Friday, June 21, 2002

Wendell Cox, in a nutshell.

Interview: Cox looks at Texas’ transportation future

by James A. Cooley
The Lone Star Report
Volume 6, Issue 40
Copyright 2002

Wendell Cox runs an international public policy firm that specializes in urban policy, transport, and demographics. His wide-ranging background in transportation includes everything from consulting for the U. S. Department of Transportation to serving on the Amtrak Reform Council.

Cox was in Austin June 20 to testify on behalf of the Texas Public Policy Foundation before the Senate State Affairs Committee.

LSR: Regarding transportation, how bad is it?

Cox: It’s almost beyond description. For most of the last 20 years around the country, and to a lesser extent around Texas, we have not been building highway capacity to keep up with demand. Part out it has been out of this crazy idea that if we don’t build capacity, people will get on [public] transit… and that they will stop driving. Of course, none of that ever happens.

All you have to do is go to any of the foreign cities that have the best transit systems – far better than any city in this country, including New York, and you will find that the traffic is worse there than here, not better.

So we have seen an awful lot of public policy in this country limited by an anti-automobile doctrine that fails to recognize that as traffic increases, you must provide capacity.

The problem is that we have gotten behind; but worse, the cities are rapidly growing – especially the Texas cities. The metropolitan areas of Texas are likely to add the equivalent of both Dallas and Houston over the next 25 years.

LSR: One statistic presented to the committee today was a prediction for a 41 percent increase in vehicle registrations by 2025, with a 7 percent increase in lane-miles to go with them.

Cox: That’s right.

LSR: That just doesn’t work.

Cox: No, of course it doesn’t work. There are people out there that say, “Well, you know we’re driving too much.”

Well, much of the increase that has occurred in recent decades is that women have started working and are now driving as much as men. Do we want to go back to the old way when maybe mother didn’t have a driver’s license? I am old enough to remember when that was the case.

We are very fortunate to have put together an economy in this country where blacks and Hispanics are moving into the mainstream. They are not there yet; we have a long way to go. If you go to the minority areas in our central cities, you will find that black and Hispanic car ownership is way below average. As these people become more affluent, they’re driving more.

What is happening is that a lot of this increase in driving has occurred because of social factors where people are becoming more liberated – and I say great!

LSR: You advocate a policy change from a primary reliance on motor fuels taxes to a focus on user fees [tolls] to add capacity?

Cox: The whole idea of statewide gas tax funding of transportation is a thing of the past. Now that isn’t to say that we should go and repeal the current situation. The current gas tax can be salvaged, and it is doing a decent job of system maintenance. But it cannot be expected to provide the expansions we need.

We’ve got to go to user financing for that, and that is where I think the governor’s plan is right on.

LSR: Aren’t you making people pay double? You pay the gas tax and a toll.

Cox: No, because if you didn’t pay the toll, you wouldn’t get the new capacity. This is capacity that [otherwise] wouldn’t be there. It is inconceivable to raise the gas tax to the level that we need to get these system improvements.

The problem… is that if we were to spend the gas tax based upon need only, without respect to politics, not a penny would ever be spent outside the metropolitan areas. We can’t have that; that is politically unreasonable. We have to maintain the current gas tax system, but system improvements have got to go user-taxed.

Because, if we don’t, whatever we raise [in increased gas tax], one-third of it, or maybe more, is going to go to rural areas that really don’t have the level of need that we have in Dallas, or San Antonio, or Houston, or Austin.

LSR: The hot topic in Texas transportation is Gov. Rick Perry’s Trans Texas Corridors plan. What are your thoughts on the concept as released, with the understanding that the implementation plan is due to be presented on June 27?

Cox: As you said, the real details are not out yet; just a concept plan and I haven’t seen anything in it that concerns me. I think the governor is to be complimented. The last time anyone thought this far outside of the box in transportation in this country was when President Dwight Eisenhower proposed the interstate highway system. We have had virtually no advanced, out of the box thinking on transportation since that time.

Think about it: The interstate highway system was designed in the early 1950’s and designed for traffic demands that were anticipated in 1975. That is the reason why, for example, Austin has an interstate highway as exciting as that which serves Trinidad, CO. The fact is that you don’t in 1955 plan for the needs of 2002. Yet that is where we are. We are dealing with a system that was built for the needs of 1975 and have only had incremental improvements since.

It is about time that we had a new vision, and I compliment the governor.

The other thing that is important about the Perry plan, as I understand the plan, is that it would be essentially self-funding. This is absolutely critical. We need to have transportation plans that are paid for by the user. I am pleased the governor is not looking at some huge new tax to do this.

The idea of brand-new corridors that have very little access, and are mainly for the purpose of getting around the cities for freight rail, cars, and trucks – marvelous!

LSR: One consideration in the plan was to move traffic out of the urban cores to help comply with the federal Clean Air Act.

Cox: I think that is marvelous. The point is, beyond that is that the railroads are all running through these [urban] cores – and have been running through these cores for the last hundred to 150 years. This would, I hope, provide the opportunity to run the freight trains around Houston and around Dallas.

As trains go through the center of towns, they cause all sorts of trouble. They interfere with traffic an awful lot; they make noises that people don’t want to hear. Rail volumes are increasing, and even if we don’t move a single truck off the road in the next 20 years, we anticipate that the volume of freight rail is going to double. Nobody wants twice as many freight trains running through their town.

The other thing is that we are moving an awful lot of bulk hazardous materials by rail… and so if we can get these trains out of the towns and out into the country, it is just going to be a lot safer situation.

LSR: You testified that trucked freight is also projected to increase 100 percent in the next 20 years. Is a greatly expanded freight rail system inevitable?

Cox: There is a great risk that policies adopted in the states, including Texas, could force more rail freight onto the roads. If the people out there that have this religious affection for intercity passenger rail have their way, they are going to be forcing the freight railroads to take more passenger trains – and every new passenger train added to the freight rail system takes away capacity that could be used for the freight.

The fact is that things can get a whole lot worse. The point is that if we continue to make transportation policy decisions based on some quasi-religious doctrine – which [is] what has been leading us up to this point – things can get a lot worse.

LSR: What should guide transportation planning in Texas?

Cox: What should drive transportation policy is demand. We shouldn’t try to shape demand, we should be trying to respond to demand – and we should be looking at policies that reduce the hours of delay in transportation the most for every dollar we spend. I think you have got to get to a situation where you are looking at real performance criteria… with the money we’ve got … to reduce the hours of delay we are suffering the most.

LSR: In a nutshell, give the people what they want and get the most bang for the buck?

Cox: It’s really pretty radical thoughts that haven’t been seen in transportation planning for some decades.

LSR: What will fail?

Cox: Subsidy. Things must be proven in the market. There is no end of the ability of interest groups, whether public or private, to call upon the treasury of the state to do something that makes no commercial sense at all. That is the real problem. O

The Lone Star Report: