We're liveblogging the sessions from the 2014 Texas Tribune Festival's Transportation track. The sessions include panels on road funding, high-speed rail, future transportation planning and the new urban mobility.
Featured speakers include U.S. Rep. Roger Williams; state Sen. Robert Nichols; state Reps. Joe Pickett, Ron Simmons and Jonathan Stickland; Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Joe Weber; Texas Department of Transportation Deputy Executive Director John Barton, Texas Central Railway President Robert Eckels; and former Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi.
Look below for highlights of the weekend's sessions, which are being held on the University of Texas at Austin campus.
With: Robert Nichols, Joe Pickett, Ron Simmons, Joe Weber, Tommy Williams and Erica Grieder (mod.)
Discussion starts with an explanation of $5 billion figure needed to maintain current traffic conditions. Sen. Nichols notes the figure during last year's session was $4 billion. The energy sector congestion added $1 billion to the total. Agreement is that it is at least $4 billion with something added to deal with energy sector-induced congestion.
Moderator Grieder notes that last year's talk had "fight" in the title. That would suggest progress has been made. Rep. Pickett notes that last session was a fight over how to fund transportation needs. A funding bill was pulled down in face of veto threat. The Nov. 4 proposition (to use revenue currently going to the Rainy Day Fund) wasn't something being talked about 18 months ago. The budget writers saw that possibility but couldn't work it into to appropriations process. This represented "lowest hanging fruit" because it wasn't tax increase.
Sen. Nichols addresses outreach on the transportation proposition. Outside groups, like Realtors and farm bureau, are including mailers in communication to members. Nichols notes that he and Pickett are set to visit with 38 newspaper editorial boards. Careful to point out in outreach that this proposition doesn't address the whole problem, but is an important step. Pickett notes that his proposal to increase registration fee does not raise as much as this proposition.
Williams notes that nobody anticipated current balances in the Rainy Day Fund. You have money earning 1 percent or less. It makes sense to take the cash and finance projects now. Says it is the conservative thing to do. If Legislature wants to act in a conservative fashion, you use Rainy Day Fund and avoid costs of debt financing.
Grieder addresses the Tea Party objection to using Rainy Day Fund for financing projects. Rep. Simmons gets the question. He says the priorities of government are transportation and education. If we are to continue the Texas miracle, the infrastructure has to be miraculous. Transportation is a bipartisan issue. We are all people trying to get through Temple, TX. To conservatives the Rainy Day Fund is sacrosanct, perhaps overly so. We need to decide what the Rainy Day Fund balance is for today. We are open to prioritize transportation funding, using the Rainy Day Fund.
Question raised about spending on other priorities like education making it more difficult to raise funding for transportation. Pickett notes, though, that education is "a sacred cow" that gets lawmakers to sing "kumbaya" across the aisle. Wants people to realize that gas tax has not been increased in 23 years, there is a problem. That is the biggest issue to date.
Weber says he finds it amazing that people want better, safer infrastructure but they don't want to pay more for it. At the same time, people are not surprised they have to pay more when they buy a new car, he says. Williams keys off that remark, says it's important to leverage technology to find better solutions. For example, using technology to have traffic move more closely could make an impact. Nichols says smarter planning on business work schedules. We have plenty of capacity, just not at these peak levels, Nichols says. There is an opportunity to have trucks use bypasses like SH 130 instead of I-35. Much cheaper than spending billions to update I-35.
Weber says, though, it's about more than change of habits, it's about change of culture. Getting a care isn't the first thing on minds of college-age people. This culture will change. It won't be the same as before.
Talk moves to federal transportation funding. Nichols notes that funding formulas have shortened from 6 year to 4 year cycles. He tried to impress on congressmen the importance of predictability in funding. Highway trust fund is not bankrupt, but it is in bad shape. Because of lack of predictability in federal funding, Texas is paying for that. Pickett says there is a need to have congressional delegation needs to address the same road funding issues that state legislators are confronting.
Q&A session begins. First Q is about getting local involvement in road planning. What is role of counties and regional groups in cost sharing?
Weber takes the question. TxDOT needs to figure out a better relationships with counties. Simmons says transportation realities need to be taken into account. If a city wants to expand a road, the government closest to the people should ask the public to decide how to pay for it. Pickett notes that in El Paso, more local dollars being put in than in the past. Can't wait for state or the feds to act so locals are stepping up. Five counties have passed increases on road & bridge fees.
