Rick Perry was just a year into his tenure as governor when he proposed the Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive 4,000-mile network of privately operated toll roads, railroad tracks and utility lines that would take 50 years to build.
“This plan is as big as Texas and as ambitious as our people,” Perry said at the first of many events touting the project.
The corridor he envisioned would never become a reality, but he still managed to leave his mark on the state’s approach to funding roads. Under his leadership, Texas has been the country’s most aggressive supporter of tolling and private-sector investment in transportation.
Despite millions of dollars spent on planning, the caustic public response to the Trans-Texas Corridor would ultimately doom it. Activists decried the project as a boondoggle, an infringement on property rights, a textbook example of crony capitalism and a pathway to a Texas in which avoiding tolls on everyday trips would become impossible. Eventually, opposition to the Trans-Texas Corridor became the default position for political candidates across the state, regardless of party affiliation.
Perry tried for years to salvage the project (he repeatedly warned that Texas’ only transportation options were “toll roads, slow roads or no roads”) but eventually gave up the fight. In 2011, he signed a bill expunging the last references to the Trans-Texas Corridor in state law.
And yet, Perry’s vision of toll roads blossoming across Texas didn’t exactly fade away. His early push for the Trans-Texas Corridor jump-started a building boom of highways paid for by future toll revenue, often with private-sector investment playing a role. Texas now has more than 500 miles of tolled highways, most of them constructed over the last decade.
Overall, Texas added more than 6,600 new highway miles between 2001 and 2012, including those with and without tolls. While that’s more than any other state, it’s among the lowest in the country when adjusted for Texas’ fast-growing population.
Texans have paid the same gas tax — 38.4 cents per gallon — since 1993, and at both the state and at the federal level, there has been little political interest in raising it.
“That’s why we embraced visionary approaches to finance road construction,” Perry said in a speech in January. “Pay-as-you-go just didn’t pour enough asphalt and concrete to meet our growing needs.”
Since 2003, Texas has helped close the gap between its transportation needs and available funds by borrowing billions of dollars and outsourcing more of its road work to the private sector.
As Perry’s tenure comes to a close, the Texas Department of Transportation finds itself with an annual funding shortfall of $5 billion. An oil-drilling boom in South and West Texas is helping relieve some of that while also creating new challenges, including crumbling rural roads and a spike in vehicle crashes.
Across the state, worsening traffic is creating concerns that the state’s strong economic performance in recent years could eventually falter as businesses find the state’s road network unmanageable. In the Capitol, both Republicans and Democrats are showing signs of tolling fatigue and expressing interest in approaching the issue in different ways in a post-Perry era.