The Trans Texas Corridor (TTC) has brought into sharp focus the difficult challenge Texas faces with respect to its transportation infrastructure.
On the one hand, aggressive population growth coupled with the increase in commercial traffic related to international trade has rendered what was once the finest system of highways in the nation obsolete. And this comes at a time when our economy is more dependent than ever on the ability to efficiently move people and products.
At the same time, the existing mechanisms for funding transportation have remained basically unchanged since the Interstate Highway System was completed. Given the critical need for system upgrades and the prohibitive costs of major infrastructure projects, it is clear that a massive increase in the traditional funding stream (higher gas taxes) or some entirely new approach to paying for new capacity is essential if we are to achieve any real progress. This is where the TTC concept offers some real promise.
The TTC provides an alternative to the traditional, severely constricted methods we currently have for funding transportation projects, and as such, it deserves open-minded consideration. Toll-based financing can be used to infuse the system with desperately needed capital without increasing the burden on the average taxpayer. So far, so good.
However, a whole list of problems immediately pops up that need to be considered. The most obvious is the Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY) issue. Because of the massive scale of the project, it has engendered the most vocal opposition I’ve ever seen, particularly in Central Texas, where grassroots opposition has snowballed into an organized effort, which will undoubtedly factor into the already contentious politics leading into the upcoming election cycle.
Since it is obvious that no major project will ever be undertaken without negatively impacting some, it is worthwhile to consider why the backlash is so strong in this case. The reason is obvious. This project is simply bigger than anything Texas has ever seen. Maybe it is simply too big. So one of the issues I hope we address in the advisory committee is the possibility of scaling the project down. There may be some reasonable ways to trim the size of the project, reducing the impact to property owners without sacrificing the underlying objective.
A second issue is the impact to existing business infrastructure. Our interstate system has been successful because it connects our urban centers. The TTC bypasses those same communities. Billions of dollars have been invested in commercial infrastructure around and adjacent to our existing highway systems. This investment is an integral part of the economic fabric of our state. The proposed project should serve the needs of that existing business base rather than create a situation that places existing business at a competitive disadvantage. This means the system must be conveniently accessible to existing communities. As yet, little discussion has taken place on the subject of planning for (or constructing) improvements to existing thoroughfare systems to provide essential connectivity. Local taxing entities may be left with the responsibility to provide for such improvements under existing programs, increasing local tax burdens and drawing available funding away from other regional needs.
Thirdly, the economics of the project require careful analysis. To be effective, the TTC (or any other new system) must offer value to potential users. Business traffic must be able to reach its destination(s) more efficiently for an alternative route to attract usage. For long-haul shippers, the value of avoiding delays in urban congestion may exceed the added expense of tolls. On the other hand, local or regional shippers may find that a bypass system fails to provide any advantage. These haulers will continue to rely on the existing highway system to serve their needs.
A comprehensive traffic analysis, which differentiates and quantifies the various traffic streams, has, to my knowledge, not yet been done. Without such a study, it is not certain whether the project would be viable in the first place. Regardless of commitments made on the front end, should the project fail and operators default, as has happened in other notable cases, the responsibility to pick up the pieces will fall to the state.
The list of detailed concerns goes on, but, in a nutshell, the fundamental concerns are these. The state is clearly relying on private investment to provide the next generation of major transportation development in Texas. And as an alternative to higher taxes, this is a good thing. But whether the TTC can in some part satisfy those needs or will ultimately further drain the state’s already thin resources remains to be demonstrated. But as stated at the outset, the concept offers enough promise to merit a fair and open-minded consideration. I’m hoping the advisory committee process will be a vehicle to vet these and other issues.
A Commentary by Bell County Commissioner Tim Brown, Member, Trans Texas Corridor Advisory Committee