By Dave Rogers
For the Record

While leadership at the Orange County courthouse took a baby step Tuesday in the direction of building a 6.5-mile loop to connect either end of Vidor’s Main Street, two more Orange County cities cried “Halt!”
Both Orange and Bridge City’s city councils Tuesday joined Vidor in passing a non-binding resolution that opposes Orange County financing, either in part or full, a TxDOT roadway.
“If we can’t pay our employees decent wages, with raises and benefits, then we do not need to jump into a bottomless pit of debt to fund a road that no one really wants or needs,” homeowner Sharon Odegar of Little Cypress said, holding in front of her a prepared statement she read before Orange City Council at their morning meeting, again at the afternoon County Commissioners meeting and finally at the Bridge City City Council meeting Tuesday evening.
She was referring to the fact that Orange County has reduced benefits and nixed raises for most employees in recent years, citing tough economic times.
No one knows how much the FM 299 project will cost. The highest price tag mentioned when consultant Scott Young of Strategic Planning and Program Development Inc. (SPPDI) presented it to commissioners in an early September workshop was $63 million total, with the county committing up to $23 million for the two-year build.
The SPPDI plan calls for the state, through the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), to pay the $40 million balance as a reimbursement based on FM 299 traffic. In the workshop, financial consultant John Crew of Public Werks said economic development created by new businesses locating along the loop should more than cover the county’s investment.
But commissioners appear to be approaching the loop with caution.
Tuesday’s 4-0 vote (commissioner David Dubose was absent) authorized Young to work with TxDOT to determine the exact financial requirements.
“After the agreement (with TxDOT), you’ll have (to make) the decision on funding before there’s any expenditures,” Young said.
The commissioners are waiting on a new economic impact study before deciding whether to go forward.
“I want to see the economic development study come back,” said Jody Crump, commissioner for Precinct 4, which includes Vidor.
“I’ve been a proponent, but I want to make sure all our ducks are in a row.”
“This is only informational,” John Banken, commissioner of Precinct 3, said. “We’re not binding the county down for any money.”
Benefits of a loop, as enumerated by Young in September, included decreased traffic provided by new connections to Interstate 10 and a bridge over the railroad tracks south of I-10, improved public safety because ambulances and other emergency vehicles would have an alternate to waiting on trains on South Main, and economic growth.
Robert Viator, Vidor mayor, points out that the widening of I-10, the Purple Heart bridge at the Neches River and Main Street, also known as FM 105, in recent years has reduced the traffic problem.
And he and others point out that much of the proposed roadway between Main Street is near sea level and environmentally sensitive.
“The proposed route for this road will create a levee on the west side of Vidor which will ensure equal opportunities for all residents to flood,” Odegar said.
Tuesday’s county court agenda actually placed the commissioner’s vote on exploring their loop options ahead of citizens’ comment.
About a dozen people spoke for or against Loop 299, about evenly divided.
Jimmy Smith, a Vidor realtor, was excited to see Orange County’s leaders entertaining the project.
“Let me tell you, this would help us so much economically in Vidor, Texas. There are about 40,000 to 50,000 people in Vidor and I guarantee you about 90 percent of them are for it.
“I’d say probably within five years, you’d probably have 50 new businesses in here. I appreciate you guys finally having the guts to vote for that end of the county. Most of the time, we get the rod in Vidor.”
Shawn Sparrow of the Houseman Companies argued against the Loop.
“We need but we need business retention. If you’re going to build a loop off Main Street, you’ll kill Main Street. And then you’ll have a loop we can’t develop.”
Capt. Tom Ray of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department identified himself as “here today speaking as a citizen of Orange County.”
He said “I don’t like paying taxes, but I do understand the need for taxes. I do think this road is going to cause an increase in taxes but I don’t know if the increase in taxes is worth the benefits of the road.
“Why don’t we get this (environmental impact) study, let the citizens research that study and put it to a vote. Let the citizens determine if we accept this road or not.”
Vidor city council voted in late September for a resolution against Orange County funding Loop 299. Viator said his city had asked other cities to sign a similar resolution.
“Basically, I’m just making the rounds to other entities,” he said.
The City of Orange council approved the measure 4-0 Tuesday morning with council member Wayne Guidry abstaining and Essie Bellfield not in attendance.
Tuesday night, the City of Bridge City council voted 7-0 to approve a similar resolution against the County funding the project.
Admitting that the resolutions have no legal standing before the Orange County commissioners, Viator said, “If every incorporated town opposes it, we can stand as one. I think the political pressure can help.”
In other business Tuesday, Orange County OK’d the transfer of four county vans to Orange County Meals on Wheels and announced it is accepting nominations for park board from voters who live in Orange County. Those interested in nominating themselves or another should contact Holly Walker at the Orange County Administration Building.