Desperate to Keep Highway Money Flowing, Texas Foists Costs Onto Cities

Faced with an impending budget crisis, the Texas Department of Transportation has decided not to rethink its $5.2 billion plan for a third outerbelt through undeveloped grasslands around Houston. Instead, the agency has developed a proposal to basically shift a big part of its costs to the state’s major cities.

Dallas. Image: ##http://www.nctcog.org/trans/cmp/aerial/2007/Launch_slideshow.html##North Central Texas Council of Governments##

The Houston Business Journal reports that the state government plans to shift responsibility for more than 100 miles of roads to cities with populations larger than 50,000, and urban communities are in an uproar. The additional maintenance will foist $165 million in new annual expenses onto Texas’s major cities.

Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, told the Texas Tribune that “shifting $165 million of state costs onto cities would be a massive unfunded mandate that would require higher property taxes on homeowners and businesses.”

The shift amounts to a backdoor tax to fund the big highways suburban developers want. Rather than asking drivers on those suburban highways to pick up the cost, through a gas tax or tolls, Texas will make city residents pick up the tab.

Jay Crossley of local smart growth advocacy group Houston Tomorrow said many state-controlled roads are already in terrible condition thanks to TxDOT’s habit of prioritizing new road construction over maintenance.

“TxDOT is saying, ‘We need our crack,'” said Crossley. “They’re basically handing over some broken local roads and saying ‘Now it’s your problem.'”

  • Daniel Winks

    One would think that ol’ red Texas wouldn’t want to have anything to do with this blatant WELFARE for suburban motorists!

  • Kevin Love

    Meanwhile, in the rest of the world…

    I do not know of anywhere else in the world where cities put so little money into urban expressways and the federal government so much.

    For a nearby example, look at Canada. With some minor exceptions (army bases, strategic military roads and Indian reserves) the central government puts zero dollars into roads. The City Council of Toronto just voted to spend $505 million of 100% local property tax dollars on rebuilding one of its very few urban expressways, The Gardiner Expressway. The City of Vancouver has zero urban expressways.

    Needless to say, when city governments have to spend their own money from their own voter’s pockets they are far more responsible than when “free” money falls from the sky from the central government.

  • Daniel Winks

    Also, it seems when the cities are spending their own money, they put in roads that actually benefit THEM, and consequently you have places like Vancouver, which doesn’t have any urban freeways.

  • Jared R

    I think it’s great. Now, urbanized cities can choose to fully de-fund (and remove) urban roadways built by the state. Great idea.

  • Pat

    the cities should announce that they will use their money to tear down the freeways they can’t afford.

  • Anonymous

    Canada is more complex than that, provincial governments are the ones spending for highways and such, but they are much better funded than State governments in the US and able to take on debt. All provinces have income taxes, some at levels rivaling the federal income tax. Provinces have on average public debt around 30-35% of their GDP (Québec has a debt of 50% of GDP but that’s largely because of more autonomy and tax revenues). That’s in addition to the federal debt.

    In terms of taxing and spending policies, provincial governments in Canada are more like the Federal US government than State governments.

  • Kevin Love

    That is due to their own choice. State governments have the power to impose income taxes, and many do.

    Obviously, cities and states are not going to tax their people to pay for stuff if a magic money machine in Washington DC is going to rain down “free” money to pay for it.

    What I am saying is that I believe that the US federal government should get out of the business of paying for highways, with the exceptions noted above. When states and cities have to pay out of their own pockets, then places like Huston will not be building unnecessary highways.

  • Anonymous

    I understand and largely agree, if locals have to pay for roads through tolls and property taxes, they will be much more reluctant to ask for more of them (because of higher tolls and taxes).

    But showing Canada as a counter-example is wrong, in Canada, the “free money” comes from provincial transport ministries. The big difference is that this money is administered directly by the ministries and not under “grants” that favor a few types of developments over all others. In Montréal, the Québec government just greenlighted a project to extend a suburban highway (highway 19), and the municipal governments had no say on that, though suburban cities in the area had been asking for it for a while as an economic measure. An highway interchange in the city of Montréal will also soon be rebuilt, and the city had no say at all on how it would be made anew.

    And since provincial governments have public debt like the federal government, they can make new highways even when they have very large deficits.

  • Anonymous

    Meanwhile, roads in the sticks won’t be repaved at all in TX

    http://roadwarrior.blogs.pressdemocrat.com/17375/news-you-can-use/

  • Anonymous

    Angie, are the municipalities now in charge of local arterials at liberty to modify the roads, such as converting a vehicle lane to a dedicated bike or bus lane, or narrowing lane widths without the approval of TXDOT? If so, then this may be a blessing in disguise.

