Four years ago the Texas 2030 Committee, a group of leading Texas citizens, was appointed by the Director of the Texas Department of Transportation and charged with producing an estimate of the total transportation infrastructure need in the state out to the year 2030. Experts from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, with the assistance of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas, served as the Committee staff. After a year of intensive work, the Committee concluded there was a total of about $270 billion in transportation infrastructure needed (expressed in 2010 dollars) in order to maintain current levels of mobility. The Committee also estimated that, given current sources, Texas will have about $100 billion in revenue to build transportation infrastructure, leaving a $170 billion gap between the need and the available revenue. The next obvious question, of course, is how does the state close the gap? That question itself raises other questions. For example, is it necessary to close the gap? If we can, is it even desirable? If it is both necessary and desirable, how would we do it?
Since the study, Texas has raised additional revenue, primarily by issuing $17 billion in public debt. In addition, another measure to provide additional revenue for transportation is on the ballot in November. That proposal, if approved by voters, would allocate a portion of the revenue from the existing taxes on oil and gas production to the state highway fund. Assuming for a moment the measure passes, the ‘gap’ would be reduced to approximately $135 billion. That’s progress, but still, a long way from zero.
But here’s something to think about. The Committee’s charge was to determine “transportation infrastructure” need through the year 2030. The Committee did its job in the only way it could. It looked at the cost of applying today’s solutions. But what if our concept of “transportation infrastructure” changed between how we envision it now and how we will use it in 2030? What if we thought about transportation differently? What if we used an additional set of solutions?
Need some examples? Try this. Thirty years ago, the word “telecommuting” didn’t exist. We didn’t need the word because we didn’t have the option. Today, nationwide, more people telecommute than ride transit. Can we do more? Certainly. In fact, we already are. We’re accessing education, medical care, entertainment, shopping, and a host of other services in ways that weren’t possible 30 years ago – and now all can be done in ways that often don’t require a physical trip. Just over the horizon is 3-D printing. Soon, your favorite big box department store won’t have to maintain an inventory of 500 crescent wrenches to be sure they have the one you want. They’ll print one for you right in the store. That means 500 crescent wrenches won’t have to be brought to the store. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible.
The elements in this new solution set have three common characteristics. The first is they all use applied technology. The second is they all address the demand side of transportation rather than the supply side. The third is they are all led by the private sector. All three of those elements will be keys to our ability to close the transportation gap.
To go back to the original question, how does Texas get to “zero”? It seems almost certain we can’t afford to build our way there. And even if we could, where would we put all the roads? That’s not to say we don’t need to add to our transportation system – both roads and transit – and it will take more money to do it. But maybe, if we’re smart, if we use all of the tools at our disposal, if we think about transportation differently, it won’t take $135 billion.