Tuesday, March 03, 2009

"TxDOT is trying to rush through bad projects without a proper vetting process with the public."

Texans Demand Public Review of Stimulus Transport Projects


Environment News Service (ENS)
Coopyright 2009

AUSTIN, Texas- In February, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocated $2.25 billion in federal transportation funds to Texas. The U.S. Department of Transportation will allow states up to one year to decide which projects to build.

The Texas Transportation Commission is poised to approve $1.7 billion of new stimulus-funded projects at their meeting Thursday, but environmental and citizens groups today gathered at the state capitol to protest some of the projects on that list.

A diverse group, the anti-toll road activists, environmentalists, and public transportation activists say they want public review of the projects before they are approved.

"We should use this money to put Texans back to work, but we should be careful to spend it in a way that is consistent with Texan's priorities," said Alejandro Savransky, a field organizer with Environment Texas. "TxDOT is trying to rush through bad projects without a proper vetting process with the public."

Brandt Mannchen, air quality chair with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said his organization is among those opposed to spending economic stimulus money on the Grand Parkway, a proposed 180 mile highway encircling the Greater Houston region. The project has been shown on governmental planning documents since the early 1960s.

"TxDOT's proposal to spend economic stimulus money on the Grand Parkway is highway robbery," said Mannchen. "TxDOT is using money from the federal stimulus package to prop up a project that could not be justified on its own merits. In doing so, it's subverting the intent of the stimulus package to fund needed projects that are truly 'shovel ready.'"

Funding the Grand Parkway is bad public policy because the $181 million expenditure would divert funds from roads, streets, highways, and bridges that need to be rebuilt due to heavy use because they are where people live, the groups say.

It would result in the destruction of at least 12,000 acres of the Katy Prairie and farm and ranch land, paving over the Katy Prairie, which serves as a natural detention basin absorbing excess water during heavy rainfall events that would otherwise flood Houston.

The Grand Parkway would destroy habitat for hundreds of thousands of ducks, geese, songbirds, herons, egrets, bald eagles, hawks, and many other forms of wildlife, Mannchen says.

Further, the groups say, all environmental reviews for the Grand Parkway are not complete. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has not received an application for, drafted, or approved a wetlands dredge and fill permit for TxDOT or Harris County.

On February 26, TxDOT approved stimulus funds for 266 roadway and bridge maintenance and rehabilitation projects valued at approximately $505.6 million.

"The projects approved today will serve to preserve the state's investment in our current transportation system," said Texas Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi.

Funding levels for roadway projects were based on population, lane miles, vehicle traffic, and pavement conditions. TxDOT identified the needed projects based on engineering needs and in coordination with local officials, said Delisi.

On February 25, TxDOT staff released a list of projects that could be developed using an additional $1.2 billion in available American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. The Texas Transportation Commission is expected to vote on the staff recommended list during a special meeting on March 5.

The commission says the staff recommendations were created by applying criteria developed by the state's local transportation leaders to an extensive list of projects that met the initial requirements for readiness established in the stimulus bill.

"TXDOT must be reminded that the largest portion of stimulus funds, the portion in the Surface Transportation Program, can be flexed for other uses, including passenger rail," said Melissa Cubria, spokeswoman for Texas Public Interest Research Group. "This has always been the case for STP funds, but this is the first time that the funds can be applied to intercity rail.

"Investing in intercity rail would create long-term, sustainable transportation solutions for Texas," said Cubria. "If TXDOT continues to act hastily, they will miss a great transportation funding opportunity."

"I am worried about the economic, social, and environmental costs of the proposed Grand Parkway," said Jay Crossley, program development director with Houston Tomorrow. "Proponents claim future Houstonians will want to live in carbon-intensive, low density, auto-based residential areas devoid of jobs and services, but the many transportation needs of current Texans take priority over this speculation."

Surveys of Houstonians, such as the Houston Area Survey or Envision Houston Region, have shown they would prefer that the Texas Department of Transportation provide infrastructure for more compact communities in already developed areas rather than building new roads into open green space.

Project lists and more information are available on the TxDOT website, www.txdot.gov, using the keyword stimulus. People can comment on TxDOT's proposal to implement the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through the website, by e-mail at: AskTxDOT@dot.state.tx.us or by writing to the department at: 125 East 11th Street, Austin, Texas 78701.

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