TxDOT Commission earmarks $34.2 million for Vidor Loop

Orange County Commissioner for Pct. 4 Jody Crump

After decades of discussion, the Texas Transportation Commission of the Texas Department of Transportation has authorized Orange County to move toward construction of the controversial Vidor Loop, or FM 299, earmarking $34.2 million for the project from TxDOT’s pass-through toll program.

According to Item 7 on the commission’s July 27 agenda, the commission was to “consider authorizing the executive director or designee to negotiate and execute a pass-through agreement with Orange County for construction of FM 299 at a new location from the intersection south of Walden Road and FM 105 to Conner Road (also called Center Road) and FM 105, for a distance of approximately 6.2 miles.”

The TxDOT commission authorized the 2009-2010 pass-through program call for proposals Dec. 16, 2010, and Orange County submitted a proposal to construct FM 299 under a pass-through agreement. May 26, 2011, the commission selected Orange County’s proposal as providing the best value to the state and granted conditional authority to the department to pursue negotiations if staff were unable to successfully negotiate any of the top proposals listed above Orange County. At the commission’s Sept. 29, 2011, meeting the commission was advised that there was funding available for Orange County’s proposal under the 2009-2010 program call. Nov. 29, 2011, the department notified Orange County that it could begin negotiations on the financial terms of a pass-through agreement, which were subsequently completed and are reflected in the Minute Order.

July 27, nearly six years after Orange County was notified that it could begin negotiations, Benjamin H. Asher, director of the Project Finance, Debt and Strategic Contracts Division at TxDOT, told the commission Orange County was ready to move forward with the $64 million construction project.

During the meeting, Asher told the commission, “The Orange County Court voted to move forward with the project in October 2016. Given the time between the program call and the decision to move forward, the county will be required to start construction by June 2019. Staff recommends approval.”

The Orange County Commissioners Court did vote to move forward with the project last year, but many cities in the county passed resolutions in opposition to the construction of the roadway, with some representatives citing the county’s financial difficulties over the last several years as a reason for the county not to invest in such a project.

Vidor Mayor Robert Viator spoke out against the proposed roadway on multiple occasions. He approached the Transportation Commission on July 26 to explain why.

“When I look through your list of…eligibility considerations, ‘local public support for project’ (is on the list),” Viator said. “This project has been around well over 20 years. I started getting involved with it roughly six years ago. Every meeting we’ve had … has been attended with large opposition. The public support for this program is minimal at best.”

Viator pointed out that five cities in Orange County unanimously passed resolutions in opposition to FM 299, indicating a lack of support from the majority of the population.

“Those five cities represent approximately 53 percent, more than likely a little more, of the county,” Viator asserted.

The mayor pointed to a lack of traffic congestion in the city as a reason the Loop is unnecessary, in his opinion, commending TxDOT for efforts to improve previously poor conditions.

“Years ago, when this project was dreamed up, FM 105 was a two-lane highway, and going north, it was, at times, pretty dangerous. … They expanded 105 – two lanes going each way with a turning lane in the center. The work you’re doing on I-10 through our area, the work you did where I-10 crosses Highway 90 has relieved some railroad traffic issues we had on the south side of Vidor. Expanding to six lanes on the interstate going toward Beaumont and the Neches River Bridge is some outstanding work that I believe is going to be completed probably by the end of the year. We thank you for those benefits because it has really helped our situation. Because of that, I can look at you and tell you, we don’t have traffic congestion in Vidor, Texas.”

Viator said he was also concerned about the expense of the project and the ecological impact the road’s construction could have on the wetlands it would run through.

“If you go ahead tomorrow and decide to move forward with the project, you’re looking at spending $34 million — (that’s) what you’re reimbursement to the county will be,” Viator reasoned. “That’s $34 million, and you have a lot of projects where it could be used. I just don’t see spending it on a project that goes through what the (Army Corps of Engineers) has deemed as perfect an example of wetlands as you’ll ever see. In fact, one of the Corps’ comments in some form back in 1998 is that this project actually has ‘a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a permit.’ That’s actually the quote in their answer. In 2013, the EPA declined the permit. So it faces major, major environmental issues.”

“The need for this road is just not there,” Viator concluded.

Texas Conservation Alliance Executive Director Janice Bezanson also spoke in opposition to FM 299. She said her organization and others have formed the Coalition Opposed to FM 299.

“There are eight organizations within this coalition,” Bezanson described. “Together, we total a membership of 87,000 Texans. We are very much opposed to this, and there’s a long list of reasons why this project should not go forward.”

“The environmental impacts would be severe,” Bezanson continued. “I don’t know how many of you have been to the Big Thicket National Preserve, but it’s one of the most biologically diverse places in the entire world, absolutely gorgeous. It is an element of the National Parks system, and it is an economic driver for this region of $7.9 million a year. This proposed loop would go for two and a half miles right along the boundary of the Big Thicket National Preserve, sometimes coming as close as 340 feet.

