Texas cities want millennials living downtown. So why does the state keep building highways to the suburbs?

Interstate 345 in Dallas connects two major highways and separates downtown Dallas from the Deep Ellum neighborhood.
Interstate 345 in Dallas connects two major highways and separates downtown Dallas from the Deep Ellum neighborhood.
Cooper Neil for The Texas Tribune

DALLAS — As the neighborhoods in and around downtown Dallas redeveloped in recent decades, they became hotbeds for millennials who, more than their parents did, rely on everything from walking and shared bikes to light-rail trains and ride-hailing apps to get around.

The same dynamic has played out in other Texas cities as people with college degrees and higher incomes return to the inner city neighborhoods that previous generations abandoned for the suburbs. But car ownership is still a necessity in most of the state’s urban areas, which still trail other American metros in luring educated young professionals — who in turn help attract new businesses and sustain government coffers.

That’s a conundrum for transportation planners like Kevin Feldt, who spends his workdays inside a nondescript Arlington office building trying to figure out how to build North Texas’ future transportation grid for a new generation while political and financial inertia still heavily favor the kind of highway building that exacerbates sprawl.

“Where are we headed?” Feldt asks. “And what does the future hold? That’s my dilemma.”

A man walks his dog near the farmers market in downtown Dallas in June 2018. The neighborhood has driven much of the population growth in the central business district in recent years.
A man walks his dog near the farmers market in downtown Dallas in June 2018. The neighborhood has driven much of the population growth in the central business district in recent years.
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

Feldt is a program manager for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, one of many metropolitan planning groups around the country that the federal government has tasked with overseeing transportation planning in urban areas.

Texas has 25 such entities, including Austin’s Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, San Antonio’s Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and southeast Texas’ Houston-Galveston Area Council.

Of the state’s four largest metro areas, only North Texas has completed its long-term transportation plan for 2045. Such plans influence a web of federal, state and local entities as they spend billions of taxpayer dollars turning those plans into miles of new freeways, city streets, transit lines and bike lanes.

And while millennials may be pushing away old ideas about what transportation infrastructure — and the development patterns it creates — should look like, the Council of Governments’ proposed $135 billion plan for North Texas’ future looks decidedly old school:

  • About 58 percent of the $89.4 billion earmarked for capital projects is for new pavement — everything from highways and tolled lanes to city streets.

  • About 15 percent of the $38.2 billion for major highway construction is budgeted for building freeways and corridor extensions that don’t yet exist, including $2.8 billion for a new regional loop north of Denton and McKinney.

  • Less than 3 percent of the $42.9 billion in traditional federal and state transportation money in the plan goes toward projects built for pedestrians and bicyclists; less than 1 percent goes toward public transit.

  • And while there’s $33.3 billion earmarked for public transit construction and improvements, nearly two-thirds of that money is from revenue streams that do not exist yet.

One of the goals of the long-term North Texas plan, dubbed Mobility 2045, is to give people alternatives to driving everywhere solo. But the political reality is that highway projects are much easier to sell in the suburbs than pedestrian, bicycle and transit projects.

“It’s a vicious cycle that’s going on here,” said Dallas City Councilman Scott Griggs. “It’s transportation planning right out of the 1950s.”

One of the most crucial contributors to what has become a self-fulfilling highway-building bureaucracy can be found at the beginning of the planning process itself: forecasting future transportation demand.

“We look at 2045, but we use today’s travel behavior and reasons for traveling as staying constant,” Feldt said. “I don’t think that will be the case, but we have no way of understanding what travel demand will be like in 2045, so we do the best we can.”

A return to the urban core

The Austin area leads the state and is 11th in the nation when it comes to the percentage of millennials who have college degrees, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of census data. Dallas-Fort Worth is tied at 40th with Los Angeles. Houston, the state’s largest metropolitan area, came in at 51st, while El Paso and San Antonio are near the bottom at 73rd and 78th, respectively.

Meanwhile, Dallas and other Texas cities find themselves competing not only against other U.S. cities but against their own suburbs for college-educated young workers. Dallas has shown signs of progress on that front.

