There have probably never been more transportation projects started in El Paso than since Ted Houghton became the first El Pasoan to serve on the Texas Transportation Commission in 2003.
Houghton's colleagues say that's no coincidence. His position has enabled him to bring a little Far West Texas perspective to the commission.
And in October, Houghton was named chair of the commission - a position that was previously held by Deirdre Delisi, who joined the presidential campaign staff of Gov. Rick Perry.
The commission oversees the statewide activities of the Texas Department of Transportation.
With Houghton's voice on the commission and state Rep. Joe Pickett's voice on the Texas House Transportation Committee, El Paso may never have had more advocates for transportation in Austin than it does right now.
The timing couldn't have been much better, with El Paso facing a glut of transportation challenges at a time when competition is growing ever-more fierce over a shrinking pot of state transportation dollars.
Houghton's colleagues say his behind the scenes work was crucial in securing El Paso almost $80 million to widen Transmountain Road in West El Paso, part of an overall plan to complete El Paso's outer loop.
Meanwhile, the Far Eastside "spaghetti bowl" interchange is rising at the intersection of I-10 and Loop 375, a new entrance to UTEP is under construction, and new lanes are being added to the Border Highway.
Another project will build direct connectors where Zaragosa and Montwood intersect Loop 375 in Far East El Paso to help alleviate congestion at one of the most dangerous intersections in the city.
And, most recently, Houghton says he has probably found the $1 million needed to complete a feasibility study that is a key first step in bringing El Paso's historic trolleys back to Downtown.
Houghton was born and raised in El Paso. His father - "a mentor of mine," Houghton says - was executive vice president of the original State National Bank and, before that, was president of Price's Creameries.
A family man, Houghton and his wife Hettie have five children; three live in Houston, one in Dallas and one in College Station.
"Maybe I can get one or two of them back here. I would like to," Houghton says.
He served for eight years on the El Paso Water Utilities Public Service Board and on El Paso's Rapid Transit Board. He has served on El Paso Electric's board of directors, as a past president of the Sun Bowl Association, and was a member of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Committee.
Rather reserved, Houghton is not a big talker. He likes to run and participated in his first marathon at age 50. A photo of Houghton running the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., with fellow El Pasoan and Texas Tech regent Rick Francis sits on a shelf in his office, along with photos of his family.
Houghton's term on the transportation commission ends in February 2015, although he can be reappointed at the pleasure of the governor.
Houghton sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about the area's most pressing transportation challenge, toll roads, and the future of transportation in El Paso.
Q: Since the 1994 court of inquiry, launched in part to investigate inequitable state funding of El Paso transportation infrastructure, has El Paso received more attention in the way of transportation funding?
Yes, but it's not the result of the court of inquiry - a lot has changed since then. I didn't believe that you sue, criminally, and put people on a witness stand, criminally, because most of these folks had nothing to do with the allocation of dollars to the regions.
How communities get more dollars is they coalesce together; they have a plan and they stick to the plan and they advocate for that plan. You can look at communities around the state that have done that and they are the ones that are receiving the additional dollars to get across the goal line with their plans.
For instance, in our case, the community coalesced around the $1 billion Comprehensive Mobility Plan. City Council and the MPO, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, supported it unanimously. And if you look at that plan today, you can check off most of the boxes. So you have to hand it to the leadership at the city, MPO and TxDOT for making those things happen.
Q: Some might also hand it to El Paso's representative on the Texas Transportation Commission. We have probably never seen so many transportation projects as we are now in El Paso.
You've got to have team players. If you have the acrimony that may have occurred back in the days of the court of inquiry, I don't care who you would have had on that commission, it wouldn't have worked.
To the credit of City Council and the MPO, we all coalesced around a plan that said where we were going and listed the projects to get there. Now, those projects have been accelerated by bringing in the state dollars. We had Transmountain Road east and west rise; we had the Americas Interchange project - the Far East "spaghetti bowl" - rise. They are under construction, and now we are on to the next set of projects.
Q: How challenging is it to not only identify the projects and fund them, but to also build the political will?
By law, the MPO is the planner - we assist. So when you say political will, I think we are all on the same sheet of music there.
I've noticed driving around El Paso it's got a lot more congested - a lot. I don't know if that is a factor of the migration of people out of Mexico, if it is the troops that are coming into Fort Bliss, those who are here to support that growth or a combination of all, but we've got a lot more traffic than we had five years ago.
Don't talk about I-10. Look at Montana. Look at Mesa. It's taking longer and longer to get to your destination.
Q: Is city growth and congestion the primary transportation challenge in El Paso then?
