Thursday, July 27, 2006

"It's time for the governor to consider a Trans-Texas alternative."


Trans-Texas alternative

Perry's transportation idea has merit but overlooks key issues


By: Andrew Burleson
The Battalion
Copyright 2006

Texas is facing a significant turning point. Gov. Rick Perry has called for the State to build a massive network of freeways with freight rail, commuter rail, utility lines, communication towers and oil and natural gas pipelines all concentrated into a single route. This massive corridor is intended to meet the future transportation needs of the state, which is expected to increase dramatically in the next 50 years.

Texas highways are already packed with cars and trucks, and gridlock strangles our major cities day and night. While the lofty goals of Perry's transportation program are admirable, the program has been met with opposition. In fact, all of Perry's opponents in the November elections are vehemently opposed to the plan.

Critics suggest that the corridor won't even require trucks to stop for customs at the border, but rather will operate as an "EZ-Tag"-style terminal, tracking shipments to central depots in Kansas before subjecting them to any examination. Of course, the trucks will have to exit the freeway numerous times to stop for gas before they could reach Kansas, and who is going to supervise the trucks there?

The route will do little to ease congestion in the cities. By looping 30 to 50 miles around every major metropolitan area, passenger vehicles are unlikely to find the corridor very practical. The suggested speed limit of 80 miles per hour is supposed to lure drivers to the alternative route, but how many Texans are going to want to drive an extra hundred miles and pay tolls the entire way just so they can avoid a bit of traffic?

Another problem with the plan is its rail component. Although a comprehensive high-speed rail system would be an economic boon, and being able to take a high speed train from San Antonio or Austin to Dallas could definitely reduce the number of passengers on I-35, it is doubtful that many people would want to drive 50 miles to the train station and rent a car at their destination, when they could just as easily fly or save money driving the whole way.

These challenges render the entire idea of the multi-modal corridor useless. Instead, the state needs to consider a different approach, routing different uses in different directions.

The most promising component of the plan is the freight rail. The freight rail could work as planned, but it would be even more effective if it was coupled with a system of spurs for freight trucks to transfer cargo on the final leg of its journey from an intermodal depot to the destination city. By picking up cargo in Laredo or McAllen and shipping it to Texarkana or Denton, countless freight trucks could be diverted from the interstate. Not only could this save the state a massive amount of money, but less land could be taken. Better, safer service could be provided using less fuel and generating less pollution and noise.

The passenger rail should also go directly to and from city centers. Texas could build high-speed rail networks through the medians of existing freeways, or over abandoned freight and utility lines. Austin and San Antonio have already been planning a connection using old right of way, which is currently underutilized. Coupling this with an investment in local level light rail and commuter trains could generate huge savings, reduce environmental impact and generate thousands of jobs. Not only could this offer rapid service between city centers (new trains can operate as fast as 300 mph) but would also give passengers safer, more affordable ways to travel. With an average of 43,000 Americans dying every year in automobile accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, now is the time to invest in safer transportation modes.

More congestion relief could be provided in the form of smaller regional bypasses, such as Austin's SH-130. That toll road is being built away from the major commuter destinations and will have limited entry and exit points in a deliberate effort to limit development on the bypass. By connecting to I-35 on either side of Austin, but running only slightly east of the city, travelers not intending to stop have a superior option to pass through the most congested parts of the existing freeway, without needing to add significant mileage to their trip.

Finally, to improve connectivity through areas currently underserved by infrastructure, an improved network of state highways � la SH-21 from Bryan to Caldwell could be built with bypasses around the busier towns along the route. Divided roads offer improved safety (which the Texas Department of Transportation claims is their primary concern) without mandating excessive taking of property or cutting off current property owners. Taking the example of SH-6, roads like this can be expanded over time as traffic counts justify increased capacity, rather than sinking billions of dollars into roads, which will be virtually unused for an entire generation.

It's time for the governor to consider a Trans-Texas alternative, investing in multiple modes of transportation but routing them separately to fit the strengths and weaknesses of each transport type.

© 2006 The Battalion: