Road projects move forward, but challenges remain
The end of the 2013 regular legislative session left the Texas Department of Transportation well short of the additional $4 billion it said it needs to maintain traffic congestion levels across the state. In the third special session, which concluded Aug. 5, legislators passed a road bill providing TxDOT with around $1.2 billion annually. The resolution will give TxDOT a boost in funding, but long-term challenges still exist.
Government offices that handle road maintenance and construction at the local level in Harris County, including county commissioners in precincts 3 and 4, have relied on TxDOT for transportation funding in the past, but these offices have become more self-sufficient over time.
“Everyone knows what TxDOT is facing and plans accordingly,” said Mark Seegers, communications director with Harris County Precinct 4.
Seegers said the precinct’s planned road projects will move forward even though TxDOT only received just more than a quarter of the money it asked for, but some officials say a lack of TxDOT funding could result in serious challenges long term.
“There is no doubt that there is not adequate funding with our current system,” said Bill Rowden, transportation committee co-chairman with the Cy–Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce. “Lack of funding is going to impact every person in Harris County. All those TxDOT roadways that everyone uses—Hwy. 290, Hwy. 6, Hwy. 59—could all be affected if the necessary funding isn’t there to maintain them.”
Funding local projects
TxDOT, county commissioner’s offices, cities and toll road authorities are among the entities that take on road projects in Harris County. It is not uncommon for organizations to collaborate to fund projects, Seegers said.
Several projects slated to take place in Harris County’s precincts 3 and 4 involve partnerships with TxDOT in which the state agency will contribute some money. TxDOT is contributing $5 million to the development of a Changeable Lane Assignment Signal System at two intersections—N. Eldridge at W. Little York and Kuykendahl at Louetta—which would allow the use of certain lanes to be adapted to maximize traffic flow. TxDOT will also dedicate $400,000 to corridor improvements on T.C. Jester Boulevard and is collaborating on a $7.8 million project connecting Hwy. 249 to Cutten Road with a four-lane boulevard.
Although road projects already on the county’s transportation improvement plan are not in jeopardy, Jeff Collins with the Transportation Advocacy Group in the Houston region said TxDOT’s lack of funding, if not addressed, will have an effect on local mobility projects in the future.
While the passing of HB1 is better than nothing, Collins ephasized that it is only a temporary solution. TAG will continue to advocate for long-term solutions moving forward. Possibilities include increasing the gas tax and vehicle registration costs.
“The challenges with transportation funding are far from solved,” he said.
Cost of inaction
TAG officials estimate the average driver in Houston spends $343 annually in additional repair costs, increased fuel consumption and tire wear because of poorly maintained roads. The average driver in major metro areas spends about 37 hours every year not moving in traffic, which would double to 74 hours by 2028 if funding issues are not properly addressed.
“We would see a rise in the level of congestion and continued deterioration of our pavement systems,” said Billy Cooke, chairman of TAG Houston. “I don’t think some of our representatives in Austin recognize how significant the problem is.”
TxDOT is funded through legislative appropriations, which can be raised through a variety of methods, including raising the vehicle registration tax and gas tax. TxDOT is also funded through bond issuances and occasionally from the federal government through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, officials said.
House Bill 1—developed in part by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands—will allow residents to vote in 2014 on a constitutional amendment that would transfer a portion of the severance taxes levied on oil and gas production from the rainy day fund to the state highway fund.
Legislators failed to pass the bill in the second session due to disagreements on whether diversions should cease if the rainy day fund dropped to certain level. Legislators eventually agreed that a “minimum balance” would be determined before each legislative session moving forward.
The additional funding set aside in HB1 is a start, but still not enough to address long-term funding issues, TAG officials said, as TxDOT works on new projects while simultaneously paying off bonds and maintaining existing infrastructure.
“We need to find a sustainable source of income for TxDOT moving forward,” Cooke said. “I do not think these proposals fully address the problem.”