County could find funding for transportation projects through Regional Mobility Authority
Bruce Alsobrook | News-Telegram Editor

Nov. 14, 2006 - Local officials are exploring the creation of a regional transportation group that could speed up road construction and other projects in a four-county area.

Hopkins County is already affiliated with Hunt, Lamar and Delta counties in the North East Texas Mobility Council, a group that promotes area transportation issues.

But Sulphur Springs City Manager Marc Maxwell has now been named to a subcomittee charged with refining the language on a petition to create a four-county Regional Mobility Authority.

RMAs can do a lot more than just talk about road projects — they have a stronger voice in what transportation projects are approved by the state, are eligible for special state funding, and can accrue debt for long-range projects.

Historically, communities have had to lobby to get a local project included in the Texas Department of Transportation's highway project plan, then wait for the funding to come available, which can mean years of delay.

RMAs can get projects started sooner and built with more local control. Maxwell described RMAs as something akin to "a mini-TxDoT."

"We can set our own priorities regionally," explained Maxwell. "We would have a lot of say in our projects."

Additionally, RMAs are eligible for a new form of funding, called "Pass-Through Toll Financing." Essentially, communities fund the up-front costs for building a state highway project, with the state partially reimbursing the community over time by paying a fee for each vehicle that uses the road.

And that's another reason for forming a regional authority, Maxwell explained.

"There's only so much money for pass-through financing," said Maxwell. In other words, when it's gone, it's gone for good.

Hopkins County Judge Cletis Millsap, who is chairman of NETMOB, said the creation of an RMA could mean money for a number of local projects — railroad improvements, widening State Highway 154 to Wood County, and even shoulder improvements on State Highway 11, which he puts on his "high priority list."

"It's the only way to get funding for long-term transportation infrastructure improvements," he said.

The downside is this: Who pays for a project that doesn't benefit everyone?

For example, one of the projects that NETMOB members Lamar and Hunt counties have set as a high priority is making State Highway 24 a four-lane road all the way from Greenville to Paris

"We don't see just a whole lot of benefit from that for us [in Hopkins County], just as they couldn't make an argument for expanding Highway 11," Maxwell said.

Other RMAs have solved that problem by using interlocal agreements that spell out exactly who pays what for a project.

Another question yet to be answered is whether or not any debt created for an RMA road project would count against the limits on what a city or county can borrow for other projects.

Before Hopkins County could join an RMA, however, the proposal would have to be approved by county commissioners court. Millsap said he is planning to hold workshops on the subject in the coming weeks.

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