Marcus Cooper, TxDOT Public Information Officer
- Hometown: Waco, Texas
- Education: Bachelor of Arts, Baylor University
Q. How does the Texas Department of Transportation differ from other transportation agencies? A. We are the state’s agency responsible for the construction of roadways throughout the State of Texas for the movement of people and goods in a safe, traveling environment. All of those other agencies, we consider them our partners. For example, CAMPO [Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization] is a federally sanctioned agency that deals with federal dollars and allows for those dollars to be pumped into our local area. CTRMA [Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority] is a state-authorized transportation agency, similar to CAMPO but just state-authorized. They’re able to move and work in the private sector in ways that we at TxDOT cannot, as a state agency. So, we’ve got partners in these others agencies. I believe TxDOT is responsible to the public for our roadways, and we are able to work with these agencies to produce and get these roads on the ground. It’s not like 50 years ago where TxDOT was the sole agency. We still consider ourselves at the forefront, but we have different partners in the process of getting these roads on the ground. Q. How could this year’s state legislative session affect the transportation budget? A. Two elections ago, voters in the State of Texas approved funding for transportation projects throughout the state. I think it was a total of about $5 billion in various funds, whether it be bonds or other financial tools. We’re hoping that the legislature will address the actual means of how we will appropriate that money. The voters approved it, but it’s going to be up to the legislature to determine how we can acquire that money and how we can use it to develop our roadways. Q. In the future, will any major project managed by TxDOT likely be a toll road, or are alternative funding measures a possibility? A. It depends. I would say toll roads are an option; however, we are looking statewide at receiving funding from the possible stimulus package from Washington. All of the states are assessing what projects are a priority, and that’s what we’re doing in the Austin area. There’s no set list at this point. We’re evaluating everything across the board as far as what our transportation needs are. We are moving forward with what projects we need. We’re going into a state legislative session and we’re also looking at what funding may come from Washington as a result of the stimulus package. We also have the current options of public/private partnerships and working with city and county entities to see if they have access to transportation dollars as well. Q. Are there any existing toll roads that TxDOT plans to switch from tolled to free? A. It would be difficult to predict a toll road switching from paid to free. The main issue is maintenance. We’re looking at getting, hopefully, state and federal dollars to do more projects, but there is still a need for revenue to maintain the roads. So, the decision to switch over is probably something that won’t happen for years, if it does. Q. What can TxDOT do to proactively address traffic congestion in Central Texas? A. We know what's needed now as far as roadways are concerned, it's just a matter of funding. It's kind of hard moving forward in areas where we know growth is headed when we know that the current areas that are populated are under-served with roadways. We're at the point now where we're trying to maintain and still trying to take a step forward as far as expanding the roadways that we need. I think we did a very good job in pushing forward progress with the toll road system in eastern Travis County — SH 130, 45. It's been a great relief valve for much of the congestion in central and eastern Austin and as a bypass for this area. Q. Why has funding become such an issue for TxDOT projects over the past few years? A. Funding is becoming an issue now because in the Austin area, our growth is outstripping our ability to put roads on the ground to handle that growth and the traditional means of funding Texas roadways has changed over the years. We used to work with federal funds sent to us from Washington through the Federal Highway Administration and we used to work with funding from the Texas Legislature, but over the years, the amount of money form those sources has decreased, while the cost of construction has increased. So, we've had to look at new ways of funding those roadways — meaning working with groups like CAMPO, working with county and city governments to encourage them to use their funding when available. We're having to look at different means of getting the dollars to build the roads. It's a major challenge now and it's much different than it was in the good old days. Q. Have any planned road projects been scrapped or delayed as a result of the current economic climate? A. No, everything is on the table at this point. There haven’t been any projects that are being cancelled or anything like that. There was a slow down period about 18 months ago where everything pretty much came to a standstill. But at this point, we’re in the process of evaluating every project that is needed and waiting to see what TxDOT headquarters considers as a priority for the Austin area. They’re looking at priority projects across the state. That list is going downtown for review. It hasn’t come back yet; we’re still in the process of doing it. We’re in a great position now to assess what our needs are, and if the money becomes available, then we’ll be able to move forward. Q. How will the end of the Trans-Texas Corridor affect Texas roadways? A. I think what we'll see now, instead of having a project with a large footprint, like what the Trans-Texas Corridor was originally conceived as, what TxDOT is looking to do is use our existing right-of-way to expand our road systems. For example, SH 130, IH 35, wherever those large, existing roadway systems are right now, TxDOT is hoping to incorporate larger stretches of that as opposed to acquiring more property, more right-of-way. So, even though the concept and the name have been set aside, what we're looking to do is look for ways to use what we have in this time of conserving to get those roadways built and expanding. Q. Where do you see Texas' transportation system 20 years from now? A. What I've heard talked about is a fully integrated transportation system, where commuters and regional travelers have options to travel by rail, the use of toll roads, the use of highways. There are a lot of great concepts out there right now as far as moving goods and people and it's difficult to predict what technologies we will have in place. I think right now we're concentrating on concrete and asphalt getting on the ground, but I think folks can expect to see a greater integration of rails and highways. For example, you might be able to drive your car to a train station, jump on a light rail, get off the train, take a bus to your destination and maybe not even have to get back in your car until you get back in Austin.