If you want to peer into the future of Texas transportation one decade from now, you might do it best sitting behind the wheel of your vehicle, imagining how it will feel to burn a $7 gallon of gas while waiting for choked traffic between San Antonio and Austin to inch forward on a partially widened I-35.
More than 4,480 people were killed on Texas roads and highways in 2021, a 15% increase year-over-year and more than any other state, according to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). That makes a mockery of the state agency’s #EndTheStreakTX campaign, a public relations effort designed to encourage driver safety and responsibility. In Texas, traffic fatalities come primarily from speeding, and secondarily from drivers and passengers not wearing seatbelts, according to TxDOT.
The state’s 10-year plan carries a huge price tag, but it can be reduced to one simple sentence: Expand urban highways to accommodate more vehicles. Don’t expect it to make your commute to other Texas cities any easier.
Not a single cent in the 10-year, $85 billion Unified Transportation Plan (UTP) released last week will be spent on mass transit initiatives. It’s a plan worthy of post-World War II planning, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower was leading the push to build the country’s interstate highway system.
Judging the plan by 2022 standards, it’s a scary rejection of science and the world we are leaving for our children and their children. It ignores climate change, global warming, the impact of vehicle emissions from gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs and the need to move to electric vehicles and multimodal transit solutions.
Not to mention that more highways carrying more vehicles at legal speed limits as high as 80 mph, which really means some drivers traveling at rates up to 100 mph, will result in even more fatalities.
To be fair to TxDOT staff, their mandate comes from the state’s top elected leaders and the Texas Legislature, which collectively have shown little interest in addressing climate change, the worsening traffic fatality count or the previous century’s transportation policies which relegate multimodal transit planning at the state level to futile conversations among the Democratic minority in Austin.
The current Republican leadership can’t even stomach cities reducing vehicle traffic on urban boulevards to accommodate more pedestrians, bicycles and bus ridership, as was seen most recently in San Antonio when TxDOT reversed years of cooperation with city government to redesign Broadway as a safer, more inviting street.
The platform approved at the recent Republican state convention, a gathering best described as an event populated by characters right out of the Mos Eisley cantina scene in Star Wars, included official condemnation of “road diets,” an accepted best practice among urban planners for making city streets safer and promoting neighborhood level economic development along transformed streets and avenues.
What’s in the 10-year plan for San Antonio and Bexar County? Approximately $2.5 billion, or 3% of the total budget, depending on how you count projects. Regional expansion projects affecting Bexar County noted in the San Antonio Express-News include “widening Interstate 10 in Cibolo from the Bexar-Guadalupe county line to FM 465 for $153 million; widening I-10 in Seguin from FM 464 to Texas 123 for $193 million; and expansion of I-35 in Comal County from the Guadalupe County line to FM 1103 for $200 million.”
Locally, San Antonio will see these highways expansions: The addition of six lanes to I-35 between Loop 410 South and North for $940 million; Loop 1604 from Texas 16 to U.S. 281 for $291 million; Loop 410 interchange at U.S. 28 for $80 million; and an upgrade to U.S. 90 for $126 million.
Who decided to make these major expenditures? I do not recall a single media advisory inviting coverage of the plan design, and I can’t recall any process where locally elected officials and experts were asked to weigh in with options.
“Public involvement and public input are essential to delivering TxDOT’s mission and are key components of the development of all TxDOT plans, programs, and projects,” the UTP report states under the “Public Involvement” headline that it cites as key to the final plan.
Really? TxDOT invited public opinion across the state’s majority population in cities and did not come away with an understanding that it needs to evolve its highway building mission to support mass transit and multimodal urban corridors? Surprise.