For generations, the state of Texas’ transportation policy has boiled down to one simple maxim: more roads equal better transportation. State transportation funding grossly favors the construction, expansion, and maintenance of new roads over any other kind of mobility. The result has been the perpetuation of a model of growth that favors sprawling development, which makes economies and residents reliant on automobiles and trucks for all of their mobility needs.
At a Rotary Club of San Antonio speech Wednesday, however, Gov. Greg Abbott suggested this may all be about to change.
“The bottom line is this: The way people get around, the way people live is going to change,” Abbott said, according to the Rivard Report. “As a result, this generation of roads that [Texas Transportation Commission Chairman] Bruce Bugg is in charge of building is probably the last major buildout of roads we’ll have in the state of Texas, even considering the fact that Texas is the fastest-growing state in America.”
That statement is remarkable—if not outright shocking—considering how wedded Texas’ transportation policy has been to the mantra of big roads. Abbott went on in his speech to suggest that one of the reasons that Texas won’t be building roads is because new populations will flock to cities and denser areas of the state where they won’t be as reliant on automobile transportation.
For urban advocates who have long bemoaned Texas’ dogmatic insistence on funding transportation projects that fuel sprawl, the governor’s comments offer hope that the state government is finally waking up to the reality that such growth is fundamentally unsustainable. The future success of Texas—from environmental, economic, social, and political perspectives—relies on fostering the kind of multi-modal transit options that can make for more sustainable and equitable communities.
But Gov. Abbott stopped short of announcing a mobility revolution at the Rotary Club in San Antonio. When asked what might supplement Texas’ roads, in addition to increasing density, Abbott suggested flying cars and ridesharing can step in to fill some voids—solutions to long-term mobility challenges that most experts have dismissed as insufficient. To those hoping the governor’s new transportation tune may mean an increase in state financing for public transit, Abbott’s insistence that public transit is the purview of local governments will be disappointing.
Still, the governor’s comments are encouraging, and it suggests the conversation about highways, infrastructure, growth, safety, and mobility are beginning to crack long-held assumptions about transportation, even in Texas. It is not the first indication we’ve had that the state government is beginning to think differently about its roads and their many detrimental implications for travelers. In December, I wrote about TxDOT’s desire to reduce deaths on Texas roads. More people died on Texas roads between 2010 and 2018 than in any other state.
The governor’s comments also suggest future political battlegrounds. He directly addresses the challenge of housing affordability in his speech and the threat it poses for eroding Texas’ affordability advantage, which has been instrumental in luring new residents and investment to the state. Addressing affordability must go hand-in-hand with transitioning to new modes of transportation and encouraging density. Hopefully state officials will eventually realize public transit plays a vital role in this aspect of ensuring the state’s economic resilience.
A ceasing of highway expansion cold also lead to property rights squabbles, as investors who have already scooped up land on the outer fringes of Texas’ urban centers under the assumption that Texas’ highway expansion will continue indefinitely discover their future developments sites may be forever disconnected. If the governor is serious about slowing or stopping road development, he may be confronted with developers fighting for zoning, infrastructure, and other publicly subsidized value-generation schemes that developers have been able to rely on to generate profits out of cornfields for more than 70 years.
It will take real political resolve–and not just the promise of flying cars–to stand up to that.