The battle over highway funding in Congress has become so common that, when something newsworthy happens, it feels like watching a rerun on television. Politics is partly to blame, but it's also true that the federal highway trust fund is dwindling, and those in charge of distributing the dollars day-to-day know something has to be done. As our McClatchy man in Washington reports, the U.S. Transportation Department is notifying states that starting next month their requests for reimbursement of highway expenditures will be cut by an average of 28 percent.
For North Texas, this latest announcement of funding cutbacks isn't likely to slow down many of the current projects underway, such as the $2.5 billion North Tarrant Express, or the reconstruction of LBJ Freeway in Dallas or Interstate 35W in Fort Worth. Those projects involve partnerships with private corporations. Even if some of the federal money involved in those projects is delayed while Washington sorts out its funding mess, the Texas Department of Transportation will likely shift around money within its own accounts to ensure the work goes on. It won't have much choice.
For readers, the main message to take from the debate over funding is, it has become clear that Congress no longer wants to take the lead in paying for transportation projects. Congress wants the federal government to regulate the road work, and perhaps contribute a small portion of the engineering, design and perhaps construction costs. But Congress and the U.S. Transportation Department want states and major cities to bear a much larger share of the responsibility going forward. This isn't just a passing trend in Congress. It's a permanent shift in federal philosophy, and states and cities should treat it as such.
However, the federal government won't bow completely out of the transportation business. The federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline will continue to be collected, and distributed to states to maintain existing interstates and U.S. highways - and, let's not forget, to buy buses and trains for cities to use as public transit. Transportation advocates often talk about the shrinking supply of federal funds, but the truth is the amount of highway dollars collected and disbursed nationwide is still on an upward trend. People are still buying lots of gasoline. The real problem is, the money just doesn't go as far as it used to.
But what's the big picture? We're no longer living in the Eisenhower era, when Americans could only dream of someday driving smoothly and quickly coast-to-coast, on well-marked and standardized roads. Back then, the military trumpeted the need for a national network of reliable roads to move its equipment across the country in the event of an enemy attack - and that's no longer a problem either.
Today, we've experienced that dream and awakened from it. Transportation is no longer a national priority, and maybe that's OK. It's just a given in the modern world that roads and bridges are well-engineered and maintained (at least enough to keep them open). Maybe it shouldn't be, but it is. Of course those things take money, too, but the debate about transportation funding isn't as much about a lack of money for maintenance as it is a lack of money for expansion of roads.
Congress' collective decision to get out of the transportation biz comes during a time of tremendous transition for the American worker. Habits are changing. More people are working non-traditional hours, or even at home. Major cities are shifting their emphasis to walkability, cycling, etc. Just look at what's happened in New York during the past decade, with a rather sudden emphasis on bike lanes and enjoyable public space. If you live in an urban area elsewhere in the U.S., there's a good chance that as you're reading this your city planners are working on a similar plan.
Today, schools are as much responsible for the morning rush hour as employers. It's no coincidence that the lines at traffic signals in city neighborhoods are at their longest about 15 minutes before the first period bell rings at the nearest campus - and about 15 minutes after that, as mom or dad drops of the kids and heads to work, the freeway on-ramps are most congested. Eisenhower probably never imagined his interstate highway program would be needed for that.
Over the next 20 to 40 years, the demand for the freeways themselves may completely change. In our new digital world, many jobs can be performed online, pretty much anywhere. This could be good news for depressed rural areas in Texas and elsewhere, which ought to seize the opportunity to experience a rebirth. As more people feel less of a need to live within a 20-minute drive of a downtown area, they will consider moving to places previously thought too far out of the way.
States and cities would do well to consider those possibilities and plan accordingly - without the help of the federal government.
For oh about three years now, the best advice has been to just stay off Northeast Loop 820 and Texas 121/183 in Tarrant County if you can. But that long, orange-cone-laden ordeal is almost over!
The $2.5 billion project is officially on schedule to be completed by the end of the year, and we're hearing whispers that it could be done MUCH sooner, like, possibly October-ish. In any case, pretty soon the north end of greater Fort Worth is going to be home to some much-improved freeway (and toll) lanes.
But a few weeks of mesmerizingly confusing lane changes remain. My colleague, Terry Evans, wrote a story last week that gave motorists the skinny on what to expect for the next month or so on the North Tarrant Express.
The $2.5 billion makeover of Loop 820 and Texas 121/183 is nearing its final few months, and soon the four some-odd years of construction headaches will be only a memory.
But meanwhile there's this:
The westbound lanes of Loop 820 from Texas 26 (Grapevine Highway) to Interstate 35W will be shifted Saturday to new pavement. The shifting of about 5.4 miles of freeway is expected to remain in place until June 29, and it's needed so that crews can put down pavement for the new main lanes. But for motorists the real inconvenience may be that for the duration of the lane shift many on- and off-ramps will be closed.
Access to westbound Loop 820 will only be possible from Bedford-Euless Road and Denton Highway (U.S. 377). Exits from westbound Loop 820 will be at Holiday Lane, Iron Horse Boulevard and Denton Highway.
Paul Ballard is now officially aboard the Fort Worth Transportation Authority. I had a chance to talk wtih Mr. Ballard last month in Nashville, and also talk with riders about their experiences with the Music City Star commuter rail line, and other proposed projects such as The Amp bus rapid transit line.Here's a link to my story.
The Fort Worth City Council made a change to its billboard ordinance this week to clear the way for expansion of Interstate 35W. But as the Star-Telegram's city hall reporter, Caty Hirst, explained in her story from this morning, the owners of most of the 25 billboards in the corridor are balking at the council's action. And, they say, if a condemnation process is needed it will delay the long-awaited road work. We'll see about that. But it's certainly a good story to watch.
Highway billboard ordinances versus road work - Beauty and the Beast.
3 p.m. Update: NRH city officials report that both directions of Boulevard 26 are once again open to traffic. Have a safe Friday afternoon trip home everyone. @gdickson
Here's the original story from an hour or two ago:
This just in:
The Texas 26 underpass at Northeast Loop 820 is apparently closed in both directions for some unexpected construction activity, North Richland Hills Police Department spokesman Keith Bauman reports. Locally, the road is also known as Boulevard 26.
If you were planning to use that road during the next couple of hours, make alternate arrangements.
Not clear precisely what the issue is, but Bauman indicated in an email sent through city spokeswoman Mary Peters that it should be resolved later this afternoon.
Trinity Boulevard is a common east-west shortcut for motorists trying to get from Fort Worth to Northeast Tarrant County, Irving and other parts west of Dallas. But the road, which was due for a makeover anyway, washed out earlier this week - during, ahem, our ONE DECENT RAINFALL since about Dec. 21. So anyway, as my colleague Terry Evens reported in this original story and a follow-up story, the road will be closed for the next 90 days. A detour is available near the Trinity Railway Express' Hurst Bell Station, and the delays are negligible ... of course, it's easy for me to say that.
Trinity Boulevard, a well-traveled shortcut for those traveling east to west (and vice versa) in Northeast Tarrant County, will be closed for awhile after weekend storms washed away a portion of the road. Here' s a story ably crafted by the Star-Telegram's Domingo Ramirez Jr. for this morning's Star-Telegram.
The trouble spot is between South Norwood Drive and Bell Spur, just a smidgen southwest of the Trinity Railway Express Hurst/Bell Station.
Those who regularly use this road say it had been under construction for a couple of weeks, and was prone to flooding during heavy rain.