Skip to main content

Liveblog: Transportation at The Tribune Festival

We're liveblogging this weekend from The Texas Tribune Festival's Transportation track, which features panel discussions on planning, high-speed rail, road funding and rural transportation.

Lead image for this article

We're liveblogging this weekend from The Texas Tribune Festival's Transportation track, which features panel discussions on planning, high-speed rail, road funding and rural transportation. 

Featured speakers include state Reps. Drew Darby, Joe Pickett and Larry Phillips, state Sens. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, Robert Nichols and Tommy Williams, TxDOT Executive Director Phil Wilson, Texas Transportation Commissioner Fred Underwood and John McBeth, president of the Texas Association for Community Transit.

Follow us here for updates from the University of Texas at Austin campus. 

Liveblog

by Alexa Ura

The first transportation panel of the day, Planning for the Future, is about to begin. 

Panelists include: Deirdre Delisi, former chairwoman of the Texas Transportation Commission; Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments; State Rep. Larry Phillips; Nicholas Rubio, president of Cintra US; and Phil Wilson, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation.

by Alexa Ura
Now starting: Planning for the Future
With: Deirdre Delisi, Michael Morris, Larry Phillips, Nicolas Rubio, Phil Wilson and Aman Batheja (mod.)
Deirdre DelisiMichael MorrisLarry PhillipsNicolas RubioPhil WilsonAman Batheja (mod.)
by Alexa Ura

Phillips opens up the panel by talking about the importance of transportation funding and listening to needs at the local level.

"We hear about it in everyday life and how transportation is affecting me," Phillips said.

He says parts of the community are unaware of the lack of funding transportation will face in the near future.

by Alexa Ura

The conversation moves to the Texas Department of Transportation.

Wilson says the question is whether it will be done effectively with the lack of state funding.

Wilson says the department might have more money in the next legislative session in two years from the gas tax, but it will lack production ability.

by Alexa Ura

"No one thinks we've solved the problem," Delisi said. "Everyone knows we have more work to do."

She says raising awareness of the importance of transportation funding among lawmakers was a victory during the Legislative session despite the lack of funding.

by Alexa Ura

Morris says lack of transportation funding endangers production of gross domestic products.

The lack of infrastructure will affect three of the top 10 metropolitan areas producing gross domestic products, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth, he said.

"People should be outraged that we are taking a huge risk," Morris said. 

by Alexa Ura

The conversation moves to tolling routes in Texas.

Morris says there is a lack of maintenance on freeways, which leads to toll roads, but there's a benefit that comes from toll roads and express lanes. Part of the $60 billion worth of freeway construction in Texas is covered by toll fees, he said.

"Is that not the best way to fund transportation?" Morris said. "You're voting with your feet."

by Alexa Ura

Rubio says that state focuses too much attention on lack of funding but should also focus on efficient spending.

Phillips says people choose to take advantages of toll roads, but proximity is key.

by Alexa Ura

The conversation now moves to speed limits.

Batheja says Highway 130 has one of the fastest speed limits in the state and asks whether the state will see more of this.

"The answer right now is we don't see any on the horizon but you never know where speeds will go," Wilson said.

Morris says the driver's ability to be comfortable on a road determines the appropriate speed.

by Alexa Ura

Panelists are now talking about the future of transportation

The future of this conversation lies in technology, Wilson says adding that the state "can't finance itself" out of current problems. Technology has to be part of the conversation along with funding when the Legislature comes back for the next session, he said.

"The technology is going to be there before the policy or law," Wilson said.

by Alexa Ura

Morris asks "why we let the horse get out of the barn" and then ask for funding to repair.

He says some improvements might lay in mixed-used developments and more walkable communities and emphasizes the future of railways in large cities.

by Alexa Ura

Phillips, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, says the federal government shouldn't choose winners and losers in funding.

"It's time we step up and realize how much money we're losing and how much we're making," Phillips said. "We need to grow up."

Phillips says the future of transportation in Texas goes beyond highways and more attention should be placed on ports and railways.

by Alexa Ura

Batheja asks Delisi about the future Gov. Rick Perry's proposal of the "Trans-Texas Corridor" when a new governor is elected in 2014.

While the Trans-Texas Corridor didn't work out, its policies remain in place, Delisi said.

