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Longivew city officials reject TxDOT roads plan

By Sarah Thomas
Aug. 23, 2013 at 11 p.m.

State and city officials discussed Friday afternoon a plan that could leave Longview holding the tab for road maintenance traditionally paid for by the state.

Longview City Manager David Willard met with representatives of the Texas Department of Transportation who proposed shifting maintenance of state roads inside the city to the local entity - something Willard said the city is not interested in.

The Texas Department of Transportation continues to struggle to meet the needs of Texas' aging infrastructure.

The agency was ordered by the Legislature to cut $100 million from its budget during the 2014-15 biennium and put it toward the agency's multi-billion dollar debt.

TxDOT has framed the proposal to give roads back to local government as a "partnership" it wants to have with cities with a population of more than 50,000.

"It's a way to spread our limited resources a little farther," TxDOT spokesman Mark Cross said Friday.

In a letter to Mayor Jay Dean Aug. 13, TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson wrote the agency's "turnback program is envisioned as a cooperative venture between TxDOT and local jurisdictions to increase control."

City spokesman Shawn Hara said city officials understand TxDOT's plight.

"We understand that they need to be financially viable but this proposal is not the preferred route from the city's perspective," he said.

TxDOT officials want Longview to assume maintenance of about 28 miles of roadway, including segments of U.S. 80, U.S. 259, Spur 63, Judson Road, Gilmer Road, Texas 31, Jaycee Drive and Gum Springs Road.

"These aren't small city streets. These are major thoroughfares with major infrastructure under them. It would just be a huge burden to put on local taxpayers," Willard said.

City staff members have not had time to determine how much it would cost to maintain those roads, and TxDOT could not release figures Friday on how much the agency spent this past year to maintain the roads in question. A spokesman said the data could be available next week.

Aside from the extra cost, Willard said, there are too many unknowns and he expressed concerns about the complexity of repairs on major highways, saying the city is not equipped to handle that kind of major roadwork.

"Like Highway 80, 259, those are major roads, and we'd have to contract those out. We don't have that kind of equipment," he said. If the proposal becomes mandatory, city officials don't know if they'll have any recourse or way to opt out.

"It is yet to be determined if we will have a choice in the matter. I don't know how it will end. It will probably be up to the Legislature," Willard said. "I don't think they (TxDOT) know all of the unintended consequences either."

Cross said TxDOT does not plan to force cities into the partnership.

"If we're talking to a city and they say they can't do it, we're not going to force them if they fiscally can't handle it," he said.

However, the agency spokesman said, the program is essential to the agency's ability to take care of other high-traffic roadways, shifting ownership of state-owned roads - used primarily for local traffic purposes - to local governments, Cross said.

"Many of these are farm-to-market roads that were established just for that, to get farmers to the market. As the state has grown, these roads have morphed into more than the two-lane roads they once were," Cross said.

But Willard said the roads TxDOT wants Longview to take over are not city streets that only serve local drivers. Most of them are major highways that connect cities, regions - and in the case of U.S. 259 and U.S. 80 - states.

TxDOT's funding woes aren't about the state decreasing the agency's funding, he said, but more about how a dollar doesn't stretch as far as it once did.

TxDOT requested about $16.9 billion in 2011 and the state appropriated about half that - $8.8 billion.

In 2012, TxDOT asked the state for about $12.4 billion and the state gave up about $10.5 billion

"We're still being outpaced because of the state's large growth. Population growth, vehicle miles traveled, more people on the roads, more registered vehicles," Cross said.

The plan, he said, could free up about $165 million statewide by asking cities to pick up the maintenance on roadways that have lower average daily traffic or roads that benefit local governments socially and economically.

"That number could be more, could be less. That's a very rough estimate," he said. "It's important to note this is a discussion, no action is slated to be taken at the meeting. There is no set date for implementation," he said about the Texas Transportation Commission's next meeting on Thursday.



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