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Highway Expansion

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 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.

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