DALLAS - With growth coming from the world's largest Army post, El Paso, Tex., is moving toward a $1 billion comprehensive mobility plan that would complete a freeway loop around the city, add a rapid transit system, and build the first two toll roads in the area.
After winning approval from the El Paso City Council on Tuesday, the plan goes before the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization today. Final approval is expected from the Texas Transportation Commission on Aug. 28.
"This is bigger than anything we've ever done before," said Chuck Berry, chief district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation. "This is also the first time we've had four entities co-operating on a mobility plan, and that's a big deal."
The plan identifies 15 projects, with a goal of getting many under contract within three years.
"It accelerates and advances the bid dates," Berry said. "We're proposing to advance an 11-year project schedule over the next three years."
The four partners are the city, TxDOT, the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority.
The RMA, created by the City Council in 2006 to tap the kind of funding that other metropolitan areas have used for toll projects, would serve as toll-road developer.About half the funding for the toll projects has been identified, and legislation may be needed from the next session of the Texas Legislature before the RMA could contemplate a bond issue, Berry said.
"We've set the bar high for this RMA by creating a board with people who do business or finance for a living," Berry said. "The thinking is that maybe some of them can come up with some financing plan that we haven't thought of."
Under SB 792, passed by the Legislature last year, RMAs have the right of first refusal on any toll projects in their area. If the RMA passes on a project, it can be bid out to private developers after a two-year moratorium on such projects lapses next year.
The mobility plan calls for Camino Real RMA to complete the long, narrow Loop 375 around the city with a four-lane tollway expected to cost about $225 million and to build toll lanes on the loop and on Intestate 10 with a connector at a cost of about $425 million. The RMA is also expected to acquire right-of-way for Northeast Parkway toll road for about $30 million.
In addition to road projects, the city would combine state, local, and federal funds to create a bus rapid-transit system within three years that would carry passengers from the international port of entry downtown to the University of Texas at El Paso and beyond.
The mobility plan allocates $27 million for the transit system on Mesa Street from UTEP to Hueco Club Park.
El Paso Mayor John Cook went to Washington in April to discuss the system with federal transit officials and lawmakers from Texas. The system, which would be operated by the city's Sun Metro authority, would be less costly than light rail while providing comparable comfort, speed and efficiency on dedicated lanes that bypass city traffic, officials say.
The mobility plan and the accelerated bidding schedule are motivated in part by the expansion of Fort Bliss, the world's largest Army post, under the base realignment and closure process. With an estimated 10,000 troops scheduled to be reassigned to the post, the added population is expected to reach 25,000 with dependents included.
In the past year, vehicle registrations have grown by 16%, adding pressure to the border city's infrastructure.