A Tollway in Dallas and the Absurdity of Building Duplicative Infrastructure

» Even as Dallas finishes work on a new light rail line, plans for a new highway along a parallel corridor advance.

This summer, Dallas’ Orange Line will be extended five stations northwest of downtown. The light rail service will expand what is already the United States’ longest such network and improve connections between central Dallas, the suburb of Irving, and — in 2014 — Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Yet billions of dollars in new construction have barely increased transit use; just 4.2% of the city’s commuters use public transportation to get to work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If there is one city that proves that simply building transit does not attract people to transit, this is it.

Investments in Dallas’ road infrastructure might provide some explanation for the situation. An astonishing seven grade-separated highways extend radially out from the city center in all directions.* This is a city designed for the automobile.

At least some of the city’s residents apparently have not had enough of those roads. Early this month, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlins announced his support for a new toll road along the Trinity River whose alignment would not only parallel existing highways and the Orange Line, but it would significantly reduce the value of a new park proposed for the area. If public funds can be found to cover at least part of its $1.4 to $1.8 billion cost, the project appears likely to be built over the next decade.

This is transportation planning at its worst. Public dollars are being spent on two separate transportation projects that offer similar benefits and serve the same corridors. The advantages of the investments made in rail — namely, the ability to avoid congestion — are being marginalized by the construction of a huge new road that will, at least for a few years (until the congestion returns), make choosing the train a poor choice. At the cost of billions and in the name of congestion relief, transit’s role is being minimized. And the result is that all this investment will again produce low ridership.

Unlike most American cities, Dallas has room for a new highway, or rather, “room” that doesn’t require the bulldozing of dozens of homes to make way for a multi-lane corridor. The space comes in the form of the 2000-foot wide Trinity River park, which extends on a northwest-to-southeast diagonal through the center city.

Since the late 1990s, local leaders have been pushing for a new, 8.5-mile toll road along the alignment from U.S. 175 to Interstate 35E to counter the congestion along existing center city roads. In 2007, a referendum to stop the project before it could be built lost by a 53-47 vote. Part of the appeal was the fact that the project would include major improvements for the river basin, including the creation of new parks, sports fields, and two lakes. All in the shadow of the highway.

The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) conducted a series of public meetings on the project this month. NTTA manages a number of other toll roads in the region. Despite needing more than $1 billion in public and private funds to build the road, Jim Schutze’s comment in the Dallas Observer last week seems apt since the mayor has signed on to the project:

“The dearly held belief of many road opponents that the thing can’t be built because the money isn’t there is a false hope. If the concept stays on the boards and the political endorsements continue to flow in, the money will be found.”

Meanwhile, the arguments presented by the NTTA at the public hearings in favor of the road’s construction are almost comical:

“The Purposes of the Trinity Parkway are to:

• Improve mobility, manage congestion, increase safety, and accommodate future travel demands
• Minimize the physical, biological, and socioeconomic effects on the human environment
• Provide compatibility with local development plans
• Provide enhancements of modal interrelationships”

The problem is that the road’s construction will likely do little of the sort in the long run. First, while the construction of a new highway will result in gridlock relief on existing roads for a few years, there is ample evidence that increasing road capacity simply results in more drivers taking advantage of the roads. The congestion will return. Second, it is unclear how building a highway in the midst of a river basin will “minimize” impacts on the environment, even if the road includes windmills in its medians. Third, the project would be compatible with local development plans… if Dallas wanted to improve access to its suburbs by building a road that bypasses downtown.

Finally, how a major highway will allow for “modal interrelationships” is completely unclear. There are no plans for BRT or any sort of improved transit program to accompany the road.

To what degree will Dallas’ choice affect the patterns of transportation and land use in the region? The mayor has argued that the road is crucial to the city’s future growth. But what growth will the tollway encourage?

An examination of population change between 2000 and 2010 in the maps below provide an interesting comparison between Dallas (on the left) and Milwaukee (on the right). Both saw little overall population change in the previous decade (Dallas’ population increased by 0.8%, while Milwaukee’s declined by 0.4%), but downtown both grew quite significantly. As shown below, both cities saw significant population growth, while areas outside of the core lost population.

Above: Population change between 2000 and 2010 in Dallas (left) and Milwaukee (right), at the same scale. Each city’s downtown is indicated with a yellow circle. Green areas saw population growth (the darkest green indicates >25%); red areas saw population loss (the darkest red indicates <-25%).

