State officials are shortchanging El Paso and should be sending more money to the area for highway and road infrastructure, according to an analysis published by the El Paso Chamber Mobility Coalition.
The Chamber sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott on Oct. 20 claiming that there’s “a concerning disparity” between the amount of money the El Paso area has gotten in recent years from the Texas Department of Transportation versus what smaller, less-populated parts of Texas have received in state funding.
“There’s plenty of money in the state, but it’s a matter of allocation,” said Ted Houghton, an El Paso businessman who is a former chair of the Texas Transportation Commission and helped craft the Chamber’s analysis.
“You just can’t ignore the needs of El Paso at our demise based on what the political winds are, or what’s going on around the rest of the state,” he said.
The Texas Department of Transportation said it is “aware of the letter to the governor and is reviewing its contents.” Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment from El Paso Matters.
In the analysis obtained by El Paso Matters, the Chamber studied 14 TxDOT districts roughly comparable in population to El Paso and found El Paso this fiscal year received the 12th most funding from the transportation department – behind smaller districts such as Bryan and Beaumont, as well as the Yoakum district, which includes the small city of Victoria and covers the area along the Gulf Coast between Corpus Christi and Houston.
The El Paso Chamber’s analysis only looked at 14 out of the 25 total TxDOT districts across the state. The Chamber said it did not include districts much bigger and much smaller than El Paso, including districts that encompass Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and sparsely populated districts in the Panhandle and Central Texas.
“The fact is, you have 14 districts, we’re 12 and we’re behind much smaller districts in funding. There is something wrong with that picture,” Houghton said. “We’re the sixth largest community in the state. We’ve got bridges. We’ve got truck traffic. We’re isolated, but we’re not isolated to the point where we have very little traffic and not much going on. We’re a big community.”
From 2017 to 2022, the El Paso area received between $182 million and $249 million annually in total transportation funding, according to TxDOT.
TxDOT doles out dollars to each of the state’s districts in 12 categories that determine how the money must be spent.
Money granted through Category 2, for example, can only be used for state roads, and the allocation to each district is calculated by a formula that factors in things such as population density and congestion in an area. Money directed to other categories is used for a range of things such as safety projects – like adding road guardrails – or for projects that improve air quality, among other things.
Category 12 receives the greatest amount of funding, which the five-member Texas Transportation Commission can use to pick and choose which priority projects throughout the state should receive funding.
For example, if a $1 billion project in Houston needs money, the commission can take a chunk of dollars out of Category 12 and direct it to that project rather than send it somewhere else, said Eduardo Calvo, executive director of the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization.
“So here we are in El Paso, asking the commission and telling them ‘Hey, our projects on I-10 are important. They’re also a priority,’” Calvo said. “There’s a lot of competition.”
Houghton said the state should boost money for more formulaic categories – like Category 2 – that would be allocated to districts across the state instead of being directed to big priority projects.
Part of the issue is representation, Houghton said. When he was a member and later the chair of the Texas Transportation Commission between 2003 and 2015, local officials said El Paso had a seat at the table – and the region received a strong level of funding from TxDOT.
In the Chamber’s funding analysis, it suggests the state began shortchanging the El Paso region around 2017 – just two years after Houghton left the commission.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that (Houghton) did bring a lot of money to El Paso,” Calvo said.
State Rep. Lina Ortega, D-El Paso, filed a bill during the legislative session this spring that sought to ensure at least one member of the transportation commission is from a district along the border, in order to help ensure the commission wouldn’t overlook El Paso. The bill failed, but shortly after, Abbott appointed Alex Meade of Brownsville to serve on the commission.
“It’s fantastic that (the El Paso Chamber is) pointing out how we are shortchanged when it comes to transportation funding,” Ortega said in an interview. “In the long run, yeah, we get some moneys, but nowhere in comparison to what smaller communities across the state are getting funded.”
Calvo said the amount of money TxDOT grants El Paso is “not sufficient to fund a big, big project that we need, like the one that we have right now to rebuild I-10 through the Downtown area,” which he said could cost between $800 million and $900 million.
Without an increase in state funding, El Paso would have to put up its own money to fund big road and highway projects, or spend virtually nothing on road infrastructure for several years until the region has gotten enough money from TxDOT that it can move forward with the biggest local projects, such as the I-10 rebuild. Those are unworkable options, Calvo said.
Still, it’s too simplistic to expect El Paso – the state’s sixth largest city – to necessarily receive the sixth-most funding among TxDOT districts each year, Calvo cautioned.
TxDOT directs the most funding to places “where the action is” he said, referring to locations in Texas with the most economic growth or new construction.
“Where (the Chamber’s argument) gets a little bit dicey is … if you look at the distribution of funding by district, it’s complicated because we are a weird district,” he said.
The El Paso TxDOT district also includes five other neighboring counties stretching east to Brewster County in the Big Bend National Park area. So, much of the district is sparsely populated, and the relative lack of rain means the district needs fewer maintenance dollars than elsewhere. And other places with new roads or interstate construction are more likely to see an increase in funding, Calvo said.
He pointed to two districts south of Houston, Yoakum and Pharr, where the state is developing the new Interstate 69 that will link the Rio Grande Valley and Houston.
“The dollar amounts going to build in those places are tremendous,” he said. “It’s not because Victoria is big. It’s because Victoria happens to be between the border and Houston. And I-69 is a major new corridor that the state wants to develop.”
“Part of the reason why (El Paso is) not getting a lot of money is because we don’t have too many new corridors,” Calvo said. “Because the growth is not happening here.”
Houghton and others said Texas has enough money to fund transportation projects throughout the state. But the transportation commission, Houghton said, should allow local leaders to set their own priority projects and fund them, rather than redirect dollars from some places towards others where mega projects are underway.
“When we were on the commission, we let the locals choose. We would not send edicts down: ‘You’re going to build this, you’re not going to go do this,’” Houghton said.
“We would enable them to get their projects done,” he said. “It seems to have changed now. And that’s the unfortunate part.”
Disclosure: Ted Houghton, Eduardo Calvo and Lina Ortega are financial supporters of El Paso Matters. Financial supporters play no role in El Paso Matters’ journalism. The news organization’s policy on editorial independence can be found here.