Express-News: I-35…The road to trouble/Williamson responsible for diverting gas taxes

Interesting how Governor’s Perry’s Chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, Ric Williamson, is responsible for diverting our gas taxes to non-transportation related projects during his time as a State Rep. on the House Appropriations Committee:

“Something else besides mounting traffic plagues I-35. With Texas’ economy and population seemingly stagnant two decades ago, legislators started diverting some state gas tax funds away from highways. That’s in addition to the fourth that had been going to education for more than 60 years.

‘I probably wouldn’t have done it if I could have looked in a crystal ball 20 years down the road,’ said Williamson, who now is chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.”

Read the article here:

I-35: The road to trouble

02/19/2006
Patrick Driscoll
Express-News Staff Writer

Next time you’re in a bottleneck on Interstate 35 and want to cuss at someone, consider this:

Those most responsible probably aren’t within earshot.

They include former President Clinton, whose signing of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement paved the way for a surge in truck traffic; Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, who helped convince then-Gov. Ann Richards to pull support for high-speed rail plans; and Ric Williamson, who as a member of the state House Appropriations Committee in the 1980s played a key role in diverting state gas taxes, a third of which now don’t go to transportation.

Such are the politics of traffic jams. Some are caused by accidents; others by construction. But an examination of I-35 — How does a road get like this? — shows that many tie-ups are foretold by sometimes faraway and long-ago machinations of people, some who never or rarely drive the road.

Running 1,500 miles from Mexico to Duluth, Minn., I-35 is overloaded from San Antonio to Dallas, state officials say.

The worst stretch, from here to Georgetown, was branded the deadliest highway in Texas just a few years after NAFTA started, when more than 100 people a year were dying on it.

Move It!
Passenger rail in Texas

The problem is one that seemingly everybody saw coming but nobody was able to avert, though eventually it figured prominently in a Texas gubernatorial election.

“All we know is, we could look and see what was happening to I-35,” said David Laney, who was chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission from 1995 to 2001. “We knew that increasingly we would lose ground.”

And now, the best hope for frustrated motorists who use I-35 is a strange and paradoxical solution that might seem to come straight out of the politician’s handbook: Do nothing, or little, allowing the highway to become more clogged than ever.

Here’s why: Bond agreements for new toll roads usually forbid construction of competing highway lanes, thereby assuring I-35 always will be congested.

In fact, on the same day as one of Austin’s worst-ever traffic jams — caused by two wrecks last spring that closed the northbound lanes of I-35 for 18 hours — Gov. Rick Perry was at the Capitol presiding over the signing of a contract to develop plans for a tollway from San Antonio to Dallas.

So although some fixes for I-35 are on the drawing board — six additional lanes in San Antonio, a few in Austin, expanding a choke point in New Braunfels and adding two lanes from Waco to Hillsboro — the days of expanding the freeway are coming to an end. The widening needed to keep pace with population and traffic growth is physically or fiscally out of reach.

Almost half the state’s population lives within 50 miles of I-35, making it the most important highway in Texas, and forecasts indicate growth will top 50 percent in 20 years. Traffic on the freeway is expected to climb even faster.

“We’re struggling,” said Gabriela Garcia, spokeswoman with the Texas Department of Transportation. “We’re trying to catch up.”

Many of the motorists flocking to I-35 are commuters living or working in sprawling developments popping up along the corridor, but there also are truckers hauling goods because of skyrocketing trade with Mexico.

When Kaz and Kathleen Oreziak moved from Canada to San Antonio two years ago, their new neighbors offered some sage advice about I-35 between here and Austin.

The Oreziaks took the advice to heart and now avoid I-35 when they drive to Austin every month or so. Instead, they head up U.S. 281 and then east to Austin, slowing down for the curves in the rolling hills and stopping in the quaint towns.

They figure they’re not losing much time, if any. But if their trips take a little longer, so what?

“We just like the scenery,” Kathleen Oreziak said.

Cecil Cracraft of Missouri wiped some dirt off the fender of his rig and recalled the horrors he’s faced on I-35 in Texas. He’s been hauling groceries through the state once or twice a month for the past five years.

“I don’t know,” he said, getting serious. “I don’t know if I’ve seen the worst.”

First bad sign

More than likely, Cracraft hasn’t seen the worst.
By 2025, I-35 would need to be expanded to 18 lanes in Austin, 16 in San Antonio and 12 in-between to handle expected traffic, a 1999 study by the Federal Highway Administration says. That’s eight to 12 more lanes in Austin and San Antonio, too much to be practical.

Intelligent transportation technologies such as those used by TransGuide could reduce the need for some of those lanes, but a new parallel route of two to eight lanes still would be needed from here to Temple, the study concluded. Dallas-Fort Worth also would need a bypass.

But officials didn’t need a study to know that alternatives to I-35 would be needed. They could see it coming 20 years ago.

It was during the 1980s that Frank McCullough noticed a troubling sign.

On some holidays, traffic on I-35 slowed down in rural areas, said McCullough, who’d worked for the state highway department years before and at the time was with the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas.

Congestion was expected during rush hours in large cities, but not out where cows grazed.

“I-35 would break down,” he said. “It just couldn’t handle the traffic.”

When McCullough pulled out the Texas ruler for measuring distances — driving time — and projected into the future, the picture was bleak. Trips on I-35 from San Antonio to Dallas soon would take as long as they did before the freeway was built.

“I don’t think anybody was thinking about how big this growth was going to be,” he said. “It was becoming readily apparent that we couldn’t build our way out of that situation. In other words, we couldn’t build lanes fast enough.”

McCullough’s fears were well-founded.

Construction of the nation’s 47,000-mile interstate highway system was grinding to an end, blotting out a vision that for decades gave highway planners something solid to get behind and push.

