Monday, January 25, 2010

Highway "enhancements." Who needs 'em?

Texas Travel Information Center at Denison Denison Travel Information Center

Texans are fit to be tied over highway construction in Texas -- or rather, lack of construction. As usual, no one wants to pay for it. Texans don't want taxes to go up. Texans don't want to pay tolls. Texans are looking for the proverbial free lunch. And the Fort Worth Star-Telegram holds out hope that they just might have found it.

After the jump, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Or not.

What the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has its eyes on are what are called "enhancement" projects dating back to a 1991 Congressional overhaul of transportation funding.

"To promote a more holistic approach to transportation planning, Congress directed the states to spend 10 percent of their federal surface transportation funds on what are called transportation enhancements. The idea was to promote a mix of uses, including hike-and-bike trails, landscaping, historic preservation, and access to rail and mass transit. States were left to pick the projects themselves, build them according to federal guidelines and seek reimbursement from a federal fund that has made $9.5 billion available nationwide since 1991."
Since 1991, $997 million worth of enhancement projects have been authorized for Texas, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
"The $997 million would be enough to build eight miles of Southwest Parkway from Interstate 30 to Dirks Road - and make it a freeway instead of a toll road as planned."
As if Dallas and Houston and San Antonio and El Paso and Amarillo and every other city and town in Texas are going to let Fort Worth take the whole $997 million, 18 years' worth of funding, to build just eight miles of freeway. And of that $997 million authorized by Congress, only about half has actually been spent so far. The rest is just a thin promise of funding from Washington. So maybe Fort Worth ends up with just five or six miles of highway. The story says that Texas faces a shortfall of $332 billion (that's billion with a "b") through 2030. We're talking less than $1 billion in "enhancement" projects, a drop in the bucket compared to the need. Give that up and you give up landscaping, you give up hike-and-bike trails, you give up even simple amenities like sidewalks. But that's not the amenity that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has in its sights. It's highway rest areas.
"The Salado rest area, which was paid for mostly with a federal transportation enhancement grant, features two children's play areas, state-of-the-art vending machines, a storm shelter and sparkling, spacious restrooms that are cleaned around the clock. The parking lot can hold dozens of cars and more than 40 tractor-trailers -- and regulars say that in the evenings it's not uncommon to find just about every parking spot occupied."
It seems to me that if every parking spot is occupied, then either this rest area isn't big enough or there aren't enough of them. Apparently, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram comes to the opposite conclusion, that we're spending too much on rest areas. Maybe if we go back to those old, decaying rest areas with the bathroom stalls without doors, separated by three-foot tall concrete block walls, with broken toilets and no paper, with sinks that provide only a dribble of water and hand dryers that blow cold air, then demand will go down and the state can save some money. But don't bet on the state using the money saved to build more highways. More likely, Austin will just use the savings to delay finding a better source of funding for a few more years. Drivers and their kids can just hold it until then.

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