Delisi says biggest challenge is a stable source of revenue for these policies and transportation in general.

If the transportation department picks the right projects, the development and results of transportation projects will provide a greater return on investment, she said.

by Alexa Ura

Phillips says the Trans-Texas Corridor failed, in part, because of its "top-down" approach and emphasizes the importance of involving local communities in the decision-making process.

by Alexa Ura

Morris says transportation decisions are successful if they are public and constituents are taken into consideration. He says he agrees with Phillips that the "top-down" approach doesn't work in Texas.

The Trans-Texas Corridor would have been more successful if public consensus had been obtained before moving ideas toward the Capitol.

by Alexa Ura

Q&A portion of the panel has begun. First question is on suggestions for future of transportation beyond highways.

"If you don't plan it right and put it in the right place, it won't be successful," Phillips says of the use of railways. "You let politics do it instead of the smart people."

by Alexa Ura

Second question is about Gov. Rick Perry's leadership in transportation.

Phillips says he was pleased with his involvement in passing transportation funding in last legislative session and jokes that the other panelists who have worked for Perry should talk about the governor.

Delisi, former chief of staff and campaign manager for Perry, says the only reason the state obtained new sources of funding for transportation is because Perry is stubborn about transportation.

"He kept it going and he pushed them," Delisi said. "The process worked. It just took us a little more time."

by Alexa Ura

Rubio jokes more people should use Highway 130 in response to a question about toll roads. Rubio is the president of a company that develops and manages transportation infrastructure, including portions of SH 130.

by Alexa Ura

Conversation moves to public-private partnerships in transportation.

Phillips says the state is not in the business of taking property from Texans. Rubio says it's not a good set-up.

by Alexa Ura

Delisi there's value in relying on the public and private sectors working together.

"It's thinking outside the box that has allowed some communities to carry out some projects," Delisi said.

Wilson says there are opportunities to accelerate construction of roads through bonds.

Morris offers an example of a new project he will push in East Texas that will leverage their access to water in exchange for transportation funds.

"This might be the last you'll see of me," he jokes.

by Alexa Ura

The panel ends on that note and that's it for "Planning for the Future."

by Aman Batheja
Now starting: High-Speed Rail: What Now?
With: Robert Eckels, Gary Fickes, Peter LeCody, Bill Stockton and Shelley Kofler (mod.)
Robert EckelsGary FickesPeter LeCodyBill StocktonShelley Kofler (mod.)
by Aman Batheja

"High-speed rain in Texas is not the pipe dream that died in the 90s," Kofler said. Several major projects are in the works that could change how Texans get around.

by Aman Batheja

Eckels is with Central Texas High-Speed Railway, a private firm backed by Japanese investors that is planning a high-speed rail line between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. Eckels said the investors, who operate high-speed rail in Japan, studied 97 corridors around the U.S.

"This was the most innately financeable corridor," Eckels said, referring to the Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston route.

by Aman Batheja

“We expect to go out in the field after the first of the year with our notice of intent and our environmental impact statement," Eckels said. This represents a delay in the original plans, as the company had said the notice of intent would be issued before the end of this year.

Construction of the high-speed rail project connecting Dallas and Houston could start by 2016 and be operational by 2021, Eckels said.

by Aman Batheja

Stockton, a researcher with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, notes that the population in the I-35 corridor is projected to double. In the last 40 years or so, Texas has added one lane in each direction to the highway.

“The idea that we’re going to scale that up when Texas population doubles is suspect," Stockton said.

by Aman Batheja

LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates, noted that most rail in the U.S. travels around 85 mph. One line, the Acela, travels 150 mph. The high-speed rail Eckels' group is planning would be "true high-speed rail," with speeds reaching 225 mph, he said. 

"I think in Texas, we're going to have that rail up and running in California," LeCody said.

"We'll be the first true high-speed rail in America," Eckels said. 

by Aman Batheja

Kofler asked whether Southwest Airlines will try and lobby against a new high-speed rail plan between Dallas and Houston, like the company did back in the early 1990s. The company has long offered daily flights between Dallas and Houston.

Eckels said American Airlines, United Airlines and Continental Airlines have been supportive of their plan. Southwest has remained neutral but he didn't expect them to fight their high-speed rail project. The company is fundamentally different now from what it was 20 years ago, he said.

