Wednesday, March 04, 2009

"Who isn't economically distressed right now? Everybody is economically distressed."

Advocacy groups protest TxDOT stimulus projects


By: Jessica Sondgeroth
News 8 Austin
Copyright 2009

The Texas Department of Transportation will vote Thursday on whether to approve its portion of the federal stimulus package, but not if advocacy groups have anything to say about it.

Activists from across the state convened on the east steps of the Texas Capitol Tuesday to persuade lawmakers to stop TxDOT from passing the $1.2 billion measure.

"TxDOT needs to slow down, and do the right thing with our stimulus money," Citizens' Transportation Coalition's Robin Holzer said.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) allocated $2.25 billion in federal transportation funds to Texas in February, $1.7 billion of which will go to the state's Transportation Commission for highway, road and transit projects.

TxDOT released its list of projects last Wednesday. The list includes a new interchange on the US-281 toll road in San Antonio and a new toll road through the Grand Parkway in Houston.

The organizations criticized the list as containing "roads to nowhere," toll roads in underdeveloped areas and projects destructive to the environment. The groups advocated for more public transit projects to relieve traffic, reduce emissions and decrease dependence on foreign oil.

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said all the projects have been on the table since November, and though the official list was released last Wednesday, he said the projects are nothing new and come highly recommended from the various Metropolitan Planning Organizations across the state.

"There is always room for additional refinement," he said. "But at the very moment that Texans United for Reform and Freedom was holding a presser, President Barack Obama was at the Department of Transportation telling us to put that money to work."

The list assigns $700 million for toll road projects, a proposal that many groups oppose, and one that has already encountered major problems in Central Texas. News 8 recently reported that toll road customers have received outstanding bills as high as $11,000, and TxDOT was unable to explain in detail the workings of the toll road system and third parties involved.

Toll roads produce revenue, Lippincott said, and TxDOT has exceeded "traffic and revenue numbers across the board."

Though the state has 120 days to allocate the funds, TxDOT released its project list last Wednesday and had initially planned to vote on the measure only a day or two later, but extended the vote after lawmakers objected to the lack of time allotted for feedback.

Holzer accused the agency of trying to ram through the spending plan.

Lippincott said the agency wants to get the ball rolling, to begin creating jobs and to keep the economy moving.

Monday House Democratic leader Jim Dunnam said TxDOT did not give priority to economically-distressed areas with regard to maintenance projects.

"Who isn't economically distressed right now?" Lippincott said. "Everybody is economically distressed."

Program Associate Melissa Cubria with the Texas Public Interest Research Group said it's unclear what criteria that TxDOT uses to determine economically-distressed areas.

Lippincott said the agency uses federal criteria and input from local leaders. Federal criteria includes low per capita income and high unemployment rates.

However, Monday Dunnam asked TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz whether economically-distressed areas were taken into consideration. Saenz said they weren't.

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