Milwaukee demolished a downtown freeway in 2002. Despite having no urban rail transport infrastructure, its transit commute share is twice that of Dallas (8.5%). The decisions its leaders have made about how to invest in new transportation capacity have clearly provided benefits to the downtown core even as the economy of the rest of the city continues to struggle. Dallas’ decision over whether to build a new highway downtown could profoundly affect whether its center city moves in Milwaukee’s direction or away from it.

With a new road, Dallas will be encouraging more commuters to drive through the city, and decades of evidence — forgive me for repeating this truism — have demonstrated that designing around the automobile limits the ability of cities to develop effectively. Highways, by encouraging car use, make the walking, transit-oriented city impossible. The growth that Dallas has seen in its central areas could be ephemeral with the wrong decisions made.

Transportation planning is about the choice between transit and roads, but it is also about whether to invest at all. Dallas has spent billions of dollars on a rail rapid transit network, but it has simultaneously undermined it with the construction and maintenance of huge road capacity. What is the point of investing in the former when the latter makes it unviable?

* For comparison, Chicago has six grade-separated highways radiating from its downtown; Philadelphia five; Boston five; and San Francisco three.

Note: A previous version of this post identified downtown Dallas incorrectly. The post has been corrected to reflect that fact.

Image at top: Trinity River “Park” with highway, from NTTA; maps below from Social Explorer

33 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • The Dallas, Atlanta, Houston and Phoenix approach (5-7 ever-widening or additional downtown freeways) bodes ill for center city housing development, driving congestion, parking congestion and air quality. Even as each city named expands its light rail/heavy rail network next to freeways/tollways, they will continue having relatively low transit ridership in metro areas projected to be in our top 8 most populous metro areas next decade.

    It seems that civic leaders of the above cities/metro areas have not examined the Urban Freeway/Tollway End Game already evident on the West Coast. LA’s I-405 freeway widening through Sepulveda Pass is partially complete and already congested. LA County is quickly headed to sub-20 mph speed during commute hours and longer commute hours. And if the public builds a tollway, only the well-heeled can afford to use it on a regular basis.

    Angelenos finally get it. I-405 is the last planned freeway widening project in LA County. Now everyday news articles/radio programs in LA have people considering that a LA Metro light/heavy rail needs run parallel to the I-405 corridor, YESTERDAY. They welcome that new LA Expo light rail coming to Culver City this summer and transit ridership is increasing. Once the Expo Line extends from Culver City to Santa Monica by 2015/16, it will reduce congestion on I-10 freeway because a 35 minute transit ride from Santa Monica to Downtown LA will be faster than driving the same distance. And when the Purple Line heavy rail extends from Downtown to at least Beverly Hills by 2020, it similar effect reducing I-10 freeway congestion. The desperately want’s the Mayor’s 30/10 transit plan to receive federal loans to more quickly build out the network.

    Will Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and Phoenix also get it now or will they waste another 10 years before hitting Freeway/Tollway End Game?

    • Nathanael

      IT’s also important to note that California built several tollways which promptly went bankrupt.

      But no, I doubt Texas will learn from this.

      • Nathanael

        Interestingly, Denver seems to have hit a Freeway/Tollway endgame as well. The giant tollway loop from the airport sits empty, which may have been the first turning point.

        They’ve tried BRT as an excuse for freeway expansion (currently sort-of-succeeding), they’ve tried “roads and transit” as an excuse (successfully, once), and now people just aren’t buying it anymore, with the local governments saying “WE WANT TRAINS”.

  • NikolasM

    The NTTA is a monster. They are building a highway over in SW Fort Worth near my parents’ home that defies fiscal reason, let alone providing any needed relief. There are a lot of articles out there speaking out about the unchecked authority of this body.

  • saxman

    As a DFW resident, I thought we had put the Trinity Toll Road to bed, but apparently not. The City of Dallas complains of lower tax revenues, because people aren’t moving in, and then turn around to build things that just drive more people out. This toll road will only serve suburb to suburb commuters and do little to decongest the downtown mixmaster. I will say this: I’d be all for the Trinity Tollroad if they also tear down the entire mixmaster. The new road can become the new I-35E.

  • Gabe

    I do have one correction. The census data showed the the city of Dallas barely grew at all between 2000 and 2010 (even though the region grew significantly).