Eckels and Fickes, a Tarrant County commissioner, pointed to the Wright Amendment, a federal law which has historically restricted Southwest's flights outside of its hub airport, Love Field in Dallas. The Wright Amendment expires in 2014.

“I think when the Wright Amendment goes away and frees up Southwest…I think you’re going to see a continued reduction of the short-haul 200-250 mile flights," Fickes said. "This is where high speed rail can fill that gap.”

by Aman Batheja

"This is what I call a 100-year decision that we’re talking about, when you start talking about connecting the Triangle with high-speed rail," Fickes said. (The Triangle he is referring to is the routes connecting Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Austin-San Antonio.)

by Aman Batheja

Eckels said his firm is working with regional transportation organizations and cities to make sure their high-speed rail project works as seamlessly as possible with future transit projects planned in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. He said the firm wants to ensure its project will be "future proofed."

by Aman Batheja

Eckels said El Paso is hopeful the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail will prove to be a model for a future high-speed rail line connecting El Paso to Albuquerque or Denver.

by Aman Batheja

Kofler asked whether there's a future for the slower Amtrak service in Texas and through the Midwest in a world with high-speed rail. LeCody said there is a future, noting that many people use Amtrak in Dallas to connect to smaller cities such as Longview and Little Rock.

"Amtrak is kind of a lifeline," he said.

by Aman Batheja

The first question from the audience is to Eckels, and it's about how the private firm will handle acquiring private property for its line. Eckels said it plans to use freight line right-of-ways as much as possible but will have to work with private property owners in some cases.

“To the extent that we have to go through acquisition of property…we will be having eminent domain authority," Eckels said. "But at the same time, it’s really very refreshing to do it as a private company. There’s transparency in the process. It’s regulated by the Texas Department of Transportation.”

Eckels argued that a private firm will be able to be less "harsh" in eminent domain negotiations and more flexible than a public entity.

“We think we can demonstrate that there’s a way to do a large public project and there’s a right way to do it," Eckels said. "You can treat people fairly." 

by Aman Batheja

Answering a question from the audience, Eckels said the firm has not decided station locations or an exact route yet. He was also asked what pitch he's making to private investors for the project.

“We’re not Google or Apple," Eckels said. "It will be a steady return over the life of the project. Double digits or better.”

by Aman Batheja

Audience member asks Eckels what public support the firm expects for its  project.

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

by Aman Batheja

Panelists all agree that if a privately funded high-speed rail line might work between Houston and Dallas, that doesn't mean it will work in other corridors or that publicly supported high-speed rail lines elsewhere shouldn't be funded.

"They're going to be a mix of business models," Stockton said.

by Aman Batheja

LeCody notes that a TxDOT study looking at high-speed rail between Oklahoma and the border includes the Rio Grande Valley, a place most people don't think about when considering high-speed rail. The study is expected to be released sometime next year.

by Aman Batheja

Kofler asks the likelihood in the next 10 years of "dirt to be flying" on any high-speed rail project other than the privately funded one between Dallas and Houston.

Fickes said Dallas-Fort Worth region's goal would be to have a Fort Worth-Arlington-Dallas line in place in time for the privately funded Dallas-Houston line opens.

by Aman Batheja
Now starting: The Fight Over Road Funding
With: Drew Darby, Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, Robert Nichols, Joe Pickett, Tommy Williams and Erica Grieder (mod.)
Drew DarbyJuan "Chuy" HinojosaRobert NicholsJoe PickettTommy WilliamsErica Grieder (mod.)
by Aman Batheja

Grieder begins panel by telling panelists to pretend she’s a “Tea Party person” who is not convinced that the Texas Department of Transportation is actually underfunded, and asking them to convince her that she’s wrong.

Pickett said many Texans confuse the cost of construction with the cost of maintaining the current transportation system.

“People forget after you cut the ribbon, there’s a cost in perpetuity,” he said.

Nichols eluded to the so-called orange cone problem, of people seeing current construction projects and thinking that means TxDOT has ample funding. Road projects are actually planned out six to 10 years in advance, he said.