  • Anonymous

    Smart Texans (oxymoron) will vote with their feet, and move to a state where they aren’t forced to pay for roads they neither want nor need.

  • Anonymous

    The federal government doesn’t pay for the majority of new freeways that are not part of the Interstate System. That is something left entirely up to states.

  • Anonymous

    No, they are transferring just the maintenance, not the jurisdiction.

  • Anonymous

    This article is slightly misleading. FREEWAYS (controlled-access roads) are NOT having their maintenance transferred to cities!

    What they are transferring are roads that have become part of the local built environment, namely (partially) (at-grade) access roads and arterial boulevards that have been surrounded by development.

    Freeways (controlled-access roads) are NOT part of this plan, they will not be affected at all.

  • Kevin Love

    Even the largest of provincial governments is somewhat smaller than the US federal government. And finds building highways quite a burden upon the treasury. I think it fair to say that there is no city the size of Vancouver in the USA that has zero expressways. I may be wrong, and would be interested to hear of a counter-example.

    Toronto is also a good example. A US style expressway network was proposed, but former Ontario premier William Davis killed it with his famous saying “The city is for people, not cars.”

    What he didn’t say is that he looked at the price tag and was unwilling to put through the tax increases to pay for it.

  • Kevin Love

    And what if they choose to not do the maintenance?

  • Kevin Love

    But so many of them are that it really makes little difference.

    For example, Boston’s notorious “Big Dig” with its eye-popping $22 billion cost would never have happened if Boston and Mass. had to pay for it themselves.

  • We never said they were. 100 miles of roads. We are saying they’re foisting road maintenance costs onto cities so they will have more money to pay for big freeways.

  • Anonymous

    US cities have more urban highways, yes, but I think the situation is more complex than you presume. It’s not that provincial governments couldn’t pay for them, they could have if they wanted and they did do some (Highways 20 and 40 in Montréal, though the 20 is mostly in a tunnel under downtown and the 40 is more in the northern part of the city).

    There are some factors I can think of that may explain the discrepancy:

    1- The Federal grants. It’s not that the Federal has much more spending ability as you seem to say, it’s how Federal grants work. If I understand correctly, the Federal puts some money for certain projects, and then States apply for that money by building that type of projects. When the Federal government offered a lot of money for highways, DOTs built highways to get their share of the pie. Not building highways would have given States no money at all. It’s a perverse incentive for States to build highways regardless of actual need.

    2- The culture of some public leaders like Robert Moses, more common in the US, and pushing forth modernist ideas about destroying “dirty overcrowded” cities by building parkways and freeways through them, theoretically to “let air in”. Canada had much fewer of these types, who likely all came from the same (American) universities, while Canadian academics and public servants were more likely to have European influences.

    3- The race issue, PIBBY. Building urban highways means destroying neighborhoods to make the highway go there. Want to guess which neighborhoods were selected in the US as prime candidates for eminent domain? Exactly, black neighborhoods. So when the local community opposed the construction of highways, politicians kept support because the highway was for the whites, and the opponents were mainly black. Most people who lived in urban neighborhoods in Canada at the time were whites, blacks were very few (according to the census, there were only 32 000 blacks in Canada in 1961), which made local opposition to expropriation much more politically toxic than in the US. Even today, less than 3% of Canadians are black.

  • john

    By failing to maintain state hwy 40, StL County and the State of MO got Uncle Sam to pay 80% of the costs to transform 40 into Interstate 64 (the New 64) that runs parallel to Interstate 44 through the urban core.

    Federal standards required that the height of bridges be raised to allow large semis to use the route. It also required access routes to be expanded. Even with sound walls, we now have to listen to jake brakes-down shifting semis all night long. The extra truck traffic has now made the highway more crowded than before. This is a story of how a county-state was able to shift costs to the federal government.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    For what it’s worth, I definitely misread this article until I got to this comment. Perhaps I should have been reading more carefully, but I did have the confusion at first.

  • Except apparently, as an above commenter notes, jurisdiction over the roads isn’t transferred to the local governments, just the maintenance liability.

  • Anonymous

    If the Commonwealth did that with any of the state roads through my town, there would be orange cones narrowing them from 4 to 2 lanes the next day.

  • TexasUrbanist

    Changing the article’s title may not be a bad idea.

  • The word “highway” might have misled some, but nothing in the title or article says the state is foisting highway or freeway costs onto cities.

    But if the state is suddenly shifting the burden of costs onto cities to the tune of 165 million dollars, that is definitely a change in responsibility. Streetsblog might want to find out how all those TX legislators react to this.

  • Anonymous

    This, at least, seems like a pretty reasonable and prudent course of action.

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