RPO's gear up to carry water for I-69 TTC
By JAMES DRAPER
When it comes to funding transportation projects, the East Texas Council of Governments is ready to grab a seat at the table.
The group’s executive committee on Thursday voted unanimously to approve the creation of a Rural Planning Organization, unifying the 14 counties involved to speak with one voice when seeking project funding from the Texas Department of Transportation.
The group will also join with their neighbors to the north and south – the ARK-TEX Council of Governments and the Deep East Texas Council of Governments – in a memorandum of understanding that the 35-county collective will collaborate on transportation priorities.
“We’re one of the last to form an RPO, but along with DETCOG and ARK-TEX, one of the first to join a coalition for joint transportation planning. The significance of that, I think, is very evident,” ETCOG Executive Director David Cleveland said. “It is a mechanism, or a tool, that we can use that will potentially have a profound impact on the economic strength of the entire region.”
According to Cleveland, before Thursday, rural areas didn’t have the same level as input as urban areas in terms of transportation funding and were missing out.
“You have rural areas in desperate need of transportation infrastructure,” he said.
Areas not covered by a RPO or Metropolitan Planning Organization are completely dependent on the TxDOT district engineers to get into the planning process. Those engineers are working as hard as they can to cover huge areas of Texas, he explained.
So while MPOs give a voice to their respective urban constituencies, Cleveland said it’s time for rural communities to have the same opportunities.
“It levels the playing field and gives rural areas equal access into that transportation planning process,” Cleveland said. “No matter what, you’re always going to be trying to figure out how to use limited funds – this will help establish public priorities for those limited funds.
“The local decision makers will actually guide that process and set those priorities. Before today, East Texas did not have that ability.”
Of the 24 councils of governments in Texas, 19 have previously established RPOs to work on multimodal transportation in their regions. Of the remaining group, two cannot establish RPOs because they are totally covered by an MPO.
ETCOG may be late to the party with its RPO, but working in threepart harmony with its neighbors is a great leap in the right direction toward unified transportation planning, according to DETCOG Executive Director Walter Diggles.
“I think this places you on the cutting edge of getting that done and having an opportunity to provide those services,” Diggles said.
Diggles said it is important to him that his area’s own RPO and the upcoming memorandum of understanding will help the TxDOT district engineers servicing the region.
“We wanted to be sure we were complementing not only TxDOT but allowing those local officials the importance of making recommendations.”
ARK-TEX Council of Government’s L.D. Williamson echoed his colleagues in that he is glad the joint efforts will relieve some of the burden from the TxDOT engineers who have to scramble and try to find a happy medium between the county judges and other local officials competing for funding.
“We as a group get together and decide what projects we like in our region,” Williamson said. “It makes it a lot better. Roads don’t stop at county lines or COG lines or boundaries. If we coordinate all of our efforts, I think we’ll get a lot more.”
Three TxDOT district engineers were among the members of the Citizens Advisory Committee that investigated the possibility of an RPO. Randy Hoppman (Tyler district), Bobby Littlefield (Paris) and Robert Ratcliff (Atlanta) joined Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt, Smith County Judge Joel Baker, Harrison County Judge Richard Anderson, businessman Randy Brogoitti, Jeff Austin III of the North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority, East Texas Corridor Council Executive Director Griff Hubbard and former White Oak Mayor Tim Vaughn during the 20-month deliberation.
“We didn’t want to rush anything,” Vaughn told the board. Texas’ fluctuating political landscape and the “sunset” failure of RPO funding at the legislature warranted caution, he said. “We tried to be patient and take our time so we would do the right thing. At the same time, we knew it would be important to get out and create this.”
Vaughn spoke recently with TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz, Jr., about the RPO and county coalition and said he was encouraged by the response.
“He so whole-heartedly endorsed it. He saw it as the right thing to do. If you can get ahead of the curve, it’s better to be ahead of it,” Vaughn said. “This RPO brings transportation planning policy to those that know best – you’ve got to have the local elected officials because they’re the ones closest to the people and accountable to the people.
“You put them together as a team to make sure one voice is heard across these rural areas.”
According to Cleveland, a House bill in the last legislative session would have formally recognized RPOs and connected them to councils of governments. The bill went through the process, but ultimately died.
“I think what happened is then TxDOT said, ‘OK, we’re going to take this one on our shoulders,’” Cleveland explained. “They could see the momentum that this is something that local officials want. And you had TxDOT engineers that without the RPO mechanism have the most difficult job you can ever imagine – that’s trying to go to county judges and trying to get some consensus on those projects. It’s a no win deal.
“Now they can go to the RPO and the RPO does that work for them.”
ETCOG must still set the bylaws and logistics of the RPO. That will be followed by an official letter of intent to join in the MOU with ARKTEX and DETCOG.
It is vital that rural cities and counties are represented in transportation planning, Cleveland said. Establishing a local RPO and having an understanding with the adjoining COGs, he says, will do just that.
“This is a huge day for East Texas,” Cleveland said. “Now you have a Rural Planning Organization in place that will ensure that all the cities and counties that are not covered by MPOs in Texas have a seat at the table and have a voice in the transportation process.”
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