“To be able to do that, you have to have a dependable, constitutionally dedicated revenue stream.”

by Aman Batheja

Regarding Grieder's initial question about those who don't believe TxDOT is underfunded, Williams said,  “We’re converting our farm-to-market roads to gravel. What more do you need to convince you?”

by Aman Batheja

Darby said Texas is facing a “perfect storm” of transportation funding problems. Along with the state’s projected population growth, Texas has spent the last decade borrowing money to address congestion.

“What you’re seeing right now is the last of those funds going out,” Darby said. “We’ve exhausted our credit card.”

by Aman Batheja

The lawmakers on the panel said Perry effectively killed several proposals to raise revenue for transportation by saying publicly that he would veto any transportation tax or fee hikes.

Darby spoke about his efforts over the session to push an increase in the annual voter registration fee. Several House members asked him not to make them vote on a fee increase that the governor was going to veto anyway.

“When you’re riding a dead horse, get off,” Darby said. “So I got off.”

by Aman Batheja

The panelists discussed a proposal from this year’s legislative session to constitutionally dedicate a portion of the vehicle sales tax to road projects. Perry supported the proposal, and a majority of the Texas House did as well. Williams, the Senate Finance chairman, said he opposed it and that most of the Senate Finance Committee agreed with him on that.
Williams said the plan would lead to a new dedicated fund that future lawmakers would use to balance the budget rather than appropriate fully to roads.

“My concern is, that money, just because you dedicate it, doesn’t mean it always gets appropriated for its dedicated purpose,” Williams said.

by Aman Batheja

Grieder asked the panelists about raising the state's 20-cents-a-gallon gas tax.

“The fuel tax is a dying revenue source. ... You’re losing it because of inflation. You’re losing it because of efficiency," Nichols said.

Pickett, a Democrat, said most members of his party agree that raising the gas tax isn't the solution. He noted that most Texans only pay about $10 a month in gas tax but don't realize it's so low.

by Aman Batheja

Nichols and Williams talked about the plan approved in an August special session to divert some future oil and gas production taxes to transportation from the Rainy Day Fund. Voters will be asked to approve the plan next year.

The fight in the Legislature over the plan focused on including a "floor" on the Rainy Day Fund. Some Republicans argued that the state's credit rating was at risk if the Rainy Day Fund's balance fell too low. This week, Standard & Poor's upgraded the state's credit rating from AA+ to AAA, its highest rating. Williams took the ratings increase as proof that the Rainy Day Fund floor was not necessary.

S&P said the ratings increase was due to faith that the state’s economic growth would continue. Williams noted that S&P had previously said it was concerned Texas was not investing enough in infrastructure.

“This was an argument where the nabobs were just completely wrong as I told them they were. You need to spend money on infrastructure," Williams said.

Williams called it "a ridiculous thing" that lawmakers created a floor for the Rainy Day Fund that will impact lawmakers 10 or 20 years in the future. He said he hoped in the future, that Rainy Day Floor language can be taken out of the state Constitution. 

Pickett agreed, adding, "A lot of states have a lot less money in their savings accounts and have AAA ratings."

by Aman Batheja

Asked about why it took three special sessions to pass the transportation funding plan that finally passed, Pickett pointed to Gov. Rick Perry.

“The governor was not engaged in the regular session," Pickett said. "He was not engaged in the first special. He was not engaged in the second special…We were trying to second guess what he might do.”

After Perry called a third special session in August with transportation on the agenda, he engaged legislators on the issue and helped resolve differences, Pickett said.

“That’s what made the difference," Pickett said. 

by Aman Batheja

The first audience question of the panel came from Dewitt County Judge Daryl Fowler, who has been lobbying for state funding to address roads impacted by energy development. (Fowler is a panelist in the next transportation panel on rural transportation issues.) He told lawmakers about his inability to raise local revenue for local roads because of state laws that largely tie his hands.

Hinojosa agreed with Fowler that the state should be stepping up and helping more with this problem.

“We have the tools…we just don’t the votes or will to do that,” Hinojosa said.

by Alexa Ura
Now starting: Issues in Rural Transportation
With: Daryl Fowler, Sarah Hidalgo-Cook, John McBeth, Fred Underwood and Aman Batheja (mod.)
Daryl FowlerSarah Hidalgo-CookJohn McBethFred UnderwoodAman Batheja (mod.)
by Alexa Ura

Batheja opens up the panel asking McBeth, CEO of the Brazos Transit District, what he thinks the major issues facing rural transportation systems facing Texas.

