhancement Program, established by Congress in 1991, states distribute federal grants to local governments for projects aimed at improving the driving experience. That has been interpreted to include such things as museums, sidewalks, trails and highway beautification.

The state Transportation Department is indefinitely suspending the distribution of those grants.

Georgetown had sought more than $10 million for trails and bicycle/pedestrian projects and $9.7 million for an aviation and automotive museum. Austin wanted money for, among other things some downtown street beautification and a Texas music history museum. None of those requests will be fulfilled, at least for the foreseeable future.

Preston Tyree, the Austin Cycling Association's legislative liaison and a board member of the League of American Bicyclists, a national advocacy group, criticized the state's decision to limit the cuts to trails and other enhancement projects. He said the impact of the cut on the enhancements is absolute, while a 2 percent trimming of new road projects would not materially affect the state's road congestion.

"It is really small compared to what TxDOT needs," Tyree said. "And to take all of the rescission out of (enhancements) is crazy. It's certainly not fair."

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, an Austin Democrat, in an e-mailed statement, called the Transportation Department's action "disappointing, but hardly surprising. . . . TxDOT has never liked enhancements; it tried to remove this requirement from recent federal transportation legislation and has now chosen to disregard the intent behind federal transportation funding."

The state Transportation Department did not cancel the enhancement program permanently.

Rather, the agency cancelled a "call" for enhancement projects it had initiated a year ago. Localities, and the Transportation Department itself, had submitted 332 applications for enhancement funding, and the agency had been evaluating those requests. It had not actually awarded money for any of the proposed projects.

During the 15 years that the program has existed, the state has accepted 505 proposals — about one in three submissions — and awarded $466 million. Local governments must supply at least 20 percent of project costs.

Federal transportation money is generated primarily by an 18.4 cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax. That money is then returned to the states using various formulas and grant programs, as well as through specifically designated projects in budget bills placed there by members of Congress. Those so-called "earmarks" will not be affected by the $305 million cut.

The cuts were generated by three bills passed by Congress during the past year that provided money for the war in Iraq, hurricane relief and other emergency needs.

The state Transportation Department, in theory, could have spread the cut across all programs. But Williamson and other transportation officials, in justifying the turn to toll roads the past few years, have said the state has more than $80 billion in core transportation needs it can't fund over the next 25 years.

Some local officials were disappointed by the move.

"We all spent a lot of time on the applications," said Georgetown Assistant City Manager Tom Yantis. "Some may happen, but they will probably take longer to happen. Others won't happen unless we find other money somehow."; 445-3698

Central Texas projects

Central Texas governments and commissions made 29 requests for a total of $118.4 million before the enhancements program was suspended. Austin and Georgetown each made six requests.

Below are some of the largest projects. Amounts shown are federal funds sought, not total project costs.

Music history museum, Austin, $9,990,000

Seaholm district pedestrian/bike network, Austin, $6,111,265

Transportation, architectural museum, UT-Austin, $22,866,043

Historic bridge preservation, TxDOT, $20,538,540

Texas 130/Brushy Creek trail, Travis County, $8,004,000

Aviation and automotive museum, Georgetown, $9,703,056

Northeast Georgetown trail, Georgetown, $4,581,961

© 2006 Austin American-Statesman: