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Stories Added - October 2009
Copyright 2009 - Polk County Publishing Company
TxDOT to lose $742M in federal highway funding
Polk County Enterprise - October 2009
AUSTIN — Faced with deteriorating pavement quality scores and growing congestion, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) was required to return more than $742 million to the federal government Wednesday as part of an $8.708 billion rescission of highway project programming authority. Rescissions, or reductions in the funding allotted by legislation, are not new. Historically, rescissions have been flexible, allowing states to decide which spending categories to reduce. This allows TxDOT to limit their impact on the state’s planned funding levels. Polk County Judge John Thompson, who also serves as chairman of the Gulf Coast Strategic Highway Coalition, said the cuts demonstrate why Texas needs to look for its own solution to quandaries over funding construction and maintenance of Texas highways. “This is another example of why we can’t depend on Washington to take care of our transportation needs,” Thompson said. “Senator Hutchison introduced the Highway Fairness and Reform Act of 2009 that would have given states the choice of opting out of the federal highway program and instead be rebated by federal fuels taxes collected within their borders.
“Our proposal would cut the overwhelming majority of attached federal strings but would require that rebated taxes be spent on surface transportation projects,” Hutchison said in a Washington Times editorial published April 29. “This option would allow Texas, for example, finally to see its fair share of gas-tax dollars and would ensure that all of our funds could be directed toward improving transportation n highgrowth areas of our states.” That bill didn’t get the necessary support from Hutchison’s fellow senators. Instead, the language included in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 has made rescissions much less flexible, TxDOT says. States must reduce each spending category by a specific amount, including the equity bonus category, which is designed to bring each state’s share of highway funding more in-line with the proportion of gas tax dollars paid into the system by that state. This results in a reduction in Texas’ obligation authority and causes TxDOT to award fewer contracts.
Officials at TxDOT’s Lufkin district office say that don’t yet know what specific projects will be affected by the rescissions. “This will have real and troublesome impacts on Texas and on our ability to go to contract with quite a few projects,” said Kathi White, spokeswoman for TxDOT’s Lufkin district. “We’ve had preliminary conversations in recent weeks with our regional partners, but each rescission comes with its own set of rules. This one was by far the most complicated and we and 49 other state departments of transportation just finished working through it with the Federal Highway Administration.” “We will continue working with our local partners, metropolitan planning organizations, and the state’s transportation leadership to determine how to best execute the cuts in this rescission. Hopefully Congress will reverse course and restore this much needed funding.” “We’re going to have to think outside the box when it comes to meeting our transportation needs,” Thompson said. “We’re still growing despite the recession.”
“This rescission is going to have statewide impact and there is not an easy solution,” Thompson added. “Any solution to address the problem is not going to be painless. It’s just a matter of which one the state chooses to pick.” As for exactly which projects will be cut in the Lufkin District, “At this time we don’t know what impact the rescission will have on projects here in the district’s nine counties. That determination is a work in progress,” White said. “In the past, we’ve worked hard to minimize the impact of rescissions on Texas drivers,” TxDOT’s Chief Financial Officer James Bass said. “For this rescission, however, the limited flexibility offered and sheer magnitude of it has translated into our ability to award contracts being reduced at a time when our communities need transportation funding to improve mobility and enhance economic opportunity.” Congress attempted to repeal the rescission while extending the current surface transportation program, also known as SAFETEA-LU. Their efforts were unsuccessful. As part of this rescission, Texas was required to return $1.9 million to make up for a shortfall in the amount to be returned from the state of Nevada. Prior to this rescission, TxDOT had already been required to return approximately $1.2 billion to Washington. Together, the rescinded amount since 2006 equals about $260 per Texas household.