The future of transportation in Texas: dystopia? We need to work a 12-step on this, Mr. Wilson

Panel Discussion: Deirdre DelisiMichael MorrisLarry PhillipsNicolas RubioPhil Wilson, with Aman Batheja (mod.)

Texas Tribune Festival has once again brought TxDOT Director Phil Wilson, along with other heavy hitters in Texas transportation to the UT Austin campus to discuss the future of Texas roads. What does our future hold? I am as curious as the next traveler to hear how exactly the state plans to manage the complex problems of funding, logistics, and implementation.

TxDOT does not appear to be doing business as usual, at least not as far as transportation research is concerned. Universities all over the state are wondering where the funding went, as TxDOT has not released research funds at this time for fiscal year 2014. Other types of funding continues, such as inter-agency contracts and funding to professional consultants.

(UPDATE: Phil WIlson said, after the event, that there will be some major surprises related to the research funding for FY 2014.  Perhaps soon the uncertainty for the UT System and A&M System research groups will be resolved. I hope so. Research centers are fragile and highly dependent upon annual funding programs such as UTC, SWUTC, TxDOT, city funding, and other federal funding. If graduate students go elsewhere for their masters and Ph.D. engineering studies, Texas will lose a lot of smart young people who spend their time at universities performing research and coming up with solutions to transportation problems.)

I personally do not understand the continued determination, in the face of a broad lack of public and legislative support, for foreign-funded toll road projects. Texas can’t seem to figure out any other way to fund roads anymore. Are TxDOT officials trendsetters–  or is this the beginning of a transport dystopia, where only the wealthy will ride the highways, while the rest of us will have to make do with gravel roads, impoverished public transit systems, and whatever roads are left that are not “privatized.” One justification is that tolled lanes will cover the cost of the maintenance of the other highway lanes. But toll roads are encroaching on the entire system. There are entire roads I can’t drive down anymore unless I want to pay to use it.

Phil Wilson compared TxDOT to a factory doing factory production.That is not a remark that would be made by an engineer. But TxDOT no longer puts engineers at the top of the management system. The beleaguered TxDOT “factory” is now in the hands of management generalists. Mr. Wilson, as he is not an engineer, has brought a different culture to the organization. Some like it, some don’t. I admit to being prejudiced in favor of engineers and other scientific types, but some would say that TxDOT was myopic and needed a more business-centric vision. Maybe I just like men with pocket-protectors, calculators, and coke-bottle glasses.

They all look more tired than they did last year at this same event. And maybe a little beat up.

Micheal Morris wondered aloud about why Phil Wilson took this unpleasant job of running TxDOT. I’m pretty sure that TxDOT hired him at a salary that dwarfed what was paid for the last TxDOT director – who by the way happened to be an engineer with a PE license. But no amount of money can compensate for the pain of being the top target to complain to – and about – for transportation. With the economy where it is, and with funding for transportation as messed up as it is, the job of running TxDOT basically sucks. It must be even more challenging now that there are fewer engineers in the trenches to oversee the complex and demanding transportation needs of one of the largest states in the nation.

“People should be outraged,” says Micheal Morris, who is a really nice guy and who I happen to like at lot. He is old school and has a nice face. He says that we are not taking steps to support the areas of Texas that are bringing in the top three revenue producing endeavors in the State. He says that he hopes someday that Washington will do a better job of funding transportation. But with the current situation as it is, he is a realist: local regions will build infrastructure however they can. Morris refers to a layered approach to funding which translates to making many deals with whatever devils will help to pay for construction.

Morris points that the gas tax revenue stream is dwindling to a trickle due to decades of inflation and there is intractable resistance to raising that gas tax. The increasing efficiency of vehicles diminishes the revenue still further and we now see the advent of electric vehicles beating down the same roads. How long will the Texas Lege and the feds be too a’feared of the voting public to raise the gas tax?

It’s like beating a dead horse to bring this up again. And again. The U.S. used to pay its way on roads up front by taxing gasoline. It was a perfectly good funding mechanism, but now we need a new one. What will it be?

Morris makes a lot of sense. He uses terms like engineering design standards. And I like that. I like that better than the management terms earnestly used by Mr. Wilson — or his 12-step reference to “the insanity of doing the same things over and over while expecting different results.” Is he unconsciously making a reference to our American addiction to driving cars solo down roads to nowhere?

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