Our transportation overlords at the North Central Texas Council of Governments have been accused of massaging numbers to justify letting a company called the Texas Turnpike Corp. build a tollway from Dallas to Greenville that no one who lives in the way seems to want.
The council of governments, aka NCTCOG, (Or as Shutze calls them, THE COG!), presented a PowerPoint slide full of a bunch of numbers last month that they say explains why the tollway makes sense. But the PowerPoint slides had that unofficial, PowerPoint-ish look to them. Where are all the NCTCOG's data coming from?! tollway opponents demanded to know.
Controversy over NCTCOG's numbers began at a meeting on September 22. A woman from the public named Christine Hubley announced that she had dug up some data from the Texas Department of Transportation showing much lower future traffic projections than NCTCOG's estimates. The News followed up with a story on the discrepancy, writing that while NCTCOG predicts anywhere from a 70 to 503 percent increase in drivers along different sections of the so-called Blacklands Corridor, the state's figures stay in the more conservative range of 23.3 percent to 65.1 percent.
The state's lower numbers, as the News notes, come from an official-looking data center at the University of Texas at San Antonio that works with the U.S. Census Bureau.
So where is the NCTCOG getting its higher numbers from? I asked the NCTCOG for the source of all its data, and spokesman Amanda Wilson soon emailed me a giant file that included a long report called a regional travel demand model, describing a complicated formula for predicting future population growth.
The file also includes a bunch of maps, an economics report and, finally, two reports authored by consulting firms. One report, described as "a socioeconomic demographic forecast," predicts that a lot of jobs are coming to the tollway area in the future. That's nice, though should probably be taken with a grain of salt, as authors at the Insight Research Corp. point out in the report that they're working for the Texas Turnpike Corp. And a report authored by Baez Consulting, another firm hired by the Texas Turnpike Corp., predicts that the tollway is definitely necessary and will be very profitable.
Asked by email if she thought getting data from company-funded reports presents a conflict of interest, Wilson stresses that NCTCOG's controversial traffic figures came only from its travel model, a report she says was done completely independent of industry money.
"NCTCOG did not rely on traffic forecasts developed by Baez Consulting or any other company hired by the Texas Turnpike Corp. in our Feasibility Study," she said in an email.
It was after NCTCOG generated that traffic report that they then gave their numbers to the Texas Turnpike Corp. to generate yet more reports in a never-ending, report-generating cycle. As Wilson explains: "At the request of Texas Turnpike Corporation (TTC), NCTCOG provided these traffic projections to their consultants, Insight Research Corporation and Baez Consulting, who in turn benefited from NCTCOG's traffic projection in their independent estimations of economic impact and toll revenue for TTC's proposed tollroad project."
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It's the Texas Turnpike Corp.'s job to establish financial feasibility, Wilson says. So the tollway, though unpopular, looks like it at least will be super profitable, as long as you feel comfortable putting your trust in reports funded by the corporation that wants to build it, based on traffic numbers that may or may not be inflated.
Here is NCTCOG's traffic report. The first commenter who reads the whole thing and summarizes it in a way the rest of us can understand gets a cookie: