Panel highlights transportation infrastructure issues
As more and more people move to North Texas in the next few decades, already overtaxed roadways will become even more crowded.
This was one item of discussion at the 2013 Regional Leadership Day, held Thursday at SMU in Plano. The event brought together members of leadership programs in Plano, Frisco, Allen, McKinney, Rowlett and Denton to hear from a panel of experts on issues facing North Texas.
"The goal is to provide participants information on regional issues that cannot be solved without cross-border correlation and collaborative efforts," said André Davidson, program director for Leadership Plano. "We narrowed the subject matter to just a couple of issues so we could really look deeply into them."
One of the speakers was Timothy McKay, executive vice president for growth and regional development for DART. McKay stressed the importance of regional mass transit, including the Cotton Belt Railway, which is currently under development.
The Cotton Belt, if completed, would run from Wylie to Fort Worth. Unlike light rail, Cotton Belt locomotives will run on diesel and the trains will use separate tracks from the ones used by DART trains. The stations will also be further apart than the stations used by light rail.
McKay said while not everyone will use mass transit and not all cities will be served by DART or the Cotton Belt, the rail system is an important aspect of the regional transportation plan.
"We are not doing this because we love to build rail," he said. "We are doing this because of quality of life. If we don't do this, we are going to choke. We are not going to thrive. We need all of these toolsets to work together to serve this community."
Ron Natinsky, a former Dallas City Councilman, spoke about the issues of funding new transportation projects. He said new roads can cost millions of dollars per mile, and the funding to build and maintain them simply is not there.
"For every dollar that we send to Washington in federal gas taxes, we only get 92 cents back," he said. "The more we collect, the less we will get back."
Natinsky said a similar situation occurs with gas taxes collected by the state, where 25 percent of the money goes to fund education. Additional funds are directed to non-transportation projects, including funding travel information centers and state litigation.
"The big problem we have is the maintenance of roads," he said. "We need $10 billion on an annual basis in the state of Texas to just keep the roads that we have in the condition that they are. ... The problem is we only have $2.5 billion per year."
Raising taxes is unpopular politically, Natinsky said, so there are not a lot of options to increase funding for transportation. He said politicians must look at the gas tax, which is the main funding source for road projects. The gas tax has become less effective as vehicles have gotten more fuel-efficient, Natinsky said, since they are filled up less often, resulting in less money collected in gas taxes.
There is no easy fix to the funding problem, the panelists said, making the future of roadways in the state uncertain. One thing they all agreed on was that partnerships, such as the $2.7 billion agreement between the Texas Department of Transportation and private investors to rebuild I-635 and put in toll lanes, are going to become more popular since public funding to build new roads is simply not there.
"All of this is being built with the concept that no existing free roads are being converted to toll roads," Natinsky said. "The public is not losing any free capacity, they are just getting new capacity to replace crumbling infrastructure.... It may not be the best solution, but it is the only one that anyone has come up with to allow us to build the road infrastructure we need."