News Column

Texas May Abandon Highways to Cities, Counties

August 20, 2013

The city of Austin and other Central Texas governments would take over maintenance of more than 100 miles of state highways, at an added expense likely to run into the millions of dollars, under a plan being considered by the Texas Department of Transportation.

The Texas Transportation Commission, looking for more money to build new roads and maintain the rest of the 80,000-mile state highway system, is considering a "turnback" program that, by ceding control of essentially urban state roads to cities and counties, would save the agency $165 million a year. John Barton, TxDOT's chief engineer, in a June commission meeting, said the program would involve roads like Lamar Boulevard and Burnet Road that "look like local streets, most people perceive them as local streets and yet ... are a part of the state highway system."

However, the list of more than 600 road segments proposed for transfer to local governments includes not only those street-like highways, but also 10 miles of Loop 360, 8.7 miles of RM 2222 and, oddly, several hundred feet of Texas 165. That "highway" is actually a thin strip of pavement and limestone located within the boundaries of the Texas State Cemetery in East Austin, generally thought to be the shortest highway in Texas.

The proposal, which the transportation commission will discuss again later this month, has received a cold reception initially from local government officials. The Texas Municipal League, in a press release, said the proposed change could raise property taxes and called it a "massive unfunded mandate."

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell is scheduled to meet with TxDOT officials later this week on the subject.

"TxDOT is under financial strains as we all know, and is trying to devolve some of its financial obligations," Leffingwell said. "At the same time, it's a potentially big hardship for us. I can almost assure you it's not something we're going to embrace."

It is not clear if TxDOT officials propose to make the road transfers voluntary or mandatory.

"The decision on which roadways are included in the state highway system is made by the commission," TxDOT spokeswoman Veronica Beyer said Monday. "Any changes that are made to that system as part of this initiative will be done so in consultation with the impacted communities."

Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the municipal league, which represents cities, said his understanding from talking to TxDOT officials is that persuasion would be tried first.

"But TxDOT feels it has the power to do it," Sandlin said. "My understanding is that it is going to happen."

TxDOT officials, asked by the American-Statesman to provide a breakout of the anticipated $165 million in transferred costs, declined to do so.

The list includes 38 road segments in Central Texas, totaling 115 miles, or 6.1 percent of the total statewide that would be transferred to local jurisdictions. Austin would have 17 roads running to 72.1 miles, Round Rock seven roads and 16.8 miles and Cedar Park would have one road segment -- 2.3 miles of FM 734, known locally as Parmer Lane. The list also includes 14.3 miles in unincorporated Travis County and 9.5 miles in Williamson County.

TxDOT couldn't specify the exact segments Monday.

The $165 million in savings would represent less than 2 percent of TxDOT's annual spending.

Large cities such as Austin cover maintenance costs on state highways outside the curb line, Sandlin said, and cities often are in charge of traffic signal systems on TxDOT local roads.

Barton, in the June meeting, said having the roads fully under local control would have several advantages for cities. City officials, rather than TxDOT, he said, could make decisions about driveway access to the roads, parking, overhead signs and road closures for special events like parades. Cities also could add medians and other landscaping, Barton said, and would be in charge of setting speed limits.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, carried a proposed constitutional amendment in the summer's final special legislative session that passed and, if voters approve it, will raise more than $1 billion a year for highway spending. But that is not nearly enough, Nichols said, leaving TxDOT to look for other ways to pay for roads.

"I did nine years of city council and mayor work myself. I wouldn't like it," Nichols said, if he were still a local official. "The Legislature needs to fund TxDOT at an adequate level, and we have not done that. You can't build bricks without straw. TxDOT cannot do the impossible."

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Source: Copyright Austin American-Statesman (TX) 2013