Why We Will Spend Decades and Billions on a Toll Road and Never Properly Address Public Transit

Automobiles, on their way elsewhere. Photo via Newscom
Automobiles, on their way elsewhere. Photo via Newscom

Over on the Dallas Morning News transportation blog, Editorial Writer Rodger Jones writes that he believes the entire issue of the Trinity toll road boils down to one thing: traffic relief. Then, reporter Michael Lindberger asks those who oppose the toll road to offer better solutions to the problem of relieving downtown traffic congestion.

The problem is no one will ever take seriously the only real solution to the problem that would also be beneficial for Dallas. Here’s why.

Dallas’ highway congestion is a result of an urban environment that requires automobiles for effective transportation. The way a project like the Trinity toll road relieves traffic is that it will increase the ability of those moving through or out of Dallas to bypass the city center, leaving the existing roads freer for those making intra-trips around the city.

But the fundamental problem with Dallas’ approach to road building over the course of the past 70 years (and really, American cities in general), is that road construction increases capacity in order to make moving through and out of a city more efficient, thus enabling the economic development of the suburbs and diluting the connectivity (and therefore vibrancy) of the center core.

What is striking about yesterday’s craziness, is that city officials still believe that enabling traffic to move through and out of Dallas is good for Dallas’ growth and development. Do projects like parking lots and highways create some economic development in Dallas? Yes, but they spur on relatively small and isolated investments, while discouraging density and enabling an overall transportation ecology that makes it more economically efficient to live outside of an urban area and yet utilize that area’s cultural and recreational amenities.

And building roads will only increase the demand for more parking lots. More parking lots will encourage more traffic on roads, thus increasing the demand for even more and wider roads. This isn’t theory; just look at the city you live in. It is a cycle of development that will only be only interrupted by economic or political calamity — or the application of serious political will.

The fact is, there is a solution to Dallas’ traffic needs, as well as its development needs, but it is a solution that requires the kind of political resolve that could probably never really be mustered on its behalf (though we can always hope, I suppose, however blindly). The solution is a real public transportation network.

What would really be good for Dallas — its long-term growth and sustaining economic development — would be to figure out a way to better enable people to move within and around Dallas proper. Increasing road capacity (with projects like the Trinity toll road, or any similar alternatives) prioritizes (by nature of the functional design of roadways) moving out of and through over moving within and around. Additional highways would lead to some modest improvements in getting around town, that is, until the increased capacity attracts additional traffic and we’re back to dealing with congestion problems once again.

But public transportation, if developed and planned properly to be extensive, efficient, and intuitive (and, yes, that is a mammoth ‘if’ given Dallas’ track record), is the only real investment that will make trips within and around Dallas more efficient without creating capacity for even more congestion or saddling the urban infrastructure with auto-demanded amenities (parking lots, large roads) that diffuse connectivity and vibrancy, the real drivers of urban economic growth. Public transit would also relieve existing roadways of intra-urban traffic, thus also addressing congestion concerns.

That is the point I tried to make in this piece on the Oak Cliff Streetcar, which advocated for a city-wide and efficiently integrated Bus Rapid Transit system as the public transportation investment option that could feasibly move the most people out of their cars in the shortest timeframe with the most minimal investment (unlike a single streetcar line, whose impact will be more about real estate than transportation).

That said, I understand our public transit skepticism. Our half-hearted dabbling with transit hasn’t really had any substantial impact on our auto-driven culture, in part because of the serious logistical and cultural challenges of implementing transit connections in an urban environment that follows the logic and layout of auto transit. Plus, a public transit system works in relation to its breadth and convenience. That means being able to get to lots of places, via lots of stops, with little waiting between rides and connections. And that kind of system costs lots and lots of money.

But you know what also costs lots and lots of money? Toll roads. In fact we are ready to take out billions of dollars in loans to fund a highway project of limited and dubious transportation impact, all the while selling it to voters as civic investment and improvement.

And why? Because of traffic? No. Ultimately, this doesn’t really have to do with traffic. It also doesn’t have to do with transportation. It has to do with a broader cultural mindset.

Ultimately, the problem is the real conversation about what this means for Dallas won’t likely take place, and that is because the issues of traffic and roads, parks and buses, come down to a fundamental ideological conflict between, what Frank Hendriks calls in his book Public Policy and Political Institutions: The Role of Culture in Traffic Policy, hierarchical and individualistic cultures. Often in the local public debate, this conflict is mis-categorized or confused by more popular political dichotomies: wealthy versus poor, conservative versus liberal, Republican versus Democrat. But what these categories don’t properly address is that our disagreements over transportation policy and urban growth are more deeply reflective of a fundamental reading on the part of Dallas citizens and politicians of the value and meaning of social existence and citizenship.