Second question is about toll roads. What will be the future of expansion of toll roads. Temporary band aid? Nichols predicts a lot more toll roads in the future. If it costs $100 million to build, need to have $300 million over 40 years to preserve the system. Toll roads automatically do that.
Nichols also recognizes that not every project can be a toll road. Pickett says he's been quoted for the past 20 years as for and against toll roads. He says both are accurate, to laughter from the room. Toll roads need to be judged on a project by project basis. He compliments TxDOT on how they are handling toll projects, not a heavy handed process.
Pickett says there was a missed opportunity in getting some of the dollars going to various toll authorities for the state to help offset cost of maintaining system. Weber emphasizes that TxDOT doesn't force toll roads on anyone. Pickett (sotto voce): Anymore...
In question of fees used to support clean air efforts, Nichols notes how much has changed. He said that where he's from, businesses used to write checks to car owners when an acid discharge would melt the paint on the car. Crowd is incredulous, Nichols says that's the way it was.
Next question is about changing road project process from design-build to asset management approach. Having a contract where private sector provider would build and maintain the project.
Nichols says that the state has experimented with a lot of alternatives on building and maintaining new road projects. Has also look at what other states and countries do. Weber says these are innovative ways of putting together transportation projects, including shortening planning times for projects.
With: Robert Eckels, Clay Jenkins, Bill Meadows, Jonathan Stickland, Marc Williams and Aman Batheja (mod.)
Eckels said to understand where Texas is on high speed rail we must first understand how we got here. High speed rail has not happened in the U.S., mostly because of lack of funding. Eckels says Texas Central Railway has never really looked at this as a state-sponsored project, but as a privately funded project. "Fundamentally what's different in this project is that it is private," Eckels said. "We think that this message and this really cool technology can transform Texas and do it in a Texas way."
There has been some talk about expanding the Dallas-Houston rail line, if it is realized, to Fort Worth in the future. Jenkins says this does provide a better leveraging opportunity to knit together millions of people. "If you put high speed rail in downtown Dallas the economic benefit for a concentric circle around that is tremendous," he said.
Williams says the Department of Transportation sees its role as a facilitator and an enabler of this project. He says TxDOT wants to help these projects be as successful as possible. "At the same time, there are a number of other projects that are being looked at as the state of Texas," Williams said.
Eckels says that in cases Texas Central Railway may need to build on private land, his company will be much more flexible in being able to buy land and give people money to relocate. Williams says TxDOT is looking to using existing right-of-way for the high speed rail whenever possible and working with local communities to address any land issues.
People think that the rail will disrupt a community like an interstate does, Eckels says, but it's not so. High speed rail is actually less disruptive than an interstate and when people understand that we get less pushback, he says. Meadows says that the federal environmental process will answer a lot of questions and provide details.
Jenkins brings up millennials. "Millennials want more urban connectivity," Jenkins said. "People are more interested in being close to amenities and other people and being close to where the action is." Jenkins also brings up Uber and says it, along with other services, is changing the way people connect. "A lot of millennials are deciding they don't need a car," Jenkins said.
Williams says if Texas is going to be able to meet transportation needs, it has to be thinking beyond traditional transportation. "We have to be as a DOT as enabling and facilitating of that process," Williams said.
Next question up is who are the private investors in the high speed rail line. Eckels says the full list private investors will probably not be released. "Who are the shareholders of Exxon?" he asks. He says the project's single biggest debt provider is Japan.
With: John Barton, Deirdre Delisi, Mike Heiligenstein, Michael Morris, Roger Williams and Aman Batheja (mod.)
Batheja opened with a question, for Barton, about TxDOT exploring advanced technologies for the future. Barton said the state could take advantage of the opportunities of new technology, like self-driving cars and cars that can communicate with each other. Doing so, he said, would let the state “perhaps squeeze more out of the capacity that we already have.” He added, “We believe those investments will pay dividends.” Delisi spoke about the legal framework for new technologies. “Our laws don’t allow for things like self-driving cars on our roads,” Delisi said, adding that she would expect “baby steps” from the Legislature on issues related to emerging technologies.
