December 11, 2008
If Congress favors Texas with a healthy chunk of transportation dollars early next year, it would be a good thing for state officials to have an intelligent way to select which projects get the money, Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson said Wednesday.
“What if we get only a billion? Then how do we prioritize?” Watson said of the economic stimulus package likely to be on President-elect Barack Obama’s desk shortly after he takes office in January. The package’s overall size, and how much goes to transportation, is still a matter of speculation.
Earlier this fall, Texas compiled a $6.2 billion list of possible projects that could be ready to go next year.
“There are transportation projects, road and rail, that will stimulate the economy in ways other than one person shoveling something into a pothole,” Watson said.
Chris Lippincott, spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said it would be “not productive” for the agency to spend time now settling on standards for ordering that list.
“Sen. Watson’s suggestions and guidance are valuable to us,” Lippincott said. “But the guidance that we will get that is both valuable and dispositive is from the Congress, and we don’t have it yet. As the (stimulus) bill begins to take shape, that will help TxDOT’s decision-making process.”
Texas compiled a list in recent weeks of transportation projects that could be start before fall, as did every other state, at the request of a trade industry group.
The Texas list, organized at its release in the alphabetical order of TxDOT’s 25 districts, is 29 pages and has more than 850 projects. The Austin district list, covering 11 counties, had 99 projects totalling $985 million.
The bulk of the Texas projects involves routine maintenance and repair or replacement of bridges. But there are also projects to improve safety and, in cases where time-consuming environmental clearances and right-of-way purchases are done or nearly so, new roads or road expansions.
The Austin list, for instance, includes widening of a dangerous stretch of Texas 71 west of Austin, the U.S. 290 East tollway and expansion of U.S. 183.
Watson sent a letter Wednesday to Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi suggesting benchmarks for selecting the projects.
TxDOT should evaluate whether a given project actually stimulates the economy and, if so, if it creates value that would last, Watson wrote.
“Would a specific project continue contributing to job creation and economic development once the actual construction work has concluded?” Watson wrote. In addition, he said, TxDOT should attach value to work that would reduce traffic congestion or improve air quality.
Watson said he wasn’t suggesting a drawn-out process. But the list as it exists now, he said, has not been subjected to any process at all.
“Right now I can’t see any prioritization to it, other than, quote, it’s ‘ready to go,’ ” Watson said.