August 28, 2007
In a public meeting yesterday about potential transportation projects in the region, Central Texas saw its future. The good news is that our transportation plans are far more open and accountable, far more reflective of the public’s priorities, than they have been in years. However, the future is also far more difficult than anything we’ve ever faced before. The easy answers do not begin to address our challenges, and the state and federal government can no longer be trusted to help us. In a recent presentation to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (the primary transportation planning group in Central Texas, which I chair), the Texas Department of Transportation presented plans to relieve traffic on some of our most congested roads. But the region is $1.8 billion short of what we need to build these improvements. So I urged TxDOT to bring back new, affordable ideas, even if they cut into its wish list. Yesterday, TxDOT proposed a number of cuts. In some places, the recommendation was to “phase-in” improvements – providing immediate, affordable projects that will make it easier to travel through Central Texas and allow for needed expansions in the future. For instance, TxDOT would take out the traffic lights on major roadways like Highway 71 and U.S. 183. In one place – the vitally important connection on Highway 71 between State Highway 130 and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport – TxDOT recommends no immediate improvements at all because, even with tolls, we simply can’t afford them right now.While the proposal reflects the challenges we face, it also represents a clean break with past proposals that have focused more on what commuters would pay than what they truly need. There are no proposals like we saw before I was Chair to fully toll portions of roads, built with non-toll revenue, that are already open to the public. No longer would any existing highway improvements be tolled simply for the money they might harvest from commuters. And we would avoid the radical approach of privatization that could allow public infrastructure to fall into corporate hands. We cannot, however, balance the budget and address our challenges without some funds coming from tolls. Likewise, we can’t simply toll our way out of this problem – to make substantial improvements, we need options besides tolls. Some unfairly dismiss our region’s predicament as so-called “double taxation.” That’s like saying that when my son goes to college next year, and I pay his tuition by tapping my savings, selling an asset, and borrowing some money, I’m being “double-billed.”In the end, there’s only one college bill, just like there’s only one price tag on these improvements. If we do nothing but pretend we have money to pay for them or wish we had more from another source, then we will end up with no road improvements – only traffic.These latest recommendations are a product of the most open transportation planning process that Central Texas has ever seen. For months, the CAMPO board has met almost weekly to work through our needs and potential solutions to those needs. These deliberations have been sobering, and I truly wish we had some alternative. I will continue to encourage my colleagues in the Legislature to raise gas taxes to a reasonable and practical level so they will actually fulfill their mission and provide for the needs of Central Texas. That revenue source has been frozen at its current level since 1991. And I will demand that drivers be given an untolled route wherever one exists now so these improvements will not affect their lives or their pocketbook. But the state has failed us by diverting its dwindling resources away from transportation. The federal government has failed us by pulling money out of transportation and putting into things such as the war in Iraq. And Central Texas, as a result, has two options. We can find a way to start paying for these vital projects, even with some less-than-ideal sources. Or we can do nothing, in the face of a booming population and economy, and choke on worsening traffic problems that already plague our region.