Roger Baker :
TRANSPORTATION | Is widening I-35 Austin’s biggest
boondoggle ever?

It costs too much and does too little.

Will it come to this?

By Roger Baker | The Rag Blog | January 14, 2021

AUSTIN — I think I can make the case that widening I-35 through Central Austin is the biggest boondoggle ever, because I’ve had practice. I wrote about it four and five years ago in The Rag Blog and also more recently. With time, the reasons to rebuild it as a much wider road have only gotten weaker, and the money needed to widen it has become harder and harder to get.

The I-35 widening proposal through Central Austin is now called I-35 Capital Express Central. This project is shown on page 62 in TxDOTs 2021 annual Unified Transportation Program as costing $4.9 billion, but it still lacks the $3.6 billion in Category 12 funding, which is about 73% of the total money needed to widen the road in this 12-mile part of I-35. “To date, funding has not been identified for most of the Mobility35 projects.”

This short video explains that the full TxDOT plan to widen I-35, Mobility35 is actually 79 miles long. If there is a boondoggle to point to, it was probably the original 2011 decision to approve and to begin construction on such an ambitious project without having lined up most of the funds in advance. TxDOT has started and completed the easier parts while leaving the most expensive, ambitious, and disruptive part through Central Austin until the last. The missing Central Austin part is like a missing crown jewel in the center of a long necklace which has already been largely constructed, while the funding for the expensive part has been saved for last. I now regard the 2011 decision to approve the full 79 mile plan without secure funding as the real boondoggle.

TxDOT has started a federally mandated environmental part of the planning.

Now that TxDOT has finally gotten to the point of planning the widening of this hardest and most disruptive 12-mile section of the road, it has started a federally mandated environmental part of the planning called “scoping.”

Planning for the Central Austin segment was initiated when the TTC put it in the 10-year UTP approved by TxDOT last August 2020. In November and Deccember, the public was asked to respond to the “scoping” documents as the required first step of the federal planning process. I am skeptical of all of TxDOT’s planning including the road’s justification so I wrote this letter to document my concerns in detail, at this early stage of federally required planning.

To be honest, I don’t think this very costly section of wider road will ever be built. It costs too much and does too little. Plus the timing could hardly be worse. As we see from TxDOT’s latest financial report, their total 2020 revenue is down about 20%. Total driving on Texas urban arterials was down about 12% year over year in October 2020, which means a similar decrease in fuel tax revenue for TxDOT, as reflected in the financial report.

Austin area driving is down sharply during the pandemic, as may be seen by the reduction in travel on TxDOT’s Central Texas Tollroad System toll roads and also the CTRMA numbers. This same depressed 2020 economy has sharply reduced road travel everywhere across the USA. We are now in a new deflationary economy where the pandemic makes the rules and determines the speed of the U.S. economic recovery, including driving.

Seasonally-adjusted vehicle miles. Note the drop in April 2020.

Here is a nice chart of U.S. driving during the pandemic, where we see that driving has been hit very hard and is now slowing before recovering. These are uncharted waters so far as long-range travel demand planning goes. Meanwhile air travel and small business are still far short of recovery.

The road finance problem

Now the accumulated debt has caught up with TxDOT and they have to try to deal with that problem, perhaps hoping that because of TxDOT’s clout, they can go on with planning and building as usual in accord with political promises to finish what they start. TxDOT now has $24 billion in building contracts underway. They are spending about $7.5 billion a year, but they are highly leveraged on the expectation of business as usual.

The state and federal fuel tax revenue is the most reliable part of the TxDOT budget, which normally contributes about two-thirds of the total. However this fuel tax has not been increased for about 30 years on either the state or federal level! In order to fill this widening gap between income and spending, TxDOT obtained the right to issue its own road bond debt. This hid the funding problem and allowed TxDOT to build roads on credit until they finally ran up a staggering $32 billion in debt.

The interest due on all this road bond debt is now
hitting TxDOT hard.

The interest due on all this road bond debt is now hitting TxDOT hard. Because of this debt, TxDOT’s road bonding authority has been “exhausted.” Now TxDOT is being forced to depend on less reliable funding like Prop 1 money from fracking, and also Prop 7 from car-related fees and taxes. Of course there is always the long-neglected option of raising fuel taxes again, but no Texas politician wants to be seen doing that, because continually raising taxes is hard core un-Texan.

