State still evaluating El Paso's trolley design

Texas Transportation Commissioner Says Funds Would Be Found After Design Approved

EL PASO, Texas - Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton on Monday said the state is still evaluating the city's design for the El Paso trolley project.

Houghton said Texas Department of Transportation engineers are evaluating the city's design for the trolley route, specifically the weight limitations for two overpasses that would elevate the streetcars at Oregon and I-10 and Stanton and I-10.

He said "there may be a problem" and structural issues with the overpasses and engineers were studying "the feasibility" of the trolley design.

Originally, the City said construction for the project would begin this Summer because Houghton, an El Pasoan, would secure the $90 million for the construction. The city has spent nearly $4.4 million on the design, preliminary engineering and environmental clearance for the project.

Houghton said Texas Department of Transportation engineers have to approve the design and then he'd have to secure the funds. "Once that's done, we have to find where we'd get the money from," Houghton said on the phone on Monday. The commissioner said that depends on how much money the legislature allocates for transportation projects in the current special session.

He added the original timeline to begin construction this summer and finish the streetcars by 2015 was an ideal objective if everything went as planned, but he said they've run into some delays.

The Metropolitan Planninng Organization's plan on which the project is listed did not meet federal highway administration guidelines for half of last year, said Houghton. Officials discovered the problem last summer and fixed it by December 2012, according to Houghton.

The MPO's Interim Executive Director, Michael Medina, said the plan, officially called the Metropolitan Transportation Plan, has always been compliant with federal guidelines. He said the board voted to include the trolley project into the MTP, in early December 2012, months after Council approved the plan last summer. Including it in the MPT made the project eligible to apply for state and federal funds.

Medina said it takes time to add a project to the MTP because the MPO must account what the impact of the project will be for traffic flow and air quality, among other things.

Houghton said that was only part of the delay. He said the design is complex and requires careful studying. He added engineers are on the "technical phase" of evaluating the route.

Some people may have become inpatient with the pace of the project but it's still on "the fast track" compared to other streetcar projects, which take several years to be designed, evaluated and funded, said Houghton.

According to the commissioner, city and state funds are the most effective way to fund the two-mile trolley route because that would make it easier to convince the federal government to pay for an extension to the trolley route in the future. Houghton said the future goal is to extend the streetcars from the UTEP area to the Medical Center of the Americas.

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