Agencies vs. interest groups vs. agencies: transportation planning in Texas
A recent article (now a few weeks old) by Ben Wear in the American-Statesman details the I-35 widening project between San Antonio and DFW. Many, probably including myself, would say this project is overdue. However, additional planning for the corridor, with additional improvements being considered, is currently underway as well. The website for the project identifies it as “a different approach to transportation planning.” So what’s different about it?
The process claims to get local officials, stakeholders, etc. involved in the process from the beginning, which is often not done. While this may be a step in the right direction, it’s not exactly a fundamental change in the planning process. Still, it’s hard to complain about the effort.
However, for what all this is worth, the perspective of TXDOT on building roads doesn’t seem to have changed. The plan is full of plans for eight- and ten-lane roadways, managed (HOV/toll) lanes through the countryside, freeway extensions, and so forth. An example: a project being considered is widening I-35W between downtown Fort Worth and SH 174 in Burleson to eight lanes with four managed lanes, and continuing the eight lanes (without managed lanes) all the way to Alvarado. 35W from downtown to I-20 is already eight lanes, and 35W south of I-20 is not a particularly congested road, even at rush hour. While suburbs to the south have grown quite a bit in recent years, until recently they weren’t suburbs at all – they were probably more accurately described as smaller rural towns on the outskirts of a major metro area. In short, the area south of Fort Worth is growing, but certainly not booming, and shouldn’t require a roadway of this width plus toll or HOV lanes to boot.
Plans also include a western bypass around Waco and a new limited-access freeway from central Arlington south to Hillsboro, to name two examples. My guess is that citizen opposition will derail many of these projects (which would require a lot of new right-of-way). However, it’s somewhat distressing that TXDOT seems to see itself as the proponent of building any and all new roads, unless the citizens can stop them. TXDOT isn’t the only guilty party here (although rightly or wrongly, it’s acquired more power than most); most agencies seem to try to justify their existence by constantly pushing for more and more of whatever they do. These agencies fight it out with other agencies for funding and with community and interest groups who want to stop them. This has become the status quo, but one has to question if it is really the best way to do things.
Promising new developments at the federal level may help to change this. The recent joining together of HUD, the DOT and the EPA will hopefully reduce tension between the objectives of these respective agencies and, in doing so, fully leverage the expertise and knowledge present in each to create solutions to problems relating to all, especially relating to sustainability and livability. The partnership created a sustainable communities and regional planning grant program, providing funding for planning at a geographic level, the region, that is too often ignored by politicians and planners. Collaboration at the regional level also often falls victim to exclusionary policies by local municipalities, and to competition for retail and other businesses between these cities. Hopefully this is just one example of good things to come from this and other interagency partnerships.