McBeth says insufficient resources are the primary challenge to Texas transportation and more so rural transit.

McBeth breaks down transportation funding: $70 million a year — $30 million from state funds, $40 million from federal funds

But state funding continues to decrease over the years, McBeth says, and he expects only $26 million from the state this year.

"We're stuck at the funding level of the year 2000," McBeth says. "But we've got 2013 costs."

by Alexa Ura

Hidalgo-Cook says the state needs to continue matching federal funds at the local level, but this becomes a challenge in low-income, rural districts.

The Texas Transit Association tries to fill that gap and provides transportation services to help individuals get to medical appointments, Hidalgo-Cook said.

by Alexa Ura

The conversation moves to the impact of the shale boom in South Texas on rural transportation.

Fowler says farm-to-market system has seen traffic increase five times over since 2010.

"It's the equivalent of 8 million cars passing over a county road," Fowler said of the transportation construction an oil rig requires.

Hidalgo-Cook, whose company serves individuals in South Texas, says traffic in the area has added an hour more of travel time, but it's also become a safety issue.

"We've replaced more windshields in one year than we have in ten," Hidalgo-Cook says of the damage cargo trucks in the area have caused from debris and rocks. 

by Alexa Ura

The panels moves to employment difficulties the shale boom has caused.

TxDOT has struggled to keep drivers when the shale boom offers much higher wages, Underwood says.

Fowler says even the sheriff's department in DeWitt County has lost workers to the shale boom.

by Alexa Ura

The conversation shifts to gravel roads.

McBeth says the Brazos area has also been affected by unkept roads leading to an endless windshield-repair process at $2,800 a windshield.

"We're buying windshields a dozen at a time," McBeth said. "And we're buying them every other week."

He says the farm-to-market system would benefit from gravel roads because of the damage of these damaged roadways cause.

"Bring on the gravel," he says while laughing.

On a more serious note, Underwood says that safety goes beyond broken windshields. In 2012, fatalities increased by 27 percent in Permian Basin.

"There are our neighbors," Underwood said. "These are people's family members that won't be coming home."

by Alexa Ura

Batheja asks Fowler about his advocacy with the Legislature earlier this year for a better resolution to insufficient funds for rural transportation.

Fowler says the House of Representatives was made up by many newly elected or sophomore representatives who made it difficult to promote statesmanship and understanding of the issues counties like DeWitt County are dealing with.

"All we got was a temporary fix," Fowler said. 

by Alexa Ura

Batheja asks the panelists about the role energy companies should play in providing more funding to repair the roads they damage.

"It's not a matter about not paying enough," Fowler said. "It's misappropriation."

by Alexa Ura

The attention the shale boom has brought to the area has also affected Medicaid reimbursements the rural system receives, McBeth said.

In recent years, private, for-profit corporations have gotten into transit business and taken jobs from local nonprofit organizations that provide transportation for individuals who need to obtain medical services. 

McBeth says his organization picks individuals up at their homes, drives them to their doctor and many times walks them in — what he calls a "premium limousine service that the state can no longer afford."

These organizations are taking "Texas tax money back to their corporate board rooms instead of keeping them in our local community," McBeth said.

by Alexa Ura

First question of Q&A is for Fowler about the loss of workers at the sheriff's office.

Fowler says he doesn't blame individuals, who are often young individuals providing for their families, who leave for the oil rigs.

by Alexa Ura

Next question is about new funding set up — which will divert oil and gas production taxes from the Rainy Day Fund to provide financial resources for transportation — and whether any priority will be placed on the development of rural transportation.

"The short answer is I'm not holding my breath," Fowler said. He adds the timeline of passing the joint resolution, which will be voted on until the 2014 elections, makes this more difficult.

by Alexa Ura

Next question is about the Tea Party's views that Texans are taxed too much. An audience members asks for suggestions of what to say to individuals who share those views and believe Texas should do more with less

"My answer to those people is there is no free lunch," Fowler said.

Underwood closes the panel asking individuals to not text and drive and increase safety awareness on Texas highways suggesting that helping explain where specific funding will go will help explain transportation funding.

by Alexa Ura

And that's a wrap for the transportation track.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

Quality journalism doesn't come free

Yes, I'll donate today