Saturday, June 22, 2002

"I-35 relief route would probably be one of first pieces of the corridor."

State officials preparing for corridor project

June 22, 2002

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

A proposal to build a toll road and a high-speed rail line to relieve Interstate 35 congestion between the Metroplex and San Antonio could be unveiled within weeks, a transportation commission member said.

The Texas Transportation Commission plans to meet today to formally adopt ground rules for the Trans Texas Corridor , which Gov. Rick Perry presented in January as the answer to gridlock on the state's highways and rail lines. The plan calls for the construction of a 4,000-mile web of roads and rails across Texas over 50 years. Much of the estimated $175 billion needed for the project would come from private investment in government-backed debt.

An I-35 relief route would probably be one of first pieces of the corridor - if not the very first - to be built, commission member Ric William-son said. Even so, construction is probably several years away.

Engineers, construction companies and other businesses are forming a coalition to build a road that would connect Fort Worth and Dallas with San Antonio - in anticipation of today's commission meeting, Williamson said. He said he did not know the identities of the businesses, but had been told that they were setting the stage to take immediate advantage of the state's new transportation strategy.

In setting the ground rules, the commission is responding to Perry's directive to find a way to make the Trans Texas Corridor a reality by this summer.

"Generally, it's thought that a proposal will occur shortly after we adopt the rules," Williamson said. "After the governor gave us the charge, I think market forces started working right then."

The idea is to relieve congestion, improve the flow of goods from Mexico and get trucks hauling hazardous materials out of populated areas.

"We're not going to get the chemicals out of downtown Fort Worth and downtown Dallas until we get started," Williamson said.

Although the state may put up seed money and subsidize some components of the plan such as passenger rail, most of the money is expected to come from private investors.

"We're not ever going to get high-speed rail if we don't start now," Williamson said.

The I-35 reliever toll road could begin by incorporating a just-approved Central Texas toll road - Texas 130 - into the corridor plan, Williamson said. That $1 billion project will provide a 90-mile route from Seguin, near San Antonio, to Georgetown, north of Austin. The question would be how to extend the Texas 130 project north to the Fort Worth-Dallas area, then around the Metroplex either to the west or the east or both - similar to the way that I-35 splits to the east and west.

Also, the Texas 130 project would have to be altered to fit rail and utility lines into its design, spokesman Thomas Graham said. As currently designed, the tollway would be four to six lanes wide, without rail.

Graham said officials working on the Central Texas tollway project, which has a primary mission of relieving gridlock, were unfamiliar with the road's possible role in the Trans Texas Corridor .

The corridor would be about three times as wide as a typical freeway, with space for six toll lanes, six rail lines and multiple underground utility lines, according to drawings from the Texas Department of Transportation.

Questions about how to build the corridor are creating a buzz in Austin, where some transportation experts are saying that it will require political leaders statewide to change their philosophy about how state funds are used for highway projects. Additional attention - and highway funding - would have to be diverted from country roads toward urban highways, experts said.

"It begins with the development of a strategy that addresses unabashedly that transportation in the largest urban areas is its priority," David Laney, former commission chairman, told the Senate Committee on State Affairs last week.

By 2025, 60 percent of the state's population will reside in Houston and Fort Worth-Dallas, he told the committee. Those two urban areas account for half the state's population and 70 percent of its new jobs, Laney said. Therefore, fixing the state's clogged highways requires an investment of funds in those areas proportionate to their importance to the state's economy, he said.

Residents of rural areas will be more likely to go along with the concept if they do not have to pay the bill, said Wendell Cox, a consultant with Texas Public Policy Foundation, a watchdog group.

"I think the crucial thing is to make sure the plan remains a private plan, a commercial use plan. We've got to get away from using gas taxes to finance transportation improvements," he said. "If it fails, the people of Texas don't pay the bill.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram:


Crisis: Texas in "Gridlock?"

Transportation focus of plans

Alternative travel modes are touted

June 21, 2002

Bob Richter Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2002

Texas won't successfully move into the future on roads and highways, but must adopt other modes of transportation to move people and products, state lawmakers were told Thursday.

"We must be more innovative," former Texas Transportation Commission Chairman David Laney told the Senate State Affairs Committee.

He called traffic gridlock in Texas cities "a permanent condition" that "threatens our state's principal urban economies."

Laney, a Dallas lawyer who last month was appointed to the Amtrak board by President Bush, acknowledged the border area's well-documented bad roads and bad infrastructure are "unique" and that his advice "is not intended to disregard their needs."

But his pitch was clearly to direct transportation planning and funding to larger urban areas, primarily Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston.

Highways in those cities have reached capacity, he said, adding that by 2025 60 percent of the state's population will live in those urban centers.

"We're doing the entire state a disservice by not adequately investing in our urban transportation systems," Laney said.

Wendell Cox, a name familiar to some San Antonians for his opposition to light rail in the Alamo City in 2000, however, took issue with Laney.

Smaller cities, such as Laredo and Corpus Christi, will gain 10 million people cumulatively by 2025, Cox said. He said planners should turn to toll roads and user fees to serve big cities "so that people in Van Horn and Sweetwater don't think all their money is going to Dallas or Houston."

And, Cox said, freight rail will get large trucks off the highways, noting that one truck causes as much wear and tear on highways as four cars.

Several witnesses praised Gov. Rick Perry's proposed Trans Texas Corridor plan, a $175 billion public-private plan which would place highways, rail lines and underground conduits for utilities, petrochemicals and communications in six super corridors linking far-flung parts of Texas .

Others backed passenger rail, such as Dallas' DART, as a means of getting people out of cars to lesson gridlock and improve air quality.

Sen. Carlos Truan, D-Corpus Christi, said that in the wake of the terror attacks last September, it's vital to be able to move troops from inland military posts such as Fort Hood to seaports on the Gulf Coast.

And Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Dallas, who chaired the hearings here Thursday, called the transportation woes in Texas a "crisis," and said lawmakers and policymakers need "to not only focus on highways."

Sen. Kenneth Armbrister, D-Victoria, had a contrary view.

"Texans still like pickup trucks," he said, adding that calls for alternate forms of transportation amount to a "build it and they will come" theory.

The political reality, he said, is "what gets support is what people want."

© 2002 San Antonio Express-News:


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: