Does Texas DOT Have the Authority to Kill Bike-Share in El Paso?

Just a few weeks ago, El Paso was all ready to go with a new bike-share network, or so it seemed. The city had lined up $400,000 in local funds from the city of El Paso, the University of Texas at El Paso and a grant from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The regional planning agency had unanimously signed off on awarding the project $1.6 million in federal transportation funds earmarked for air pollution reduction. Suburban communities had even started expressing interest in being added to the system.

TxDOT is trying to crush El Paso's bike share dreams. But does the agency have the authority? Image: ##http://www.elpasotimes.com/news/ci_17447260##El Paso Times##

But last month the Texas Department of Transportation pulled the rug out. TxDOT told local and regional officials it did not support the use of federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds for the project. State officials have been coy about what they’d rather see the money spent on, but they haven’t backed down. And, not content to strip funding, TxDOT officials are now plowing ahead to “deprogram” the whole bike-share project altogether, removing it from contention for any kind of funding.

Bike advocates in the city have been taken aback. After all, TxDOT officials were part of the unanimous vote by the regional planning body to disperse the CMAQ money in May.

“How can TxDOT and the [El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization Transportation Policy] Board ever expect the community to trust in the transparency of our public agencies when a program that was planned and approved through legitimate channels was then shelved by bureaucrats in favor of vague, unnamed, and unpublicized projects?” wrote Scott White, a board member at Velo Paso Bicycle-Pedestrian Coalition, in a letter to the planning organization’s board [PDF]. “The board must ask whether TxDOT overstepped its jurisdictional authority, and if so, was this the first time?”

I asked around about the legitimacy of TxDOT’s actions — whether the state agency does indeed have the authority to strip this regionally-approved project of federal funds. TxDOT apparently believes that bike-share isn’t an appropriate use of CMAQ funds. But FHWA’s Texas field office approved the expenditure in [PDF] in June. Furthermore, many bike-share programs around the country have benefited from CMAQ funding, including Washington’s Capital Bikeshare.

I asked Michael Medina, assistant director of the El Paso MPO, where TxDOT’s authority to veto the project comes from. He said: “I am not aware of any statuatory or regulatory power that they have.”

I asked TXDOT to name the exact statute or policy that empowers them to pull funds from this project. So far, the agency has not responded.

Scott White, of VeloPaso, thinks the state doesn’t have the authority to strip federal funds already approved by federal and regional officials for the project. That’s why, White thinks, TxDOT is moving to have the project “deprogrammed,” or stripped out of the region’s planning project list altogether. The decision about whether to deprogram the project will be made at the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization Transportation Policy Board meeting on Friday. White and other bike advocates have been campaigning hard not to have the bike-share plan deprogrammed, appealing to board members and even Congressman Beto O’Rourke.

I asked Medina if officials from El Paso could essentially ignore TxDOT’s complaints and pursue the project anyway.

“We’ll see what the board does” on Friday, he said.

  • Ted King

    There may be an opportunity for a lawsuit based on the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment :

    nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

    [Source – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal_Protection_Clause (Wikipedia article)]

    The argument would be that since the project has met eligibility requirements for the funds to deny them the money on an arbitrary basis is to treat them on an inequitable basis.

    P.S. Your use of “disperse” (scatter) in the third paragraph makes me wonder if there are multiple bike-share projects in the El Paso area. I myself would use “disburse” (pay out) instead.

  • Given that TxDOT is trying to push hundreds of millions of maintenance costs onto cities so it can continue building more economically unsustainable highways, it should be no surprise that they don’t want any money to be spent on bikes and pedestrians if they can find a way to use it on roads.

  • Anonymous

    Bike share for El Paso is Exhibit A in well meaning social engineering gone awry. Our city has preexisting cultural norms that make cyclists targets for both cars and ridicule. The government here continues to try and fix the population as if they know best. In truth, thank goodness TX Dot killed this ridiculous idea for more failed social engineering. Only on UTEP’s campus would this program work. It is too hot to ride and our average citizen sees bike riders as those who can’t afford cars. Our culture is anti-bike and one need only ask ANYONE who rides here to see how the majority feels about bicycles and bicycle culture. Wrong idea for the wrong city.

