Trolley funding promise based on "informal communication"

Update on El Paso trolley funding

EL PASO, Texas - The Deputy City Manager in charge of the El Paso trolley project said the city was assured the state would pay $90 million for the streetcar through "informal communication." City Council, last summer, voted to commit $5 million for the design, environmental clearance and preliminary engineering of the proposed streetcar line that was supposed to run from the International bridges Downtown to the UTEP area. City Council was told that if it committed the $5 million, the state would allocate $90 million for the construction of the project.

The city stuck to its part of the deal ; so far it has spent $4.4 million preparing the project to be "shovel ready" as soon as the state funds come in but the state money has not been identified or granted. The $4.4 million in city money came from previously approved Certificates of Obligation, or debt, that was allocated by the Council in 2011 for transportation projects.

The Deputy City Manager overseeing the project, Jane Shang, on Thursday told ABC-7 then City Rep. Steve Ortega and Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton last summer assured city staff and city council that the state would allocate the funds.

"So just because someone tells you that they've secured $90 million but you have absolutely nothing in writing that says so, I think it was really really foolish us to spend almost $5 million when we really didn't have anything in writing," said City Rep. Eddie Holguin, who opposed the plan last summer.

Shang said the $4.4 million weren't a waste because the city is now shovel ready as soon as it gets state funds. Artist Peter Svarzbein, who spent three years advocating for the trolley agrees with Shang. "When presented with an opportunity to turn $90 million out of $5 million, I think it was a rational decision by council. There's momentum and I don't see how that happens when people are not willing to take risks and not willing to invest in El Paso again," he said on Thursday.

He is still hopeful the project is behind schedule and that Houghton will somehow leverage the money for El Paso. Houghton has not responded to ABC-7's questions regarding the state funds. Former City Rep. Steve Ortega did not return a phone call asking about the funding.

Shang said the environmental clearance the city paid for is good for three years, so if the city gets the funding before then, it wouldn't have to pay for it again.

Holguin is skeptical the project will come to fruition and believes the council acted in haste when it decided to spend money on designing the project and getting environmental clearance.

"It's crazy that a year ago, we spent almost $5 million on somebody's dream because that's all it is - it's somebody's dream," he said.

Svarzbein remains hopeful the streetcars, which ran through 63 miles in El Paso until the 1970's, will return. "It is this beautiful connection to what this place was and what this place will always be. Generations have been wanting to see these streetcars come back and to have their vision of our past be brought into the present."

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