TxDOT's power grab in El Paso pits City Council against County and MPO

Link to artice in El Paso Timeshere.

In another desperate power grab, TxDOT continues its totalitarian regime by trying to bypass El Paso’s MPO and circumvent the law to force that region to open an Regional Mobility Authority (RMA, or tolling authority definition here). Their MPO, State Representative Joe Pickett, County Judge-elect, and, most importantly, the PEOPLE of El Paso overwhelmingly oppose toll roads, yet TxDOT bullies, threatens, and manipulates elected officials who are heeding the will of the people in order to railroad their own profit-driven agenda. TxDOT does not have the authority in the law, HB 3588, to approve a city council petition for an RMA. It’s supposed to go through counties. This is a power grab to circumvent the law.

Note the blueprint TxDOT uses to push their tax grab…get yourself an area “mobility coalition” (we affectionately refer to ours, the San Antonio Mobility Coalition, Joe Krier’s outfit, as taxpayer funded lobbyists who are a front for the private road building lobby they represent). And it’s the same ol’ talking points: toll it or you don’t get your projects until 2030. Apparently it matters not whether you live in El Paso, San Antonio, or Austin, the answer from TxDOT is always the same…it’s toll it or NO project has funding until 2030. What’s the magic behind 2030 anyway? Nothing, other than it sounds a long ways off. It’s a scare tactic and their arguments don’t hold water. You can’t convince the public that every project in every city around the state has insufficient funding for the next 20+ years. It begs the question, what are they doing with their $7.5 billion budget if suddenly they’re declaring no project has enough funding until 2030?

County group to fight regional mobility board
By Ramon Bracamontes
July 27, 2006
El Paso Times

El Paso, TX – While City Council is proceeding with plans to appoint a transportation authority that has the power to build toll roads and issue bonds for highway projects, a separate countywide board of elected officials is working to derail that process.

This fight will continue today and Friday at two separate meetings.

The Texas Transportation Commission, which approves every highway construction project in the state, will conduct its monthly meeting today in El Paso. This commission, which has El Pasoan Ted Houghton as a member, authorized City Council last month to establish a regional mobile authority, or RMA. The RMA would have power to build roads more quickly because it could use tolls and bonds to pay for projects.

At today’s meeting, supporters of the city’s RMA are expected to attend to talk about El Paso’s highway needs. Others are also expected to present.

Then on Friday, when El Paso’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO meets, the elected officials sitting on that board will be asked to vote on a motion to denounce the need for an RMA.

MPO members will be asked to approve a highway construction plan that is different from what the RMA is pursuing and uses standard funding, which means no toll roads, no bonds.

The MPO consists of city and county elected officials, as well as elected officials from Southern New Mexico, Sunland Park, Vinton, Anthony, Horizon City, Clint and Socorro.

The MPO already voted once before to oppose an RMA. When the transportation commissioners approved the El Paso RMA, they told city officials that it would be best if the MPO supported the RMA.

The final commission order approving the RMA does not include that stipulation.

The only stipulation in the order is that all RMA projects must also be included on the MPO project list. That means what the MPO does will affect the future of the RMA.

And what the MPO does Friday will also affect the completion of Loop 375. In its request, city officials said the first highway to be built by the RMA would be the Southern Relief Route, which expands the Border Highway from Downtown to the West Side somewhere on Paisano.

City officials and Texas Department of Transportation officials have said this Southern Relief Route, which is a part of the region’s plan to connect the Border Highway to Paisano Drive, will cost more than $400 million and is the continuation of Loop 375 to the West Side.

To speed up construction of this road, the city and TxDOT are pursuing the RMA.

However, state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, will ask the MPO to approve a plan that builds this Southern Relief Route for less than $200 million and without tolls.

“We can build four highways with the money needed to build one toll road,” Pickett said. “If you don’t put toll lanes on the road, the cost goes down.”

Pickett said he will continue to work against toll roads and the establishment of an RMA because he said El Paso can keep building roads without toll roads and the money is there to make it happen.

Details of his plan will not be revealed until Friday.

City Rep. Steve Ortega said the city is moving forward with the appointment of an RMA. The city will appoint six members and the governor will appoint the chair. Nominations are currently being solicited.

“The RMA is needed so that we can provide transportation infrastructure, that is much needed, in a manner that is timely and efficient,” Ortega said. “With an RMA, we can complete the Southern Relief Route in a couple of years; without it, the route will not be done until 2030.”

Anthony Cobos, the El Paso County Judge-elect who takes office in January, said he is opposed to the RMA and toll roads because more roads are needed right now. He sat on the MPO for two years, so he is familiar with the issue, he said.

“I don’t think we’ve had adequate public comment and a year ago, the public was very much against toll roads and an RMA,” Cobos said.

According to the El Paso Times/KVIA ABC 7 Poll done in February, 59 percent of El Pasoans oppose toll roads as a way to pay for expensive transportation projects while 38 percent favor them. That is the same percentage of opposition as in the Times’ 2004 poll.

Chuck Berry, the TxDOT district engineer in El Paso, said the establishment of the RMA gives the region more tools from which to draw money for projects.

“This gives us access to funding that is not otherwise available to us,” Berry said.

Among those scheduled to speak at today’s transportation commission meeting is El Paso businessman John Broaddus. He is the co-chair of the steering committee that formed the new Borderland Mobility Coalition. The coalition is an advocacy group that will seek funding and support to build up the region’s transportation needs.

“We, as a region, need to come together with one single message about what we need,” Broaddus said. “That has not happened before.