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Trans Texas Corridor

On driving the empty private toll road

Robert Rivard takes a ride on the lonely private toll road SH 130.

Speed Limit 85

Let me explain: SH 130, completed in October 2012, runs from an intersection just east of Seguin on I-10 to an intersection just north of Georgetown on I-35, allowing north-south traffic to avoid Austin’s congestion.

My wife and I took it in November to drive to Dallas. Getting to Seguin took us 48 miles out of our way. After we got on SH 130 the ride was scenic and relaxing, and driving 85 mph posed no challenges. However, that was partly because we were nearly alone for much of the trip — there was usually only one vehicle in sight ahead and behind us.

Coming back, we stayed on I-35 all the way back to San Antonio. It was stop-and-go through Austin in congestion dominated by heavy trucks — there were a dozen in sight at any one time. Even though we did not have to go through Seguin, the trip back took an hour longer.

But the trip back, for all its headaches, was also free. SH 130 is a toll road, although one without toll booths. If you have a TxTag transponder in your back windshield your account is billed automatically. Otherwise, cameras read your license plate and the car’s registered owner is sent a bill, which is about one-fourth higher than the toll for someone with a TxTag account. Those bills are sent out monthly and we did not get ours until nearly two months after we made the trip.

Meanwhile, the side trip to Seguin makes more sense when you realize that the road was not intended for San Antonio commuters, but for trucks carrying Mexican commerce to and from Laredo. SH 130 is just one leg of the evocatively named Pickle Parkway, named after J. J. “Jake” Pickle (1913-2005), who was a U.S. congressman representing part of the Austin area from 1963-1995. The Pickle Parkway actually starts at the intersection of I-35 and Loop 410 in southwest San Antonio, follows 410 east around the outside of the city to I-10, then follows I-10 east past Seguin to the SH 130 intersection, and then takes SH 130 north to its juncture with I-35 north of Georgetown.

In the end, driving the Pickle (we’ll see if that phrase enters the language) only adds about 10 miles to a trip between, say, Laredo and Dallas, and that seems like a small price to pay to avoid Austin’s (as well as San Antonio’s) congestion. But you also have to pay a toll—mine, for a passenger car, was nearly $20 and a heavy truck would be charged three to five times more.

Stuck in the shadow of big rigs while crawling past downtown Austin, I got the impression that it might be wiser to, on the contrary, bribe drivers to take SH 130.

See here for previous blogging on this topic. As you may recall, the operator is teetering on the brink of default, so this road may not be “privatized” for that much longer. Rivard points out that this route was once part of what would have been the Trans Texas Corridor. Doesn’t make you feel good about how that project might have turned out based on this. Read the whole thing and see what you think.

Rural counties skeptical of high speed rail plan

This is a bit concerning.

Steve Drake regularly makes the nearly four-hour drive from this city to Houston to visit his fiancée’s family. So he was excited about the news that a private company intended to build a bullet train that would cut that trip to 90 minutes.

“I’m passionate about this. I hope it happens,” Drake said at a recent public meeting. “I don’t want to be driving to Houston for the next 30 years.”

Drake’s sentiment echoed that of others at the first of six meetings held as part of the Federal Railroad Administration’s environmental impact study into Texas Central Railway’s proposed bullet train. The project has also drawn strong support from officials at the other end of the project in Houston.

Yet the reception has been less rosy from rural communities that will be on or near a possible train route. Officials and residents have expressed concern about the noise from trains whizzing past their quiet towns dozens of times a day and about a track dividing farmland and reducing property values.

“I haven’t heard anything positive about it whatsoever,” said Byron Ryder, the county judge in Leon County, which is about halfway between Dallas and Houston. “I’ve talked to other judges and commissioners up and down the line, landowners up and down the line. No one wants it.”

I was a little surprised to read this, as I know from previous communications with Texas Central Railway that they have been doing outreach in the rural communities along I-45. It may be the case that the communities weren’t really paying much attention before – we’ve only been talking about high speed rail in Texas for what, 30 year now? – and thought this was just another piece of pie in the sky. With the Environmental Impact Statement process going on, however, now it’s getting real, and people may be reacting more strongly as a result. In addition, it’s not that long ago that these folks were hearing about a network of privately built and managed toll roads that would be going through rural counties, with little apparent benefit to them. One can imagine why they might have some doubts here. Obviously, I think this is a project that’s worth doing, and I hope these communities can be persuaded there’s something in it for them, or at least that they won’t be harmed. Clearly, TCR has some work to do.

