Occupy Central Texas; Transportation

31 01 2012

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?

Congress finds the following (July 21, 2011)

  • 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.

And?

I myself am in the unanimous opinion that they are making ingeniously stupendously counterintuitive conclusions; nor am I alone:

The Texas Transportation Institute

  • 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
itself.

“ None.”

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?

Don’t pay for themselves

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?

Light Rail

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.”

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.





Occupy Central Texas; Land-use

24 01 2012

On the morning of Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011, while getting caught up with yesterday’s news over coffee, minding my own business and bothering nobody, an opinion piece by Ed Wendler came across my attention. (To preface, if you don’t already know by now he’s a real estate developer from hereabouts infamous for his hackneyed espousements of all things sprawl and knee-jerk arguments against most everything about and of Downtown, especially density and rail.) This missive of his in question was entitled Count on higher living costs in New Austin and, pretty much knowing the basic gist of what was in store for me? I rolled my eyes, yawned, clicked the link and began reading, during which I yawned and rolled my eyes some more and immediately after which I once again rolled my eyes and yawned before embarking upon the rest of my life, much like a duck does whenever water rolls off its behind.

But I couldn’t escape

For over the next week or so, his opinion continued to haunt me via various RSS feeds and e-mailing list circulations and whatnot – Such that I actually found myself saving the link! And even occasionally referencing it! Until just the other day? Amidst theretofore polite conversation somebody once again brought it up, ultimately finally compelling this here blog posting. Now, since the only problem I’m having is where to begin, there’s so much nonsense involved, I’ll start at the beginning: Prior to typing his whatever you’d like to call it, Wendler had just recently read a favorite work of mine, “Urban Fortunes” by John Logan and Harvey Molotch.

“It’s a progressive, almost radical take on the economics of municipal growth (emphasis mine), and it argues that cities are structured to promote increases in rents and property values, most times decreasing existing residents’ enjoyment of their homes and lives and displacing those who can’t pay,” Wendler ably summarizes for us, “The authors distinguish between ‘exchange value’ and ‘use value.’ ‘Exchange value’ is their broad term for the economic value of land and buildings. The general theory is that the higher the total rent, which includes mortgage payments (emphasis mine), the higher the property value. Increasing value can be accomplished by adding units, increasing rent per unit, or a combination of the two. Cities increase exchange value by investing in infrastructure to allow more intense land use, zoning land for more units, allowing taller buildings, granting variances to rules or changing land-use patterns. ‘Use value’ is the personal satisfaction we get from (our homes and where we live).”

I continue developing my razor-sharp discussion

Right now I must digress in order to point out “sophisticated” is a Greek-derived word that means deceptively attractive. When used as a rhetorical basis, the word transforms into “sophistry,” i.e., subtly deceptive reasoning or deceitful argumentation apparently plausible in form but actually invalid. A person who employs such a rhetorical ploy is what’s called a “Sophist.” Why, you ask, am I mentioning this?

Here Wendler is providing us with a wonderful example of sophistry because, while correct in his summation, he only proceeds to apply Logan and Molotch’s rationale to Austin’s urban core. When, in fact? It can/should/must be applied to each and every municipality that, together, comprise the Greater Austin Metropolitan Region. I mean, gee whizz, Wendler, isn’t the overriding value of economic growth the foundation of America’s whole socio-political ideology? (To answer my own question: If there is anything approaching dogma in our national belief system, it is the idea that economic growth is the key to solving all problems.) I mean, gee whizz, Wendler, don’t all municipalities form and function to provide infrastructural investments and thus increase said municipality’s exchange value? With elected officials (at least those who want to be reelected) doing what’s good for the tax base such that use value is also increased so that their constituents won’t up and move elsewhere?

Logan and Molotch: “All (emphasis mine) capitalist places are the creations of activists who push hard to alter how markets function, how prices are set, and how lives are affected.” (To generalize, markets therefore systematically establish divergences between individual and societal well-being; they then establish an incentive to pursue individual interest at the expense of social interest because they guarantee that the rest of society cannot be relied upon to safeguard one’s individual welfare; and, therefore, each individual person comprises their own special interest group, which then joins another compatible individual’s special interest group, etcetera and so forth.) Also, aren’t individuals from outside Austin’s urban core, as speculative investors in the housing market themselves, most interested in increasing their property’s exchange value?

