The Highway to Traffic Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

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Texas’ transportation infrastructure isn’t keeping up with our growing state as those who lives along the central Texas corridor between San Antonio and Austin are well aware. But as counter-intuitive as it may sound, widening 35 and adding “capacity” could make things worse.

So the question becomes when will the GOP-led legislature actually fund the improvements we need?

That question is getting harder to answer as tax cuts and corporate giveaways are still more popular than actually administering the real functions of government. Rick Perry’s pet toll road project has also just filed for bankruptcy…Oops.

The state failed to make the appropriate investments when budgets were flush and traffic was lighter, and now as our economy sheds jobs due to hits in the oil market, the vacuum of leadership from statewide elected officials is growing harder to ignore.

According to an article on Austin Rail Now, “There is now a near-consensus by transportation experts that trying to relieve congestion by building and widening roads in very congested cities, like Austin, will actually worsen congestion. Severe congestion throughout a city during peak hour means that traffic will seek out and fill up any new freeway capacity as fast as it can be added.  As discussed in a report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG), the Katy Freeway in Houston, I-10 demonstrates this fact.”

Our state is increasingly urban and roads are increasingly congested, but the old answer of simply widening highways is either impossible, impractical or counterproductive. In Houston, home of Katy Freeway, the world’s widest freeway, newly elected Mayor Sylvester Turner called on state leaders to rethink mobility solutions that will reduce the number of single-occupant vehicle trips which currently sits at an astonishing 97% statewide.

Turner said, “We’re seeing clear evidence that the transportation strategies that the Houston region has looked to in the past are increasingly inadequate to sustain regional growth…

Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience. We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, High Occupancy Vehicle facilities, Park and Rides, Transit Centers, and robust local transit. As we grow and densify, these modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.”

This is a major statement sent from the leader of a city, that while it is mired in traffic, also loves its cars. We are hearing this echoed across the state in rapidly growing metros where jobs are bringing in new residents but infrastructure funding lags far behind. At some point the legislature will be faced with the reality that all of those hours in traffic and the pollution it causes has a real cost that could be offset with better transportation policy.

The idea of moving from a car solution to a rail solution for those living in the San Antonio-Austin 35 corridor doesn’t look good from a political perspective. The Austin American-Statesman Ben Wear reported that, “As that oh-so-Republican body is currently constituted, it is almost impossible to envision lawmakers ginning up a bunch of money for a Democratic-ish dream like a 115-mile-long passenger rail line. But for sure, they won’t do if a likely gubernatorial veto awaits at the end.”

Truly the “dream” of mobility is a nonpartisan one. Does it make anyone feel better that the car stuck in front of you has a bumper sticker of the candidate you support? Not hardly. But when the GOP wrote a constitutional amendment asking voters in 2014 to spend money on transportation, they ensured that it could not be spent on transit options, only more roads. It was also sold as a way to increase funding for highways without raising taxes because it took half of the oil and gas severance taxes and dedicated them to the highway fund. TXDoT said that the amount expected to be raised was still billions short of what was needed to maintain “current levels of congestion.” This was never a real fix and falling oil prices have meant those rosy projections are also overblown.

It is time to develop and invest in 21st Century mobility solutions instead of continuing to kick the can down the toll road. And now that this is all coming to a head, what does our governor have to say about the need of a major public rail project in Texas? According to the Statesman’s Ben Wear, “no comment.”

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About Author

Joe Deshotel

Joe was born and raised in Beaumont, Tx, but live music and politics brought him to Austin. He has worked in and around government and elections for over a decade including for a member of US Congress, the Texas Legislature, the Mayor of Austin. He currently serves as Communications Director for the Travis County Democratic Party. He is most interested in transportation, energy and technology issues. He also likes Texas Hold'em and commuting on his electric skateboard. Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

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