As we discussed in our previous essay, urbanity is nothing but an ongoing and dynamic social experiment. All the diffuse land-use policies found throughout our Greater Austin Metropolitan Region have led to our currently disarrayed state and, although this economic inefficiency is not much of a recommendation for following that much-traveled path of subsidizing with such obscene sums for such, at the very best, negligible economic returns? And although it will take years to repair the damage done by such atomistic development strategies? And although I’ve been saying this over and over again over the past four years such that I feel like I’ve been banging my head insensate against a concrete wall the whole time? And although because of this my Wit tank is running on empty except for drollery’s vaguest fumes?
There are those who continue to assert that we should only continue subsidizing suburban sprawl. Alas, their sophisticatedly hypocritical rhetoric, which obfuscates our historical collective experience and presents obstacles that keep us individuals from progressing when Progress is the thing that’s supposed to make America so great, pervades other discussions. In this here essay we’ll be seeing how their argument extrapolates to transportation policy. One thing I’ve always held to be true:
Systems tend to perform better when they are not dependent upon one option but an array of options. This is because, if one of those options fails, the other options can make up for that failure. Another thing I believe true is that our transportation systems are the pulmonaries through which any region breathes while the urban core is the heart that pumps its vitality. They are inextricably entwined and, if one underperforms, stress is added to the other, which then adds stress to the other, etcetera and so forth and so on, until soon the whole regional system begins spiraling downwards toward inevitable collapse. Alas, the transportation system about 97% of us living here in Central Texas must use provides only one option, being highways. And it shall be shown below that our sole reliance on this transportation mode is stressing our society to a grave extent and that, to rectify this, we must begin maximizing choice – Which is what our purported American Dream® is supposed to be all about, isn’t it?
The root of our current situation can more or less be found way back in 1949, when President Harry Truman convinced Congress to break with the past and inject the federal government into the process of developing cities and financing housing. This Federal Housing Act expanded the availability of federal insurance for home mortgages, igniting the growth of new suburbs farther and farther from our urban cores. Together with the Federal Aid Highway Act (1956), the 1949 law started what we now describe as “suburban sprawl.” The two initiatives put Americans on the path of long commutes, heavy traffic, air pollution, water shortages, and a long-term increase in carbon dioxide emissions, all of which has always been heavily subsidized (building schools on the fringe, laying sewer and water lines to sprawling development, providing emergency services to the fringe and, of course, making direct pay-outs to developers; one case in point). Since the early 1970s, which is when the U.S. production of oil peaked, sprawl has only been increasingly unsustainably contrived and subsidized, to such an extent we as a society can no longer afford to behave like this anymore – Just look at the costs we’ve been accruing in Iraq and Afghanistan over our ravening thirst-driving need for maintaining our oil supply! One should consider that veritable payment in blood nothing but an American-lifestyle subsidy, no?
Over these decades, states had been demanding funding flexibility from the federal government and, with the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) and subsequent federal transportation reauthorization laws, they finally got it. Federal transportation investment programs now provide states a great opportunity to use funds for non-highway projects and help improve the relationship between transportation projects and land-use. In 2009, via the Federal Surface Transportation Program, the U.S. House of Representatives began introducing more ways in which they believe this situation can be rectified. It contains initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, often by seeking to encourage compact development, and sustainable modes of transportation is defined as public transit, walking and bicycling. Why does it see fit to do so?
- Each year, Americans spend 4.2 billion hours in traffic congestion, burning 2.9 billion gallons of fuel.
- Wasted time and fuel result in a $78 billion annual congestion tax, creating a financial drain on individual passengers and the economy as a whole.
- Transportation costs account for approximately 18 percent of an average household’s expenditures.
- Public transit, walking, and cycling are sustainable modes of transportation that result in 5.6 billion gallons of fuel savings and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 49 million metric tons each year.
- Sustainable modes of transportation can provide affordable transportation choices and have the ability to reduce the transportation cost burden.
- Cyclists and pedestrians are intended users of the surface transportation system, except where prohibited by law; and it is the policy of the Federal Government to encourage maximum accessibility and safety of the surface transportation system for cyclists and pedestrians as intended users when designing and constructing surface transportation facilities.
