Sunday, December 12, 2004

Traffic numbers do not justify Trans-Texas Corridor plan

Road to future or a dead end?

Light rural traffic may not justify corridor plan.

By Ben Wear
Austin American Statesman
Copyright 2004

Houstonian Erik Slotboom, by his own description, is a "road geek," a guy who spent a year of his life writing and self-publishing an exhaustive book on his hometown's freeway system.

Highways move him, in other words, both literally and figuratively.

So when Slotboom, a software engineer, first heard about Gov. Rick Perry's 4,000-mile dream of tollways criss-crossing Texas, he was open to the idea of the Trans-Texas Corridor. But then, on his frequent trips on Interstate 45 from Dallas to Houston, Slotboom noticed something. For most of the way, from Houston's outskirts to the Dallas suburbs, the traffic was actually pretty light.

He had a heretical thought: Maybe all or almost all of the state's major routes really aren't all that crowded. And if so, he wondered, do we really need to spend $183 billion of state, federal and private money to build a parallel system of 10-lane highways, railroads and utility lines?

Slotboom's answer, after doing a good deal of research, was no.

And a look at the most recent traffic counts on the state's major arteries would seem to indicate that, aside from the clogged San Antonio-to-Hillsboro stretch of Interstate 35, rural Texas roads are far from congested.

On I-35 halfway between Laredo and San Antonio, for instance, 11,620 vehicles a day were using those four lanes in 2002, about 5 percent of the throng on that same road where it crosses the Colorado River in Austin.

On Interstate 10 near Columbus, between Houston and San Antonio, the count was 21,820 cars and trucks a day. Near Buffalo, the midpoint between Dallas and Houston on I-45, the number was 25,530. U.S. 59 near Livingston, 70 miles northeast of Houston, had 23,000 vehicles a day.

And in West Texas, the numbers drop completely off the table: 8,100 a day on I-10 near Junction, 7,100 on Interstate 20 near Monahans and 10,190 a day on U.S. 87/I-27 south of Plainview.

Even by the conservative guidelines of the Texas Department of Transportation, use on a four-lane rural freeway doesn't reach the "undesirable" range until daily traffic reaches 31,600 vehicles. Add a fifth and sixth lane, and that threshold grows to 47,400 vehicles a day.

Despite those numbers, state officials say all the corridors eventually will be needed, and they won't be built until they are. For now, people like Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson say they're moving seriously only on a parallel route to the increasingly crowded I-35 between Dallas and San Antonio.

Slotboom, looking at trend lines for 30 years of traffic counts on those roads, says all but I-35 will be fine for decades into the future, some without even adding lanes. If the state wants to give vehicles a way to avoid urban bottlenecks on I-35, he says, it could build alternate routes around cities, such as Texas 130 around Austin, rather than separate highways to skirt cities. Perry, Williamson and the Texas Department of Transportation, Slotboom says, want to solve a city problem by building country roads.

"The problem is, really, urban congestion, and to a certain extent Interstate 35 is urbanized," Slotboom said. "The rest of the highways are rural, and there will never be a need on them for a Trans-Texas Corridor. . . . I'd like to see them justify it."

Williamson, a close friend of the governor and his de facto spokesman on toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor, agrees that most of those rural highways won't need a parallel set of toll roads any time soon. He says that's why the commission is about to pick a highway development consortium this Thursday for the 600-mile Oklahoma-to-Mexico I-35 corridor alone, Williamson and department officials say. As for the rest of the 4,000 miles, well, for now those are just lines on paper waiting for traffic growth to justify them.

"None of those corridors will be built until the exact moment in time when the market says it's time to move," Williamson said.

Unpopular vision

The corridor plan, since Perry first introduced it in early 2002 as part of his re-election campaign, has been a slippery subject. Many transportation planners haven't taken it seriously, looking at the hefty cost — equivalent to 35 years of the current state transportation budget — and presuming the futuristic plan had no future. Meanwhile, critics such as Slotboom who did take it seriously, poring over the details and a key 2003 transportation law to glean the plan's ramifications, have been accused of political motivations and nitpicking. The plan is a vision, supporters say, not a blueprint.

