July 28, 2016 Updated: July 29, 2016 8:53am
Texas’ 10-year plan for transportation, which reflects the state’s traditional mindset centered on road building rather than greater investment in alternative forms of commuter travel, is expected to send billions of dollars more to expand Houston-area highways, including some of the region’s most sought-after freeway projects.
But drivers along many roads shouldn’t expect relief anytime soon because some projects won’t get done for a decade or longer. And smooth sailing on roads might not be a lasting thing as continued population growth congests whatever road crews can build. Already, the Houston metro area has half of the state’s most congested highways.
“There is the benefit received with added capacity, but it is very rare that the added capacity is the silver bullet,” said Tony Voigt, program manager for the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s Houston office. “It sure helps for a good amount of time though.”
The Unified Transportation Program is a blueprint for non-maintenance work on Texas roadways using state dollars via the Texas Department of Transportation. Without inclusion in the plan, amended annually, highway projects can’t get built. The Texas Transportation Commission is scheduled to approve the long-term program on Aug. 25. Texans have until Aug. 22 to comment on the plan before it is approved.
For fiscal years 2017 to 2026, transportation officials have amassed a record level of highway spending – $70.2 billion, up from $31.9 billion available this year for long-term projects – in large part because of two voter-approved referendums to repair and expand highways, especially in growing metro areas such as Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin.
“We should send a strong amen to their commitment to congestion and urban relief,” said Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council.
Last week the five-member state transportation commission expressed some differences on the proper amount of highway money to spend in urban areas as opposed to the rest of Texas.
“I just want to make sure we are taking care of the state’s needs,” transportation commissioner Jeff Austin of Tyler said.
Though popular, the highway program has critics who said it continues the Texas trend of trying to pave its way out of the construction boom.
The 10-year plan reflects the same reliance on road expansion as a solution, said Kyle Shelton, a post-doctoral fellow at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University who has extensively studied Houston’s freeway expansion and development.
“This approach tends to have a brief impact in the immediate period after completion before induced demand kicks the congestion back up and it builds to a the next crisis point,” Shelton said. “The cycle has progressed like this with every generation of highways in Houston. It’s not a particularly sustainable solution to what is likely an intractable problem in our region because of they way we have and continue to grow.”
Though a detailed plan, the program isn’t set in stone, said Marc Williams, deputy executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation. The state’s finances, which fluctuate with the overall economy, oil prices and shifting legislative priorities in Washington and Austin, can affect how much money transportation officials have to spend.
Reducing traffic gridlock in metro areas
Still, as a baseline, Williams said the long-term program is vital and the upcoming record spending demonstrates a serious attempt to reduce roadway congestion around the state. Transportation commissioner Bruce Bugg of San Antonio reminded fellow commissioners last week that spending more money to alleviate the intense traffic congestion in the state’s major metro areas aligns with Gov. Greg Abbott’s commitment to tackle this problem.
For the Houston region, the additional money means major projects long considered pipe dreams will start showing up in the plans. The draft of the state’s 2017 plan includes two projects, totaling $2.57 billion, that would rebuild Interstate 45, U.S. 59 and Interstate 10 in downtown Houston – part of a larger widening of I-45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway. The proposed 10-year plan accounts for $847 million of the money needed for the two projects, with the rest undefined.
Other projects are much closer, including $370.7 million in work widening I-45 in Harris County and Galveston County, starting next year, and a $232.4 million rebuild of the Loop 610 interchange with Interstate 69, formerly U.S. 59, near The Galleria.
In addition to the freeway work around Uptown and Bellaire, state transportation officials also plan to start construction on their portion of dedicated bus lanes from Post Oak, along Loop 610, to Metro’s Northwest Transit Center. The $55.7 million project received $25 million in state funds in 2014.
Well-traveled suburban roads in many fast-growing spots morph into major thoroughfares, including the first phases of widening Texas 36 in Fort Bend County and Brazoria County, starting in 2019. Further away from the city center, officials plan to start construction in June on a third lane in each direction along I-10 in Waller County, from FM 359 to the Brazos River.
Funding for the projects comes from a variety of sources, ranging from federal funds, state fuel tax revenues and even tolling. In 2014 and 2015, however, Texas voters approved more than $3 billion in additional annual spending that can only be used for highways – and specifically not for transit or developing tollways.
In 2014, voters approved Prop. 1, which used a portion of the state’s economic stabilization fund – a “rainy day” fund – for transportation. A year later, Prop. 7 also passed with an overwhelming majority, directing $2.5 billion in sales taxes to highways, after sales tax revenue tops $28 billion.
“Texas is relying on Texas,” Austin said. “We’re not waiting on Washington to solve it.”
Austin said with the new state money, about one-third of the overall funding to fix roads is coming from federal sources, as opposed to about 45 percent, though the amount coming from Washington is unchanged.
Recent major freeway improvements demonstrate the benefits and limits of what freeway expansion can offer. When a widened I-10 west of Loop 610 opened in 2009, commuters cheered. Now many of those same daily drivers slog through stop-and-go traffic.
But there have been huge benefits, Voigt said.
“While the peak period congestion is evident and folks are moving slow – although a lot more folks are moving slower than before – the off-peak period is free flow and that has significant benefits to the region, including to the movement of people and goods,” he said. “The Katy Freeway was pretty much locked down with traffic from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. before reconstruction.”
Especially within Houston, there is growing political demand for non-freeway solutions such as better public transit service and walkable and bicycle-friendly streets.
“Not everyone will choose it, but some would, and that could begin to change the larger way we invest infrastructure money,” Shelton said.
Ensuring Houston gets fair share
Despite billions more highway dollars expected to pour into the Houston area over the next several years, local officials last week remained concerned that the region receive its fair share. Lower-than-expected traffic counts for the area in 2014, officials said, risked costing the region money the state doles out based on vehicle miles traveled. After raising the matter with state officials, Clark of the Houston-Galveston council said newly released 2015 estimates of Houston-area traffic increased 12 percent over 2014 figures. A jump of that magnitude in actual traffic is unlikely, he said, indicating the calculation has improved.
“That validates our observation that 2014 was substantially low,” he said.
Vindicated, Houston-area officials are focused on ensuring traffic counts continue to reflect congestion reality in the region.
Three of the top five and five of the top 10 most congested roadways in the state are in the Houston area, said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of the Houston Department of Public Works and Engineering. In a national study, 70 percent of the truck chokepoints listed in Texas were in the Houston region, Weatherford said.
Nonetheless, the Dallas area received more money for traffic congestion relief. With state funding fixed, regional officials are making their case for a larger share. Houston is no different, Weatherford said.
“What the heck, I am trying to steal from Dallas,” he joked, explaining the need for Houston officials to state the case for highway funding. “We’re just really concerned, to make sure that all of the funds available can be made available to this region.”