TxDOT Proposes ‘Turnback Program’…

Even Transportation Commission member not sold on its merits

A proposal that could lead to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) handing over maintenance of close to 2,000 miles of state highways in major metropolitan areas of the state to local governments in those areas has set off a firestorm of commentary from local government officials. They are describing the plan as “a very crippling move,” a “trading off of state responsibility” and a “massive unfunded mandate.”

TxDOT officials say the proposal would lop off about $165 million in agency costs annually. Although that’s not much in terms of the $4 billion TxDOT officials say the agency needs annually to maintain and expand transportation infrastructure. However, it would satisfy the legislature’s mandate that the agency find $100 million in cuts that are part of a transportation bill passed during the recently completed Third Called Session of the 83rd Texas Legislature.

Lawmakers passed a bill that will give voters in the state the opportunity to decide if nearly $2 billion per year of the state’s rainy day fund should be appropriated from the state’s rainy day fund. Lawmakers threw in the $100 million from TxDOT to show a “good faith” effort on the part of the agency toward stretching its dollars.

Unfortunately for TxDOT, one of the voices of opposition to the proposal is Texas Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff, who with other members of the Commission will discuss the proposal at their Aug. 29 meeting. In a recent interview, Vandergriff told the Dallas Morning News “We’re going to have a pretty robust discussion about whether this is a wise move. For me personally, I question it.”

Vandergriff will not be the only one at the Commission meeting who questions the merit of the program. Many of the mayors of the affected cities have already made travel plans to attend the Austin meeting. And, Vandergriff gave the Dallas newspaper an indication of the mood of most of those government officials when he said most of the reaction to the proposal has been “generally negative.”

Officials in the affected areas were notified by TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson by mail regarding the program. In his letters to local officials, he described the “turnback program” as allowing “the transfer of state-owned roads, which are functionally local, from the state back to the local governments,” because they “serve primarily local traffic.”

Most of the cities affected have populations of more than 50,000, but there are also a few smaller cities affected that are either adjoining the larger cities or surrounded by those cities. Some of the affected roadways are currently owned by the cities and maintained by the state and some that are owned by the state, TxDOT would like to transfer to the cities. City officials in the 59 affected cities, particularly those in affected rural areas, see the proposal as just one more reason they would be forced to increase taxes.

Some of the highways under consideration for the turnover program are N. and S. Lamar, Martin Luther King Blvd. and Burnet Road in Austin; 19th Street and Slide Road in Lubbock; Mays Street in Round Rock; Front Street and Broadway Avenue in Tyler; and Marshall Avenue and High Street in Longview.


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