Counties Prioritize Transportation Needs
Officials, Voters Value Road Safety, Accessibility
By Julie Anderson, Editor
As part of its mission statement, the Collin County Engineering Department offers a commitment “to plan and implement a superior inter-modal transportation infrastructure” based on the premise that “a superior transportation infrastructure will provide citizens of Collin County with a better quality of life by alleviating traffic congestion, moving people and goods efficiently, and contributing to a stable and competitive economy.”
The need for high quality roads is not a disputable matter. However, technically speaking, when it comes to Texas county government the construction and maintenance of county roads are discretionary services. When it comes to writing the county budget, Commissioner Courts have no choice: pay for state-mandated services and then hope enough is left to fund discretionary items, such as libraries, community centers and roads.
The slower-than-expected recovery from the latest oil slump and the resulting decrease in values has some counties in a current budgetary bind. Others have been caught up in the spiraling expenses of unfunded mandates with seemingly no relief in sight.
So when it comes to prioritizing discretionary items, where do county roads fall in the mix? According to Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston, they are a top priority.
When working on last year’s county budget, Johnston noted the immediate need for a long-term plan to address the county road system. Despite two years of lower appraisal values, “I started thinking of ways to both take care of my budget and county infrastructure at the same time.”
During a budget workshop meeting, Johnston broached the topic of a bond issue to fund road and bridge initiatives, and then he allowed time for the idea to sink in. At the next budget workshop the decision was made to move forward, and on Nov. 8, 2016, Anderson County voters passed a $20 million bond issue dedicated to county roads and bridges.
“The projects include problem drainage issues that we are fixing as we work on the roads,” Johnston detailed. “By addressing these problems with enough money to be able to fix the problem instead of putting a Band-Aid on, we will get on top of the situation and keep it in good shape for years to come.”
Many of the roads in Anderson County have not been reworked from the ground up in the last 25 to 30 years, the Judge specified. The Commissioners Court hopes to repair more than 350 miles of the county’s 1,000 mile road system.
“With the county keeping our roads in top shape, it will bring an economic benefit to Anderson County through reduced repairs to vehicles traveling our roads and hopefully increased property values,” Johnston offered. “It will also address safety issues that we have had on some of our roads.”
The Anderson County road budget for 2017 is $4,521,738 plus $7 million of the $20 million bond issue, Johnston reported. The plan is to keep the road budget the same for fiscal year 2018, if values allow.
“We as a Commissioners Court believe very strongly, as do the citizens who approved our bond issue, that we should keep the infrastructure of the county in good shape,” Johnston summarized.
While Anderson County voters were casting ballots for their $20 million bond proposal, Parker County voters were considering a $76.2 million bond issue to fund transportation projects across the county including new highways, wider roads, realigned intersections and improved stormwater drainage; the measure passed with 58.14 percent of the vote.
“Parker County Commissioners and county staff have spent the past year listening to the input of residents and businesses to identify your transportation needs,” the county shared on its transportation website, http://parkercountytransportation.com/. “They have selected these 19 projects with the goals of improving safety, reducing congestion and providing more convenient connections. These efforts follow the success of the 2008 Transportation Bond Program, which resulted in more than 25 completed projects.” Readers are then invited to explore the projects on the website by clicking on individual precincts or on links that detail specific endeavors.
Parker County has a Lateral Road Tax that is separate from the Transportation Bond funds, explained Parker County Judge Mark Riley. That money is divided among the four precincts and totals $13,066,028 for the 2016-17 fiscal year. The overall road budget for 2016-17 is over a half-million dollars more than the 2016-15 fiscal year, which totaled $12,499,895.
“That increase came from an increase in new value added to the tax rolls,” Riley offered.
The County Judge is a firm believer in using partnerships to enhance his county’s transportation initiatives, and as chairman of the Regional Transportation Council, Riley has fostered relationships throughout the region with local entities including cities and school districts.
“Our success is because of the partnerships we have built throughout the region,” Riley declared. “Our 2008 Transportation Bond was for $80 million. We were able to leverage that $80 million with an additional $73 million from state and regional sources. Perhaps our biggest success story is the fact that we finished all of our 2008 Transportation Bond projects on time and under budget.
