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March 19, 2018 1:30 PM, EDT

Crumbling County Roads: The Unintended Consequence of Energy Industry Traffic

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News

Guadalupe Road in south Victoria County, Texas, was brand new in August 2016 after the county spent $200,000 to repave it for the first time in decades. But in the last few weeks, it began to crumble and crack, forcing county crews to patch up the deteriorating surface.

“It got to the point yesterday that we had to shut down the road and start repairing it,” said Commissioner Danny Garcia in early March.

The cause of the damage: fleets of trucks hauling thousands of pounds of dirt to a nearby natural gas pipeline project.

“Overweight vehicle permits allow up to 84,000 pounds,” said Garcia. “But county roads can’t take that – much less 600 of those loads.”

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Garcia’s county road is among miles of pavement across the state that have borne the burden of overweight traffic, often from the energy industry. Although local businesses and residents welcome the companies and the jobs they bring, their presence comes with an unintended consequence – one that leaves county governments with unexpected road damages that can rise into the millions of dollars.

But as it stands, county officials say their governments receive little compensation from the industries that cause the damage or the state, which permits overweight trucks to travel on both state and county roads. This problem has spurred lawmakers to seek legislative solutions, but they’ve been largely unsuccessful at finding a permanent fix.

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“Everybody likes oil and gas, and everybody likes to talk about the jobs and everything that’s happening,” said Rep. James White, who represents rural counties in east Texas. “But there’s an impact.”

Brittany Sowacke/Bloomberg News 

There was a grant program to help counties that took the brunt of heavy traffic during the Eagle Ford Shale boom, but that program fizzled out. So last year, White introduced a bill that would set aside a 2 cents on every dollar from the state’s tax on oil and gas production to be given to counties with roads and bridges used by the energy companies and the trucks they hire.

“We’re all for the drilling,” said White. “But you know, I was just thinking, what is a fair way to get some money back into these counties’ hands where they can at least maintain the roads?”

In Victoria, cash to fix roads is exactly what Garcia needs but doesn’t have a whole lot of. His precinct is home to some of the poorest communities in the county, some of which are in desperate need of new road signs, street lighting and crosswalks.

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Each year, Garcia carefully creates a budget and decides which projects take priority – until the unexpected happens and he’s forced to repair a road that wasn’t on his list.

“We would love to build roads that can take those loads all day – we can’t afford them,” said Garcia.

This year, Garcia has about $1.3 million to tackle all road and bridge problems across 150 miles of roads in his district. The Texas Department of Transportation kicks in some compensation to offset impacts from overweight vehicles, but that’s usually only about $10,000 each year.

And the compensation from the state transportation agency comes in the form of surplus road materials, not cash, said Garcia.

“I’d have to be in office 20 freaking years before I made up the amount of money for me to fix this one road,” said Garcia.

Fortunately for Garcia, the company building the pipeline project said it would pay to repair the road, he said. But county leaders elsewhere aren’t always so lucky.

About an hour north of Garcia’s district, DeWitt County Judge Daryl Fowler has been dealing with even more extensive problems for years. Since taking office in 2011, Fowler has argued that his county hasn’t received its fair share of revenue pouring into the state from drilling and fracking.

“The burden of repairing the damages to county roads caused by oil and gas drilling efforts still falls principally on county taxpayers,” said Fowler.

In the height of the Eagle Ford Shale boom when the county was inundated with oil and gas traffic, a 2012 study found that nearly half of DeWitt County’s 690 miles of roadway were affected in some way. The study said rebuilding roads to handle heavy traffic came with a $432 million price tag.

But between 2010 and 2018, his county only got less than $1 million from state overweight vehicle fees and less than $250,000 in gas tax money, which barely covered one road project, let alone all of them.

While the state was giving grant money to counties with damage from Eagle Ford Shale traffic, DeWitt County received about $4.9 million. That money has been spent, and Fowler is calling for legislators to find a more permanent solution.

That could include a legislative fix like the one the lawmaker from east Texas proposed, which would give counties a sliver of tax revenue from oil and gas production, Fowler said.

“We’re neglecting other needs in order to get the roads improved and safe for the school buses and first responders and keep the wheels of industry turning,” said Fowler.

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