Rural Texas: Hundreds of Projects - Not Much Money

June 28, 2012

 

The Texas Transportation Commission has adopted the Texas Rural Transportation Plan 2035 culminating a year-long planning process.  Implementing the Plan, however, will be difficult in the face of profound funding limitations.

 

The Plan looked at 600 highway projects in rural Texas that would provide added capacity and that are not currently funded in the Unified Transportation Program (UTP).

 

The Plan will provide an objective basis for the TxDOT Districts to begin project planning when planning funds become available.  It identifies the three highest ranked projects in each TxDOT District.  The project rankings do not indicate the priority in which projects will be funded or construction.  Prioritization will be determined by TxDOT, taking into account knowledge of any additional local factors.

 

In order to analyze and rank the 600 projects, several key steps were taken. First, using the TxDOT Strategic Plan goals of “enhance connectivity” and “promote congestion relief…”, connectivity and mobility were used as broad categories to establish criteria for evaluating projects.

 

In addition to projects that would add travel lanes, projects were also included that would convert an existing four-lane undivided highway to a four-lane divided highway, and projects that would add a two-way left-turn lane of one mile or more in length. These two-way left turn lane projects were considered for their improvement of traffic operations.


Truck traffic can slow traffic on two-lane highways. To address this, TxDOT is improving traffic operations on highways with high truck volume by building “Super 2” configurations. “Super 2” configurations provide a travel lane in each direction with passing lanes—up to one mile in length—every 4 or 5 miles to improve traffic flow without the high cost of adding full travel lanes in each direction.

 

A GLOOMY OUTLOOK
The problem is money.  The Rural Transportation Plan concludes that availability of funding for projects and needs identified in the Plan will continue to be limited in the foreseeable future “and may even worsen.”

 

Statewide annual highway and bridge maintenance costs were found to average $3.6 billion though 2035, and annual improvement and replacement costs average another $10.7 billion. Combined, total highway needs for Texas through 2035 were found to average $14.2 billion per year. However, average annual available funding between 2010 and 2012 is only $3.0 billion.


Clearly, Texas is challenged in simply maintaining its existing highway infrastructure. Much discussion has centered on raising the state motor-fuel tax and/or raising/redistributing recurring funding from other sources. Even when additional revenues are generated -- and they must be before gridlock chokes the life out of Texas -- many highway improvement projects will be competing for funding.


While other non-recurring sources, such as the Proposition 12 funding, have partially reduced the funding shortfall, severe budget shortfalls remain; also, these non-recurring funds span a limited time period and the funds are mostly for specific project types. In addition, other federal stimulus funding programs that have been introduced in recent years do not appear to be maintained in the longterm.

 

Given these fiscal constraints most rural transportation improvements have little potential to be funded. Difficult financial times have given rise to increased resourcefulness on the local level with cities and counties using various taxing instruments and inter-governmental agreements to raise funding for road improvements. But that kind of solution is difficult or impossible for some rural counties.