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State transportation performance goals suggest lack of government solutions

Monday, December 17, 2018 by Ryan Thornton

Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board caught a glimpse of a potentially bleak future in Texas transportation during a routine procedure at the board’s Monday evening meeting.

In line with the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, the 2012 transportation reauthorization bill otherwise known as MAP-21, state transportation departments are required to establish a set of performance targets that the state’s metropolitan planning organizations must expediently adopt. Since these targets are set for the state as whole, not just the CAMPO region, adopting them has little impact on the board’s decisions overall, but the targets do offer insight into the state’s plans for repairing infrastructure and creating statewide solutions to traffic issues. As CAMPO’s short-range planning manager Ryan Collins presented the Texas Department of Transportation’s performance targets to the board this week, a hard truth quickly emerged: The state expects transportation problems to get much worse, soon.

The figures at hand were TxDOT’s performance targets for pavement and bridge conditions (PM2) and system performance (PM3). The targets establish a statewide baseline for highway and bridge pavement conditions and travel time reliability – consistency and dependability in travel times from day to day – on interstates and national highways. Curiously, for each measure provided by TxDOT, performance is expected to decline between now and 2022.

While pavement conditions on non-interstate highways and national highway bridges should only fall by less than one percent, TxDOT anticipates a sharp decline of travel time reliability on interstate highways by 2022. The figures predict a 23.1 percent drop from the 79.5 percent baseline to 56.6 percent by 2022. When Commissioner Brigid Shea asked CAMPO Executive Director Ashby Johnson what could account for the predicted spike in travel time variability, Johnson didn’t have an answer.

The performance targets are largely based on studies by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute that take into account expected infrastructure improvements. As several board members noted, they are not worst-case scenarios.

“It’s so interesting that even the state would acknowledge they’re not doing their job; that’s a little frustrating,” said Council Member Jimmy Flannigan.

Central Texas, however, is unlikely to bear the brunt of this neglect in the short term. As Collins explained, highway pavement conditions in the CAMPO region are far better than the statewide baseline. While only 54.4 percent of non-interstate highway pavement statewide is considered in “good” condition, Collins said that figure is at 94.15 percent in the CAMPO region. In addition, 91.1 percent of regional highway bridge pavement is in “good” condition, compared to only 50.7 percent statewide.

Despite the concerns raised, the board had little choice but to adopt the measures before the approaching Dec. 18 deadline. Failing this, CAMPO’s activities would be frozen. Johnson explained: “When the Federal Highway Administration reviews the TIP amendments that we’re asking to go forward in January, if we don’t have these targets in place then they will not approve our portion in the statewide plan and so all the projects stop.”

With this in mind, the board members set aside their reservations and unanimously approved adoption of the performance measures.

Although a number of board members wished to inquire further into the implications of what they were learning, Chair Will Conley said the requirement for MPOs to adopt the standards was a mere formality with very little relevance to operations at the regional level. “You can set the standards at whatever you like, but I don’t understand how there’s any real substantive change to people who are actually using the asset itself since it is a state-owned, federally owned asset,” said Conley.

Mayor Steve Adler requested the item be placed on the next meeting agenda for further discussion and clarity into the reason for the forecasted drop in travel time reliability. Johnson agreed to consult with TTI and return with answers to the board’s questions.

Photo by Todd Morris made available through a Creative Commons license.

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