DALLAS Texas lawmakers want highway officials to find a way to use $250 million of unexpected vehicle registration fees to reverse a plan calling for the conversion of 83 miles of paved state roads to gravel.
State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said the money could be made available to the Texas Department of Transportation if it would develop a list of road restoration projects to be funded with the money and hold public hearings before proceeding with any additional conversions.
“I’m prepared today to appropriate that money to address this specific need,” Williams said at the first meeting Tuesday of the newly created Senate Select Committee on Transportation Funding.
Thomas Galvan of the Legislative Budget Board told the committee that vehicle registration fees totaled $250 million more than expected when the fiscal 2014-15 budget was approved by the Legislature in May. The budget bill stipulated that TxDOT could spend unappropriated money in the state highway fund with approval by Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislative Budget Board.
TxDOT announced in August that it would stop maintaining the deteriorating paved roads and replace them with high-end gravel roads, then temporarily suspended the effort until the end of October with only two of the projects completed.
Gravel roads would be safer and more cost-effective than keeping up the existing roads, TxDOT said, but the conversion plan was unpopular with local and state elected officials in the affected counties in south and west Texas.
The high-end gravel roads would accommodate heavy truck traffic better than crumbling pavement, said TxDOT executive director Phil Wilson, and the gravel roads can be converted back to paved once the current boom in oil and gas drilling slackens.
The rural farm-to-market roads are handling more traffic and heavier trucks than they were ever intended to serve, Wilson said.
“These roads were designed to handle 50 to 100 cars a day,” he told the committee. “The daily traffic count on some of them now is up to 700 to 800 trucks, each of which can weigh up to 80,000 pounds.”
The trucks serving the increased drilling activity in west and south Texas are pulverizing the paved roads that often are too narrow for the large vehicles, Wilson said.
It takes 1,300 trucks to hydraulically fracture a single well in the Eagle Ford oil and gas area southwest of San Antonio, Wilson said, and hundreds of wells are drilled each year.
“The Eagle Ford activity is an extraordinary blessing for this state that presents us with extraordinary challenges,” Wilson said.
The $250 million offered by Williams would not be sufficient to eliminate the need to convert some paved roads to gravel, said TxDOT deputy executive director John Barton.
“If they get to the point where it’s unsafe for the public without converting them, we will convert them,” Barton said.
Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, urged TxDOT to extend the two-month moratorium and work with local officials to prevent further gravel road conversions.