Why Texas is Spending too Much on Roads and How to Stop

Today, we're covering transportation funding issues in Texas. Patrick Kennedy is a Strong Towns member actively working to end Texas' overspending on roads. Today, he shares what got Texas to this point and how it might be able to change course. 

Texas State Highway 70. Image from Wikimedia.

Texas State Highway 70. Image from Wikimedia.

The recently passed federal highway bill (FAST) authorizes $305 billion over 5 years from a hodge podge of scraped together sources.  To put this number somewhat into local context (or to compare sane to insane), the state of Texas believes it requires $370 billion in transportation expenditures over the next twenty years.  If the Feds are spending $60 billion per year, the state of Texas would like nearly one-third of that amount please.

Of course, asks are always bigger than gives, but the federal bill is the equivalent of digging through couch cushions to buy groceries. I guess the feds lack the Texas gumption to rootin’ tootin’ shoot for the moon.  What was passed is merely 1/8th of what Texas added to the highway building machine in the last two years on a per capita basis.

What I’m saying is, while the Federal Highway Building may keep the trust fund floating for another five years, the lack of dollars (both available and authorized) signals an implicit if unintended, but necessary shift towards ‘fixing it first.’ Meaning, there simply isn’t enough money to keep expanding the highway system.  Over Davy Crockett’s dead body.

You might have questions like, ‘How did Texas pass so much money for transportation?’ and ‘Are they planning on doing anything useful with it?’  First question first.  

How did Texas get to this point?

The timeline goes something like this: In 2013, TxDOT (your friendly state government representative who knocks on your door and is here to help) warns the state legislature (and every newspaper that will listen) of an impending catastrophic shortfall. The state transportation agency needed an additional $4 billion per year above their current $6 billion/year budget.  In short, pestilence by 2016.

In 2014, ‘the Ledge’ proposed proposition 1 amendment to statewide voters that would siphon $1.7 billion a year from the state’s rainy day fund (filled by oil and gas drilling permitting fees. Yes, we get high on our own supply.)  Voters approved it overwhelmingly.

Next, in 2015 a new statewide proposition was floated by ‘the Ledge,’ Prop 7. It also passed in a landslide (when doesn’t the allure of free money win the day?), dedicating a portion of the statewide sales tax, as well as all revenue from the motor vehicle sales tax, to the tune of $2.5 billion per year strictly to highways.  And absolutely no tolls either, y’all.

This isn’t a logical or rational opposition of tolls, but instead, a twisted ‘free market’ fervor for socialized and fiscally unsound transportation infrastructure.

This newfound cash flow has useful timing considering the increasingly vehement tea party opposition to toll roads as state and regional agencies attempt to papier-mache over the cracks with increased tolling facilities to cover operating expenses.  Keep in mind, this isn’t a logical or rational opposition of tolls – say, as terrible financial mechanisms to add capacity – but, instead a twisted ‘free market’ fervor for socialized and fiscally unsound transportation infrastructure.  A continued free lunch, as it were.  In short, many politicians in Texans may not be ready for difficult conversations and hard choices.

Other states and the latest federal transportation budget increasingly lean towards either an explicit or implicit 'fix it first' policy.  Meanwhile, our regional plans, fueled by exurban and rural elected officials' (and their outsized representation on regional transportation councils) thirst to cannibalize off the growth of the closer in municipalities, continue to show hundreds of lane miles in both expanded and new highways.

Oversimplified Math

Here you start to see how TxDOT has to deal with $90 billion in annual asks from across the state.  It’s an impossible position.  It’s how we end up with a region with a developed area that is 3x the geographic size of Greater London, but half the population. At least their budget is now 1/10th of what elected officials would like it to be instead of 1/15th.  Keep in mind, this is a tax averse state.

Oversimplified math provides the general reasoning for the diversions from every funding source imaginable towards highways, which could theoretically be used to provide healthcare for one of the least healthy and least insured states in the country, or to invest in education for its high level of childhood poverty (particularly in the major cities). 

The dire warning stems largely from this simple and oft repeated equation:  Texas' population from 1974 to 2014 rose 220%. Meanwhile, statewide aggregate highway lane mile capacity increased by only 19%. 220 > 19. Ta-da! The Aristocrats!

