Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe is frustrated that the environmental review process for FM 110 still isn’t complete after seven years. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
The Hays County Commissioners Court last week called for reforms to state and federal road project review processes, which commissioners said have escalated project costs and endangered travelers.
Commissioners unanimously approved a strongly-worded resolution that called the current process for securing state environmental approval of road projects “arduous and protracted with unnecessary and excessive delays.” Commissioners will present the resolution to state legislators.
Commissioners singled out the proposed FM 1626 project in particular, which the county submitted to the state for environmental review in 2003. In 2006, the county entered into a pass-through finance agreement with the state to acquire reimbursements to accelerate the development and construction of several road improvements, including the expansion of FM 1626 from FM 2770 to Brodie Lane, and the FM 110 project in San Marcos.
FM 1626 connects northwestern Hays County with southwestern Travis County. Plagued with traffic even 10 years ago, the road has not expanded with increasing population in the northern reaches of the Hays CISD.
“The (FM 1626) project still has not been environmentally cleared, and with an anticipated April 2011 approval date, it will have taken TxDOT (the Texas Department of Transportation) between seven and eight years to environmentally clear the project, during which time more accidents and fatalities on this roadway have occurred, and project costs have continued to increase,” the resolution says.
A spokesperson for TxDOT, responding to the resolution, said his agency will approve the FM 1626 project after TxDOT, in turn, secures approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Projects proposed for state and/or federal funding require a complex review process involving multiple agencies that can take years to complete. The process involves determining how a proposed roadway will affect flora, fauna, people, and cultural/historical resources, among other considerations. The USFWS typically gets involved in the process when endangered species may be affected by a project.
In the resolution, commissioners said the state’s environmental review process has resulted in local public officials unable to meet obligations to their constituents, who have approved property taxes for the projects only to encounter needlessly-uncertain development and construction deadlines.
“TxDOT is partnering with the Federal Highway Administration to make more efficient and effective the environmental analysis, coordination, review and approval process,” said TxDOT spokesperson Mark Cross. “The goal is to reduce overall project development time by 50 percent. TxDOT has implemented many improvements in the environmental analysis, coordination, review and approval process including over the past three years … Efforts continue to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the process through the development of revised processes, new and updated standards and procedures, new program level studies, and updated and new agreements.”
The county’s aforementioned resolution says the state’s environmental review process “does not address project priorities, meaningful deadlines, or accountability by TxDOT’s Environmental Affairs Division.” Among the requested reforms to the environmental review process are a requirement for “early project scheduling” to include “statutory deadlines,” all elements of the environmental review process that cannot be changed without the consent of the local project sponsor.
Cross said it is probably not very realistic to expect time lines and deadlines to be applied to projects, given the complexities involved between the time a project is proposed and the time it enters the construction phase.
“You don’t know what you’re going to run into down the road when you’re trying to complete these federal and state requirements to look at the projects,” Cross said. “It calls for a lot of coordination between state agencies and federal agencies.”
Cross said the availability of local funding for a project does not accelerate the environmental review process. Cross said changes in the composition of the Texas Transportation Commission or other normal personnel changes do not affect the length of time it takes to complete the environmental review process.
“Of course, somebody could die who’s working on a project that has a role in one of the agencies that’s looking at this environmental review,” Cross said. “It may get held up a couple weeks or whatever because they have to put someone else on the project.”
Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) expressed frustration at the amount of time it has taken to get environmental clearance for the first segment of FM 110, the proposed loop east of Interstate-35 that would connect the interstate at McCarty Road on the south side of San Marcos to the interstate at Yarrington Road north of San Marcos. The environmental review process for the project began in 2004 and has yet to be concluded. However, the ball is in the county’s court at the moment, said TxDOT Austin District Engineer Carlos Lopez.
The City of San Marcos opted to fund part of the county’s portion of FM 110, because many city officials and residents considered McCarty Lane to be unsafe and inappropriate as a main thoroughfare to San Marcos High School. The high school opened on Old Bastrop Highway on the east side of town in 2007.
Because the city took on a portion of the FM 110 project, the aforementioned pass-through finance agreement must be renegotiated, which may result in the loss of federal reimbursement dollars to the county. Lopez declined to predict how much money may be lost to the county. County officials in June estimated the loss of reimbursement funds could total $4 million.
In July, Ingalsbe said she would be willing to reduce the county’s debt issuance debt issuance for the project to compensate. Ingalsbe noted that the City of San Marcos invested more than $9 million in the project.
“That certainly would account for much more than we would possibly be losing,” Ingalsbe said.
After the county revises environmental review documents to account for the city’s work on FM 110, the documents will be submitted to TxDOT. The document will be sent to the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) for review if TxDOT approves the document. If the FHA approves the document, the agency will issue a letter of authority qualifying the FM 110 project for federal funds.
A version of the resolution passed by Hays County commissioners was presented to 37 counties at the Conference of Urban Counties meeting last month. Many of the counties are expected to adopt the resolution.Email | Print