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
THE ADOPTION OF THE “GOOD Roads Amendment” by a vote of 231,834 to 58,555 in the general election of 1946 was the climax of parallel and at times consolidated efforts by two different groups. The first of these included business interests having a direct economic stake in expanded, large-scale highway construction. The second included public-spirited citizens who saw in good roads (and the general economic development they might produce) the magic key to the booming, bustling Texas they dreamed of creating. Twenty-eight years later the Amendment remains intact, unaffected by all efforts to divert its dedicated funds to other purposes, and the dual motives that created it are still apparent in the membership rolls of the powerful lobby that midwifed its adoption: the Texas Good Roads Association. The TGRA brought these two groups together in the Thirties and keeps them together today. It is a marvel of symbiosis and stratagem: perhaps the most fascinating lobby in Texas politics.
The combination of “economic” interests and “civic” interests lies at the heart of the TGRA’s lasting effectiveness. It has always drawn the bulk of its financial backing from industries that want a transportation system dependent on the use of highways and the construction of more and more of them: the oil companies; petroleum distributors; cement, asphalt, and tire dealers; automobile dealers; bus companies; truckers; and of course the highway contractors themselves. (Highway building is the only industry in Texas that is 100 percent dependent on government money). Subcontractors also play an important role in highway lobby movements, as do such diverse groups as engineering firms that specialize in roads, and land speculators and developers. They are united by a common desire to preserve, perfect, and expand the highway transportation system. There is no doubt that they have been the muscle behind the TGRA since its inception. In a surprisingly candid article in Texas Parade, the Association’s Director of Public Relations and longtime President Weldon Hart described its creation 42 years ago:
Significantly, the first president was a respected civic leader with no personal ties to the highway industry. His name was William Ogburn Huggins, and he was the editor of the Houston Chronicle. His selection symbolized the intention of the TGRA’s founders to give their organization the image of a dis interested civic club supporting highways because the state needed them, rather than the image of an economically self-interested industry pleading its case. According to founder Bell, Judge Huggins carried this shrewd decision a step farther by insisting that “for public acceptance, … the officers … should come from the public generally and not include anyone in the highway industry.” His rule remains in force today: all of the officers are, in the TGRA’s words, “laymen.”
More impressive even than the “laymen” officers, however, are the “laymen” members. Among the Association’s 2335 members are 54 local chambers of commerce, 46 cities and IBS counties (some of which pay their annual dues with public funds),* and numerous individuals who are prominent in the social and political affairs of their communities. These are the opinion makers. They are crucial.
Some of them, of course, represent highway-oriented economic interests wearing another hat. Many of the local chamber of commerce officers, for example, have a personal economic interest in some aspect of road-building. Others may have a different sort of self-serving interest: Very few county commissioners have ever been hurt by having a road built in their precincts, and there are still a few who stay in office by tipping off their friends about the paths of new rights-of-way. But most of the laymen are exactly what they seem: well-respected, public-spirited citizens who honestly believe that the welfare of the state depends on a good network of highways built by a Highway Department unblemished by political chicanery. They are not money-seekers, not crackpots; they are the bedrock Establishment of Texas. To an impressive extent, TGRA commands their loyalties. These laymen are indispensable to TGRA’s purposes. Without them the Association is naked, a straightforward phalanx of powerful economic interests. With them, it is something grander than a lobby: it is a movement, a personification of the Texas automobile-highway-mobility ethos. No other lobby in the state has so successfully camouflaged its basic economic motives.
* A spokesman for the TGRA says the $25 membership fee paid by cities and counties “doesn’t even pay the cost of the material we send out. It amounts to a subscription to our publications for the information they contain. They get a bargain.”
If the TGRA loses money on its $25 membership fee for non-profit organizations, it loses even more on the $15 annual fee it collects for ordinary individual memberships. Without the fees for firms ($50) and highway industries ($100), plus additiona] contributions from its backers, the TGRA could not stay afloat. Its “layman” members are a dead economic loss.
Impressively framed on a reception-room wall in its Austin headquarters is a striking, hand-lettered gubernatorial proclamation issued by John Connally in honor of Highway Week, 1964. The visitor reads:
Highways are derived from vision, and vision is rooted in the people.
The TGRA has actually done much to create the ethos it personifies. Its relationship with the Texas news media is nothing short of amazing. From the day its founders chose an influential editor as the first president, the Association has diligently cultivated good press relations. Journalists have figured prominently in its hierarchies. Among the ablest is Weldon Hart himself, a former aide and confidant to Governor Allan Shivers whom even a political adversary described as “a brilliant writer, a genius.” (He also has a sense of humor: one of his recent articles in Texas Parade was titled, “The Glory and Splendor That Is Highway Week.”) Hart ran the TGRA from 1965 to 1972. Partly as a result of his work, it now counts among its members 23 newspapers and publishing companies, including the Dallas Times Herald, the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Light, the Express Publishing Company [San Antonio Express and KENS-TV], the Midland Reporter-Telegram, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, and others from Abilene to Longview and Denison to Victoria.
When the dedicated fund is threatened, as it has been in this year’s Constitutional Convention, the TGRA can expect prompt and vigorous editorial support for its viewpoint—sometimes by the very next morning in certain member newspapers. But the media can be even more cordial. A set of six TGRA advertisements praising the highway network and defending the dedicated fund was published 150 times last year in Texas newspapers as a “public service announcement,” free of charge. Radio and television stations give free air time to its 20- and 60-second “spots.” These promote rail, air, water, and pipeline transportation in addition to highways, and the message in some of them bears an intriguing similarity to the paid advertisements of oil companies that help to finance the TGRA. Texas Parade Magazine, which was the TGRA house organ for decades, now publishes an article a month prepared in cooperation with the Association “as a valuable contribution to public education.”
In the communities, the TGRA promotes the highway ethos in a variety of ways. Part of it is simply good organization work: the Association has area chairmen in 40 cities and a board of directors in each of its 25 districts (the districts themselves coincide precisely with the Texas Highway Department’s own districts). The directors constitute a good start toward a “who’s who of Texas.” For the local, district, and state leaders, there is an endless round of speeches to Lions Clubs, Rotary Clubs, and Chambers of Commerce—spreading of the gospel to revive the loyalties of fellow laymen and win conversions among unbelievers. The Association has produced a documentary film called “Turning Point,” which, according to a TGRA spokesman, “has been used by television stations in most Texas cities—and is in constant use by civic and service clubs each day.” Cultivation of lay support never really stops. But organization, even good organization, has its limits. In the end the special strength of the TGRA comes from the fact that its members participate personally to an unusually high degree in the power structure of Texas. Said one former legislator: “it’s not that they contribute so much in campaigns; it’s more subtle than that. They belong to the right country clubs, the right power elites.”
The Association’s public pronouncements exist on two levels. The first is a calm, sober, and straightforward enunciation of the view that highway transportation is intrinsically good for Texas. “This vital transportation resource,” says a sample TGRA resolution, “… is essential to the State’s business, dustry and emergency requirements and to the mobility, welfare, and recreational needs of its citizens and visitors.” Without the dedicated fund, the argument goes, irresponsible legislators would allow construction to slump into an unpredictable series of peaks and valleys. Highways, “a perishable product,” require an average lead-time of eight years from the planning stage to completion, and any skimping on funds one year would have an impact eight years later. The highway industry itself also likes to know the total dollar value of contracts to be awarded in a given year; the security of the dedicated fund relieves them of the anxieties that trouble other industries dependent on the uncertainties of legislative funding. Says the TGRA:
“The contractors who build the state’s highways must depend on a ‘core of expertise’ to get the job done. These are key employees who are permanent, so long as there are contracts to be executed. But if there is a drought of funds … then the state’s major highway builders must let their key personnel go —and the loser, in the final analysis, is the highway user himself.”
