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Commissioners approve wish list of roads for stimulus funds

Tuesday, January 27, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Travis County Commissioners have approved a list of specific roads projects they plan to submit to the Texas Department of Transportation for funding under a potential federal stimulus package.


Executive Director Joe Gieselman of the Transportation and Natural Resources Department told commissioners last week the guidelines for projects to be submitted was constantly changing. He said a recent conversation with Bob Daigh, TxDOT District Engineer for Austin, had “affirmed that for the projects to comply with federal funding, it had to go through the national environmental action process, like we do when we apply for federal funds for a project.”


This process is part of the National Environmental Policy Act, which sets the foundation for federal environmental policy. What this latest specification entails is that projects to be included in the list submitted by the county should be “shovel ready” and already clear of any environmental hurdles. The court had already approved a list of projects for CAMPO to take to TxDOT for consideration of the expected federal stimulus funds.


Gieselman told Commissioners “we haven’t rescinded our old list because we don’t know ultimately what criteria will be used. But we have good information that we might not get those projects approved. So we’ve come back with a B list that don’t need NEPA qualifications.”


Last week’s revised list, labeled the “B-list,” includes several repaving and resurfacing projects that are within the existing right-of-way. Commissioners were also asked to vote on removing Reimers Peacock Road because it did not have the required ROW. Furthermore, there are “safety issues” with SH 71 that needed to be addressed before any work on Reimers Peacock begins.


Work likely wouldn’t be completed until 2010, Gielselman said. Municipalities across the state are scrambling to submit projects, and Gieselman reported that there are already 10 to 12 times more projects than can likely be funded.


“At the risk of igniting a whole other debate, I need to tell Commissioner (Ron) Davis that … 290 East is on there twice,” Gieselman said.


Pct. 1 Commissioner Davis perked up and another debate did indeed begin. Although Gieselman said the new version of the US 290 East project was a ramp addition, not a toll road, he did say that the initial toll road extension of US 290E from US183 to SH130 remained on the list.


Davis became visibly upset, saying his constituents did not want that toll road.


“They have not accepted that, and they haven’t approved it, period. And even during the public hearing on a lot of these things, they weren’t even allowed to testify in the public setting.” Gieselman said that the original $504 million toll road widening of US 290E was not NEPA certified and likely could run into problems – hence the revised version which would only add ramps to the road not additional capacity.


Davis began to sort out the numbers he had heard as far as what may come through in terms of funding. He had heard that $85 billion would be spent on infrastructure, roads and bridges nationally and that $30.2 billion would be going toward roads and bridges nationally. For Texas, Davis estimated there would be $2.5 billion.


“I don’t want to say squabbled over, but everybody will have their hands in the pot to try to get what they feel will be used in their area,” Davis said.


Davis reiterated his belief that stimulus money should not be used for toll roads. He was curious who would be doling out the stimulus dollars, and Gieselman’s best information indicated, “they’re going to use existing distribution channels to get this stimulus package out and spent,” which essentially meant the state. Geiselman said every DOT in the country is prepping for projects that are, “probably going to tilt toward things that are more of the maintenance type than on large new added capacity unless those things are absolutely ready to go.”


Judge Sam Biscoe made a motion to vote on the “plan B” projects, but Davis stopped that for a substitute motion, which would remove the US 290 East toll portion. Biscoe was not enthusiastic, “I think that would be counterproductive, but if the majority of the court wants to do it, so be it. The way for it not to be tolled is to figure out another way to fund it, and the stimulus money is the way now.”


Davis substitute motion was defeated, and Davis abstained in a 4-0 vote to approve the “Plan B” road package.

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