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Counties to get help from state to repair roads

By chirst
June 6, 2013 at 1:06 a.m.
Updated June 7, 2013 at 1:07 a.m.

A truck navigates down the remains of the pavement in the middle of Cheapside Road in DeWitt County on Wednesday evening. The pavement has been worn away on the road to the point where only a lane big enough for a single vehicle is left on the two-way road.

Daryl Fowler spent the past three months waking up in the middle of the night to scribble on a whiteboard.

The DeWitt County judge worked on, threw out and reworked possible formulas to allocate state money to repair county roads damaged by oil and gas traffic.

But just four days before the deadline to get Senate Bill 1747 passed by the 83rd Texas Legislature, it all seemed to fall apart.

Sen. Carlos Uresti, of District 19, author of SB 1747, fought to keep the bill he had made his priority for the session from dying.

"There was a lot of fear - in the last 96 hours of the session, we went from asking for $400 million to getting $225 million, back to almost nothing, and then finally getting everyone on board," Uresti said.

The bill, which will provide $225 million for counties affected by oil and gas traffic passed on the last day. The fund allocation will be based on a formula looking at the the number of wells in a county, the number of injection wells in a county, the amount of severance tax the county sent to the state and how many truck permits have been granted.

The biggest challenge, Uresti said, was convincing other districts that the damage to the county roads are a state problem - a novel idea that had not been considered.

"We had never done this before at this level, and I think we made a pretty good case that if we are going to continue to prosper, we have to protect the golden goose. ... The county roads become that linchpin from the highways to the well. And if that linchpin falls apart and becomes the weakest link, then everything is gone," Uresti said.

The state's Rainy Day Fund is mostly funded by oil and gas severance taxes. In 2007, before the Eagle Ford Shale boom, the Rainy Day Fund was just more than $1 billion. Today, the total is more than $8 billion, according to information from the State Comptroller's Office.

"Beginning last year, I began to hone in on the message - and repeated it until I was blue in the face - that the state does have a responsibility here because the state is reaping a total cost-free reward from the production and the drilling, which provides the tax that goes into the treasury, and that is what is causing the damage," Fowler said. "But there were a lot of obstacles."

Fowler has 340 miles of county road affected by oil and gas traffic. According to a study done by Naismith Engineering, a consulting firm in Texas, it will cost DeWitt County $80,000 per mile to maintain the roads - more than $27 million each year.

To widen the roads and make them safer for tractor-trailers to travel on, it would cost DeWitt County more than $400 million, money that is simply not in the budget.

Karnes County Judge Barbara Najvar Shaw said she is in the same position.

Shaw said her need is simple - she needs to keep the roads passable.

"The main goal is to keep the school bus and ambulance passable. We have to make sure public service can get out to people, but we are putting our ambulances and our school buses at risk when they drive down the road. Our roads are washed out, they are just not passable," Shaw said, saying Karnes County also will undergo a study from Naismith Engineering to predict the cost of repairing the roads.

Her current estimate is a cost of at least $300 million to get her roads up to par.

"We have built that Rainy Day Fund tremendously for them. ... And the state - they are looking for a cash cow. We were a good cash cow," Shaw said, hopeful that SB 1747 will set a precedent for more funding, especially as more counties experience oil and gas booms.

Even Victoria County could benefit from the bill, said Victoria Commissioner for Precinct 3 Gary Burns, but officials won't know how much money the county is eligible for until after a post-legislative conference for county judges and commissioners next week.

The bill will require counties receiving money to match the funds by varying percentages and also allows counties to set up reinvestment zones to dedicate increased revenue to road projects in that zone.

Another $225 million was allocated to the Texas Department of Transportation to improve roads.

Gov. Rick Perry has until June 16 to sign the bill, which then would go into effect Sept 1.

"This was never intended to be for Eagle Ford Shale counties only; it was meant to be groundbreaking and applicable statewide," Fowler said. "Bill 1747 is a clean crafted bill that, implemented effectively, will be a test model for other states, and we are very pleased."

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