Friday, January 24, 2014

The State of the City Address. Minus the States.

New mayor of NYC Bill De Blasio, like our own fair mayor, is in DC for the US Conference of Mayors.  Whereas our mayor is asking how to fix our decrepit and dysfunctional public school system (and presumably telling the other mayors not to beat their wives or husbands, whatever the case may be), De Blasio suggested something interesting (at least to me) that deserves more attention:
Let’s forge that new national urban consensus together – not just around priorities like pre-K and paid sick leave, but around strategic investments in affordable housing and 21st century transportation. Let’s work together to bring Congress back to the table so we can rebuild our public housing and revive our Section 8 programs for our seniors and vulnerable families. Let’s secure more dynamic funding for our roads and mass transit to give cities the flexibility to set their own priorities. I daresay – I think I’ll find agreement in the room – that we know what’s best for our own people.
So much this.  To translate mayor-ese, what he's saying is that transportation funding decisions shouldn't be made so much at the federal level (particularly not in Congress.  Ohhhh, the pork.)  And not so much the state level, but where it is actually needed and for the most part, best understood exactly where, what, and how it is needed.

At the state level, funds all to often go to the increasingly more aptly named Dept of Highways and More Highways and Bigger Highways.  The thing about states, like the US Senate, it disproportionately represents the hinterlands rather than the people.  The states are also in the position to dictate to the cities what and how transportation will be within their city, despite, as I once told a mayor, "__insert state abbrev here___DOT does not have your city's best interest in mind."

As countless writers and economists have noted, cities are the wealth of nations.  They are the engines that make the economies go.  Transportation money and decisions should primarily be made at that level.  For one reason, the majority of trips are local.  And as the streetsblog piece points out, the money all too often disappears at the state level into a vortex of highway spending (and I'd add corruption, bureaucracy, and waste).

So let's play a hypothetical game where I take an extreme position and hope we can some day find a middle ground.

The USDOT budget is $77 billion per year.  That equals about $245 per person per year.  Funny enough that's almost enough to get you an annual DART pass, but not enough to cover your monthly car payment, insurance payment, and gas.

Let's say we proportionally dedicate $200/person to the municipal level to use how they see fit for transportation, mobility, and housing/affordable housing programs near transit/transpo options.  The rest of the money can stay at federal level for interstate transportation.  Is that enough?  Probably not.  Hopefully not.  It will at least take expansion of the table and encourage smarter thinking.  If regional transportation decisions have to be made, their facilitated by MPOs to bring the municipalities together and prove up the reasoning to pool their money.

$200/person means Dallas would get an additional $250 million per year to put towards transportation.  A 10% bump in the city's budget.  The metro would get about $1.3 billion.  The state collectively (but not ya know, the actual state) would receive 5.2 billion, which is 2.5x TxDOT's existing budget, but without TxDOT's hands on it.  All state level roads within city boundaries are deeded over to the city, thus allowing cities to determine the best way to design the roads rather than adhering to state and federal level standards which typically are geared only towards high-speed travel, low-density development.

More overall money to transportation projects, more focused on cities, and better transportation more suited to the specifics of that place and its goals.

Putting the money in the hands of the cities, facilitates the competition amongst cities whereas the smartest will win.  Rather than Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio virtually being identical.  Yes, Texans, I know you can tell the difference, but nobody else can.  Further, behavioral statistics are also virtually identical.  That is because virtually all of the underlying "DNA" of city form is determined either at the state level via transportation, "the bones of the city," or like zoning, was merely copy and pasted and spread across the Sun Belt like a virus.

Cities would have increased ability and incentive to get the road systems appropriated and optimized.  And more importantly, get the road to tax base ratio right, which means less incentive for mega-projects.  As soon as some cities begin having success, for example, shifting towards highly efficient bicycle travel and infrastructure, other cities are increasingly nimble to follow suit rather than having to beg, borrow, and steal for scraps to make any kind of shift from the status quo.

How would regional transportation like High Speed Rail get done?  Well, Texas is showing that can happen via private investment.  A city could use their transpo funds to help build the station where it best suits them.  The private investors would work with locating that station where it also drives the highest ridership.  A win-win.

Is the idea out there?  Of course.  But no more crazy than the existing model.