The Toll Roads Boondoggle

2. Commentary on Texas Metropolitan Mobility Plan (TMMP)

Vincent May comments:

On Monday night (7-10-06) CAMPO voted to endorse its TMMP, a $10 billion red ribbon to wrap around its 2030 Mobility (Toll) Plan. Member after member intoned that the TMMP is really nothing. "It has no effect." "It can be changed at any time." "It is meaningless, BUT WE HAVE TO VOTE FOR IT TONIGHT." Donna Howard abstained and Eddie Rodriguez voted no. Everyone else voted for it.

Brewster McCracken gave some insight into why he had to vote for the TMMP. One item in the TMMP endorses the $1.8 billion dollar plan to buy the Union Pacific (MoPac) rail line running from Georgetown to San Antonio. Some history :

In 1998 a group of Austinites, led by Gonzalo Barrientos, conceived a plan to begin passenger service on the 120 mile MoPac railroad. TxDOT did a Major Investment Study that put a $475 million dollar price tag on the plan, and projected that 4,750 people would use the service.

There was a fly in the ointment. Union Pacific wanted $500 million dollars for the rail line. That was a project killer. A $975 million dollar investment that benefits 4,750 people equals $205k capital investment per user. In 1998 dollars, it would almost be cheaper to buy every user an airplane.

The years went by until Governor Perry and his fearless transportation honcho, Mike Krusee, decided that they were going to make the deal happen. They called Union Pacific and invited them to meeting. The room was filled with lawyers. Perry announced that nobody was leaving until Union Pacific signed a deal that was good for the people of Texas.

When the smoke cleared, Perry and Krusee emerged with a signed contract offering to pay $1.7 billion for the $500 million dollar line. Add in another $100 million dollars for the lawyers' fees and you get the $1.8 billion dollars that sits so prominently in the TMMP.

Union Pacific doesn't get the money. It gets a new rail line that will run through Manor, Texas. Scientific studies were done which found that people living in East Travis County aren't bothered by train noise like the people in West Austin. It was also discovered that their lungs are more resistant to noxious train emissions.

There was some concern that East Travis County is already bisected by the SH 130 toll road. Putting in a multi track 120mph train line could eviscerate the community. Sociologists discount this notion. They maintain that people of low cultural development will hardly notice the trains and soon adapt to their presence.

Eddie Rodriguez doesn't believe any of this nonsense. That's why he voted against the TMMP. Dawnna Dukes does believe it. That's why she voted for the TMMP, which tells Perry et al that the people of East Travis County can't wait to get a new train.

The price tag for the tracks went up. What about the development cost? The original $475 million now stands at $700 million. The grand total, trackage + development, = $2.5 billion dollars. (This amount covers the portions of the line in both the CapitalAreaMPO and SanAnotonioMPO regions. Patron counts are also global. I would like to have just the CAMPO numbers but they are unavailable.)

The number of people expected to ride the train now stands at 6,000. Dividing $2.5bn by 6,000 equals a capital investment of $417,000 per user. We could buy every user an airplane. (Rail proponents will tell you that they expect the number of users to increase in future years but they will also tell you that if only 6,000 ever ride the train, it will be a "success.")

Let's put this in perspective. Assume that the CAMPO/SAMPO area highway system was built with a (present value) $40bn dollar capital investment and that it has 2,000,000 users. By division we find that the capital investment is $20k per user. So, it takes 20 times more capital investment to transport a person by train than on a road.

If we examine the qualitative value of trains vs roads, trains fail miserably. The Austin-San Antonio rail line will transport a user between any of 15 discrete points in the combined regions. For $40 billion we could build 16 ASARAIL type lines. If each had 15 stops, then $40 billion worth of passenger rails will connect a maximum of 225 points. It is easy to see that our highway network connects more than 225,000 points.

You can't just divide 225k by 225 and say that roads are 1,000 times better than trains. I will skip the math at this juncture and just assert that the factor is actually 40. So, rails cost 20 times more than roads but roads are 40 times more useful. Since 20 x 40 = 800, a politician is 800 times more likely to vote for rails.

I submitted all of my calculations to a UT professor who ran them through a super computer. The computer display said, "You are correct." To get a confirmation, I had an A&M professor repeat the computation. The computer display said, "Give me a cheeseburger."

The importance of all this is that CAMPO, by voting to spend many billions of our tax dollars on wasteful projects, is starving our road network. Then they come back and say, "We'll just have to toll everyone who drives a bad old car." There is going to be a collision between the politicians who support tolling and the 98% of the people who oppose tolling our existing roads.

And it's not just CAMPO. Lamar Smith and Mike McCaul have both been seen worshiping the goddess of tolls and rails. TTC chairman Ric Williamson publicly stated that he and Rick Perry are more dedicated to tolls and rails than any Democrat who ever lived. As if you didn't already know that.

Vincent May

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