Transportation Mess

The 2015 Texas Legislative Session must be regarded as a transportation failure. The Texas transportation system is getting worse because the partisan interest is centered on increasing highways and motor vehicles.  The highway system has reached a point where congestion cannot be solved because there are too many cars, not enough space, and there will never be enough money.   We can safely predict that pollution, congestion, and expenses will increase, and the quality of life will decrease, as a result of partisan mismanagement of the transportation system.

Increasing motor vehicle congestion and pollution, long driving times, and high transportation costs are the inevitable result of a transportation policy which promotes one single transportation mode and demotes all other modes.  In this article, I argue that the Republicans/Democrats and Governor Abbott have failed to serve the public by allocating huge sums devoted exclusively to expanding the highway system.  Instead, new transportation projects should be multi-modal, with emphasis on public transportation, and pedestrian, bicycle, and rail infrastructure.  The best way to improve transportation and reduce pollution is to diversify the system and provide Texans with viable choices in transportation modes.  A diversified transportation system will provide greater freedom, human well-being, and economic benefit, partly because individuals will make the best choice for themselves and partly because alternative development models become practical.  We all lose under the partisan single mode transportation regime currently in place.

Different transportation modes are competitors and must be made to cooperate by capable leadership serving the public, which we do not have with the current sponsored partisans.  I believe an informed public could do far better, but it is quite difficult for a voter to learn the facts about transportation because the information available is more marketing literature than informative facts.  Most information is intended to support the appeal for more funding instead of objective information for voter decision making. For example, a voter must be careful to distinguish roadways, center line miles, lane miles, and vehicle miles traveled when reading about highway costs.  If the source does not define terms, then assume it is mere marketing propaganda.  Transportation is a highly partisan subject and there are powerful special interest groups which are deeply invested in the status quo.  The stakes are too high to allow objective information for the public.  In other words, the transportation system is a private preserve for the transportation industrial complex.

State agencies, such as Texas Department of Transportation, are often as biased as any special interest and the boundaries may even seem unclear.  In fact, TxDOT officials expressed concern about the new ethical restrictions that create a waiting period for state employees who work in procuring or negotiating a contract and then take a job with the contractor.  But TxDOT is taking steps to address the concerns and protect post-TxDOT employment prospects.

“I want you to know that we have already begun to look at changes in our procedures that will fully comply with this important bill, while reducing the number of our employees from participation that may jeopardize post-TxDOT employment.” (TxDOT Executive Director Joe Weber)

Q: What is worse than the revolving door?
A: The bias in transportation policy.

For FY 2013, according to pocket facts the TxDOT spent $9.3 billion, including $93 million on public transportation, $7.6 million on rail.  In other words, 98.92% of TxDOT spending is for motor vehicle transportation, administration, or debt service ($919.5 million for debt service).  Likewise, tens of billions of debt and other expenses are related to toll roads in addition to TxDOT spending.  The NTTA toll road system alone has approximately $9.5 billion in debt. We see here an incredible bias in transportation infrastructure spending.

Highway proponents have two favored arguments:
 1 — expanded highways will “relieve congestion”
 2 — highways “pay for themselves.”
Both claims are false.

Expanded highways do not relieve congestion

Data suggests that only around half of congestion is caused by bottlenecks or limited road capacity.  Traffic accidents, construction, weather, signal lights, and special circumstances are responsible for the other half.

The basic facts of highway traffic congestion have been well known for years. The key fact is the fundamental law of road congestion which states that building new highways and widening existing ones results in additional traffic and congestion soon returns to the previous level.  This applies to urban interstates, major urban roads, and non-urban interstates.  The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence From US Cities 

We have plenty of examples in Texas.  The widest interstate in the USA,  the Katy Freeway in Houston, is again overly congested, so tolls must be raised.  The $2.5 billion capacity expansion of the Katy Freeway has resulted in longer commute times.  Planners acknowledge that Houston isn’t fighting for free-flow conditions, but simply seeking tolerable levels of congestion. Dallas highways are among the most congested in Texas and the statistics show over 10 million person hours wasted in traffic in 2014 on Dallas highways. 

Highway system congestion is growing and the current status quo offers few solutions, as seen with a critical reading of the Urban Mobility Report.

Not only is the highway system inefficient, it is also highly vulnerable.  As an example, the Hurricane Rita evacuation in 2005 was a total debacle.  In Dallas, a single accident brought the system to a standstill in March 2015. 

“Anytime you get this many highways together, it doesn’t take a whole lot for one incident to really affect traffic for quite a long time, in some cases,” said Tony Hartzel with the Texas Department of Transportation. “We have I-30, I-35E, Woodall Rodgers, and even I-345 all coming together in the downtown area.”

It should be clear that reduced congestion is something that will never happen with our present transportation policies.

I think it is important to look at this a little differently, because the fundamental law of road congestion also means that expanding highways is a basic method of increasing the number of cars, car loans, insurance premiums, and fuel consumption.  Thus, the reason for expanding highways is not really to reduce congestion, but rather to aid the special interests that profit from auto oriented transportation.  These are the same special interests that sponsor Republican and Democrat politicians.

