Gridlock is major source of frustration for Austin drivers, especially for those traveling on the Mopac Expressway. In 1961, when Mopac was first constructed, there were only 160,000 people living in Travis County. That number has risen to more than 1 million. Today, nearly 180,000 commuters use the highway daily. In order relieve some of the traffic congestion caused by this increase, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (RMA), Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), and the City of Austin are exploring the possibility of adding new toll lanes to Mopac.
The new toll lanes would run from Parmer Lane to Caesar Chavez Street, stretching about 11 miles. Alan Hughes, project manager for the City of Austin’s Transportation Planning Division, said, “you can use that lane and know that you can get downtown in a reasonable amount of time.”
Texas is adding at least 1,200 new residents per day. We must consider all funding options to meet the transportation needs of our growing state. Tolled lanes help motorists avoid gridlock while providing drivers with the choice to use existing free lanes.
The decision by the Central Texas RMA, TxDOT and the City of Austin to explore this option is a huge step toward improving mobility for Austin drivers.
The San Antonio Express-News recently published an editorial highlighting the themes of this year’s Texas Transportation Forum in San Antonio. The central focus of the Forum was the current lack of funding for state and federal transportation infrastructure and the need to explore all options to ensure a reliable transportation system for our future.
Federal and state governments currently lack the resources to repair, update and improve our nation’s transportation infrastructure. This comes as no surprise to former Transportation Secretaries Norman Mineta and Samuel Skinner. They led a commission that determined that an additional $134 billion to $262 billion would need to be spent each year through 2035 to effectively fund our nation’s transportation infrastructure. Currently, the two competing transportation bills in Washington would only amount to $53 billion in funds annually.
Unfortunately, Texas is facing a similar problem. TxDOT currently receives $9.9 billion in funding annually. According to a 2009 blue-ribbon panel, that number needs to be closer to $14.3 billion annually in order to “keep pace with the transportation needs of a growing state.” A number of various funding options could help close this gap, including the gas tax. Texas’ gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1991 and the federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993. Inflation and improvements in fuel efficiency only add to this problem.
The Express-News says the first step is for lawmakers to end diversions from the state’s highway fund. More than $1.3 billion has been diverted for the current biennium. Ending diversions would create some relief, but would not come close to solving the state’s transportation funding issues.
All funding options need to be on the table. From ending diversions to public-private partnerships, every solution should be considered to provide the funding needed to ensure a successful and reliable transportation system for Texas.
The Dallas-Fort Worth area (DFW) and the DFW Connector Project Manager Sam. E. Swan were recently recognized by the White House as “Champions of Change: Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure.” The Champions of Change are Americans who come up with innovative ways to improve their communities such as by creating jobs and developing projects to improve America’s infrastructure. Using public-private partnerships to identify solutions to transportation challenges encompasses all the qualities of a “Champion of Change”.
“On behalf of the entire DFW Connector project team, I am deeply honored. State transportation agencies don’t typically come to mind when thinking about organizations that embrace change and come up with bold, new ideas,” Swan said. “The DFW Connector project has elevated expectations and established the standards of success and excellence for transportation projects across the state and county.” You can read Sam Swan’s full response to receiving the award here.
North Texas faced a difficult challenge in reducing the notoriously jammed traffic of 175,000 daily commuters surrounding the north entrance of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the eighth busiest airport in the world. Time constraints and lack of funding only added to the problem.
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) needed $1.1 billion in addition to the $260 million in federal stimulus funds it received to complete the highway expansion project, and fast. The Connector Project used a new project delivery method called Design Build. Design Build relies on one point of contact for the entire project, minimizing risk for the project owner and developer and speeding up the delivery by overlapping the design and construction phases.
TxDOT selected NorthGate Constructors as the project contractor thanks to the company’s proposed use of new technology, integrated public outreach campaign, cutting-edge construction methods and aggressive schedule. The success story of the Connector Project is an example of how public-private partnerships can help provide funding for much-needed transportation projects and incorporate creative problem-solving into the transportation infrastructure industry.
“Although construction on the project will not be completely finished until 2014, project stakeholders and commuters are already considering the DFW Connector a success. TxDOT and NorthGate Constructors’ dedication to transparency and teamwork has put the DFW Connector project on that path to success,” Swan said. “As a result, the DFW Connector project serves as an innovative model for transportation projects nationwide.”
The Dallas Fort-Worth area has been an example nationwide for transportation improvements through their use of public-private partnerships that combine tax dollars with private investment to secure the funds necessary for essential highway expansion projects. Texas should continue to use these innovative approaches to develop long-term solutions to meet the state’s growing transportation needs.
You can watch TSRT’s video highlighting North Texas’s success in road building innovations here.
In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Obama called for better infrastructure development over the next years as war spending decreases. “So much of America needs to be rebuilt,” the president said. “We’ve got crumbling roads and bridges. There’s never been a better time to build, especially since the construction industry was one of the hardest-hit when the housing bubble burst.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday that he is not confident in Congress’s ability to come to an agreement for a long-term funding solution to the nation’s growing infrastructure needs. The last long-term bill expired almost three years ago, and transportation spending planners have been forced to work with merely eight short-extensions since then. Read an article about it here.
