Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Brief Study in Costs, Will & Power

As you've undoubtedly seen, Mayor Rawlings announced that the plan to remove IH-345 in order to bring much needed investment to downtown and expand the urban core through market-oriented investment has to be put on hold for a time.  The reasoning is suspicious however.  Sure, safety is most definitely an issue.  As it should always be.  The road is literally falling down as I write/you read this.  Red flag one.  Keep in mind that this area is in the 2nd deadliest US congressional district (TX-30 in the entire country).  I'm not sure NCTCOG nor TxDOT are experts in safety.  Killing people while on spending sprees, sure.

Speaking of spending sprees, the other reason given is that it's just too expensive.  Which is rather absurd when you start looking at comparable costs.  The floated number plucked from thin air is $1.9 billion.  It's not completely out of the realm of possibility when you listen to Michael Morris ramble on about how it would require multiple, complete interchange redesigns, plus city street reconstruction (which 1) shouldn't be of their concern anyway, 2) is pennies on the $ compared to the numbers they're used to, and 3) can be financed via future development, ie TIF or TIRZ).  It's a question of will.  And this is designed to mislead.

Let's look at some recent comparable costs.  345 is 1.4 miles of elevated freeway.  635 completely reconstructed more than 10 miles of the busiest highway in DFW for $2.6 billion (probably under some entirely Orwellian name like Super Happy Freedom Trail).  How is a project several times the size only cost slightly more?

Remember Lee Myung Bak?  He was CEO of Hyundai who ran for mayor of Seoul on the platform of removing the Cheonggye expressway through the heart of that city.  He won the race and they had a groundbreaking the first day he took office.  After 4 years of work, they replaced an 8 mile stretch of elevated freeway and completely restored a stream and linear park for $350 million in today's dollars.  Not only that, but for that cost, they replaced 160,000 cars belching and wheezing through their city with 113,000 new jobs, 500,000 new visitors to the park each week, 7 degree lower ambient temperatures, 21% less airborne carcinogens, and an expected return of $25 billion in created value for the city and its citizenry.  Not bad.  Maybe that's why South Korea elected in president.

TxDOT's words through Mayor Rawlings are a sign of one of two things.  Either it's a number designed to deter.  People don't like doing what they don't know how to do.  And frankly, they're still in the 1960s.  In that sense, they're not working in the public interest.  On the other hand, if that's the number they think it would really take, then it's clear that NCTCOG and TxDOT have no control over their own costs.  $35 billion in debt can attest to that.  Don't worry about TxDOT.  Ultimately that's not their debt.  That's YOUR debt.  Maybe it's time for an audit of their practices, procedures, and procurement.  As long as you're aware of the revolving door between DOTs and their consultants, then we at least have some level of transparency revealing what's really going on here.

Lastly, expensive is relative.  It takes money to make money.  And if there is a return, then it isn't a cost.  It's an investment.  It can be financed, cost is of little concern.  It just means a bigger windfall.  When there is no return, it's all cost.  So what exactly does it mean to be costly?  Remember, cities only exist throughout the course of civilized history because they're profitable.  For the short-time being, we'll continue to listen to anti-urbanists who, for the last fifty years have been systematically working to the detriment of the city.