More than 400 attendees joined the Austin Chamber to discuss how economics can address growth in the Central Texas region.
On October 30, transportation enthusiasts joined the Greater Austin Chamber and industry leaders for the annual Regional Growth Solutions summit. The event, Making Central Texas Work, discussed ways economics can address growth in the region through transportation, infrastructure, land use, and energy.
More than 15 guest speakers including Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, Texas State Senator Kirk Watson, Texas State Representative Celia Israel, Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daughtery, and James Bass of TxDOT shared their viewpoints on regional growth. The keynote speaker was Jeffrey Tumlin, a renowned community building guru who has led award-winning plans in Seattle, Vancouver, Moscow, and Abu Dhabi.
The highlight of the evening was when longtime transportation advocate, Texas State Senator Kirk Watson, announced TxDOT's plan to change the landscape of Austin by adding additional lanes on I-35.
Below are key takeaways from the event.
Congestion is an economics problem…
...not an infrastructure problem according to Jeffrey Tumlin who provided the keynote address on transportation in the region to audience members.
“It is only susceptible to economic solutions. Another reason we are frustrated is most of us don’t know why the transportation industry exists. We forget that it is better seen as a branch of economics than it is a branch of civil engineering,” said Tumlin.
Tumlin showcased a presentation that showed in simple terms two ways economics is used in the transportation realm. The first way was through supply and demand. As Austin continues to grow, our roads become a scarce resource not based on price but time to balance out supply and demand. This means that congestion is what happens when more people want to use the highway (demand), which causes the roadways to become crowded (supply) and forces residents to wait (time) to access the highway (a limited resource).
The second way was through microeconomics where we tend to focus on a single factor (top peaks of travel time) and its effect on individual decisions (spending more money to eliminate traffic congestion). In this situation, we continue to rely on the same outcomes that lead to nowhere. For example, since voters are unhappy with congestion, they are willing to be taxed to widen the roads. The additional space means more drivers which leads to more congestion and the cycle repeats itself.
“Roadway capacity is a limited renewable resource. It is very limited. We need tools to balance supply and demand. The other thing we need to think about in terms of transportation is to focus on geometry, not ideology.”
Tumlin provided solutions on how the Central Texas region can address its transportation issue by creating a business case that doesn’t legislate automobile dependency. Instead, Tumlin suggested that transportation should be enjoyable for residents and any transportation plan should include key elements—values, goals, objectives, strategies, performance measures, budget and performing mechanisms—that residents expect.
Throughout the four-hour event, panelists agreed that the biggest challenge for the region, especially in terms of transportation, is funding.
Currently, the State of Texas relies on the gas tax to fund transportation projects. According to the Texas Comptroller, Texans use about 13 billion gallons of gasoline and 4.5 billion of diesel fuel each year. This generates a substantial amount of funding for the state, more than $3.4 billion in fiscal 2015. The State currently charges approximately 20 cents a gallon in gas tax.
“What we are dealing with is a state purse that is very reliant on the gas tax,” said Texas State Representative Celia Israel. “It seems like every week I see a manufacturer who is declaring that they are no longer going to build gasoline vehicles. We need to find the political will to reformat how we can configure our purse in an age when we are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles and driving less.”
Figuring out which projects to work on and are beneficial to the region is another reason why funding is competitive. “We have enough money to do anything, but not enough to do everything,” said James Bass, Executive Director of TxDOT. But other sources of funding is still an issue the region can’t figure out how to address to remain competitive.
“We have to do the best with what we have,” said Commissioner Will Conley of Hays County. “There is very little creativity left with respect to property taxes and another source is needed to leverage all of these other different funds to put us ahead in which we are successful.”
Collaboration is the future
The hopes to improve the quality of life of residents or reduce traffic congestion is contingent on collaboration. That is if all entities want the region to continue to grow.
“We all benefit from the progress that each of us has. Without us working together as a region we will fail,” said Mayor Barron Casteel of the City of New Braunfels. “And it is not just going to be to the legislature because we know exactly what we have coming up in the next session before the votes are in.”
Although some believe that working together on plans and keeping each other informed of progress is beneficial to the growth of the region, others believe that fixing all regional issues is unrealistic.
“I do not think you can tackle this issue and solve it for the region,” said Commissioner Gerald Daugherty of Travis County. “I think we will have to try to fix each one of our issues and build them together as best as we can in order to witness a better central Texas.”
One example of collaboration for the night was TxDOT’s plan to assist with congestion on I-35 through their Capital Express project. The announcement made by Texas State Senator Kirk Watson and Terry McCoy with TxDOT highlighted the $8 billion project which will add two additional lanes in both directions and remove upper decks at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Airport Boulevard.
“I do believe we are on the verge of something great in our region and community and I see a lot of synergy happening,” said Terry McCoy, District Engineer of TxDOT. “ I think we may be at the tip of that iceberg right now. Some of these things we have been working on for years. Those seeds have been planted and they are starting to come up and I think we will continue to see that success in the future.”
The event was held at the JW Marriott and was sponsored by AT&T, Downtown Austin Alliance, Capital Metro, Enoch Kever, STG Design, Chariot, HDR, Brookfield Residential, CTRMA, HNTB Corporation, LCRA, Pape-Dawson Engineers, and St. David’s Healthcare.
For more upcoming Chamber events, click here.
Greater Austin Chamber
The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce focuses on how the Austin Region works. We serve as the voice of business for 2,800 organizations representing a combined workforce of about 330,000 employees throughout Central Texas. Our mission is to provide leadership that facilitates the creation of a prosperous regional economy and effective advocacy for members.