In Grimes County, where the two routes take different paths, Betty Shiflett, the county judge, said many residents felt they did not have enough information to develop an opinion. One factor that would weigh heavily, she said, was whether Texas Central Railway followed through on plans to build a station in Grimes County to allow the bullet train to serve nearby College Station.

“I think people would be a lot more enthusiastic because they would probably take it,” Shiflett said. “I know I would, definitely.”

I’m sure they would. I seriously doubt there would be a station anywhere except Houston and Dallas (and maybe The Woodlands) when it debuts in 2021, assuming all goes well. Stations cost money, and they mean slower overall travel times. Maybe at some point down the line, but not any time soon. Of course, you do have to build the line now to have any hope for one in the future, whenever that may be. It’s your call, Grimes County.

Let’s not get the private high speed rail line bogged down in politics

I’m always interested in stories about the Texas high speed rail line.

The company, Texas Central High-Speed Railway, drew attention last year when it announced plans to develop a high-speed rail line without public subsidies. Texas transportation officials took the project seriously, noting the pedigree of the investors: Japanese financiers behind a profitable bullet train line in Japan. Interest has only increased in recent months as the company has added former Texas Rangers president Tom Schieffer and Peter Cannito, former president of the New York-based MTA Metro-North Railroad, as senior advisers.

At the recent Texas Tribune Festival, Texas Central High-Speed Railway President Robert Eckels provided new details about the timeline for the company’s plans.

“We expect to go out in the field after the first of the year with our notice of intent and our environmental impact statement,” said Eckels, a former state legislator and Harris County judge.

[…]

While Republicans may favor the company’s free-market focus, that doesn’t mean the project won’t be completely free of public costs. During this year’s legislative sessions, some lawmakers opposed the allocation of any new transportation resources unless they were dedicated to road construction and maintenance.

“We don’t want operations subsidies,” Eckels said. “We do need regulatory help. We may need help with infrastructure relating to our project.”

Democrats may find themselves questioning whether low-income Texans will be priced out of the service if tickets are priced to cover expenses and make a profit without subsidies.

And both Democrats and Republicans may feel a sense of déjà vu as they draw questions about whether Texas Central High-Speed Railway should be permitted to acquire private Texans’ property. Though the firm hopes to develop most of the line along current freight line rights-of-way, Eckels acknowledged that those won’t cover the entire route. The idea of a foreign-backed private company employing eminent domain for a major transportation project could draw comparisons to the Trans-Texas Corridor, a political headache of a project that lawmakers had to repeatedly declare dead in order to appease angry voters.

See here and here for some background. I think it would be a useful debate to have about operations subsidies for inter-city rail transit like this. Given the tens of billions we are told we need to spend to ensure sufficient road capacity for our growing state, it may well be the case that building and partially subsidizing the operation of a bunch of rail lines is no more expensive and more scalable. For better or worse, we’re not going to have that debate, and as a private venture like the Texas Central High-Speed Railway is likely to be the only kind of rail we get built here, I’m happy to see it make progress towards that goal. I hope the Legislature will be open to hearing what Texas Central needs, and finds a sensible way to work with them to overcome obstacles. It is possible, maybe likely, there will be some Trans-Texas Corridor-style backlash against this, but I’m reasonably optimistic there won’t be. Texas Central is an idea that originated in the private sector rather than with Rick Perry, and from what I’ve seen they’ve been engaging with locals, whereas the TTC was basically an edict from above. There is a foreign company involved so there’s always room for paranoia, but this project is much smaller in scope and shouldn’t require that much in the way of right-of-way acquisition. We’ll see if that makes a difference. By the way, speaking of foreign companies, it is my understanding that Central Japan Railway Company, referenced in this linked story is not an investor in Texas Central High-Speed Railway. The two are cooperating in this effort, but one does not have a direct financial stake in the other. Whether that will have an effect on public and/or legislative opinion of this I couldn’t say, but we should at least all be clear on the facts.