“Almost the entire loop is through wetlands, and these are wetlands of national importance. These are very significant wetlands within the 100-year floodplain of the Neches River. Because of the wetlands and because of the floodplain, this road would have to be elevated. It would have to be built up, which could cause all kinds of interesting changes in the hydrologic regime of the area. The Fish and Wildlife Service has expressed a lot of concern about flooding issues.”

Bezanson said she believed the majority of the public is in opposition to the project.

“When we started forming this coalition, we got a tremendous response from local people,” she asserted. “They’re very concerned about it. They really don’t see why it needs to happen. They think it’s going to be detrimental, and it’s going to be very, very expensive. We’re talking about a county that only has about 85,000 people, and the average income is about $25,000. This is a huge amount of money for them to be fronting and for them to paying their portion of it.”

Bezanson said if the commission chose to vote in favor of the agenda item, “We specifically request that the controlled access policy be strictly enforced, that there be no waivers granted for access points, interchanges, access roads, because that would greatly increase the impacts on the wetlands. And, we would request that you designate this as a private developer project so there would be a competitive procurement program for who it is that builds this project.

“What we really ask is that you just say ‘no’ to Item 7 tomorrow.”

At the July 27 meeting, Orange County Commissioner for Pct. 4 Jody Crump spoke in favor of the Vidor Loop.

“I’m an absolute advocate of this project. This project has been around for many, many years. It started out as a dream, and slowly through the decades … coming to fruition. The wheels of the government turn slow.

“Talking about mitigating traffic congestion and economic development moving forward – I think that’s what this project does. I think it addresses it very specifically.”

Crump said the city of Vidor did experience congestion regularly, an argument to the mayor’s comments to the commission.

“There’s about 87,000 vehicles a day that pass over Interstate 10,” Crump estimated. “We’re that small bedroom community just inside the Louisiana border and just before you get into Jefferson County and Beaumont, Texas. We have a lot of individuals that peel off at that interstate, come onto that main street thoroughfare, and the congestion is pretty substantial there, especially in the mornings and afternoons and those times of the days. A lot of those vehicles come through.

“We see this as an opportunity to do both things – to relieve that congestion right in that area … but also the idea of creating this additional corridor 299, it creates that area for economic development. It opens that area back up.”

Crump said environmental concerns were “not a problem.”

“We know there’s some environmental issues out there,” Crump remarked. “We’re sensitive to that. … TxDOT has this wonderful process and protocol in place that’s been used for many, many years. We’ll follow every criteria that’s set in place. We’re not going to shortchange the system or bypass anything. We’ll be completely transparent.”

Commissioner Jeff Austin said the commission had received numerous letters, both “pro and con,” about the proposed project. He said the pass-through toll program is “a tool we don’t use anymore” but lauded its success in other counties, like Montgomery and Titus. He said the commitment had been made years earlier, and a vote for the proposal would make good on that commitment, pointing out the proposal must clear some hurdles before construction could begin.

“This minute order is going to allow us to follow through on our commitment,” Austin said. “Just because we do our part approving this, this does not mean this road is going to be built. This project still has to go through the environmental concerns and get all the other financial structures in place, which means if they don’t start construction by the end of June 2019, then this commitment goes away.”

The commission voted unanimously in favor of the project.

Following the vote, Viator said he hoped the project would never see the light of day in spite of the commission’s approval. He said he was disappointed and felt like the TxDOT commissioners and local county commissioners were not representing the public’s interest. And, he said, that led him to a big decision.

Vidor Mayor running for commissioner

Viator revealed he is running for Pct. 4 Commissioner in Orange County in 2018 against incumbent Jody Crump, who has already announced his candidacy. 

Viator said it is "time for change," and expressed concern that the current Commissioners Court is not accurately representing the citizens of Vidor and the surrounding area. 

In a statement to The Examiner, Viator said, "A lot of the time you hear people complain that elected officials are not listening to the will of the people on a federal or state level. It's a sad state of affairs when local officials choose only to represent special interests or a small portion of the population. It's time for a change, and it's time 'we the people' of Pct. 4 are represented - not just the special interests or select few."

Viator said when people refer to "the Vidor community," that community encompasses many more people than live within the incorporated area of Vidor. He said he often received calls from people who say they are Vidor residents but actually reside within the unincorporated area in west Orange County. 

"My biggest frustration as mayor is... when you are the mayor of Vidor, about 50 percent of your calls are from people you are not elected to represent," he explained. "I understand they are part of the Vidor community, but I don't have any legal authority to represent them. So, in trying to help them with issues they have, you're hands are tied (as mayor). That's been the biggest frustration I've had the whole time I've been mayor."

He said as a mayor who strives to help the citizenry, it is upsetting when he is unable to help. Viator said he believed he can better represent the Vidor community and all Pct. 4 residents as county commissioner. 

"I do not feel like we've been represented well," Viator expressed. "I feel like a small group of people is influencing our representatives, who are supposed to represent all of us. How can I make represent the people that I haven't been able to over the last 5 and half years or so? The only way I can do that is to move up to the next level."

Viator will face Crump for the Republican nomination in the March 2018 primaries.