As Hendriks puts it, the essential conflict is one between an ideological egalitarianism – a political concern for creating a civic environment that promotes more broad-based economic (and therefore transportation) accessibility – and individualism. It is a dominant individualism, shared by Texans on all sides of the political and economic spectrum, that values a self-determinative existence that sees the car as a means to a free pursuit of economic and social desires. In terms of transportation, this means we value roadways over railways. From a political standpoint, this means that we prioritize the kinds of economic pursuits that benefit from the privatized investment of capital (real estate developments spurred on by road developments) over activity generated by a more broad-based economic vibrancy (shops and businesses operating in busy urban districts).

Framed in this context, and taking into consideration the deep-rooted pride of place individualism has in the Texas identity (itself a distillation and intensification a of wider American identity), it becomes clear that there may never be the political or public will to invest in the only thing that will create a long-term and sustainable solution to traffic and desirable urban development in Dallas: public transportation. Put plainly, we love our cars too much, and that infatuation with the automobile and the style of life it allows for will mire this city in these kinds of debates over and over until money runs out, or we go bankrupt.

34 comments on “Why We Will Spend Decades and Billions on a Toll Road and Never Properly Address Public Transit

  1. The city’s not rich enough for both transit and highways. And only one of those two incentivizes desirability, empowerment, opportunity, investment, and development back within the city. All of those characteristics are intertwined by the way. We have to walk before we can run (or ride). Walkable urban density is what makes transit work. Transit, while competing on an unbalanced playing field tilted towards highways/regional development, isn’t showing the transformative effect we had hoped. Cart before horse. Supply before Demand. The only way to unleash the real estate market towards building high quality walkable urban development is to begin systematically, incrementally, and patiently tearing out the freeways from inside the city center, opening up the real estate for development, tax base. Otherwise, it’s all infrastructure and no tax base. And that’s a bad, bad equation.

  2. Don’t you all really think that if the Trinity was meant to be anything other that what it is, it would be. There’s enough tressel, iron, cement, cars, bodies to show some one has tried something. That creel, gukky is going to do what it’s going to do. You can’t infuse North and South Dallas. Just please put commerce down there and make everyone happy. Grocery stores, stores, target, you know. Who’s rinnin this mess? Evict the Mayor!!

  3. Well said, Peter. Thank you.

    I’m always amused by the argument that automobiles provide “freedom”…especially in a city like Dallas, which is designed in such a way that more or less forces people to own a car to get everywhere: “You can have your freedom as soon as you pay for this car, its maintenance costs, car insurance, and increasingly expensive gas! No use complaining; you don’t have any other choice. Woohoo, freedom!”

    True freedom is having the choice of multiple modes of transportation.

  4. Sounds like Wick needs to invite Joel Kotkin back to the office for another indoctrination seminar.

  5. Adding to slow clap….slightly increasing tempo. We just have to wait out the stupid concrete generation. The sad part for me is that I’m already old.

  6. (looks around and sees other people clapping….starts clapping too. )

  7. Make no mistake, there is funding for this project. It only depends on how much we are willing to sell it for. Wealth capital, especially foreign, is still looking for a stable, steady income stream for a return on their investment. And all they have to do to raise more is increase the cost per barrel of oil, which we’ll pay for as well. Taxed for it, tolled for it and then gassed for it. Welcome to the New America.

    Read Griftopia by Matt Taibbi, this is Chapter 5 – The Outsourced Highway. Chilling.

  8. What a well written and depressingly accurate assessment of Dallas’s civic and political climate. Very nice work.

  9. @zobzerto – Freedom DART style – During the week I am DART bus dependent. Yesterday I needed to make a trip to the grocery store which is not quite 1 1/2 miles away. Some of what I needed were cold items. When the buses run according to schedule, I can catch a bus at 3:54 to the store and catch a bus at 4:14 back which makes it about a half hour trip.

    Yesterday, I was at the bus stop a few minutes ealry but the bus was 11 minutes late. The 3:54 was now the 4:05. I rushed through the store and did the self check-out and walked out of the store in time to see the 4:14 return bus (only 5 minutes late) pulling away from the bus stop. So I went to the bus stop to wait for the next bus (4:34). It was 85 degrees and the sun was shining brightly on the bus stop. The 4:34 was 13 minutes late and I got back home a little after 5.

    My quick trip was spent as follows: 3 minutes to and from the first and last bus, 42 minutes waiting at the bus stop for the buses, 13 minutes transit time on the bus and 9 minutes in the grocery store – total 67 minutes for a 9 minute grocery store run.

