Trucks on County Roads

By Tim Brown, County Information Senior Analyst

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Did you know the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) tracks a variety of statistics related to local roads? Their annual Roadway Inventory publication reports the number of centerline and lane miles of roads and highways by type of road (e.g., U.S. highway, certified county road, etc.).

In addition to miles of each road type, the report also provides statistics on how much those roads are used. You can discover how many miles per day they estimate motor vehicles travel each kind of road, again per county. You can also find their estimate of the number of miles trucks travel on those same roads. We can estimate annual usage by multiplying those daily values by 365.

Map 1 (above) shows the estimated number of annual miles trucks traveled on certified county roads in 2017 on a per capita basis. Why per capita? Truck vehicle miles will generally track with the population; the higher the county population, the larger the number of miles. Annual truck-vehicle miles per capita should get us a bit closer to cost per tax payer. Of course, we’re ignoring road surface type, environmental factors, etc. But we are not trying to be exact; we just want to be in the ballpark. 

Three items immediately jump out from Map 1. First, the map shows the number of annual truck vehicle miles (TVM) traveled on certified county roads per capita. It does not include U.S. or state highways, which explains why you cannot track major interstates on the map. 

Second, the legend reveals a peak of 19,471.71 annual TVM per capita. As is often the case, Loving County is the standout. 

Third, the western part of the state shows high contrast between the many counties in the uppermost bracket (darkest color) and those in the lowest bracket (lightest color). As expected, county roads in the Permian Basin area are heavily used. And the heavy usage in the Panhandle may be related to the Anadarko and Palo Duro basins. 

We can also look at taxable property values per daily truck vehicle mile. This gives us a slightly different look at a county’s ability to fund maintenance and repair of county roads as seen in Map 2 (below). For example, in this view, Loving County no longer stands out from the crowd. While Loving has one of the lowest amounts of taxable value per TVM at $277,913, it is above Swisher County’s $198,500. It might have been expected that Dallas County, since it is an urban county with relatively few miles of county roads, would have the highest amount of taxable value per TVM. But that distinction belongs to Kent County at more than $71 million per daily TVM. Although Kent has a fairly small population, TxDOT estimates that trucks only traveled 6.265 miles per day on the county’s roads in 2017.

Unexpectedly, most of the Eagle Ford Shale counties do not stand out on either map. Which raises the question of how has the fracking boom impacted counties? 

Map 3 (above) shows the percentage change in daily TVM on certified county roads from 2010 to 2017. The Great Recession began in December 2007; however, the recession did not hit Texas until 2009 and the state started adding jobs again in 2010. Thus, I wanted to use data from 2008 as the starting year. However, there were some issues with the 2008 and 2009 data which made them questionable for use in this analysis (and trying to get answers to those questions during the legislative session proved to be challenging). That left 2010 as the starting year.

Seventy-three counties experienced declines of more than 25% in daily TVM on certified county roads from 2010 to 2017. Over the same period, 53 counties had increases of at least 25%, including 17 counties where the number of daily TVM more than doubled. 

One county, Loving, actually had an increase of more than 6,000%. Much of that increase came recently as daily TVM increased 952.7% from 679.1 miles in 2016 to 7,148.5 miles in 2017. All of this in a county where, in 2017, only 134 people resided, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Loving and many of the other counties in the dark-colored areas on the map — near the southeast corner of New Mexico — form part of the Permian Basin. That does not include El Paso County. The increase in this urban county likely occurred in part from the nearby shale boom. Likewise, some of increase seen in counties east and south of San Antonio may have resulted from the shale boom as some of these counties overlay the Eagle Ford shale play. 

But not all Eagle Ford Shale counties show substantial increases in TVM. This may be a result of starting our analysis with data from 2010 when the drilling really took off in this area before that year. In addition, drilling in 2017 was still somewhat restrained after OPEC decided to increase production in November 2014. According to the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, the petroleum industry spent much of 2017 recovering from the resulting drop in oil prices.

The 2017 data on daily TVM on certified county roads provides a snapshot of activity. Combined with the trends shown from 2010 to 2017, it is apparent that a lot of economic activity is taking place both within and outside of the major urban areas. What is less clear is the ability of those other areas, given their small populations and limited tax bases, to fund the roads used to build and sustain that activity.