More Perry privatization problems

Insert your favorite cliche about being shocked.

The state of Texas has quietly outsourced the management of more than $1 billion in federal disaster recovery funds to an engineering firm with close ties to Gov. Rick Perry’s administration, paying the Kansas City, Mo. -based firm HNTB $45 million so far to process infrastructure grants for communities damaged by Hurricanes Dolly and Ike.

The company’s billings threaten to exhaust the amount budgeted for administrative and planning costs, while only 20 percent of the first round of money released to Texas to aid disaster recovery grants has been spent three years after the storms. Based on the state’s original timeline, at least half those projects should have been completed by now, federal officials say.

The problems have caused officials with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to voice alarm and begin quarterly reviews in an attempt to get the program back on track.

Hiring a private firm to handle what has been termed the largest public works project in the state’s history is unusual, federal officials say.

[…]

[HNTB] was the principal consultant for Perry’s first — and largest — pet project as governor, the proposed $184 billion Trans-Texas Corridor, which succumbed to widespread public opposition in 2010. Since 2008, the Texas Department of Transportation has paid HNTB $109 million for engineering consulting services, according to records with the state comptroller. Ray Sullivan, communications director for Perry’s presidential campaign, has been a lobbyist for HNTB.

The firm is one of 139 major “crossover donors” identified by Texans for Public Justice who have contributed substantial sums to Perry and the Republican Governors Association, which Perry has twice chaired. According to campaignmoney.com, HNTB and its executives have given more than $500,000 to the association, which has sent $4 million to Perry’s political campaigns.

Business as usual. I’m so inured to this that the only aspect of it that’s making me raise an eyebrow is that this was an out of state firm. What, there’s no one in Texas good enough for Rick Perry to funnel government money to? I don’t know what else to say. Read the whole thing, and kudos to the Statesman for putting it together. Forrest Wilder, who’s written before about our disastrous hurricane relief efforts, has more.

Grand Parkway news

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Sierra Club lawsuit to stop construction of the proposed SH99 toll road over the Katy Prairie will see its day in court by September,according to KUHF.

The Sierra Club filed suit against “the Federal Highway Administration due to the failure of that federal agency to do an adequate assessment of the environmental impacts of the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E in western Harris County,” according to the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Texas Department of Transportation, however, is moving forward with proposed SH99 toll road across the Katy Prairie, having received 23 letters of interest in a public private partnership to build the toll road, according to Project Finance.

I had noted that RFI last week. The Chron provides more details:

A list of the companies that responded is posted on the department’s Web site at www.gpprocurement.com. Their submissions, which were due July 6, have not been made public.

The list includes San Antonio-based Zachry Construction, which was also part of the Trans-Texas Corridor consortium; Balfour Beatty Capital, a U.S.-based arm of an English company; and China Construction America, a subsidiary of China State Construction Engineering Corp.

[…]

Robin Holzer, Citizens Transportation Coalition volunteer board chairwoman, said the coalition has no opinion about the firms on the list but is concerned about the details that end up in eventual contracts.

“It matters whether the state expects one of these companies to accept all of the project risk rather than pledging the full faith and credit of Texas taxpayers to back the project,” Holzer said. “At the end of the day, building a brand new toll road through undeveloped land is inherently speculative.”

Yes, I have a feeling that the public is going to be a substantial part of that public-private partnership. As for that lawsuit, it was filed in March of 2009. I don’t find any mention of it in my archives, so it escaped my notice at the time. You can see the Sierra Club’s complaint here. We’ll see how it goes.

I can’t drive 85

Start your engines, y’all.

The Texas House approved a bill that would allow the speed limit on some highways to be raised to 85 mph, which would be the highest in the nation.

The measure passed Wednesday on a voice vote was part of a larger transportation bill. It would authorize the Texas Department of Transportation to raise the speed limit on designated lanes or entire stretches of roadway after doing engineering and traffic studies, the Dallas Morning News reported Thursday.

The Senate is considering a similar bill.

