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TxDOT maps Texas' future mobility system
American Crossroads

Texans have been traveling the Lone Star State for decades. As the state prepares to meet its transportation needs of the future, Texas is faced with two major roadblocks: how to move people and goods quickly and safely and how to pay for it.

One proposed remedy is the Trans Texas Corridor, a multi-billion dollar transportation project that would be 4,000 miles long and up to 1,200 feet wide. The design includes toll roads, high-speed passenger and freight rail and underground transportation for water, petroleum, gas and telecommunications.

In January 2002, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) began to develop an implementation plan for the proposed corridor. The three-member Texas Transportation Commission approved The Trans Texas Corridor Plan, which outlines the basic design concept, several proposed priority corridor segments, possible funding and the potential for public-private partnerships.

The design includes six vehicle toll lanes, three in each direction, with separate lanes for passenger vehicles and trucks. It also includes six rail lines, also with three in each direction, one for high-speed rail between cities, one for freight and one for commuters and freight.

Out of the mud
Statewide debate on new transportation modes in the 1980s spurred a series of reports by the Center for Transportation Research (CTR) at the University of Texas at Austin that examined transportation needs and alternatives

The team of researchers, including Rob Harrison, deputy director for CTR, released the third and final report in the series, A Vision for Increasing Personal Intercity Mobility, in 1996. The researchers recommended a multimodal corridor designed with the highest environmental standards that would accommodate cars, trucks, passenger and freight rail, electricity, gas, fiber optics and other utilities.

According to the report, the corridor would provide a faster, safer and more reliable means of transportation while supporting economic growth and reducing pollution and congestion.

"TxDOT moving to multimodal transportation is monumental," says John Langmore, policy director for the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Transportation. "They would have the authority to build rail--freight and passenger."

Langmore says the corridor will generate revenue from toll fees and rail and utility companies.

"Texas is the first [state] to catch on to this grand scheme," he says.

Laying the pavement
According to the Trans Texas Corridor report, 21 million people live in and travel around the state. The state's population is expected to grow at a rate of 30,000 new people every month. Add to that cross-continental traffic passing through Texas, and the result is an overburdened highway system.

"When the report was developed, TxDOT, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and other state agencies helped with the planning in order to see how it would benefit Texas as a whole," says Steve Simmons, TxDOT deputy executive director.

Texas has a web of streets and railroads, congested cities and open spaces. TxDOT settled on four conceptual priority routes: from Denison to the Rio Grande Valley (paralleling I-35, I-37 and the proposed I-69); from Texarkana to Houston to Laredo (paralleling the proposed I-69); from Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston (paralleling I-45); and from El Paso to Orange (paralleling I-10). The plan does not replace any existing highways. According to the plan, nearly 4 million people live within 10 miles of these priority corridors.

The Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club says the wisdom isn't in the roadways, though; it's in the way communities are built.

"We need to look at how we are growing and make a shift away from development that results in more roads, subdivisions and suburbs," says Brian Sybert, natural resources director for the Sierra Club, Lone Star Chapter. "We need to look at mixed-use development where people can live, work and shop in one area."

Sybert says building more roads promotes more outward growth, or urban sprawl, and looking into the long term, the current pattern of growth will make it difficult to support the projected population of 40 million people in the next 50 years. He also says the corridor would break up many tracts of property, resulting in fragmented agricultural properties and wildlife habitats.

He says environmentalists are watching and waiting to see what will happen next. The corridor concept isn't concrete enough to take a major stand for or against it, he says.

Toolbox tools
The 2003 Legislature passed an omnibus transportation bill: House Bill (H.B.) 3588. The bill contains 20 articles addressing a variety of transportation issues, including the creation, operation and funding of the Trans Texas Corridor Project. In addition, the bill establishes the governance, operation and funding of regional mobility authorities and the acquisition, operation and funding of rail facilities. The bill also allows TxDOT to convert non-toll state highways to toll roads.

One proposed change that will first go before voters is a constitutional amendment made available by House Joint Resolution 28. The amendment would authorize the Texas Transportation Commission to issue short-term notes and revenue bonds secured by the state highway fund.

Adding more (man) power to the punch, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 409, which increases the size of the Texas Transportation Commission from three to five members, providing for additional regional representation.

Simmons says H.B. 3588 gives TxDOT the authority and ability to purchase land and allows TxDOT to put funds into a toll project.

"It's a very friendly time to bond transportation," he says. "The market is looking at Texas."

In late 2003, TxDOT is expected to take a first step towards making the corridor a reality--outreach.

"We need to make sure everybody knows about it," says Simmons.

He says TxDOT is asking for input in a series of town-hall meetings. Simmons stresses that the plan is only a framework and nothing is set in stone.

"We want an open dialogue," he says. "Some people have said we need another east-west line in there. The outreach program may bring to light other routes."

Adding to the conversation, in January 2002, Ray Perryman, president and CEO of the Perryman Group, released The Net Economic Benefits of the Trans Texas Corridor. The report says the corridor will provide significant benefits to the state, including providing 2.6 million jobs, and upon full implementation, public and private sources will spend nearly $585 billion annually on the project.

"It [the corridor] is a visionary concept that allows us to optimize the use of public-private resources in a way that accelerates economic growth," says Perryman.

The bell tolls
The corridor's price tag ranges from $145.2 billion to $183.5 billion, and it could take 50 years to complete. Simmons says some of the corridor can be built in the next three to five years

"It is hard to look beyond 20 years," says Harrison. "Texans are much more worried about the next 10 years--their children and their futures. It's our job to [look further]."

TxDOT's report outlines a number of funding possibilities, and planners envision a public-private effort paid for with tolls, bonds and other financing tools.

Current methods for funding road projects rely heavily on fuel taxes. But with a future filled with hybrid cars and a decline in the tax revenue generated per mile traveled on the highways, the traditional fuel tax base is rapidly eroding, says Harrison.

"We have cost acceleration, and the highway funds just aren't keeping up," he says.

Sybert says the Sierra Club is concerned about the cost to municipalities.

"Large roads promote more growth, placing a burden on counties and local governments, who then have to provide the infrastructure," he says.

Langmore says many of the groups who have a keen interest in the corridor, such as land owners, jumped on board when they realized they will have options, such as choosing to be paid for their land upfront or taking a piece of the revenue generated down the road, say from toll fees. He says no one was "vociferously" opposed to the concept this legislative session.

Rob Harrison compares the start of the corridor with the birth of the highway system.

"In the 1950s, Texans asked 'What is the Interstate?' and now people are saying 'What is the Trans Texas Corridor?'" he says. Few understand what is being proposed and how it might affect the state economy, he says, but they will find out soon.

A 20-page summary of the report is available from the TxDOT Public Information Office. The full report is at www.dot.state.tx.us/ttc/ttc_home.htm.

Allison Castle