About that commute, Houston: it’s going to get harder

Took this awesome pic of i-10 and i-45 right a...

Image via Wikipedia

After hearing the same disturbing point twice in one week – in two completely unrelated meetings – I’m getting the message: Houston, we have a problem.

The problem is transportation funding. Do you like your current drive to work? Just give it a few years; unless something is done to augment or change the current sources of transportation funding, you’ll learn to hate it.

State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, was the first to drive home that point during a recent Tuesday meeting with local leaders in Conroe. His newly redrawn Senate district now incorporates more of north Montgomery County, including Conroe, and he was meeting with Conroe residents to update them on legislative issues.

As chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Williams is deeply aware of the state’s transportation funding. Basically, he said, we’re broke.

The main source of funding – the state’s gasoline tax – currently provides only enough money to fund ongoing maintenance. Any construction activity taking place along
state roadways in the Houston region is the result of funding that has already been approved. Once those projects are completed, there will be no new projects in the pipeline. “Most people don’t realize this,” Williams said.

The very next day, I was at a meeting in Houston of a newly formed organization known as the Transportation Advisory Group. The speaker that afternoon was John Barton, at the time serving as interim director for the Texas Department of Transportation.

“We don’t have enough state money to do everything we need to do,” Barton told the assembled group of engineers, consultants, and public policy advocates. With the state’s population expected to swell to 50 million by 2040, “There is no longterm solution in sight.”

Even worse, one of the current main sources of funding – the state’s gasoline tax – is not going to be a stable source of revenue heading into the future, as more and more drivers shift to electric vehicles or hybrids. It already cannot keep up with demand, and that problem will only grow in scope over time.

They are not the only people looking at the issue. Many of the points raised by both Barton and Williams are dealt with in-depth in a recently updated report of the Texas Department of Transportation’s 2030 Committee – appointed by Texas Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi in 2008. The updated report, which can be found here, stressed the same points in great detail – the state’s current system of road funding is broken.

Two things are needed.

First, Houston needs a voice. Barton pointed out that Houston in particular was hamstrung because of its lack of any regional advocacy in Austin to press Houston’s concerns. So when the fighting starts over money in coming legislative sessions, Houston will be at a disadvantage to other metropolitan areas like Dallas and Fort Worth.

“Your brothers and sisters a little north of you are united, they’re vocal, and a lot
of attention is being paid to those communities,” he said. As a result, legislators from those areas can speak more convincingly about their local needs. Houston legislators need that, he said.

“It really would be helpful when they want to talk to these people, that there was a force behind them from the largest Metro area of the states. Today, that just doesn’t

The Houston Transportation Advisory Group, or TAG, was formed for that very reason, said Jack Drake, president of the Greenspoint
District in Houston.

“Other regions are innovative, politically involved and have strong, active Metropolitan Planning Organizations,” Drake said. Houston needs the same.

The other main point is that Houston, and the state, need more transportation dollars. TAG’s goal for the coming legislative session is to press the Legislature to either “more
adequately fund transportation in our region or give us the power to do it ourselves.”

That could come in a variety of forms – including possible increases in vehicle
registration fees or increased authority from the Legislature for local funding
options and tax improvement districts.

But it won’t happen on its own. And, for Houston, failure is not an option. As Drake points out: “The government is out of regional transportation dollars.”