The Association’s foremost precept is the belief that revenues collected from highway users should be spent only for “costs … directly related to highway construction, maintenance ,and improvement.” The campaign of “educational publicity” starts from this point.
But there is a second, much more emotional level, in which the dedicated highway fund is viewed as the fountain-head of all good things, and those who would change it as either anti-social knaves or starry-eyed fools. [See “We the People,” Texas Monthly, January 1974]. Two years ago, Eugene W. Robbins, then the TGRA vice-president, warned an audience in Gonzales that a “conspiracy is afoot in the United States to stop all highway construction. The plot was hatched in the densely populated Northeastern megapolis but its disciples are spreading throughout the land —including Texas.” He described the members of this “conspiracy” as “pseudo environmentalists, rail mass transit zealots, politicians and bureaucrats, and social planners with active support from some news media.” Robbins himself, now the president of TGRA, is a mild and personable man, and a visitor to his office who hears him speaking genially and knowledgeably about the state’s highway system is likely to wonder just what gets into him (and other TGRA spokesmen) when he stands behind the podium of a small-town meeting hall. Perhaps such rhetorical excess is possible because the Texas highway ethos is so pervasive, leaving the speaker with a sense of freedom to speak his mind because he feels he is among friends who think as he does, far away from the zealots and social planners who inhabit foreign territory. Or perhaps it is something more: a sudden reminder of the fundamental gulf that separates the laymen from the economically self-interested side of the TGRA, a ferocious expression on behalf of those who know that if Texas changes its highway priorities they themselves have a fortune to lose.
The gulf is there. It is too wide to paper over indefinitely, although the TGRA has done a remarkable job of doing so for the past four decades. That is why the Association prefers to speak in glowing generalities that submerge the blunt economics of profit and loss beneath the rhetoric of high public purpose.
How the Well Was Won
THE TGRA WON ADOPTION OF the Good Roads Amendment in 1946 by using many of the same techniques it uses today. If ever there was a broad-based effort to change state policy, the campaign for this amendment was it. Charles Simons, who was executive vice-president of the TGRA at the time, recalls that it had “virtually unanimous support” from political figures. “Governor [Coke] Stevenson was real strong for it. Allan Shivers—he was a senator then—carried it in the Senate, and Neville Colson carried it in the House.”
The “layman” members of TGRA were concerned equally with making sure that the highway industry had a steady flow of public funds and with preventing monkeyshines and corruption in the Highway Department. Critics of the dedicated fund today tend to underestimate the extent to which Texans of that era feared political favoritism in the Highway Department. The farmer was still in the mud in those days; inter-city road travel left a lot to l^ be desired; and the prospect that important highway construction would be carried out to suit the needs of some politician’s career instead of the logical traffic requirements was abhorrent to many influential citizens. The issue in 1946 was not whether a particular road should be two lanes or four: it was whether that road would be paved.
Although the Highway Department in the Thirties and Forties was ably run as a professional, rather than a political, operation, the squalid smell of still-recent history reminded many Texans that unless the Department’s planning was insulated from the biennial legislative process, the state might just be living on borrowed time. During the administration of Governor Miriam A. (“Ma”) Ferguson in the mid-Twenties, the Department had struggled through a bleak period of chicanery and political patronage. In a single biennium (1925-26) four different men served as Highway Engineer, the Department’s top executive position. Ten individuals were named to the three posts of Highway Commissioner. All but one of the division engineers lost his job. Finally the Federal Bureau of Public Roads refused to participate in Texas highway projects because of the deteriorating system. The memory of this experience lingered long after the Department was reorganized in 1927. Not surprisingly, it spurred sentiment for the Good Roads Amendment: the Ferguson fiasco, after all, had occurred less than twenty years before 1946, making it closer in time than the passage of the Amendment itself is to us today.
Securing the Highway Department’s finances outside the normal appropriations process was a simple, logical, and therefore attractive panacea to allay these fears. The fact that it would also award virtually permanent protection to a particular special interest’s economic needs was seldom discussed.
Most of the resistance to the Amendment came from other interests who had cast their eyes covetously on the same gasoline tax revenues. County authorities, who wanted to convert one-fourth of the tax into a permanent source of county income, had squelched an attempt to get an earlier version of the Amendment on the Oallot in 1942. The TGRA’s decision to draft their 1946 Amendment to preserve the existing statutory allocation of one-fourth of the gasoline tax to the Available School Fund was a brilliant tactical maneuver that insured the back-up support of the powerful teachers’ lobby, both for passage of the Amendment and preservation of the dedicated fund in future years.
Before 1946, Charles Simons recalls, “you had to continually be fighting off the brushfires” that threatened the Highway Department’s funds. The voters changed all that. From the adoption of the Amendment, the Department was to grow into the largest, most powerful, and in many ways the most competent of state agencies. Nineteen-forty-six was a milestone, and the years since then are the Anno Domini of the Texas Highway Department.
Et in Arcadia Ego: The THD
THE MODERN TEXAS HIGHWAY DEPARTMENT (THD) has far surpassed the most optimistic predictions made for it in 1946. Its reputation is untarnished by any serious hint of scandal. It is among the least secretive of state agencies. It has developed the largest (and many feel the best) system of highways in the United States. Set apart in its own snug—but not little—insular world of engineering excellence, it has an enviable esprit de corps.
The Department’s reputation for honesty is especially remarkable in view of the vast sums of public money at its disposal. Scandals of the sort that brought Spiro Agnew low in Maryland are an all-too-common aspect of highway construction elsewhere. They don’t happen in Texas. The fact that highway funds are constitutionally protected has of course had something to do with this state of affairs, though not as much as the highway lobbyists and the THD would like the public to believe. Keeping highway building out of legislative politics accomplishes very little unless the department that builds the roads keeps its own hands clean. The special strength of the THD is its conscientious administrative tradition—and that is the result not of some nebulous code of loyalties but of the direct personal influence of specific men in specific positions. The man most frequently credited with developing this high standard of honesty is DeWitt Greer, a quintessential Aggie who served as Chief Highway Engineer (in effect, the Department’s executive director) from 1940 through 1967, and is currently one of the three Highway Commissioners. “The lion’s share of the credit goes to Greer,” says Garrett Morris, a Highway Commissioner from 1967 to 1971. “Nobody could ever point an accusing finger at him.” Although an increasing number of critics question Greeks emphasis on highway transportation, he was primarily responsible for selecting generations of middle-level administrators who have kept the Department out of politics for more than 30 years.
The THD’s efficiency and honesty, coupled with Texans’ affinity for highway travel, has to some extent made the Department its own best lobbyist. Legislators are reluctant to place themselves at cross-purposes with an agency that is so popular back home. “It’s really the fact that they do such a good job, and they’re so honest, that’s made them into a sacred cow,” says one former senator. Then too, voters by and large do not object to things they can see as tangible examples of governmental services. “We’re really the only state agency that produces a product,” says Marc Yancey, one of two assistant highway engineers. “You can’t see the welfare product, or even the education product, but you can see ours all over the state. It helps.”
The highway system rapidly expanded in the years following 1946. From approximately 28,000 miles in 1947, it grew to 42,000 in 1950 and 62,000 in 1960. It has now passed the 71,000-mile mark. The Department told the Finance Committee of the Constitutional Convention that 21 entire counties and 1716 communities (including 49 county seats) currently are served by no mode of transportation except the highway system. (Supporters of public transportation, of course, consider this a lamentable situation rather than a source of nride). The 1970 census revealed that in 18 Texas counties, the number of registered motor vehicles exceeded the number of human inhabitants.
