1 Mar 2010, 12:30pm
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Governors’ transpo planks

Well over a month ago now, I critiqued Kay Bailey Hutchison’s transportation policy plank of her gubernatorial platform.¬† I had intended to review the other candidate’s proposals soon thereafter, but alas, got sidetracked.¬† With the primary elections tomorrow, I thought it might be time to finally get to it.¬† ūüôā

The candidates’ (major candidates only)¬†policy statements¬†are evaluated in order of their current polling numbers, Republicans first.

Republicans

Rick Perry
Perry is pretty much running on his record, and his transpo policy proposal is essentially “more of the same”, sans the Trans-Texas Corridor, which he has said many times is “dead”.¬† Yes, the language for it still exists in the Transportation Code, but that’s not something he can control– only the Legislature can change the law.¬† In any case, as I pointed-out with my review of KBH’s policy, there is still language in the Transportation Code that authorizes the state to install roadside emergency call boxes.¬† But after a pilot project back in the ’90s, that concept was dropped, so there’s no reason to believe the Trans-Texas Corridor is any different.

My main beef with Perry is his steadfast opposition to raising the gas tax.¬† I know that’s a conservative cornerstone, but in terms of real value, raising the gas tax in proportion to the amount of value it has lost due to inflation and improved fuel economy isn’t “raising taxes” in the traditional sense.¬† Furthermore, it’s the responsible thing to do to maintain and improve our roads, something that is a cornerstone of state government.¬† Kicking the can down the road (pun intended) is not a solution.

Debra Medina
If her answer to the 9/11 question on the Glenn Beck show a few weeks ago didn’t make her appear either out on the fringe or, at the very least, not able to concisely take a single, identifiable stand on an issue, then reading her transportation issues page will.  Her plan is long and byzantine, so pardon the length of my review of it.

She starts her policy sheet by discussing the plight of a small business owner who complained to her that they lost a contract to TxDOT to install security cameras for the North Texas Toll Authority (NTTA).¬† The contract was instead awarded to a large company with some foreign offices and many subsidiaries, and one of the subcontractors¬†listed on the project is a well-known, mega-company with “many national and international Dept. of Defense contracts” and from whose staff Perry had appointed members of the Texas Aerospace board.¬† She goes on to label this– indirectly, anyway– as a “clandestine global corporate pork project”.

Predictably, this¬†“everybody in government is crooked, so there’s gotta be a scam here somewhere” mindset just undermines Medina’s own credibility.¬† First of all, she makes the huge leap that just because Perry appointed some¬†employees of one of the subcontractors to one his most obscure boards, that that somehow influenced to¬†whom TxDOT awarded the contract to install a few security cameras for NTTA.¬† Now I don‚Äôt know for a fact that any of this is not true, but the number of moving parts between one end of that logic train and the other is enough that it’s simply implausible that her cronyism accusation would beget her assumed outcome without some kind of actual evidence of such.¬† But, like 9/11 truthers, if you’re looking for a conspiracy, you can connect all sorts of dots, even if the likelihood of¬†the supposition¬†actually being true is less than me winning the lottery and getting hit by lightning on the same day.

The far more likely truth in this story is very simple: the security camera¬†contact, like most others in government, was a low-bid contract.¬† The company that won it has the resources to outbid a small company because of the simple matter of their sheer size; it’s the economic law of scale.¬† I know it’s hard for folks who truly hate Perry and/or TxDOT to imagine, but not everything that happens with either is devious.

Once you can get past that, her actual transportation plan is all over the map.¬† The core¬†is essentially the “no build” option considered by planners when they look at a proposed project.¬† The gist of her plan is that congestion is self-limiting– in other words, once a road gets so badly congested, people will find other routes or just not drive.¬† To wit, she rails against the “biased”¬†opinions of TxDOT and Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) engineers and the computer modeling used by traffic planners that she claims doesn’t take into account the self-limiting nature of congestion.¬† Although she attacks foreign companies, she says we should look into foreign research on traffic issues (specifically Canada’s), which questions TTI’s annual congestion report.

Beyond that, she throws-in the populist complaint that TxDOT has no transparency in funding and no accountability for project completion, and she¬†would solve that with the requisite audit and unspecified “reform” of TxDOT.¬† I welcome an audit of TxDOT‚ÄĒbesides finally eradicating this constant battle cry, I don‚Äôt think it would find anything significant, and we could finally put all these accusations of fraud and waste to rest.¬† There’s also the usual “no toll roads” and “get rid of the Trans-Texas Corridor once-and-for-all” pledges, including specifically banning any project known as the North American Super Corridor.¬† She thinks that TxDOT has gotten “too big for its britches” because it has “gone far beyond road building and ventured into every area of transportation in which the federal government has grant money to offer”.¬† (Let’s see, last time I checked, they are the Texas Department of Transportation, not the Texas Department of Highways, but I digress.)¬† She¬†labels the Texas Enterprise Fund “Perry‚Äôs slush fund” and says it should be redirected to transportation.¬† I¬†guess she meant to say “highways”; in any case, I think the Enterprise Fund, besides making such a little dent in the transpo funding shortfall, actually serves a valid purpose.¬† And, enigmatically,¬†she makes mention a couple¬†of times¬†that the public should know how much road building is done by the private sector, including requiring MPOs to specifically track that, but I have no idea where she was going with that, and she proffers no explanation.