The proposed two-year Senate plan does not agree with the five-year House plan, which would both greatly reform the federal transportation bureaucracy and give a significant amount of spending authority to the states. Especially in Texas where our road usage is expected to grow by 214% over the next 25 years due to population increases, it would be beneficial for states to decide for themselves when, where and how much transportation spending is needed.
Following LaHood's "gloomy appraisal" on Wednesday, a Washington Post article said on Thursday that the Senate is taking action to reach a bipartisan agreement on the transportation bill. Senator Barbara Boxer, whose public works committee approved a two-year transportation bill in November, assured that "by the end of next week all the [Senate] committees will have done their jobs." Sen. Boxer also claimed that this bill will reach the Senate floor before transportation funding ends at the end of March.
The United States Congress must continue working diligently to develop a long-term solution for infrastructure spending to stop roads from deteriorating across the nation. Americans deserve a safe and reliable transportation system they can depend on. Texans should take advantage of opportunities to encourage lawmakers to make decisions in the state legislature to support a fully funded transportation system for its citizens.
LaHood suggests how to get both politicians and the public invested in the transportation bill in his Web series “On the Go,” which can be viewed here.
The Heritage Foundation recently released an insightful report by William Reinhardt and Ronald Utt on how public-private partnerships can help to fill the transportation funding gap facing our nation.
The Foundation reports that the House of Representatives and Senate are each working on language to reauthorize their highway plans. Unfortunately, the funds appropriated
for infrastructure and transportation needs in the current proposal are less than previous proposals and the President’s February 2011 plan. In addition, the federal gas tax used to support transportation funding needs has not been raised since 1993. Fuel efficiencies have increased since then, leaving a major gap in revenues necessary to maintain and expand our nation’s highway system.
In light of diminishing government funds available for state and federal transportation initiatives, Texas should take advantage of opportunities to incorporate public-private partnerships (P3s) in transportation construction and maintenance plans. Pairing public tax dollars with private-sector investment provides additional funding opportunities to meet Texas’s growing infrastructure needs. In fact, given today’s economy and the significant fiscal challenges facing our state, P3s are sometimes the only option in ensuring this much-needed infrastructure can be built.
The Heritage Foundation highlights Texas as an example of how P3s can be successfully leveraged to fund and construct transportation projects, mentioning the $8.15 billion of concessions in our state’s P3 program since 2001. It also highlights Texas’s ability to multiply the state contribution of $990 million eight times by partnering with the private sector.
The Foundation suggests several opportunities for P3s to flourish within states, such as doing away with the current practice of using P3s as fallback options and instead encouraging state governments to consider them from the beginning of a project proposal. With our increasing population and growing number of drivers, roads will only become more congested and in need of repair. Texas lawmakers need to take a hard look at the need for a fully-funded transportation system and the innovative funding options – such as P3s – that can help us achieve a safe and reliable transportation system for all Texans.
Click here to read the full report on how public-private partnerships can benefit Texas’s transportation infrastructure.
On Nov. 8, Texas voters gathered at polls across the state to vote on 10 proposed constitutional amendments. The proposition items in the Texas Constitutional Amendment Elections included some of the following: keeping property tax exemptions for the families of disabled veterans, allowing for the issuance of general obligation bonds by the Texas Water Development Board, and allowing for the issuance of general obligation bonds of the State of Texas to provide student loans. You can see the results of the election in this Nov. 9 Austin American Statesman article. Voters approved 7 of the 10 propositions. The proposition that we blogged about a couple of weeks ago that would allow a county to issue bonds to finance the development or redevelopment of unproductive or underdeveloped areas (Proposition 4) did not pass.
In addition to the Constitutional Amendment Election day this week, the Regional Transportation Council held its first ever closed meeting on Nov. 10 to discuss economic development incentives. The RTC, comprised of 43 members including local elected and appointed officials from the DFW metropolitan area and representatives from the area's transportation providers, meets on the second Thursday of each month. An exemption to the Texas Open Meeting Act allowed the Council to meet behind closed doors. No one is exactly sure what the Council discussed in the meeting, but Michael Lindenberger, a transportation reporter at the Dallas Morning News, has a few ideas. Read about them here.
In other news this week, The Regional Transportation Council - and many Texans in the Denton area - received some bad news: there is not enough money to rebuild I-35E from Dallas to Denton. Discussion on this major project has been underway for more than ten years. In fact, this project was a key element of local officials' effort to encourage lawmakers to give TxDOT the authority to fund and build toll roads in return for future toll receipts during the 82nd Texas Legislative Session. A six-person advisory committee authorized by lawmakers, will decide which approach to building the highway would be most suitable to proposed to private companies. The committee was told that fully funding the project is not feasible.
According to a blog post by Lindenberger on Nov. 10, "The $4.7 billion project is so expensive that private investors would require about $3 billion in public money before they would be willing to develop the highway as a mixed project including new tolled lanes and reconstructed interstate lanes, new frontage roads and more. There is only about $600 million in public money from all sources available to build the road."
One funding idea, according to Lindberger's post, "...would be to build toll lanes first to create a revenue stream that would eventually help pay for additional free lanes."
Read the full post including feedback from Michael Morris, elected chair of the advisory committee and Denton County Commissioner, Hugh Coleman here.
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