Friday, August 01, 2008

Commissioner Ted Houghton: “Keep using the Trans-Texas language.”

TxDOT strong despite funding cuts

August 1, 2008

By Maurel Merette
Wichita Falls Record-News
Copyright 2008

“Regardless of losing funding, TxDOT is moving ahead,” said Larry Tegtmeyer, district engineer for the Wichita Falls District of the Texas Department of Transportation during his report Thursday morning to the Texas Transportation Commission.

The Texas Transportation Commission is a five-member board appointed by the governor to oversee TxDOT.

The commission met Thursday in the J.S. Bridwell Auditorium at Midwestern State University. It was the first time in 12 years that the commission had met in Wichita Falls.

Tegtmeyer was enthusiastic about reporting the district’s accomplishments under a tight budget.

In November, the Texas Department of Transportation announced budget cuts to address a funding shortage.

Those cuts included reducing the consultant engineering budget by 57 percent, or roughly $250 million; reducing its 2008 right-of-way budget from $500 million to $275 million; keeping purchases to a minimum; trimming the research budget by 50 percent and instituting a hiring freeze.

Both the Kell West extension project and Loop 11’s expansion got under way just before the budget cuts took place.

“Our district has done a great job of getting our projects moving ahead,” Tegtmeyer said.

Local leaders took the opportunity to revisit an idea they hope will create a major roadway in the region.

State Rep. David Farabee, D-Wichita Falls, said he envisions two more lanes added to U.S. 281, which runs through several North Texas counties.

“I often avoid I-35 on my drives to Austin; I like to take 281,” said Farabee. “Sometimes I wonder, wouldn’t it be nice to have that extra lane?”

His sentiments were echoed by Wichita County Judge Woody Gossom, who showed a graph of a proposed U.S. 281 that runs a parallel trajectory to Interstate 35.

“It’s a way to miss the jam in the Metroplex and go right through to Oklahoma City and other points north,” he said.

Gossom also pointed out the proposed expansion could help truckers and other motorists save on fuel when traveling north from points in central Texas.

“It’s 17 miles farther to travel through Wichita Falls from San Antonio, but it’s two hours closer,” he said.

Gossom said an expansion of U.S. 281 would help with the creation of more businesses along the route.

Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton applauded local leaders for their positive input and encouraged them to continue with their efforts.

“Keep using the trans-Texas language,” he said. “Transportation initiatives are born from the local districts.”

Houghton also mentioned the possibility of a toll road on U.S. 281 which could further road expansion efforts.

While most of Thursday’s meeting focused on routine items, the true aim of the commission was to reach out to its local districts.

“Our aim is to improve our communications and improve our public transparency,” said Deirdre Delisi, commission chair. Delisi was appointed as the chair in April.

Budget shortfalls have slowed some projects around the state and caused TxDOT to prioritize on bigger problem areas, such as the I-35 corridor.

Delisi said that the growth of the population around the corridor causes it to get more attention.

“With the state’s population growth — and a larger part centered on that road — there’s no question that is one of our many priorities,” she said.

Delisi said that she thought ideas such as the suggested expansion of U.S. 281 are good for the state, but money is the limiting issue.

“It’s a question of where the funds come from,” she said.

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