Benjamin Wermund: “But a vision for development that was to become the heart of the city is on life support – instead of boutique shopping, developers are trying to lure big-box retailers – and nearby residents, who bought homes based on the idea of a 43-acre, master-planned community nexus, are crying foul. Town Center neighborhood residents have lauded the City Council’s recent rejection of proposals to change the tract’s zoning from a downtown district to a planned development – which allows for generic office buildings, apartments and shopping centers — and they want to be included in any plans to rezone the area. Residents filled the City Council chambers during a meeting this month and asked the council what happened to the vision the city once had for the Town Center.”

John Maher: “Meanwhile, in Elroy, Pedro Mar said some of his neighbors are sad that (F1) construction has halted, because they (are) hoping the track (will) increase property values in the area.”

Marques G. Harper: “Lakeway officials want to get feedback from residents on Lakeway’s first 15-year capital improvement plan that identifies future projects such as improving roads and constructing new walkways and buildings for the police and parks and recreation departments.”

By confining the parameters of his argument and inferring otherwise, as Wendler is and always has been so shamelessly doing all these years, is the height of sophistry –

As well as hypocrisy

Because isn’t he himself a developer? And isn’t every developer’s very essence increasing exchange value by changing land-use patterns (in his instance from agricultural to residential) by investing in infrastructure to allow more intense land-use (in his instance, by the way, going from 0 units/acre to one unit/acre represents a 100% increase in density), increasing the rents his financiers can charge via mortgage payments and subsequently increasing his own personal ROI? Furthermore, one should keep in mind that what a person or group calls “truths” may have very little or no basis in fact; instead “truths” are often fabricated to favor that person or group’s economic interest and further their own economic aims. Thus, ideological debate becomes less an inquiry into facts than some wantonly avaricious battle for power.

Yes, dear reader, I’m calling into question the reason why Wendler and his ilk (which among others include Mike Levy, Dominic Chavez, Jim Skaggs, Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Don Zimmerman in the form of these entities: Sensible Transportation Solutions for Austin PAC, Engineers Affirming Sustainable Transportation (EAST) PAC, Coalition on Sensible Transportation (COST), Austinites for Action, and the West Downtown Alliance collectivize as a special interest then try ever so hard and vociferously to bloviate other individuals into embracing unsustainable land-use sprawling willy-nilly throughout our region despite their mentality’s most obviously odious ramifications not only to general society but each of us as individually individual self-contained individuals.

Logan and Molotch: “To question the wisdom of growth for any specific locality is to threaten a benefit transfer and the interests of those who gain from it.” Do you now see how and why Wendler et al. are diverting an argument by perpetuating the most illogical of fallacies? Arguments like theirs constitute nothing less than an attack on free enterprise in order to maximize their own bank accounts and whatever reputational status they believe they may gain in our community.

But, again, I’ve been digressing

One example Wendler uses to fuel his hypocritical sophistry about how cities always act to increase exchange value is Austin’s adoption of the Downtown Plan that (and I quote) “promotes growth and advocates spending on downtown parks and infrastructure. That $300 million will be used to subsidize the area…The city’s website says that ‘we should care about downtown because its success is central to the prosperity of the city and the region.’ Reminds me of ‘what is good for GM is good for America’ and sounds a whole lot like trickle-down economics.”

So my question now becomes:  Which localities in the Central Texas Region, suburban developments or the urban core, benefits from the other the most and by about, exactly, how much?

Culled from the Downtown Austin Plan

  • Downtown Austin generates $144 million in taxes each year;
  • Downtown’s land area is only 0.6% of the total land area of the City, yet it generates over 5% of the City’s property tax. An area eight times the size of Downtown is needed to generate the same average taxable value as the Downtown;
  • City services are concentrated and can be provided more efficiently. The Downtown has only  1 of the City’s 43 fire stations; 2 of the City’s 30 EMS centers, 2 of the City’s APD stations; and 1 of 22 libraries. The Downtown is also more efficiently served by roadways, with only 166 of the City’s 7,266 lane miles of roads (2.2%);
  • And about 80 cents of every dollar generated by Downtown Austin is used to provide services for areas outside of downtown.

Culled from Hays County Cost of Community Services

  • The revenues-to-expenditures ratios show agricultural and open space more than pay their fair share of local taxes, even when these lands are taxed at the agricultural valuation. For every dollar these lands generated in revenue for the county, school and public service districts, they required back only $0.33 in services;
  •  Commercial and industrial lands provided a similar net benefit to the county, needing only $0.30 back for every $1 generated in taxes;
  • While residential lands generated significantly more dollars in property taxes, they required even more in services — $1.26 for every $1 paid in taxes.

