Taking Its Toll

Is the state's massive new transportation plan a path to the future or a road to nowhere?

Who initiated the Trans-Texas Corridor plan?

Governor Rick Perry. Acting on a promise he made to improve the state’s transportation system, Perry sent the commission that oversees the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) a letter in 2002, requesting that it take ninety days to develop a new highway plan. Less than five months later, TxDOT delivered the concept for the Trans-Texas Corridor.

What exactly does the plan entail?

In short, four thousand miles of brand-new “transportation corridors” crisscrossing the state (from Oklahoma to Mexico, for example, and El Paso to Houston). The corridors, which are designed to reduce urban congestion by looping traffic around Texas’s major cities, are envisioned on a scale that will make our U.S. interstates look like scenic byways. Cutting a 1,200-foot-wide swath through parts of the state, each corridor will include ten turnpike lanes for motor vehicles (three for cars and two for trucks in each direction), six rail lines (two each for high-speed passenger, freight, and commuter trains), and a utility zone for natural gas and petroleum pipelines and electric and fiber-optic lines.

Yikes. Do we really need all that?

In the summary report for the corridor plan, the authors cite the demise of the Roman highway network as a factor that brought down the empire. (So there.) Bureaucratic hyperbole aside, there’s no denying that Texas highways can’t accommodate our escalating needs: Demographers predict that new residents will continue to arrive at a 30,000-per-month clip for the foreseeable future. “The growth we face is staggering,” says Mike Cox, the communications manager for TxDOT. “No other state has proposed such a large plan, but they don’t have our numbers.” “Numbers” is the operative word: The project could take fifty or more years to build, at an estimated cost of between $145 billion and $183 billion.

Where’s that money going to come from?

This is where the plan’s five-month gestation period seems a little hasty. TxDOT’s annual budget, a measly $5.4 billion, is woefully inadequate to fund such a major undertaking. What’s more, most of the money budgeted for new roads comes from the state’s 20-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax, and Perry has vowed to veto any proposed increase in that tax. Instead, he sees two other funding sources: tolls and private investment. In November 2001, voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing the state to build toll roads using bonds (that is, a line of credit backed by future toll-generated revenue), but the governor also proposes to tap private-investment partners, who’d earn their money back through—you guessed it—tolls. Yet there’s been no thorough financial analysis—from TxDOT or anyone else—to determine if there’s enough demand for the proposed toll corridors to make private investment feasible.

Who opposes the plan?

For starters, the environmentalists, who worry that the 1,200-foot-wide corridor will be devastating to rural habitats. Farmers and ranchers are understandably concerned that the state will use its right of eminent domain to snatch land along the corridor routes. Some city dwellers say that the massive corridors going around our cities will do little to relieve urban congestion inside them. But many observers feel that the plan is just political pie in the sky (not unlike George W. Bush’s men-on-Mars gambit) and that its blurry financial picture makes it unworthy of serious consideration.

Are they right?

Not entirely. It’s doubtful that Perry will see his plan go through unabridged, but the underlying concept contains ideas that are likely to shape the future of Texas transportation. If increasing the gas tax is indeed off the table, new revenue sources for highways will have to come from somewhere: Expect more toll roads down the pike, albeit on a much smaller scale. TxDOT points to the construction of toll roads already under way outside Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth. Only time will tell if these less ambitious projects can save the empire.

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