By Dave Rogers

For The Record

Concerned that Orange County leaders are trying to sneak a $64 million boondoggle past distracted taxpayers, activist Leslie Barras threatened a petition drive to let residents vote for or against a proposed Vidor Loop.

Jody Crump, Precinct 4 Commissioner, disagreed with Barras’ interpretation of the county court’s intent.

Representing the Coalition Opposing FM 299, Barras said that consultants hired by the county plan to meet with Texas Transportation Commissioners at their June 29 meeting to ask them to authorize the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to negotiate a Pass Through Agreement between TxDOT and the county.

“There have been lots of significant changes in the project that have not been brought back before the residents of Orange County, that have not been discussed in open session,” Barras said at the end of Tuesday’s county court meeting, referring to the proposed roadway formally known as FM 299.

“One of which is now that the debt has increased to $64 million for a project that the majority of the county has said they don’t want. So we asked them to hold off.”

Barras cited 2017 correspondence and emails between Carlton, Scott Young, of the consulting firm of Strategic Planning & Program Development, Inc. (SPPDI), and Tucker Ferguson, TxDOT’s district engineer obtained by the Coalition via an Open Record request.

The documents cite the cost of construction at $52.2 million with $11.8 million being interest and bond fees.

Barras says the documents’ proposed figures, generated earlier this year, show TxDOT ultimately repaying Orange County $32.2 million and Orange County on the hook for $27.8 million.

Carlton’s letter to Ferguson says “it is likely” that the County will put up the $64 million using a combination of Certificates of Obligation/Revenue Bonds and a tax pledge by Orange County.

Young’s figures show Orange County taxpayers paying a rate of 1.14 cents per $100 valuation to 7.48 cents per $100 valuation over a 20-year repayment.

Crump, questioned after the meeting ended, said the county was merely following through on what it said it would do the last time the issue of FM 299 was raised in a meeting, in November – asking TxDOT to give it solid info on the cost of the project and TxDOT’s repayment.

The court said in November that it hadn’t yet agreed to any expense and was merely needing the final figures before it reached a decision.

The city councils of Orange, West Orange, Bridge City, Vidor and Pinehurst, five of the county’s six incorporated cities, all passed resolutions last fall 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.