Highway building is the principal, but far from the only, responsibility of the THD. The Department provides an incredible array of services—some which directly benefit the public and others which reinforce its image as a virtual state-within-a-state. Charged with the duty of promoting tourism, it publishes a semiannual “Calendar of Events” listing everything from the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup to the Houston Livestock Show, along with brochures about historical trails, maps of every county in three different sizes, a monthly road conditions bulletin (the January issue listed 193 construction sites, with detailed information on the location, extent of construction, projected date of completion, and even the type of road surface onto which traffic was being detoured), and the award-winning guidebook, Texas: Land of Contrast. Its materials have a well-deserved reputation for thoroughness and polish.
The Department’s in-house publications include a slick monthly magazine, Texas Highways, a newsletter called “Highway News,” and several other newsletters published for specific geographical districts. Various branches produce motion pictures (including a 30-minute sound and color feature on highway beautification), answer telephone calls about emergency road conditions, run computerized data retrieval systems that can locate any magazine article about transportation systems, distribute public service announcements to TV stations (a current “spot” tells how to enter a freeway safely), catalog the archaeological discoveries unearthed in the course of roadbuilding, devise new techniques of highway safety (including breakaway road signs and the ingenious empty-barrel collections called Texas Crash Cushions), and print the tons of manuals, reports, and other documents the Department issues each year. The Public Information office distributes more than 1300 press releases annually (on the average, four or five every working day). So great is the Department’s reputation and so deep the lethargy of some weekly newspaper editors that many of these are printed, unchanged, as news stories in small-town papers.
Some idea of the size and complexity of the THD can be gained from a brief glance at its internal structure.
The three commissioners are Reagan Houston (the chairman), DeWitt Greer, and Charles Simons. Houston is a San Antonio lawyer appointed by Governor Dolph Briscoe. Governor Preston Smith had the inspired idea of crowning Greer’s career by appointing the retired chief engineer to a commissioner’s post; it was like picking Winston Churchill to be king of England. Smith also appointed Simons, a balding, witty gentleman who looks like Sibelius mellowed by a touch of Charles Coburn. These men set the Department’s policy, and Chief Highway Engineer B. L. DeBerry carries it out.
DeBerry has separated his giant bureaucracy into two parts and placed an assistant highway engineer over each one. The “operations” side of things is supervised by M. G. Goode, Jr. Its eight sections include Highway Design; Bridges; Maintenance Operations; Secondary Roads; Construction; Right of Way; Materials and Tests; and Planning and Research. Each is directed by an engineer. The administrative side is supervised by Marc Yancey, Jr., a likeable, diplomatic ambassador for the Department who could, in meticulously-chosen language, probably convince the head of a local Sierra Club that a proposed interstate highway through his living room was actually a splendid idea. Yancey’s seven sections include Finance; Motor Vehicles; Travel and Information; Insurance; Equipment & Procurement; Automation; and Personnel.
The day-to-day business of the Department is highly decentralized. Only 400 of its 18,000 employees work in the downtown Austin headquarters. More than 1250 THD buildings are scattered around the state in 25 separate and largely autonomous geographical Districts. Each District is headed by a District Engineer who, in accordance with traditions established by Greer, is expected to handle most of his problems at that level. Interestingly, there is also a “public affairs officer” in each District, a man whose job entails more than answering questions from the public about Highway Department plans. “He keeps apprised of the economic and social conditions in his district,” Yancey relates. “He can tell us about the current political climate and things like that.”
Because of its solid financial base, the THD has vast resources that other state agencies do not even dare to dream of. Its Twenty-eighth Biennial Report covering Fiscal 1971 and 1972 itemizes the 17,989 pieces of “major highway equipment,” valued at $19,900,483.50, that the Department owned at the end of August, 1972. In addition to the predictable asphalt distributors, batchers, boilers, core-drills, diggers (posthole), earth-movers, graders, grass-seeding machines, guard rail washing machines (motorized), concrete mixers, power movers (gravely class), nail pickers, paint stripers, pavement breakers, power shovels, road rollers, road rippers, snow plows, mulch spreaders, tractors, trailers, trenchers, trucks, and something called an “unloading machine,” the Report also lists 868 passenger cars of various sizes (642 of which were equipped with two-way radios) and 3506 pickup trucks. This was a sufficient number of cars and pickups to allow approximately one out of every four departmental employees, including secretaries, janitors, and typists, to be on the road alone at the same instant. When employees of an under-equipped agency like the Park Division of Parks and Wildlife hear this sort of thing, they whimper. Most of them have to use their own cars when they travel on state business.
The Highway Department is, in reality, a separate fiefdom, a veritable fourth branch of government. When asked about its relationship to the Legis- lature, highway commissioners and the TGRA like to emphasize the constitutional language that makes the dedicated fund “subject to legislative allocation, appropriation, and direction,” but this subordination is more symbolic than real. The Department has not been forced to justify a highway expenditure to the Legislature since 1946. While the lawmakers can crack down on the THD through the appropriations process if they choose (by requiring it to pay the full cost of various expenses like rights-of-way, curbs, and gutters that are now shared with other governments), the dedicated fund revenue must be used for highway-related purposes. The Legislature is not free to shift it into mental health or mass transit. Even if the legislators got so mad at the Department that they refused to appropriate any of the dedicated fund for anything, the money would simply pile up and await future legislators, two, twenty, or a hundred years hence, who would eventually have to appropriate it for highways. The Highway Department has the upper hand, and the legislators know it.
Legislators are human and they enjoy the power that comes from being able to insist that an agency justify its appropriations. It is a bit galling, then, to be faced with one that is financially independent enough to get away with saying, politely of course, “We appreciate your suggestions but we don’t plan to take them.” This bothers the legislator who feels he ought to have the right to balance the relative needs of, say, a hundred mentally retarded children against the need of the city of Taylor to have a four-lane Loop built around its outskirts. But it also bothers the legislator who just feels he ought to have a say in how the state of Texas spends three quarters of a billion dollars every year. The financial independence of the THD has caused more friction than either side is willing to admit.
This resentment rarely flares out into the open because the average legislator is reluctant to oppose a sacred cow like the Department. One occasion when it did, however, was the planned construction of a ten-story, 20-million-dollar THD headquarters building in front of the State Capitol and across the street from the more modest building erected in 1933. San Antonio Representative Jake Johnson, an old foe of the Department, blasted the proposal in the 1971 legislative session, calling it a “monstrosity” that would make the Governor’s Mansion directly behind it “look like an outhouse.” He asserted that it had been designed to be so tall “in order that DeWitt Greer can look down on the Legislature, rather than the other way around.” Johnson nearly blocked sir the building, but the Legislature eventually settled for suggesting that the Commissioners find some other site. By October, 1971, however, the Department had produced a 25-page, slick-paper pamphlet (at a cost of $1.60 a copy) defending the building’s aesthetics, mentioning that the downtown location was convenient to the offices of the contractors who do business with the Department, and suggesting that if the structure was not built, commercial developers might buy the property and erect something even more offensive there. By March 1972, the Department was contending that even the Legislature could not prevent construction of the building because it would be paid for with dedicated funds over which the Legislature could exercise no control. This struck a nerve. After a personal privilege speech by Representative Frances Farenthold in a June special session, the Legislature ordered the Parks and Wildlife Department to buy the property and convert it into a state park. Governor Smith then vetoed these instructions, leaving the matter more confused than ever. But when the Legislature returned for yet another special session in October, both houses overwhelmingly approved a resolution warning the THD that they were mightily displeased with the whole affair. The lame-duck Governor could not veto a resolution, and the Department, sensing that they had aroused the Legislature’s ire, threw in the towel and agreed to build their headquarters somewhere else.