Yeah. We have two roads that are in the top 100 in the state in terms of congestion and they are on the Eastside - Montwood and Lee Trevino.
Q: What's it going to take to deal with the congestion that seems to get worse every day?
You can't pave your way to traffic relief - it's not going to happen. At some point in time, you are going to have to look at alternatives, and asphalt and concrete are not the only way.
You are going to have to look at mass transit. But in a community like El Paso that keeps growing out, you are going to have to look at trolleys and light rail and busses and things like that to move people around.
Q: Historically, Texas has not been a state that has supported mass transit; the emphasis is on asphalt and concrete. Do you think mass transit can play a larger role in Texas' future?
It has to. You have to look at other communities. You have San Antonio that's building a trolley system in the Downtown corridor. You have Houston now with light rail from the medical center to Downtown; it's basically a straight line, but now they are adding to it.
You've got the DART, which is now a huge system in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. They'll have a line that will go out to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. There are like 5 to 6 million people in the metroplex area, and they understand you can't pave your way to prosperity - it's not going to work.
Q: You mentioned trolleys. Some would like to bring them back to Downtown El Paso.
That's going to get studied. As a matter of fact, I think we are going to give the MPO around $1 million to study a possible line between Downtown and the medical center and Downtown and UTEP.
Q: A trolley study was done last year, what would this new study do?
Now were talking very specific - a feasibility analysis.
Q: There has been talk of bringing the trolleys back for quite some time, what's going to get it off the ground this time? What's the timeline?
It depends on the will of the leadership in this community how fast you get things going.
Q: Beyond the trolleys, could a commuter rail system be built in El Paso eventually?
Well, that is way down the line. Commuter rail is still a long ways off.
Q: Does the state of Texas provide any funding for mass transit projects?
No. Remember, the gas tax from the state is dedicated to asphalt and concrete.
Q: So how do you find funding for projects like trolleys in Downtown El Paso?
Local communities through bond elections; that is where a lot of the funding comes from. Some comes from the federal government.
Q: I imagine that is getting harder though, finding federal funding.
It's getting a lot harder because of limited resources.
Q: The last dollars of a $5-billion bond passed in 2008 have been programmed, including most recently $48 million for transportation projects in El Paso. Should we expect a dramatic decrease in transportation dollars going forward?
No, I believe there will be a focus on new resources for transportation during the next legislative session.
Q: But with shrinking budgets, how is transportation in Texas going to be funded in the future?
I'm not one that votes, but I do believe there will be a focus on new resources. State Sen. Tommy Williams, last year, mentioned at the transportation forum we sponsor every year looking at a motor vehicle registration increase and leveraging that to create more dollars. There are all sorts of different programs you can use to increase your resources.
Q: The gas tax. It hasn't been increased since 1991.
Not going to happen. I just don't think there is any will. I don't mean to be so definitive, but I just don't see it.
Q: Really, though, when I think of the state's basic responsibilities, transportation is right there at the top and it, along with education, have been taking big funding hits. With the cost of building roads increasing, gas tax revenues flat, and little will to increase the gas tax, are localities going to have to pick up more of the tab and are we going to see more toll roads?
Well, you're going to have toll roads in El Paso. There will be managed lanes right in the middle of the Border Highway and it will be your choice whether to take the free ones or the managed one.
When you look at our revenue line on gas tax it's pretty flat, and we have a growing population - hugely growing. We've got more cars but they're more efficient. And when we see gasoline prices pushing up to $4 a gallon at times people stop driving, so then your gas tax doesn't work.
It's a fixed amount per gallon no matter what the price for gasoline is. So you have this void to fill, and you can only tax yourself so much. You cannot depend upon the gas tax as your sole source of revenue.
That's the problem, and it's got to change - hence user fees and user fees are toll roads. They've been accepted everywhere else.
Q: Are we going to start seeing more toll roads in El Paso then?
They're around the state. I mean, we forget that Dallas has about 700-lane miles in toll roads. Houston may be the leader. They've been living with it for a long time. Now, we haven't in El Paso, but it is a matter of fact in those communities. They've been living with it and have grown to accept it. But it's not the only way; it can't be the only thing. You're going to have to have increases somewhere whether it's motor vehicle registration or whether it's toll roads. There is no one fix.
Q: With a future of shrinking budgets, increased costs and more people, what's the future of transportation projects in El Paso after the boom?
There is a lot to be done still. On Dec. 8, we are going to have a hearing on the southern relief route from Sunland Park to Santa Fe to where the Border Highway ends. The options will be laid out and people will be able to comment on them. It will be the next project, the toughest piece, on finishing the loop around this community.
Q: What are some of those options?