    The map in the article shows, however, that a significant amount of growth in Dallas WAS in the central city. That large bit of green just to the left of the Dallas marker actually represents the central business district, uptown, and Lo-Mac neighborhoods, all of which have surged with population. Of course for the city that has been off-set with losses elsewhere. Many of the people that moved downtown may have moved internally from other parts of the city.

    It’s strange, but the Dallas city marker on your map is placed in Deep Ellum/East Dallas (same thing is true on google maps), which is not the center of activity or population.

  • Michael

    The public transit in Dallas is bad, very bad. The ridership on the light rail is very low, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was one of the lowest in the country. The Orange line which is only a few new stations to the northwest of down follows the existing red line for most of it’s route.

    A 10 minute drive in Dallas takes me 30 minutes by public transit. I can probably match that on my bicycle. Their solution is to raise fares again? Hah! Their feedback to their customers, like me, is incredibly rude and they wonder why ridership doesn’t increase? I was a DART user, now I won’t any more.

  • Jeff Wegerson

    The idea of using number of grade-separated highways to measure the car vs transit dynamic is interesting. But it likely needs refinement. You count six radiating from the Chicago Downtown. I assume you count LSD as two and Dan Ryan Stevenson as two and Eisenhower and Kennedy as one each. Then you count three for San Francisco. I would count six there as well: 101 north and south, 280 south, 80 northeast, something southeast and 680 east. You could as well separate Chicago’s Kennedy into Kennedy and the Edens even though they split well north of downtown.

    And then too Chicago really is a semi-sphere because of Lake Michigan and San Francisco because of the Pacific. So in those senses Dallas only having six for a complete sphere seems not so bad.

    • I mostly agree. This is an interesting metric that requires more study, especially in terms of how to define “highway.” One more detailed way to examine differences between these cities might be to look at total grade-separated lanes entering downtown.

  • Alan Kandel

    There is an irony here. When the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) light rail system is opened to the master-planned Las Colinas transit-oriented development (TOD) community (in the city of Irving) this year, its chief attribute being mixed-use, high-density, compact development, accessed currently by only one transit service only (DART buses), when LRT system riders arrive they will get to see first-hand smart growth development done right. The urban center, in addition to being accessed by DART transit buses and LRT via the-soon-to-open DART Orange Line extension, there is also an on-site elevated 1.5-mile people mover system referred to as Area Personal Transit (APT). The Orange Line and the APT will interface with one another providing not only for transfer from one system to the other but for growth potential both of and within the community itself. The Las Colinas urban center was begun in the 1980s and is a fine smart-growth-development example that incorporates transit into its design.

    For more information and a video presentation detailing the Las Colinas transit-oriented development (TOD) community, visit http://www.dcurd.org and click on APT System in the left-hand column.

  • MrWonderphul

    HOLY F***

    No wonder people view Southerners as stupid! Now I’m not saying that it’s right or anything; I just see where they get position from…

    • Peaton

      Come on. The people who want the freeway are savy about their own interests, not stupid. And I would remind you that the author of this blog (to the best of my knowledge) is also from well below the Mason Dixon line.

    • Wow. Assuming you’re a Southerner as well, I would also not be surprised to see that point of view, given that we’re going to base a whole region’s level of intelligence over what one city/region has decided to do.

      Yep, let’s peg an entire area as being completely the same as a smaller area.

  • GregP

    So many different comments, where to start.

    The Milwaukee comparison and freeway tear down is apples and oranges to the Dallas situation. The stub freeway that was torn down carried only 35K vehicles a day at its peak and was not crucial or even relevent to the Milwaukee freeway grid. All the radial freeways going into and out of downtown Dallas carry a minimun of 150K and some as high as 300K vehicles a day.

    The talk about all the investment in the freeway infrastructure in the City of Dallas, there has been little to none. I35E, I30, I45, I345, Spur366, US175, US67, US80 and the Dallas North Tollway all remain in their original configuration from when they were built 50’s to 70’s. Pretty much no improvement or added lanes. The only notable exceptions are US 75 and I-30 several miles to the west of downtown.

    The Mixmaster (I35E/I30) intersection is total disaster from a design standpoint. The fact that both 35E and 30 become disjointed and are not continous freeways from a lane perspective is the cause of the majority of the congestion downtown. There never seems to be money to fix this despite it being one of the top ten congested freeway intersections in the country.