“They have high-speed roadways in Europe, and there could be some merit in having some of those highways in Texas,” said Rep. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, who introduced the bill. “Given the right engineering, we should consider it.”

The bill in question is HB1201, which is primarily about repealing the legislation that allowed the Trans Texas Corridor; the speed limit stuff is down in section 10 of the text. I don’t get out much to the parts of the state where this would be relevant, so I don’t have an opinion about whether or not the roads in question are suitable for such a change. I suppose there’s not that much difference between 80, the current limit on some of these roads, and 85, though one wonders why one bothers having a limit in the first place if it’s that high. (Answer: Because as Montana discovered, you can’t make a speeding ticket stick if you don’t specify a number.) At least this gives me an excuse to replay this old favorite, which in this context now seems almost quaint:

They will still write you up for 125. Of that you can be certain.

Will we re-fight the toll road privatization battle?

Maybe. I’m a little dubious, however.

Over a long July Fourth weekend two years ago, with time running out on a chaotic special session, the Legislature refused to extend authority for the Texas Department of Transportation to contract with private toll firms beyond Aug. 31, 2009.

Since then, the privatization of toll roads, long a centerpiece of Gov. Rick Perry’s ambitious and controversial transportation agenda, has been on hold in Texas, even as some grandfathered projects like Dallas’ LBJ Freeway and the North Tarrant Express continued.

Now the issue is set to be debated again as lawmakers return to Austin, ready to confront rising construction needs even as they grapple with commitments to keep taxes low and a frighteningly large budget shortfall.

Immediately after the last session adjourned, Perry’s chief transportation aide promised a hard push to restore the authority to enter into so-called comprehensive development agreements in 2011.

“Absolutely, the governor is going to keep pushing, pushing for putting this tool back in the box,” then-deputy chief of staff Kris Heckmann said.

And in an interview with The Dallas Morning News just before his re-election in November, Perry said he would ask lawmakers to renew authority for the state to partner with private toll firms.

“Now is not the time to leave any tool out of the box,” he said, noting the revenue shortfall that the Legislature will confront and the state’s growing list of unfunded highway needs.

I dunno. As I remember it, there were a lot of Republicans who didn’t much care for the Trans-Texas Corridor. Has that changed all that much since then? Plus, as the story notes, it’s not clear that the private investors will be lining up to provide the funding right now. The track record of private toll roads as an investment is spotty; it’s an inherently risky business, with a lot of cash up front, and the payoff is long term. I can certainly see there being support for some local projects, as indicated for North Texas, but color me skeptical that this is going to fly again as the ultimate solution for our future highway needs.

KBH’s transportation plan

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day seems like an odd time to be rolling out policy initiatives, especially in a campaign that’s been going on for months, so I’ll be brief with this.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on Tuesday offered a sweeping plan to overhaul transportation planning in Texas if she is elected governor, but she stopped short of saying how she would pay for it.

Hutchison has cast the final killing off of Gov. Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor and the restructuring of his state transportation commission as one of the cornerstones of her campaign to oust him in the March Republican primary.

[…]

The senator proposed a major restructuring of how transportation planning is done in Texas, but she said as governor she would propose a select committee on transportation funding. That pushes the major question of how to pay for new roads off until after the election, although Hutchison said she would not support any funding mechanism that is not approved by voters as a local option.

There’s a time for studies and committees and whatnot, and there’s a time to recognize that we already know what we need to do, and that promises to create select committees are just a way to avoid acknowledging that reality.

While [State Sen. John] Carona and other transportation leaders in the Legislature have called for higher gas taxes, she instead said she’d appoint a task force to study how efficient TxDOT uses the money it already gets, and then to evaluate whether news funds are needed.

Carona called that “a very conservative approach and a starting point for discussion of the issues.”

But he said no amount of efficiencies likely to be found in studying TxDOT’s operations will provide the money Texas needs to keep traffic moving in its busiest cities or to keep its massive network of highways and bridges in good repair. “I can’t speak to what her intentions would be post campaign, should she be elected. But it’s clear that the time for studying is past us now. I applaud her desire to look at the efficiency — that’s a job that is never done — but efficiency alone won’t solve this problem. It’s a first step, but by itself it will be no where close to enough.”