  • ghazzlor

    Agreed. This is Texas, not the Netherlands. The bikes would likely sit around not being used, and on the off chance they did get used the riders would be probably get themselves flattened by our fast moving traffic. Not suited to this environment at all.

    Maybe this could fly in Austin, but Texas is on the whole a pro-car state where getting around on a bike is seen as something for illegals, college students, and people with too many DUIs.

  • Anonymous

    Whats wrong having options? Isn’t that freedom? Not everyone is as anti-bike as you.

  • Anonymous

    Bike share already exists in Houston and San Antonio…last I checked, both were in Texas…not Holland.

  • Alan

    You’re claiming that social engineering is when the government provides citizens multiple transportation options, leaving them free to choose their preferred means of transportation. To me, real social engineering is a system where only one means of transportation is practical. Furthermore, why would the TxDOT in Austin know local norms and culture better than the local government?

    On the other hand, providing citizens only one option for transportation on the basis that the ‘culture’ prefers it is what– freedom? That seems off, especially when the government mandates private property owners provide the parking spaces that make that means of transportation practical and uses the revenues from its property taxes paid by all citizens to build and maintain the large roadways that benefit heavy drivers the most.

  • James Kennedy, Transport PVD

    “[O]n the off chance [bikes] did get used the riders would be probably get themselves flattened by our fast moving traffic.”

    Well, I guess since the government makes those fast moving roads, that’s social engineering too.

    “. . . illegals. . .”

    When you throw around terms like that, you really undermine the dignity of your argument. I’m sorry, but last I checked Texas used to be part of Mexico, so show some respect for the indigenous culture of the place.

  • James Kennedy, Transport PVD

    “Our culture is anti-bike and one need only ask ANYONE who rides here to
    see how ***the majority*** feels about bicycles and bicycle culture.” [my emphasis]

    In order for a bike program to be successful, it doesn’t need to be used by the majority, although yes, in some places like the Netherlands, that is the case. Traffic congestion, for instance, is affected exponentially by very small changes in car use. If you get even a small number of people to use the system, it will be a success.

  • Scott White

    The local TxDOT district engineer for the El Paso area went on TV a few weeks back (after TxDOT refused to release the funds) and said 1) Car is king, 2) Bicycles cause congestion, and 3) bike infrastructure projects have to wait until after all the roads projects… His schtick starts at about 5:30 in the video: http://www.kvia.com/video/ABC-7-Xtra-Aug-18-Transportation-Priorities-In-El-Paso/-/421452/21526500/-/d27wijz/-/index.html

  • Scott White

    I ride in El Paso – the culture is NOT anti-bike, not by a long shot. What you really find is a culture shaped by 60 plus years of bad transportation planning and engineering, where road have been designed to make it easy for cars to go faster. That’s not about efficiency, safety, or livability – but it is social engineering. And I for one chose not to be constrained by it.

  • Scott White

    Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth – all cities with roadways built predominantly for cars, and yet all have (or will soon have) bike share. And if you asked, I’d bet people would say those aren’t cities “suited” to bike share either.

    Fact is, there are lot’s of people who don’t fit your stereotypes who ride because they chose to.

  • txb787

    And in Fort Worth. Coming soon in Dallas and Austin.

  • Just for the record, TxDOT never responded to my questions at all.

    Here’s a record of my email to their taxpayer-funded public information officer, who apparently ignores requests that are uncomfortable for the agency. (Does this violate sunshine laws?)

    Angie Schmitt Sep 10 (3 days ago)

    to veronica.beyer

    Hi Veronica,

    I’ll attach a letter that explains the situation pretty clearly. What my
    question is, where does TxDOT’s authority to strip funds from a project
    the MPO approved and FHWA approved, come from? Where does it lie? A
    statute? A policy? What statute/policy?

    Furthermore, why did TxDOT strip the money like that, after it had
    been planned and approved by local leaders through the appropriate
    channels? What does TxDOT want to use the money for instead? Is TxDOT
    alleging that bike share is not an appropriate use of CMAQ funds? And
    how could it make that argument when FHWA has specifically condoned it
    on this occasion and others?

    Thanks!

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