More funds needed to ease traffic congestion around Fort Bliss

By Diana Washington Valdez/El Paso Times

Posted: 02/08/2011 12:00:00 AM MST


Congress should use stimulus funds to address short-term traffic congestion caused by the U.S. Defense Department’s Base Closure and Realignment, according to a report released Monday by the National Academies.


The congressionally mandated report “Federal Funding of Transportation in BRAC Cases,” which mentions Fort Bliss, also recommends that federal lawmakers set up new funding streams to address longer-term BRAC-related transportation impacts.


It further recommends that the Defense Department accept greater financial responsibility for transportation problems related to growth on military installations, much as private developers pay impact fees to cover costs for improvements.


“Normal planning and funding will not be adequate to make near-term improvements needed to avoid significant, even severe, added traffic congestion in some BRAC cases,” said Joseph M. Sussman, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Sussman is chairman of the Committee on Federal Funding of Transportation Improvements in BRAC Cases, which is part of the National Research Council’s Transportation and Research Board.


In a teleconference, Sussman praised efforts of Fort Bliss and state and local officials to work closely to address traffic congestion before BRAC was completed.


State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, chairman of the Texas House Transportation Committee, agreed that the federal government should provide more funding for projects to reduce traffic congestion resulting from BRAC growth.


“We did the reverse. We developed Spur 601 to attract the additional military units to Fort Bliss,” Pickett said. “I believe we received $5 million to $6 million from the federal government for this project, but we could have used more.”


Spur 601, or the Liberty Expressway, was designed to provide a 7.4-mile connection between U.S. 54 in the west and Loop 375 in the east.


“For many years prior to the 2005 BRAC, we worked cooperatively at all levels of government to plan and build the necessary infrastructure before new troops arrived in El Paso,” said U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. “As the report notes, many other communities are struggling with growing pains, but fortunately, we got ahead of the issue. This allows us to focus on other important priorities such as the new William Beaumont that will break ground this year. To date, the Department of Defense has invested almost $5 billion at Fort Bliss.”


The Fort Bliss vicinity is one of the regions in the United States that was going to experience traffic congestion due to the rapid growth spurred by BRAC 2005. “Fort Bliss in Northeast El Paso is the fastest-growing U.S. Army installation in the United States,” according the report.


Because of BRAC 2005, as well as other initiatives such as Grow the Army, Army Campaign Plan and Army Modularity Force, Fort Bliss is expected to have 33,500 soldiers, 48,000 family members, 6,000 civilian employees and 3,000 contractors by the end of next year, tripling the population at the post between 2005 and 2012.


Fort Bliss officials said Monday that as of December, the post had between 30,000 and 33,000 personnel, including active-duty soldiers. The numbers do not include family members.


“Although multifamily housing was identified as the primary concern, transportation also was identified as an issue. … About $667 million in local interchange and highway improvements were identified as needed to serve the projected influx,” the report said.


The report makes reference to the $367 million Inner Loop (Spur 601) project by the Texas Transportation Department (TxDOT) as a example of what the El Paso community was doing in anticipation of the changes at Fort Bliss.


“In addition to the typical bond financing initiatives, the city and elected officials worked with TxDOT on a unique (pass-through toll) funding approach in constructing Spur 601. … In pass-through tolling, motorists pay nothing. Vehicles are counted and the state reimburses the private firm over several years according to that number,” the report said.


TxDOT spokeswoman Blanca Del Valle said the main Spur 601 construction is finished.


“What they are doing now is going through a process of checking over everything to make sure the work meets all the requirements,” she said.


Del Valle said a proposed Loop 375 extension project also may help to relieve traffic congestion near Fort Bliss. A public hearing on the project is planned for Feb. 15 in Northeast El Paso.


Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at; 546-6140.