An analysis of census data by the University of Virginia Demographics Research Group found that during the redevelopment of Dallas’ urban core between 1990 and 2012, the growth of college-educated residents — and per-capita incomes — in those neighborhoods outpaced the downtown areas in America’s 50 biggest metropolitan regions.

Similar trends have played out in Austin and Houston, which saw the biggest increases in college-educated residents and per-capita incomes in and around their downtowns. But those areas and North Texas also saw above-average increases in educated residents and incomes out in the suburbs — and San Antonio’s biggest increases happened in neighborhoods more than 15 miles from downtown.

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Does that mean educated millennials prefer dense, urban neighborhoods or more spacious suburbs? It’s hard to tell, because members of the up-and-coming generation have to adapt their lives to metropolitan areas that were built around the automobile long before they were born — which can fool planners who use current behavior to predict future needs.

Do people live far from work and avoid public transit because they want to, or because previous planners didn’t invest in sidewalks and rail lines that would make such options viable?

Kyle Shelton, the director of strategic partnerships for Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, thinks it’s the latter: “We have legitimately not created the infrastructure that makes it the most convenient and makes it the most effective,” he said.

Tallying the need

Kevin Feldt, a program manager for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, in his Arlington office where he works on transportation plans for the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Kevin Feldt, a program manager for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, in his Arlington office where he works on transportation plans for the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson

The Regional Transportation Council — a 44-member body of elected and appointed officials that prioritizes which projects get funded — unanimously approved Mobility 2045 this month for the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

And while highway construction projects got more money than rail expansions, sidewalks and bike lanes combined, regional officials say they still face a $327 billion shortfall in what they need for the region’s roads.

How did they get to that number?

“We assume that we’re going to remove all of the congestion,” Feldt said.

It’s an assumption that everyone involved knows will never become reality. That’s because it would entail something that transportation and urban planning experts say is counterproductive: building even wider highway corridors, which typically prompt more drivers to use them, which only perpetuates congestion in what becomes a never-ending cycle known as induced demand.

Feldt admits it’s not a feasible solution. “I don’t think you want to [keep expanding highways] because it would be very ugly and very land-intensive,” he said.

So why spend the time to estimate the number at all?

Because those alleged shortfalls are what local and regional officials use to persuade state lawmakers to provide more money and allow more financing mechanisms to pay for more roads — which Feldt acknowledges is just another mechanism for perpetuating the sprawl that leads to more demand for roads in coming years.

The coming population boom

When it comes to regulating how land is developed for housing and businesses — which can influence the kinds and amount of transportation infrastructure that is needed — cities hold the reins. And city officials typically focus on how development can increase their lifeblood: property taxes and sales tax revenues.

“They’re not going to put a limit on where they can grow and how they can grow,” Feldt said.

Since the Dallas North Tollway has expanded farther north into Collin County, once sleepy farm towns have ballooned in population and turned into suburbs that draw major employers.
Since the Dallas North Tollway has expanded farther north into Collin County, once sleepy farm towns have ballooned in population and turned into suburbs that draw major employers.
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

Republican state Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton, who sits on the Texas House Transportation Committee and also is a nonvoting member of NCTCOG’s executive board, said cities are prone to green-lighting developments, then turning to transportation agencies to build the roads and other infrastructure to support the growth that follows.

“That’s not a good way to do business,” he said.

But for planners like Feldt, there’s pressure to accommodate the expected onslaught of people coming to suburban Texas, even if there are cultural and technological shifts currently changing what people want out of their transportation networks.

“Well, we’ve got to accommodate those people somehow,” he said.

Between now and 2045, NCTCOG estimates the North Texas region will grow from 7.2 million to 11.2 million people — and nearly one-third of those additional 4 million people are expected to live in suburban Collin and Denton counties. Dallas County, the area’s urban center, housed 46 percent of the region’s population in 1990. That is projected to fall to just over 30 percent in 27 years.

As a result, the long-term plan under Mobility 2045 includes nearly $5 billion for projects like the outer loop in Collin County, widening the Dallas North Tollway for its entire stretch through Collin County and extending it to within a county of the Oklahoma state line.

