TxDOT said more than $1 billion is needed per year to bring pavements to acceptable levels. It is estimated that energy sector traffic across the state has caused $400 million in immediate roadway safety concerns such as severe edge damage on narrow roadways, deep rutting and pavement damage. The Texas Transportation Commission approved $225 million to address these issues, about one-quarter of the funding needed.
We’ve been living on borrowed money,” Chief Financial Officer James Bass said.
Because there aren’t enough resources, the commission was faced with a “difficult decision” – cut funding from the rural roads that are carrying an increased volume traffic from oil and gas production or cut from other roads.
“We are creating a caste system, a tiered system where certain things are of higher priority and others will get less resources; otherwise the system will collapse around us,” Deputy Executive Officer and Chief Engineer John Barton said. “TxDOT has not seen this kind of recommendation before.”
Many of the roads that will be converted to gravel will also have a lowered speed limit of about 30-40 mph or lower, according to Barton. Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Austin III asked if truckers would just take alternate routes and Barton said they likely would, which would then lead to those roads deteriorating as well. Once that happens, those roads will also be converted to gravel and restricted.
“It’s something we can try to enforce, but we don’t have the manpower to enforce speed limits all the time,” Live Oak County Sheriff Larry Busby said. “People should drive slower because it is a gravel road, and if it’s posted at a lower speed limit, then we’ll enforce it.”
Barton said the 83 centerline miles of roads to be converted to gravel will rise over the next several months to include more roads.
According to Barton, the savings of converting roads to gravel versus maintaining them as paved roads is a seven to one ratio.
Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Moseley said 1,200 trucks are needed for each oil well, and 300 are needed per year to carry away crude oil. The 1,200 trucks are equivalent to 8 million passenger vehicles.
“These economic benefits, although tremendous, are creating traffic demands that are overwhelming some parts of our transportation system,” Barton said.
According to TxDOT, the most impacted counties with significant crash increases are Goliad, Frio, Willacy, McMullen and Winkler. Since fiscal year 2008, crashes have increased by 1,422 percent in Goliad, 788 percent in Frio, 696 percent in Wallacy, 695 percent in McMullen and 616 percent in Winkler.
Other counties impacted by the energy boom have seen more than 250 percent increases in traffic volumes, according to Barton.
“This is a stark reminder that in areas prior to this tremendous economic boom saw little traffic and, consequently, little safety risk,” Barton said. Over the last five years, however, they have seen significant percent increases.”
Karnes, LaSalle, Hansford, Zavala and Dimmit are showing the most deterioration in road conditions, ranging from 14.1-32.6 percent since FY 2010. TxDOT states that some areas of the road system are being completely consumed. They predict road deterioration trends to continue for the next 10-15 years.
Barton said the system is stressed beyond its intended design with pavements deteriorating at a “substantial rate.” He said Karnes County is the epicenter, and overall, the repairs needed across the state are “unprecedented and expensive” to address.
“It’s not something we can overcome without additional resources,” Barton said.
Another possible option to at least lower the overall cost of the roads is for the state to hand over some roads to nearby cities to fund.
Many of the roads in the rural network such as farm-to-market and ranch-to-market roads were built to lowered weight standards of 58,000 pounds but need to carry 80,000 pounds.
TxDOT’s planned approach to addressing the issue includes a traffic impact analysis requirement for all new commercial driveway permits, performing a site-specific engineering analysis based on the TIA, and not issuing permits until identified safety concerns are addressed. Existing time lines and appeals processes will still apply, a central office group will be created to assist districts, and a guidance document will be developed to assist in preparing TIAs for rural areas.
Barton said there are more than 1,500 access requests associated with commercial activities each year.
Rural TIAs will have to address existing roadway characteristics, proposed driveway characteristics and usage, environmental and hydraulic issues, and proposed mitigation efforts.
Preliminary reviews for load-posted roads include 51 highway segments across seven districts with more than 518 centerline miles.
Preliminary reviews for width-restricted roads include 56 highway segments across nine districts with more than 517 centerline miles.
Barton said some of these roads are only 16 feet wide but are used by vehicles wider than eight feet. When this occurs, oncoming traffic has to drive off the road, and this leads to further deterioration.
Preliminary reviews for converting to unpaved surfaces include 12 highway segments across three districts with more than 83 centerline miles.
Live Oak County has six roads impacted by this decision, and McMullen County has one.
In Live Oak County, six centerline miles of Interstate 37 frontage roads from FM 99 south three miles to the end of maintenance will be converted to gravel.
Sheriff Busby said this will likely improve safety on the road because it’s in bad condition and has potholes.
In Live Oak County, lowered weight restrictions and loads will be limited to less than 10 feet for:
• 14.1 centerline miles of FM 882 from Highway 72 to FM 626
• Six centerline miles of FM 1091 from FM 99 east three miles to the end of maintenance
• 10.4 centerline miles of FM 2049 from I-37 to Highway 72
• 13.68 centerline miles of FM 99 from the McMullen County line to the Atascosa County line
I-37 frontage roads in Live Oak County from Highway 72 to U.S. 59 will have a lowered weight limit for 25.93 miles.
In McMullen County, 6.91 centerline miles of FM 791 will have width restrictions of less than 10 feet from Highway 16 to the Atascosa County line.
Busby said the sheriff’s department does not have the equipment needed to enforce weight and width restrictions, so responsibility for that will largely fall onto DPS.
DPS was unavailable for comment in time for press.