"There is a perception among Dallas-Fort Worth leaders that we are being punished for our support of toll roads."
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER
The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN -- Texas transportation officials approved a $1.85 billion plan today to build or improve highways throughout Texas, rejecting protests from Dallas and Fort Worth that nearly all of the money will be spent in Houston and along Interstate 35 near Waco.
Quickly brushing aside those complaints, the Texas Transportation Commission voted 5-0 to accept the spending plan that just one week ago had touched off a firestorm among members of the Regional Transportation Council in Arlington.
The plan steers state money toward widening long stretches of Interstate 35 near Waco -- a project that transportation commissioners and many of the dozens of officials and business leaders present for the commission meeting likened to refurbishing "Main Street Texas."
The plan also calls for spending about $575 million on projects to ease congestion in big cities, but will be concentrated on three projects in Houston and San Antonio.
All the Dallas and Fort Worth districts will get is about $126 million in maintenance work.
That apparent slighting of the greater Dallas area enraged local officials, but their presence was hardly felt today in Austin. Of the dozen or so lawmakers, including three members of Congress from the Houston area, who spoke about the spending plan, none were from North Texas.
Representing the Regional Transportation Council, Fort Worth City Council member Jungus Jordan thanked the commission for its hard work, and rebuked it only mildly for bypassing the region. Afterward, he said in an interview that local officials haven't changed their opinion since last week.
"We're still red-hot," Jordan said. "But we've opted for a strategic repositioning."
He said the region wants to work with the Texas Department of Transportation to make sure critical highway projects are funded through other sources in the future -- something commissioners said they remained committed to doing. The commission instructed staff members to report by January on new funding strategies for developing two major road projects strongly urged by North Texas leaders: a massive expansion of Interstate 35E in Denton County and the interchange between Interstate 35E and Loop 820 near Fort Worth.
Only Collin County Commissioner Joe Jaynes spoke out directly against the commission's decision -- while conceding that his was a "minority report," given the large number of powerful Texas players on hand to support it.
"There is a perception among Dallas-Fort Worth leaders that we are being punished for our support of toll roads," he told the commissioners. Echoing arguments made last week in Arlington by regional transportation director Michael Morris, who was not at today's meeting, Jaynes urged commissioners to award future bond proceeds by the same formula that state law provides for distribution of most of gasoline-tax revenues collected in Texas.
State law forbids the transportation department from reducing the amount of road money a region gets because it has embraced tolling. Some North Texas officials said Dallas was snubbed this time only because the region's coffers are still full of money paid by North Texas Tollway Authority for the right to build State Highway 121.
But top TxDOT officials testified that that simply was not the case.
In any case, it was clear almost immediately that the anger expressed last week had failed to turn into an effective campaign to change the funding decision.
Even the one member of the Transportation Commission who is from North Texas, former Fort Worth City Council member Bill Meadows, strongly defended the plan as proposed by transportation staff members.
"I absolutely favor the staff recommendation," he told a packed room at the Art Deco-inspired Greer Building across the street from the Texas Capitol, where the 12,000-employee Texas Department of Transportation is headquartered.
He said Dallas and Fort Worth have received big shares of previous allocations, including larger-than-average awards from the federal stimulus package, and is certain to receive its fair share in the future.
He said complaints raised in North Texas last week that the commission was violating the law by not awarding the funds by formula were wholly without merit.
"That was something I asked myself immediately," he said. "But I am not a lawyer. So I asked, and I got a very specific answer on that question and am fully convinced that the commission is free to use its discretion to award these ... funds. We're violating neither the spirit nor the letter of the law."
Still, Morris was not alone in arguing that the department should award more of its funds -- whether derived from taxes or borrowing -- by a formula that shifts to local planning agencies like the Regional Transportation Council the discretion to decide which projects get built. Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has vowed to renew legislative efforts in 2011 to would strip TxDOT of much of its discretionary role.
Several lawmakers present today, however, said they'd fight hard to keep the transportation department strong, arguing that Texas needs an entity charged with creating a statewide approach to setting priorities.
Commissioner Ted Houghton of El Paso noted that it would take decades to find the funds to widen Interstate 35 if all of the funds made available by the Legislature were awarded by existing formulas.
© 2009 The Dallas Morning News: www.dallasnews.com
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