• I-69 Scores Victory in Passage of MAP-21 Highway Bill
In a major victory for Texans, language sought by the Alliance for I-69 Texas is included as part of the two-year $140 million MAP-21 highway funding bill approved by Congress this week.
The language changes existing law by removing the requirement that completed highway segments must be connected to an existing interstate highway before they can be added to the Interstate Highway System.
Now the law allows sections of the I-69 routes that are at interstate standard but are not connected to an existing interstate to be designated as part of the Interstate Highway System and signed.
This change in federal law will facilitate the designation and signing of about 100 miles of I-69 routes that are already at or near interstate highway standard. Completed sections of US 59, US 77 and US 281 that could be considered are in Cameron, Hidalgo, Willacy, Kleberg, Brooks, San Patricio, Jackson, Wharton, Fort Bend, Liberty, San Jacinto, Polk, Angelina and Nacogdoches Counties. The longest of these sections is more than 40 miles of existing US 77 freeway through Brownsville and Harlingen. There is a 16 mile long completed section of US 281 in the McAllen-Edinburg area.
When other upgrade projects are completed in the future it will be possible under the new law to routinely add them to the Interstate System. This approach to signing disconnected completed sections was common when the original Interstate System was being built in the 1960 and 1970s.
John Thompson, Alliance board chair, called the action a tremendous milestone and the culmination of considerable effort from the Alliance. "This is another huge step. We continue to make progress on I-69 even in these challenging times."
The Transportation Bill picked up language sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Sen. John Cornyn. Similar language was introduced in the House by Rep. Blake Farenthold and Rep. Ruben Hinojosa then supported by every member of the Texas delegation -- in a tremendous show of bipartisan support for I-69 in Texas -- and by Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
The language specifically says that a segment can become part of the Interstate Highway System if it meets interstate design standards and is planned to connect to an existing Interstate System segment within 25 years.
Sections of US 59 in Bowie, Montgomery, Harris and Fort Bend Counties that are connected to existing interstate highways are currently under review for addition to the Interstate System. The section of US 59 from the Liberty-Montgomery county line south to Loop 610 North in Houston will be the next section to be signed. It will be followed by the Southwest Freeway from Loop 610 South down to Rosenberg and then the section of US 59 inside Loop 610.
A 5-mile section of US 59 connecting to I-30 in Texarkana is being processed for designation as part of an I-69 system element. Because the primary national I-69 route extends into Louisiana south of Texarkana in Shelby County, section 118-mile section from I-30 south to Tenaha will be on the I-69 system but its specific numbering will be determined under the guidelines for interstate spur routes which carry a three-digit number using the number of the main route with an odd-number prefix such as 369 or 569.
The highway bill -- called MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century) -- runs for 27 months and will provide Texas an estimated $3.0 billion in each of the next two years. Provisions contained in Map-21 will greatly improve the ability of states to complete projects quickly.
US DOT becomes the lead agency for the environmental review process with concurrent reviews process with concurrent reviews versus the old agency by agency review protocol. The bill also establishes a timeline in which reviews must be complete or federal agencies face paying weekly fines until a project is approved. Categorical exclusions are expanded to include projects within a right of way and some smaller projects are exempted entirely from the NEPA process if they meet certain financial criteria.
Texas has benefited greatly from the TIFIA loan program and it has been expanded. Funding for the program increases to $750 million for FY2013 and to $1 billion for FY2014, up from a mere $122 million the program currently gets. It also increases the maximum share of project costs that can be funded through the TIFIA program from 33 percent to 49 percent, and includes a rural component.
With declining federal revenues, Texas has been required to look towards innovative financing to move projects forward.. Map-21 requires the Secretary of Transportation to 1) to compile best practices for working with the private sector regarding transportation facilities; 2) provide technical assistance upon request; and, 3) develop standard P3 transaction model contracts and make such model documents available to state and local governments.
Program Consolidation and Realignment
MAP-21 consolidates approximately 60 programs and structures the highway program around four core formula programs. What used to be known as the Transportation Enhancements program has been renamed Transportation Alternatives and has been realigned to give states and MPOs more flexibility with how they spend those funds. The consolidation and realignment of programs will make it more likely that limited funding is used wisely.
I-69 Delegation In Washington
During the deliberation on the new MAP-21 Highway Bill members of Congress were visited by an I-69 delegation headed by Jeff Austin, a member of the Texas Transportation Commission. Shown here making the rounds in Washington are (l-r) Charles Thomas, Larry Meyers, Commissioner Austin, Linda Thomas, Jennifer Shepard and John Thompson, Alliance board chair. Commissioner Austin took the opportunity to distribute official I-69 interstate signs to members whose congressional districts are along the route.
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