Perry discussing the Trans-Texas Corridor in Tyler in 2002. (AP/Tyler Morning Telegraph, D. J. Peters)
Rick Perry has repeatedly sought to address transportation in Texas during his time as governor, but there is no other issue on which he has been so reliably thwarted. Next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam, pat yourself on the back. The transportation system we have in Texas today may not be good, but it’s exactly what we’ve asked for as voters.
The problems—the sprawling congestion, the crumbling highways—were all predicted. They were also predictable, given the various trends over the past ten or fifteen years: the soaring population, the growth in industries such as energy and manufacturing, the stagnant revenue streams, the political torpor. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, over the past 25 years, Texas’s population has grown by 57 percent, and overall road use has nearly doubled. State road capacity, however, has grown by only 8 percent during that time.
Perry has called for greater investment in infrastructure since his first year as governor, when he signed a measure designed to create the Texas Mobility Fund, which had the authority to issue bonds for highway construction and other transportation projects. It marked a conceptual departure from Texas’s long-standing pay-as-you-go approach to road funding, and voters approved the constitutional amendment in November 2001. Two months later Perry unveiled his master plan. The Trans-Texas Corridor called for the construction of four thousand new miles of toll roads, with high-speed rail, oil and gas pipelines, and utility lines running alongside them. All told, the project would cost about $175 billion. “Nothing is too big for Texas,” he said, “when economic security and quality of life are at stake.”
Republicans and Democrats alike disagreed. They complained about the fees Texans would pay on toll roads, the expansion of state debt, the unprecedented use of eminent domain, and the prospect that a foreign company like Cintra—a Spanish toll road operator—would stand to profit. Faced with the most sustained backlash of his career, Perry amended his hopes for the TTC, scaling them back many times before 2009, when TxDOT quietly abandoned the idea in favor of a more modest, incremental approach. In retrospect, it was true that there were things to dislike about Perry’s sprawling vision for the TTC. On the other hand, it was better than no vision at all, which is effectively what the governor’s critics were proposing as a counteroffer—and which is what we have now.
Since that setback, Perry has narrowed his efforts to focus on transportation funding. He has supported some reasonable proposals, such as ending diversions from the state highway fund. He has also supported some creative responses, such as a measure passed during special session last summer that will, if voters approve a constitutional amendment to this effect in November, allocate a portion of future revenues heading toward the Rainy Day Fund to a different bucket of money dedicated to transportation projects. The amendment is worth supporting, but it won’t solve the funding problem. TxDOT has said that it needs about $4 billion a year just to “maintain current levels of congestion,” and the measure would bring in less than a quarter of that.
Perry’s preference, over the course of last year’s session, was for the state to take on more debt to build roads. That’s not a terrible idea on its face; as the governor has noted, interest rates are low, and Texas’s growth is expected to continue. At the same time, there are reasons to be skeptical about borrowing. Drew Darby, a Republican representative from San Angelo, mentioned one last session during a floor debate: the state has borrowed $17 billion for roads since 2001, and it will ultimately cost $32 billion to retire that debt. As an alternative, Darby suggested raising the vehicle registration fee for the first time since 1985. That proposal went nowhere after Perry threatened to veto it. The governor has also dismissed the idea of raising the gas tax, which currently stands at 20 cents a gallon. That’s the thirty-eighth-lowest rate in the country, according to the Tax Foundation, and it hasn’t changed since 1991. Hiking it wouldn’t be a long-term solution, because cars are becoming more fuel-efficient, but by the same token, it wouldn’t be a crushing blow to Texas’s consumers either.
Then, too, it’s worth noting that investing in transportation infrastructure shouldn’t be such a hard sell. Left to his own devices, Perry would surely have done more for roads, as he has for economic development, and he deserves credit for championing this issue when so many ankle-biters have scoffed at him for trying. But transportation infrastructure, in a state this size, is not an issue that can be adequately addressed via an executive officer, however ambitious. In a 2001 editorial, the Dallas Morning News noted that the new governor had done well in some respects but suggested that Perry might learn from George W. Bush’s more engaged approach to the Lege: “More stroking here or there could have yielded greater progress on such issues as transportation.” That was good advice. If Perry had taken it, we might not be in this jam.
Change in population since 1989: 57%
Change in state road capacity since 1989: 8%