The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is giving each Texan the agency’s entire $11 billion budget to use as they wish.
While that may sound like a lot of money — and it is — TxDOT isn’t exactly opening their pocket books and handing out cash. Instead, TxDOT is hoping to educate Texans through an interactive, online tool that allows citizens to pick and choose what the state’s budget priorities should be as it relates to the future of transportation in Texas.
The tool is all part of TxDOT’s new, long-term plan for Texas roadways wherein officials will travel around the state hosting open houses to get Texans involved in their budget making process. At an open house at the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission in Beaumont on Tuesday, June 10, TxDOT’s top officials were on hand to show citizens the interactive tool in the hopes that Texans better understand the growing issues facing transportation in Texas as the next legislative session nears.
“We show you where TxDOT spends money and then give you the opportunity to create your own budget — put your investments where you’d like to and see how the system operates with the way you allocated the money,” said TxDOT’s Statewide Planning branch manager Michelle Conkle. “We’re collecting comments on that and coming up with a recommended investment strategy to present to our commission and hopefully come up with a final plan. This is very important because we’re going into a legislative session, so that’s basically the timing of everything.”
While the interactive tool might not place real money in your hands, TxDOT is hoping citizens will utilize the tool on the agency’s website so TxDOT can better understand the needs and wants of Texans from region to region.
TxDOT spokeswoman Sarah Dupre said her agency has been in close contact with Jefferson County’s government agencies in trying to help relieve congestion and maintain roadways.
“In our area, all of our city members and some of the mayors, city planners, people like that come and we have meetings during certain months,” Dupre said. “So, they’re the ones that help make the decisions of our roadways, like the US 69 project. They make the decisions.”
Although local projects such as US Highway 69 and the Neches River bridge are first and foremost on Southeast Texan’s minds, Conkle said Texans should have a statewide outlook on Texas’ transportation needs.
“We’re just trying to go out to the public and explain that this is what we’re doing with the money,” she said. “What you’re seeing today is what you’re getting and we’re just trying to keep it in a state of good repair. But we can’t continue doing the things we’re going to need to do to keep the system in a state of good repair with our appropriations having to go out this way — and no more revenue.”
According to figures presented at the open house, a larger portion of TxDOT’s budget — currently $1.36 billion, or 12 percent — is being spent on paying down debt, or debt service from bonds approved by Texans.
“For a very long time, TxDOT was a pay-as-you-go state, so we paid for our projects as we collected revenues,” Conkle said. “When we started having to do a lot of projects or emergency work, you have to pass bonds. It’s very much like borrowing tomorrow’s money. So, that’s become a significant part of our annual budget. It’s not any more significant than our other expenses; it just looks a lot different than it did 15 years ago. That’s not an insignificant number.”
Another number that isn’t insignificant is the number of new Texans. According to Conkle, at least 1,000 people move to Texas every day, due in large part to the development of shale plays in central and northern Texas. This boom in oil and gas is wreaking havoc on roads and highways in these areas as large truck traffic pounds the pavement daily.
“The number of trucks traveling in those areas right now, the roads weren’t built for it,” Conkle said. “It’s causing a terrible amount of damage, and we have to be cognizant of that especially of the resulting safety problems. So, again, TxDOT statewide planners have to figure out how to take a small amount of money and do the most good around the state to be fair and equitable to the local and regional needs.”
Currently, TxDOT’s largest expenditure in their budget is about $4.27 billion, or 39 percent, strictly on maintaining existing roadways. TXDOT currently spends about $3.25 billion, or 29 percent, on new construction.
Locally, preventive maintenance by TxDOT is going to roads such as 421 in Lumberton.
“A lot of people have called and said, ‘Why are you messing up a totally good road?’” Dupre said of 421 in Lumberton. “I try to explain to them that we’re not messing it up, we’re just trying to maintain it. It’s going to last longer, and that’s less money we’re going to have to spend to completely replace it.”
According to TxDOT’s figures, annual transportation needs exceed their current budget by at least $5 billion, mostly in the area of congestion. But Conkle said spending more money on upgrading capacity might not necessarily affect outcomes in congested urban areas.
“We could take all the money out of pavement and bridge and put it here (congestion) and wouldn’t see an appreciable difference,” Conkle said. “That’s what the tool shows you as well. At the end of the day, this is more likely going to be changes in people’s behavior — driving behavior, taking transit, demand management strategies, not building capacity — to get us out of congestion problems.”
The interactive tool will be on TxDOT’s website at www.txdot.gov  until September, at which time the agency will take user data and present it to state officials.
“The message is that as a community, as Texans, as people who travel around the state, we’re going to have to come up with a way to keep these roads as nice as they are today,” Conkle said. “TxDOT doesn’t have control over how much money we have. We just try to put it in the best place possible and give you an opportunity to tell us where you would put it if you had to make our hard decisions.”