- In order to provide access to sustainable modes of transportation, land use and planning decisions must include considerations about transportation options.
- A modally balanced surface transportation system will benefit all users through improved accessibility, mobility, and quality of life.
- Increasing the availability and use of sustainable modes of transportation and the development of livable communities are national priorities.
But, of course and as always, there are those who are none too happy about all of the above. They believe voicing such an opinion is irrational, amounting to the worst kind of ideology, and that the wording betrays an agenda more concerned with forcing people to accept the favored (and “anti-suburban”) lifestyles that an “urban elite” has long sought to impose on others than it is to reduce such “hare-brained” and “inconsequential” things as, say, greenhouse gases.
Wendell Cox: “It appears that reducing vehicle miles would not produce a similar reduction in greenhouse gases from cars…It is precisely more intense traffic congestion that we can expect if federal laws and policies should force most development into present urban footprints…Policies aimed at reducing driving could damage the economy…(and) policies which seek to reduce V(ehicle)M(iles)T(raveled) may hinder economic growth without reducing emissions.”
Texas Public Policy Foundation: “Densifying and centralizing, so-called ‘smart growth,’ or directed growth strategies will, if successful, worsen traffic congestion and air pollution.”
To summarize, folks like those I’ve just cited believe: one, we as a society should be driving more; two, increasing urban density will only increase the amount of vehicle miles driven per capita; three, that the fundamental problem with transit is that it is an illusion bereft of reason and that nothing can be done to provide genuine transit choice; four, we should not take advantage of fallow/underused infrastructure like railways to improve our transportation systems; and thus, finally, our multi-modality should solely be confined to building more and more auto-centric roadways, tollroads and flyovers, each bigger than the last one, in order to relieve congestion and mitigate smog.
I myself am in the unanimous opinion that they are making ingeniously stupendously counterintuitive conclusions; nor am I alone:
- Providing more options for how a trip is made, the time of travel and the way that transportation service is paid for may be a useful mobility improvement framework for urban areas. For many trips and in many cities, the alternatives for a peak period trip are to travel earlier or later, avoid the trip or travel in congestion. Given the range of choices that Americans enjoy in many other aspects of daily life, these are relatively few and not entirely satisfying options;
- In growing areas adding capacity of all types is essential to handle the growing demand and avoid rapidly rising congestion;
- Transit, like ridesharing, park-and-ride lots and high-occupancy vehicle lanes, typically have a greater effect on the congestion statistics in a corridor, rather than across a region. Transit and these other elements “compete” very well with the single-occupant vehicle in serving dense activity centers and congested travel corridors;
Austin’s Chamber of Commerce’s Take on Traffic
- Many of the roads we drive on every day are between 40 and 70 years old. That’s why more than 40% of TxDOT’s budget (twice what the agency receives in state gas tax revenue) goes to maintenance. And much of the money that goes to “building” roads actually goes to rebuilding existing roads and bridges;
- There are more than $4.5 billion in road and transit projects waiting to happen in Central Texas for lack of resources;
- The gap between what Central Texas has to spend and the minimum cost of the new highways and transit systems it needs is nearly $2.7 billion;
- To do this with fuel taxes alone would require raising (it) to between $1.20 and $1.77 a gallon – on top of the price of gas itself;
- To do this by sales tax alone means adding between $3.50 and $5.62 to every $100 spent;
- To do this by property taxes alone means adding between $1260 and $2000 a year to the current tax bill for a $200,000 home.
And so, as you can see, the expense to build roads and utilities farther and farther from our urban cores has created hidden costs that have been driven to unsustainable levels as well as creating an imbalance in who pays for suburban sprawl. It is urgent that we understand the nature of our broken regional system and develop solutions to fix it.
Mike Krusee (former chairman of the Texas House of Representatives Transportation Committee [R; Williamson County]): “On average in Texas, it costs the state 20-30 cents per person per mile to build and maintain a road to the suburbs, yet drivers only pay on average 2-3 cents per mile through the gas tax and various vehicle fees…City dwellers have subsidized the land purchases and the development costs out in the suburbs…What’s more, the gas tax is a huge transfer of wealth from the cities to the suburbs to build these rings…We’ve hit the wall of unsustainability on how we finance the transportation system…What we found was that no road that we built in Texas paid for
You ask: “But what about public-private partnerships? Don’t they provide some financial relief?”
