In response to area residents' frustrations with traffic congestion and anticipated continued Brazos Valley population and economic growth, the Brazos County Commissioners Court unanimously authorized the petitioning of the Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) for the creation of the Brazos County Regional Mobility Authority at its weekly meeting Tuesday morning.
The authorization is the first step in a four-step process that would create a county-wide local government agency that would work alongside, but independent from, the 10-county TxDOT Bryan District. The TxDOT Bryan District includes 10 counties, with Freestone County the farthest north, and Walker County the easternmost county in the district.
RMAs do not have taxing authority but do have the power of eminent domain, according to Texas law.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Nancy Berry said after the meeting that the county's transportation and traffic needs differ from the less populous counties in the TxDOT Bryan District. Since the early 1980s, traffic congestion in Bryan-College Station has been growing 4 to 6 percent per year, essentially doubling every 12 years, according to data compiled by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and shared by county officials Tuesday.
"This is a way to say 'Hey, we do have transportation problems, we recognize them, we're organized, we're engaged and we're ready to do whatever we can to help ourselves.' It's an exciting day for Brazos County," Berry said.
If approved by the TTC, the Commissioners Court would create an RMA board of trustees. The court would appoint board directors, and the state's governor would appoint the board's presiding officer.
County Judge Duane Peters and the Commissioners Court received letters of support for a Brazos County RMA from a number of area officials and institutions, including from Bryan and College Station's mayors and city councils, Blinn College, Texas A&M University and the A&M University System. The letters will be used as part of the petition submission to the TTC.
State Sen. Charles Schwertner and State Reps. John Raney and Kyle Kacal also wrote letters of support, as did the Bryan-College Station Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Brazos Valley Economic Development Corporation and the Bryan-College Station Chamber of Commerce.
Regional Mobility Authorities are authorized to finance, operate, maintain and expand a wide range of transportation facilities and services. Counties could be added to the RMA at a later date, according to Jones/Carter Engineering vice president Doug Bramwell, who delivered a presentation at the Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday in support of the petition.
Jones/Carter has been part of a year-long process to consider and ultimate suggest petitioning the TTC for a Brazos County RMA. Bramwell and area transportation expert Dennis Christiansen spoke at a Commissioners Court workshop on the topic in March as part of the process of educating area leaders about the process and proposal.
Because RMAs do not have taxing authority, Bramwell said funding an RMA can come from a variety of sources, including federal highway and rail funds. Other sources can include tax-exempt revenue bonds, private equity, public grants, government loans and revenue generated from existing transportation facilities.
There are currently nine RMAs in Texas, according to Bramwell. Areas with RMAs vary in population as well as size. The most densely populated RMAs are the Alamo RMA, a one-county RMA of nearly 2 million residents that includes San Antonio, and the two-county Central Texas RMA, which includes Austin. Several of Texas' most populous counties, including Harris County, have toll authorities.
The least populous RMA, at approximately 120,000 residents, is the Grayson County RMA in the Lake Texoma region of north Texas. Current population estimates of Brazos County range between 220,000 and 230,000 residents.
Projects taken on by one or more of the nine existing RMAs in the state include highways (tolled and untolled), ferries, airports, bikeways and intermodal hubs.
"There is no plan in our project that calls for a toll road in Brazos County, but that is a tool the RMA board could use," Precinct 1 Commissioner Steve Aldrich said.
"This is a wonderful way for a community to come up with a solution that fits their needs and starts a process, so I can't tell you how excited I am about this after a lot of work by many people."
A Regional Mobility Authority can acquire or condemn property for projects, enter into public-private partnerships and set rates for the use of transportation facilities.
The Texas Legislature first authorized the creation of RMAs in 2001 with passage of Senate Bill 342. Texas voters approved a subsequent constitutional amendment on Nov. 6, 2001.
"We would get a tool we don't have currently," Bramwell said. "It's not the silver bullet that would fix all of our problems, but it's going to give us opportunities that we don't currently have. It's local control, and it allows projects to happen quicker because the RMA can take the lead."
A 2015 investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that some of the nine RMAs in the state had achieved their goals, such as the Central Texas RMA's building of a toll road option on U.S. 290 east of Austin, which alleviated some of the area's traffic issues. Other RMAs, the investigation found, struggled to live up to their ambitions or complete projects.