Thursday, September 27, 2007

After getting busted, TxDOT goes for 'broke.'

TxDOT going broke, officials say

September 27, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN – TxDOT is fast going broke.

State transportation officials announced today that rising costs, dwindling federal funds, and lawmakers' opposition to private-sector investment in toll projects have combined to force it to sharply scale back construction plans.

"The people of Texas need to understand that within a very short period of time, there will be no money for mobility projects," said Texas Transportation Commission member Ned Holmes of Houston.

The affected projects will be those designed to build new roads, or add lanes to existing roads. Projects already under contract and those designed to maintain or rehabilitate existing roads won't be affected.

The reductions will begin later this fiscal year, and by 2010 the state will essentially have no money for new roads, said Commission Chairman Ric Williamson.

The department is reducing its construction projects even as experts are warning that Texas needs to spend more to fight a worsening traffic and air quality.

A national study by the Texas Transportation Institute released last week revealed that rush-hour congestion in the Dallas and Houston areas are each among the worst in the nation – and not likely to improve.

But Mr. Williamson said the money is simply not there.

The federal government – whose highway trust fund is expected to begin running a deficit by 2009 – continues to reduce its funding for new construction, he said. In addition, Texas lawmakers have steadily increased the amount of state gas tax revenues that are diverted to pay for other expenses – totaling more than $1 billion in the current budget.

But the commissioners saved their strongest criticism for moratorium imposed on private financing for toll projects throughout most of Texas. Mr. Williamson said the decision will cost the state billions of dollars in annual construction money beginning almost immediately.

© 2007 Dallas Morning News:

New road projects could stop, officials say

Transportation officials cite private toll road ban, loss of federal money and flat gas tax.

September 27, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Texas, absent meaningful policy changes, will see no new road projects begin after this coming year, Texas Department of Transportation officials said today.

The message was a rhetorical shiver delivered to a Legislature that last spring moved to cut off most private toll road contracts with the agency while declining to raise the state's stagnant gas tax.

"We'll have to stop added-capacity projects in 2008," Steve Simmons, the Transportation Department's interim executive director, said during a somber two-hour discussion on the agency's finances with the Texas Transportation Commission. Aside from the ban on most private toll road deals, officials cited continuing cutbacks in federal transportation funding and "diversions" of state transportation funds to other state needs.

By the 2011 fiscal year, which would start three years from now, the agency will have only enough money to maintain roads and pay debt service on bonds sold in the past couple of years that are backed by gas tax money, said James Bass, the Transportation Department's chief financial officer. Given that most projects take three years or more to complete, officials said that the fiscal year that began Sept. 1 is the last in which new projects are initiated. Presumably that would include state-operated tollways.

Projects already in progress or already given the official go-ahead would proceed, however.

Amadeo Saenz, the department's engineering director, followed Bass and delivered more bad news. Most of the state's 25 Transportation Department districts do not meet the agency's goal of having 90 percent or more of their road pavement in acceptable condition. He proposes to move about $225 million of maintenance money from nine districts in West Texas to the other 16 districts — which includes the 11-county Austin district — along with about $800 million that would have gone to build new or expanded roads.

"You might say we're taking from Peter to pay Paul," Saenz told the commission. "I would hope at best to keep my pavement scores where they are."

Commission chairman Ric Williamson, a frequent target of legislative criticism, asked the staff to produce a plan within a week to communicate to local officials and legislators the severity of the agency's money crunch.

"I'm convinced that most members (of the Legislature) don't understand the long-term impacts of their tapping on the brakes," Williamson said.

State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, on hand at the meeting for another matter, was skeptical of what he had just seen.

"It's always gloom-and-doom," Pickett said. "There's a move in Congress to look at other sources of funding.", 445-3698

© 2007 Austin American-Statesman:

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