    The DART (rail) line will be eventually be a wonderful investment. It will encourage redeveloment and higher density in the city of Dallas. But, for most of the commuters that come from outside the loop (635/20) from the southern sector travelling to job centers outside of downtown, rail is not an option. All the rail lines stop inside the loop. And taking the light rail through the city center is a slow, slow commute. This could be alleviated by adding a downtown loop around the southern end of downtown on existing rail corridor that would provide ability for express trains to areas like DFW Airport and Las Colinas.

    Personally, I think if the mixmaster could be redesigned, the Trinity Parkway could be scaled back to be just a connector freeway (extension of US 175) from the 35/30 intersection to the “Dead Man’s Curve) portion of US 175 (conversion from SM Wright to Hawn Freeway). 35E north of downtown has plenty of capacity.

    Do not forget that as a part of this plan, the segment of current US175 (aka SM Wright Freeway) from I-45 to dead man’s curve gets demolished (roughly 3 miles of freeway).

  • Peaton

    I think this post boils down to, hey Dallas its Jevon’s Law calling.

  • Rob

    “The problem is that the road’s construction will likely do little of the sort in the long run.”

    That observation has nearly risen to the level of common knowledge reference every urban highway project under development across the nation – we all know that the highway promised land is a fiction, yet every major study is allowed to render the same incredulous findings.

    Why, then, are we still framing urban transportation needs in such an intuitively and patently wrong manner? Furthermore, why don’t our national priorities – not those on paper and in rhetoric, but the ones that our scarce transportation dollars are actually funneled into – reflect the urgent need to establish, improve, and expand urban transit networks to the detriment of added highway capacity, rather than the reverse?

    • Eric

      Freeways work very well in metro areas with population under 3 million. (Assuming that gas prices do not double again – but oil sands/shale may have removed that danger.)

      In LA, though, freeways are woefully insufficient.

      DFW is in the middle in terms of population, but less land-constrained than LA.

      • GregP

        Eric,
        What’s your definition of middle in terms of population? DFW area is the fourth largest metro area in the US, behind only NY, LA, Chicago.

      • Rob

        One of the significant problems is that highway engineers are generally trying to solve peak congestion periods by adding more capacity – either GP, HOV, or HOT. They may feign support for transit by allowing a bus to operate on the restricted lane, but that is the usual extent of their transit consideration.

        Of course, in the nation’s largest urban areas it is ludicrous to design for LOS C or better during peak period, but that is nonetheless the aspiration. If we design for free-flow during peak, it is intuitively obvious that single add-a-lanes simply will not deliver on the promise – not enough capacity to truly accommodate free-flow, not to mention the generated traffic and induced demand, growth in urban population, and a host of other factors that serve to rapidly erode any marginal gain realized through an urban area add-a-lane.

        Have a bottleneck? The solution is a partial add-a-lane. Need to solve congestion? The solution is and add-a-lane. HOV lane too crowded? The solution is and add-a-lane.

        What about creating an affordable, reliable, and efficient transit network that is competitive with driving? “Not with our money”, says the highway engineer.

        C’mon folks.

        We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over whist expecting different outcomes. We need 21st century solutions.

      • Nathanael

        Freeways actually have a tendency to wreck metro areas with populations under 3 million, but that’s a urban form / urban development issue, not a “congestion” issue.

        Freeways work fine *between* metro areas with populations under 3 million, just not *inside* them.

        • They work fine for property developers getting windfall gains from holding property where the new urban interstate / inner belt / outer belt exit is built.

          For others in urbanized areas under 3m, they indeed do not work out quite as well.

      • RAS

        Really? Have you ever been on I-5/405/90 in Seattle (metro pop. under 3m)? Stop and go 4-6 hours a day. And in Seattle proper there is relatively high transit usage (as north america goes).

  • Matt

    I find it interesting to see what will happen with Texas in terms of transportation and planning priorities over the next decade as what happens here may greatly affect the national transportation debate.

    With population growth in their metro areas will they be able to accomodate through sprawl based development or will they start to experience the detriments (traffic, pollution, hollowed out inner city) that changed the debate on this in California towards transit, especially Southern California.