Yeah, well, nobody ever won a Republican primary by promising to raise a tax. I must concede that if she did come out in support of Carona’s position, she’d surely be attacked by Rick Perry for it, even though he himself has not ruled out a gas tax increase. No one ever said this would be easy. Anyway, you can read her full plan here or here if you want. Burka, Hank Gilbert, Come and Take It, and the Trib have more.

KBH, the anti-toll road crusader

Team Kay takes aim at one of Governor Perry’s many vulnerabilities.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has seized on [the Trans-Texas Corridor] as she seeks to take his job, saying the project and Perry’s transportation policies smack of arrogance.

“It’s part of the overall argument — he’s been there too long and look at the things he’s failed at,” Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said in describing Hutchison’s strategy.

Toll roads and transportation alone may not be enough to turn an election, but Hutchison seems to be using them as a way to raise questions about Perry’s competence, Henson said.

[…]

Hutchison has yet to present her own plan but she says she wants to reform and expand a state transportation commission. Her campaign says she opposes toll roads unless local officials and voters agree to them, and they say she worked in the Senate to halt federally funded toll roads.

“It is time to return to our tradition of free, quality highways and roads,” Hutchison said in kicking off her campaign last month. She calls the Trans-Texas Corridor “the biggest land grab in the history of Texas.”

I suppose we should be glad to know that somewhere in there KBH actually has a message and a strategy that goes beyond “Be my lovable self”. Two things, though. One, I’m not sure this issue is really going to move anyone who isn’t already in “anybody-but-Perry mode”, as Terri Hall puts it. I do agree that the TTC has turned people off from Rick Perry, and has created a constituency against him out of thin air, to borrow Paul Burka’s terminology. I just don’t think that constituency is growing any more, and I don’t think the toll road issue is going to be all that relevant in today’s political environment. I thought toll roads were going to be a game-changer in 2006, but in the end they were a dud. After all this time, and with the TTC being essentially dead, I just don’t see how this draws any new voters away from Rick Perry. It does energize some people, and that does matter, but until those people are energized for Kay and not merely against Perry, it doesn’t do much for her.

And two, not to be tacky about it, but where’s KBH been on this all this time? I certainly don’t remember her having much to say about the TTC before now, when it’s politically useful for her. Being against the TTC is easy, but having an alternative plan, which she doesn’t, is where it gets complicated. The anti-tollers already have a champion running for Governor, so if KBH really wants their support she’s going to have to do better than this.

It’s only a negative when it’s for something I don’t like

Matt Yglesias writes about one of my favorite people.

Randall O’Toole is a relentless advocate for highways and automobile dependency in the United States. Consequently, I don’t agree with him about very much. But the thing I consistently find most bizarre about him, is that the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation have both agreed to agree with O’Toole that his support for highways and automobile dependency is a species of libertarianism. For example, O’Toole whines a bunch about how Ray LaHood wants to spend less money on highways and more on transportation alternatives before denouncing this agenda as “central planning.”

Central planning, of course, is the reverse of libertarianism. So if promoting alternative transportation is central planning, then building highways everywhere must be freedom! But of course in the real world building highways is also central planning. The Long Island Expressway is not a free market phenomenon. The Interstate Highway System as a whole reflects, yes, planning. That’s how it works. And beyond the interstates, American cities made a collective decision in the early part of the twentieth century to totally reconfigure their streets so as to become more convenient for car traffic—they’d be paved in an auto-friendly way, and the streets divided into a (larger) cars-only portion and a (smaller) people-only portion. That’s planning. It’s true that proposals to rebalance and make more space for buses and bikes and streetcars and pedestrians is a sort of central planning. But so is the alternative.

It’s just a field that, intrinsically, requires a lot of planning. The question is about what kinds of plans to make.

I don’t think I can add anything to this, except perhaps to note that maybe this is where some of the fervor for privatized toll roads comes from. Even there, of course, it’s not like your private toll road building firms were the ones deciding where the roads would be going. It was central planning all the way down to the point where construction and ultimately operations were to be handed off. Yet somehow that sort of thing never bothers the Randal O’Tooles of the world. One can only wonder why that may be.