Culled from Austin’s Chamber of Commerce’s Take on Traffic

  • To build out a comprehensive transportation system that actually reduces traffic congestion in Central Texas by 2030, we need to find at least $12.7 billion in funding beyond what we have right now. That’s about $635 million a year for the next 20 years;

And concluding with two conclusions from TxDOT/TTI’s 2011 Urban Mobility Report

  • (Our) analysis shows that it would be almost impossible to attempt to maintain a constant congestion level with road construction only. Over the past 2 decades, less than 50 percent of the needed mileage was actually added. This means that it would require at least twice the level of current-day road expansion funding to attempt this road construction strategy. An even larger problem would be to find suitable roads that can be widened, or areas where roads can be added, year after year;
  • And (Smart Growth) characteristics can be incorporated into new developments so that new economic development does not generate the same amount of traffic volume as existing developments. Among the tools that can be employed are better management of arterial street access, incorporating bicycle and pedestrian elements, better parking strategies, assessing transportation impact before a development is approved for construction, and encouraging more diverse development patterns.

“As the facts change, my mind changes”

In sum, all of the facts above strongly suggest to me that we, as a regional society, can no longer concentrate upon constructing more and more suburban subdivisions connected by highways, each longer and larger than the last, sprawling us farther and farther away from our urban cores, exacerbating our extreme auto-centricity in the process. Truth will emerge victorious, no? Alas, in the instance of Wendler and his what can only be described as cranky self-interested political action faction? Wherein the antithesis of a crank is commonsense? Most likely it will not, alas.

Joe Keohane: “Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”

Brendan Nyhan (lead researcher on the Michigan study):  “The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong.” The phenomenon – known as “backfire” – is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

“Certitude is the last disease of old decrepit kings”

Wendler: “As a born here Austinite, I keep trying to put my finger on what’s different about the New Austin. It’s similar to the experience of seeing an old friend who looks different. You aren’t quite sure what’s changed. Plastic surgery? New hairstyle? Maybe just new glasses?…In many ways, this City Council is the most pro-growth, go-go council in memory.”

So let’s borrow for a minute the Panglossian lenses through which Wendler views how he wishes things should remain, with folks moving out to what were once rural Central Texas counties despite the fact that, at least I’m about to suggest the fact that we’ve essentially run out of land in which to sprawl. Between 2000 and 2010, Williamson County’s population grew 69% and Hays County’s increased 61% while Bastrop County’s population grew by 28.5%, all of which are well above and beyond Texas’ overall 20.6% population growth; also over that time period, according to Metrostudy  more than 15,000 new subdivision homes were built in Hays County, another 2,227 in Bastrop County and, in Williamson County, the number of households increased from 86,766 to 162,773.

Eric Dexheimer and Tony Plohetski: “Where the developments and the brush meet is the tectonic fault line of wildfire danger known to fire experts as the wildland-urban interface. In an adaptation of the old philosophical question, if fire breaks out in an empty forest, it is noiseless. Adding people and homes, however, dramatically alters the equation, creating a cacophony. Not only do humans ignite the vast majority of wildfires, their presence demands that firefighters and equipment rush to the scene to protect life and property.”

Jon White (director of Travis County’s Natural Resources and Environmental Quality Division): “It’s the developments that are the danger.”

Paul Maldonado (State Fire Marshal): “We have known about, and anticipated, these incidences.”

We all recall what happened out in Bastrop County this past September and, it must be pointed out, our society must once again subsidize the costs imposed by mindlessly unconstrained suburban sprawl.

Brenda Bell: “The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday announced the allocation of $31.3 million in emergency aid to help Bastrop and nearby communities recover from the devastating Labor Day wildfires… Along with the $16.5 million allocated to date by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the HUD program brings the federal government’s investment in the recovery effort in the Bastrop area to $47.8 million… Another pressing need: coming up with the money needed to match the millions of federal dollars flowing to Bastrop. Every $3 from FEMA for debris removal and assistance to fire victims requires $1 in matching local funds.”

Lisa Falkenberg: “Volunteer firefighters on the front lines are rushing toward the flames in tread-worn boots that don’t fit, fire suits too hot and heavy for the job, and sometimes, quite literally, in blue jeans. Fire chiefs across the state describe being outmatched, underfunded and ill-equipped to fight the unprecedented onslaught of fires fueled this year by unceasing drought.”