The 1986 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade had kicked off booming trade with Mexico, and talks for NAFTA would start in five years. Four of five trucks carrying trade to and from Mexico ended up rumbling through Texas, a third on I-35.

Since 1990, the number of trucks on I-35 in San Antonio has more than doubled and now accounts for one in seven vehicles just north of North Loop 1604.

By the mid 1990s, nearly all parts of I-35 in urban areas and almost half in rural areas from Mexico to Canada had reached capacity, according to the highway administration’s 1999 study.

For every mile traveled on the freeway today, the average San Antonio commuter can lose up to an hour a year stuck in traffic.

Something else besides mounting traffic plagues I-35. With Texas’ economy and population seemingly stagnant two decades ago, legislators started diverting some state gas tax funds away from highways. That’s in addition to the fourth that had been going to education for more than 60 years.

“I probably wouldn’t have done it if I could have looked in a crystal ball 20 years down the road,” said Williamson, who now is chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

Besides the diversions, legislators have refused to raise the gas tax since 1991 and inflation has steadily whittled purchasing power. Tax revenue continued to go up, but that’s because the amount of driving — and therefore the needs — shot up.

Also in the 1980s, strategies began to shift to ways to manage road congestion rather than cure it — such as more mass transit, carpool lanes and toll roads, all of which become more attractive as traffic thickens.

Talk of an I-35 bypass in Austin soon would consider carpool lanes, and after stalled plans were reinvigorated by TxDOT in 1992, officials decided to fund the road by making it a tollway. They also renamed it Texas 130.

In 1990, community leaders from San Antonio and Austin raised the idea to run commuter rail, with speeds up to 80 mph, along I-35 from San Antonio to Austin. A 1999 state study said it was feasible, but public money would be needed.

By 1994, private companies spent $41 million trying to prove that high-speed rail, with speeds of 150 mph or more, would be a good way to connect the state’s five biggest cities and would be possible if government would just kick in some money.

The supercorridor

McCullough and his colleagues at the research center felt something bigger was needed, something that reached further into the future and would thrive as I-35 became more congested. They considered the failings of the interstates, which plowed through cities and became clogged with commuters, and included access roads — especially in Texas — that further hampered long-haul traffic by adding drivers making shorter trips.

The researchers came up with a blueprint for something that could do it all. They called it a supercorridor.

Their vision, looking 50 years out, was to pack six car lanes, four truck lanes, two passenger rail lines, two freight rail lines, utility pipelines and service areas into one right of way to save land, time, money and pain.

The supercorridors would parallel interstates and go around cities. Highway lanes would be tolled to pay for themselves and control traffic levels, and there would be no access roads to feed urban sprawl.

The center fleshed out the idea with three studies from 1992 to 1996. In the last, which was commissioned by TxDOT, researchers took a detailed look at the I-35 corridor but recommended that all Texas corridors be considered.

Then … nothing.

“When we presented the work, there was a kind of deafening silence,” recalled Rob Harrison, who worked on the studies and now is deputy director of the research center.

But that changed six years later.

In 2002, as the governor’s race began to crank up, incumbent Perry unveiled the Trans Texas Corridor. The plan, hailed as a new vision, is a 50-year $184 billion proposal to build 4,000 miles of toll roads, rail lines and pipelines in shared rights of way across the state.

One of the planners with the research center said he almost fell off his chair when he heard about it. The similarities were that eerie.

The main difference is that Perry is eyeing four passenger rail lines, two for high speeds of up to 200 mph and two for slower commuter service that makes more stops. That pushed the needed right of way width to nearly a quarter of a mile.

But a motley assortment that includes the Sierra Club, the Texas Farm Bureau and even Perry’s own Texas Republican Party have decried how the wide corridors would split farms, ranches and wildlife habitats and devour almost 584,000 acres of valuable land.

“That concerns us, the way it transects the ranches in Texas and some of the best wildlife areas,” said Kirby Brown of the Texas Wildlife Association, which is working to change laws to chip away at the impacts.

Also, a coalition of cities led by Dallas has been fighting to protect I-35 as the historic NAFTA route. They want to see new lanes added to that freeway or kept within 5 miles.

North America’s Supercorridor Coalition Inc., an international group founded in 1994 and based in Dallas, recently began talking to TxDOT about such issues but has endorsed the concept.

“We just want to make sure that the alignment is as close to I-35 as possible and uses I-35 in rural areas where it’s feasible,” NASCO spokeswoman Rachel Edwards said.

Within weeks, federal officials might narrow possible routes for the Trans Texas Corridor leg paralleling I-35 to a 10-mile-wide area.

Picking the actual route, the first of the supercorridors, could take up to two more years.

Keys to Perry’s plan include a shift to tolls and fees to raise most of the money and partnering with private companies to build and operate segments of the corridor while taking on risks in return for profits.

“Tolling is definitely part of the future of transportation finance./span> It varies from state to state,” said Robert Puentes, a fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Peter Samuel, a fellow with the Reason Institute in Los Angeles, said he hopes the corridor comes to fruition but doubts it’ll fully happen in anybody’s lifetime.

“My conclusion is, the whole thing is somewhat overhyped,” he said. “If it all happens, sure, it’s huge.”

In 2004, the Texas Transportation Commission chose a consortium led by Cintra of Spain and Zachry Construction Corp. of San Antonio to draw up development plans for the corridor’s first project — a $6 billion four-lane toll road from San Antonio to Dallas.

Construction could start in four years.

With federal leadership on transportation issues collapsing after completion of the interstates, the eyes of the nation are now glued on Texas.

“Most states,” Puentes said, “are watching closely to see how they pull that off.”

pdriscoll@express-news.net

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