The Highway Establishment and How it Grew and Grew and Grew

All roads have to go somewhere; but it could be that roads in Texas are going the wrong way.

Everything happened at once. Texans woke up to discover service stations running out of gasoline all over town. Highway travel was not the quick, easy bet it had been last year. At 55 miles an hour, motorists had the feeling that some giant hand had lifted Dallas and Houston and deposited them a good hundred miles farther apart.

In the midst of it all was Texas, oil-rich Texas, realizing it was an urban state—79.7 per cent urban, said the census-takers last time around—with three of the ten biggest cities in the country. An urban state, with some distinctly urban problems—like how to get to work and back, how to get to the store, how to get to school, if the family cars couldn’t be counted on to supply cheap transportation as they always had. Not that they couldn’t: just that someday soon they might not. That was the nagging worry.

In 1974 Texans began to realize that all that advice about public transportation might be more than just doomsday talk from pointy-headed East Coast zealots.

They hadn’t been happy, by and large, when congressmen from the urban Northeast successfully “busted” the Federal Highway Trust Fund last year, allowing a portion of federal highway funds to be spent for mass transit systems in the cities. The Southwestern life style depended on the automobile, they told themselves, and roads are God’s way of getting around. Texas was lucky enough to have a first-rate Highway Department—honest, hardworking, smart, and capable of building top-notch highways from a little ol’ nickel-a-gallon gasoline tax that was the lowest in the country. Who was worried if all the eggs were in one basket? Texas was lucky enough not to need more than one basket.

They forgot the Southwestern life-style depended on gasoline too—cheap gasoline, plenty of gasoline, all - night - green - stamps - service - with - a - smile - win - the - contest - pennants - flapping - in - the - wind - free - glasses - 32 - cent gasoline.

It all happened at once, and the next thing Texans saw was their legislators all decked out as delegates to a Constitutional Convention, rewriting the basic document that a bunch of independent steel-eyed farmers had put together back in 1875 when the state was eight per cent urban. Questions about mass transit, highways, and basic transportation policy were suddenly being asked in earnest by those delegates (some of them, anyway) because they had to decide whether to preserve the constitutional provision that guaranteed the Highway Department would have first shot at the money it needed to keep on building roads.

More than any other part of the country, Texas in the spring of 1974 was the place where public officials were forced to stand up and debate about the kind of transportation policy their citizens should have—to argue whether highways ought to have first priority, whether mass transit was feasible, whether the Legislature’s hands should be tied by the new document.

As a result the Constitutional Convention has been a grand show. Other states fumed, fussed, and speculated about the problem of getting around. Texans actually had to make some decisions about how they were going to cope with this new topsy-turvy world. At the Big Top in Austin, the Highway Lobby is out in full force, and the spotlight shines on one of the most remark able bureaucracies in state government.

A Well That Won’t Run Dry

THE BATTLEGROUND IS THE SO-CALLED “dedicated highway fund,” a state constitutional provision that has profoundly shaped transportation planning in Texas since its adoption in 1946. It allocates, or “dedicates,” most of the money the state collects from motor vehicle registration fees and taxes on gasoline, diesel fuel, and lubricants “used to propel motor vehicles over public roadways” into a special fund that must be used only for acquiring rights of way and constructing, policing, and maintaining public roadways. The bulk of it goes to the Highway Department. A small portion (less than ten per cent) goes to the Department of Public Safety; the counties keep a slice of the registration fees, according to a 1929 formula that strongly favors rural counties over urban ones; and one-fourth of the motor fuel taxes are diverted to the public schools.

In a state with nine million gas-gulping cars, trucks, buses, and other motor vehicles, such a scheme provides the Highway Department with a massive chunk of guaranteed tax revenues. None of the other state agencies, from the Air Control Board to the Water Well Drillers Board, enjoys this special luxury. They must each shove and fight every two years for legislative appropriations to run their shop. Only the Highway Department, the public schools, The University of Texas, and Texas A&M University have the benefits of constitutionally-dedicated revenue. The money is there; they know from past experience just about how much of it there will be; and the Legislature merely performs a polite ceremonial gavotte by awarding them biennially what is already theirs.

How massive is this revenue chunk? In Fiscal 1973, the Department drew $454,380,000 from the dedicated fund. That was 64 per cent of its total income; most of the rest, 31 percent, came from the Federal Highway Administration as matching funds. By way of comparison, the total 1973 appropriation for the Air Control Board was $399 thousand, for the Department of Health $44.9 million, for Parks and Wildlife $39.3 million, and for the Water Quality Board $5.4 million.

By the parsimonious standards of the state budget, Texas has made a lavish commitment to one particular form of transportation. The reason can be traced to the confluence of several currents: a powerful and effective lobby, a bureaucracy that in many ways exhibits the best qualities that government has to offer, and not least the postwar infatuation of Texans themselves with the private automobile—a passion for individual mobility that scarred most forms of “public transportation” with a vulgar social stigma. Each of these currents is a matter of history.

The TGRA: Well-Drillers Extraordinaire

Tags: TRAVEL

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