Opponents swing away at Vidor Loop
By Dave Rogers
For the Record
Was the Coalition Opposing Vidor Loop 299 beating a dead horse when it presented its case before Orange County Commissioners Court Tuesday afternoon?
Did Hillary Clinton turn out to be the shoo-in for president that most pollsters were saying?
Coalition members Ellen Buchanan and Leslie Barras were not about to assume that headline-grabbing grass roots opposition has killed the proposed $63 million investment-slash-gamble with taxpayer money.
They piled on some more.
After Buchanan of the Big Thicket National Heritage Trust reprised the step-by-step economic and environmental rebuttal of Loop 299 she rolled out for concerned citizens in Vidor last week, Barras presented nuggets she found through a Freedom of Information Act request.
One of the highlights was an email report that an Army Corps of Engineers official said the Vidor Loop project had “a snowball’s chance in hell” of gaining a go-ahead permit from the Corps.
Commissioners’ interest in the FOI findings by Barras, founder of Historic Orange Preservation Empowerment, may or may not be lessened by the fact that the email bears a 1998 date, which would make it old enough to vote.
Speaking of voting, the city councils of Orange, West Orange, Bridge City, Vidor and Pinehurst have all passed resolutions against the county spending money on the Loop. But those are not binding on the Orange County government officials (four commissioners plus the county judge) who will ultimately decide.
But it sounds like David Dubose, Commissioner Precinct 1, has decided.
“I don’t think anybody at the court wants to have a cost to the county,” he said. “Let’s quit wasting everybody’s time kicking this can down the road, because there’s no question it’s going to cost money.
“I’ve been an opponent to the 299 Loop since Day 1 – if it costs the county money.”
Here are the facts, as up-to-date as Tuesday’s commissioners meeting, according to County Judge Stephen Carlton.
Not a penny has been committed to the project or any of the allied consultant groups urging the county to fund the project with partial reimbursement expected from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).
An up-or-down vote on the project will not occur until early 2017. By that time Dubose and John Banken, Commissioner Precinct 3, will have been replaced by incoming commissioners Bobby Trahan and John Gothia.
The updated economic impact survey commissioners agreed to use as a tool in their decision has not yet been ordered.
Vidor Loop 299 is also known as FM 299 because it will be, if built, a Farm to Market road owned and maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).
It was first proposed by TxDOT in 1998 as a 6.2-mile two-lane road to connect to FM 105, also known as Vidor’s Main Street, at the Pine Forest city limits to the north and Vidor’s Walden Road to the south, according to the TxDOT website. The loop’s western side would run near the eastern border of the Big Thicket National Preserve and cross Interstate 10 at the Church Street overpass.
A 6.8-mile “Alternate” version is in play now, extending the northern end to Conner Road in Pine Forest and the southern end to near the Union Pacific railroad tracks.
Like most construction projects, the exact cost is unknown, but the last figures introduced to commissioners (at a Sept. 13 workshop) went as high as $63 million, which the county would likely pay for with the purchase of 20-year bonds.
Repayment of the bond debt wouldn’t begin until completion of construction, which consultants from Strategic Planning & Program Development, Inc. (SPPDI) and Public Werks estimate will take three and a half years to complete once they get the go-ahead to begin.
As much as $43 million of the debt repayment would be offset by state reimbursement under TxDOT’s unfortunately named pass-through tolling program. Rather than charging cars a toll, this program tracks the number of cars using the roadway and repays the county accordingly from funds the state has collected for its gasoline tax.
Carlton said the state Transportation Committee is scheduled to consider Loop 299 at its next meeting, Dec. 15. Within a week of that meeting he expects the county will receive a new cost estimate and learn the exact payback it will receive from TxDOT for the project.
After that info is received, commissioners will vote whether or not to spend up to $50,000 for an updated economic impact study.
Then it would be go time.
Or not. Carlton indicated if commissioners vote against paying for a new study, that could be the end of the line for Loop 299.
The county commissioned a 1998 study to determine the impact a Vidor loop would have over 20 years. That report was updated in 2012 by simply plugging in 2012 costs and property values.
It predicted that over 20 years, Loop 299 would create nearly 1,200 new jobs and bring 3,000 new residents to Vidor. Salaries generated over those 20 years because of the loop would total $460 million, the survey said, same as the value of property added to the tax rolls.
Everyone in Orange County stands to benefit if the project’s promoters are right.
“Some people are leaving Beaumont. A lot went to the Lumberton area and now they’re getting saturated and fighting transportation issues. Individuals are starting to look this way,” said Commissioner Jody Crump, whose Precinct 4 includes Pine Forest and most of Vidor.
“In five to 10 years, that (Loop 299) would be the hub of Orange County.”
While new connections to Interstate 10 and a bridge over the railroad tracks south of I-10 would help Vidor smooth out Main Street traffic that includes rush hour commuters between Orange, Jefferson, Hardin, Jasper and Newton counties, the real win-win could come in economic development, new homes and businesses.
“Will it create enough growth over the next 20 years to service this debt?” asked Jessica Hill, executive director of the Orange County Economic Development Corporation at the September workshop.
“That’s our bottom line. We have to take a hard look.”
Others who will gain if the county backs Loop 299 are the consultants and owners of land made more valuable in the process. SPPDI will serve as Loop 299’s project manager while Public Werks is handling the financing.
“If the road goes by any of our property, we’ll donate the right of way,” Henry R. “Sunny” Stevenson of Vidor told commissioners back in September.
As it happens, ACR, LP, a land company in which Stevenson is one of four partners, along with Andrew Dunn, Janet Linscomb and W. Tim Edgar, owns virtually all of the undeveloped land on Loop 299’s north and west side, according to the Orange County Appraisal District.
Crump mentioned in a recent interview that ACR had donated all of the right-of-way, calling it “an estimated $10 million worth of value.”
The 10 parcels of land that make up the ACR holdings through which the planned roadway runs cover 2,600 acres. The 1998/2012 impact statement says 66 homes a year should be built each year along Loop 299, with 20 mobile homes a year moving onto lots.
“I’m from the smallest city in the county with about 500 people and we have been on board with this loop from the git-go,” Pine Forest mayor Kathy Nagel said at the September workshop. “It would be one of the only ways for Pine Forest to grow. We’ve been trying to get something like this in the Pine Forest area for years.”
Stevenson said he’d been working behind the scenes for 48 years.
The fact that most of the proposed route sits in the 100-year flood plain means expensive and time-consuming environmental permitting, Barras said. A SPPDI-provided project schedule that allowed just 13 months for environmental engineering and permitting is totally unrealistic, she said.
And then there’s that nagging bit about taxpayer money. Loop 299 critics question the rate of reimbursement projections and worry that cost overruns or economic development shortfalls could cause out-of-control tax increases.
And the citizens of Orange made it plain during summer budget hearings they’re against tax increases.
Like Buchanan and Barras, Vidor Mayor Robert Viator has a laundry list of objections to the county approving Loop 288 construction. He personally lobbied Orange County cities to sign the anti-Loop resolution.
He says what Vidor needs to spend money on most is new school buildings, and that the city’s citizens can’t afford to pay for schools and higher county taxes for Loop 299.
“The average age of Texas schools is 30 years old, but the school buildings we have in Vidor now are the same ones I went to school in, and I’m 50 years old,” he said.
“Spending more money on schools would create more impact for this side of the county.”