Planners are quick to point out that many revenue streams come with restrictions on the kinds of projects that can be built. But heavily favoring suburban toll roads and freeway expansions threatens to exacerbate the middle-class flight away from the urban core, a phenomenon that already has left Dallas to grapple with growing income inequality, housing stock that doesn’t match up with what residents can afford and underperforming schools.

“We want suburbs to be successful, but we also want a strong core,” said Griggs, the Dallas councilman. “So much of this suburban growth has been at a cost and at the expense of the city of Dallas.”

Legislative hurdles

Mobility 2045 calls for more than $33 billion to pay for rail expansion and improved bus and paratransit service — including planned rail lines that would connect to Frisco, McKinney, Midlothian, Cleburne and Waxahachie, all of which are suburbs or rural county seats that don’t currently pay into any transit agencies.

A Dallas Area Rapid Transit light-rail train pulls out of the Deep Ellum Station in Dallas in June 2018.
A Dallas Area Rapid Transit light-rail train pulls out of the Deep Ellum Station in Dallas in June 2018.
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

But more than $22 billion of the $33.3 billion budgeted for transit capital projects comes from public-private partnerships or a $10 fee on vehicle registrations or other funding mechanisms that do not yet exist and could require legislative approval. Dallas Area Rapid Transit board chair Sue Bauman is skeptical that either could get support from state lawmakers, who have spent minuscule amounts of money on transit agencies once they wrote legislation creating them.

“I think they feel like by doing that, they’ve done their share,” she said.

Since the 1990s, DART has built what agency officials boast is the largest light rail network in North America. Which is true, if measured only by the length of tracks. DART has 93 miles of light rail and jointly operates another 34 miles of commuter tracks with Fort Worth’s Trinity Metro. That dwarfs Houston METRO’s 22 miles of light rail and Austin Capital Metro’s 32 miles of commuter rail.

But DART’s light rail system was built to mimic its highway system — it acts as a hub-and-spoke network where all major corridors meet downtown and then fan out to suburban neighborhoods in every direction. Critics say that design leaves several urban neighborhoods without rail and suppresses the number of people who would use the system because its bus service is often infrequent and undependable.

DART is embarking on plans to build a second downtown Dallas light rail line, expand its urban streetcar system, overhaul its bus routes and construct the suburban commuter Cotton Belt rail line to DFW Airport.

Its plans to finance all of this rely on DART’s own sales tax revenues and federal loans and grants that must be divvied up between all of the nation’s mass-transit providers. While the Texas Department of Transportation has a budget of more than $26 billion for the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years, less than 1 percent of that is earmarked for public transit.

“There’s zero (state money) and that’s the way it’s set up,” said Bauman, who also sits on the RTC. “I wish there was a mechanism, but there really isn’t.”

Simmons, the Carrollton lawmaker, is pessimistic that lawmakers will start steering more state money toward transit any time soon.

“You’re not going to get passed in the Legislature money from the state for mass transit when you have such needs for road construction itself,” he said.

A budgeting trick

Meanwhile, the Council of Government’s highway construction plans are also predicated on revenues that don’t yet exist, although they make up a much smaller percentage of the total. More than $7.2 billion of the money needed to make all the highway construction a reality comes from the assumption that lawmakers will hike both state and federal gas tax rates twice in the next 28 years — even though they haven’t done so in the past 25 years.

It’s a budgeting trick that planners like Feldt use as a placeholder for extra money that hasn’t yet materialized.

“It’s reasonably prudent to assume we’re going to get some additional funding,” he said. “We just don’t know where or how much, so we take our best guess and come up with stuff.”

But if transportation funds are so limited — especially when it comes to transit and other non-car-centric projects — what makes planners so confident that highways will get even more?

“History has told us over the last 30 or 40 years that somehow, some way, we always get additional funding,” Feldt said.

This story was written in collaboration with D Magazine and is not available for republishing until July 25, 2018. For questions regarding Texas Tribune republishing email director of media relations and partnerships, NatalieChoate at nchoate@texastribune.org.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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