Wednesday, February 24, 2010

If You Build It, the True Costs will Come...Eventually

Elana Schor at StreetsblogDC has an article on the budgetary shortfall in funding transportation and the potential solutions for paying for an overextended transportation (read: highway/road network) system:
Of course, Conrad's chart makes one significant assumption: that the gas tax is kept at its current, non-inflation-adjusted level of 18.3 cents per gallon. Increasing that (gas) tax was one of five transportation financing options that he outlined today. 

The others were: levying new charges of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), greater use of tolls, more transfers from the general fund ("which I strongly oppose," he noted), and a revenue-raising option yet to be proposed by Congress. 
Here is the timeline of how we got to this point, as simply as it can be said:

1 - Because of Industrialization, cities were pretty attrocious places to live in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Low pay, high pollution/squalor/poverty, and poor sanitation marked many cities American and otherwise.

2 - One solution was to move to the "countryside," aka areas immediately adjacent to cities and streetcars were the way to get to those new areas with "unlocked" real estate value for use intensification, ie new neighborhoods.  These were primarily for the well-to-do, although some company towns were also constructed this way with workforce housing near the factory.

3 - Getting out of the city and land use policies in support became humane.  Legal codifications were constructed unfortunately, without the adaptability to reflect changing conditions (for example Form-Based Code is intended to codify quantifiable urban "regularities" while allowing flexibility and adaptability of use/density).  This is why you see cities like Miami adopt sweeping zoning changes like Miami 21 and NYC rezone 20% of its land in one year, the effort to catch land use regulations with modern times.

4 - Invention and implementation of mass production combined with a burgeoning form of transportation and its marketing promised new freedom of mobility with more affordable cars for the middle class to also get out of cities combined with mass production of single family housing (Levittowns, etc.).  This did nothing to reduce the cost of the infrastructure and its eventual maintenance, which is paid for by taxes.  While initial costs of transportation to the new found living arrangements were often factored into the housing, the long-term maintenance of the infrastructure was not, meaning it was essentially financed on credit.

5 - Skip to today:  diffused, low-density housing created for a dendritic road hierarchy which funnels traffic to primary arterials and highways.  This by nature creates traffic, which is typically treated with the call for more supply.  The more supply of lane-miles to reduce traffic however, is no longer backed by a booming housing market (or one that has actual demand driving it rather than funny money), meaning it has no one to finance it except the the same housing that created the problem. 

This is a reality that every suburbanite must realize. For those who love their house, their neighborhood, and their commute and that is fine, two things:  1) your costs are going to go up (and this has nothing to do with fluctuations in oil/gas prices) because the lack of density can't support the infrastructure at the current per capita, and 2) if you are fiscally conservative, you should be encouraging higher-density walkable neighborhoods for others that may want it but there isn't the supply to meet the demand.  Walkability often means more density and a more balanced housing market (in terms of density) which means less infrastructure per capita.

Promoting walkable urbanism is a more efficient allocation of commonwealth resources.  Walkability is a tax cut.