Will Texas Voters Enshrine Failed Transpo Policy in the State’s Constitution?

When Texas voters go to the polls this November they will decide an issue of enormous consequence to the future of the state.

Adding more lanes isn’t going to fix Texas’s transportation problems. Photo: TxDOT via Houston Matters

A proposed amendment to the state constitution — on the ballot as Proposition 7 — would shift about $2.5 billion in sales tax revenues to highway spending each year. All the money must be spent on highways that will be further subsidized by the absence of tolls, since the amendment expressly forbids spending on transit or even tolled lanes. There is no substantial political opposition to Prop 7, which has been sold to voters as a solution to congestion.

Last year, Texas voters decided to raid the state’s rainy day fund to pay for roads. If that vote is any indication, Prop 7 will be approved by a wide margin. The irony is that shoveling more subsidies toward free roads will probably just make traffic in Texas worse.

The state of Texas already spends about $12 billion a year on transportation, with roughly 95 percent of that flowing to highways. Prop 7 is being sold as a painless way to increase transportation budgets, but Jay Crossley of advocacy group Houston Tomorrow says it’s not the free lunch that backers make it out to be.

“This isn’t new money,” said Crossley. “It simply requires that a certain amount of taxes go to this. So it likely will mean tax increases in the future or massive cuts to other things like schools.”

Texas seems incapable of learning from its highway-building history. The state recently poured $2.8 billion into widening the Katy Freeway to 23 lanes, but rather than speeding up commutes, the bigger highway spurred an onslaught of low-density development on the edges of the Houston region. After spending all that money on the freeway, outbound travel times increased 51 percent during the p.m. rush, according to data from the Greater Houston Transportation and Emergency Management System.

“It definitely will mean additional vehicle miles traveled, increased sprawl and induced demand, and massive ecological costs of the actual construction itself,” said Crossley. “It almost certainly will mean that Dallas and Houston will remain ozone non-attainment zones in perpetuity and that San Antonio will join them.”

The measure will also adversely effect low-income Texans, because sales taxes are a regressive revenue source. That effect will be compounded by the fact that poor residents are less likely to drive and will not benefit from the highway spending — indeed they will likely be hindered as destinations spread farther apart.

By locking in spending levels for one specific type of transportation infrastructure, Crossley adds, Prop 7 will limit the state’s flexibility to respond to changing conditions and preferences. The road spending will be required by the constitution for at least a decade — even if Texans later decide they want to shift spending to toward transit, biking, and walking.

“I think what is really happening here is that we are trying to remove the ability of the people of Texas to choose to fund transit or abandon the massive car subsidy concept,” said Crossley. “The people of Texas will not have the right to vote for representatives in the state House, Senate, and governor to develop a multimodal balanced transportation system.”

While Prop 7 is backed by a coalition of construction and industry groups, political opposition has been scarce. The one exception is Dallas City Council Member Philip Kingston — stay tuned for Streetsblog’s interview with him.

  • CeeTee55

    I can see this being enormously popular in much of Texas (not including a few outlier enclaves in Austin, and the centermost parts of Houston and Dallas). There’s an entrenched mentality that anything other than driving is a waste of taxpayer money at best and some type of Bolshevik plot at worst (along with Agenda 21). Add to that that an anti-transit, pro-highway policy dovetails perfectly with both the state and national Republicans’ unofficial party platform, and also that Republicans have a near total lock on statewide politics in Texas and one could see why this would be very easy to pass.

    Texans in 30-40 years may be wondering why their state is dead last among big states for public transportation, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure, and the reason will be the Texans of today. That’s OK, though. The Northeast, Northwest, Rust Belt, West Coast, Upper South, and Florida will be more than happy to continue investing in things besides auto infrastructure while Texas locks itself into an eternal 1962.

  • DaveHolden

    The propaganda breaks down when you have to twist things this much. “highways that will be further subsidized by the absence of tolls,” Uh, what?

    “…since
    the amendment expressly forbids spending on transit or even tolled
    lanes.”

    You mean the way it worked for over a century and the way we like it? GOOD! Put up an amendment to take BACK the “toll” roads and I will vote for that, too! The reasons they want toll roads is CONTROL and TRACKING of people and they become terrified when people expose their agenda.

  • Pat

    1 up for the paranoia!

    They now have your IP address.

  • imsoupercereal

    I always have my tin foil hat ready when passing through tool booths. JUST SAY NO TO THE MIND POLICE SHEEPLE!

  • Patrick Kennedy

    Being last in pedestrian and cycling infra will be the least of our worries in Texas in 30-40 years, though a very much related issue.

  • Everybody’s bigger in Texas!

  • PFT Future

    A century ago they didn’t have cars in mass production and they really didn’t have too many paved roads outside of the tolled ones. Things used to be paid more by user fee verse taxes exception being local roads. Although many local roads were sponsored by the neighborhoods that wanted them paved. The highway movement and the freeway movement was more of a last 60 years things.

  • Mike B

    If you’re that paranoid, better not carry around a cell phone or use a computer or any piece of technology with a wireless transmitter, camera, and/or microphone. Or, for that matter, walk around outside with CCTV cameras that can easily recognize faces. Or drive on roads with cameras that already have license plate-reading technology built in.

  • Mike B

    TO THE TIN FOIL!

  • Mike B

    A century ago, roads were dominated by trams and people walking and biking while the motor vehicle was considered a life-threatening nuisance. Then big government seized the roads from the people and gave them to the cars.

  • As for air pollution the rapid shift to electric cars even in Texas will moot that issue. As for Transit the introduction of self-driving multi articulated buses can work well on the express way lanes.

    Eventually though the continued brain drain of intelligent people who want to live in places where they don’t need cars and have urban densities will begin to erode the quality of life in the Texas sprawl.

  • chekpeds

    Texas! I was invited to a Dallas Cowboys football game . the Highway had ample capacity still the queue to get in was miles long and it took us 3 hours to get there .. Why?
    In the middle of nowhere, with eight-lanes highways feeding it, the stadium has only one entrance to the parking lot. Don’ t talk to me about Texas..

  • WaltSDCA

    Talk about big government entitlements! Free roads funded by using a single payer tax system. Sounds down right socialist to me!

  • JudenChino

    No transit?

  • creepyTexan

    I know it is off topic but are you for giving up your social security?

  • jeffhre

    “Add to that that an anti-transit, pro-highway policy dovetails perfectly with both the state and national Republicans’ unofficial party platform”

    Except they won’t pay to maintain the roads, which is why Prop 7 will get a majority of votes.

  • CeeTee55

    I guess they think everyone should be investing in a lift kit and off-road tires in preparation for the day when roads have reverted to gravel.

  • neroden

    Yeah, dying of heatstroke will be your top worry in Texas in 30-40 years.

  • Ian Mitchell

    Most of the state has triple degree days in hot years. Doubling the number of those won’t do much.

    Houston isn’t all that coastal or low-lying. You can’t build new highways closer to the ocean, so they’ll hardly remember there was anything back east.

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