100 Years Old and Just Getting Started

By: Dr. M. Ray Perryman
Published in syndication April 05, 2017

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has turned 100. Originally formed as the Texas Highway Department on April 4, 1917, by the 35th Legislature, TxDOT has become a vital part of our quality of life and economic growth.

TxDOT now maintains more than 79,000 miles of farm-to-market, ranch-to-market, state, US, and interstate highways across the Lone Star State. TxDOT also takes care of more than 25 million square feet of signs, 100 safety rest areas, picnic areas, and Travel Information Centers. There are also ferries and general aviation duties.

In addition to improving, expanding, and maintaining the state's roadways, TxDOT is also providing innovative services to the people of Texas. For example, roadway conditions are now easy to monitor at drivetexas.org, where you can see construction, problems due to weather conditions, and more. TxDOT also plants more than 60,000 pounds of wildflower seeds every year and schedules mowing around wildflower reseeding (unless there are safety concerns). When bats took up residence under Austin's Congress Avenue Bridge, TxDOT consulted with Bat Conservation International to study the bats and started a program to build bridges and culverts so that they are more friendly to the environmentally beneficial bat colonies. All in all, TxDOT is not only helping drivers get where they want and need to go, but is also working to improve quality of life.

For a number of years, TxDOT was hamstrung by a lack of funding. During the early part of this decade, as the population and economy of the state were expanding at a strong pace, revenues were falling even as needs were rising. The major highway funding source, the State's $0.20 per gallon portion of the gasoline tax, hadn't changed since 1991 (and still hasn't), even though construction and maintenance costs had risen sharply and more fuel efficient vehicles meant that more miles could be driven with less tax paid. The situation deteriorated to the point where funds were hardly covering maintenance (much less needed expansion) in a state that was adding well over 1,000 people and hundreds of vehicles every day. The federal slice of highway funding has also been shrinking in recent years. Since that time, voters and the legislature have worked to help remedy the situation, but the challenges are still quite daunting in a state characterized by both rapidly growing urban areas and vast rural areas where mineral interests and agriculture present pressing transportation concerns. Recent injections of money have made things better, but we have a ways to go.

More specifically, the vast majority of Texans (more than 85%) live along and east of Interstate 35, and this concentration leads to congestion. The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A&M University indicates that the number of registered vehicles in Texas has risen 172% over the past 40 years, but highway capacity has only grown by 19%. TTI's most recent Urban Mobility Scorecard analyzed traffic congestion and found that Texas' large population centers have significant problems. In the state's metropolitan areas with more than a million residents (Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio), delays average 52.6 hours per year per commuter. Also, 97 of the 100 most congested road segments in the state are in these areas.

These congested roadways are a problem affecting not only commuters and their quality of life, but also the potential for economic growth. Lost productivity as workers sit in traffic, less timely deliveries and the resulting requirements for more inventory, and other factors sweep across the economy. In fact, analysis by our firm and others in the past has shown that the development of the Interstate Highway system has contributed as much as 25% to the growth in the US over the past 60 years or so.

As a response to the growing needs, TxDOT has proposed the Unified Transportation Program (UTP), which is a 10-year project funding plan "aimed at enhancing safety, reducing congestion, improving connectivity and maintaining the state's massive highway system." The UTP involves 1,210 centerline miles of added capacity and improvements, including $2.5 billion in projects to relieve congestion as part of the agency's Texas Clear Lanes initiative.

Less populated areas of the state also have needs in the area of highway improvements, of course. In the Permian Basin, for example, the oil surge caused major problems for area residents due to the high volume of oilfield traffic and the resulting wear and tear on roads. TxDOT projects to expand capacity on highways in the area over the past few years have improved the situation markedly, but there is still more to be done.

TxDOT already has a big job, and it's going to get bigger. By 2050, the state population will likely double, with the large metropolitan areas accounting for most of the growth. The economy will also expand, leading to additional transportation needs. Projects such as the UTP will be crucial to quality of life, safety, and continued prosperity. Moreover, they will pay off; a number of studies over the years by our firm and others have shown that highway investments tend to generate an overall rate of return to economic expansion of about 30% per year (yes, per year).

For the moment, however, let's pause and say "Happy Birthday" to TxDOT and kudos for a century of progress. We drivers across this great state of Texas appreciate all that you do.