The status of future projects in the Lake Houston area receiving state or federal funding through the Texas Department of Transportation or the Houston-Galveston Area Council—a regional government planning cooperative—depends on the fiscal effects of the pandemic on government budgets, transportation officials said.
Officials and transportation planners are now looking ahead to the uncertainty of lowered funding over the coming years as Texas is projected to see a $4.58 billion budget shortfall in 2021 alone.
“We want to make sure we have all the options, all of the tools in the toolkit that we possibly can ... to assist the state in terms of continuing to grow our transportation and infrastructure,” said Aaron Cox, the vice president of the Texas Association of Business.
Locally, Montgomery County is working through remaining projects funded by its $280 million road bond approved by voters in November 2015 along with new mobility and thoroughfare plans. However, the prospects of future state-funded roadway development remain unclear.
Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough said in February that talks of a new bond could take place in late 2020 or early 2021, although he also said state and federal dollars would be needed to address the county’s growth-related mobility needs.
“[We] had in the back of our mind that once we get these road projects done ... that we were possibly going to ask to go out for another bond,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley said. “[With] COVID[-19] and the shutdowns, ... this is just not the time to even be thinking about going out for another road bond.”
The majority of Montgomery County’s dozens of 2015 road bond are built or moving toward completion. In Precinct 4, however, many of the projects are primed to begin in the next several years.
Hugo Sanchez, the projects and logistics coordinator for Montgomery County Precinct 4, said Precinct 4 received $68 million in the bond—almost $24 million of which was a local match for TxDOT projects.
“We’re still moving on, even when COVID hit. I keep moving these projects forward because the money is allocated here,” he said.
Sanchez said several bond projects in the Lake Houston area will begin later this year or in early 2021.
Projects include the $6.4 million and $4 million expansions of Sorters McClellan and Gene Campbell roads, respectively, as well as the $2.1 million Community Drive reconstruction project. Meanwhile, the roughly $7.9 million Ford Road expansion could begin as early as 2022 depending on right of way acquisitions, he said.
Montgomery County also hired Brown & Gay Engineers last year to perform mobility studies on precincts 2 and 4 as well as a countywide thoroughfare plan. The $125,000 update to the county’s 2016 thoroughfare plan will be a comprehensive list of transportation needs for each precinct.
At the Oct. 13 Montgomery County Commissioners court meeting, a representative from Brown & Gay Engineers said the plan is projected to be completed in summer 2021.
The Precinct 4 mobility study, which should be completed in fall 2021, will outline future projects for the next 10-20 years, Sanchez said.
“Having this new mobility study ... will at least give us some leverage to know how much we should go after next time [for a bond] and what areas we need to focus on,” he said.
State, federal projects
Agencies such as TxDOT and H-GAC are also examining needs along the region’s most traveled roads.
TxDOT Public Information Officer Danny Perez said via email that the projected shortages will not affect any active projects in the Lake Houston area, such as the upcoming FM 1960 expansion and ongoing Loop 494 and Grand Parkway expansions.
“We’ll know more about impacts to future projects early next year when the Comptroller issues his next budget estimate for the state, and will adjust accordingly as we do each year,” he said.
Several projects around the Lake Houston area were also identified by H-GAC in its 2021-24 Transportation Improvement Program, a regional plan prioritizing road projects to receive state and federal funding. The projects include the $43.8 million widening of Hwy. 242 from FM 1314 to Hwy. 59 and the $3.3 million Spring Creek Hike and Bike Trail extension from Hwy. 59 to the Townsen Park and Ride.
Adam Beckom, manager of project programming and delivery for H-GAC, said via email the agency does not anticipate funding delays for these projects, as they are on the 2021 allocation schedule, which was not affected by the pandemic.
Additionally, the agency also plans to grant roughly $34 million for the Lake Houston Redevelopment Authority to fund the Northpark Drive Reconstruction Project in 2023. The $48.4 million project will expand Northpark Drive between Russell Palmer Road and Woodland Hills Drive.
Beckom said there should also not be any problem with funding the Northpark Drive project.
“We are encouraging project sponsors to continue the project development process and get their projects to construction/implementation as soon as possible,” he said.
H-GAC Transportation Manager Allie Isbell said the agency expects to see the fiscal effects of the pandemic in the next two to three years.
“How significant they will be, I don’t think anyone quite has a handle on that yet, but there will be a dent because of the revenue forces that fund those projects,” she said.
Taxes in Texas are a primary source for transportation funds for both TxDOT and H-GAC, and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic’s effects on the next several years of state finances and budgeting could affect the status of infrastructure improvements.
According to information from the office of Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, most state tax collections decreased this spring and summer—including motor fuel and sales taxes that feed into the State Highway Fund, TxDOT’s primary funding source.
From April through August, monthly statewide sales and use tax collections dropped by an average of 6.05% over their 2019 values; vehicle sales taxes fell by an average of 19.68%; fuel taxes fell by an average of 16.02%; oil production taxes dipped by an average of 55.21%; and natural gas production taxes dipped by an average of 78.73%, per comptroller data.
In total, the State Highway Fund is projected to see its state and federal income drop 17.13% from $14.3 billion in 2020 to $11.87 billion in 2021.
Veronica Beyer, TxDOT’s director of media relations, said in an email that TxDOT it is considering the long-range effects of the pandemic and projected revenue drops on its operations along with other state officials.
Andrea French, the executive director of the Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston, said the TAG and other experts are considering ways to boost funding to support future projects, including adding fees for alternatively fueled vehicles or an inflation-adjusted gas tax.
“We understand there are other priorities this session, but our argument is one of the things we need to work on is jobs and bolstering our economy, and a great way to do that is to invest in transportation,” French said.
Shawn Arrajj, Andrew Christman, Anna Lotz and Eva Vigh contributed to this report.