“The fact that our voters approved another $76.2 million bond eight years after the first one was approved underscores the partnership we have with the citizens of Parker County,” Riley declared.
The Mission of Precinct 4
Now in his second term as Hidalgo County Commissioner, Joseph Palacios has completed over 85 drainage and road projects. In fact, as part of his mission statement, Palacios offers the following on his county webpage: “Precinct 4 aims to enhance the quality of life of our community by building, maintaining and improving roads, bridges and drainage systems.” Taking it a step further, the Commissioner offers a link to his Road and Bridge Department, which includes the following:
Mobile Community with Efficient and Well-Maintained Roadways: Precinct 4 is evaluating current urban and rural roadways and strategically planning for future roadway projects and enhanced traffic flow that connect the mobility of communities more effectively. The precinct is charged with ensuring that all safety measures are taken with the traffic control department. The department takes preventive maintenance measures to increase the life span of rural roadways with ongoing overlay projects.
Palacios had all hands on deck to recently complete his Brushline Road project, partially funded by a Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) County Energy Transportation Reinvestment Zone Grant.
The project was initiated to reduce traffic and increase emergency response east of Hidalgo County and created a new corridor running parallel to Expressway 281. The effort entailed construction of a 3.5 mile roadway adjacent to 281 to provide for an alternate route for traffic mobility and emergency services.
Collin County is a “land of contrasts,” shared Collin County Commissioner Duncan Webb. Almost a million people live in Collin County, with the southwestern part of the county being a densely populated urban area; the northeast portion of the county is still rural and undeveloped.
Collin County operates under a unit road system, with the Collin County Public Works Department overseeing the county roads, explained Jon Kleinheksel, director of public works.
Similar to Hidalgo County, Collin County’s general mission statement references commitment to infrastructure, and the county’s Public Works webpage goes into further detail:
- Provide the citizens of Collin County the safest driving conditions possible through proficient construction and maintenance of all county roads and bridges.
- Maintain good public relations by providing information in a helpful and informative manner.
- Uphold the policies approved by the Commissioners Court.
- Continuously strive for construction and maintenance improvements through use of new methods and materials.
- And our newest mission…to asphalt every mile of county road within 10 years.
“We have 60 miles remaining to upgrade,” Kleinheksel reported. Collin County Public Works oversees approximately 775 miles of county roads with an annual budget of about $19 million.
Kleinheksel credits the Collin County Commissioners Court with giving his department “all the tools, funding and direction to maintain pace with the incredible growth Collin County has experienced the past decade or so.”
“The Commissioners Court places a strong priority on roads,” echoed Clarence Daugherty, P.E., director of engineering.
Unlike some counties across the state, Collin County tax values have increased dramatically for the last two years, approximately 10 percent per year, Webb reported.
“Our primary challenge is getting infrastructure in place and funded before the growth and development make it impossible to do so,” he continued.
Collin County is working with TxDOT, the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) and the Dallas Regional Mobility Coalition to ensure the county’s infrastructure will match the explosive growth.
Last year, the Collin County Planning Board put together a Transportation Bond Committee which has in turn developed a presentation titled “Moving Forward: Funding Future Mobility in Collin County.” The committee is seeking to educate other government entities and the public on:
- projected population growth in Collin County;
- expected traffic to support the population; and
- the need for Limited Access Roadways (LARs) to carry the forecast traffic.
In another education initiative, the Collin County Public Information office has been sharing feature stories on its website detailing the county’s strategies to handle projected growth, http://www.collincountytx.gov/public_information As shared in the article titled Planning for Tomorrow’s Transportation Today, “Just in the last year, our County Commissioners Court has considered and discussed transportation issues over 200 times. That’s more than four times per Court session. And that’s more than any other subject taken up by the Court in a given year.”
Webb represents the county on the NCTCOG’s Regional Transportation Council, a 44-member transportation policy body that includes local elected or appointed officials from NCTCOG’s 16-county region and representatives from each of the area’s transportation providers.
Webb also sits on the Dallas Regional Mobility Coalition, a transportation advocacy group comprised of cities, counties and transportation agencies in a five-county region (Dallas, Denton, Collin, Rockwall and Ellis) with a primary mission to advance critical mobility projects through advocacy efforts with state and federal elected officials and regional transportation agencies.