Thursday, May 3, 2012

Counter Proposal

So the DMN has asked for Oh-You-Think-You're-So-Smart Counter Proposals of 500-words or less to the Trinity Toll Road because, DUH! the only way to relieve traffic congestion is more highway capacity, right?  Right?   I can do that, even though I'm the guy of 100-slide powerpoints proposing exactly that.

Well, here goes. Don't let the rebuttals to failed conventional wisdom startle you too much.  But first, a 500-word preamble:
It's an effective rhetorical strategy, the mayor's. Co-opt language. You’re against ponies? You’re against the city. In this case, the terminology is growth. And we’re using it incorrectly. This is a city built on ambition; an economic engine fueled by growth. But what kind of growth are we talking about? Population? Economic development? Quality of life? New highway construction undermines all of the above. Oh, and it also doesn’t relieve traffic congestion, but adds to it.

 If we’re talking population growth, according to last census the metropolitan area grew substantially while the city of Dallas stagnated. In terms of economic development, adding new infrastructure without population saddles the city with more debt while positioning the real estate market to favor development outside of the city proper. These two statements are directly related.

 Furthermore, we can’t project growth upon the city unless we think about generational cycles. The millennial generation is the largest population bubble in history. They’ll transform cities to their likeness. Demand begets supply. They want walkable urbanism not freeways and they’re willing to move to cities headed in that direction. If a city wants to be successful long into the future it has to appeal to young, graduating talent.

 As a landlocked city surrounded by parasitic municipalities eagerly awaiting another straw to the neck of the host organism, to grow Dallas has to focus inward, on a more desirable downtown. I understand the Trinity River Park is an effort to improve quality of life in and around downtown. Aligning high speed vehicular traffic along the park is placing a barrier between the park and the people.

As for attempting to catalyze development in South Dallas, the last thing South Dallas needs is increased coercion into automobile dependence when half the city is spending upwards of half their take home pay on car ownership, operations, and maintenance. To invest in South Dallas in a meaningful way is to empower the people with less short- and long-term infrastructural burden and increased walkability and transit accessibility. Let them choose what to do with their money (save, invest, start business) instead of mandatory gas, insurance, and car payments.

Traffic planning and engineering often uses population growth as the reason for new public spending on infrastructure. However, the eventual result is simply a need for evermore infrastructure as the highways only serve to divide and scatter tax base across the metroplex. Here’s a projection for you. By 2050, on current pace, highway infrastructure is expected to cost each household $27,500. Vancouver is doing just fine without any highways. Actual world class cities are removing inner-city freeways and catalyzing investment through desirability and demand. They’re competent. They’re winning. Food for thought.

The plan to add increased freeway capacity is a 20th century strategy in a 21st century world. And predictably, we’re approaching the issue incorrectly. The focus shouldn’t be about moving traffic, but moving markets. Cities, complex systems that they are (and the citizenry within) are remarkably adaptive. Movement patterns and real estate markets adapt to the infrastructural networks supplied. Building for ease of regional movement, only gets regional (read: outside Dallas) investment at cost to the city of Dallas.

Local connectivity is the foundation of all complex, living systems. Sever those and death is assured.  It's long, slow and painful.  Continuing these policies is the surest way to fully hollowing out the core. Mayor, cities are like elephants. They have long memories for leaders, the decisions they make, and the directions we take. And you’re steering us towards Detroit.
COUNTER PROPOSAL. More of a competition really. 

I propose a cap on highway capacity. Starting now. You can build your new toll road for $1B+ with little ROI to taxpayers. What do I care about the western edge of downtown? It’s beyond repair nor worthy of investment anyway.

In order to build the Trinity Toll Road, we have to remove highway capacity. New capacity is only proven to be a temporary (under 5-year) relief anyway. If we’re actually concerned about congestion relief, city budget, and long-term infrastructural costs we’d be tolling existing highways rather than adding to them.

The only proven way to relieve congestion isn’t to fight it, but reposition it. Get people out of cars. Make driving pay its true costs. And make it less convenient so that real estate markets demand infill development. That means building interconnected, walkable neighborhoods in desirable locations. Like next to downtown, where a crumbling elevated freeway stands: IH-345.

 To build the Trinity Toll Road, we have to tear down 345 between downtown and Deep Ellum. Want growth? It’s not happening downtown without subsidy/tax breaks which doesn’t guarantee demand nor success. Demand is too low and land costs too high, precisely because of the freeways.

Want growth that’s actually market-oriented and a bargain to the city? Taking out IH-345 creates 64 new acres of public right-of-way to flood the market with cheap land and repositions 118 acres of highest and best use of highway adjacent land (vacant land and surface parking lots) into said high quality, walkable urbanism.

Think two State-Thomas neighborhoods undivided from downtown by a freeway. That’s $4B in investment on a $65M investment in demolition (which has to be spent to rebuild anyway). Given the potential returns I’m certain private investors would be willing to chip in to get some of that ripe, juicy property – including large landowners currently in the area.

Benefits? 25,000 new residents and 10,000 new jobs immediately next to downtown on three DART lines. They’re no longer forced into a car and onto the roads unless they determine it’s the best mode for their desired trip. Not traffic engineers.

More? Currently, Dallas generates $3M in annual tax revenue on the 245-acres of land in question. According to DCAD, there are only $19M worth of improvements on those 245-acres. By 2030, the city could be generating over $100 million in annual revenue from these repositioned properties by removing the freeway, restitching the grid, and building high-quality, livable, walkable urban development.

In other words, one year of tax revenue from the area could build a modern street car on Ross Avenue from the West End, past the Arts District, to Henderson Ave. and up Lower Greenville. It repositions all of Near East Dallas, Deep Ellum, and Ross Avenue; the part of town with the largest gap between potential and current performance. 3% of the city (and country) lives in walkable neighborhoods, yet 77% of Millennials want it. Appeal to the pent-up demand, your constituents, and the future to drive real growth rather than hollow rhetoric.

But as part of the competition you can’t use the success of the highway tear-out to pay for the Toll Roads failings. Deal?