April 12, 2012
by Mike Copeland
The Texas Department of Transportation will do everything it can to help Baylor University open its new $250 million football stadium near Interstate 35 and the Brazos River by fall 2014.
Phil Wilson, TxDOT’s new executive director, took that stance during a presentation Wednesday to the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.
He called I-35 “the new Mississippi River,” in terms of the traffic it carries. TxDOT already is spending $212 million on a project that includes building two three-lane I-35 frontage roads across the Brazos River near the stadium land. The project was in the works before Baylor announced plans for a new facility.
Wilson marveled at Waco’s downtown and waterfront development, and said the proposed stadium would serve as the “crown jewel” of the improvements. He said he is confident TxDOT can work with Waco, McLennan County and the Metropolitan Planning Organization to prepare for traffic the stadium will create.
Other challenges facing the department rest with lawmakers to solve, though TxDOT can help.
The state is facing a “crisis in funding,” as it relates to maintaining its highways and reducing congestion in major cities.
The primary funding source for infrastructure improvements is the 20-cent state tax and 18.5-cent federal tax on each gallon of gasoline sold, but Wilson said technology is making vehicles more efficient.
“We have a lot more people getting better gas mileage, so we’re not getting as much revenue,” Wilson said.
Meanwhile, Texas’ population has increased by 4 million people during the past decade, and 1,000 people move into the state each day. He said the state Legislature must supplement the gas tax if it hopes to keep pace with demand.
The 2030 Committee has estimated the state will need $370 billion worth of transportation system improvements by the year 2035, “and we’re looking at having about half that much.”
Wilson called that “a scary problem” because industry looks at commute times when it chooses sites.
The Legislature responded by raising its allocation for expansion and modernization from $17 billion to $20 billion this biennium, Wilson said.
“That’s money we’re spending now,” he said.
Longer term, a total of $300 million has been allocated to identify the most traffic-congested areas of the state and to prepare detailed plans, including environmental studies, to remedy these bottlenecks.
“When money becomes available, a road map is in place for proceeding,” Wilson said.
He said the state and its larger cities may need to rely more on tollways to fund improvements.
He said buses and high-speed rail could help fight congestion, as could strategically placed tow trucks. Wilson said wreckers quickly responding to disabled vehicles could unclog traffic arteries.