Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Between a Rockwall and a Hard Place

1500. Fifteen HUNDRED people showed up to a Rockwall public meeting, mostly angry and vociferous, to hear about the eminent domain process for a planned new toll road through land where very little currently exists and NCTCOG traffic projections suggest one bazillion cars will someday want to go.  They'll want to go there if and only if the road goes there and if and only if it is not tolled, meaning, in all likelihood it will not generate the traffic it is expected to and potentially default much like 130 in Austin is expected to.  I don't know the particulars, but usually that means the taxpayers end up on the hook either way.

Here is the deal, we sprawled out on free highways.  Turns out, jokes on us, they aren't so free after all.  Because we sprawled, we are now slave to cars in order to get us around, held captive by the illusion that cheap land and cheap highways and cheap gas will subsidize our utopia.  The American Dream will only get darker the longer you believe it's about a two car garage rather than upward mobility at a time when costs of transportation are going up while median wages are going down.

But the road builders only know one solution to (often only perceived) traffic problems:  more roads.  Except there is no money for new roads.  The public, particularly way out in the exurbs might actually be ok with a free road.   We've grown accustomed to the entitlement.  It's also bankrupted us so that if the solution is more highways, they must be tolled in order to finance it (and bond rating agencies need to start looking very closely at these deals - of course they'll get lending if they're backed by the state...but what of the state's rating?).  It doesn't help that it was dreamed up in secret apparently over 18 months with no public meeting until the two this month when an entire host of accoutrements are lipsticked onto this pig so as to make it palatable.  It still isn't.

I suppose we're going to have to get much smarter about transportation and our community design.  Old dogs and new tricks and all that. Considering walking and biking are still the reigning champs of cost effective means of transportation, that means designing infrastructure in support of more compact development patterns.  In such a place, you need no tolls because the property taxes cover the infrastructure.  We're building net negative environments that over the lifespan make us all poorer even though at first it seems like shiny new growth and tax base.  Such is the fate of all of the suburbs if they don't get smarter.  Suburbs that sucked the life out of the core cities through the straws of highways straight into the jugular (when you suck through a straw it only goes in one direction - in this case, north), which also need a new approach.  It's remarkably similar.  Change is hard.