TxDOT: Some paved roads could return to gravel in oil patch

Officials paint dire picture as Legislature tussles over road funding.

As legislative negotiators worked Thursday to break a deadlock on road funding, Texas Department of Transportation officials painted a bleak — and notably timely — picture of roads in the state’s booming oil patch areas.

TxDOT executive John Barton, saying he was “embarrassed” as the agency’s chief engineer to do so, announced that 12 short, farm-to-market road segments are in such rotten shape that they’re not worth repairing. TxDOT, in what might be a first in the agency’s 96-year history, plans to convert 83 miles of paved roads into gravel roads. Their speed limits would then be reduced from a typical 55 mph to 30 mph, Barton said.

The agency also plans to post weight limits on an additional 518 miles of roads, some to as low as 20,000 pounds, and restrict vehicles widths to 10 feet or less on an additional 517 miles of road, Barton said.

The list of asphalt-to-gravel highways includes a short segment of frontage road on Interstate 37 in Live Oak County, Barton said in an interview later with the American-Statesman. None of them are in counties near Austin.

“We’re at a point where it’s really not safe to have them be asphalt,” Barton told the Texas Transportation Commission at its meeting Thursday.

TxDOT also will begin requiring that commercial operators seeking to build entryways onto rural state highways conduct a traffic impact analysis, he said.

Barton said the situation in the oil patch has gotten so serious that TxDOT executive director Phil Wilson’s oft-quoted remark that the agency needs an additional $4 billion a year is now out of date. Those generally narrow and hastily constructed roads, not built for either the volume or weight of the trucks now using them for oil and gas shale drilling and production, will require an additional $1 billion a year for maintenance, Barton said.

TxDOT, thanks to more than $20 billion of borrowing, has had a several-year surge of road building, but that bubble of money is due to pop in the next couple of years. Wilson said that unless the Legislature finds new sources of funding for TxDOT, the current level of road contracts — about $6.2 billion this year — will fall to $2.5 billion by the 2015-16 fiscal year and remain at about that level.

That dire picture was painted by TxDOT officials just hours before lawmakers were scheduled to reconvene to talk about the sole remaining piece of business for Legislature’s second special session, which ends Tuesday: road funding.

House and Senate negotiators have met off and on the past few days trying to bridge differences between their versions of House Joint Resolution 2, a proposed constitutional amendment that would raise $800 million to $900 million for TxDOT.

The two versions of the bill differ markedly on how they would raise that money. The Senate-passed resolution would direct to TxDOT half of the oil and gas severance tax revenue, beginning in 2014, that otherwise would go to the state’s rainy day fund. The House version is more complicated, undoing a constitutional provision passed in 1946 that directs a quarter of gasoline tax money to public education and replacing it with oil and gas tax revenue.

That trade-off will be too confusing to voters, senators said Thursday. And some education groups, despite reassurances from House sponsors of HJR 2 that education funding will not change, are nervous about it and could end up in opposition if HJR 2 goes before voters for approval in November.

“It’s worked very well for us for 67 years,” said Christy Rome, executive director of the Texas School Coalition, during a short hearing Thursday before the Senate Finance Committee on a companion bill to HJR 2. “We’d like to see it continue.”

The House and Senate also disagree over whether the rainy day fund should have a $6 billion minimum mandated in the Texas Constitution, which HJR 2 in its Senate incarnation would do. Unless that minimum is maintained, under the Senate version of HJR 2 the additional funding for TxDOT would be reduced or eliminated. House members have shown some flexibility on having such a floor put in statute (where it can more easily be altered) rather than in the Constitution, legislators said, but even that concession hasn’t been nailed down.

Discussions with various legislators and staff members indicated that the two sides were close to an agreement Tuesday, but that consensus fell apart by Wednesday. Negotiations resumed late Thursday afternoon, and the Senate could take up a compromise bill as early as Friday at 4 p.m. when it comes back into session.

The House adjourned until 2 p.m. Monday.

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