Highways do not pay their way

One common myth that must be dispelled is the idea that highways pay for themselves through gasoline taxes and user fees.  However, only about half the major highways in the U.S. generate enough tax revenue to cover even maintenance costs.  Research shows that highways are heavily subsidized from general tax revenues.  (Who Pays For Roads?)  The roads and bridges in Texas are mainly paid for with property and sales taxes.  The gasoline tax and other car-related fees like registrations make up about half of the State Highway Fund revenue, with the other half from federal funding (partly from federal fuel taxes).  However, the State Highway Fund only pays for state roads, not the local city and county roads that are the majority of actual roadways. The costs of about 75% of roadways in Texas are not paid for by the TxDOT.  Without all the city streets and county roads, the TxDOT highway system would be useless, but these costs are not included in highway financial information.

In fact, the highway system may very well be the reason city streets are often in such poor shape.  In Texas, city governments transfer municipal revenue to the state to help pay for the state highway system. The Texas Municipal League  has estimated that cities pay at least $250 million annually to the state to support highways.

Highways and roads cost more than just construction and maintenance expenses. There is as much land occupied in urban areas by roads as land occupied by buildings. Building owners are expected to pay property taxes, but roads do not pay taxes.  Just in terms of property taxes, highways and roads represent a large opportunity cost.  Even ignoring the misdirection of money into the highway system, new and expanded highways cost more than the value of benefits they provide.  They are a bad investment.  If highways actually paid for themselves, why is there a persistent funding crisis?

The persistent funding crisis is because transportation infrastructure is devoted to motor vehicles and highways, the most expensive and least economically efficient mode.   Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, explains:

Marohn, who has analyzed infrastructure costs in varied settings across America, says the red flag is the automobile. Consistently where growth is auto-dependent, he finds, the costs of maintaining the infrastructure gradually but irresistibly outstrip a community’s ability to pay. But real estate that is not totally dependent on cars can pay its own way, he says, because the maintenance costs are so much lower.

In addition to its uneconomic nature, the highway system also bears the weight of subsidies for the oil to fuel the motor vehicles.  The process of fracking in oil well development requires large numbers of heavy trucks driving to and from each well, which damages roads.  The Texas A&M Transportation Institute estimates these repair costs for state and local government roadways at $2 billion per year.  There is a County Transportation Infrastructure Fund Grant Program administered by TxDOT.  In 2014, there were grants to 191 counties, totaling $224.5 million, to pay for road damage caused by oil & gas exploration and development, about 10% of the need.

In the November 2014 election, the voters approved a transfer of funds from the Economic Stabilization Fund to the State Highway Fund.  For 2015, the amount transferred will be $1.74 billion.    The funded projects are entirely for roadway expansion and repair, but the costs will keep rising relentlessly  as we continue to throw good money after bad.

In 2015, the Texas legislature approved a potential $2.5 billion annual increase in highway transportation funding by placing a constitutional amendment (Proposition 7) on the November 3, 2015 ballot that would dedicate additional sales tax revenues to highway construction.  (Please vote against this amendment.)  The state gasoline tax was not increased, so the meaning is other areas will receive less funding while we are committed long term to losing investments.  Also, so called “diversions” are set to be eliminated, meaning that all available gasoline tax revenues will be allocated to highway construction (not affected is the 25% of the gasoline tax is dedicated to public education as part of the amendment that created the original dedicated highway fund).

The gasoline tax itself is a disguised subsidy.  Imagine a “bread tax” that meant bakers had control of the whole grocery system.  That is the situation with the gasoline tax.  There is no Texas sales tax on gasoline and the gasoline tax is only a little more than regular sales tax would be.  So by calling the sales tax on fuel a “gasoline tax” a sense of entitlement is created giving highway and motor vehicle interests control over all forms of transportation.  The reasoning behind highway funding is motor vehicle users pay the taxes so all proceeds should go to the motor vehicle infrastructure.  But why stop there — why have a gasoline tax at all?  Why not eliminate government waste by privatizing all the highways and let motor vehicle users pay for the infrastructure directly?  I suggest the current system allows significant subsidies to highways and maintains political control with the special interests,

Diverse transportation modes serve the public interest

The key point regarding diverse transportation modes is that each mode must be competitive in a practical sense.  Ideally each transportation mode, in its sphere, should offer utility that is as good as the alternatives.  The public should have a reasonable choice among different transportation modes (see Changing the Urban Scheme).  This means that cars will likely lose priority status in some areas such as streetside parking and access to some streets.  It also means public transportation should be accessible and frequent, bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways should be shielded from cars and otherwise safe, and these modes should reach important destinations.   All transportation modes should connect and complement each other to create a network that is robust and useful.  This goes against the rivalry between transportation interests, which is one reason partisan sponsored politicians have proven to be so unqualified to decide transportation policy.

Congestion is not necessarily a bad thing.  Congestion means that many people want or need to be crowded together in the same proximity.  Oftentimes, congestion is very desirable, such as entertainment events, commercial locations, and urban centers.  The highway transportation mode is not suited to desirable congestion and we should avoid highways and motor vehicle transportation when we want many people together.  We have an example in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Nonetheless, the important thing to remember about Vancouver is that despite its persistent traffic congestion – which it shares with all large cities – it has still managed to reduce its residents’ average commuting times. This is because more and more people are using public transport, walking, or cycling to work and for daily activities, and therefore don’t have to endure the congestion on the roads. Ultimately this is what’s important – that cities can succeed in moving more people in less time, even if this means leaving the car at home much of the time.

Rail transportation is definitely an area where Texas could make significant improvements, but I think this is a special subject and will leave this to another article.

Diversity in transportation choices serves the public interest and promotes freedom.  Because the sponsored politicians support only one transportation mode, the 2015 legislative session in Texas clearly failed to serve the public interest.   It is time to give Green Party candidates a chance.

Thank you.