Orange County fights to keep FM 299 funds

Orange County Pct. 4 Commissioner Jody Crump

County Judge Carl Thibodeaux expressed concern and dismay during the Orange County Commissioners Court meeting Monday, Feb. 25, at correspondence he received from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) regarding the proposed FM 299 loop in Vidor. Thibodeaux said the letter, drafted by TxDOT representative Tucker Ferguson, P.E., basically gave Orange County commissioners an ultimatum, stating if the county did not take action soon, they could lose the promised $28 million-plus contribution to the project from TxDOT.

The proposed Vidor Loop, or FM 299, would involve building a loop that would stretch from the north of Vidor at either FM 1132 or Conner Road, across the access road at Interstate 10 at the Church Street Overpass, and extend down past Lindberg Street just south of Walden Street in Vidor. The road would span 6.4 miles, and TxDOT projects 18,000 cars per day would travel the route.

During Monday’s meeting, Thibodeaux said the county would be responsible for putting $30 million up front for the proposed project and would be reimbursed by pass-through tolls for a large portion of the initial investment. Thibodeaux said the county would not pay the gargantuan sum necessary to start construction on the project in advance.

“We can’t afford this 299,” Thibodeaux said of the loop project. “We’re not going to have $30 million up front. … As far as I’m concerned, it’s dead in the water.”

At that point, Orange County Pct. 4 Commissioner Jody Crump interjected to remind Thibodeaux of a possible solution to the county’s dilemma regarding funding for this and potential future projects. He suggested that rather than abandoning the project and ultimately losing the funds promised by TxDOT, the county could go through a Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) currently being considered by Orange, Jefferson and Hardin counties.

According to the TxDOT website, an RMA is “a political subdivision formed by one or more counties to finance, acquire, design, construct, operate, maintain, expand or extend transportation projects. These projects may be tolled or non-tolled.”

Crump revisited the Jan. 14 public hearing when Orange County Commissioners heard a presentation regarding forming the RMA and later decided to move forward. Crump advised Thibodeaux and fellow commissioners that earlier in the day Monday, he and others attended a meeting in Jefferson County to continue discussions regarding the formation of the RMA, potentially including Jefferson and Hardin counties.

According to Crump, the RMA could loan the county the money necessary to begin the project. Crump said the loan would be interest free and be paid back by pass-through tolls and other revenue generated by the project. He said based on projections he has seen, the project could cost a total of anywhere from $36 million to $40 million.

Crump, whose precinct encompasses the land to be utilized for the construction of the loop, said he believes the new road would alleviate some stress from emergency workers and traffic in the area and would be generally good for the city bringing in “hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to the area.”

“I have a vested interest in this,” Crump said in an interview with The Examiner. “We are set up for growth. … It’s a straight business decision.”

Ferguson, who serves as district engineer for the Beaumont District of TxDOT and oversees all engineering operations in Chambers, Hardin, Jasper, Jefferson, Liberty, Newton, Orange and Tyler counties, was present at the meeting to defend TxDOT’s position and explain what the entity expected from Orange County.

“We are looking for some decision points on this,” Ferguson said regarding the FM 299 project. “This has been going on since 2011 … close to one and a half years with not a lot of progress. …We don’t want to let it languish.”

“I’m not against the road,” Thibodeaux told Ferguson. “I’m against the county paying for it all up front.”

Ferguson said if the county intends to pursue formation of an RMA, TxDOT would be happy to work with the group. He said what TxDOT wants is a “plan of action” and a timeframe of some kind for the project.

“We need to form a plan of attack,” Thibodeaux agreed. “We don’t want to lose the funding.”

“No, we do not want to sacrifice that,” Crump said.