Click to view larger. Image from Wikimedia.

Two major problems, aside from the fact that this number isn’t compared to other places. Is it high or low?  Is that good or bad?  How did Vancouver’s population grow by 150% without building any highways?  Are Vancouverites subjected to dirt streets inundated with horse manure like some 19th century backwater?  Or on a local scale and urban context, why did the Embarcadero neighborhood triple in population after the elevated freeway was removed?  Context matters.

First of all, this number is cherry picked (from a rotten cherry tree).  1974 is useful because the U.S. interstate system was almost entirely complete by this point.  If we compared population and highway growth rates from the 1950’s when highway construction came to town, it would be a different story.  Population would’ve more than tripled, but that’s nothing compared to a highway expansion rate of infinity.

The other way this statistical comparison obfuscates and misleads is that it includes all statewide highways.  Texas is a big state.  Let’s look at it this way, the Dallas and Houston metros comprise 65% of the entire state’s GDP, but only 7% of the land area.  And as I mentioned, these are huge, sprawling metropolitan areas yet only a fraction of the vast state.

If we only look at the metropolitan areas where the most highway expansion is proposed (places congested with all that sweet GDP), the numbers tell a different story.  From 1982-2011 (the only data range made available by TTI), DFW highway capacity increased by 61%.  The Houston metro saw its highway capacity increase by 136%.  Austin by 218%. 

These are just quantitative metrics. We’re still not answering the qualitative question. Is this good? What is good? What is sustainable? What is just, equitable, and improves people’s lives?  Given that Houston and Dallas workers tie for 2nd longest commutes to work in the country in terms of average mileage, it doesn’t seem that way.  Distance to jobs could be interpreted as both opportunity and cost.

What's next?

With all of this occurring, a revolution may be brewing in the small town of Big D. I say small town because if you compare the Central Business Districts with similar major urban centers, Dallas comes up woefully short in terms of jobs, residents, and transit ridership.  Call these items indicative measures of Tax Base and Tax Burden.  It’s the ratio between these two things that matters.  More on that later.

Some of us got together and suggested that in certain locations maybe the answer isn’t more and bigger highways, but less.  In fact, maybe this little town has grown much too big for an inner highway loop only about a mile square. Enough research, both locally and abroad, demonstrated that these inner-city highways significantly depressed real estate values.

This hulking beast of infrastructure is a huge long-term cost liability not just to maintain, but also because of the opportunity cost of the tax base it directly displaced.

Most didn’t need to see the research.  They could see the results on the ground.  The derelict buildings. The surface parking lots. Vacant parcels. And if we were really lucky, the highest and best use of a private storage warehouse.  All within sight of the most expensive real estate in Texas.  This hulking beast of infrastructure is a huge long-term cost liability not just to maintain, but also because of the opportunity cost of the tax base it directly displaced and that which it indirectly depressed. 

We began holding meetings. Sometimes with key individuals. Sometimes with area neighborhood organizations.  Eventually these meetings grew into public presentations with several hundred in attendance. Our website www.anewdallas.com received 22,000 hits on the day of launch. We were on every local news, TV, and radio station. Eventually, TxDOT heard. More importantly, TxDOT’s bosses were paying attention.

At which point, our region’s Transportation Commissioner (one of the five positions appointed by the governor to oversee TxDOT), with perhaps a sympathetic ear to the discontent, commissioned a study of all of the highways in downtown.  The intent was and continues to be to facilitate a true public process where state, city, and neighborhoods have input, the process is transparent, and hopefully we as a community can fully weigh all of the direct and indirect costs and benefits of infrastructure and its associated development patterns in order to make smarter decisions (fingers crossed) towards a more sustainable future.

It’s entirely new ground for the City of Dallas as it is for TxDOT; the rare occasion when bottom up and top down align.  What does the future hold? Can we flip the equation where tax base exceeds tax burden? It is too early to say.  The report detailing potential options and feasibility is wrapping up soon.  What is certain is that, as part of the efforts of building support, we’ve also activated residents and stakeholders to stay involved to help determine the future of the city. Their city.

(Top photo from Wikimedia)

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About the Author

Patrick Kennedy is founder and partner of Space Between Design Studio as well as founder of www.anewdallas.com and managing editor of Streetsmart.Dmagazine.com.