Texas Ballot Propositions Spell Endless Road Expansion

In November 2015, Texas approved several ballot propositions, two of which enabled enormous expansions in highway funding. I spoke with Kevin Shepherd, founding principal of VERDUNITY, a Dallas-based civil engineering, urban design and community consulting firm, to get his perspective on these ballot propositions and their implications for Texas.

The two road funding propositions sought to:

  • Authorize counties with 7,500 people or less to perform private road construction and maintenance (Proposition 5)
  • Allocate a portion of sales and use tax revenue to the state highway fund through 2032 (Proposition 7)

You can read more about both of them here.

Photo by  Tim Patterson

Photo by Tim Patterson

Prop. 7 in particular, got a lot of media attention and discussion, a majority of which was in support of the proposition. As Kevin explained, Texas was primed to approve these ballot measures, and both passed by a landslide:

The culture here is, "We don’t want toll roads, because we don’t want to have to pay to use the roads. But, oh by the way, we want roads everywhere." There’s an attitude that, whether it’s a residential street or highway, that’s everybody’s right to have that.

Kevin did mention one council member who spoke out against Prop. 7, Philip Kingston, from Dallas. There was also a small group fighting the ballot measure, taking the angle that “transportation is important, but if we’re going to take all of this money, some of it should go to other things too,” Kevin explained. They were advocating for some money to be allocated to education, but that didn’t hold much sway. Kevin himself advocated against these propositions: “With all of this stuff, my big gripe is, we do need more money for transportation stuff but before we give TexDOT more money, we need to completely transform the system that’s used to decide what that money is for.”

Kevin knows from experience that the lobbyists for big construction companies and engineering firms also play a large role in making sure ballot measures like these are passed. He said, “I used to work for a big architecture and engineering firm. We would do all that lobbying stuff. We’d take our pot of money and decide which council members we were going to support. And it was always whichever ones were going to support the big infrastructure projects.” Kevin eventually saw the light and left that firm to help start VERDUNITY.

There are a few glimmers of hope, in spite of the approval of these ballot measures though. Kevin offered managed lanes as one example of a new system that had worked well in a couple places. “That’s been a step in the right direction of aligning the pricing with the benefits,” he said.

Public opinion on transit might also be improving. Kevin mentioned the example of Plano, TX, which is connected to the DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) Rail System and recently rebuilt its downtown around the train station with mixed-use developments and walkable neighborhoods. Toyota just relocated their headquarters to Plano partly because of this rail access.

Kevin thinks that a movement toward more transit access and walkable places won’t come from the government, but from private companies like Toyota. However, those sorts of accessible places are hard to find in Texas. “So developers will just plop down in a Greenfield and build from the ground up,” said Kevin. This is more top-down, large scale planning that has the potential to sink towns into further debt and maintenance costs, just like the suburban development pattern.

In many ways, Texas hasn’t yet reached the decline phase of the Growth Ponzi Scheme. Kevin explained:

We’re still kind of in the growth phase. We have so much growth coming in and land on the edge is so cheap. We’re just now getting the place where some of our communities are older and built out... Texas is on a great run, but they’re not seeing the next 20-30 years out. At some point we’re not going to be able to pay for that stuff.

For Texas, being in the growth phase is both a blessing and a curse: Because the state is able to build and expand cheaply now, its much harder for residents and politicians to picture a future where they’ll have to pay the real price of everything. But Texas also has the chance to change course, learn from the mistakes made in other states, and build productive places.

Unfortunately, Propositions 5 and 7 were a huge step in the wrong direction for Texas, paving the way for yet more new roads in a state that is already grossly overbuilt.

Throughout the day, we'll be sharing other posts related to Texas road funding issues, including the history behind this funding, a proposal for a better version of an urban highway, and public transit successes in Texas. Stay tuned.

(Top photo from Wikimedia)

Related stories: