This guest blog is by ELGL member Clay Pearson.
Big cities have big responsibilities. Coming with that are big scale, scope, complexities, priorities, and challenges. Texas has growth and all the other `bigs. We are not shying away from the `bigs’ and building great communities. To get there requires numbers with lots of zeros behind them. A recent Strong Towns website entry challenged Colin County with road projections. Challenge is good and not something to shy away.
The Strong Towns network is helping local government leaders plan and build better places. The facts about value and what gets produced with “traditional” land use patterns and notproduced with acres of parking should make us all think about the habits and assumptions we currently have. I share the lessons with our City of Pearland team. For instance, the Building Resilient Communities (Public Management, ICMA, Sept 2018) by Charles Marohn, Jr. challenged the assumptions on value of the old and blighted block vs the appealing `shiny and new block’ from reinvestment.
However, there’s a current Strong Towns blog entry leading up to a conference that’s hitting closer to home and overemphasizes some numbers while minimizing the important one. In `A Texas-sized Pavement Problem’ (https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2018/9/27/a-texas-sized-pavement-problem) by Daniel Herriges, there’s a critique on Collin County, Texas pursuing bond authorization for mobility improvements.
Ability to Pay mentioned, but the size of the immediate step dismissed
The `Pavement Problem’ is concerned that Collin County says it needs to spend on new roads in the next 30 years, $12.6 billion. This is a large numbers with lots of zeros.
However, there is not a $12.6 billion bond question being considered right now. There is a $750 million bond question being proposed. Big challenges usually are addressed incrementally. In Texas, we are used to $750 million in improvements and more moving forward. This incremental approach provides opportunities to assess and readjust.
Texas is Bigger (and it is getting better results)
My wife and I have been living and working in Pearland, Texas for just over four years, moving from Michigan after 14 wonderful years there. We are not alone in relocating. The table shown here is to the left of `Net Domestic Migration. ‘ (from a presentation, `Clear Sailing Ahead,’ Dr. Mark Dotzour). The numbers for net migration over the first two decades of this century are stark.
There’s more. Employment growth is logically tracking with that population growth (or vice versa). Texas has seen 2.7 million new jobs over the first one-fifth of the 21st Century. Once you get past California and Florida, the total drops off precipitously. Having lived in Novi, Michigan outside Detroit and n Elgin, Illinois outside of Chicago, I know the challenges of building alongside area of low employment growth. It is indeed a challenge. We face a much more desirable challenge in Texas – growth support/management/guidance.
The numbers here in Texas are big, and there are corresponding investment needs for new infrastructure and public services required to meet them those needs. Such a big scale may not resonate to other parts of the country; however, deferred decision making can result in some eye-popping negative numbers down the road.
A case in point from the north would be the new bridge connection between Windsor and Detroit. The additional crossing is an essential transportation link to supplement an existing private toll bridge whose owner goes to any length to protect his nearly-monopoly on this international transport market. The Windsor-Detroit bridge was talked about for a decade or more. The Canadians even generously offered to pay for its construction, and yet it is only now taking bids, estimated at $3.8 billion (billion!) to design and construct for its opening at the end of 2024 (2024!).
Meanwhile, here in our corner of the Houston metropolitan area, there’s a new $1 billion public-private partnership to build new toll lanes and to reconstruct parallel freeway lane option that will open in September 2019 from Pearland to the massive Texas Medical Center and downtown Houston. There’s separate simultaneous new construction on the Harris County Toll Road Authority’s Beltway 8 on our northern city boundary. Generally, there’s investment in new capacity and reconstruction all over greater Houston and the vibrant core.
Our City of Pearland has grown a little over 1/3 in population from 2010 to 2018, with 134,000 residents currently estimated. We’ve added rooftops and done so while maintaining affordable housing options, while contributing a light touch of regulations. Those new neighborhood subdivisions enhance the resilience of the housing stock, as demonstrated in their performance during the epic rainfall of Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. The new developments withstood that massive stress test. Older areas and parts, mainly developed originally outside of city jurisdiction’s development requirements, generally saw the significant flooding.
I don’t know the specific needs in Collins County; what I do know is that grow communities must invest in transportation infrastructure. Examples include thriving cities in the DFW metroplex such as Plano and McKinney. It takes investment to build communities that are diverse, dynamic, and multi-modal. Companies and corresponding jobs are flocking to cities that invest. Ratings are high for their quality of life. Those places are not just myopically building roads upon roads, as Strong Towns implies, without considering and investing in alternative transportation choices and giving developers the chance to build dense developments for those that choose that.
Maintenance does have to get its just investment
The `Pavement Problem’ entry does make the point about once you build something, you have to maintain it. Moreover, where’s the money coming for that responsibility? Back to the beginning of this commentary, that fiscal accounting is a hallmark of the Strong Towns message. In our own community, we struggle with the reinvestment question for existing infrastructure. Our City budget discussions recognize there’s a gap between regular maintenance targets and the money we are actually putting towards that. However, the growth challenge requires adding to the maintenance budgets. Rest assured, with that Texas can-do track record, we will recapitalize our fleet, facilities, parks, sidewalks, pathways, and roads before they fall too far off the maintenance curve.
When Strong Towns convenes later this week in Plano, don’t be too quick to throw out the success of the area while enjoying those Plano high-quality restaurants and retail areas. Keep in mind that Texas is bigger — There are more “zeros.” Big numbers are essential for the investments growing major metropolitan areas that are growing and attracting people and private investment. The $750 million Collin County bond issue question for roads seems a reasonable and necessary start while leadership there continues to build great places to meet the needs of its increasing population.
I’m the co-founder and executive director of ELGL. I love my job. Other things I love: local government, my family, my dog Michael Jordan, sandwiches, naps, books, and skee-ball.