TxDOT on the TTC and CDA's: "The Legislature will find a way to get comfortable with this idea and find a way to do business in this manner.”
Chamber forum addresses area transportation
May 16, 2008
By FLOYD INGRAM
The Waxahachie Daily Light
MIDLOTHIAN — When you talk about Texas highways you end up talking about local road needs and Austin funding problems.
Bill Pierce, Ellis County area engineer with the Texas Department of Engineering, said the state has traditionally paid for road projects on a “pay-as-you-go” funding process that requires the state to have the money before projects begin. But Pierce said this formula is beginning to cause problems as the state grows and the need for new roads and maintenance outstrips money coming out of Austin.
Pierce and Ellis County Pct. 4 Commissioner Ron Brown were the guest speakers at Midlothian Chamber of Commerce Business Luncheon at noon Wednesday.
Pierce gave a quick rundown of local road projects before tackling the problem of state funding for highway projects.
This project would build 280 miles of roads around the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and has been proposed for more than 30 years.
“Loop 9 is sort of affiliated with TTC and would be a big doughnut around the Metroplex,” said Pierce. “It’s a massive project with a 600-foot wide right-of-way. The southern portion would dip into Ellis County and plans are to build the southern section first.”
The massive highway project crosses U.S. Highway 67 North near Skyline Acres and U.S. Highway 287 West near Padera Lake.
Loop 9 has been “fast-tracked” by the Texas Legislature and Pierce said the project is before federal highway engineers and could get federal funding as soon as 2009.
Pierce said the U.S. Highway 287 bypass around Ennis is probably the top priority in Ellis County right now.
“In the mid-1990s we built a portion of it, but not all of it,” said Pierce. “We always planned for it to be four-lane.”
Pierce said the project has basically been cut in half with the northern section of this $26 million project slated to be finished first.
“Congressman Joe Barton and others recently got us $10 million and we are hoping it all comes together,” he said, adding that the southern section carries a $40 million price tag at this time and is completely unfunded.
Pierce said the city of Midlothian and the state are working on a joint project to build frontage road on U.S. Highway 67 from Ninth Street to U.S. Highway 287.
“This project crosses the railroad tracks and is currently being reviewed by the railroad company,” he said. “The city passed a bond to pay for their portion and have gone to TxDOT to speed up the project. The longer it takes to build it the more expensive it will get. We have committed to this project and we’re going to do it.”
Pierce did say he has been talking to Midlothian officials about putting more money into the project and getting the work done even faster.
“The timeframe is now longer than we anticipated,” he said.
Expanding U.S. Highway 67 at Railport is another project being eyed by TxDOT.
“Your Midlothian Development Authority was initially going to do this project, but rising expenses have made this project cost $6 million more than expected. The environmental (permits) have been OK’d and we are ready to begin right-of-way acquisition,” he said, noting the project is slated to be finished in 2010.
Widening Interstate 35 at Red Oak to six lanes also includes shoulder work that will ultimately widen it to eight lanes.
“The widening of I-35 to six lanes near Red Oak is a about a year behind schedule,” Pierce said. “We’ve finally gotten things worked out with our contractor and that should speed up.”
Pierce said this work will also make frontage roads one-way. He said this change will be implemented in the next few weeks.
The expansion of the Interstate 35 corridor south of Waxahachie is a $120 million project and Pierce said the plan is completely unfunded at this time.
Pierce pointed to a map that indicates work on I-35 around Waxahachie and maintenance on U.S. 77 south of town are major design projects for TxDOT. There is no funding for either of those projects at this time.
Building roads in Texas is easy, it’s paying for them that causes the problem.
Pierce said the state and federal government have already reversed plans to fund highways across Texas to the tune of $1.5 billion.
“They call those ‘rescissions’ and basically the money that was initially eyed for highway construction or maintenance is being spent on other things,” Pierce said. “A lot has been made about the crossed roads between TxDOT and the folks in Austin. Funding anything is a difficult job right now and when the Legislature meets in 2009 they will pickup the debate.”
Since 1917, the state has shied away from issuing bonds to pay for highway construction and stuck to the idea of allocating the money from the budget and then building the road. As Texas grows and more highways are needed, this pay-as-you-go process has slowed both the construction of new roads and the maintenance of existing roads.
A highway project proposed today is put on a list for funding. There is now a 30-year wait for project funding.
“This has forced the state to look for creative ways to fund highways,” Pierce said.
The state basically has new ways to fund new projects:
• TMF – The Texas Mobile Fund takes fees collected for license plates and driver licenses and uses that fixed revenue to finance bonds. Pierce said this guaranteed revenue stream allows the state to turn around and issue bonds that are underwritten by fees collected from motorists.
• SHF – The Safe Highway Fund is a financing tool that allows the state to issue up to $3 billion in bonds but limits that debt to $1 billion per year. Existing fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees are used to service this debt. Pierce said this fund is being rapidly depleted and the money must be earmarked for making highways safer.
Pierce said these funds have been used in Ellis County to straighten curves on farm-to-market roads and to widen shoulders.
• CDA – A comprehensive development agreement is the tool TxDOT uses to enable private investments in the Texas transportation system. It provides a competitive selection process for developing regional projects or much larger undertakings like the Trans-Texas Corridor.
Pierce said using a public-private partnership, like a CDA, opens the door to accelerated financing, design, construction, operation and maintenance of a project.
“The Trans-Texas Corridor left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths,” Pierce said. “People said we were selling our roads to foreigners by letting them finance and build toll roads and then collect the revenues.”
Pierce pointed out most of the foreign companies would hire American contractors, who are required by state law to hire legal workers.
“But voters let their elected officials know their views and things got warm and the Legislature put a moratorium on the project,” Pierce said. “I feel comfortable the Legislature will find a way to get comfortable with this idea and find a way to do business in this manner.”
E-mail Floyd at email@example.com.
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