Monday, 8:33 a.m.; just another workday in Dallas Fort Worth, and it reminds me that former Lt. Governor David Dewhurst once forecast, in a private speech to North Texas Republicans, “If we don’t get going right now on critical infrastructure, we’re going to become California.” Well, leaving out the year-round moderate temperatures, the mountains, the Pacific Ocean, the vineyards, some of the world’s most famous forests, and fun stuff like that California is known for, Dewhurst’s prediction was remarkably accurate.
It’s like LA out there. As I write this paragraph, a traffic jam has turned the entire length of Highway 121, from McKinney to Grapevine, into a parking lot. The Dallas North Toll Road is also stopped from Highway 380 in Frisco to downtown Dallas, and a third of the President George Bush Turnpike is at a standstill. It’s one thing to have an hour-long commute to get the 20 miles to your work; being charged expensive tolls while doing so just adds financial injury to insult. But that was the situation this past Monday morning.
The previous week, the newest congestion study was released by Inrix, a Seattle-based company that collects traffic data in real time from our vehicles’ navigation systems and our smartphones. What they look for are the nation’s worst “hot spots” — areas of known, continuous traffic jams. New York was one of the worst with 13,608, but California rated even worse because of their traffic jams’ length and delay times. Turns out that where Highway 101 meets CA 134 and 170 just north of Studio City, the average length of that traffic jam is 4 miles, and it takes 355 minutes to get through it.
When Megan Henderson left Fox Four to move home to California and a new job at KTLA 5, I said on air that there would be days when it would be faster to fly from DFW to Orange County to visit her family than it would to drive the last five miles to get to work in LA. That was a true statement a few years ago; but now, it seems, one can fly to LA and back in less than the 5.9 hours it takes to go four miles south on Highway 101.
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Time Really Is Money
For this study Inrix calculated the real cost of being stuck in traffic using data from our Department of Transportation. After all, there is a value to the productivity lost sitting in one’s car and going nowhere, and that value was calculated at $12.81 per hour for the average commuter, $25.19 per hour for the business traveler, and $9.51 an hour for shoppers. Added to that is the cost of wasted fuel; and the next thing you know, those living in the Los Angeles basin are losing $90.9 billion annually — while Phoenix, only the 15th worst city for traffic jams, is out $9.5 billion each year. According to the final accounting, Inrix claims the average America driver is losing around $1,400 every year because of our traffic conditions.
So, let’s do a little 4th-grade math here. In major metropolitan areas, such as Dallas Fort Worth, we drive around 15,000 miles per year. Assuming one is getting 25 miles to the gallon overall, you will purchase 600 gallons each year to drive those 15,000 miles. Which gives your net cost to the highway problem: It is costing you $2.33 per gallon over and above the price you paid for gasoline to be hung up in traffic. Most completely miss the high cost of going nowhere, because you don’t have to put it on your credit card when you fill up.
The “good” news is that things are about to get much worse.
Most will miss that, because we are constantly cheering on the incredible growth in our Metroplex. Still, for those who enter Fort Worth every morning, it seems that the area between West Loop 820 and downtown is often moving a bit slower than the posted speed limits. One wonders how that will look after potentially 50,000 more individuals live in homes on the Walsh Ranch development, just west of 820.
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And what if we land the second Amazon headquarters? That could be another 50,000 jobs, according to USA Today. Come to think of it, why not build that out at Walsh Ranch? So the forecast 50,000 future inhabitants could take those 50,000 jobs at Amazon and never have to use our highways? Nah, that would be too elegant a solution.
Maybe it’s time we got a lot more realistic about our traffic in the future. Fifty years ago I traveled on Highway 101 in Los Angeles and there were certainly times when the traffic jams were horrendous — nothing like today’s, but bad at the time. Conversely, in the Metroplex one could go most anywhere quickly because our freeway system was so overbuilt for its time. The turnpike between Dallas and Fort Worth meant a fast 35-minute run city to city for just a quarter. And even at that low toll, the turnpike was paid for in just 20 years and the tollbooths removed, just as Tom Vandergriff had promised the public they would be.
However, over the past two decades more and more elected officials have pled government poverty when we’ve begged them to meet the rising demands for highway infrastructure. They’ve claimed that the good citizens of Texas were completely tapped out, no more chipping into our highway trust funds. Of course, the very next day they would crow about the phenomenal economic growth in our state and how many more people were moving here because Texas was the place to be. Those two positions diametrically contradict each other. Either we’re dynamically rich and growing like crazy, or we’re broke. Which one is it?
The answer was more private roads where one could pay tolls in addition to the small tax we currently pay for gasoline, the tax that hasn’t been increased since 1993 at either the state or federal level. Now, however, that too seems intentional; during this same period Wall Street banks, led by Goldman Sachs, started talking to elected state officials nationwide about the wisdom of simply allowing them to put up the money for highways … and to collect the tolls for some time into the future. So, instead of state entities borrowing money from the bond markets (Wall Street), and paying it back out of future gasoline taxes — which has become almost impossible to do because the taxes have been frozen for an entire generation — Wall Street is offering to lend itself the money and collect maybe 75 years’ worth of tolls in exchange.
Remember, at a quarter a pop, it only took 20 years to pay off the Dallas Fort Worth Turnpike.
Selling the Sizzle, Stealing the Steak
Then came the term, a “public-private partnership for roads.” This one just beats all because it’s a Madison Avenue term that has nothing to do with a real partnership. (Madison Avenue ends only 3.1 miles from Goldman in New York, so maybe that makes sense.)
In President Trump’s first infrastructure outline, which he now seems to be walking away from, he wanted to use $200 billion of taxpayers’ money to “seed” infrastructure projects, while the business partner would cover the rest of the money, thereby yielding that magical $1 trillion in new infrastructure projects. Again, it’s given a very clever name, public-private partnership. But would anyone agree to use taxpayer dollars to help Wall Street investors buy up homes across America, giving those investors cash for their 20 percent equity up front, and then letting them rent the house out for the next 75 years and keep the money? That’s not a partnership, that’s skimming the public of their taxes in order to benefit those who don’t need more benefits.
This is similar to the bankrupt toll road that bypasses Austin. We cosigned notes for $400 million and it went bankrupt, so we’re out that $400 million — and they still get to keep all the tolls. How is that a partnership?
Besides the fact that we elect people into our government who run on a platform of “we don’t want to govern,” maybe this is much ado about nothing. North Texas has been experiencing phenomenal growth for over six decades. And for a brief moment, we were ahead of the infrastructure game — it was overbuilt for what we then needed. But that advantage started disappearing 30 years ago, and we’ve been playing catch-up ever since. And at this point, that may never change. Because our future growth may always outrun our ability to put in place what’s needed for our expansion.
We love having bragging rights about how successful some of our major cities are, but we don’t cheer that success while we’re stuck in traffic for 45 minutes trying to drive that last five miles to the office. Yet that is more of an indication of our growth than anything else. Doubt that? Just ask Los Angeles.
All that being said, it’s sad that today during rush-hour traffic, it is sometimes quicker to drive from Fort Worth to Dallas on the old Fort Worth Highway — including all the stop lights — than on I-30. And, while our success may mean that that we’ll never see open freeways again during rush hour, maybe it would be best not to do any more public private partnerships: It’s not much of a partnership at all.
© Ed Wallace 2017
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org