Significantly, however, the Department has never abandoned its claim that it has the legal right to construct buildings out of its “own” funds without leg- islative approval. And even now, more than a year later. Commissioner Charles Simons gets a wistful, faraway look in his eye when he is asked about the legislative battle. “I really believe that our building, the way we had it planned, would have been a prime asset to that site and to downtown Austin business,” he says. “It was a beautiful building.” The Commissioners have traditionally had few qualms about putting pressure on the Legislature to accede to the Department’s wishes. Most agency heads are rather circumspect about marching out and soliciting public support for their agency’s position in a controversial political issue. Not the highway commissioners. In recent months they have become unabashed lobbyists for preservation of the dedicated highway fund. At a luncheon speech to a business men’s association called “Fort Worth’s Progress, Inc.,” last November, all three commissioners thanked Beeman Fisher, a member of the Constitutional Revision Commission (and of the TGRA) for his successful efforts to preserve the fund in the proposed new constitution. They urged the audience to help persuade the Constitutional Convention to keep it there, and, by extension, to keep roads ahead of mass transit as a state priority.
From top to bottom, the people at the Texas Highway Department have a firm faith in the value of what they are doing. But even as they bask in the sunshine of public admiration for their visible accomplishments, they display the faults of people who talk seriously only to others in their own closed circle. The conflicting ideas expressed before the ^ commissioners at public hearings seldom penetrate the bureaucracy itself. If, as some say, the Department exhibits all the advantages of a government run by engineers, it likewise exhibits all the disadvantages.
Haunted by the possibility that political meddling could ruin the Department—which of course it could—the post-war leadership and Greer in particular hewed an administrative path as far from politics as possible. To administrative positions he promoted men from within the Department strictly, as he saw it, on the basis of merit. The reasoning was simple: as long as our administrators are men who have served in the Department, as long as they are trained men who have proved their competence and not “outsiders” who might be unqualified or who might rock the boat, we are safe from political interference. Greer was determined to protect the Department by quarantining it. He wanted a bureaucracy composed of engineering professionals, and that is what he got.
Except for the convnissioners themselves, who are appointed for six-year terms by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate, virtually all the important administrative positions in the Department are held by engineers who have been promoted through the ranks. “It’s kind of like being a doctor: first you have to be an intern,” says Marc Yancey. “This is one of the essentials of the type of operation we have.” (Starting at the very bottom, however, is not required. Yancey himself left a career in consulting work to join the Department, but he still served six years in the Bridge Division before moving up.) The price for this sort of insulation from politics is bureaucratic inbreeding. Eventually everyone begins to think alike because those who think differently are either not hired, or, if hired, are not promoted to positions of influence. Such a rigid promotional system firmly precludes the possibility that an unorthodox thinker could become Chief Highway Engineer. And only an unorthodox Chief Highway Engineer could choose outsiders with fresh ideas for the middle-echelon administrative positions. It is the kind of unconscious oversight that would come naturally to a trained engineer who began his highway career in 1927 just a few weeks after the Ferguson scandals were ended, as Greer himself did. The formative experiences of this 26-year-old assistant resident engineer in Henderson County were to shape the Department’s policies for nearly half a century.
This inbreeding is profoundly reinforced by the fact that the greatest proportion of THD engineers are graduates of either The University of Texas College of Engineering or the Texas A&M College of Engineering. The dominant influences on Texas civil engineers flow from U.T.’s Highway Research Center and A&M’s Texas Transportation Institute; the graduates’ outlooks are formed there, and, as the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TEXPIRG) has noted, those outlooks are routinely predisposed to favor highway transportation over rail mass transit and other modes. The current semester at Texas A&M’s civil engineering department, for example, includes courses in Highway Engineering; Highway Materials and Pavement Design; Highway Design; Highway Problems Analysis; Structural Design of Rigid Pavements; Roadside Safety Design; and Highway Construction. Only one of the 72 courses deals expressly with urban transportation. Approximately 30 academic civil engineering professors hold joint appointments as research engineers for the Texas Transportation Institute, and they spend, on the average, 60 percent of their time on TTI research projects. Those projects are heavily weighted in favor of highway problems. At the present time the TTI is conducting 52 separate studies for the Texas Highway Department.
Even before the state’s civil engineering graduates have reached the Highway Department, they are intellectually comfortable with its world-view. Perhaps this is because the Highway Department has reached them before they reach it: both the Highway Research Center and the Texas Transportation Institute are partially supported by Highway Department funds.
All these influences have given Texas an established Highway Department bureaucracy of transportation professionals who think only roads. Like other bureaucracies, it exhibits the standard tendency to expand its needs, ambitions, and goals (by 1948, only two years after the Good Roads Amendment was passed, Greer told the Legislature that the Department’s needs in the next five years would cost twice as much as the anticipated revenue). What has made the Highway Department different from other state agencies is that it has not been compelled to justify its expenditures against other, non-highway needs. The same things that have helped make it honest and efficient have also made it wealthy, powerful, and inbred. The luxury of its dedicated fund has allowed it the luxury of becoming set in its ways.
These danger signals for the future were fully apparent in 1946, if anyone had stopped to see them. No one did. The Texan’s love affair with his automobile continued, raising motor vehicle registrations from 1.9 million in 1946 to 3.1 million in 1950, 4.9 million in 1960, and 8.5 million in 1972. The Department grew with them.
How the Lobby Works
THE TRANSPORTATION INTERESTS HAVE ALWAYS been a powerful lobby in Texas. Before the highways, there were the railroads. The modern-day Highway Lobby begins but does not end with the Good Roads Association. True, the Association is the closest thing the highway interests have to a common flag; but the various economic groups that support the TGRA also do some lobbying on their own. Two of the most powerful are the Highway-Heavy Contractor branch of the Association of General Contractors, which represents roadbuilders, and the Texas Motor Transportation Association, which vigorously protects the interests of the truck and bus industries. Opinions differ as to which other groups wield the most power. Former Secretary of State Bob Bullock, one of Governor Preston Smith’s closest advisers, insists that no one in the Highway Lobby has more clout than the oil industry. Other observers contend that when hard lobbying is needed, the local chambers of commerce are the most formidable force around. But everyone agrees that the Highway Lobby ultimately draws its strength from its diverse combination of interests.
Those who expect to wait around the Capitol and watch the Highway Lobby flex its muscles every two years are, however, in for a disappointment. The mighty highway lobbyists paradoxically do very little “lobbying,” at least as that word is ordinarily understood: wining, dining, wenching, and twisting arms of legislators. They don’t have to. That is the beauty of the dedicated fund, the glorious legacy of the Good Roads Amendment. So long as Article VIII, Section 7a, of the Texas Constitution remains in the law books, they are safe. And the only way that provision can be taken out is by constitutional amendment: a process that requires a two-thirds majority of both houses of the Legislature even to get on the ballot. It is a lobbyist’s dream. While the other lobbyists—the doctors, the insurance industry, the brewers, the lawyers, the pot smokers, the land developers, and all the rest—are racing around the Capitol halls trying to get their pet bills enacted or defeated step by tedious step, from subcommittee, to committee, to the floor, to the other house, to conference committee, and to the governor’s desk, the highway lobbyists just sit back, act friendly, and smile. All they need is one-third plus one of either house of the Legislature on their side, and the dedicated fund will stay safely beyond all danger. Just fifty-one Representatives, say—or better yet, just eleven of the 31 senators. Keep those eleven little senators, and nobody can tamper with the dedicated fund: not the governor, not a majority of both houses of the legislature aroused to high dudgeon, not the voters, not Saint Christopher himself: NO-body. The ball, as they say, is in the other court. It is a lovely sort of life.
