November 20, 2023 - TRA Commentary in cooperation with Streetsblog.org -
The Texas Department of Transportation is governed by a five-member Texas Transportation Commission, all appointed by the Governor. They, in turn, select an Executive Director. T
urrent commissioners do not have any background in transportation policy or urban planning, and only one has had experience in local governance. These are political appointments from Governor Abbott.
for comment regarding each of the commissioners’ potential conflicts of interests, a spokesperson provided the following written statement: “Each commissioner considers the needs of all Texans in their decisions. If a conflict should arise on a particular matter, commissioners will abstain or recuse themselves from voting as appropriate under each unique circumstance.”
According to the Commission website, these five Commissioners are responsible for developing "a statewide transportation plan that contains highways and turnpikes, aviation, mass transportation, railroads, high-speed railroads and water traffic". With input from the Texas Department of Transportation and their Executive Director, the Commissioners are responsible for "Awarding contracts for the improvement of the state highway system" and "fostering and assisting in the development of public and mass transportation in the state".
Texas Rail Advocates would like the Texas Transportation Commission to answer the following questions:
1. Why is it that in the monthly meetings of the Commission, little to no time is allocated to discussing the future of mass transportation, railroads and high-speed railroads that the Commission website so proudly proclaims it supports?
2. Where is the discussion of "developing a statewide transportation plan for mass transportation, railroads and high-speed railroads?" Where is the detailed 2030, 2040, 2050 plan for these transportation modes like we have for highways? Where is TxDOT's statewide vision and strategy for conventional and high speed rail?
3. Why is it that the Commission, in their Legislative Appropriations Request (LAR) to the state legislature every two years, fails to put in pleas for "Exception Items" for rail projects? These are general fund requests to the legislature for mass transportation, railroads and high-speed railroad projects that are outside of funded items from the billions in tax dollars that flow in to TxDOT coffers. The Texas Rail Plan, required by the federal government if you want to participate in funding programs, contains pages of unfunded projects.
4. Why has TxDOT and the Commission underfunded the Heartland Flyer, the daily partnered service between TxDOT and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City? The allocated $2.5 million yearly cost has not been adjusted for inflation in about a decade and it has forced the North Central Texas Council of Governments to pick up the deficit tab on this popular interstate passenger rail service. The Heartland Flyer is an interstate passenger rail service that clearly falls under TxDOT's purview.
5. Voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2005 that created the Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund. Why hasn't TxDOT and the Commission asked the legislature to fund specific rail projects that would be beneficial in moving people and goods through the RRIF? That could be done through a Legislative Appropriation Request (LAR).
Are we going around in circles ?
Is there a rule at TxDOT that unless the legislature directs the agency to advance freight and especially passenger rail projects, that they will go nowhere?
Legislators have told us that if they're not getting any direction from TxDOT and the Commissioners about railroads, mass transportation, conventional passenger rail and high-speed railroads, then lawmakers won't push as hard for funding as they do for highway projects.
Maybe the Transportation Commission, TxDOT and our legislators should start listening to the public.
Surveys such as over 2,000 Texans, conducted by members of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas for the Texas Department of Transportation, show the public wants to be connected by urban, regional and intercity passenger rail and the public thinks it's a good enough reason to fund these projects. Another poll by OneRail Coalition had similar results.
a vision for rail projects, both passenger and freight in anticipation of multi-modal future needs .
Lawmakers should be asking pointed questions to the Commission and TxDOT about developing real multi-modal ideas and vision plans.
Current policy hasn’t slowed the pace of highway building in Texas. In August 2022, TxDOT unveiled its new 10-year plan which promised $85 billion for new highway construction projects in major cities and rural areas alike. Many of those projects are aimed at combatting congestion, despite an established body of research which shows that building more lanes only incentivizes more drivers on roads, leading to the same traffic problems. Meanwhile, direct state funding towards public transit systems sits at about $35 million per year. The budget for passenger and freight rail projects is a rounding error in TxDOT requests.
In Houston, as in other cities across Texas and the US, there’s a growing movement to promote alternatives – particularly for residents who can’t afford a car and have few other options to get around. Time and time again, however, advocates have been disappointed by TxDOT’s insistence on widening highways even when local governments are on board with less car-centric ideas.
“TxDOT always comes to the same conclusion, despite the growing awareness of how transportation systems work and the failures of expansion and induced demand,” said Harrison Humphreys, a climate advocate with Air Alliance Houston.
Let's get out of this cycle of inaction. Our death grip on highway addiction has got to change. Our state continues to grow and we need more than asphalt and concrete highways to move both people and goods.
The 2025 legislative session must allocate funds for rail projects, especially while federal matching dollars are available. The Commission and TxDOT must think bolder and speak up.
The people of Texas deserve it.
Portions of the commentary supplied with permission, Kea Wilson, Senior Editor at Streesblog.org @streetsblogkea. Original article appeared in https://usa.streetsblog.org/2023/03/10/are-texas-transportation-commissioners-investments-in-auto-and-oil-fueling-the-states-highway-addiction
Photo credit: Texas Transportation Commission