Four state lawmakers and more than a dozen local officials, mostly mayors and county judges, descended upon TxDOT and blasted its recent actions for stepping on the sovereignty of cities and counties by trying to foist upon them an ‘unfunded mandate’ as well as a degradation of road quality in the very regions that are producing so much oil and gas revenue for the state.
By Terri Hall | September 4, 2013
They stepped in it and now the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is on the fast track to smoothing things over with local governments across the state. Rep. Joe Pickett (D – El Paso) didn’t parse words at the August 29 Transportation Commission meeting: the agency has had a series of missteps that are upsetting people and it’s time for the Department to own up to it, say ‘we made a mistake,’ and start to make amends.
The first misstep was the agency’s attempt to enact a new form of public-private partnership (P3) through a mere ‘rule change’ called ‘availability payments’ (that failed to pass the legislature). These availability payments put all Texas taxpayers on the hook to re-pay the private operators versus just toll revenues. It would have even guaranteed payment for mere ‘projected’ traffic, not the actual number of cars that use the road.
Then, TxDOT announced that due to a shortage in funds, it would revert certain paved roads to gravel in areas persistently damaged by heavy trucks as a result of oil exploration. Finally, just weeks ago, the Department notified approximately 59 Texas cities that TxDOT would be offloading the road maintenance of certain state highways to cities to achieve the $100 million in ‘cost savings’ required in the recently passed House Bill 1 (HB 1).
Four state lawmakers and more than a dozen local officials, mostly mayors and county judges, descended upon the TxDOT Greer Building and blasted TxDOT’s recent actions for stepping on the sovereignty of cities and counties by trying to foist upon them an ‘unfunded mandate’ as well as a degradation of road quality in the very regions that are producing so much oil and gas revenue for the state.
TxDOT put its best face forward and showed several Powerpoint presentations to justify its actions and reasoning, particularly citing safety, but most of its critics didn’t buy it. Several residents of Dimmit County in the Eagle Ford Shale region commented that the photos TxDOT showed of high-end gravel roads were not an accurate representation of the gravel roads being imposed on them.
One resident asked how could gravel be safer than a paved road when rocks from the gravel get kicked up by the 18-wheelers and crack and damage auto windshields and when the dust impedes visibility? Others noted how the lower speed limits would not be observed by truckers whose bottom line is to get their product to market as quickly as possible.
Another remarked that some of these roads being converted are farm-to-market roads that are used by residents and local businesses, too, not just the oil companies, and they need these roads to get their goods to market and they don’t deserve to be punished because of the shale boom. State lawmakers in attendance also complained TxDOT hadn’t made it clear that its road maintenance budget shortfall would result in paved roads being reverted to gravel.
Passing the buck
In the initial letters sent to cities and in the initial meetings with TxDOT district engineers, city and county officials were led to believe the transfer of certain state highways would be mandatory. As local governments calculated their costs, the backlash quickly ensued. They cited strained budgets for infrastructure and bonding capacity that’s already stretched to the limit, which would force local property tax hikes to pay for the new maintenance, as just three of the many reasons TxDOT’s turn back program isn’t workable for most cities.
Officials expressed concern that TxDOT’s one-size-fits-all, top-down approach, which they see as another unfunded mandate from the state, is an encroachment on their sovereignty. Many also cited lack of or poor communication as the reason for the particularly contentious backfire. Though some cities commented that they’re interested in taking back some of the proposed state roads that serve a more local purpose, none wanted to be forced to do so.
The Department claimed this turn back was necessary in order for them to comply with its requirement in HB 1 to find $100 million in cost savings, which Pickett, the bill’s author, said forcing state highways on local municipalities isn’t the way to do it. He pointed out how the agency had already found $100 million in other cost savings without shifting its road maintenance costs to local governments in a compulsory program: “It’s okay to admit you made a mistake.”
As the meeting progressed, it became clear that TxDOT was backtracking and now calling the program voluntary, assuring local governments that they’d be working together as ‘partners’ and moving forward in a more ‘cooperative’ effort. It was a welcome relief to officials who attended and diffused much of the tension in the room.
Jim Allison, General Counsel of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, didn’t mince words despite TxDOT’s retreat. He made clear that county road systems cannot support the state highway system, that participation must be voluntary only, they’d accept no unfunded mandate, and county roads must be remain solely under the control of county commissioners, not imposed upon or interfered with by the state. In essence, TxDOT is attempting to cost-shift, not find cost savings through such a program.
Time will tell if TxDOT got the message and whether or not it will be sincere in its efforts to implement these controversial programs in a much more collaborative, and truly voluntary, manner. One thing is clear, TxDOT managed to elevate its funding crisis across the state and has enlisted a de facto army of advocates to aid in the effort to pressure the Texas legislature to properly fund the state highway system – an effort that’s alluded both the agency and taxpayers for more than a decade.
Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of eight turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.