    And now DART wants to charge me more for this freedom.

  10. @downtown_worker,

    I don’t think the mayor was “sold on this idea that the toll road means growth”, I think the mayor had political patronage he was accountable for paying back and it was a never a question of which way he was going to side. We all just momentarily suckered that he was any different than Leppert.

  11. @Dubious Brother: That is precisely my experience of DART. I still ride it, but, generally speaking, it sucks. Buses/trains/streetcars need to run every five to ten minutes during peak hours before a system is reliable. Otherwise, a single transfer can add an hour or more to a round trip. Unfeasible.

  12. I don’t think this toll road has anything to do with “loving cars too much”…It has to do with the greedy friends of the mayor and the few businesses that will make the $$$ of the building of the bridge….not to mention trolls collecting the tolls. We got hoodwinked into believing the Calatrava bridge was going to be wondrous by people and a foundation that is run out of Park Cities. You really think this is any different? $$$$$$$……………

  13. @Dubious Brother: You’re proving my point (which may be your intention). In his response to your post, Peter is right on. We don’t have completely feasible alternatives to the automobile in this city (for a very large percentage of trips).

  14. @Peter – In order for DART to justify increasing the number of buses they need more riders. It is not unusual for the buses to be almost empty when I ride.

    DART is proposing a rate increase that they estimate will result in a 3% DROP in riders. I have not followed close enough to know how accurate their studies and estimates are but 3% seems to be low – it may be more and a lot more.

    Since DART is subsidized with sales tax revenue it seems that they need to lower the rates to increase the ridership to the point where it makes sense for a lot more people to take the bus or train instead of driving themselves. They need to be looking at a way to increase ridership by 30% – 50% not lowering it by 3%. I wonder if their study included the affect that lowering the rates would have on ridership and revenue.

  15. @Dubious: This is the problem with public trans – you need ridership to justify expansion, expansion to create ridership. Then there are other problems. Buses run too slowly and stop too frequently. There need to be designated lanes, lights timed to allow for buses to stop only at stops – and fewer stops at that. Again, money money money, all spent on a gamble that riders, as you allude to, actually start riding the system even if it did work well.

    As Walkable/Patrick alluded to above, it is a chicken and egg issue. One solution (Patrick’s) is to blow up the highways. I like it; but I’m not going to hold my breath. The other option is to implement an entire BRT network at once. Some say this won’t work either. The third option is moving.

  16. The problem is a little bigger than just roads, money and politics. My kids go to schools off Midway. We live 1 block off Midway. My husband and I drive up and down Midway around 6 times a day. The buses don’t run on a schedule that gets the kids to/from school on time. In addition, my kids’ backpacks are so heavy with textbooks and homework assignments they can’t carry them for long (or on a bike – they would love to ride their bikes to school but can’t balance the weight of the books safely). Also, there are no sidewalks to walk from the bus stop to the school doors, so they walk in the street or in the dewy grass and ruin their shoes.

    Sidewalks, people.
    Online textbooks and email-able (or no) homework.
    Schedules that match real people’s lives.
    Bike racks and bike lanes.

    My friends in Chicago (in the loop and out) have all of this. Why can’t we?

  17. @Peter – It seems that we already have invested in the system – I’m not saying change anything other than lower the price to increase useage. It is a publicly subsidized system. The goal needs to be more riders.

  18. Saying that “building roads will only increase the demand for more parking lots” is like saying that building homeless shelters will only increase the number of homeless people needed to fill them. The Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex grew by 1 million people between 2000 and 2010, so roads plainly do not fill some imaginary need.

    Mass transit is important, and DART is surely in the process of becoming one of the most expansive systems in the country. Still, the national rapid transit numbers are instructive: New York City is #1 in daily use of rapid transit with over eight million people, but it is a huge outlier because the #2 city, Washington D.C., has daily ridership of less than 1 million, an enormous dropoff. San Francisco is #5 with 379,000. All these urban areas are packed with cars and morning/evening rush hour.

    At the end of the day — every day — we must move people, goods and services hither and yon. Roads and mass transit should not be considered separate means to an end, but rather as a tandem.

  19. Sure would love to hear a comment from the Mayor. Peter nailed it.

  20. @Jackson: I’m not sure I completely buy your analogy. I think it might be more accurate to say that building homeless shelters will ensure that the homeless population will migrate to the area around the new homeless shelters. Yes, the DFW metro area grew this past decade, and not because of roads. But the roads encouraged those new residents to live in far flung places where the cost of living is lower and they are forced to rely on long commutes/roads. (I just attended a BBQ a week ago with some old college friends who bashfully admitted to moving to some far north ‘burb even though they would like to live in town. But the size of the house for the money and the ease of commute back downtown where my friend works made them feel like if they didn’t move out of town, they were not being responsible. This speaks to an innate way in which we tend to value size and “good value” over real need and quality of life. We have become a single-mindedly economic people.)

