Over the past two days at the Congress for the New Urbanism Project for Transportation Reform conference, attendees have called for reform at local, regional, and national levels. In a panel debate about the future of transportation funding and the role of regional planning through MPOs, several speakers argued that the foundation of transportation and development funding had to be systematically overhauled.
Mike Krusee, [AC: former] chairman of the Texas House of Representatives Transportation Committee, said that financial problems were more significant than environmental, though they should be tied together in the same discussion.
"The reason there's not a new transportation bill is because there is no money. We've hit the wall of unsustainability on how we finance the transportation system," he said.
Krusee asserted it was urgent and necessary to understand the nature of this broken financial apparatus and to develop solutions to fix it. In Texas, he said that, on average, it cost the state 20-30 cents per person per mile to build and maintain a road to the suburbs, yet drivers only pay on average 2-3 cents per mile through the gas tax, vehicles fees, etc.
"What we found was that no road that we built in Texas paid for itself," said Krusee. "None."
The expense to build roads and utilities further and further from the urban cores not only drove costs to unsustainable levels, it created an imbalance in who paid for growth. Over the past 50 years, Krusee argued, the federal government used tax money that came by and large from cities to subsidize roads to areas without access otherwise.
"City dwellers have subsidized the land purchases and the development costs out in the suburbs," said Krusee. What's more, the gas tax, which city dwellers pay when driving on city roads, but which goes to freeways largely outside of urban cores, is "a huge transfer of wealth from the cities to the suburbs to build these rings."
Krusee said building the interstate system was initially a good thing, because if facilitated interstate commerce and increased the productivity of cities. Now however, because of congestion caused by ever longer commute patterns, system productivity is in peril. "What's happened is the federal government has basically reneged on the deal. By subsidizing highways out to the suburbs, it's no longer efficient for truck traffic, for goods and services and people to move between cities in the United States because those roads have been hijacked by all the commuters."
Krusee, by the way, represented suburban Williamson County.
Krusee's assessment matches TxDOT's own internal assessment. (This actually should be no surprise since Krusee's committee relied on TxDOT for data.) TxDOT, for example, concluded that the 15 miles of SH 99 from I-10 to US 290 will cost $1 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime, while only generating $162 million in gas taxes -- just 16% of the total cost.
Some of us get swept up in the rhetoric sometimes, but roads aren't unmitigated evils. Obviously, we need roads. Just as obviously, I think, we will continue to need new roads. But new roads should be built only where drivers are willing to pay for the new capacity. And the only way to gauge that demand is to price existing roads properly; the revenue they generate will tell us when it is time to add to add that capacity.
Mueller gets a lot of criticism -- see the grouchy comments to this entry -- much of it unfair. I like Mueller. I do agree, though, that it is not a model mixed-use, New Urbanist development. Among other things, there is too much segregation of single-family and multi-family/commercial.
So let me offer an example of a model New Urbanist development. Aragon is an infill development in Pensacola designed by Michelle MacNeil (who happens to be my cousin). It's several years old, but I got my first tour in August when we visited her during a trip to the Gulf Coast.
One of the most significant features of Aragon is its location. Many New Urbanist developments are suburban greenfield developments or massive redevelopments of abandoned industrial land or airports (Mueller and Stapleton, for example).