    With the highway fund running out of money, they may not be able to expand their freeway system as others could in the past and may come to the tipping point sooner rather than later. Dallas is at least building some rail as is Houston, while San Antonio and Austin basically have none. If they start to take transit seriously in Texas, then that could shift the national priority from a highway centric to at least a more balanced system. Whether that happens in the next 10 years or the next 30 is the key question.

    • Andre L.

      Texas has been using tollways as a preferred form of financing highway expansion for a while. And, frankly, if they can build it with toll-based bonds, I don’t see a problem in building as many freeways as the market can bear.

  • johnny

    The orange line parallels the red line because the red line was crush loaded during rush hours, due to service cuts. The bus system is horrible, and getting whittled to nothing though. Getting around Dallas proper on DART used to be pretty reasonable for a southern city, but thats not really the case anymore.

  • Ari

    Minor bone to pick: Boston has five grade-separated highways radiating from the city center? I guess it does if you count 1A which goes from East Boston to, well, East Boston. It ends in a traffic light three miles from downtown, and that’s if you ignore the not-really-grade-separated tollbooth/interchange at the East Boston end of the Sumner and Callahan tunnels. It’s certainly not what most would consider a freeway.

    It could also be argued that San Francisco has a fourth freeway coming off the Golden Gate Bridge, but it certainly doesn’t reach the center of the city.

  • Tim

    I appreciate the article and generally agree with it. It sadly ignores many of the other efforts that have made Dallas a more successful example of urban development – compact in-town neighborhoods that are walkable and bikeable, and the massive transit investment is still waiting for the land use patterns to adjust. The boom in TOD that was expected as the lines opened in the late ’90s and late ’00s were both tempered by a major economic downturn. But there has been more work to mitigate the effects of the existing highways (such as the deck park over Spur 366) and the proposed Project Horseshoe, with will rebuild the I-30/I35E interchange and alleviate congestion by not forcing the two highways to merge for a few hundred feet. That untangling will do more to free up traffic and congestion than any new highway and certainly would be endorsed by most rational planners. I highly doubt the toll road gets built. The mayor just announced yesterday that he is re-evaluating his endorsement based on new information.

    NTTA and TXDOT are highway agencies and Dallas is trying to swim upstream against them. It’s not going to be perfect, it’s going to be a messy process, but Dallas is further along than most non-coastal cities.

  • Nathanael

    Wait wait wait, good God. I just caught that they’re planning to put the tollway *in a park*.

    How the hell are they going to pass the federal 4(f) rules, which prohibit taking of parkland unless (a) there is no practicable alternative and (b) it is all replaced with new parkland ?

    I can see them arguing (a), but what the hell are they going to do for (b)?

    • Nathanael

      OK, I conflated two rules. This is the 4(f) parkland-seizure rule:

      ” There is no feasible and prudent alternative to the use of land.
      The action includes all possible planning to minimize harm to the property resulting from use.”

      I cannot see how the tollway can possibly satisfy this, but it doesn’t have a “replacement” rule.

      Then there’s the *wetlands* rule, which requires 1-for-1 replacement of any wetlands filled/paved.

      Then there’s the floodplain rules, which require that the road construction be compensated for so that the 100-year floodplain doesn’t enlarge…

      I have no idea how this tollway plan can possibly pass environmental clearance. It looks like it grossly fails all three of these rules.

      • Paul

        Nathanael, it happens all the time. The Section 4(f) regulations can be difficult to satisfy, and certainly affect the design of a project, but this won’t stop a highway or transit project. Ditto for the Clean Water Act (wetlands) and floodplain regulations.

        • Nathanael

          Dumping an extra tollway down the entire length of a park inside a floodplain in wetlands cannot possibly satsify the laws.

          After all, there are more practical alternatives, such as not building the damned thing, or even putting a railway line (half the width! drains through the tracks!) in.

          I would hope that someone is ready to sue the crap out of the NTTA if they go ahead with this absurd plan. They aren’t even *pretending* to follow the law.

  • Andrew

    Beyond the idea of how inane it is to build such a highway. I am pretty interested in the idea that building regional projects are undertaken by siloed agencies and the like. What I see in the argument of this article that appeals to me is that we often have duplicative investments, that is, a huge freeway expansion project built right next to or in the same corridor as a public transit investment. With the significant person-capacity/throughput that a public transit investment can have, what are we doing as a society if we under cut our investments.

    Anyways, interesting example of this happening throughout the United States.

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