This is something I never thought I would write in Dallas, since driving is part of our cultural Holy Trinity (along with the Cowboys and watering our lawns). But the North Texas Tollway Authority is in serious financial trouble, and only part of it has to do with bad management. The other reason? The authority has seen traffic on its highways – pirmarity the Dallas North tollway, the George Bush and Hwy. 121 – decline enough so that revenue is expected to decrease almost 11 percent this year.

How much has system traffic actually declined? No one seems to know, though I have a call in to see if I can find out. But everyone is reasonably certain why fewer people are using the authority’s highways. Americans aren’t driving as much, a pattern that started last summer when gas prices spiked and has continued since. In January, according to an analysis by Nate Silver, who has to be hardest working statistician in the blogosphere, we drove about four percent less than in January 2008. Amazingly, January 2009 was the 15th consecutive month that we drove less than we did the year before.

This is almost unprecedented, and it leaves the tollway authority in a huge bind. Raising tolls, which it will have to do to make up the deficit, will almost certainly cut traffic even more. Which will perpetuate the crisis in one of those chicken and egg spirals. The good news? It drives another nail in the coffin of the Trinity toll road, which is an NTTA project. Even if we fix the levees and find a way to pay for construction, what’s the point of building a tollway that won’t generate enough tolls to pay for itself?

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