‘No Road That We Built in Texas Paid For Itself’

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, 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."

Gateway Planning Group’s Scott Polikov lamented not
only the current funding situation — "bankruptcy" — but the reform
proposals made by Transportation for America (T4A) and other
advocates for only tinkering
with the traditional 80 percent highway, 20 percent transit levels, not fundamentally changing
the federal funding mechanism to support cites.

"If
the blueprint plans, the regional plans, are not specifically tied to
the funding, then as far as I’m concerned, there’s no point in doing
the planning because what is ends up doing is creating expectations
that are unrealistic," said Polikov.  " If all we focus on is TOD and
Regional planning, but we don’t restructure the entire policy basis for
the highway funding… then I fear that we’re really just still in the
margins and we’ve reinvented the same system and we’ve declared victory
when in fact it’s not going to be victory."

Reforming the Transportation Bible

Another topic that has long been on CNU’s radar for reform is
AASHTO’s "Green Book," the bible for traffic engineers. As we reported, CNU Chief John Norquist has been working
with the Institute for Transportation Engineers (ITE) to add urban
street concerns to the comprehensive roadway guidelines. Rick Hall, of Hall Planning
and Engineering
, in a plenary session yesterday elaborated on changes that would benefit pedestrians.

"There’s not a single mention of pedestrians in the
entire first
chapter of the AASHTO’s green book," said Hall. "It’s all about cars."
He argued that AASHTO’s street classifications (arterials,
collectors, locals) do not account for walkability inputs that make
urban streets comfortable and livable. 

In
Hall’s opinion, MPOs and traffic engineers should start by indentifying
cities that work for pedestrians, then use computer modeling and
simulations to simulate urban forms in those cities, not just the
travel and movement of motor vehicles.  For Hall, the most important
walkability design parameters are, in order of importance:

  • Small block size
  • Buildings fronting the street
  • Mixed-land uses
  • Lower traffic speeds
  • On-street parking (pedestrian buffer)
  • Interconnected streets
  • Narrow streets
  • Quality Sidewalks
  • Lower traffic volumes
  • Street Trees

Hall
called for a change to AASHTO’s guidelines, including the creation of a
new classification he called "compact urban," where speed limits would
be lower and a number of pedestrian factors would be considered in
conjunction to road characteristics.  In compact urban areas, he said,
road design should not allow for speeds greater than 25 mph, versus
AASHTO’s current urban low-speed of 45 mph. MPOs
could determine that they want to alter development patterns to add
compact urban areas to suburbs and re-design streets accordingly.

CNU President Norquist told the audience he anticipated positive additions to the Green Book by 2010.

Throughout the
day Friday, CNU participants have broken out into working groups to
discuss the various proposals put forth in the conference and bring
them together into the working document, Sustainable Transportation
Network Principles [PDF], which the organization will take to policy makers in Washington D.C.

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