Abbott calling for action on congested traffic areas

Sep 24, 2015 San Antonio Express-News BY PEGGY FIKAC AND KATHERINE BLUNT AUSTIN BUREAU

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AUSTIN — Heralding new efforts to fund transportation, Gov. Greg Abbott is directing state transportation officials to create a “focused initiative” that will ensure Texas’ most congested areas get priority.

“Simply put, congestion is costing Texas taxpayers time and money, and the problem is only increasing,” Abbott said in a speech Wednesday in Brazoria County.

Leaders and lawmakers have worked to address the issue. Voters last year approved an initiative to redirect a portion of oil and gas tax revenues that would otherwise go into the state’s rainy day fund to the highway fund.

That yielded $1.7 billion more for transportation the first year, although the annual amount is decreasing with a drop in those overall revenues.

Voters again this November will decide whether to dedicate part of sales and use taxes to transportation through Proposition 7, which if approved would mean $2.5 billion annually starting in fiscal year 2018 and $2.9 billion two years later.

In addition, lawmakers put $1.3 billion over two years into transportation by ending so-called diversions from the highway fund to pay for other state needs.

Experts have estimated it will cost $5 billion more annually just to keep congestion at current levels. And overall funding to the Texas Department of Transportation decreased in the current two-year budget period because of declines in such revenue as bond proceeds.

In the San Antonio region, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has identified parts of U.S. 281 and Interstate 35 as some of the city’s most congested areas.

It recently resolved to expand U.S. 281 with funding from Prop. 7 if it passes in November, leaving I-35 as a top priority for local transportation planners, said District 6 City Councilman Ray Lopez, who also chairs the MPO.

The organization maintains a list of unfunded projects ranked in order of priority, which can shift depending on the amount and type of funding that becomes available for each one.

“If you look at that list, I-35, if not at the top, would be very high on it,” Lopez said.

San Antonio’s most congested roadway — where I-35 and Loop 410 merge on the Northeast Side

— ranked No. 40 on the list of the state’s top 100 most congested roads. Josh Donat, TxDOT spokesman, said the agency is keen on finding ways to make travel easier for local drivers.

“We have it pretty good here in the area, but we want to improve on that,” Donat said. “We’re always looking for ways to partner with the MPO to find the routes and prioritize the areas that need addressing.”

Abbott said he is directing TxDOT “to work with transportation planners and local communities across the state to reduce congestion and get these roads built ASAP.”

As he pointed to the need for focused action, Abbott cited a recent Texas Transportation Institute report showing “the massive impact of congestion across the state.” The report said drivers in San Antonio spent about 44 hours in traffic last year, losing about $1,000 in fuel and time. In Houston, the cost was 61 hours and $1,490.

Commission Chairman Tryon

D. Lewis said he embraces Abbott’s initiative “wholeheartedly.”

“I especially appreciate him laying the foundation for his initiative by working closely with the Legislature to provide an historic increase in transportation funding during the past legislative session. It is now up to TxDOT, working collaboratively with local communities, to execute on the governor’s vision,” Lewis said. pfikac@express-news.net kblunt@express-news.net

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