Cities open to controlling state highways, at right price

Posted Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Some cities might be willing to take control of state highways within their boundaries — if a future source of funding to maintain for the roads can be found.

That’s the message from Fort Worth Councilman Jungus Jordan, recently named president of the Texas Municipal League, an Austin-based organization that represents the interests of hundreds of cities.

Jordan, who will serve a one-year term, said he has begun talks with officials at the Texas Department of Transportation over the so-called “turn back” program.

In August, transportation officials drew the ire of city leaders across the state when they announced that they would turn back control of highways in urban areas to cut costs.

Cities protested, saying it would amount to an unfunded mandate, potentially costing them millions of dollars.

Since then, officials have clarified that the program would be voluntary.

“I understand they’re looking for help,” Jordan said. “I met with (executive director) Phil Wilson at TxDot and said, ‘Let’s work together and find a solution that’s not forced down cities’ throats.’

“We all understand the problem because we’ve been living in the trenches of trying to get funding for transportation for several (legislative) sessions now. They asked for $1 billion a year for new maintenance and $3 billion a year for new capacity ... but they’re only going to get 25 percent of that revenue, if a referendum in November 2014 is successful.

“We’re going to have a working group, and try to make lemonade out of lemons.”

Jordan also said he appointed Arlington Councilwoman Kathryn Wilemon as vice chairwoman of the municipal league.

Fort Worth has several roads on the state highway system that potentially could be better off under local control, including parts of Hemphill Street and Camp Bowie Boulevard, Jordan said.

The state recently turned over West Rosedale Street to the city, but only after expanding it to six lanes — an improvement that didn’t fit with the city’s long-term plans.

Fort Worth officials are now removing one lane in each direction to allow bikes, sidewalks and other improvements, a move that some have criticized as wasteful.

That embarrassing situation could have been avoided with better communication, Jordan said.

Transportation officials agree that more discussions with individual cities, as well as with the Texas Municipal League’s top brass, are needed to ensure that everybody understands the program’s intent.

“We’re hearing from a variety of cities and communities that have some interest in participating in this program,” transportation department spokesman Bob Kaufman said.

The program could save the transportation department $165 million a year in upkeep costs spread over 59 urban areas, officials have said.

State officials have also pledged that any roads handed over to cities would be in top condition, so minimal maintenance would be required for about 10 years.

But no one has yet identified what state or federal funding sources might be available to help cities offset the long-term cost of road maintenance.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson

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