DALLAS -- Texas highway officials tapped the brakes on a proposal to turn over to cities the upkeep of 2,000 miles of urban state roads as more than a dozen state and local officials protested the plan Thursday to the Texas Transportation Commission.

No action was taken on the turnback proposal by the highway commissioners as the executive director of Texas Department of Transportation stressed the voluntary aspect of the maintenance shift.

TxDOT head Phil Wilson said transferring maintenance duties for 1,897 miles of urban roads would save the state $165 million a year, and allow the department to focus on the state highway system.

The maintenance turnover was always seen by TxDOT as a voluntary system, Wilson said. The misperception of it as an unfunded mandate is based on a misunderstanding that TxDOT would impose the maintenance shift unilaterally, Wilson told the five-member panel.

“We acted in good faith with some groups that decided to define the message for us instead of having a conversation like we’re having today,” Wilson said.

The turnback is being proposed as a voluntary participation program, Wilson said, with cities and counties asking to take part.

The Aug. 13 letter from Wilson to officials in 59 urban areas outlining the proposal calls it a cooperative effort, but does not say participation would be voluntary and at the request of local officials.

TxDOT should have made it clear from the outset that the maintenance turnback would be voluntary, said Commissioner Victor Vandergriff. The meeting was “a colossal waste of time,” he said.

“I think we were wrong,” Vandergriff said. “We could have accomplished a lot more, faster, and better.”

Fort Worth officials were shocked by the cost of the turnback proposal, said Mayor Betsy Price. The city cannot afford to take over maintenance on those roads, she said.

“The bare-minimum estimate to maintain those roads in Fort Worth is $11 million,” Price said. “We want you to understand this is simply not a solution that the citizens of Fort Worth can afford nor will they afford,” Price said.

“Texas must step up to plate and take care of the state’s transportation needs,” Price said.

“Cities need to be partners with state government, not its ATM machines,” said Mayor John Monaco of the Dallas suburb of Mesquite.

“If this $165 million shift is allowed to occur, we will be starting down a dark and treacherous course of underfunded state government turning to cities to pay for state services,” he said.

State lawmakers joined with local officials in the attack on the TxDOT proposal.

Rep. Charles Anderson, R-Waco, called it “the mother of all unfunded mandates” and Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, said it would set “a dangerous precedent.”

Shifting maintenance costs for state roads to cities and counties is not the solution to the under-funding of TxDOT by the Legislature, said Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler.

“All this does is take the problem from the state level to the local level,” he said. “It’s harder for cities to deal with this problem than it is for us at the state level.”

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