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In a reckless display of licentious anti-taxpayer gluttony, Perry-appointed Transportation Commission Chair Ted Houghton is proposing El Paso receive $750 million in money (that's supposedly laying around TxDOT, that's just recently "popped up') to fund a TOLL ROAD and make Texans pay a DOUBLE TAX toll to use this road that would already be paid for. If Texans need anymore evidence of just how out of control Perry's highway commission is, look no further than Ted Houghton's schemes.
Meanwhile, major projects in San Antonio that have gone UN-funded, one of which was already funded then had its gas tax funding yanked to force a toll road, for a decade still sit waiting for funding while local officials are being told there is no money to build non-toll roads. Really? Not according to Houghton.
Even worse, Houghton is clearly abusing his power as Transportation Commission Chair in order to bring perks back to El Paso in disproportionate amounts for its size. El Paso doesn't have a single road in the top 50 of the Texas Transportation Institute's 100 Most Congested Roads, yet its getting first dibs at funding for 'wish list' projects (that are lower state priorities) due to the Chair residing in El Paso. US 281 in San Antonio is tied for first place as THE most stressful congested road in the state on TTI's Commuter Stress Index, yet there's supposedly 'no money' to fix it without tolls. This is just more of Rick Perry's crony capitalism on display. Are Texans fed-up with this abuse yet?
Clash of the transportation titans
$750 M for project, but with what money?
Posted: Sunday, May 27, 2012 6:00 pm | Updated: 3:20 pm, Sun May 27, 2012.
By Robert Gray El Paso Inc. staff writer | 0 comments
He’s secured hundreds of millions of dollars to widen highways, raise giant interchanges and build spurs in El Paso. He’s promised money to bring back El Paso’s Downtown streetcars.
Now El Paso transportation titan Ted Houghton wants to fund a massive, $750 million project in the heart of El Paso.
Long on El Paso’s wish list, the key stretch of tolled highway called Border Highway West in the Downtown area would close El Paso’s fragmented outer loop but has never been anything other than a long-term plan.
But in a meeting with El Paso Inc., Houghton, who is chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, said he expects to find state funding so that El Pasoans could be driving on the new highway as soon as 2015 or 2016.
“We’ve had a few sources of revenue pop up,” Houghton said.
The state, he added, “may pay for most of it.”
The proposed Border Highway West toll road is one of nearly 10 projects Houghton and transportation engineer Eduardo Calvo recently reviewed with El Paso Inc.
The projects total nearly $1 billion and could be under construction in the next couple years, Houghton said.
But Houghton’s promises of money for El Paso streetcars a few weeks ago and now this funding for Border Highway West have caused a clash of the titans, insiders say.
El Paso’s other transportation titan is state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who chairs the board of the local Metropolitan Planning Organization. Generally, the MPO oversees transportation planning in the region and decides what projects get funding and move forward first.
“I’m not sure why TxDOT is picking out certain projects when all of this stuff has to be approved by the Metropolitan Planning Organization,” Pickett said.
Technically, Pickett is right, insiders say. But when hundreds of millions of dollars become available from the state for a certain project, who on the MPO is going to turn it down?
As originally imagined, toll road bonds would probably have paid for the proposed Border Highway West so that tolls paid by drivers who use the road would repay the debt.
But if Houghton is right and state funding can be found, “there is no repayment,” Houghton said.
That means “the toll revenue will stay in the region,” he added.
But Pickett points out that Texas is in the midst of a transportation funding drought and said he is skeptical that funding can be identified so quickly for such an ambitious project.
“It’s possible, but not right now,” he said of the Border Highway West project. “It’s just more money than is available.”
Why? State transportation bond dollars have been allocated, federal funding has become increasingly uncertain, gas tax revenue is flat and there is no appetite to raise the gas tax, according to Pickett.
“It is going to be really hard to find dollars starting in 2013,” he said.
Since funding is scarce, Pickett said the priority now should be to finish all the raised ramps at the new Far East Americas Interchange, sometimes called the new spaghetti bowl. Only four of the proposed eight connectors are funded, and three are under construction.
Pickett said if the MPO can identify funding, it would be significantly cheaper to build all the ramps at the same time.
Closing the loop
Border Highway West is considered a crucial piece of highway that would close the last gap in El Paso’s outer loop, providing an alternative to Interstate 10 for drivers traveling through Downtown and the Westside.
It’s also meant to reduce congestion and decrease through traffic in neighborhoods such as Chihuahuita and Sunset Heights as El Paso’s population booms, said Calvo, who is TxDOT’s advance transportation planning director in El Paso.
El Paso remains the only major Texas city without a loop, he said.
In one proposal favored by TxDOT officials, the road – nine miles of elevated highway, costing more than $80 million per mile – would extend from the eastern edge of Downtown near Park Street all the way to Doniphan Drive near Racetrack Drive, according to Calvo.
The elevated highway would run past Downtown, Chihuahuita and the former Asarco site, at times rubbing shoulders with the border fence, I-10 and Paisano.
In the end, drivers would be able to commute from Zaragosa on the Far Eastside to the Upper Valley without hitting a traffic light. And they would have two highways to choose from, Interstate 10 or Loop 375, according to Calvo.
Houghton is coy on where the funding might come from.
Pressed on the point, he said some of the funding could come from a recent $2 billion TxDOT windfall as well as “other sources.”
TxDOT has $2 billion more to spend statewide than previously thought because transportation projects have cost less than expected, state bonds have been refinanced at lower rates and more federal funding has become available, according to a TxDOT announcement.
A month ago the Texas Transportation Commission, which Houghton chairs, voted to allocated $1.6 billion of the $2 billion to communities across the state, only $63 million of which came to El Paso. Existing funding formulas were used to distribute the money, according to the announcement.
The remaining $400 million will be allocated to transportation projects selected by the commission, “focusing on strategic partnerships and statewide connectivity,” the announcement said.
When compared to what is going on in the rest of Texas, a $750 million project like Border Highway West is relatively small, Houghton said.
To put things in perspective, he said, “in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, we have $15 billion worth of projects ongoing.”
Other El Paso projects that could as soon as done by 2015:
• A $60 million project would demolish the Yandell Drive overpass near Downtown and build another bridge over Interstate 10 called Spur 1966, connecting the University of Texas at El Paso and nearby hospitals with Paisano and the future outer loop.
• A $150 million project would widen I-10 on the Westside, adding new “collector-distributor” lanes.
• A $19 million project would give the “spaghetti bowl” a facelift, including a 100-foot lighted tower that would welcome drivers to Texas.
• An $8.4 million project would construct two roundabouts at Paisano and Alameda near Texas Tech’s Paul L. Foster School of Medicine.
• A $7 million project would widen Sun Bowl Drive, adding two new lanes behind the Sun Bowl stadium. The goal is to create a loop around UTEP as the university works to close campus streets and reduce traffic.
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