North Central Texas Council of Governments Director of Transportation
Editor's note: Coffee with Impact is an occasional feature with leaders from various sectors who are making a difference in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Michael Morris said he does not like to see the same thing twice, which is why being the director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments is an attractive position.
Morris said the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area keeps transportation interesting, and every day is a different challenge because of the diverse nature of the growing region.
Morris has been with the NCTCOG, the metropolitan planning organization for the region, since 1979, the same year he received his master's degree in civil engineering from State University of New York at Buffalo. He's been the director of transportation since 1990.
What are the biggest issues that you think face transportation today
in the North Texas region?
Money is probably one. You'll never have enough money, so constraints breed innovation. Our No. 1 issue is probably revenues. Second is probably the demand. [Approximately] 6.8 million people live in the region. We grow at 100,000 people a year—that's a million people a decade—and have since 1960. Three million more people are on their way. Our office as the metropolitan planning organization is responsible for that growth. [We] don't have the luxury to look out the window and plan for tomorrow. We have to stand up and plan for 10 1/2 million people and try to do the right thing today for 10 1/2 million people in the future.
[Also], I wish we had a communication system ... where you can really debate the real issues instead of debate what we call "tennis journalism" where someone captures a quote and hits it into the other person's court, and then they're trying to respond, and they hit it back. These are really important issues, and they're very complicated issues. So the ability of actually communicating, debating really the future of the region—which is so important—that will be our third challenge.
Where did the toll road funding model originate for the region?
In the early '80s, the federal government changed our rules and regulations on how we develop a [transportation] plan. Previous to that, in the '70s and early '80s, if a project was warranted, we would put it in our transportation plan. Our transportation plan always had everything: we had all these rail lines and roadways. ... This plan has eight times or 10 times what we actually can afford. The federal government said, 'In your rules and regulations, you're misleading people,' to which we agreed 100 percent. I think the best thing the federal government ever did was require plans... You can't put anything in the transportation plan that is not financially constrained.
We looked at this maintenance issue that TxDOT was facing. All of our money came off the top, we put it into maintenance, we had very little money left over, and we said, 'We still have to build a rail system, build more thoroughfare streets.' The only way our region's going to survive—and thank God we did this—is if we have any additional capacity, it's going to have to be tolled.
The three rules in the early '90s we came up with was any new roadway or right of way would be a toll road, any additional lanes to a current freeway we would make express lanes and toll—we call those tolled managed lanes—and we would never convert a free lane into a toll lane in the region.
What are your thoughts on the recent passage of Proposition 1?
As an engineer and as a government employee, we couldn't tell people how they should vote. But we're clapping inside. We're happy Proposition 1 passed for two reasons. One, it's $1.75 billion a year for the first year—we'll see where gasoline prices go. For our region, that's probably $300 [million] to $400 million for our share of the $1.75 billion. ... But, more importantly, No. 2, is the pendulum. We've been short revenues for so long... Our elected officials would like to see this pendulum swing back more as a pay-as-you-go, more of a traditional system. So, this takes us
20 percent of the way back. ... So Prop. 1 is a very positive first step.
What will be the future of rail for the North Texas region?
We tried six or eight years ago with the Legislature to create a local option revenue source for us to expand rail. ... This is the message for Frisco. This is the message that Grapevine already understood and they signed up for with the TexRail line... Richardson and Plano obviously understood it. ... If you talk to those mayors, passenger rail equals economic development. It's a marketing tool as well as a transportation mode... Just think about this: More people will locate in Collin County in the next 25 years than live there today. That's a 100 percent increase. You are not going to solve all of Collin County's transportation needs on the back of an inadequate roadway revenue system. More tools, like rail, are going to have to be developed. Cities are going to have to build more mixed-use developments ... create more walkable communities.
The debate we're having is do we bring the local option election back again? Do we create a new institutional structure to build regional rail? Do we have conversations with the Legislature right now? Money that is in the state TxDOT fund can't be used for transit because it's roadway-only. Do we have some conversations with them about the flexibility of moving some of that to rail? You first should say, 'You don't want to move too much money because you have this very delicate roadway funding balance.' So, it's not like we have a whole bunch of extra roadway money we can move to rail. I probably should have added in my first challenge... the difficulty of getting to rail because we have so many things against us with regard to constitutionality of money and funds not being eligible for mass transit.
We've got of our hands tied behind our backs. There are some people in the state who think rail is just a horrible investment—'It's just terrible. Why would you ever build rail.' Then, if you ask the mayor of Richardson, she'll tell you, 'I have rail because my community wins with economic development. I'm bringing jobs, a tax base and it helps me maintain a competitive environment.' Those of us in transportation think it's a great, reliable way for the future. Trains run 93 percent on time, and our roadway system doesn't.