With such an overwhelming strategic advantage, the Highway Lobby can put out the occasional brushfires without ever bothering to take off its white gloves. Even the brushfires are rare. A 1947 attempt by Senator Grover Morris to create a farm-to-market road program by increasing the gasoline tax was successfully squelched by truck, bus, and oil industry lobbyists, who objected to any “diversion” of gasoline tax revenues (even new ones) away from arterial highways. Two years later these same lobbyists, along with the TGRA, supported the Colson-Briscoe Act financing a farm-to-market road program out of general state revenues. The dedicated fund had been preserved inviolate. By 1968 the TGRA had grown as fond of farm roads as any other kind; it buried a bill by Representative Glenn Purcell that would have, in his words, “put the money where the rubber is” by closing out the farm road program.
One of the liveliest brushfires broke out in 1965 when Bob Bullock, then a lobbyist for municipal bus companies, got a bill introduced that would have given them a rebate on the 75 per cent of their motor fuel tax that went to the Highway Department. Bullock reasoned that city buses operate on city streets, not highways. Most of the companies were on the verge of bankruptcy; and his bill would only have cost the Highway Department two or three million dollars, a drop in the bucket for them. A similar bill had been killed on the House floor in 1963, 80-61, and this time the Highway Lobby was ready. Bullock later recalled: “I had a hard time even finding a sponsor. Finally we got it introduced and had a hearing. Lots of mail started coming in from Good Roads members, editorials started popping up in newspapers saying ‘Don’t open the door: everybody will ask for rebates.’ … It went to subcommittee and, man, it never budged at all. They beat the hell out of me.”
Bullock described the lobby effort as “a very honorable fight. The oil companies lobbied over a drink… . there certainly wasn’t any money changing hands, nothing like that. The Good Roads members contribute to campaigns as individuals, and who was I? I represented a lot of broke bus companies, some of them city owned. Face it: a contributor gets the ear of a legislator quicker than a non-contributor. The Good Roads Association is potent. They’re political, and they do a damn good job.”
Apart from these periodic easy battles the Highway Lobby has very little to do except to continue nourishing the highway ethos that envelops the legislators when they return home to visit with the constituents. Very little, that is, except for one critically-important function: year-in-year-out, they exert decisive pressure on the selection and confirmation of the highway commissioners who set the policies of the THD. If the commissioners waver, the entire highway building superstructure is endangered. So the TGRA and the other components of the highway lobby pay special attention to gubernatorial politics. Selection of these commissioners is the summit of their lobbying. Their aim is to insure that the state’s transportation leadership, like its professionals, thinks only of roads.
A number of exceptional men have served as highway commissioners over the years. Most of them have been chosen in a process dominated by the highway lobby. The TGRA’s candidates are not necessarily men with an economic self-interest in roads—just as the TGRA’s own officers are “laymen.” But they are invariably men having a solid predisposition in favor of the TGRA’s roadbuilding aspirations.
Thirteen men have been appointed Highway Commissioner since the Good Roads Amendment was passed. A few, like Garrett Morris and the current Chairman, Reagan Houston, have not been TGRA candidates. Among the others are the following:
• Fred A. Wemple (1947-1953). President of TGRA before serving as commissioner, 1942-43, and again afterwards, 1955-56.
• Robert J. Potts (1949-1955). President of TGRA, 1947-48.
• C. F. Hawn (1957-1963). Member of TGRA Executive Committee before serving as commissioner; president of TGRA, 1968-70.
• Herbert C. Petry (1955-1973). TGRA director before serving as commissioner.
• J. H. Kultgen (1963-1969). TGRA director, 1947-1962; TGRA president, 1951-55. Automobile dealer since 1936. President of Bird-Kultgen, Inc., Ford dealership in Waco.
• Charles Simons (1971-present). Director of TGRA public relations, 1936-1942; Editor, Texas Parade, 1936-1942; TGRA executive vice-president, 1942-1947. Executive vice-president, Texas Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, 1947-1971.
The TGRA was unable to say how many of the remaining commissioners had been members of the Association before or after their terms of office. But it is unlikely that they would have protested the appointment of men like DeWitt Greer (1969-present), or Marshall Formby (1953-1959), who ran for governor in 1962 and distributed campaign literature describing himself as “a staunch believer in wide highways” who “helped spend more than a billion dollars for highway maintenance and construction” while serving as commissioner.
During the Constitutional Convention hearings, delegate Jim Vecchio of Dallas brought out the fact that Commissioner Simons had recently applied for a bank charter with, among others, TGRA Board Chairman Russell Perry. Vecchio’s questions implied that there might be a conflict of interest if a Highway Commissioner and a top highway lobbyist went into the banking business together. After Simons heatedly responed that, “I don’t think his being chairman of the Good Roads Association would influence me for five seconds,” the chuckles echoed for days. But the truth of the matter was, Simons was absolutely right. What his critics overlooked was the fact that Simons and Perry already thought exactly alike on every important question about the state’s transportation needs, and had for years: just as virtually every other highway commissioner and Good Roads official has thought alike for two generations. If the commissioners did not already share the Association’s aims, the Association would never have consented to their appointments as commissioners.
The critics mistook an effect for a cause.
Mass Transit in Texas?
THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION FIGHT OVER the dedicated fund has become a battle over the pros and cons of mass transit. Gasoline shortages have suddenly made the issue very real: how do you get to work if there’s no gas for your car? But there is something very one-sided about the now-fashionable assumption around the Capitol that mass transit is needed just because fuel is short. For some people that is reason enough; but for many Texans who don’t own a private car and never will, the problem of finding gasoline to propel one is entirely academic. Texas cities with more than about 50,000 residents are so large, geographically, that people who have no private car find it hard to get where they need to go—to work, to the grocery store, to church. For them there is a transportation shortage, not a fuel shortage.
Garrett Morris has seen the problem from both sides, first as a highway commissioner and currently as a member of the State Board of Public Welfare, and the experience has made him a firm believer in mass transit.
“For many people,” he says, “the automobile doesn’t provide true mobility—the young, the old, the blind, the disabled, the indigent. You’ve got to make good money to buy a $4000 car and maintain it. Ever since we tore up our streetcar tracks and shipped them to Japan in the Thirties, these people have had a hard time getting around.”
Bob Bullock noticed the same thing when he lobbied for rebates to rescue local bus companies in the Sixties, “These transit companies were a losing proposition but a necessary service,” he says. “Affluent people don’t realize this. I don’t understand all about mass transit, but I understand something when I see a bus full of blacks and Mexicans.”
This latent class bias is implicit in the attitudes of the middle-class “layman’ supporters of the Texas Good Road; Association. TGRA President Eugens Robbins says, “our objection to using gasoline taxes for mass transit is that it places the entire burden on the guy who drives his car—and he may or may not be the one who’s using mass transit.” The broad front of the Highway Lobby is distinctively white middle class, and such a person, burdened by the already-high costs of running an automobile— or two, or three—sees good sense in Robbins’ argument. But others are not so sure. Robert E. Gallamore, Director of Policy Development for Common Cause, recently argued to a Congress sional subcommittee that despite the fact that the roads themselves are usually constructed out of highway user taxes, those who use the highways still don’t pay the full social costs:
Noise, congestion, and air pollution are shared with others. Large portions of dislocation costs are borne by unfortunate people whose incomes and often whose race do not enable them to move out of the path of new freeways until it is too late to make that choice voluntarily. Gasoline is relatively cheap [this was in 1973] because all tax payers subsidize oil companies through the percentage depletion allowance, intangible drilling cost write-offs, and foreign tax credits… . Local jurisdictions pay for traffic police out of general funds… .