Eric Dexheimer: “(TxDOT) has embraced outsourcing more than any other state agency, putting almost three of every four dollars it spends in the pockets of private companies…A basic tenet of outsourcing is that private-sector employees work more cheaply and efficiently. (But in) an internal audit, in-house work was cheaper than hiring out. Take potholes: According to the report, the nearly 13,800 potholes that TxDOT employees filled during the past fiscal year cost an average of $23 each to repair. The 2,000 potholes repaired by private contractors, meanwhile, cost an average of $129 each…The report also shows that TxDOT spent about $17 million sealing cracks on state roadways last year. When state employees did the work — on about 8,000 linear miles – it cost $327 per mile. Private contractors repaired about 17,000 linear miles at a cost of $812 per mile – more than double the state’s cost.”
Zane Webb (director of the department’s maintenance division): “Whether we contract out is not something we decide…Sometimes, it’s not always about saving money. It can be about politics.”
You ask: “But what about toll roads? Don’t they pay for themselves?”
Ray Wilkerson (chairman of Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority): “The best options to fund (transportation) improvements (are) innovative tools such as toll revenue bonds and public-private partnerships. Given that fact, public officials decided to create the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, and that decision is already paying off in a big way…In a region as prosperous as Central Texas, we will continue to face many challenges when it comes to ensuring greater mobility. But, by empowering our community and its leaders with new funding tools, we are taking significant steps to relieve today’s congestion while preparing ourselves for the new residents and economic growth that lie ahead.” However? Based on recent returns on investment? Toll roads?
Ben Wear: “Tolls and other revenue have fallen more than $100 million short of covering debt and operating costs of the state’s three-road Central Texas Turnpike System since the highways opened about four years ago. Texas Department of Transportation subsidies almost 70 percent more than originally predicted have made up the difference. Those subsidies, covered primarily by state gasoline taxes that otherwise would be available for other road spending, should average about $38 million a year over the next decade and total about $750 million by 2042, according to TxDOT documents.”
Jolanda Prozzi (from a report sponsored by TxDOT’s Research and Technology Implementation Office): “Reliable T&R forecasts are critical to the success of toll proposals. However, a number of studies by the bond rating agencies—specifically Standard & Poor’s (S&P)—have shown that a majority of toll roads failed to meet revenue expectations in their first full year of operation. These studies alluded to the existence of an optimism bias in T&R forecasts, with an over-estimation of traffic by 20-30 percent in the first five years of operation. This uncertainty contributes to increased risks about the feasibility of toll roads, requirements for escrow accounts of up to 30 percent of the amount borrowed, and thus high interest payments (and ultimately higher costs to the users) to compensate investors for higher risks.”
In other words, the facts regarding concentrating our individual and societal energies solely upon building roadways to alleviate congestion have only been made even bleaker. It is extremely subsidized and neither cost effective nor sustainable. And now is when arrive at the point where?
What the City of Austin’s terming “urban rail,” aka that big ole elephant that’s been in our closet, enters our discussion. Needless to say, while it may not solve all of our traffic and land-use problems, at the very least it must be a part of the solution.
JIM SKAGGS: “These are 10 significant reasons to reject the City’s Light Rail (Urban Rail) at any time (among them being:) Transit does not generally increase overall development and tax base…Public transit systems degrade average mobility by reducing most rider’s options and opportunities, resulting in lesser quality of life…(And) every community has a limited amount of taxes/fees available from citizens and the wasteful spending on ineffective transit deprives the community of higher priority needs and often results in higher taxes/fees which reduce affordability and quality of life.”
Randal O’Toole (a senior fellow at the Cato institute): “Light Rail isn’t the track to the future.”
(A pretty bang-up article was published by Lee Nichols the Austin Chronicle a few months ago; it’s well worth referencing and, if you do, and since it already so eloquently relays what I would like to write, you’ll see I’ll be leaning quite heavily upon it for the remainder of this essay.)
Nichols: “To O’Toole, ‘Rail is just an obsolete form of travel. We’ve got streets that go everywhere. Why not use those streets? We have to spend a huge amount of money building a rail line, and generally rail lines cost far more than building highways and carry far fewer people.’