It is not hard to see that 2020 was a very bad year for TxDOT, which raises the issue of whether 2021 is likely to be much better. Gail Tverberg, a widely respected alternative economist whom I follow, explains 10 reasons why things like road planning are not likely to work out as well as usual in 2021.

How did this project ever get promised?

About 2011, the politicians and landowners and speculative development interests got together and came up with this plan to widen I-35 along the part extending from north of Georgetown to south of San Marcos. They are using the notoriously political and suburban sprawl-conducive CAMPO demographic projections which, in accord with TxDOT politics, tend to favor the interests of road contractors and land developers.

As this report shows, Texas Sen. Kirk Watson was the main cheerleader for this 79 mile project in 2014, but he is now no longer a state senator. Now the whole project is beginning to look like a long line of road projects that don’t connect in the middle as planned because the highly-developed urban right of way is so costly. This situation has made it easier to get to Austin, but not to drive through Austin on I-35, which has been near capacity for decades.

TxDOT has to fund this project with the help of scarce federal fuel tax money.

TxDOT now has to fund this project with the help of scarce federal fuel tax money. The FHWA has given TxDOT special permission to act as the “lead agency” for overseeing federal environmental law concerning the I-35 widening. Given the history, that is like letting the fox guard the chicken house in a state that does not even acknowledge man-made climate change.

Central Austin widening construction isn’t supposed to start until 2025 and then continue until 2030. This would be five years of driving hell, because building the new lanes would be happening at the same time that the road is trying to function normally as a freeway during rush hour! TxDOT already has about $1.2 billion in hand for planning the Central I-35 widening, largely by means of a $650 million clawback from CAMPO in 2020. But most of the Category 12 money is hypothetical, as is a lot of the other funding in the UTP. On close inspection, TxDOT’s yearly UTP turns out to be a wish list of roads built with money that TxDOT hopes will be there so they can build all the $74 billion worth of projects that it wants to build in the next 10 years. About a quarter of this total money is listed as Category 12, so I suspect that funding in this category is less certain.

Predictable problems with TxDOT’s mode of planning

TxDOT no doubt wants to get the public to imagine that doubling the number of I-35 lanes of road through the heart of Austin will offer important congestion relief. That is not true because traffic engineers know that widening a road in an already congested city like Austin is like buying a new belt to try to cure obesity. If you add new road capacity, the new capacity will get used up before long.

This is partly due to latent demand from people who are now avoiding the road during peak hour, but it is also due to the reduced commuting time stimulating new development within easy commuting distance of Austin, where it has gotten expensive to live. About 85% of the traffic on I-35 through Austin is local in nature because it heavily supports commuter traffic from Hays and Williamson counties (big counties in the Austin MSA, which is almost the same as the CAMPO planning area).

Adding 10 lanes of  road capacity will tend to stimulate a lot of new suburban sprawl.

In other words, adding about 10 new lanes of new road capacity to the 10 already there will tend to stimulate a lot of new suburban sprawl residential development outside Austin’s tax base. I think the facts indicate that widening I-35 through Austin is chiefly motivated by the desire to stimulate new real estate development rather than any promise of congestion relief.

TxDOT sponsors a kind of public private partnership where the big private landowners provide the land for suburban development and lobby for the big roads, while the public through TxDOT funds the new road capacity to make the land development profitable. (Most of the big money in Texas is made from land and its development, especially since the landed gentry threw out the Yankee carpetbaggers and wrote their own constitution.)

When traffic engineers draft a gargantuan road plan intended to solve mobility problems 20 or 30 years in the future, it is road politics and business as usual, and not credible planning. We know that because the climate scientists say we need to act within this decade to protect future generations.

Money was easy to borrow when the road got started and now they money may not be there and TxDOT gas tax and other revenue is way down this year across the USA. TxDOT is showing the central I-35 money to be there in the 2021 UTP for planning purposes, but most of the funding is not assured. Most is to be from Category 12 Strategic Mobility funds, which is only money they hope will be there. In other words the TxDOT blueprint and hope for the future is a $74 billion 10-year wish which assumes that we will always have the cheap energy to keep us driving and living in our sprawling suburbs.

How TxDOT road politics works

Texas transportation politics has long been a matter of personal interest to me, as a long time supporter of transit, seeking a progressive alternative from an institution like TxDOT that is relatively resistant to reform. I reviewed the situation here about the same time the 79-mile widening was planned. Here is a long and well-documented version of how Texas Road politics works that I wrote years ago, but not much has changed.

