By JOHN CREW
The Texas Turnpike Corporation has proposed the construction of a limited-access, four-lane toll road from Lavon to Greenville, The Blacklands Turnpike, in a thoughtful, visionary and well-researched response to the significant transportation challenges facing North Central Texas.
This state is growing and it’s growing fast.
The population of Texas is expected to increase 43.2 percent over the next two decades — from 23.6 million people in 2008 to nearly 34 million in 2035. Ninety-two percent of this growth will be in urban-metro counties, large cities and suburban counties. This growth will bring incredible change to our state. What’s even more amazing is that in just three Texas counties — Collin, Hunt and Rockwall — this growth is projected to be a sizable 74 percent.
This impressive and inevitable growth, based on a variety of factors that make Texas a great place to live, work, and raise a family is going to place unavoidable stress on Texas roads, bridges, and highways. Our state’s infrastructure will be tested as never before. Study after study has shown convincing evidence that we must act now to improve the conditions and relieve the congestion of Texas roads.
In a recent independent study of this problem, it was found that 38 roads in our state suffer from significant deterioration or congestion. This study entitled, “Texas’ Top 100 Transportation Challenges and Improvements Needed to Address Them,” published in January 2013, found that Interstate 30 leads the list of congested roads in poor condition. The study was published by and can be found at www.tripnet.org.
The Texas Department of Transportation estimates that more than $300 billion will be needed to meet this serious challenge to Texas highways by 2035. Under current funding scenarios, overall pavement quality is projected to decrease by 43 percent by 2022. The number of vehicle miles traveled in Texas will increase by 35 percent by 2030. Texas needs to spend $9.9 billion annually just to maintain road/bridge conditions/congestion at 2010 levels.
While we agree with the need to address the issue of dedicated highway funds and their diversion to non-highway related activities, this alone will be inadequate to meet the coming challenge of population growth and infrastructure improvements.
We believe that a private road construction initiative such as ours would be achieved more quickly, efficiently, and with minimal costs to the citizens of Texas. It is also true that many needed road improvement projects already approved by both the Council of Governments (COG) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) have yet to be funded due to tax and fiscal limitations. Given the current fiscal challenges facing Austin, these projects could be in for a very long delay. Texas Turnpike Corporation believes that such a delay will only increase the likelihood that higher interest rates and construction costs will result in higher tolls and make it more difficult to secure financing for projects. A privately-funded initiative undertaken now will avoid these concerns.
We may choose to wait, do nothing and see what happens. Or we can be determined to make the right thing happen. As Texans so often do, we can boldly take this bull by the horns and decide to tackle this crisis head on. The demands of growth are coming and we must meet them. Texas will pay a dear price for delay and denial. Unless we act now, we will lose the ability to direct and channel this future growth.
There have been implications that creative and mutually beneficial public-private partnerships are somehow unseemly and fuel personal gain at the public’s expense. In truth, this is not the case and we would do well to remember that private initiative and enterprise have helped to make the American economy and quality of life the envies of the world. And they have helped to make the Texas economy one of the strongest in the nation. In this particular case the traditional public funding for construction is not available and probably will not be available for a number of years.
The North East Texas Rural Rail Transportation District (NETEX) is one of several important collaborators on this project. Texas Turnpike Corporation entered into a lease agreement with NETEX because of our mutual interest in the possibility of eventually seeing some form of rail service restored along this route, in the best interest of the region. This public-private partnership will result in the sharing of revenue from the toll road. Anyone who professes support of expanding rail passenger service should be enthusiastic about our partnership with NETEX.
We recognize that construction of the Blacklands Turnpike could result in dislocations for some area residents and property owners. We appreciate the financial and emotional investments that have been made, in some cases over many years. We are neither unaware nor insensitive in this regard. We are committed to doing everything we reasonably can to minimize this impact while maximizing just compensations for affected property owners.
We understand that compensation would be based on either the county tax assessment or some other just valuation of the property. We further understand that, in the event of a dispute relative to valuation or compensation, the final determination would be made by a special panel of local officials, in accordance with the Texas Land Owners Bill of Rights.
There have been suggestions that property owners would be subject to eminent domain seizures or not allowed a just and fair due process regarding compensation in an attempt to alarm area citizens unnecessarily. Assertion that surrounding property valuations will decline if this turnpike is built is contrary to the impact in other regions where highway construction took place. When I-30 was built, for example, surrounding property valuations actually went up.
The Texas Turnpike Corporation believes that infrastructure precedes prosperity. It always has — and it always will. Greenville’s population has increased from 22,043 in 1970 to only 25,557 in 2010. That’s four long decades of little or no growth. One of Greenville’s major employers, Newell-Rubbermaid, relocated in 2012. The town lost 500 full-time jobs. In Commerce, the economy is struggling even more. Commerce has lost $40 million from its tax base since 2008. This is because without adequate infrastructure, businesses close their doors and they move away. People lose jobs and they lose opportunity. In McKinney, just a short distance across Route 380, the population grew by an impressive 143 percent in just 10 years — between 2000 and 2010. The median household income for Greenville is $37,471. In Commerce, it’s $27,829. But in McKinney, the average household income is $74,784.
Hunt County has struggled while Collin County has prospered. Why? There are many factors, of course, but one of the biggest is the quality and access of transportation. There were those who once opposed the construction of Interstate 30 and the Dallas North Tollway. But today, these quality roads are important keys to growth and prosperity. No region, no area of our state, can grow and prosper without good roads. It’s impossible.
Our vision is not a little vision fabricated in a dark tunnel of insular and myopic thinking. It’s a big vision inspired by the wide open vistas of Texas.
We believe the Blacklands Turnpike — and other roads like it — will help to pave the way for more prosperity, more jobs, better schools and hospitals, greater opportunities and brighter hope for all Texans. The choices we make today will determine the future our children and grandchildren inherit. It is within our power to choose wisely.
The men and women who settled this wide-open land came as pioneers. They came with hope and a vision. They came determined to make from this vast plain a life of prosperity and opportunity. Our brave ancestors came to Texas, not to flee change and progress, but to create it, embrace it and to harness it. It is in this visionary and persevering spirit that the Texas Turnpike Corporation does its work.
We invite you to visit our website at texasturnpikecorp.com.
Crew is the president of the Texas Turnpike Corporation