I can't tell you; you'll have to go to the meeting. We don't have a preferred route, but we'll lay out four or five possible routes.
Q: Another project would widen a portion of I-10?
You're going to widen I-10 from McRae going east to the new "spaghetti bowl." That will be done somewhat by shrinking lanes and further out they will add a new lane.
Now, we've talked about shrinking the width of lanes throughout El Paso. We'll see. We are looking at that right now.
Q: Phil Wilson, TxDOT's new executive director, is paid $292,500 a year, $100,000 more than his predecessor. You supported the salary increase. How can it be justified, in this time of austerity?
This goes back to an analysis of TxDOT salaries, looking at the private and public sector, and we were woefully short as to compensation from a median standpoint.
I'll get right to the point. We have a $10 billion agency, that's our annual budget, and we had a person running it who was making $192,000. We are the largest state agency. You got to have talent, and the ability to attract talent, to change the paradigm of the Texas Department of Transportation. That was the initiative.
Q: But a $100,000 increase is quite a jump, and the increases have received significant criticism.
Again, you have to hire talent to run a $10-billion agency. It's not an agency that's just building roads - we issue debt now. It's changed a lot since 10 years ago. I don't think it is controversial; the legislature passed it.
We've got five positions we can go up to $292,000, so we can go outside the agency to look for talent anywhere we want to go and we are in fact doing that right now.
Q: The Texas Tribune combed its government employee salary database and found only four public employees who hold the same title as Wilson, executive director, that are paid more than him. Two are the executive directors of university hospitals and two are the executive directors of Texas' public employee retirement systems.
I'm happy that the legislature believed that we needed the latitude in pay to attract the best and the brightest people to bring new ideas to the agency. They allowed us to do it, and we are going to in fact fulfill that mission of bringing in the best and the brightest.
Q: What's next for you? A run for mayor possibly?
No, no, no, no, no. This is what I like to do.
Q: El Paso's influence on key boards and commissions has been growing in general. Paul Foster is a UT System regent, Rick Francis is a Texas Tech regent, Harold Hahn is on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Robert Brown has been on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, Larry Patton and Cindy Lyons are on the Finance Commission of Texas. What has brought about the change?
We've gotten involved. We haven't been saying "gimme, gimme, gimme," and we have coalesced around candidates. And without that I don't believe you would have a four-year medical school in El Paso.
We believe the economic opportunity for this generation and the next generation, permanent jobs in this community, will be around the Texas Tech medical school and now the nursing school and now, hopefully, the dental school. These are permanent high-paying jobs. When you look at why we did it, that was why we did it. That's going to be the answer beyond Fort Bliss, and it is going to be bigger.
Q: So at some point there was a decision made that we needed to have better representation on key boards and commissions to help move the community forward?
That's right, or you get left out. You don't get tied into what is going on in the rest of the state. It's just location.
When you look at Dallas, Houston and Austin, they are closer together so they have a better understanding of what is going on in each of the communities. But we are so far out there that we don't see that. You get people on these boards and commissions and it makes a real difference.
Q: How did this shift in thinking happen?
It was the right time and right place. We talked to one another and said look folks we have an opportunity and time. Dumb luck sometimes is better than the greatest planning in the world. I'm not saying it was dumb luck, but some of it was just luck.
Q: El Paso appears to be reaping rewards from having influence on these boards and commissions, but, as terms expire, do you see anybody else in El Paso poised to pick up the baton?
I think so. There's a younger crowd that is moving up and looking to take leadership roles. Some of those folks are involved in the Hispanic chamber, some are involved in the Paso del Norte Group. You have pockets of people who are doing the things they like to do to move this community forward.
Emma Schwartz at the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation - she has her own group down there that is involved. Like I said, there was a nucleus of us that got together and said we've got to get that medical school; and here we are - we have a four-year medical school. Now you are going to have the MCA down there which ties in University Medical Center, the teaching hospital.
Q: I imagine all you've been talking about, including the incredible Fort Bliss growth, is creating transportation challenges with the growth it is causing in El Paso.
Yeah. Spur 601, the one we built for $360 million for seven miles...
Q: $360 million?
Gov. Perry told the U.S. Department of Defense if you come, we'll build it to get soldiers in and out of Fort Bliss. Not only has it done that for the Army, now they're putting the new William Beaumont at the corner of Spur 601 and Loop 375. The offshoot of that is Spur 601 is now an alternative route to the interstate.
Q: And it is already becoming congested. Trying to merge into that turn lane where Spur 601 meets Loop 375 on the Far Eastside is quite harrowing during rush hour.
There is a design for a direct connect to go there.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.