Thursday, March 05, 2009

"Tolled Loops to Nowhere"

TxDOT To Vote On Using Stimulus Funds To Build Toll Roads Thursday


by Vince Leibowitz
Capitol Annex
Copyright 2009

On Thursday, the Texas Transportation Commission will vote on on how to spend $1.2 billion of stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The kicker is that TxDOT’s lengthy staff recommendation includes the construction of toll roads with stimulus funds.

The Houston Chronicle made note of this last week:

The Texas Department of Transportation has set aside more than $700 million in economic stimulus funds for toll road projects across the state, sparking criticism and questions about whether the pay-to-drive roads are an appropriate use of the federal dollars.

The toll roads — including the Grand Parkway in Harris County — are among 21 major projects up for a vote at next week’s meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin. The commission had planned to vote on the list this week but delayed its consideration a week after at least one state legislator complained the money was being spent without enough input.

The delay has given opponents an opportunity to organize a lobbying effort aimed at persuading state leaders to withhold stimulus money from toll road projects.

“It’s a total rip-off,” said Terri Hall, director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, a nonprofit opposed to toll roads. “That’s not how the money is supposed to be used.”

TxDOT leaders and transportation planners defend the projects, saying all of them, including the toll roads, are important to their regions and offer tangible economic and mobility benefits.

Atop each page of the regional breakdown of new construction projects stimulus money will be spent on are the following paragraphs:

Partnership: The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) throughout the state and local leaders have worked in an open and consultative process to identify significant projects that meet the requirements found in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). After weeks of work with local planning partners and TxDOT district offices to narrow choices, agency professionals have recommended these projects to the Commission.

Selection Criteria: Projects that improve the safety of the transportation system • Projects on corridors of statewide significance or regional priority • Projects that leverage or pool resources • Projects that create long term economic benefit to the communities and regions they serve • Projects in areas that are economically distressed • A fair and equitable distribution of projects around the state

All of that is particularly interesting, given some of the projects that the stimulus funding is going to tackle. For example, $42.5 million dollars in stimulus money is earmarked for a phase of the Loop 49 project in Smith County (Tyler). The $42.5 million will fund the leg of the loop between State Highways 31 and 155. The problems? Well, they are numerous.

First and foremost, this leg of Loop 49 meets only one–two at best–of the “selection criteria” set forth for the stimulus projects. For certain, it is a project that leverages or pools resources; it could, perhaps, be considered a project on a corridor or regional priority. It isn’t a project that is in an area that is particularly economically distressed; it is not a project that in and of itself creates any long term economic benefit to the region it serves; and it does not improve the safety of the transportation system.

Why? Because it is a loop to nowhere, at least, until the whole loop is near completion. At present, a mere five to seven or so miles of the loop has actually been constructed.

Too, the segment that TxDOT has slated for funding is actually not a project that TxDOT can begin construction on right away–or even anytime soon. It is actually one segment of the project past the next segment scheduled to undergo construction. All that has been completed of the segment is the design phase. It isn’t even clear whether or not TxDOT has acquired all of the right-of-way and land for that segment of the loop. (You can read more about Loop 49 on its Wikipedia Page that someone with a lot of time on their hands has painstakingly maintained.)

Finally, it is a toll road. Economic stimulus funding is being used to create a leg of a toll road. Worse than that, it is a leg of a toll road that nobody will use until the whole thing is complete. It is a complete waste of stimulus funding because the money won’t be used for road construction for years. It comes nowhere near actually accomplishing what TxDOT’s own spokesperson says the purpose of the stimulus money is:

Lippincott said the goal of the stimulus package is to “put shovels in the dirt and money in American’s pocket briskly. We can meet those goals and still deliver meaningful transportation projects for our state.”

As for how TxDOT managed to prioritize Loop 49 over other projects in the North East Texas region is anyone’s guess. At present, the widening of Highway 69 from Mineola to Lindale is crawling along at a snail’s pace–and that is a road that people actually drive on. It has been under construction since at least 2006.

Too, if you want to talk about safety concerns in that region, then what about State Highway 64 through Smith and Van Zandt Counties (specifically from outside Tyler to Canton)? It is a two-lane death trap that is highly traveled; stimulus funds could have been used to widen this highway. How did TxDOT make the decision that a Loop To Nowhere is, for example, more important than a dangerous section of highway? Or, for that matter, a heavily traveled highway already under construction like Highway 69? Couldn’t economic stimulus funds have been used to actually accellerate the completion of that project?

That is only one example. There are other toll projects in the list of proposed projects. The list of “repair” projects is another puzzlement. Given the fact that 193 bridges under TxDOT’s jurisdiction were structurally deficient as of 2007, I’m wondering why more of those bridges aren’t on the repair list.

Instead of answering that question, TxDOT, through its spokesperson, is spending its time engaging in a pissing contest with State Rep. Jim Dunnam (D-Waco), Chair of the House committee handling stimulus issues. TxDOT’s spokesperson actually was so bold to allege that Dunnam was just too dumb to understand the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He should have been fired as soon as his words were seen in print.

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