In Louisville, Echoes of the Trinity Toll Road Debate, and a Reminder of How Dumb It Is

Categories: Schutze

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The question of new and more highways in city centers is too profound, too generational, too close to the heart of things: it's never going to get a rational answer. The whole thing is way beyond reason. We'll have to go with our guts, after we decide what our guts want to do.

Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for The New York Times, has a piece about downtown Louisville with all sorts of interesting echoes of our own dilemma here in Dallas. Louisville has already sacrificed a lot of its riverfront to cars. Now Kentucky business leaders want to cover up even more of downtown Louisville with roads and bridges, while new urbanists argue that's exactly the wrong direction to go for a better downtown.

When I read his piece, I thought of the years-long struggle of road-foes here to get anybody in the academic community to address these basic underlying questions honestly and publicly. Because there are basic underlying questions. There are rational measurements that could address those questions. There are experts who possess that expertise.

Sadly, those experts, even the ones who teach college, are all standing on street corners with too much makeup and their skirts hiked up or their pants too tight, waiting for the next real estate developer Johns to come along and hire them as traffic-study consultants. The field that ought to give us the answers, traffic engineering, is already sold-out before it even shows up for class. So we're back to our own guts.

In his piece today about Louisville, Kimmelman touches on a question that's at the heart of our own debate here over the proposed tolled expressway that business leaders want to build in the floodway along the Trinity River, walling off downtown Dallas from its only waterfront and from a vast natural area, not to mention the curious notion of building a highway everyone knows will be underwater part of the year.

The principle Killmelman talks about in Louisville is "induced demand." It's the heart of things here. Road proponents here have always based their pitch for the new highway on a promise it will reduce traffic congestion downtown. But they were flummoxed last May when three city council members produced numbers showing that the city could do a better job reducing congestion and spend less money if it simply fixed existing downtown freeways instead of adding a new one.

To counter that argument, the proponents, with the mayor as their chief pitchman, simply changed the rules of traffic engineering, which have always been based on the principle of "congestion mitigation," a rule enshrined in federal highway law and policy. It's what it says it is: a measurement of the degree to which congestion will be reduced by a project.

The champions of the new Trinity River Toll Road decided that the congestion mitigation principle was suddenly inoperative here. Instead, they said their toll road was the better idea because it will increase "capacity," which is more or less a measurement of the total amount of concrete available for cars.

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The future!
The principle Kimmelman invokes in his piece today -- induced demand -- is a refutation of that argument based on years of history and measurement. All of the evidence is that simply adding capacity usually increases congestion instead of reducing it. If life were a sentimental baseball movie, the capacity argument would be expressed as "build it and they will come."

And in fact that's what the proponents really want. The Trinity River Toll Road was never really designed to reduce traffic. It's what developers call a development road, designed to bring more traffic to downtown, based on the post-World War II axiom, "access is success." They think the way to make their downtown property worth more is to bring more cars to it.

That idea happens to fly in the face of everything going on in city centers around the country, where, as Kimmelman recounts, cities have been tearing down highways to air out their downtowns and create new opportunities for walkable urban development.

But wait. Where did we start? I opened up here by saying there are answers to these questions. There is math. I think it's more like arithmetic. And there are people who know how to do that arithmetic.

For the last several years I have been following the efforts of Dallas city councilwoman Angela Hunt to recruit even one credible member of the traffic-engineering profession willing to publicly address these questions. It ought to be simple. Come to Dallas. Look at this plan. Tell us: 1) Will the new underwater highway along the river reduce or increase the amount of car traffic in downtown? 2) Is more car traffic good or bad for downtown re-development these days?

They won't do it. It's like asking the tart on the corner to come home with you to visit your parents. The tart, no fool, smells trouble in that.

Hunt has told me time and again of experts willing to tell her all sorts of things off the record about how stupid the toll road idea is, as long as they don't have to stand up in public. I have had the same experience repeatedly as a reporter.

So, as I've said before, at some point we have to abandon the search for expert help with this. It's not up to the experts anyway. It's up to us. I guess what we have here is a basic exercise of democratic prerogatives. We just have to go with our guts.

So how's your gut this morning?

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29 comments
ryan762
ryan762

What we need is an expensive city-funded consultant's report to tell us why experts won't come here and tell us the truth about the road.

TurdFerguson
TurdFerguson

Jim, aren't you burying the lead here? What can be done about smell mitigation?!