The auto got us into this mess, say the mass transit advocates, and those of us who are too poor to own an auto now that public transportation has dwindled to almost nothing may reasonably think that there is nothing wrong with taxing the auto to help get us out again.
The Highway Lobby has kept the mass transit advocates off balance by cheerfully agreeing that Texas does need more mass transit—surely does, needs it in the worst way. The problem is, they say, that there’s not enough money in the highway budget right now for highways, and besides, nobody has invented any sort of mass transit system that will work in Texas. They prefer to think of mass transit in terms of large fleets of diesel-powered, rubber-tired buses rolling over … roads.
The TGRA has too much political savvy to sit back and allow the increasingly-popular notion of mass transit to be co-opted by the highway critics. Last November TGRA Chairman Russell Perry announced the formation of a 29-member “Urban Mass Transportation Advisory Council” having as its “primary function” the dissemination of information “giving Texas citizens perspective and understanding on urban transportation issues” so that the public will support “reasonable urban transportation programs for Texas cities.” At its organizational meeting February 12, the group endorsed the idea of a state mass transportation fund so long as it did not interfere with the dedicated highway fund, and they suggested that the TGRA change its own name to “Texans for Better Transportation” to reflect its “broad concern with the total transportion picture.”
The Advisory Council’s specific recommendations must await future meetings, but it seems doubtful that its members will discover any “reasonable” programs that require fixed rails or invade gasoline tax revenues. Meanwhile they have the inestimable public relations benefit of being able to disseminate the TGRA position from a letterhead containing the magic words “Urban” and “Mass Transportation.”
Despite brave words (“We have the farmer out of the mud. Our challenge now is … to get the city dweller out of the traffic jam”) the TGRA’s position on mass transit boils down to this: do it if you want to, but get your money somewhere else. In a letter to Governor Briscoe in January 1973, the Association listed fifteen “specific actions” they would support. Some of these, like state guarantees for transit authority bonds and passage of legislation to permit establishment of metropolitan transit authorities, were helpful to mass transit without being harmful to the Association’s members. Others were a veiled way of saying “leave our money alone” (e.g., “Support of increased Federal and State funding from general funds,” “Support the release of funds authorized by Congress … but withheld by the Nixon Administration”). The rest were clearly designed to pad out the list: (Support demonstration projects to prove new systems will work,” “Support coordinated planning for all transportation modes,” a proposal seemingly indistinguishable from “Support coordination of efforts by state agencies,” and, finally, “Support the Texas Highway Department in its desire to help the cities achieve improved public transportation.”)
The intensity of the THD’s desire to help the cities in this respect is open to question. It does not appear to have grown significantly since DeWitt Greer declared in 1967:
I do not believe mass transit is the answer in Texas… . Texans are oriented to the use of the automobile. It would take a generation to break Texans of the comfortable and convenient habit of riding in the automobile. If we are to please the taxpayers … then we must develop more adequate thoroughfares in the urban areas.”
To the extent the Department does set its collective mind to considerations of mass transit, it thinks only of buses and roads. Asked about the THD’s plans, Commissioner Charles Simons mentioned Houston’s heavily-traveled West Loop 610 as evidence that the Department is already “the biggest public transportation system in Texas.” Of the auto user, he said that “when it gets to be too inconvenient and too costly to drive downtown, he will use public transportation. When gas is 50 cents a gallon people will go back to buses. We’re gonna help them because we have the facilities over which those buses roll.”
Today gas is over 50 cents a gallon and there are few buses for Texans to go back to. In the past generation, bus service has been discontinued at the rate of one city per year in Texas, declining from 36 cities in 1955 to 18 cities today. The systems that remain are a pale shadow of comprehensive public transportation.
There are two fundamental problems facing any urban mass transit system in Texas. They figure prominently in every THD and TGRA statement on the subject, and even the advocates of mass transit do not deny them.
One is residential density. Texas cities grew fastest in the era after automobiles had become the primary mode of personal transportation. Therefore they sprawl: unlike the closely-packed, high-rise cities of the East Coast, where population densities exceed 20,000 persons per square mile, residential neighborhoods in Texas are spacious, with densities in the vicinity of 3000 persons per square mile. How, ask the mass transit critics, can a bus or fixed rail network serve enough riders within walking distance of each stop to make the whole thing attractive?
The other problem is commercial decentralization. Traditional mass transit systems are designed to handle suburb-to-central-business-district movement quite well, but the Shopping Center Society of 1974 spends most of its travel time going places other than the downtown area. Commissioner Simons estimates that only five to seven percent of all trips in Dallas County have downtown destinations. How, ask the critics, can a mass transit system take urban Texans where they want to go?
Density and decentralization are the favorite themes at TGRA gatherings where mass transit is discussed. They are treated as insuperable barriers to a mass transit system, at least within the lifetime of the audience, and thus they take on the character of a rhetorical fail-safe system against threats to divert the dedicated fund. If mass transit is impossible, only fools would waste money on it. Especially highway money.
One illustration of this phenomenon occurred at the joint meeting of the TGRA and the Houston Chamber of Commerce last November. The speaker was Dr. R. W. Holder, Associate Research Engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute. He discussed the density and decentralization problems and concluded that
… no rapid transit system in use today appears to be directly applicable to Texas cities. Our urban forms are so different from those of cities in the North and East that we faced a different set of problems.
By this, said Holder, “I do not mean to imply that we cannot solve this problem… . We must search for mass transportation system designs that are compatible with our urban forms and” —he added significantly to his highway-minded audience— “[with] our existing urban transportation systems.”
One suggestion proposed by Holder was to establish “freeway surveillance and control with priority entry for buses.”
As newspaper headlines outside warned of imminent gasoline shortages, Holder concluded by telling his audience:
Texas is the greatest state in the greatest nation in the world. … I see no reason why Texas should adopt an approach of copying urban transportation systems developed for other cities… . Let us design our own systems… . Let’s pioneer the way, and let the rest of the world follow us.
The applause was fervent.
The density and decentralization problems are serious obstacles, to be sure. If the Manhattan subway system could somehow be inserted in the swampy muck that underlies Houston, it still would not fully solve that city’s transportation problem. Mass transit advocates merely deny that these obstacles are insuperable. “No mass transit system is feasible in Texas,” says Buck Wood of Texas Common Cause, “if you start from the premise that everybody has to drive his car to work.” Pointing to the rail commuter societies of Long Island and suburban Philadelphia, where residential density resembles Texas’ and people take a bus, drive, or are driven to rail terminals, Garrett Morris remarks, “this density argument sounds good, but I’m not sure it’s as valid as people would have you believe. When you’ve got the necessity for conservation of fuel, density is not the argument it once was. Anyway, the old streetcars worked with lower density that we have today.”
Commercial decentralization is not so severe as to prevent the creation of a mass transit system serving major shopping centers as well as the central business district. If our present decentralized shopping patterns grew up in the last 30 years as a direct result of the increased mobility that private automobiles provide, is it not reasonable to expect that with reduced auto use and better mass transit our shopping patterns will swing back toward greater decentralization, giving downtown stores a badly-needed shot in the arm? Is that so bad a prospect?
