By: Jan R. Prusinski, PE
As they say, things are bigger in Texas; of course, this carries over into infrastructure needs too. Today's Houston Chronicle published three articles highlighting various aspects of potential mega-projects that would bolster Texas' infrastructure.
project needs far exceed funding
The first article, "Texas officials drafting wish list for potential infrastructure funding windfall" (Houston Chronicle, Dug Begley, online 2/3/17, paper 2/8/17) highlights infrastructure needs in several areas: Flood control, passenger and freight rail, and roads and bridges. The article notes that for Houston in particular, flood control projects are especially critical, as bayou flooding has plagued the city, even with recent improvements. The American Society of Civil Engineers' (ASCE) 2013 scorecard for infrastructure in the U.S. and Texas was cited, with over $3.6 trillion needed nationally just to repair and functionally improve infrastructure--noting there exists a $1.6 trillion gap between planned spending and needs. Overall, ASCE gives Texas' infrastructure a C; however infrastructure categories in Texas rating a D or less are: Roads, flood control, dams, drinking water and education. The article noted that two mega-projects have made a draft list of President Trump's high-priority infrastructure projects (see related news post), the Texas Central Railway bullet train (between Houston and Dallas) and the Cotton Belt commuter line (between NE Dallas and SW Fort Worth). Ultimately "...state's needs--better highways, bridges, flood control--far outpace any infrastructure funding windfall" from current state or national funding initiatives.
BULLET TRAIN PROGRESSING, BUT HURDLES AWAIT
The second and third articles center on the aforementioned Texas Central Railway project, i.e. the bullet train proposed for a 90-minute commute between Dallas and Houston. The second article, "Rail company buys land options for high-speed line" (Houston Chronicle, Dug Begley, online 2/7/17, paper 2/8/17) reports that Texas Central has preliminary agreements for purchasing property from one third of the landowners along the route. This includes two counties (Grimes and Waller) with the most vocal opposition, where half of those landowners have committed. Though the company notes the significance of this milestone, critics allege that landowners have been threatened with eminent domain. There are still significant hurdles for Texas Central Railway to cross: Through the Texas legislature, the Federal Railroad Administration, and ultimately the courts.
The third article, "High-speed rail project needs closer scrutiny" (Houston Chronicle, Op-Ed by Texas Rep. Byron Cook, online 2/7/17, paper 2/8/17) notes several negative aspects about the project, from the question of legitimacy of the company's eminent domain power, to using a single-source proprietary Japanese technology. Cook suggests that if high-speed rail is to be part of Texas' future, the state should slow down, involve TxDOT in a master passenger rail plan, and guard against monopoly control of Texas' future interregional passenger rail. Clearly, the major hurdles and public opposition by some must be addressed before this privately-funded project comes to fruition. But at least there is momentum in bringing high-speed rail to the fore in Texas.
FAILURE TO ACT WILL BE COSTLY
We all know Texas is growing fast. Our state legislators have, in the recent past, tried to creatively narrow some of the infrastructure funding gaps. Without directly raising taxes, they've developed significant new funding mechanisms for highways and water projects. Favorable PPP policies (at times) have leveraged private dollars to construct important highways that otherwise would not have been built (like the Grand Parkway in Houston, photo above). The Central Texas Railway is (for now) a privately-funded initiative, which removes some roadblocks.
Despite this progress, monumental gaps remain. We must continue to identify the needs, place the highest priority on the most critical ones, and find traditional and creative methods to fund them. Our competitiveness as a nation and state are critically dependent on reliable infrastructure, and the quality of life for us, our children and grandchildren rely on the infrastructure decisions we make today. (Download ASCE's "Failure to Act" reports for an eye-opening view of the economic costs and loss of competitiveness of not rebuilding and upgrading our infrastructure.)
The Cementx Pavement Blog seeks to make pavement owners, engineers and contractors smarter about selecting, designing, constructing and maintaining pavements. New blog postings began February 1, 2017; however, we carried over pavement-related blog postings from our older blog, the "Texas Cement and Concrete Blog," which ran until December 2016.