    It is good if 1 million people move to DFW. It is not good to create an urban environment in which those 1 million are encouraged or feel as if they need to drive on highways everyday to live in that urban environment. That’s an unsustainable model, because when the next 500K to 1M arrive, they will move out of town, and the argument will be that we need to expand the roads again.

    Of course this is all working under the assumption that it is good for Dallas’ leaders to work towards investing in Dallas proper. The RTC is fighting for the region, and if someone lives in Dallas or Coppell, that doesn’t matter to them. They might also argue that the reason we added 1M people is because we were able to develop the raw land on the outskirts of town and offer a competitive business environment due, in part, to the cheap availability of real estate.

    But sprawling regional growth is not the only feasible economic model for urban growth (as many business leaders locally seem to believe), and, I would argue, it is not only unsustainable ad infinitum, but it does not create the kind of city that is attracting the next generation of Americans (as Walkable/Patrick writes about often on his blog). I think there is also an existential argument to make about the relation of urban/rural/village environment to the edification of the individual and social soul, but that is a diatribe for another time and place.

  21. The discussion on mass transit is a distraction for this issue. With only 4 per cent use, it simply will not resonate with taxpayers. The real issue is why should the CITY of Dallas support this thing and don’t we have other transportation needs for that several hundred million of our money. That 40 per cent number that the Mayor yanked from somewhere was a complete crock. It will not help South Dallas, Downtown, or anywhere else in the city. It is designed to let people avoid Dallas. It is almost a bunch of hotels in a town paying for the interstate that bypasses them. That is plain stupid.

    Where does traffic congestion sit on the spectrum of employers’ concerns for working in Dallas and workers’ concerns for living in Dallas? Compared to lousy schools, decreasing services, perceived corruption and crime? Yes the toll road is a distraction, but not on transportation issues. We need to work on the other issues and worry about suburban drivers’ problems later.

  22. Would love more public transportation. The problem is retrofitting it into a commuter environment is expensive and logistically difficult. That and ARLINGTON is the biggest imediment to easy and immediate traffic relief (and more of us attending Ranger games). I hate Arlington.

  23. this is definitely a transportation issue. Transportation networks are the life’s bloomed of a city. By anyone’s measure ours are clogged, a situation bound to deteriorate without some kind of sustained and expensive effort. So we will be making the effort. We will be spending the money. The question THEN becomes what is the most efficient use of our energy and limited financial resources. What is best for Dallas. That is not a toll road. even if the population of Dallas increases 8 percent over ten years, we know of cities in the same climate facing similar obstacles as we in creating more sustainable urban environments, who have been able to increase the percentage of residents utilizing transit and bike lanes, etc. at a higher percent rate than our growth in a similar time frame. That’s less roads that need to be built and less congestion in the city of Dallas. That’s the only wise investment, yet cultural and political will in the area will have to bankrupt it’s love affair with the automobile to see this reality.

    As for DART…it does not work very well as a local (I.e. Dallas) system. It is regional. Locally, there are already high density locales throughout the city where, for lack of a more nuanced description, DART does not go. And DART certainly doesn’t go to these places with any kind of schedule that would encourage you to choose the. over a car, even if the local parking situation is a nightmare. Think Knox/Henderson, Greenville, etc. I think that’s the point of the op-ed, that we can do better but won’t. I think it’s funny at times that there’s always a debate of sorts in Dallas as to whether mass transit works…look around the world. Of course it works…You habe to do it right as with any endeavor but whether it works to create a more desirable urban environment in a single municipality, that’s not in question. The fact that we even maven this discussion, let alone ad nauseum, proves the authors point. Meanwhile, us Dallas taxpayers will continue to subsidize the social loves and mobility of people who choose to live outside our city yet utilize our roads, our entertainment, etc. without adding to our urban life or tax-base in the way they should be.

  24. Don’t ride DART but from my outside perspective the buses seem to be significantly less than full. Have they ever run a study to see how much savings they could realize by operating some smaller more efficient vehicles (lower fuel, maintenance costs) that still meet the ridership demand? Those giant buses don’t look cheap…

  25. Start with the presumption that newcomers prefer to live in the suburbs and simply visit Dallas (or maybe work there), and then you’re getting somewhere.