Northeast Texas Rural Transportation Summit: Bill Hale, TxDOT

Bill Hale, chief engineer of the Texas Department of Transportation, discusses his agency’s work at the Northeast Texas Rural Transportation Summit.

A six-lane Interstate 30, a better Broadway Street bridge and an improved Highway 19 interchange with the freeway were topics addressed by Bill Hale, the chief engineer of the Texas Department of Transportation, in a statewide overview of transportation projects and projected funding at Thursday’s Northeast Texas Rural Transportation Summit.

Hale discussed projects around the state and tied them in to how they might affect road work in Northeast Texas and the 23 other districts besides Paris and Atlanta.

He said the agency had about $75 billion budgeted for the next 10 years for projects. About 40 percent of the state’s funding comes from the federal government’s gas tax. After that, the state’s gas tax and some other miscellaneous funds provide the remaining portion.

He said that TxDOT has about $32 billion for the next two years. Of that, $8.3 billion is for maintenance, $6.5 billion is for new projects, and about $3.5 billion is for Proposition 1 and Proposition 7 projects.

Proposition 1 is a state constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2014. It would dedicate a portion of state oil and gas taxes to highway work. Proposition 7, approved in 2015, allows a portion of state sales taxes and motor vehicle sales taxes to be used to acquire new highway right-of-way land.

TxDOT works with the Texas Transportation Commission and is organized into various agencies, Hale explained. The department had several billion dollars that had been allocated by the Texas Legislature but that had not yet been approved for specific projects, which remains the final decision of the Commission.

Hale said the state has 12 work categories, but they basically fall into three areas. These are congestion, connectivity and maintenance.

He said that long-term plans, like TxDOT’s 10-year plan, are updated every year or two and rolled over to update all three of these areas. Currently, TxDOT has 13,000 individual projects across the state. A map of all of them had Northeast Texas almost solidly colored in.

Hale then pivoted to discussing congestion issues.

“We have about 80,000 lane-miles of roadway,” he said. “But we’re adding 1,100 people per day, and so we need to continue to grow that.”

He said congestion affected connectivity. He added that both were not just issues for metropolitan areas, but also covered rural areas in between them.

With all those projects, he said the question in the public’s mind always was “Can TxDOT deliver?”

Hale said the answer in the last two years, from his point of view, was a definite yes.

“It will be roughly 1,300 projects we have in the next period ahead,” Hale said.

He said a December workshop in Austin would be key to further planning for the next two years.

Hale then fielded questions from the audience.

The first was, would TxDOT be ready if Amazon decided to locate its second headquarters in Texas? Hale said that demographic planning within TxDOT was adequately funded to work on that issue should it happen. (National media have since reported that Amazon is leaning toward splitting this into two parts, one in New York City and the other in Washington, D.C.)

Another person said that TxDOT’s formula for rural roads was flawed on the speed limits it set. She did say that she appreciated the work that TxDOT was doing on State Highway 19 and had already done on State Highway 11.

Hale explained that studies based on the top speed of 85 percent of drivers on any particular road were used to set speed limits. He said that the agency tried to work with local governments. He mentioned rural school districts developing on farm-to-market roads.

Linda Harper Brown, another presenter at the summit, asked Hale to explain further planning.

“The (council of governments) in Dallas included two gas taxes that I just don’t see happening in their planning, along with toll road money,” she said. Because of this, she said that projects that were scheduled for more than two years in the future, for a future Texas Legislature’s budgeting, weren’t necessarily guaranteed, even if they were guaranteed on paper in TxDOT’s long-term planning.

“When you go from year two to 10, you have what we call ‘Confederate money,’” Hale acknowledged in response.  He said that if state funding for the first two years came in faster than expected, projects for the third and fourth years would be pulled into the two-year cycle. If the economy slowed, projects at the bottom of the current two-year cycle would get moved back a year, but they would not be lost, he said.

Brown later said this was “Monopoly money.” She said that funding changes for projects that were projected to be funded could move them up or down on construction priority. She strongly supports Interstate 30 expansion but said that regional leaders should not count their chickens before they hatch.

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