Don Zimmerman vs. reality on whether sprawl is fiscally effective

Earlier this week, I brought to you a debate between Council Member Don Zimmerman and Council Member Delia Garza on whether downtown density or suburban sprawl causes more congestion. At the same meeting, CM Zimmerman also found himself in a debate between two sides of himself: his belief in limiting government spending and his belief in subsidizing suburban sprawl.

To set this clip up, Austin Transportation Department is presenting their work to date on implementing “rough proportionality” in transportation impact fees, fees developers pay toward street improvements near their developments.

ATD notes that there are two factors affecting how much a new development will have to pay in transportation impact fees:

  1. How much extra transportation infrastructure will be needed in this area. Places where streets don’t need or can’t handle expensive upgrades have fewer fees to pass on to developers.
  2. How much new development will happen in that area. Places where more development is happening, the costs of the streets can be shared across more people so each person pays less.

The example that the ATD officials give of a development that would have had to pay smaller impact fees per vehicle-mile generated was the Austonian. 1) It’s downtown, which already has a very mature transportation network; 2) there’s a lot of new development coming downtown, so all those new developments can split the costs for any street upgrades that have to be made.

The formula deciding the costs for the developers isn’t random; it represents the real costs to the city of fielding that type of development at that location. This is where CM Zimmerman begins going off the rails. He realizes that, if forced to bear the true costs of building out lots of new infrastructure, sparse new suburban sprawl may not “pencil out”–that is, may no longer be profitable enough to get built. That is, if we made suburban sprawl pay its own costs, there might be a lot less of it.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that the least NIMBY Council Member, the one most eager to see new private development in his own district, is also a fiscal conservative in the district where development requires the biggest infrastructure subsidy to pencil out. Until CM Zimmerman reconciles his belief in small government with suburban sprawl’s need for subsidies, I’m going to have call another argument against him.

EDIT: Scott Gross, the ATD engineer sends this in:

·        Rough Proportionality is currently being implemented

·       Rough Proportionality currently applies to existing authorities under Code – Border/Boundary Street Policy and Traffic Mitigation Policy

o   Border Street authority applies to ROW and street construction adjoining property

o   Traffic Mitigation authority applies to nearby street/intersection improvements to mitigate traffic

·       Rough Proportionality currently applies to localized/nearby improvements and are not impact fees

·        Impact Fees has not been implemented and will take 1-1/2 to 2 years if Council approves budget for it

·       Impact Fees would apply to system improvements within a 6 mile service area and are focused more on capacity, rather than mitigation

·       Impact Fees is subject to the RP test and, as implemented by Ft Worth, incorporates RP authorized requirements as credits against the actual fee.

Delia Garza and Don Zimmerman debate density vs. sprawl

In this video, Council Member Delia Garza argues that downtown density is better for congestion than suburban sprawl, and Council Member Don Zimmerman argues the opposite. I call the argument for Council Member Garza. Here’s why:

Downtown, destinations are closer, reducing travel distance

CM Zimmerman is right that one reason suburban development causes more congestion than downtown development is that suburban residents tend to drive into downtown. Austin is a downtown-centered city. More people from the suburbs come into downtown for work, business, and entertainment than vice-versa. Placing them near these destinations reduces travel distance.

But even if downtown residents stay downtown and people on the fringes stay on the fringes, the dense development pattern downtown results in less distance spent on the roads. I spent the last weekend up on the edge of Austin, in CM Zimmerman’s district. When I stay at home downtown, there are dozens, maybe hundreds of restaurants within two miles of where I live. When I stay in District 6, traveling 10 miles for a simple night out seems normal and 2.5 miles is super close. This isn’t only about coming into downtown; even staying within the suburbs, trips are longer.

Downtown, destinations are closer, allowing more people to walk, bike, and bus

Reducing average trip distance from 20 miles to 10 miles halves the distance that somebody needs to drive. But reducing it from 10 miles to 5 miles doesn’t just halve the distance; it makes it possible for many people to bike instead of drive, using less space on the road. Reducing trips from 5 miles to 1 mile allows even more to bike and some to walk, using even less space. Bus trips are manageable where they’re short and well-served by transit. Downtown, people can choose to do without a car altogether, using very little transportation infrastructure; in the suburbs, this is practically impossible. Even for those who continue to drive cars downtown, some trips can be made on bike, on foot, or on the bus.

Downtown, uses are mixed, reducing travel distance

Downtown is denser: more buildings, more residents, more offices, more storefronts. But it isn’t only denser, it’s also more mixed. Whereas in some places in District 6, one would literally have to walk miles to get outside of a residential zone; in downtown, picking up the things you need is often as simple as going downstairs or around the block.

Downtown, uses are mixed, which mixes travel times

If you don’t live downtown and merely drive in and out at peak times, it’s easy to believe that streets downtown are hopelessly gridlocked. The truth is, though, that this is more of a function of people entering and exiting the area at peak hours. The Congress Ave bridge is congested northbound in the morning. South Lamar leaving downtown is congested southbound at night. But even the most congested downtown streets are often lightly traveled at other times of the day and many streets internal to downtown are almost never congested. While adding new residents in the Austonian is likely to add more people to the streets, it’s unlikely they’ll be driving into downtown at 8:30 on weekday mornings or out of it at 5. Instead, they may use their cars for errands or entertainment at times of light traffic.

This argument was framed as dowtown vs. fringe development but those aren’t the only two options

In this discussion, CM Garza and CM Zimmerman were only comparing dense downtown development to greenfield development on the fringes of the city. But those aren’t the only options. Moderately dense central city infill development poses many of the same benefits that high density downtown development does.