With Congress moving a step closer passing a bill that funds transportation projects across the country, the Texas Department of Transportation was in Waco to get public comment on projects. McLennan County is expected to have about 50,000 more people living in the area in 25 years. But TxDOT says it doesn’t have enough money to keep up with population growth.
Jackie Harris lives in East Waco. She came to the TxDOT meeting to voice her concern about highway traffic. She’s pretty fed up with people trying to avoid the traffic by speeding through her neighborhood.
"I’m looking at reducing the congestion of the highways and repairing the highways and bridges," Harris said. "They get off the access road into the neighborhood and then they slap back into the highway. So you get a lot of cars going by and some of them going really fast."
The majority of the I-35 in the Waco area was built in the 1950’s and 60’s and according to TxDOT, the highway wasn’t meant to carry the loads that it’s carrying now. So to keep this “Main Street” of Texas open, TxDOT is expanding 96 miles of I-35 from Salado up to Hillsboro. But those plans are based on traffic conditions projected for 2025…just 11 years from now.
Michelle Conkle is a planner with TxDOT. She says looking ahead to 2040, the state only has enough money to maintain the system.
"Well we need approximately to maintain the system in a state of good repairs $230 billion over 40 years in order to address the other unfunded needs," Conkle said. "It would be depending on the types of projects it would be $460-$475 billion, so approximately half. Enough money to maintain the system in a state of good repair, but not enough money to meet the needs, the expansion needs and other needs to allow the state to grow at the rate its currently growing."
The thing is, the federal government hasn’t increased its fuel tax since 1993, Texas hasn’t increased its fuel tax since 1992 and the state’s vehicle registration fee hasn’t increased since 1985. Combined, these make up almost 90 percent of how transportation projects are funded in Texas.
Chris Evilia is the director of McLennan County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, which plans transportation projects in the area. He says in order to accommodate population growth and businesses, something has to be done about the fuel tax.
"We’re trying to cobble together a transportation system based on the same revenue that we were receiving 20 years ago," Evilia said. "And we’re getting to a point where we’re only able to maintain what we’ve got right now."
And that money doesn’t stretch as far after twenty-plus years of inflation. So planners are trying to get the public’s input on exactly where they want the money to go. To help illustrate how hard that is, TxDOT has set up an app where you can make your own transportation budget.
Laura Perez with TxDOT. She walked me through the app and it became clear pretty quickly that this isn’t a solvable puzzle. Sure—you can split your budget evenly between pavement condition, transit and rail options—but then bridge maintenance wouldn’t be adequately funded and traffic congestion would still be a huge problem. There seems to be no way to win.
"That’s the idea of this activity to show the Lay person that you just can’t have all your priorities fulfilled because there just isn’t that kind of budget," Perez said.
"Ten years ago when we produced the transportation plan then, we had something like 40 projects that we identified that we thought we could realistically fund over the next 25 years, today we’re looking at maybe a half a dozen," said Evilia with the MPO. "Which is a real challenge for us. Because the need hasn’t changed, the need has become more over time."
So what’s it going to be? Should we continue to find ways to expand the highway system? Or inner city transit? Or maybe more bike and pedestrian-friendly options? The answer isn’t clear, but it is clear that with less money available, every decision matters even more.
Dann Walker is a professor at Mclennan Community College. He thought planners should develop more inner-city transit options. Most of all, said we need to invest more in our infrastructure.
"I would like my granddaughters to grow up in a world and their kids when they come that takes care of stuff," Walker said.