In Texas you buy your politicians with
campaign contributions.

The way politics works in Texas is that you buy your politicians with campaign contributions, which can be unlimited in amount. If you look at the campaign contributions to Texas governors, you will see a lot of big road contracting companies and also a lot of homebuilders. The governor then has the right to appoint all the heads of the state agencies including TxDOT, but he knows he better dance with who brung him if he wants to stay governor.

The interests that benefit from land development from roads like the homebuilders get together with other similar interests and use their campaign contributions to get the attention of a governor who will agree to appoint a team player, never a transportation expert, but usually a high profile business leader or property developer.

The Governor-TxDOT connection really became close in recent years, especially 2004-2007 when TxDOT chair Ric Williamson and Gov. Rick Perry got together and started issuing Texas road bond debt with the enthusiasm of drunken teens with a new credit card. That worked out fine until the interest due on all the road debt finally caught up with their TxDOT successors, who tried to keep the game going with the Texas Mobility Fund. It turns out that building roads on credit while never raising gas taxes is not a good permanent solution to funding shortfalls. That means that now TxDOT can’t easily borrow more road construction money. Who could have known?.

You don’t just turn off a major project where promises were made and deals were done.

Of course, by this means of selection, things won’t change very rapidly from business as usual. Roads are long-range projects. You don’t just turn off a major project where promises were made and deals were done involving many millions in banking and property investments. The San Antonio banker now chairing TxDOT, Bruce Bugg, reviews TxDOT’s current situation here noting a few looming budget deficit problems.

As we head into the 87th Texas Legislature, we will be navigating new circumstances and addressing challenges as our state faces budget deficits. We don’t know yet how these budgetary issues may affect our agency, but we do know we won’t sacrifice safety or production. TxDOT is committed to giving Texans our absolute best, now and into the future…

What next?

Molly Ivins used to call TxDOT “the Pentagon of Texas” because, like the Pentagon, it is a highly political agency with a lot of institutional clout and soon a new headquarters, but slow to reform.

The way it looks to me, TxDOT has evolved into a kind of welfare agency for road contractors and land developers who have learned to expect underpriced road access as a way to make money on the concentric rings of new development outside the major cities of Texas, in a highly urbanized state where most people live near the five urban areas like Austin.

I think times are changing. It looks like we’re now headed into a new era of hard times where TxDOT’s budget and its ability to secure dependable and growing appropriations of public money through its political clout may not work. It is competing for the same public dollars in many cases, with the hungry and homeless and those with urgent social needs. By means of its ever-optimistic travel demand justifications, TxDOT has become blind to obvious risk factors like interest rates, peak oil, and global warming as public investment concerns. There are too many red flags to ignore.


[Roger Baker is a long time transportation-oriented environmental activist, an amateur energy-oriented economist, an amateur scientist and science writer, and a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA. He is a director of the Save Our Springs Alliance in Austin. He is a political independent, and a persistent advocate of shifting to sustainable growth on a finite planet before we have no choice.]


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2 Responses to Roger Baker :
TRANSPORTATION | Is widening I-35 Austin’s biggest
boondoggle ever?

  1. Linda Curtis says:

    You always do a thorough job, Roger — our independent “road scholar”.

    You are also one of a few people who continue to try to connect the dots (pun intended) between road building and the “growth machine.”

    I would recommend this piece by Bill King of Houston, former Houston Chronicle and Texas Monthly writer (an independent moderate) who recently wrote about how much faster Texas population is growing.

    The Legislature is taking us down the WRONG road if they don’t figure out how to take us away from the cliff. We are running out of money and then there’s the water. The latter, so far, we’ve been unable to live without.

  2. Mona Mehdy says:

    Roger, thanks for a thorough article highlighting this massive proposed enlargement of I-35 through Austin. Wasn’t the toll road State Highway 130 supposed to redirect a lot of traffic to have the benefit of reducing Austin through traffic?

    Taxpayers already sank plenty of money into that outlying, sprawl generating road. In this era of dire climate change, we should be building alternatives to reduce vehicle use and make better land use decisions than building giant roads and enhancing sprawl and make better financial decisions than increasing unsustainable and irresponsible road debt.

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