June 27--SAN ANTONIO -- With a focus on easing traffic on some of the state's most congested roads, the Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday doled out millions of dollars for public transit, including $35 million to VIA.
VIA Metropolitan Transit says the money will go toward bus facilities and buses, including expansion of its compressed natural gas fleet.
Some of it will likely pay for improvements to West Side Multimodal and Robert Thompson transit centers on either side of downtown, said Jeffrey Arndt, VIA's president and CEO.
"VIA ... is keenly focused on transformation of our transit system into a modern multimodal transit system that can serve the community and provide choices," Arndt said, addressing the commission.
It was a landmark day for public transit and multimodal initiatives, particularly because TxDOT is known more for building roads.
El Paso received $97 million for its planned streetcar system; Austin received $50 million for its MetroRail commuter rail line; Dallas Area Rapid Transit was awarded $60 million for improvements to its red and blue light rail lines; and Houston received $25 million to help construct a dedicated bus lane on Loop 610.
Overall, the commission authorized a little more than $900 million for projects across the state, including highways and roads, said Marc Williams, TxDOT's director of planning.
The goal of the transit initiative is to help reduce congestion on highways, particularly those on state's Top 100 congested roads list.
In the case of the Alamo City, investing in buses and transit center improvements downtown, "we hope to provide further mobility options for people, to hopefully get them off some of the more congested highways, like I-35 going through San Antonio," Williams said.
The money must go to bus and transit center improvements, as part an agreement that VIA will work out with TxDOT, Arndt said.
VIA will decide specifically where the money should go, but Arndt said the money can't pay for projects not outlined in the agreement -- for example, the agency could not spend it on its contentious downtown streetcar system.
Money could also be spent on a Park & Ride facility off U.S. 281 and Stone Oak Parkway, for buying more CNG buses -- including articulated, 60-foot-long buses -- and to improve bus shelters and other facilities.
VIA will start replacing its bus fleet in the next several years.
Thursday's vote represents the latest funding collaboration between TxDOT and VIA in recent years.
TxDOT previously has committed $92 million to VIA's planned streetcar system, a key part of that project's funding.
However, in that case, TxDOT took money it originally had allocated for adding lanes to Loop 1604 and swapped it with dollars that Bexar County had put toward the proposed streetcar. TxDOT essentially broke even.
More recently, VIA, through its sister organization the Advanced Transportation District, committed $48 million to a TxDOT project to add a mix of toll and nontoll lanes to U.S. 281; the VIA money will go to the nontoll lanes.
The $35 million for bus services is guaranteed, Williams said, and could come from a variety of sources, including the Texas Mobility Fund or other federal funding categories. TxDOT will reimburse VIA, he said.
Arndt saw the commission's decision to fund VIA bus services as another example of TxDOT embracing a multimodal system.
"I really am grateful to the commission and really happy they are taking the approach that we have to use all the tools in our toolbox to meet the mobility needs of our population," Arndt said.
Multimodal -- transportation that considers various modes of moving, not just cars and trucks -- was a word repeated frequently Thursday, as speakers expressed delight that TxDOT was funding different kinds of travel.
Commission Chairman Ted Houghton noted that Commissioner Jeff Moseley has said TxDOT needs to focus on being exactly that -- an overall transportation department.
"This is the first down payment," Houghton said.
But amid the laudatory comments, concerns were raised Thursday that some projects received fast-tracked funding and were added too quickly to the state's 10-year Unified Transportation Program.
"I think we don't have enough proper debate and discussion on projects in public in advance of putting them on a list like this," said transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff, who abstained from the vote because of his previous involvement with one of the funded projects.
State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who was recently named chairman of a select committee on transportation funding, echoed Vandergriff as he voiced his unease about the funding process.
Although Pickett supports El Paso's streetcar, he believes the money should come from federal sources, not state dollars that could be used for what he says are more pressing transportation needs in that city.
"This is like the old days of TxDOT where you had to go beg to get anything," Pickett said after the meeting. "If you have political clout, you can get them to amend the UTP to move your project up and give it priority when there's not a vetting and there's not a holistic picture."
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