Jan 15th 2016 | Posted in Infrastructure by Peter Partheymuller

State’s metro areas to receive exclusive funding from transportation department

No one who lives in Houston, Austin, San Antonio or the Dallas-Fort Worth area needs to be told that traffic congestion can be a problem. But, still, it was nice to hear Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledge the issue during a speech last September in which he promised to make congestion relief a priority.

Photo by Steve licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Photo by Steve licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Speaking at the Brazoria County Transportation and Infrastructure Summit, Abbott stated that he would ask the Texas Transportation Commission “to create a focused initiative to identify and address the state’s most congested chokepoints.”

Abbott went on to say, “I’m directing TxDOT to work with transportation planners and local communities across the state to reduce congestion and get these roads built ASAP. Texans’ quality of life and our state economy are counting on swift success.”

As a result of that mandate, the Transportation Commission will meet at the end of this month to decide how it will allocate more than $1 billion as part of its Congestion Relief Program. Though specifics aren’t yet known about which projects will be funded, how much they will get or even the total amount to be distributed, what is known is that the funding will be directed toward the state’s most congested roadways in its largest metropolitan areas.

The money will come primarily from the State Highway Fund (SHF), according to David Glessner, a public information officer with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). In 2015, the Texas Legislature made sure to end the practice of shifting money intended for road construction and repairs to fund other agencies. These diversions were an attempt by budget writers to avoid going over the spending cap or raising taxes. With this Congestion Relief Program, the Transportation Commission will be able to allot money, which in past years had been diverted to other agencies, to fund major roads projects in the state’s most congested thoroughfares.

In addition to the stipulation that the money go exclusively to the state’s urban centers, there are a few other stipulations about how the money will be spent. Glessner says that TXDOT officials “will work in concert with the regions to fund shovel-ready projects prioritized at the local level.”

In drawing the money from the SHF, the TxDOT is ensuring the funding cannot be spent on rail projects or other alternative means of transportation. “This funding is intended for congestion improvements that only involve roads and highways,” says Glessner. “The state constitution stipulates that State Highway Fund proceeds may only be used for non-rail/transit projects.” Neither can the money be spent on projects that include toll lanes.

Transportation planners in the state’s five largest metro regions will be getting word of how much they can count on after the Transportation Commission’s Jan. 28 meeting. But they are already working on how best to use the funding, which is anticipated to range between $1 billion and $1.3 billion.

For instance, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, transportation planners with the Regional Transportation Council (RTC) of the North Central Texas Council of Governments spoke to the Dallas City Council this week about their preliminary plans for the Congestion Relief Program funds.

With the priority placed on projects that are “shovel-ready” in mind, they released preliminary plans that include projects that are well along the path toward construction. Road improvements like the “Southern Gateway” project of I-35E  or planned improvements to the Lowest Stemmons Freeway are exactly the sort of projects the Transportation Commission has in mind for the new source of funding.

Working with the idea that the region’s allocation would fall between $406 million and $527.8 million, the RTC officials presented high-level plans for five projects (three in the Fort Worth area and two in and around Dallas). The projects on the west side of the Metroplex — reconstruction of the SH 121/SH 360 interchange, widening of SH 199 and widening of IH 820 — included various levels of funding from the Congestion Relief Program, according to the presentation released by the RTC. The 121/360 interchange and the SH 199 project are to be paid fully by the new funding, whereas the other project was allocated less than 10 percent of its budget from the new funds, with already-committed dollars from TxDOT making up the bulk of that project’s funding.

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