Thursday, August 09, 2007

"It doesn't take a math major to figure out what's going on."

El Pasoans facing toll roads


By Brandi Grissom / Austin Bureau
The El Paso Times
Copyright 2007

IRVING -- El Paso's Metropolitan Planning Organization has identified a Northeast bypass as the city's toll project, but Mayor John Cook said he has doubts about whether El Pasoans can and will pay to drive.

If the city doesn't build a toll route, it could lose that $134 million to other Texas cities, Cook said.

As legislators and transportation officials continue their bickering, though, there is uncertainty about whether those rules of the road could soon change. Legislators already made a number of changes this year aimed at ratcheting back the department's power.

They limited the Transportation Department's ability to sign billion-dollar, multi-decade road building contracts with private companies and to construct toll roads statewide.

But Houghton said they did "essentially nothing" to address funding the state's growing transportation needs.

The Department of Transportation, Houghton said, got a 2-percent overall funding increase, even though the cost of building roads grows about 20 percent per year.

Lawmakers rejected a proposal to increase the gas tax that provides revenue for Texas roads, diverted $250 million in road funds to other projects, and they nearly created a gas tax holiday that would have cost the department $700 million.

"It doesn't take a math major to figure out what's going on," Houghton said.

Legislators, he said, understand the need for new roads, but lack the political will to fund them.

Houghton said lawmakers and local officials must be creative, looking to the gas tax, rail, tolls and public-private contracts to fund new roads.

State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, and other legislators have said transportation officials have arrogantly ignored legislators' will and are pursuing plans to toll Texas roads and allow private companies to build them.

"The legislature has completely lost faith in the current leadership of TxDOT," Pickett said.

Pickett said he agreed the gas tax needs to grow and that Texas needs to provide more money for transportation, but he disputed Houghton's claim legislators did nothing to improve the situation.

"They need to look to themselves first," he said of the Transportation Department.

Instead of spending millions on projects like putting up speed monitoring cameras near El Paso and Bryan-College Station, Pickett said the department could use those funds on roads.

Legislators, he said, provided new revenue-generating tools, including a measure he helped develop that allows cities and counties to use local property taxes for road projects.

Pickett said Houghton was treading on "dangerous ground" blaming lawmakers for transportation woes.

"Believe me, they will not forget" when they review the agency in 2009, he said.

Despite the uncertainty ahead, Cook said, he and other local officials must continue working to secure funding for new roads to prevent congestion as the city grows.

"We're going to plan our infrastructure and our mobility issues," he said, "and then just fight hard to get our financing."

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

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