A Dinosaur Is Among Us

By Dom Nozzi

On December 22, 2008, former Gainesville City Commissioner Ed Braddy attacked a guest column I had written about transportation and published by the Gainesville (FL) Sun.

Mr. Braddy’s views are so full of errors that I hardly know where to begin.

Mr. Braddy argues that had road widenings kept pace with population growth, we would not have congestion. This is ruinously uninformed. After endless and costly highway widening efforts for several decades, there is now a consensus that we cannot build (widen) our way out of congestion. We bankrupted ourselves by spending trillions of public dollars to build ever-wider highways. Yet we failed universally and catastrophically to eliminate congestion. It is silly and bankrupting to think that “keeping pace with population growth” by spending several trillion more highway widening dollars would have helped. Haven’t we learned by now that widening to eliminate congestion is equivalent to loosening your belt to eliminate obesity?

Mr. Braddy makes the naïve claim that instead of being subsidized, motorists pay for road construction and maintenance through gas taxes. All informed traffic engineers, governments and economists have pointed out that the gas tax pays only a small fraction of the cost to build and maintain roads. Most of that cost is subsidized through property taxes, income taxes, and sales taxes.

And what about this “American Dream” of “affordable housing in the safe, far-flung suburbs”? Studies now show us that a suburbanite is much more likely to be hurt or killed in a car crash than a downtown resident is to be hurt or killed by a mugger. By requiring long car drives for every trip made in suburbs, research finds that the suburbs are more dangerous than even the most crime-ridden downtowns.

And all the cars bought and gas burned while driving all those suburban miles means that there are rapidly growing suburban transportation costs.

So much for “affordable” or “safe” suburban housing.

In our economy, prices are an accurate barometer of winners and losers. Success and failure. Recent studies are finding that the far-flung, contemporary, car-dependent suburban home is the residence most significantly losing its value. By contrast, it is the walkable, traditional, in-town, smart growth home, rich in transportation choices, that is either retaining its value or seeing its value continue to increase. In the face of gas price volatility, environmental woes, high crash rates, and loss of a sense of community, the prices in our market are increasingly telling us that homes in the suburbs are increasingly losers and in-town, walkable homes are winners.

By the way, Mr. Braddy makes the laughable claim that transportation choice and smart growth have long been “the dominant paradigm.” Really? Last I checked, only cars are comfortable on 99 percent of our roads. And only “American Dream” suburbs are allowed or built in our cities.

Mr. Braddy disparages smart growth and transportation choices, which implies that he believes the U.S. should continue to inequitably and unsustainably grow beyond its means. The dinosaurs and the Roman Empire grew in such a way. And collapsed into extinction. dinosaur

Indeed, Mr. Braddy’s “American Dream Coalition” is rapidly becoming the “American Nightmare Coalition.”



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Filed under Economics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

8 responses to “A Dinosaur Is Among Us

  1. Pavel


    Very nice response to Ed Braddy’s drivel. Are there any studies out there to support this assertion:

    “All informed traffic engineers, governments and economists have pointed out that the gas tax pays
    only a small fraction of the cost to build and maintain roads. Most of that cost is subsidized
    through property taxes, income taxes, and sales taxes.”

    I assume that there is probably a lot of variation in how road construction, pavement preservation
    and road maintenance is funded at state and local levels. Personally, I have never lived or worked
    in a jurisdiction where the majority of this funding was subsidized by property, income and sales
    taxes, but obviously it’s not something I can extrapolate based on personal experience. At the
    federal level, I don’t think there is a general fund subsidy going to the highway transportation
    trust fund, although a good chunk of the economic stimulus package went into ill-conceived and
    unnecessary road projects.

    I would also take an issue with this statement:

    “it is the walkable, traditional, in-town, smart growth home, rich in transportation choices, that
    is either retaining its value or seeing its value continue to increase.”

    According to NAR (see
    http://money.cnn.com/2009/05/12/real_estate/first_quarter_home_prices/index.htm?postversion=2009051212 ), here are the top five metro areas in terms of home price appreciation (data are for the 1st quarter of 2009):

    Cumberland MD-WV
    Davenport-Moline-Rock Island IA-IL
    Columbia MO
    Beaumont-Port Arthur TX
    Oklahoma City OK

    Actually, none of the metro areas where prices have increased can be described as walkable, with the possible exception of Urbana-Champaign.

    Locally here in Oregon, Portland real estate prices are falling, especially condo prices in inner PDX, which is arguably one of the most walkable places in all of the US. There are a lot of reasons why walkability is good, but real estate appreciation is not one of them.