Williams, speaking about federal regulation, said the highway trust fund was broken because initiatives like bike lanes and mass transit took money from the fund without contributing to it. Heiligenstein said connected vehicles would be connected to infrastructure first before being connected to each other, and he cited an example of that happening on an Illinois toll road.
Barton said low population density has been the biggest reason Texas hasn’t been a big adopter of public transportation. “We, at the state level, encourage thoughtful consideration of all options,” he said. Heiligenstein said you have to get people to change their behavior in order to relieve congestion, especially car-pooling. “Until we start seeing that behavior change, it’s not going to happen.”
More young people are choosing not to get driver’s license, Morris said. “The whole theme is choice,” he said. Barton said there isn’t a big enough supply of truck drivers to meet demand, saying there is room for autonomous-driving truck technology to enter the market. Williams said the federal government needs to operate more like a business. “We all agree that the highways need repair,” he said, adding, “we need to find a way to pay for this.”
Morris, speaking about an initiative in Dallas to tear down a portion of a highway for urban renewal, said there needs to be a focus not just on local but also on regional issues. He said the initiative was pro-neighborhood but not pro-region. “The answer seems to be not necessarily the win-win I’m seeking,” he said.
The first audience question is whether there are alternative revenue streams available to the gas tax for the highway fund. “There is no appetite right now to raise taxes,” Williams said. “There’s always an issue when you start talking about tracking” people, he said, referring to a tax on the number of miles a person traveled.
The next audience question was about whether the state was incentivizing mixed lane use. Morris said he hoped the state wasn’t doing that. “I hope the state continues to say this is a local initiative, we don’t need a financial incentive to do things smarter.” Heiligenstein added, “land use is a regional issue… I don’t think there’s any rocket science to it.”
The final audience question is about whether there were any initiatives for research and development of applications for ride-sharing. Heiligenstein talked about an app called Karma. Delisi said Lyft started in a student environment but the regulatory environment hadn’t kept up. “We have a regulatory structure that is decades old… Well, it’s not how people want to consume transportation.” Barton said ride-sharing has existed forever, and the state’s role is to “understand how the system benefits from that.”
With: Lee Jones, Justin Kintz, Lee Leffingwell, Nelda Martinez, Ivy Taylor, Daniel Witt and Rick Casey (mod.)
Casey opened with a question for Leffingwell about Austin’s new urban rail proposal, for which the city would pay $600 million and apply for matching funds from the federal government. $400 million would go to roads. “This bond proposal is a way to get started in a very big way,” Leffingwell said. He said a data-driven process determined the urban rail route, from Highland Mall to East Riverside, and that the process accounted for population growth and future ridership.
Asked about including road improvements in the bond proposal, Leffingwell said, “We’ve had comprehensive, multi-modal transportation bonds at least since 2010… We’re not going to solve our problems by building more rail alone.” Leffingwell also said this is Austin’s “last shot” at urban rail.
Martinez said after the city of Corpus Christi cut in half its budget for street maintenance in the 1980s, the city finally imposed a street maintenance fee. On the city’s efforts to promote “new urbanism,” Martinez said the city was implementing “road diets,” cutting four-lane roads down to three, trying to get more vehicles off the street, and trying to encourage people in denser areas to bike to work. Corpus Christi, she said, made an unpopular political move to privatize the city planning department.
Taylor, of San Antonio, said the streetcar project that recently failed was “extremely, extremely unpopular, and I didn’t really see where we would be able to build on it.” San Antonio is preparing to do a comprehensive master plan, she said, and developing a “citizen’s planning institute” to spur more popular involvement.
Jones said Texas is the state with the most bike-share programs in place. During SXSW, he said, Austin’s bike-share program had 10 rides per bike per day. Responsibility falls to the rider to follow road rules, he said.
Kintz called the opposition to Uber a “very vocal minority.” “We’ve seen an entire new market segment emerge,” he said, including people who wouldn’t normally take a taxi.
“Personal vehicle transportation is not going away,” Witt said. “We need to continue to look at the automobile and the advancements that can be made in automotive technology to better the urban landscape.”
The first audience question is how electric vehicle companies, like Tesla, will help pay for road infrastructure, which is currently funded by gasoline taxes. Martinez mentioned vehicle sales taxes as an alternative. “It needs to be not only dependent on gasoline taxes, that’s our problem,” she said. “We just have to work with our legislators and get some more revenue streams and keep it simple.”