WEATHERFORD -- The Ric Williamson Memorial Highway is being built without a dime of federal money.
Instead, the voters of Parker County -- many of them eager to relieve growing car and truck traffic around the courthouse in downtown Weatherford -- agreed to go into debt and build the 5.6-mile bypass around the west side of Weatherford themselves.
They issued bonds to cover the entire $26.4 million cost. The northern half of the project is under construction, and the first mile opened to traffic last week.
But local officials who thought their go-getter attitude would be rewarded now say they were wrong.
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When Parker County officials sought permission to connect the new road to Interstate 20, the Federal Highway Administration intervened and declared that -- regardless of who pays for the road -- a formal environmental review would be needed.
The review, federal officials explained, is required by the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act and is crucial to protect surrounding land, waterways, wildlife and neighborhoods.
So when does federal oversight begin and local control end? As many Americans call for Washington to streamline its environmental efforts and build roads faster, the situation in Parker County, a growing area of about 117,000 west of Fort Worth, is a good example of how it's easier said than done.
Federal officials "want whatever control they can get. They're so afraid of lawsuits from environmental groups, they can't make a logical decision," Parker County Judge Mark Riley said last week while touring the project.
Riley and other officials worry that the environmental review could delay plans to break ground on the bypass's I-20 interchange in January, and open that final piece of the project to traffic by 2014.
State and federal officials familiar with the situation say this particular project is unlikely to be derailed by a major delay in the environmental review. But regardless, Riley said, federal officials' decision to step in with their own study of a local project has created an air of uncertainty that's likely to linger for months.
Federal officials say they're working with the Texas Department of Transportation and doing their duty under the law.
"We cannot ignore NEPA requirements, but will continue to work closely with TxDot and the county to streamline the environmental process so that construction on important projects like this one can begin quickly," Federal Highway Administration spokesman Doug Hecox said in an e-mail.
Planning for the bypass project dates to 2004, when it was known as the "western loop." A study at that time concluded that half of all traffic in downtown Weatherford was just passing through.
In 2008, Parker County voters approved the sale of bonds for about $80 million worth of projects throughout the area, including the western bypass. Also that year, Riley was appointed to the powerful Regional Transportation Council, an offshoot of the North Central Texas Council of Governments that plays a key role in deciding where state and federal money is spent throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth region.
The transportation council, which often shuffles millions of dollars in federal and state funding to help cities and counties with transportation expenses, did loan Parker County about $200,000 to hire a consultant to put together the bond package and take it to voters. The county repaid the council after voters approved the package.
In 2009, the council of governments expanded its federally recognized metropolitan planning area to include all of Parker County, as well as several other counties, to more accurately reflect that those historically rural areas are now part of the regional core. Communities within a metro planning area are typically eligible for more types of state and federal transportation funding than those on the outside.
Work began last year on the northern end of the project, where the bypass connects to state farm roads, more than four miles from the interstate.
Also last year, Parker County officials agreed to name the bypass for Ric Williamson, a state lawmaker and Texas Transportation Commission chairman -- and close friend of Gov. Rick Perry -- who died in December 2007 after years of heart problems.
"I find it quite ironic that Ric Williamson, a person who had so much support for local control, is watching over us right now as we discuss and debate this particular issue," said Michael Morris, transportation director for the council of governments.
County officials also first contacted state and federal highway officials in 2009 to learn the requirements for connecting their road to I-20. That's when the discussions about federal involvement began.
That spring, Riley and a representative of the county's environmental consulting firm, Freese and Nichols, met with Federal Highway Administration officials during a transportation conference in Washington. They discussed the project and their desire to connect it to I-20. Federal highway officials based in Austin listened by phone, Riley said.
The group met again in spring 2010 and went over the plans in more detail. Even so, Riley said, the discussion was mainly limited to the fifth and final phase of the project, the connection to I-20.
Up to that point, the environmental consultant and state transportation officials told Riley and other county officials that, based upon their experience, they didn't think the federal involvement would be complicated.