“But new highways aren’t really an option for the corridors under discussion here. In fact, the city-commissioned Central Austin Transit Study that outlines the need for this project states, ‘A Ring of Constraint, defined by severe congestion points surrounding Central Austin, restricts access to the core of the region. Yet, there’s no room to expand roads, let alone construct new ones.’
“Still doesn’t matter, O’Toole says. ‘Building a new road isn’t the only alternative to a rail line. The real problem with rail lines is they’re expensive and inflexible. There are so many alternatives’ (like Bus Rapid Transit).”
Robert Spillar (director of Austin’s Transportation Department): “We have to look at ways to truly expand the capacity of those roadways. We can do that with urban rail much better than we can with buses…A lot of rail pundits always want to argue (about) the grand scale of roads versus rail, as opposed to looking at the specific corridor.”
Critics of such investments?
Todd Litman (Victoria Transport Policy Institute): “(They) generally assume the primary transit planning goal is cost minimization, resulting in lower quality service that attracts few discretionary travelers and so does little to reduce traffic problems. Advocates generally assume that the primary planning goal is service quality maximization, and therefore ridership and total benefits, even if this requires higher initial investment and policy changes. Decision-makers must determine whether the additional benefits are worth the additional costs, and whether they can implement the policy changes needed to maximize benefits.”
Lee Leffingwell (Mayor of the City of Austin): “I would argue that in the long run, it’s cheaper to do rail. Rail, being a permanent route, not easily altered, actually serves as a development incentive. When development occurs around rail stations and rail lines, it increases property values. So in the aggregate, the city, the county, all the taxing entities make more money. I think it’s fairly well established that bus lines do not do that… not to the extent, certainly, that rail systems do. A lot of people think maybe rail could pay for itself, just by tax-increment financing along the route.”
TTI’s Jeffrey Arndt (from a report sponsored by TxDOT’s Research and Technology Implementation Office): “While transportation impacts are often masked by heavy growth in corridor traffic and latent travel demand, modeling enables measuring the real transportation impacts of rail projects. Rail transit is both safe and environmentally friendly. Rail systems expand mobility and reduce household investment in transportation. However, as regions implement rail systems, they must take care to consider the full range of rider impacts so that environmental justice issues do not emerge. The largest body of research relates to the economic impact of rail. These impacts are strongest in station areas, as access to rail increases property value on nearby property.”
- Light-Rail Transit in America; Policy Issues and Prospects for Economic Development
- Total development along Phoenix/Mesa/Tempe Light Rail Line
- Light Rail spurs economic development and success in Phoenix
- Dallas Light Rail Sparks Development Boom
- An Economic Case for Light Rail
Litman: “High quality rail transit is more than just a type of vehicle; it is an integrated system that includes relatively fast and frequent transit service on major corridors with comfortable and attractive vehicles and stations, transit-oriented development around station areas with good walking and cycling access, efficient bus feeder service, and various support policies such as integrated fares and efficient parking management.”
Nichols: “In other words – regardless of what system is implemented, if it isn’t done right as part of a larger package of policy changes, it will fail. The problem, says Litman, is that O’Toole and his allies tar all rail, good and bad, with the same brush, ignoring or misrepresenting examples where rail has attracted good ridership and development.” (Thanks, Mr. Nichols!)
At this point, arguing ourselves blue in the face about such things as which mode of transportation is better has become moot. We are very quickly nearing if not already beyond the point where all those battles being waged may amount to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs in order to keep this ship of ours from sinking. Much sooner rather than later we the people are going to have no choice but more compact development more efficiently served by a transportation system that provides us with more options; the longer we wait endeavoring to do so, the greater the eventual cost will be. To conclude, there are all sorts of special interest groups out there that are working against you the individual’s best interests. A way needs to be found that addresses how the costs and benefits of development can be re-distributed, a way that enables us individuals to weigh our short-term self-interest with long-term social value so that we, as individuals, and we, as a regional society comprised of us individuals, can actually begin maximizing our own benefits rather than somebody else’s.
As you’ll see, in our third and final section of this Occupy Central theme, we’ll be introducing one way we may begin doing so.