At CNU, Former Rep of Texas Legislature says “No Road Pays for Itself”

Over the past two days at the Congress for the New Urbanism Project for Transportation Reform conference, attendees have called for transportation 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, 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 was not only driving costs to unsustainable levels, it created an imbalance in who paid for growth. Over the past 50 years, Krusee argued, the federal government was using 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 it 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 it 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.