Billions of bucks will soon flow out of Washington, but how many dollars will find their way to Midlothian and Ellis County is uncertain.
Speaking to the Midlothian Rotary Club last week, Bill Pierce, Area Engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), said the state has a number of local road projects ready to be funded, but it remains to be seen if Washington’s massive stimulus plan will service those projects.
“We have been told they are looking for projects ready to go and for big projects,” said Pierce. “They are particularly looking for project that will benefit retail development and address safety concerns.”
Pierce said the U.S. 287 Bypass around Ennis could be considered as well as the U.S. Highway 287 frontage roads that would cross the Southern Pacific Railroad in Midlothian.
Pierce said the city of Midlothian and the state are working on a joint project to build frontage roads on each side of U.S. Highway 67 from Ninth Street to U.S. Highway 287.
“This project just got approval from the railroads,” he said. “The city passed a bond to pay for their portion and have gone to TxDOT to speed up the project.
“The longer it takes to build it the more expensive it will get,” Pierce added. “We have committed to this project and we’re going to do it.”
The state has repeatedly urged Midlothian officials to put more local money into the project and get the work done even faster.
“The timeframe is now longer than we anticipated,” he said.
Expanding U.S. Highway 67 at Railport is another project being eyed by TxDOT.
“Your Midlothian Development Authority was initially going to do this project, but rising expenses have made this project cost $6 million more than expected. The environmental (permits) have been OK’d and we are ready to begin right-of-way acquisition,” he said, noting the project has a $12.3 million price tag and is slated to be finished in 2010.
Pierce said TxDOT has numerous project that are unfunded and the U.S. 67/Railport project is the only one that will be let to bid anytime soon.
“We have been working on U.S. 287 through Ellis County for years and that’s how Midlothian got their bypass,” said Pierce. “We’ve done great things in the northwest part of the county but in the southeast – not so much.”
Pierce said there is a push to get the U.S. 287 bypass around Ennis ready.
“The U.S. 287 corridor and proposed work on the I-35 corridor are the big projects that could fit into the stimulus plan,” said Pierce. “We are just waiting to see how things sort out.”
President Barack Obama signed the $317.2 billion stimulus bill into law on Feb. 17 and cash-strapped states will see the first influx of federal relief dollars later this week.
Stimulus package breaks down as follows:
• $98.23 billion. Energy and environment.
• $66.15 billion. Labor, health and education.
• $57.07 billion. Transportation, housing and urban development.
• $45.47 billion. Federal and state government.
• $17.84 billion. Commerce, justice and science.
• $16.44 billion. Defense and security.
• $15.98 billion. Agriculture and rural development.
According to Obama, the package is intended to save or create up to three and a half million jobs, and increase rebuilding infrastructure and consumer spending. Thirty-four percent of the package is devoted to tax cuts equalling $286 billion, and a further $120 billion will be used to fund infrastructure projects, such as road-building and transportation. Sixty-four percent of the package will be allocated for money for social programs and spending.
Pierce said TxDOT has five construction projects on the books and underway totaling $136 million. He pointed out Ellis County traditionally has about 15 project totaling $200 million in play.
“The economy has slowed us down, too,” said Pierce. “But I will remind you the Legislature is in session and we’ll have to see what they come up with.”
Other area project that could be affected by the federal stimulus plan are:
This project would build 280 miles of roads around the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and has been proposed for more than 30 years.
“Loop 9 would be a big doughnut around the Metroplex,” said Pierce. “It’s a massive project with a 600-foot wide right-of-way. The southern portion would dip into Ellis County and plans are to build the southern section first.”
This big highway project crosses U.S. Highway 67 North near Skyline Acres and U.S. Highway 287 West near Padera Lake.
Loop 9 has been “fast-tracked” by the Texas Legislature and Pierce said the project is before federal highway engineers and could get federal funding as soon as this year.
Widening Interstate 35 at Red Oak to six lanes also includes shoulder work that will ultimately widen it to eight lanes.
Construction on widening of I-35 to six lanes near Red Oak is a about a year behind schedule.
The expansion of the Interstate 35 corridor south of Waxahachie is a $120 million project and Pierce said the plan is completely unfunded at this time.
Pierce said work on I-35 around Waxahachie and maintenance on U.S. 77 south of town are major design projects for TxDOT. There is no funding for either of those projects at this time.
Building roads in Texas is easy, it’s paying for them that causes the problem.
Pierce said the state and federal government have already reversed plans to fund highways across Texas to the tune of $1.5 billion.
“They call those ‘rescissions’ and basically the money that was initially eyed for highway construction or maintenance is being spent on other things,” Pierce said. “A lot has been made about the crossed roads between TxDOT and the folks in Austin. Funding anything is a difficult job right now, but like I said earlier, the Legislature is in session and I won’t be surprised which ever way it comes out/”
Since 1917, the state has shied away from issuing bonds to pay for highway construction and stuck to the idea of allocating the money from the budget and then building the road. As Texas grows and more highways are needed, this pay-as-you-go process has slowed both the construction of new roads and the maintenance of existing roads.
A highway project proposed today is put on a list for funding. There is now a 30-year wait for project funding.
“This has forced the state to look for creative ways to fund highways,” Pierce said.
The state basically has new ways to fund new projects:
• TMF – The Texas Mobile Fund takes fees collected for license plates and driver licenses and uses that fixed revenue to finance bonds. Pierce said this guaranteed revenue stream allows the state to turn around and issue bonds that are underwritten by fees collected from motorists.
• SHF – The Safe Highway Fund is a financing tool that allows the state to issue up to $3 billion in bonds but limits that debt to $1 billion per year. Existing fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees are used to service this debt. Pierce said this fund is being rapidly depleted and the money must be earmarked for making highways safer.
Pierce said these funds have been used in Ellis County to straighten curves on farm-to-market roads and to widen shoulders.
• CDA – A comprehensive development agreement is the tool TxDOT uses to enable private investments in the Texas transportation system. It provides a competitive selection process for developing regional projects or much larger undertakings like the Trans-Texas Corridor.
Pierce said using a public-private partnership, like a CDA, opens the door to accelerated financing, design, construction, operation and maintenance of a project.
“The Trans-Texas Corridor left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths,” Pierce said. “People said we were selling our roads to foreigners by letting them finance and build toll roads and then collect the revenues.”
Pierce pointed out most of the foreign companies would hire American contractors, who are required by state law to hire legal workers.
“But voters let their elected officials know their views and things got warm and the Legislature put a moratorium on the project,” Pierce said. “I feel comfortable the Legislature will find a way to get comfortable with this idea and find a way to do business in this manner.”