That vision includes essentially seven 1,200-foot-wide transportation alleys across Texas, four of them designated as "priority corridors," roughly paralleling I-35, I-10, I-45 and what will eventually be Interstate 69 from Brownsville past Houston and north to Texarkana. The other three corridors, presumably envisioned as coming on line much later, would be an Oklahoma-to-Big Bend route near I-20 for much of its run, a Texarkana-to-Amarillo route hugging the Red River, and the ports-to-plains corridor from Brownsville to Del Rio and then north to the Oklahoma panhandle. The seven corridors would pass near major cities, but not through them.

As outlined by the governor, each corridor eventually would have six toll lanes for passenger cars, four toll lanes for trucks, six railroads and a dedicated corridor for pipelines and electric lines. It's that daunting swath of right-of-way — a nearly quarter-mile-wide no-cow's-land that would divide pastures and take a half million acres off rural tax rolls — that has inspired incredulity and, particularly in rural Texas, opposition.

Last week, the Texas Farm Bureau, on a decisive voice vote at its annual convention, came out against the plan that its political arm had endorsed in 2002.

'A 50-year plan'

Phillip Russell, director of the Transportation Department's turnpike division, said that despite all the cutting-edge ornaments — tolls, the unique long-term "partnership" with a private developer, the marriage of roads, rail and utilities — the corridors are nothing more than good planning.

"It's a 50-year plan," Russell said. "The department's been criticized for a lot of things over the years. Planning ahead is usually not one of those things."

He said the Transportation Department will continue to expand four-lane interstate segments to six lanes as needed, including the sections of I-35 between San Antonio and Dallas yet to be widened. But after that's done, it will get more difficult to add more capacity, he said. The long-term trends, combined with demographers' predictions, show that rural traffic counts have been doubling every 15 to 20 years, Russell said, and even six lanes won't do the job on I-35. Thus the pending contract for the I-35 corridor.

The winning bidder among the consortia — which include one led by Fluor Corp., which is building Texas 130, a second headed by Spanish tollway operator Cintra and a third that includes Hensel Phelps, builder of Austin's new City Hall — will be guaranteed just $3.5 million of planning work over the couple of years. Every step of the way after that, as the various pieces of the I-35 corridor are built over the years, could be subject to all-comers bidding. But Williamson acknowledged that "all of these proposers presume they will be doing most of the building."

If the marriage sustains, in other words, the prevailing group could do several billion dollars of Texas road work over the next decade or two.

The state's assumption, and requirement under the bid, is that the consortium will bring most of that money to the table, either putting up existing capital or borrowing it. Toll revenue would then go to the consortium to pay back the investment.

But the state would also put up a to-be-determined amount of money. That 2003 state law that made the Trans-Texas Corridor possible stipulated that no more than 20 percent of the state's annual federal highway grants, or about $400 million this year, could be drawn from the state highway fund for the corridor projects. But that limit does not apply to preliminary engineering, studies, or operation and maintenance, and there is no limit on how much of the $3 billion Texas Mobility Fund could go to it. In theory, at least, the corridor project could scoop up a lot of money that otherwise would have gone to other transportation improvements.

Slotboom foresees a "financial disaster," one that would require the state to forgo urban highway expansions and to levy tolls on existing interstates to make up for the shortfall on the unneeded and underperforming corridor turnpikes a few miles away. State officials and others say that's unrealistic doomsday talk. Despite, or perhaps because of the unfortunate experience with the state's first private toll road, the Camino Colombia turnpike near Laredo that went bankrupt and was bought by the state, neither private investors nor the state will plow money into an unneeded corridor project, officials say.

"Those (rural traffic counts) are lower numbers than one would have intuitively expected, given the planning for the Trans-Texas Corridor," said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies for the California-based Reason Foundation and a leading national toll road proponent. "But one of the virtues of funding things to a significant degree with tolls is that you have to convince Wall Street that the project makes sense. . . . If a corridor doesn't have the traffic to justify a significant amount of toll financing, it isn't going to happen."

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