The expectation was that Parker County would need to jump through two federal hoops: submit an application for interstate access, complete with documents justifying the change; and obtain a categorical exclusion allowing the project to be built with minimal environmental review.
"Keep in mind, TxDOT engineers made it clear that it was not their call. But we all agreed there was precedent and it [the categorical exclusion] was the correct way," Riley said. "Then I first met face to face with the feds in Austin, in the spring of 2011. It was not until a second meeting in Austin in the summer that we had the 'big' discussion."
During that second meeting, the federal officials surprised state and county officials by declaring that instead of allowing a categorical exclusion, they would require a full-blown environmental impact statement for the entire 5.6-mile corridor.
Riley protested and was surprised when the team of federal officials backed off a bit. They eventually agreed to conduct a less complicated environmental assessment, and reduce the study area to the 2.5 miles on the south end of the project, roughly from U.S. 180 to I-20.
In a subsequent meeting, Riley again protested, and the federal officials reduced their area of concern to an environmental assessment of the I-20 interchange and an "analysis of impacts" of the first mile from I-20 to Spur 312 (Ranger Highway). But that was as far as they were willing to go.
Different counties, different rulings
The determination about where federal oversight ends and where local control begins is decided on a case-by-case basis, several officials said. And, in this case, the "logical termini" of the federal government's involvement would be one mile beyond the interstate right of way.
To Riley, the process resembled a form of haggling -- and seemed like an arbitrary attempt by federal officials to wrest control of the project.
He said all of this runs counter to the promises he often hears from U.S. Transportation Department officials and members of Congress, who say they support streamlining paperwork for projects that don't directly affect the environment.
Morris agrees. He said the Parker County case could became an example for Congress to cite in changing federal law to reduce the volumes of paperwork required for even a basic road. The process jacks up the cost of roads by hundreds of thousands -- sometimes millions -- of dollars, and leaves many local decision-makers feeling hamstrung and unable to build needed roads on their own.
"These should be handled consistently across our country, state and region," Morris said.
A recent example that highlights the inconsistency is in Rockwall County, northeast of Dallas, Morris said. There, local funds were used to build John King Boulevard, which was then connected to I-30. The Federal Highway Administration claimed environmental jurisdiction only on the portion of the project that touched federal right of way -- not the entire corridor.
Brian Barth, deputy Fort Worth district engineer for the state Transportation Department, remembers asking his federal counterparts why they would rule one way in Rockwall County and another way in Parker County.
The difference, federal officials explained, was that the Rockwall County road was already built, so there was less environmental impact to study.
In Parker County, Barth said, "Their argument is, this is a new road and tying it in with the interstate will cause impacts, and they want to analyze those impacts. If we had waited until the road was built and then approached [the federal agency], they'd be treating it differently."
The answer stung Riley, who now wishes that his county had just gone ahead and built the road without seeking federal officials' involvement in 2009.
"The mistake we made was being upfront with them about what we wanted to do," he said.
Parker County officials have been assured that the environmental assessment will be fast-tracked and, barring unforeseen complications, will likely be completed well within the year.
Last week, federal officials were waiting to receive a copy of the work already performed by Freese and Nichols so they could determine what to do next, Hecox said.
Drivers are already getting into the habit of using the first segment, which opened Jan. 27 between Farm Roads 51 and 920. The roadway is just one lane in each direction but has wide shoulders and extra right of way for future expansion.
Meanwhile, in downtown Weatherford, residents and merchants say traffic is getting worse by the day as Parker County joins the bustle of Dallas-Fort Worth.
Brandi Jones, who owns Book Case, a small bookstore north of the courthouse, is accustomed to the whir of traffic outside her door. The constant parade of trucks is something she frequently discusses with other shopkeepers. They talk about the trucks' difficulty making the tight turns around the courthouse, which is surrounded by landscape walls 3 feet tall.
"The trucks hit the brick walls over there all the time," Jones said. Of the Ric Williamson Memorial Highway, she said, "It's been a long time coming."
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796