At the moment, however, mass transit plans in Texas are hamstrung by problems far more elementary than density and decentralization. Though thousands of commuters need to cross municipal boundaries, the cities face difficulties extending their own systems across these lines. The counties lack mass transit authority altogether. An effort to establish a regional transit authority in Houston last fall collapsed in a roar of recriminations. Revenue sources are shaky. The smaller cities cannot (or will not) put together enough revenue to qualify for federal matching funds (Since 1964, Texas has received only $35.6 million in federal aid for improving mass transit, less than one-tenth as much as California, that bastion of the private car, has gotten, and far behind the $260 million for Illinois, the $210 million for Massachusetts, and the $200 million for Pennsylvania. Under the law, Texas could have gotten $762.5 million.) Good transit is expensive, like police, fire protection, waste disposal, and other city services. Because it was a profit-making business until very recently, the cities are doggedly reluctant to assume the responsibility of supplying it at a loss.
The Boys on the Bus: The TMTC
THE AUTHORITY THAT HAS BEEN charged with helping the cities overcome these problems is the Texas Mass Transportation Commission. In a state where impotent agencies outnumber the eunuchs in a Turkish harem, the TMTC sings its soprano song to an audience of benign neglect. Established by the Legislature in 1969 to “foster … the development of public mass transportation, both intracity and intercity, in this state,” but without being given funds to do so, the Commission existed for twenty months, after September 1971, with no chairman, no quorum, no employees, no money, and no telephone. In January 1973, it received an appropriation of $80,100, of which $58,000 goes to pay the salaries of Executive Director Russell Cummings and his three employees, “leaving,” in his words, “about 22 thousand to do all these great wonders the Legislature requires us to do.”
Cummings, a folksy 48-year-old former legislator from Houston’s Montrose district, is sensitive to the inconvenience that the present meager public transportation systems impose on racial and economic minorities. He is not, however, a visionary, and he talks a lot about buses. “We’re not set in concrete on any particular mode,” he says, adding “-but every rail system in the US. lost money last year.” takes a modest view of his agency’s duties: “We are a service organization, not a regulatory authority.” Unlike other mass transit advocates, moreover, he takes a hands-off approach to the dedicated highway fund, insisting that where the Legislature gets the money is their decision. We’re not seeking anybody else’s funds.”
Cummings’ caution is understandable in view of the interests of the six appointed commissioners who hired him.
• Chairman Albert Rollins is a member of an engineering firm who previously served as Engineer Assistant for the Texas Highway Department.
• Member Joe P. Cain is president of Lake Truck Lines, Inc.
• Member Robert H. Cutler is Chairman of the Board of ICX Illinois-California Express, Inc., a motor freight carrier. A 32-year veteran of the trucking industry, he has held office in the Texas Motor Transport Association and is past president of the American Trucking Association.
• Member J. W. Porter is Executive Vice-President of Gifford-Hill & Co., Inc., manufacturers of ready-mixed concrete, Portland cement, sand, and gravel. (And, for the record, railroad cross-ties.)
• Member Clyde Malone is the Manager of the Austin City bus system and a member of the TGRA’s Urban Mass Transportation Advisory Council.
• Member James W. Ward was, at the time of his appointment, chairman of the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce traffic committee.
• Five of the six (excepting only Porter, a Briscoe man) are the legacy of Governor Preston Smith.
The selection of these particular men to establish policy on the Texas Mass Transportation Commission is compelling evidence that the Highway Lobby has moved as swiftly to neutralize this faint potential threat to highway dominance as they customarily move to influence the selection of the highway commissioners themselves.
So Russell Cummings sits in his tiny office on South Congress Avenue twenty blocks from the Capitol, a distance too far to walk and too humiliating to drive, and types the lead on his latest press release:
1974 is the Year of the Tiger in China, but it may be the Year of the Bus in Texas… .
Shootout at the Watering Trough
WITH THESE ISSUES, THE CURRENT Constitutional fight over the dedicated fund is being waged. The texas Highway Department insists that every penny of its allotted funds, and more, will be needed to finance highway needs for the next 20 years. Even ex-Commissioner Morris agrees with that. The planned reconstruction of 12,000 to 14,000 miles of non-interstate primary highways will, the Commissioners say, require 13 billion dollars. Thirteen hundred bridges are substandard, some of them “damn dangerous,” according to Simons. Another 10,000 miles of farm-to-market roads are planned. The suburban loops that were being built five years ago around cities the size of Tyler (pop. 60,000) are now being constructed around Vernon (pop. 12,600), Taylor (pop. 9616), Monahans (pop. 8350), and Perryton (pop. 8100). “Towns that used to threaten to secede if we built loops now ask for us to build them,” says Simons. Since the money is available, the loops are built.
The Department’s philosophy of loops is interesting. Spokesman Marc Yancey explains:
If you look at history you see that … the cities that last longest have a radial design. The center deteriorates, but because it’s practical to drive within the radial loop, the center rebuilds itself, like Montrose in Houston is doing now.
Loops have a very good purpose. Rome is a classic example. Athens, Greece, has a radial highway.
Today Athens, tomorrow Dripping Springs.
Maintenance costs are continuing to rise. In the 1973 fiscal year they amounted to $116 million, but Yancey says “costs have gone right through the roof” and the figure will rise to $132 million this year and $150 million in 1975.
Pie graphs distributed to the Convention by the TGRA show the same maintenance figures for Fiscal 1973, $116 million, along with figures for “right of way and construction” totaling $432 million. Apparently the pie graphs were embarrassing. In a season when both the gasoline supply and the dedicated fund are in danger, expenditures for “maintenance” are better public relations than expenditures for construction. The TGRA and the THD quickly began to distribute new charts for Fiscal 1974 containing a “Maintenance and Operation” category that had swollen to $296 million and “right of way and construction” categories that had shriveled to $171 million. Yancey explains that the figures originally described as “maintenance” include only routine things like mowing grass, picking up litter, and filling potholes. He attributes the increase to a simple re-classification of serious maintenance—work designed to prolong the life of a highway by resurfacing, sealcoating, or improving its base. Randall Wood of Common Cause contends that it includes the cost of four-laning existing two-lane highways as “maintenance.” There is, in any event, something suspicious about a statement captioned “TEXAS HIGHWAY DEPARTMENT INCOME & EXPENDITURES” that includes $40 million for the Department of Public Safety under the category of “Maintenance & Operation” for the Highway Department.
A similar sort of confusion surrounds the impact of the energy crisis on highway revenues and needs in Texas. The Department has based its projections on the assumption that the number of motor vehicles will increase by nearly 50 per cent by the year 2000, and that these vehicles will consume about twice as many gallons of gasoline as were sold in Texas last year. Both assumptions now seem dubious, yet the Department has projected that this much traffic will need new roads, that this much traffic will tear up the roads that currently exist. Commissioner Simons says, “we haven’t been affected by the energy crisis at all yet.”
His confidence is shared by the Department’s estimate of its income from the motor fuels tax this year. Even though gasoline stations are closing on every corner, the Department expects to collect $24.7 million dollars more from these taxes than it did in 1973. How can this be? The 5^ tax rate remains unchanged. The prestigious Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations estimates that gasoline tax collections this year will be 17 per cent below those in 1972—a cut of about $39 million dollars for Texas. Does the Department know something the rest of us don’t know? Asked about the apparent discrepancy, a THD spokesman said mysteriously that he was confident the estimates were correct and the reason would become apparent “very soon.” And laying a finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
In the Constitutional Convention the mass transit proponents, led by Common Cause of Texas, have argued first for elimination of the dedicated fund altogether or, as an alternative, for language that would allow some of the money to be used for public education and public transportation systems. The Highway Lobby, as tactically astute as ever, has responded with a proposal of its own: a different constitutional provision that would dedicate one-fourth of the present four per cent state sales tax on motor vehicles solely for mass transportation. This plan would provide about $50 million in state funds (matchable with 80 per cent federal funds), while leaving the half-billion dollar highway fund intact. Both sides have claimed popular support for their positions, and each has produced the results of a poll to prove they have it.
