Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Fading Funding

Project Dollars in Question
Some El Paso development and transportation projects may be in danger due to reversed or unrealized state funding. Four high profile projects have recently been delayed or endangered due to state tax dollars that have been reallocated or simply haven’t materialized.

Bike Share Program

Earlier this month, local officials were dealt a blow when the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) decided not to provide state funding for a city bike sharing program. The City of El Paso and the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) had already approved funds to go toward the program which would create a fleet of bicycles that residents of central and downtown El Paso could rent and use.

A bike share rental station in Montreal
holds up to ten bicycles. (City of El Paso)
The City and UTEP had expected TXDOT to approve at least $1.6 million for the project, with the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority (CRRMA) managing creation of the program. But during the authority’s August 14, 2013 meeting, executive director Raymond Telles told board members that TXDOT had decided not to provide the funding which would have come from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Program run by TXDOT.

In a prepared statement published in the El Paso Times, TXDOT officials stated, “We continue to look at the most efficient ways to address air quality with limited funding. TxDOT plans to coordinate conversations with transportation partners to garner more information on how we can dedicate those limited funds to important congestion-mitigation projects around the state."

City of El Paso and UTEP officials had hoped to create 20 rental stations where residents could use a credit card to rent a bicycle. Each station would have 10 bikes to start. Now, the program’s future is uncertain. Part of the $400,000 already approved for the program, $274,000 that comes from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, must be used by year’s end, according to Telles.

TXDOT recently approved funding to expand a similar program in Fort Worth. The Forth Worth Bike Sharing Program received $554,610 to add 10 stations and 100 bicycles to its fleet.

Artspace Lofts

An affordable housing project for artists planned for downtown El Paso was denied state funds last month. The Artspace project had applied for $1.077 million a year for ten years in housing credits from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA), the state agency which awards federal tax credits from the Housing Tax Credit Program.

The Artspace Lofts were ranked lowest in the “Urban” group out of six area projects eligible for credits. Projects are ranked by TDHCA staff in different categories such as Development Cost per Square Foot and Senator/Rep Letters. Artspace ranked high in the Quantifiable Community Participation section, but received zero points in the Development Cost category.

Eric Pearson, President of the El Paso Community Foundation, the local group spearheading the project, told El Diario de El Paso that he was disappointed in the result but hopes that the Artspace Lofts will be selected next year.

If built, the project will bring 51 affordable live/work units in a five-story building to the corner of Missouri Avenue and Oregon Street, next to the downtown Doubletree Hotel. City officials donated the land for the project last year to the El Paso Community Foundation.

Streetcar Project

In May of 2012, transportation officials indicated that $90 million would be made available for a streetcar project in El Paso as long as the City paid for and completed an engineering and environmental study. El Paso City Council jumped at the opportunity and gave the study the green light.
This historic photo shows streetcars in use last century. (EPCC)

Now, the study has been completed, but the state is mum on the promised dollars. Transportation commissioner Ted Houghton has made no recent comments on the project or potential funding. The project is now shelved as City officials wait for further word from the State.

The study is good for a few years, and Council has already approved the streetcar route. City officials and residents alike will now have to wait and see if the State keeps its end of the deal.

Franklin Mountains State Park Entrance

The City and State have been discussing building a new entrance to Franklin Mountains State Park for years as the plan to widen Loop 375 came into view and is currently under construction. City officials and residents alike thought integrating the new entrance into the construction of Loop 375 made sense since the entrance will intersect with the new freeway lanes.

Schematic concept of a new Franklin Mountains
State Park interchange and entrance. (Texas Parks
and Wildlife)
Months ago, though, TXDOT officials recommended that the project funding be allocated to other, more pressing projects. The El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) agreed and has left the project on its long term project list, refusing to move the project to the short term list as recently as last month. Short term designation would have most likely meant construction by 2016.

Transportation officials have continually stated that the project is not dead and that funding will be allocated at the appropriate time. Expect the debate on the design of the entrance/interchange to join in with the conversation on timing.

Projects Pending

To be sure, El Paso has not seen a shortage of state-funded projects the last few years, mainly in the transportation arena. From the Americas Interchange to Loop 375 freeway lanes in west and northeast El Paso, residents can attest to transportation spending.

And even more projects are on the horizon, including the massive $600 million Border Highway West project that will extend Loop 375 seven miles from downtown El Paso to the city’s west side.

Ultimately, State officials will decide the timeliness and priority of these planned projects.