Ciara O’Rourke: “Windy, dry weather this weekend could set the stage for wildfires. The National Weather Service has issued a fire weather watch from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday (1/21/2012) from west and along a line from Georgetown to Pleasanton, about 35 miles south of San Antonio.”

To begin summarizing my argument, the Greater Austin Metropolitan Region, very much including all the cities that comprise it, is nothing but an ongoing, dynamic social experiment; despite all these facts and verbiage I’ve delineated above, Wendler and his cronies will only further assert that we should continue highly subsidizing its, shall we say, stagnation; even when stagnation, in and of itself, only leads to regression rather than progression; and isn’t Progress supposed to be the thing that makes America so great?

As Thomas Jefferson said?

“No generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.”

Most economists are asserting that this young generation of ours will fare worse than their parents’ generation, the first time that that has happened in American history. And it still amazes me how wannabe entrenched plutocrats like Wendler, Levy,  Chavez, Skaggs, Strayhorn and Zimmerman have been and are still willing to sacrifice another and yet another generation upon future generations even when staring at the End Game of this un-sustainably contrived, heavily subsidized contrivance our society calls “sprawl.” With that being said, shouldn’t we all be hoping for a brighter future for the Greater Austin Metropolitan Region? I cannot relay the following sentiment any better:

Fritz Steiner: “The challenge is clear; we live in a growing city and region. The population is expected to increase by 750,000 by 2039. The metropolitan region is home to more than 1.7 million people and is expected to rise to almost 4 million by 2040. To address this growth, Imagine Austin advocates that new development be focused in centers – places to concentrate new residents and for economic growth. This concept has evolved from the efforts of Envision Central Texas…However, Imagine Austin’s idea is no mere carbon copy of Envision Central Texas or CAMPO; it envisions a much more refined definition of centers. In addition to the regional centers (25,000 to 45,000 new people; 5,000 to 25,000 new jobs), derived from Envision Central Texas and CAMPO, the Imagine Austin draft presents approaches for town centers (10,000 to 30,000 new people; 5,000 to 20,000 new jobs), and neighborhood centers (5,000 to 10,000 new people; 2,500 to 7,500 new jobs). The plan also proposes mixed-use corridors and job centers. In addition, the draft plan designates open-space networks, high-capacity transit and transit stops, highways and streets, and other development both inside the existing city limits and within the extraterritorial jurisdiction. As a result, ideal locations for future conservation and development are explicit.”

An added bonus!

Imagine Austin’s concept dovetails nicely with our national trends.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers’: “Next-generation projects will orient to infill, urbanizing suburbs, and transit-oriented development. Smaller housing units-close to mass transit, work, and 24-hour amenities – gain favor over large houses on big lots at the suburban edge. People will continue to seek greater convenience and want to reduce energy expenses. Shorter commutes and smaller heating bills make up for higher infill real estate costs.”

Robert “Boom-burb” Lang: “Bedroom communities now must rethink their future and become a little less sprawly, a little more village-like with clustered development, denser housing. The irony is that if they want to keep growing, they must grow as cities, which is diametrically opposite of how they got so big in the first place.”

The current state of our disarrayed regional society today is not much of a recommendation for following that much-traveled path of subsidizing with such obscene sums for such, at the very most, negligible returns from suburban sprawl. We must learn from our historical collective experience in order to overcome these obstacles and flourish. Although it will take years to repair the damage done by such atomistic economic development strategies as Wendler’s, today all of us who comprise the Greater Austin Metropolitan Region need to ask ourselves how we as a society wish to be judged by future generations – Because if we follow such misguided egotistical-driven advice as that gentleman’s?

Boy oh boy you’d better believe we’ll be most sorely judged.

 Edwin Shrake (May 10, 1965):

“But like most of the places in the U.S. that are wild and free, the Hill Country in its present form may be disappearing. Because of the popularity of Lyndon Johnson, tourists are entering the Hill Country, though as yet somewhat timidly. There are picnic-lunch sacks crumpled on the banks of the Blanco River where it rushes, clear over the limestone and blue in the channels, near the high blue ridges of The Devil’s Backbone. More dude ranches are opening. Some of the working ranchers are selling out to syndicates from Dallas and Houston. There are grand plans for resorts—hunting and fishing and horseback-riding motels with neon signs and leatherette couches and mustard and catsup in little plastic boxes and, God knows, maybe even Scopitone, which may become known as the last defeat of civilized man. But the Hill Country has one weapon, perhaps an ultimate one, against encroachment, and that is the stubbornness and loneliness of the land itself.

“It is not the place for everybody.”








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