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MPO Transportation Board to pursue bike share program despite lack of federal funds

The Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board is pushing forward a bike share program, despite the state’s refusal to release federal money to fund most of the project.

The Federal Highway Administration on Friday again said the bike share program meets the criteria for the $1.8 million in federal funds. The federal dollars flow through the Texas Department of Transportation, who has said the funds could be better utilized.

In a letter to the Metropolitan Planning Organizaton on Thursday, TxDot officials wrote the bike share program would reduce congestion in El Paso less than 1% or, 165 daily vehicle miles in El Paso. TxDot District Engineer for El Paso, Bob Bielek said the state agency cannot justify releasing the funds, which are meant to be used to reduce congestion and improve air quality.

Bielek was the only member of the transportation policy board who voted to defund the program at a meeting on Friday. The $1.8 million are federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds and consisted of the lion’s share of the project’s budget.

The City of El Paso, The University of Texas at El Paso and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have together pitched in about $400,000 for the project. Several local and state lawmakers said the state should respect the MPOs three votes to fund and start the bike share program.

“It’s more an issue of who makes the decision: is it the local community through its planning body with all of the area representatives having approved it or do we have a state agency say ‘well like children, we don’t think you are making a wise choice here and we’d rather you do something else'”, State Rep. Jose Rodriguez told the rest of the MPO board on Friday.

Bielek said TxDot was not overstepping its bounds and had the responsibility of being good stewards of the money.

“How are we going to explain to the public and the press that we spent nearly $2 million for virtually nothing,” Bielek asked the MPO. Bielek in May had voted, along with the rest of the MPO, to use the CMAQ funds for the bike share program. He contends he did not have enough information about the program until after that vote because the bike share plan did not go through the MPOs Transportation Project Advisory Committee, where TxDot often vets projects. “This was not adequately planned,” said Bielek.

Fellow MPO board member Veronica Escobar said it’s not incredibly common or required for projects to go to the committee Bielek refers to. She said TxDot had plenty of time since the beginning of 2013, to get informed and raise concerns about funding bike share. State Rep. Joe Pickett said he reluctantly supported the bike share program and hopes it fosters a more bike-riding culture, but also understood TxDot’s position. “Even though the air quality numbers may not be huge, lets see if we can get some interest and get people to actually do this (bike-ride). They (TxDot) don’t really look at trying to build a culture, they’re being told ‘well, if the numbers don’t work, you should vote no.”

The transportation policy board voted on Friday to continue with plans for the bike share, knowing TxDot may not release the CMAQ funds. If the state does not release the federal money, then supporters hope Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority can implement a much smaller bike share program with the local funds.

As a response to an ABC-7 inquiry, a TxDot Spokeswoman said, through an email, that TxDot would be proposing to reprogram the CMAQ funds for the City’s pilot project to staff more federal agents at the Bridge of the Americas and reduce bridge wait times. Escobar said she learned of TxDot’s plans from media reports. “If we go a route where we allow decisions to be made outside of this body and outside of deliberation and outside of the evidence we have infront of us then that leads me to be concerned,” she said.

Bielek, after Friday’s meeting, said the tranpsortation policy board has to decide how to allocate the CMAQ funds but said that if the MPO cannot demonstrate a greater benefit from the bike share, TxDot will not move on with the project and the MPO will not have access to the funds.

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