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State savings on road costs hitting speed bumps

CHRIS TOMLINSON, Associated Press


AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Lawmakers have long shorted the Texas Department of Transportation's budget for maintaining roads, but now that the agency wants cities and counties to take the wheel for repairs and plans to convert oil-field roads from pavement to gravel, some legislators are crying foul.

The five-member Texas Transportation Commission is scheduled to hear testimony Thursday about transferring maintenance responsibilities of former farm-to-market roads to local officials in order to free up $165 million. Commissioners won't be making the final decision that day, TxDOT executive director Phil Wilson said.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Wilson pointed to one of Houston's main thoroughfares as an example of why TxDOT should shed some responsibilities. Westheimer, a 19-mile, major east-west artery through urban Houston, was originally a rural agricultural road.

"If you are a citizen of Houston, you wouldn't know that TxDOT is responsible for Westheimer," Wilson said. "What had been a road to take you from the farm to the market has now all the elements of a city street."

Wilson said his department's primary duty is maintaining about 80,000 miles of connector roads. He said the department is talking to local officials about the plan, but ultimately, the commission will make the final decision on what roads to keep.

Rep. Ruth McClendon, D-San Antonio, wrote to Wilson expressing concern about what many Democrats see as the Republican-controlled Legislature avoiding the need to raise state taxes by making heavily Democratic urban areas pick up the tab.

"This would not be helpful to the city, the county or local taxpayers," she said.

Lawmakers have also expressed dismay at plans to convert 83 miles of two-lane paved roads in oil and gas areas to gravel. Counties targeted in TxDOT's proposal include Culberson, Dimmit, La Salle, Reeves and Zavala in South Texas.

Eastland Rep. Jim Keffer, the Republican chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee, called on Wilson to stop the conversions.

The Legislature approved $450 million for state and county roads affected by increased energy production, and Keffer acknowledges that's enough to meet the needs — even if voters approve $1.2 billion in new annual funding in 2014. But he still questioned the proposal.

"Before we move ahead with these drastic measures, we need to consider a cost-benefit analysis, safety, impact on the industry, and quality of life for the citizens," he said.

Wilson said the 80,000-pound water trucks making 1,300 trips to hydraulically fracture wells have already destroyed those roads, many of which the department paved in the 1950s to accommodate pickup trucks.

"These roads have been really hammered by this large equipment ... and a two-lane road is now a lane and a half with potholes the size of pickups," he said.

Replacing the roads to withstand the truck traffic would cost $500,000 a mile, the same as an interstate highway, compared to the $10,000 a mile TxDOT normally spends. Gravel roads, Wilson said, would be wider, limited to 30 mph and topped with an emulsified material to keep the dust down.

"We don't know how long the oil and gas play will be going on, and I also only have so many dollars I need to stretch as far as I can," Wilson said.

The counties most affected by the transition fall within Sen. Carlos Uresti's South Texas district, and he's protested the plan. He convinced the department to give county officials 60 days to decide if they want to maintain the paved roads before TxDOT converts them.

Wilson said they can be returned to pavement after the drilling is done.

"There is every opportunity, should money become available, to put these roads back to pavement," he said. "It goes to the funding challenges that we face as an agency. We're doing the best we can."

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