EL PASO, Texas - Bike share supporters believe the Texas Department of Transportation is making up "imaginary requirements" to prevent federal funds from being used for the bike share program.
"TxDot does not have any authority to issue emission thresholds or cost benefit thresholds as selection criteria for CMAQ funds," said Ben Foster, a member of VeloPaso, a cyclist coalition fighting for the bike share program.
Foster is referring to $1.5 million in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality federal funds, which flow through TxDot. The Federal Highway Administration, which allocates the federal money in question, has said the bike share program meets all requirements for the money.
In a letter written to the Metropolitan Planning Organization dated September 25, Achille Alonzi, the Federal Highway Administration's Acting Division Administrator, said the federal agency does not impose the requirements TxDot does. Alonzi also said the federal government doesn't prevent TxDot from setting project priorities with the federal money.
County Commissioner Vince Perez, who serves on the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) also has concerns about the additional criteria imposed by the state. "As long as those constraints are uniform and fair, that's all we can ask for. Is that the case here? I'm not so sure," Perez said on Monday.
TxDot refused to comment for this story or to answer questions asking the state agency to explain why it has imposed the extra requirements on the bike share program.
The Metropolitan Planning Organization's policy board, made up of elected officials throughout the region, has twice voted to use the federal money for the bike share program. Initially, TxDot District Engineer Bob Bielek voted for the project, but was the sole vote to defund the bike share program in the latest vote early this month.
Bielek at the time of the vote said the bike share would reduce congestion by less than one percent and the state can't justify releasing the funds for a project that yields such little benefit.
"If these funds can't be used for the bike share, what's the next best thing," said City Rep. Cortney Niland on Monday. She also serves on the MPO and along with TxDot, wants to explore the idea of using the CMAQ funds on the city's pilot program to fund the salaries of federal agents at ports of entry in an effort to reduce bridge wait times.
The program calls for the city to use revenue from bridge tolls to fund the salaries, but Niland said the CMAQ funds could help the city avoid using tolls on the program. "The last thing we want to do is affect tolls. By raising tolls, it's going to make things more expensive. What we've really like to do is find additional sources of funding."
Bike share advocates claim the use of CMAQ money for the city's pilot program may not be allowed because the federal dollars would go toward federal dollars. "Projects funded by CMAQ have to be transportation projects. The pilot program before it's a transportation issue is first and foremost a homeland security issue and an international trade issue," said Foster.
Perez is concerned the city's project may have an unfair advantage to the federal funds because the City is the fiscal agent for the MPO and has three representatives on the MPO board. "It's difficult to get an even balance of views when the city has the representation that it does," he said.
Niland said she is confident in the process. "I don't have those concerns. I've always had the utmost faith in TxDot."
Some MPO members, including County Judge Veronica Escobar have expressed concern there were informal but steering discussions about using the federal funds for the city's pilot project outside of MPO meetings. El Paso City Council is slated to discuss the possibility of using the federal funds for the pilot program on the record for the first time in two weeks.
Yet, TxDot confirmed to ABC-7 weeks ago, the state was going to propose using the money for the bridge project. "We are going to propose that the CMAQ funding be re-programmed to the Pilot border crossing program at the next TPB meeting," a TxDot spokeswoman wrote in a September, 4th email, quoting Bielek.
The email came a few days before the MPO meeting in which Bielek voted to defund bike share and before the majority of the MPO members had heard of the proposal to defund bike share and reprogram the funds for the city's pilot project.
"I heard about the plan through the media. That's concerning and makes me question why that is not being vetted through the proper channels and by this board," said Escobar during that meeting.
A TxDot Spokeswoman refused to answer questions about the proposal to use the funds for the city's project, saying it was a city proposal, not TxDot's. ABC-7 forwarded her the email in which another TxDot Spokeswoman confirmed weeks ago of the state's plans to use the funds for the city project. She has not replied.