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Fort Worth council in tough talks about bad roads

01/17/2013 9:49 PM

01/18/2013 8:20 AM

The road funding pot is beginning to boil again at Fort Worth City Hall, with City Council members holding recent discussions on two parts of a multi-part funding proposal that's been in their lap since 2010.

In that pot is a wicked stew of real needs spiced with political peril. The council could hurt the local economic recovery by pushing too hard for road improvement money or by not pushing hard enough.

The most perilous part of the mix is a proposal for an additional fee, tacked on to monthly water bills, to help pay for street construction and improvements. The fee would look, sound, smell and taste like a new tax.

Especially in far north Fort Worth, where growth during the past decade has been explosive, road conditions and traffic congestion are dire.

"Massive subdivisions were built on two-lane roads," Councilman Sal Espino, who represents the area, told his fellow council members on Jan. 8. Espino has pushed hard for all options to gain more money for better streets, saying, "We've got to do something."

One element of the 2010 plan, presented by then-Mayor Mike Moncrief's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Transportation Infrastructure, has been implemented. The council moved 1 cent of the 85.5-cent property tax rate from the operations side of the ledger to the debt service side in 2011 and another 1.5 cents in 2012. Additional 1-cent moves are planned for each of the next two years.

Having more money available for debt service enables the city to issue more bonds for road projects, assuming voters approve those bonds. The council has talked about holding a bond election in May, 2014, asking voters for around $276 million in borrowing authority without increasing the overall tax rate.

But the wish list of eligible projects, from fire stations to playgrounds to major roads, totals $1.8 billion. Mayor Betsy Price has asked council members to gather feedback from their constituents and to help trim the list to the $276 million available.

For a May 2014 bond election, the timetable calls for refining the project list by June, Star-Telegram City Hall reporter Scott Nishimura has written. The council would hold public meetings on those proposals in late summer and fall, with a final list to be agreed upon in December.

Roads and other badly needed infrastructure projects are expected to dominate the final list.

The 2010 Blue Ribbon Task Force also proposed increased impact fees to be paid by developers, whose residential and commercial construction projects add traffic and require new and improved arterial streets. The council has been talking about this idea for the past couple of weeks, and the proposal looks to be on thin ice.

Options would raise the impact fee on a single-family home from the current $2,000 to as much as $5,112 in two years. Developers and real estate professionals are clearly opposed, saying the increase would endanger the Fort Worth market's still-shaky recovery from recent slow years.

Price has said she shares those concerns.

Two elements of the 2010 Blue Ribbon Task Force plan have yet to see council discussion this year:

Dedicating to transportation infrastructure 75 percent of all capital project money from the city's unrestricted natural gas well bonus and royalty revenue. That's a relatively easy recommendation for the council to accept, but it would provide only about $2 million a year, the task force report said.

A "transportation user fee" ranging from about $5.87 per month for a single-family home to $10.06 per 1,000 square feet at restaurants. The fee would raise about $31 million a year, the report said.

Moncrief pushed for adoption of the transportation user fee two years ago, but the council balked. There was an especially awkward moment during one council meeting when Councilman Danny Scarth obviously surprised Moncrief by saying publicly he was not on board.

There may be other awkward moments as discussions move forward this year. It will come down to how much outside pressure council members feel to find real solutions for bad roads.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.

817-390-7830

Twitter: @mnorman9

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