She wraps-up by citing Terri Hall, of all people, who reports that the Texas Transportation Commission “has agreed to pledge the State’s credit… for two (NTTA) toll projects in north Texas”.¬† Finally, something I actually agree with– I am opposed to the state essentially co-signing on NTTA’s loans, although I do appreciate the strings they did include to help protect the state.¬† She also laments that the state is using credit to build roads, a point I also agree with.¬† But her solution to that, besides the do-nothing-and-just-let-congestion-limit-itself approach,¬†appears to be¬†to thumb our noses at the federal government by keeping all gas taxes collected¬†in Texas and rejecting “interference in transportation by federal agencies such as the EPA and insure that Texas agencies enforce only state law.”¬† Wow, I’m not even sure where to start on that one, so I’ll just let it speak for itself.

There was one sensible, albeit minor, solution that she proposes that I strongly agree with: “Place a stronger emphasis on incident management, including minimizing irregularities in traffic flow that are the major irritants to road users”.¬† I think that transportation and police agencies statewide can do a much better job of incident management.¬† And, I also agree with prohibiting TxDOT from lobbying the Leg or Congress‚ÄĒno state agency should be in the business of lobbying.

Democrats

Bill White
Mr. White lacks a comprehensive plan on transpo, at least one that I could find.¬† His issues page on the topic is a mere two bullet points: end the Trans-Texas Corridor (my position on which I’ve already discussed), and decentralize TxDOT and allow local governments to set regional priorities.¬† This approach neglects the fact that the Federal Highway Administration warned the legislature during its last session that reorganizing TxDOT in such a way would jeopardize federal funding, which requires a strong centralized and statewide transportation department to accept, allocate, and spend such funds.¬† Having numerous transportation fiefdoms across the state is more scary¬†to the feds because it diminishes control and oversight and increases administrative costs.

Farouk Shami
Mr. Shami is the only candidate to suggest raising the gas tax.¬† In his plan, he would raise the gas tax eight cents, then index it to the Highway Cost Index (HCI)¬†going forward, limiting annual increases to 4% and allowing any requisite increase in excess of that to be postponed to the following year.¬† In years of a negative HCI, the tax would not go down, but the “excess” revenue generated would be using to pay-off bond debt.¬† As I have mentioned many times, I fully support increasing the gas tax, so I give him a big thumbs-up on this.

Mr. Shami would also allow the Transportation Commission to issue bonds backed by future gas tax revenues, a point I disagree with.¬† The state has already issued enough debt for roads; it’s time to get back to a pay-as-you-go system.

He also supports no taxes on alternative fuel vehicles to encourage their adoption in order to improve air quality.¬† I also disagree with this– those vehicles still use our roads and therefore should pay¬†something; maybe not as much as gasoline or diesel vehicles, but they shouldn’t get a free ride.

Other points of his plan are to increase the Texas Transportation Commission to 14 members who would be elected, with their districts coinciding with the state Board of Education districts.¬† I’m OK with this idea, as I was when KBH proposed it.¬† He also says he would require all bidders of TxDOT contracts to disclosed their political contributions (that’s OK with me; the more transparency, the better), ban TxDOT from lobbying (again, I‚Äôm on-board with that), adjust senior management of TxDOT by having the elected Transportation Commission appoint a CFO and IG (essentially the same idea as KBH’s “transportation CEO”, which I like), and improve TxDOT’s interaction with the public and local governments (which as far as I’m concerned is the typical political lip-service.)

He also has the requisite “kill-the-Trans-Texas-Corridor” and “no-toll-roads” pledges, a proposal to change TxDOT’s focus to concentrate on repair and replacement of existing roads (thumbs-down from me on that; maintenance, repairs,¬†and capacity¬†improvements¬†all require equal attention IMO).¬† He accuses TxDOT of “artificially and fraudulently” lowering the estimates of road life “to overstate maintenance costs” (not sure what his basis on that is, so I can’t give an opinion.)¬† He wants to focus on “real¬†mass transit solutions”, but doesn’t elaborate any more (I’m fine with the concept, but want to see more details on what he believes to be “real solutions”.)¬† Lastly, he wants to end eminent domain “abuse” with a six-point plan and to focus on expanding roads within existing rights-of-way, both of which I agree with where reasonable.

 

So, if you’re a single-issue voter and transportation is that issue, my impression is that Mr. Shami is probably the best of the bunch just based on his published policy ideas.  However, few voters are single-issue voters (myself included), and given a recent poll that showed that Texas voters would cut highway funding first to balance the budget, transportation frankly isn’t as big an issue as it probably should be.

 

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