The future of Texas, as envisioned by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) in the Statewide Long-Range Transportation Plan 2040 (SLRTP), is a dystopia of vast suburban road grids, endless traffic jams, and huge highway spending. According to projections used by TxDOT, the population of Texas will grow to 45 million people by 2040, and transportation spending will rise to $21 Billion per year (2016 Budget).
However, we need to keep in mind the higher temperatures we can expect from climate change as fracking methane leaks and greenhouse gas emissions drive the transition to a hostile and unforgiving climate. Additionally, there are water resource issues as watersheds and aquifers are exploited beyond capacity. The expansive consumer motoring world of TxDOT is in sharp contrast to the struggling natural world of reality. The realistic prospect for future transportation is sweltering congestion in which Texans struggle to make their car payments, get their gas, and keep their road rage in check.
One may wonder whether the SLRTP is more a marketing brochure than a realistic projection. TxDOT mentions walking, cycling, public transportation, and passenger rail in an effort to present an illusion of balance and choice in transportation. There is even a reference to higher density urban development. However, it is clear there is no actual credibility given to these alternatives. For example, out of a projected $547 Billion ($21 B/yr) in total spending, only $2.19 Billion ($0.08 B/yr) is devoted to pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, far less than the $1 Billion annually to repair road damage by the fracking industry. The fact is all available resources will be consumed by highway expansions and maintenance. TxDOT itself states that the “good” condition of highways and bridges can only be maintained by devoting all highway spending to maintenance unless its budget is increased dramatically.
Because it remains a glorified highway department, TxDOT has become a dinosaur. It takes little imagination to realize the existing bottlenecks and traffic jams will become worse, not better. There is only so much room for roads and highways, but the growth projections envision many millions of additional cars and trucks. TxDOT faces a task that is physically and economically impossible. Yet sympathy is the wrong response. The highway transportation system of TxDOT is as large and costly as we will ever be able to afford, but TxDOT will not admit this or change on its own. We have no need for a state agency devoted to making car ownership a necessity.
The only practical way forward for Texas is public transportation – buses and rail. This is the only way to move the required number of people in the available space with the available resources. Instead of token gestures to public transportation and pedestrian and cycling modes, TxDOT should be devoting billions annually to these “alternatives” which have become a necessity. Instead of relegating these modes to last-resort status, they should be moved front and center as the centerpiece of future transportation in Texas.