20 September 2009

Central Texas Roads : Not Enough Money or (Soon) Water

This graphic from the Austin American-Statesman presents an optimistic funding projection.

Road Planners face huge budget shortfalls, try to ignore looming water shortages

By Roger Baker / The Rag Blog / September 20, 2009

Consider the emerging factors affecting most transportation planning. Four important basic constraints on long-range transportation plans are: funding trends, population and population distribution trends, and fuel prices.

And in Central Texas, the available water supply counts too.

All these factors are now working against road building, acting to impede sprawl growth like a perfect storm.

At their August meeting CAMPO planners hinted that CAMPO’s long range plans may be unfundable. Then on Monday, Sept. 14, the funding news got worse. CAMPO admitted that it does not look like CAMPO will have the money to fund EITHER of its long range planning alternatives.

From the Austin American-Statesman:
"...Maintenance and operation of the current roads and transit would get $15.5 billion under the CAMPO estimate, and $9.6 billion would go to new roads and transit facilities. CAMPO principal planner Stevie Greathouse said the greater emphasis on maintenance of existing systems reflects a growing awareness in the transportation industry that infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate. Given projected inflation in construction costs, Greathouse said the actual ability to build road and rail capacity would fall by as much as 50 percent..."
The three alternatives proposed in CAMPO's long-range 2035 plan are Build Nothing, the Current Trends Concept, and then the environmentally greener clustered growth Centers Concept. The latter, which is generally seen as preferable by the planners, tries to cluster greener, denser growth in satellite cities like Manor, Cedar Park, and Kyle.

CAMPO might only have half the money they expected to do the long range 2035 stuff, and even the short range TIP is facing severe cutbacks -- and the potential impact has not been fully calculated.

There is no money for SH 45 SW.

Judge Biscoe told CAMPO at the Sept. 14 meeting that building SH 45 SW, a new road over the Edwards Aquifer opposed by environmentalists, would cost $100 million. Then the potential bond lenders would probably require about a $30 million local match, local skin in the game, to get the other $70 million. The local match is not there, because all the local transportation budgets are under stress.

If there was any good news at the CAMPO meeting, it was that Austin may manage to escape tougher federal transportation planning rules due to the city's having exceeded ozone limits. The money news at CAMPO essentially was all bad. Even some federal stimulus funded sidewalks in Manor may not get funded because of TxDOT shortfalls.

As in most places, Texas road funding is closely tied to the fuel tax, meaning that fuel prices ultimately rule over road funding. The CAMPO assumptions and models have tended historically to assume that vehicle travel and thus fuel taxes will always increase. But the federal federal stimulus funds are falling way short of balancing the shortfalls.

TxDOT has mismanaged and over-committed its TIP funds, meaning only about 20% of this major category of funds will be available, which drags down other funding categories within a highly complex leveraged system built on growth, credit, and business as usual.

As a starting handicap to its long term plans, the CAMPO population projections that get approved are completely unscientific and are political in their nature. The choice is a political decision whereby the population projections and distribution are usually chosen to inflate and perpetuate profitable suburban sprawl growth, favored by the development interests with the most political clout.

Roads in Texas are a form of public subsidy for land developers. As such, they tend to be blind to recent travel trends, funding trends, or resource constraints, whether energy or water.

In Central Texas, the available water supply limits growth more than the transportation planners want to admit. The reality is that most of the total Colorado River flow, although buffered by the Highland Lakes, gets used up by the adjacent cities and agriculture before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. During drought periods like the current one, the wells dry up, and there may not be enough stored river water to fulfill existing commitments.

I recently requested via the public Information Act any CAMPO documents that would indicate that CAMPO planners are taking into account the water supply constraints on Central Texas growth that were documented and incorporated in the future population projections for the various Texas river basins, developed by the Texas Water Development Board.

Following is the specific section of federal transportation law that says that MPOs like CAMPO should take other regional environmental plans, (like the TWDB's long term plans based on Texas water supply), into account when doing long range CAMPO transportation

The federal code that regulates CAMPO planning is Title 23, Chapter 1, section 134,

(D) Consultation, comparison, and consideration. -
(i) In general. - The long-range transportation plan shall
be developed, as appropriate, in consultation with State,
tribal, and local agencies responsible for land use
management, natural resources, environmental protection,
conservation, and historic preservation.
(ii) Comparison and consideration. - Consultation under
clause (i) shall involve comparison of transportation plans
to State and tribal conservation plans or maps, if available,
and comparison of transportation plans to inventories of
natural or historic resources, if available.
However, as Mr. Caltalupo noted in his Aug 7 reply,
"Mr. Baker; We don't have any direct requirement to include water-related and water supply/availability factors in the development of our long range plan..."
In other words the federal law indicates that you really should -- but stops short of saying that you must -- take limited natural resources like water into account when planning roads that must serve a vastly expanded future population and its distribution.

Such a planning oversight can get those who invest in toll roads and sprawl development in lots of trouble once somebody bothers to figure out that the water for residential development just isn't there.

Let us look at an extreme case of the CTRMA toll road promoters ignoring natural water supply limits. As background, one should understand that the CTRMA is in financial trouble, unable to build US 290 E as planned, and is beating the bushes looking for toll road lenders. Here the CTRMA director Mike Heiligenstein suggests emulating China as the Texas model for funding toll roads, which implies that traditional funding alternatives assumed in the past are not there anymore.

In their pitch to potential toll road investors on the CTRMA website -- entitled "Mobility Authority Investor Update" -- they boost the hypothetical 2040 population of Williamson County up to an astonishing 1.7 million, far above what even CAMPO projects in 2035 (the January 2008 State Data Center population estimate for Williamson County was 380,000).

The CTRMA got this high number by cherry-picking a period of intense nationwide and Austin area sprawl development from 2000 to 2007, an increase that was cited by the Texas State Data Center. The CTRMA planners then extended this growth spurt at full force for thirty years into the future. This is an assumption apparently calculated to prove that Williamson County toll roads are bound to be sure fire moneymakers.

Such investment planning strategies look like the homegrown Texas equivalent of sub-prime loans packaged for naive investors. In fact, the CTRMA investment promotion document comes with a heavy-duty legal disclaimer, cited in part below. Translation: Let the CTRMA toll road bond buyer beware!
"...In no event shall The Authority [the CTRMA], J.P. Morgan or First Southwest be liable for any use by any party of, for any decision made or action taken by any party in reliance upon, or for any inaccuracies or errors in, or omissions from, the information contained herein and such information may not be relied upon by you in evaluating the merits of..."
Could Williamson County really grow to 1.7 million? Let us compare this toll road promotion fantasy with the sober Texas Water Development Board projections that predict water shortages will occur over much of Williamson County within the next ten years. This chart of anticipated water shortages in Williamson County is from the long range TWDB water plan for the Brazos basin that includes Williamson County.

Go here then get the pdf by clicking on: "Section 4A - Comparison of Demands with Water Supplies to Determine Needs; page 4A-8."

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