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With one word, Texas Department of Transportation officials Thursday pacified a crowd of municipal leaders from Waco and around the state who balked at the idea of having to maintain some 1,900 miles of state road.

The word was “voluntary.”

At a Texas Transportation Commission meeting, TxDOT staffers said they would offer financial incentives to try to persuade cities to take custody of urban roads deemed nonessential to the state transportation network.

The “turnback” program had drawn fierce criticism from leaders in the Waco area, where about 40 miles have been identified for transfer, including Waco Drive, Valley Mills Drive, Hewitt Drive and La Salle Avenue. But City Manager Larry Groth told the commission Thursday that Waco would be willing to negotiate.

“Based on what I heard this morning in the clarifying presentation, we are very much open for an open discussion to look at what roads in Waco are truly local in nature,” Groth told the commission.

But Groth said the state’s estimated savings of $165 million is not nearly enough to keep the state system from sliding into disrepair.

“Our state Transportation Department has a proud tradition of having the best and best-maintained roads, but it seems to be going the wrong direction,” he said.

State Rep. Doc Anderson, R-Waco, also told the commission that making the program voluntary would made it palatable. A mandatory turnback program would degrade the efficiency of the state road system and would be “the mother of all unfunded mandates,” he said.

TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson earlier this month sent out letters to municipal leaders saying that the agency was proposing to address its budget crunch through turnbacks in cities of more than 50,000 residents, but the letter did not say it was a voluntary program. Wilson spelled out the deal in a newspaper column Wednesday, the eve of the commission meeting.

For cities that agree, the state would bring the roads up to good condition and give cities a year’s worth of maintenance money. All the state’s savings from participating cities would be used to build and expand roads within the urban district, TxDOT chief engineer John Barton told the commission.

“This would allow us to take any money we don’t have to spend on local roadways and reinvest (the money) in other places in those communities,” he said.

Barton said cities that accept the roads would then have control over speed limits, landscaping, temporary closures and curb cuts for businesses.

$4 billion a year

TxDOT officials have said they need an additional $4 billion a year to adequately maintain the existing highway system, but the Legislature this year agreed to add only about $1.2 billion a year for new roads, subject to voter approval in fall 2014.

TxDOT also is looking to cut its costs by converting certain paved farm-to-market roads to sealed gravel in South and West Texas, where an oil and gas boom is bringing heavy truck traffic.

Barton said the turnback program targets roads that aren’t necessary for cross-state travel, such as Lamar Boulevard in Austin, Westheimer Road in Houston and Northwest Highway in Dallas. Those roads were once part of the backbone for travel in Texas but have been superseded by loop roads and now mostly serve local traffic.

An attorney for TxDOT said recent legislation gives the Texas Transportation Commission wide discretion in transferring roads to cities.

John Monaco, mayor of Mesquite and president of the Texas Municipal League, warned that the turnback program could lead Texas down a “dark and treacherous course,” in which the state increasingly passes its expenses on to cities.

“It’s nothing more than a massive unfunded mandate from one level to another level of government,” he said.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said the letter informing her of the potential turnback program was a “shock.” It would cost 
$11 million a year to maintain all the roads TxDOT wants to turn back to her city, Price said.

“That’s a cost citizens of Fort Worth cannot take on,” she said. “We want to be your partners, but we want you to understand this is simply not a solution that citizens of Fort Worth can or will afford.”

But Price said Fort Worth, like Waco, would be willing to negotiate taking control of some roads if the program is voluntary.

Commissioner Victor Vandergriff said the initial letter Wilson sent to cities this month caused needless fears that the program would be mandated without consultation with local leaders.

He said TxDOT leaders should have met earlier with municipal officials, and said Thursday’s discussion “to some extent is a colossal waste of time.”

Commission chairman Ted Houghton disagreed, saying that “we allowed others to message it and take great liberties with our message.”