"Work on toll roads and public-private partnerships is continuing, although in smaller, less showy stretches. "
MILES TO GO
Population growth means a looming transportation challenge
AUSTIN--The imagery of Texas is rural—cattle, cotton, cowboys and, these days, wind turbines whirring against the endless sky. But the reality is increasingly urban. Texas has three of America’s ten most populous cities—Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas, at fourth, fifth and eighth respectively. Together with Austin, the capital, and Fort Worth, which is generally lumped with Dallas in a sprawling metroplex, these metro areas form a triangle that is home to 13m people, or half the state’s population. In size and economic might this is analogous to the north-east corridor of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. And Texas’s population is growing nearly twice as quickly as the national average. Twenty years from now, there will be up to 17m new Texans.
This is a bragging point for Texas politicians, but it presents certain challenges, among them transport. Congestion ensnarls the cities of the triangle, and some of the roads in between are surprisingly ancient. On one main route between Austin and Houston traffic slows to pass through downtown Giddings (pop. 6,000), which is dotted with dusty antique stores.
In 2008 the state convened a dozen business and civic leaders to consider the scope of the problem. The next year the 2030 Committee, as it was called, concluded that to maintain competitiveness the state should invest $124 billion in roads over the next 20 years. Given the current approach to funding, however, they reckoned the state would invest only $70 billion over that period. And during that time the wasted time and fuel would add up to $500 billion.
How to bridge the gap? In 2002 the governor, Rick Perry, offered a grand vision: the Trans-Texas Corridor, a network of highways criss-crossing the state. The centrepiece would be a 600-mile (1,000km) thoroughfare running the length of the state, roughly paralleling the existing Interstate 35, from Mexico to the Red river. It would be 1,200 feet (370 metres) across—the width of four football fields, in Texas terms—with plenty of room for cars, trucks and trains. It would be expensive, but never fear: the state would work with the private sector, and companies would run the corridor as a toll road. “Toll roads, slow roads, or no roads,” explained Mr Perry.
Critics howled. They said that carving out the corridor would require unprecedented use of eminent domain to swallow private lands, and fretted about traffic from Mexico and the cost of tolls. Under fire from all sides, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) killed the corridor last year. But the issue is very far from dead. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the state’s senior senator, who is challenging Mr Perry for the 2010 Republican nomination for governor, argues that the “concepts and strategies” of the corridor are still alive and well. They certainly are. Work on toll roads and public-private partnerships is continuing, although in smaller, less showy stretches.© 2010 The Economist: http://www.economist.com
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