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Infrastructure upgrades vital to Texas' economic development, officials say at Waco summit

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chamber summit

Capstone Mechanical President Rick Tullis, from left, speaks with the summit’s expert panel on transportation: Carlos Garcia, director of transportation at Bowman Consulting; Darran Anderson, director of strategy and innovation at TxDOT; and Allan Rutter, head of the freight and investment analysis division at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

The Texas Legislature will convene Jan. 10, and lawmakers will start deliberations enjoying a nearly $30 billion budget surplus. But Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar said Wednesday he still dreads delivering his session-opening report.

“We are showing signs of a recession,” Hegar said in Waco. “There are clouds to be seen, including supply chain issues and inflation. We can’t help but be impacted by global and national factors. But we will continue to outperform because of the people I’m looking at in this room.”

About 150 attended a daylong Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce infrastructure summit titled “Building the Texas of Tomorrow” at The Baylor Club. Attendees included elected officials and business and community leaders, including Waco Mayor Dillon Meek, McLennan County Judge Scott Felton and State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, who is in a Nov. 8 reelection bid against Erin Shank.

Speakers and panelists talked transportation, broadband, energy and water issues, and how Texas and local communities should address them. Topics moved from roadway fatalities, electric cars and Texas’ power grid to meeting infrastructure demands caused by Texas’ growing population. Several mentioned the state’s economy is the ninth largest worldwide.

Jeffrey DeCoux, who chairs the Austin-based Autonomy Institute, touted the value of “intelligent infrastructure,” and the advancements possible with teams comprised of government, industry and academia. DeCoux said Texas could become a technological center, continuing an evolution beginning with New York and continuing with Detroit and California’s Silicon Valley.

He said Texas is rife with potential for public-private partnerships, and investors expect solid returns on money poured into infrastructure. DeCoux said the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year provides $1.2 trillion to states for roads, highways, bridges and airports, for example, but $4.4 trillion in private money sits poised to become a factor.

“No city has more leadership with the vision of intelligent technology’s importance than Waco,” DeCoux said.

Moving on to broadband availability, Hegar said 7 million Texans still have no link to the learning opportunities, health services or social interaction that good internet connectivity provides, “even if they wanted it and could pay for it.”

“Availability is critical to economic opportunity,” Hegar said.

The community is justifiably pleased that the $341 million widening of Interstate 35 through Waco and Bellmead has come to a close, said Brandye Hendrickson, deputy executive director of planning and administration for the Texas Department of Transportation. She said she applauded locals for their patience and contractor Webber for beating scheduling deadlines.

Hendrickson said the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will make money available to TxDOT for scheduled maintenance and major construction projects, but includes a “dizzying amount” for discretionary grants that communities such as Waco may pursue. She said TxDOT gladly would support local efforts, including sending letters of recommendation.

“We are still navigating the landscape,” Hendrickson said. “But we are willing to partner with communities, and to send those letters.”

She said TxDOT faces “interesting times,” battling inflation adding about 20% to construction costs and an employee turnover rate of about 15%, its highest in 29 years. She said the department is determined to become an employer of choice.

Safety remains a critical issue, Hendrickson said. She said 4,490 people died on Texas highways in 2021, and 44 were highway workers. She said Nov. 7, 2000, was the last day no death was recorded on a Texas highway.

“We need everybody’s help,” Hendrickson said.

She said Metropolitan Planning Organizations around the state have organized safety task forces, “but this is really a matter of personal responsibility.”

Bill Flores, who previously represented a U.S. House District that included Waco, said he is disappointed Texas’ electric grid and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas have become politicized since February 2021, when customers experienced extended outages during a deadly storm that paralyzed much of the state. Flores now serves as vice chair of ERCOT’s board, a position he undertook after the Texas Legislature restructured how board members are picked.

Here are some statistics that take full measure of the winter weather crisis that gripped the region.

ERCOT manages Texas’ grid, the third-largest in the United States, Flores said. It neither generates electricity nor sets rates.

“Reports the grid is in peril this winter are not true,” Flores said.

The system adequately responded to 38 new demand records over the summer, he said.

Flores said the state must recognize its growth is impaired without a reliable grid, and reliability and resiliency have costs.

“My gut tells me the Public Utility Commission needs more market redesign authority,” Flores of the agency that regulates the state’s electric, telecommunications, water and sewer utilities. “I believe market redesign will have a place in the long-term stability of the grid.”

The commission oversees competitive markets for electricity while also regulating a traditional utility model for electric transmission and distribution.

Carlos Garcia, director of transportation for Bowman Consulting, said electric vehicles “are the coming thing, but driver hesitancy comes from uncertainty about where they can access charging stations.”

Darran Anderson, director of strategy and innovation for TxDOT, was asked about predictions half of all cars on the road by 2030 would be electric.

“The production capacity is there,” Anderson said. “But access to resources needed to build electric vehicles has changed since the pandemic.”

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