| Transportation Task Force|
El Paso, March 9, 2000
Texas Comptroller's Office
Hears Transportation Concerns in El Paso
The El Paso region suffers from a lack of state transportation funds, as well as a low tax base that would attract matching funds for future transportation needs. This was the consensus at the March 9 Texas Department of Transportation Performance Review hearing in El Paso.
"In our view, the El Paso district has historically received low levels of funding for highway construction and maintenance, and continues to receive low levels of funding," said El Paso County Attorney Jose Rodriguez. "The funding methodologies utilized by the Texas Department of Transportation result in gross disparities in per capita funding between the El Paso district and other districts."
The Legislature, in the 76th session, charged the Comptroller's office with reviewing TxDOT to find ways to improve Texas' transportation system. This is the second of four public hearings Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander is holding throughout the state.
The hearing is part of the Comptroller's Performance Review of TxDOT, as well as an effort to seek recommendations for Comptroller Rylander's e-Texas citizen commission. The commission is charged with developing recommendations to help Texas state government meet the challenges of the Internet age.
The review team is looking at four main aspects of TxDOT:
- Geographical distribution of transportation funds,
- Alternative funding mechanisms,
- Construction practices of TxDOT, streamlining projects to make them more efficient and effective, and
- Business practices of TxDOT, looking at ways for taxpayers to get more for less.
Major issues raised by panelists and audience members included:
- Under funding of rural areas,
- Alternative funding methods such as toll roads and GARVEE bonds,
- The need for international transportation criteria to be included in project recommendations, and
- Coordination of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and TxDOT.
"In 1994, the Honorable Edward Marquez, then a district judge in El Paso, initiated the Court of Inquiry proceedings to investigate TxDOT and other state agencies for what appeared to be a longstanding pattern of neglect and under funding in the El Paso district," Rodriguez said. "Since that investigation, the funding for transportation needs in the El Paso district has doubled, but remains low."
The El Paso district receives roughly 2.5 to 3 percent of the State's transportation funds, while the population of El Paso represents more than 3 percent of the State's population. This, according to the County Attorney, needs to change.
However, El Paso faces other obstacles than just a lack of funding. The El Paso district is a non-attainment area, meaning the air quality does not meet federal environmental standards. El Paso is unable to receive more state funding even though vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increases, because its VMT and air pollutants increase at the same rate. Until the El Paso district can reduce its air contaminants, it will not receive more funds through the VMT method.
Additionally, the El Paso district lacks the economic base to match federal and state dollars for projects. El Paso State Representative Manny Najera said more funds should be released to the Colonias and the border region, but not through matching funds.
"TxDOT should release money to the poorer areas, but not on a matching funds basis," Najera said. "Matching funds help the rich areas because they can offer more money. The El Paso district and the Border area does not have that kind of money."
El Paso County Judge Dolores Briones agreed with Rep. Najera. She said the rural townships and cities in and around El Paso County need to be heard.
Alternate methods for funding projects also proved to be a hot topic. GARVEE bonds, highway construction bonds backed by future federal highway revenues, and toll roads were some alternatives mentioned.
El Paso Mayor Carlos Ramirez said he appreciated Comptroller Rylander's efforts to get GARVEE bonds approved in the last legislative session and hopes the legislature will consider this funding method again in 2001. He also said toll roads are a good alternative that includes a public and private partnership.
"If we look at toll facilities, especially in the high volume areas, it will help us tremendously," Mayor Ramirez said. "Private and public sectors working together for toll facilities works, and I think the State of Texas is ready to take that step."
Others didn't agree, saying international trade issues needed to be considered.
Dr. Donald Michie, professor of marketing at the University of Texas--El Paso, said toll roads would hurt international trade between Mexico and the United States. He said toll fees would increase operation costs for Mexican companies and, in turn, cost Americans more money.
El Paso's needs are not just municipal or even state, they are international, Dr. Michie said. MPOs--a council of local leaders that plan and prioritize transportation projects for a region--should create plans that include international trade criteria. Additionally, he said MPOs are needed in smaller cities and townships, as well as the more populated areas. Currently, MPOs are only in areas with populations of more than 50,000 people.
"There is no one to facilitate the needs of these less populated areas," Dr. Michie said. "Without MPOs, these areas are losing out on funds due to lack of organization and facilitation. TxDOT needs to support the trade community in developing MPOs for the rural border areas."