A feeble compromise was adopted by the Convention’s Finance Committee in February. Delegate Bill Sullivant of Gainesville proposed that the dedicated highway fund be preserved without change, except for a proviso that any future increase in the gasoline tax (above 50 per gallon) should not go automatically into the dedicated fund. The Legislature that raised the tax would, in Sullivant’s plan, have the discretion to give the new revenue to the THD or channel it somewhere else. At press time it seemed likely that this proposal would be adopted by the whole Convention. Certainly it seemed the most that the critics of the dedicated fund were likely to get.
The Highway Lobby has thrown itself energetically into this critical battle. The TGRA provided each delegate with an inch-thick book that is a tangible record of their pervasive ethos-building. It contains newspaper editorials, endorsements of the dedicated fund from dozens of chambers of commerce and county commissioners (many of whom simply filled in the blanks of model resolutions supplied by the TGRA and returned them as-is), and a not-so-subtle reminder that if all the members of all the TGRA member organizations are added together, the Association speaks for 280,500 Texans. Governor Briscoe has cooperated by issuing a statement declaring the retention of the dedicated fund “is essential if we are going to continue to have an effective highway system.” The governor, who campaigned on a platform of aiding urban mass transit, then adds:
Mass transit at some time—and in some form—has to be explored. But mass transportation will not reduce the need for highways. Texans are sort of independent … each wants to go in his own car.
Highway building must go on….
The oil industry lobbyists have been conspicuously silent this year (lines at the filling stations prove that they no longer have their old interest in pushing up the demand for petroleum products). By contrast the truckers and bussers (represented by the Texas Motor Transportation Association) have threatened to oppose the entire new Constitution if the Sullivant proposal is adopted.
Despite all the talk about the virtues of the dedicated fund and the need for mass transit, what is really being fought out in the Constitutional Convention is utterly simple. It is whether the people of Texas are going to have the right to change their transportation priorities in the future, through the legislative process, if they decide to do so. As long as the dedicated fund remains in the Constitution they cannot do so unless a two-thirds majority of both houses of the Legislature lets them. The votes of as few as eleven Senators can block any change forever — regardless of urban needs, the energy shortage, or the wishes of a majority of the voters themselves. As long as the fund remains where it is, there will always be money for highways, and the rest of the public needs will fight it out for what is left. Can a majority of Texans change the state’s priorities? That is what the battle is all about.
Felton West, the Houston Post’s capitol correspondent, put the matter succinctly when he wrote:
Imagine how foolish we’d look today if in 1875 the Constitution’s framers had dedicated a 5 percent tax on the sale of every horse to financing public watering troughs and hitching posts.
But then again, Governor Richard Coke had not told the press:
Texans are sort of independent … each wants to ride his own horse.
Cloverleaf Without Exits
IS IT ENDLESS THEN, A cloverleaf without exits?
The answer is suggested by the Convention testimony of Commissioner Simons. If the dedicated fund is removed, he told the delegates, the highway system will be “plunged into the heart of politics … instead of having highway projects based on traffic needs.”
“Needs” is the pivotal word. Still influenced by a brief but lurid episode of corruption that flourished and died in less than a thousand days nearly half a century ago, the Department leaders constantly remind themselves of the dangers of political meddling in highway affairs, meddling that substitutes political favoritism for true highway “needs.” Even though the Department’s reputation is so secure today that it would surely be insulated from legislative logrolling if the dedicated fund were dropped, this fear remains its central organizing Myth, its Homeric legend retold from father to son. In 1925 Troy fell. With his sturdy sailing ship, Aeneas has led his men to Rome.
Singlemindedly intent upon protecting their cherished Department from the indignity of being forced to serve counterfeit political needs, the highway leaders never pause to consider whether their own traditional definition of “needs” is losing its validity. To them, transportation needs and “traffic needs” are one and the same thing. Their history, their training, their manner of selection and promotion, indeed their whole experience has led them to identify “traffic needs” with “highways” absolutely. Men whose mode of thinking is bounded by rubber tires and concrete do not speculate on whether traffic needs can become something different in an urban, energy-short era.
If you imply that these external changes in the Seventies have created a situation in which the Highway Department itself has begun to supply transportation that is not based on “needs,” the leaders find that statement ultimately incomprehensible. Whether building an interstate or building a loop around Taylor, they are simply doing what they and their predecessors have always done. Interpreting the accusation in the light of their experience they can only think you are suggesting they are corrupt, that they build roads as political patronage: for in their injured pride that is the only sort of violation of “needs” they know.
It is not surprising, then, that the Department leaders tend to see the same dangers that the highway builders see—the danger of running out of funds, of not being able to plan ahead. In a real sense the interests of the highway bureaucracy and the highway lobby have become identical. And why should not a commissioner and a lobbyist open a bank together, if there is no longer a point of view to influence “unduly”?
Proposals for mass transit in Texas focus on buses not merely because buses are the only form of public transportation that can be put to work immediately, but also because the idea that transit can be “mass” is an unfamiliar, undigested one. At the very time when lines at the filling stations are demonstrating that transit may have to be “mass,” and substantially so, in the very near future, public transportation is still regarded as no more than a means for moving people around whose poverty, disability, or temporarily empty gas tank prevent them from using a private car. Unquestioned is the assumption that we can rely on the automobile … forever.
Is there a more sensible way of getting people around than having them propel two tons of steel at eight miles per gallon? Should there be?
Texans may soon be forced to make some hard choices about their transportation policies. At the moment, because of the dedicated fund, those choices are made for them: the Highway Department will go right on building highways until someone tells it to stop or to slow down. They have the money and they define the “needs.”
There is no way short of constitutional amendment for the public to redefine those needs or to force their moderation so that more money can be spent on other things. New funds can of course be created for new needs, be they mass transit or anything else. But the highway money will still be spent. And it is as much “misgovernment” to build things the taxpayers do not need, as it is to fail to build those things they do need. Even if you build them honestly. Even if you build them well. In its studied, proud efforts to avoid making the latter mistake, the Highway Department may now be in danger of making the former.
The reaction of the Department toward suggestions that it be given responsibility for all forms of public transportation, becoming a sort of state Department of Transportation, is a telling commentary on its insularity. All three Commissioners told the Convention that mass transit programs should be handled by some other agency. Commissioner Simons added that putting the two together would “dilute the thrust” of the Highway Department.
Instead of saying, “we are engineering professionals; we are ready to do what the state needs. When you wanted good roads, we built the best in the country. If you want good mass transit, we can build that best too,” the Department has fled from the new responsibility. Through changing times they have remained precisely what the Lobby planned for them to be: a bureaucracy totally committed to roads.
Texans may or may not want a vigorous governmental effort to develop mass transit; different polls yield different results. But if they do, they cannot be optimistic when they see the Highway Department, the Mass Transportation Commission, and the penetrating influence of the Highway Lobby on the selection of the men who set these agencies’ policies. They cannot expect the Texas Good Roads Association—even if renamed “Texans for Better Transportation”—to send forth the word to chambers of commerce and local governments that a new day is at hand. Most important of all, they cannot expect their existing transportation bureaucracy to step back and take an impartial look at other types of transportation.
If Texans want this done, they will have to find a way to circumvent the most immovable bureaucracy and the most irresistible lobby in their state. If the people want an exit, they will have to hire their own bulldozer.