Houston Mayor Nails Real Transportation Needs of Cities in Texas

Fine, talk about Iowa all day, I don’t care, it’s a free country, but let me tell you something: All of that huge split they’re talking about today in the country’s presidential politics — I think of it as the gulf between the wacko, extremist, nut-ball, ignorant people and the people who agree totally with me — is right here on the ground in our own city. You just have to scratch harder to see it here.

At the absolute pinnacle of politics, the gap is supposed to be something about conservatives and liberals. Maybe. But here at the bottom of the pyramid, where nobody ever looks but us and when we do look the only thing we can see is our feet, it’s those feet that do the voting, and every day is election day.

A whole bunch of the feet that are here go out and vote every single day for the suburban dream — swimming pools and sprawl to the max, all the way over every horizon. But the largest unified bloc of feet in the region, the feet that are still in the city, vote for the city every day by staying put.

Does that difference — pushing to the suburban edge versus standing pat in the urban core — really define us socially and politically? Well, if it hasn’t already, it will do so more sharply in the near future: Cities are already beginning to redefine themselves in sharper contrast to their spreading fringes, not just in lifestyle but in harder, more competitive conflicts over resources.

A clarion call in that brewing conflict was issued last week by Houston’s brand-new mayor, Sylvester Turner, a Democrat who beat a Republican Ted-Cruz-endorsed newspaper columnist for the job in a run-off election last December. In a speech in Austin, Turner told the Texas Transportation Commission to stop spending all its money on fatter freeways to the suburbs — sort of like telling the pope not to waste so much time and energy on religion. But he nailed his point by hitting them with a stunning example of Houston’s own addiction to sprawl:

“The Katy Freeway, or Interstate 10 west of Houston,” Turner said, “is the widest freeway in the world, with up to 26 lanes including frontage road lanes. The 2008 widening had a significant impact on the adjacent businesses and communities.

“Yet, despite all these lanes, in 2015 the section of this freeway near Beltway 8 was identified as the eighth most congested roadway in the state. This was only seven years after being reconstructed.”

Turner called instead for things we’re pretty accustomed to hearing in speeches like these — more HOV lanes and trains and buses and whatever it takes to get more single-occupancy vehicles off the road. But he made another point I’ve never heard before from a major-city, mayoral-level, elected official in Texas: He said we need to turn the state transportation budget upside down, stop spending the lion’s share on newly developed areas at the fringe and spend it instead on rebuilding city centers:
“I believe we need to focus the highway resources for our urban regions in the urban core, where congestion is most severe. Urban cores are the crossroads where freeways, railways and ports such as the Port of Houston come together, and where the region’s mobility systems often bear the greatest stress.

“Spending limited resources on the region’s periphery, rather than the core, exacerbates the City’s already severe urban congestion and dilutes TxDOT’s ability to address the most vital challenges to economic development and mobility in the urban core.”

In that concise statement of the underlying money problem, Turner was shining a light on an enormous split within cities and the nation. As we forge our way forward into the 21st century, maybe the most important reality facing us is that this isn’t the 19th century. We can’t continue to think of our resources as unlimited, because they’re not unlimited. And where our purposes and our dreams go off 180 degrees from each other in opposite directions, the game devolves eventually to zero-sum. Not everybody can have everything they want. Game on.

Turner’s speech in Austin followed by just two weeks a speech in Washington by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in which Foxx laid down a number of similar themes. Foxx told the Transportation Research Board that America is divided by a corrosive social and economic gap and that highway building has played an egregious role in creating and enforcing that divide.

“This opportunity gap knows no boundary,” Foxx said. “It’s not confined to race. It is not confined to geography. This gap exists all over America.”

He pointed to urban highways that have served as walls, worsening rather than alleviating social and economic divisions: “They even gave these walls names — the Mason-Dixon line for the Staten Island Expressway, or the Berlin Wall in Syracuse, or the Highway to Nowhere in Baltimore, just to name a couple.”

Yeah, those are sort of street slang terms. But here in Dallas, the terms are official. The half of Dallas that is north of Interstate 30 is called “North Dallas,” even when it’s not very north, and the half of the city that is south of I-30 is called “The Southern Sector,” which may sound like something from a dystopian sci-fi movie but it’s not. It’s our ever so polite way of calling I-30 the Mason-Dixon Line.

So does all of this wind up making highways some kind of moral issue? Are urban trains and buses virtuous while 28-lane suburban highways are wicked? Well, maybe someday it will come to that, but it’s probably getting a little out over the ends of our skis to treat it that way right now.

I talked to Patrick Kennedy at Space Between Design Studio yesterday. He cautioned that the suburbs have a lot of smart, ambitious people in them, and those people have been the winners so far in the fight for resources: “I think the suburbs are a little more forward, whereas Dallas always has to play nice for some reason,” he said. “There’s very capable leadership all around the metro area and the state. I question whether Dallas can compete on that standpoint.”

But Kennedy, like many of the city’s energetic new champions of the urban core, thinks the city can overcome the political advantages that the suburbs are able to bring to bear: “We do have a number of other assets that we have to be able to play off — our ambition and our capital resources are two things we have going for us. We have to point those potentially powerful guns in the same direction rather than at our feet.”

Oh, and that brings us back to our feet, doesn’t it? Why is it, in fact, that it’s always so incumbent on us in the city to lie down, to mope and make nice, as Kennedy says, staring at our toes in the posture of a cadaver while the suburbs are racing off over the horizon with all the loot? We still have the single largest tax base in the region. Why are we always flat on our back while the suburbs have their way with us?

I think that’s where it will come down to zero-sum and a head-to-head showdown. We are flat on our backs because we have agreed to be flat on our backs, and we agreed because we got hoaxed into it by the purveyors of so-called regionalism.

Decades ago the regionalistas infiltrated the national network of metropolitan planning organizations — federally mandated agencies that operate largely below political radar with enormous leverage over the disposition of state and federal transportation money. Our own, for example, is the North Central Texas Council of Governments or “Cog.”

The regionalistas and the cogs have lulled cities into believing that a city has an important interest in promoting regionalism, which, by the way, is sprawl. To mangle a great Downton Abbey line about British peers who believed in progressivism, an American city that believes in regionalism is like a turkey that believes in Thanksgiving.

It may take a while for that principle to harden in the public mind. But the forces and divisions pushing us toward that principle are all around us, and they are, again, not totally unrelated to Iowa.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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