  2. Thanks, Pavel. WRT to gas tax revenue not paying anywhere near the full cost of roads (I’ve seen a great many studies finding this), here is something fairly recent: From the Texas DOT newsletter, Nov. 20, 2006:

    Do Roads Pay for Themselves?

    … Until recently, when TxDOT built or expanded a road, no methodology existed to determine the extent to which this work would be paid off through revenues.

    The Asset Value Index, was developed to compare the full 40-year life-cycle costs to the revenues attributable to a given road corridor or section. The shorthand version calculates how much gasoline is consumed on a roadway and how much gas tax revenue that generates.

    The Asset Value Index is the ratio of the total expected revenues divided by the total expected costs. If the ratio is 0.60, the road will produce revenues to meet 60 percent of its costs; it would be “paid for” only if the ratio were 1.00, when the revenues met 100 percent of costs. Another way of describing this is to do a “tax gap” analysis, which shows how much the state fuel tax would have to be on that given corridor for the ratio for revenues to match costs.

    Applying this methodology, revealed that no road pays for itself in gas taxes and fees. For example, in Houston, 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. That gives a tax gap ratio of .16, which means that the real gas tax rate people would need to pay on this segment of road to completely pay for it would be $2.22 per gallon.

    This is just one example, but there is not one road in Texas that pays for itself based on the tax system of today. Some roads pay for about half their true cost, but most roads we have analyzed pay for considerably less.

    WRT to other comment pertaining to walkable places having not suffering as badly as drivable places, when it comes to declining housing values, I’m sorry I was not clear. My point, which again is well-founded in recent studies (see Leinberger), is not that certain CITIES are holding values better because they are more walkable overall. It is that the walkable portions w/in cities (the Duckpond in Gville, for example) are holding their value much better than the drivable, newer suburbs. I believe if you Google Leinberger on this point, you’ll quickly find his research.

  3. Pavel

    Hi Dom,

    Thanks for the quick response! I did read the Texas DOT link previously. What I meant to say is that I have not seen the studies that analyze US road construction, pavement preservation and road maintenance expenditures in the aggregate at all levels of government and break the total funding down by revenue source. The Texas DOT study looks at a very small subset of data (recently built state roads in Texas) that does not lend itself to being extrapolated nation-wide.

    All things considered, most state and local governments in the US are either broke (see California) or going broke very fast. Not a whole lot of new road construction will be undertaken at state and local levels going forward. Most governments don’t have nearly enough money to maintain existing roads, never mind new construction. Unfortunately, most of the road-diet projects being proposed (e.g. Main Street in Gainesville) are also very capital-intensive and therefore likely to fall victim to the same budget crisis. Thus the question remains: how do we retrofit existing communities for walkability in the absence of money for new capital improvements?

  4. I understand your point and the limitations of the Texas study. I perhaps have the mistaken assumption that the study is representative of what is happening at other levels of government. I have, in the past, seen a number of studies showing how the gas tax revenue only pays a small portion of road costs at the local level. Probably a good source would be Todd Litman’s TDM Encyclopedia.
    As for lack of funding to RENOVATE & IMPROVE over-sized, unsustainably large roads via road diets, it is tragic that we’ve bankrupted ourselves to the point where we are stuck w/ the dysfunction we’ve built for the past several decades. I guess, as Kunstler says, we deserve to be punished in this way. My only suggestion: raise the gas tax (and prohibit any revenue from going toward road capacity increases).
    We desperately need a “Plan B” for our transport system. Leadership means, then, that we need to find new revenue if we don’t have it now.

  5. munsonmunson

    I have a question about New Urbanism and bicyclists that you might be able to help me with. Please check it out here: http://newurbanisminthenews.wordpress.com/2009/06/05/my-view-bicyclists-dont-worry-youre-in-the-gaines-plan/

  6. Thank you for your visit and post. For my views on this topic, you can visit this blog I wrote:
    Having formerly been a bicycle commuter in Tallahassee, I am aware of the large percentage of large, high-speed streets in the urban area. The high speeds on many Tally streets create a relatively hostile situation for bicyclists, and could therefore often benefit from bike lanes. However, should city leaders find the wisdom to employ transect-based design and therefore create a truly low-speed town center transect zone, I’d be quite supportive of a low-speed, narrow street design for Gaines that did not include bike lanes. Indeed, such lanes would probably be a transect violation, as they would likely increase motor vehicle speeds and increase crossing distances for pedestrians. So the question is ultimately this: Does the community truly wish to make Gaines Street a low-speed, town center environment? If so, I would expect that bike lanes would be inappropriate.

  7. Pingback: Top Notch Events Blog » Social Media Revolution

  8. Pingback: 2010 in review | Dom's Plan B Blog

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