If you’ve been in Central Texas long, you’ve likely realized the importance of Interstate 35 to our region, making possible that quick trip up to Dallas or down to Austin. In actuality, I-35 extends 1,568 miles, spanning North America and connecting all three countries, from the border in Laredo all the way up to Minnesota, connecting with Canada.
I-35 is not only significant for Waco but also an international corridor, facilitating freight movement, commerce and travel within, and of critical importance to, Texas and beyond. However, any who travel I-35 can attest to long delays and excessive time spent idling, hoping to get from Point A to Point B. The impact on commerce, productivity and quality of life is real and will only be exacerbated with the population growth Texas will experience in years to come. Other external changes may also contribute to increased usage of our transportation infrastructure.
In June, the $5.4 billion Panama Canal expansion project had its inaugural ceremony. This expansion will nearly triple the capacity of the original canal. Natural gas producers are among those anticipated to get the most use and the biggest win from the expansion. February 2016 saw the first exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) produced in the continental United States and already the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects our nation will be the world’s third-largest LNG producer by 2020. As Texas production and exports of LNG, not to mention other goods in our booming state economy, increase, so will the usage of our existing infrastructure.
For these reasons, expansion of our section of I-35 “loop-to-loop,” a key piece of our state and national infrastructure, and support of high-speed rail initiatives for our state are both priorities of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce.
The Texas Department of Transportation recently released the long-awaited draft environmental impact statement of the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study (TOPRS). This study examines the 850-mile TOPRS corridor, which extends from Laredo north along I-35 to Oklahoma City, and the viability of a high-speed passenger rail line along the corridor.
There has also been much talk of late of the Texas Central project, a high-speed rail line from Dallas to Houston. While some opposition exists, there is also support. The Waco City Council and transportation-focused Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization, with representatives not only from our county commissioners but also other county municipalities such as Ross, Robinson, Hewitt and McGregor, passed resolutions of support.
Those opposed speak from a perspective of property rights and concern that detriment to farm and ranch land value could come with construction of a high-speed rail system on the proposed Dallas-to-Houston corridor. These can be charged and divisive issues, and we must respect the position of all voices, rural and urban alike.
Yet, much like the ardent opposition that President Eisenhower faced when seeking to plan and build an interstate highway system across our country’s wide open lands, we feel support for this new mode of travel and transportation is an acknowledgement of the changes in demographic realities facing our state. These will call for a robust and multi-modal-infrastructure system that will allow for the efficient transportation of goods and services and people throughout our great state and beyond.
That electoral districts were drawn in such a way that many of our elected officials represent both urban and rural Texans puts those legislators in a difficult position, as they might feel bound to sometimes conflicting interests. And while they must be respectful of rural constituents, they also might recognize, as these conversations gear up, that they also represent urban areas largely in favor of high-speed rail.
In fact, 80 percent of our state population resides in urbanized areas, which tend to be supportive of rail projects. This may explain the constitutional amendment passed by Texas voters in 2005 authorizing our legislature to invest public dollars in passenger rail infrastructure or, similarly the results of the 2011 study which showed that Texans are overwhelmingly in support of not only high-speed rail but public investment in the same.
High and higher speed rail would stimulate our economy, create new industries and increase mobility. As noted by the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, it will open new domestic markets and supply chains and broaden regional labor markets. This would support the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce’s economic development team in efforts to bolster existing businesses as well as recruit new ones to locate or expand in Waco, ultimately creating desirable, well-paying jobs and expanding our community’s tax base. It can expand visitor markets and generate new spending. Just think if folks from Dallas or Austin could zip in to the Magnolia Market silos with even greater ease!
Studies by the Economic Development Research Group Inc. and others project that the construction, maintenance and existence of high-speed rail lines could create sharp rises in new business sales in cities with high-speed rail; spur new jobs that bring new wages for families; and expand the overall tax base through tax revenue paid to the state, cities, counties and school districts. The potential for economic impact that will improve quality of life for us all is real.
Texas leads the nation in population growth and, according to 2015 projections, our population will double by 2050. If we do not act now to expand and improve our existing transportation infrastructure, this dramatic increase in population will strain our existing resources and infrastructure and bring environmental degradation for which our children will not thank us — degradation that will not only detract from quality of life but also limit our ability to grow our economy.
With EPA regulations that require urban areas to keep their ozone levels under 70 parts per billion, communities could easily be forced into air-quality nonattainment with millions of new Texas drivers — including freight trucks, projected to increase at twice the rate of passenger traffic — all locked in vehicular gridlock.
Road and airport congestion has been calculated to cost America over $156 billion per year in time and fuel. A recent trip home from Austin took me more than four hours with lane closures on I-35. Those are hours I could have been working, shopping or enjoying time with my children. It’s calculated that in one year Americans collectively lose 4.2 billion hours stuck in traffic jams.
We must be strategic as we plan for the transportation needs of our great state. We must recognize the realities of demographic change and the dynamics of a 21st century economy that will demand connectivity. We must recognize that while significant progress has been made with the passing of Proposition 1 and Proposition 7 in Texas, and the 2015 FAST Act at the federal level, our transportation challenges are not yet resolved.
In 2014, when TxDOT canvassed the state as a part of the TOPRS project, the Greater Waco Chamber issued an “action alert” requesting members to write letters of support. Over 100 such letters came from leadership representing diverse sectors. Letters came from Central Texas Associated General Contractors, representing 225 commercial builders; the Waco Business League, representing the voice of chief executive officers of over 125 local businesses; major employers; Baylor students and faculty; as well as area citizens, all supportive of the potential not only to more expeditiously enjoy our beautiful state but, perhaps more importantly, the opportunity to develop our economy and provide our region with access to expanded workforce.
With the initial TOPRS Tier 1 study now complete, TxDOT is again beginning a series of public meetings. (The next one is Wednesday in Austin.) We again have an opportunity to weigh in, to voice our support of a future high-speed rail line running along the I-35 corridor and our support for Waco’s connection to this line. Presently there is neither state funding nor federal congressional authority granted to fund the Tier II study, which would be a necessary next step. The state’s rapid population growth will likely necessitate that decision-makers continue to develop innovative ways to pay for future transportation infrastructure.
The time to plan for the future is now. As famed urban planner Daniel Burnham said, “Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir humanity’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical plan once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”
Jessica Attas is director of public policy for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce. She works with key officials nationwide to advocate issues of community and economic development.