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

I love the optimistic artistic rendering of the imagined traffic load on our magical tollway.

s.aten
s.aten

The new issue re: building more roads is that fewer people are getting driver's licenses until later in life.   Teens are much less likely to have a driver's license than 20 years ago & all of those Baby Boomers are nearing retirement.   You drive less as you get older and no longer have to go to work.  It is possible that we won't need all that extra capacity.

AmyS
AmyS

Then there is the money factor. US Government bonds pay a negative return these days, so where does wealth money and foreign money look next to invest for a "guaranteed" better return? They can't invest it if we don't build it. It's the next mortgage/student loan/financing pigout. Chapter 5 of Griftopia, by Matt Taibbi, "The Outsourced Highway".

jerikjonsson
jerikjonsson

JS, love your attention to this issue, and agree with your conclusions, but just to be as picky as possible this:

 

"All of the evidence is that simply adding capacity usually increases congestion instead of reducing it."

 

isn't strictly true.  That's still the subject of some among traffic engineers with some of the recent literature showing reduced congestion.

Montemalone
Montemalone topcommenter

Why don't we just build a giant deck park over the river, with a tolled road beneath it, with a big pipe beneath that to flow the river in? Then we could have it all, and that's all that matters, right?

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

 @TurdFerguson So this is the argument, I assume from the toll road lobby, that the river is nothing but a dirty sewer and we're better off paving it. But in fact if you were to canoe down it with Charles Allen, you would realize that the river is a potentially incredible natural asset in a city that wrongly thinks it has no natural assets. The doo-doo toi-toi turd argument is what brings us fake shit, like the Calatrava bridge. And that really does have an odor that won't go away.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

 @jerikjonsson What if I had done a better job of presenting alternatives here and framed things as the mayor has: a pure congestion mitigation approach (fix the mixmaster) versus a pure capacity approach (build a new road that doesn't go exactly where traffic wants to go now). Would the engineers debate those two as methods aimed at a stated goal of congestion mitigation?

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

 @jerikjonsson An axiom of traffic engineering:

 

"Congestion on any roadway increases to the point where the delay causes drivers to seek alternate routes."

Scruffygeist
Scruffygeist

 @Montemalone Leave room for a Ferris wheel and require all patrons to pull up their pants and you should get Dallas behind that plan 100%..

Double-O-Joe
Double-O-Joe

 @Montemalone 

Then, during the annual floods, the pipe becomes the world's largest enclosed flume ride! 

 

I like the way you think.  We could monetize that.

TurdFerguson
TurdFerguson

@JimSX No, I am firmly opposed to the toll road just as you are. However as one who crosses the Loop 12 bridge at least twice a day, I can tell that many days the stench is overwhelming, even with the AC on recirculate. Agree that riverfront development can be great - see Shreveport/ Bossier City for a nice example, especially the Bossier side of the Red. But we must get serious about cleaning up the Trinity, which all would agree is a desirable goal.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

 @JimSX  @jerikjonsson Supposedly, a significant amount of the traffic volume on IH35 through downtown is just that, through downtown and not downtown as a destination.

 

Supposedly, the toll road would provide a center city bypass and route the through traffic on a different route thereby reducing the congestion on the existing alignments.

 

However, the schematics that I have seen do not necessarily do that.  The northern end of the toll road comes off of IH35 south of the IH35/TX183 merge then continues south to a proposed interchange with IH45 and then to US175 at the existing US175/TX310 interchange.

 

Correct me if I am wrong, but it is my understanding that there will be no interchange with IH35 south of the IH35/IH30 interchange.  If this is the case, then I do not see how this proposed road will alleviate the congestion on traffic that is through traffic on IH35 through downtown, which seems to be the source of most of the through traffic.

 

Additionally, a significant amount of congestion seem to be from IH35 north of downtown to DNT north.  I do not know if the origin for this traffic is from IH30 or IH35 south of downtown or Woodall Rogers westbound to north bound IH35.

 

Quite frankly, this proposed road as a supposed "reliever route" does not appear to connect the origin and destination of the claimed through traffic on the IH30/IH35 interchange.

jerikjonsson
jerikjonsson

 @JimSX Hell, I'd have to be a traffic engineer to know that.  Why don't you ask them?

1dailyreader
1dailyreader

 @TurdFerguson  I think that smell you are referring to is the Irving dump.  It's right there to the north of I-30 just before/after Loop 12 by Chalk Hill. 

TurdFerguson
TurdFerguson

@JimSX No worries. Been using it for months; it is a callback to a Norm Macdonald bit on SNL.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

 @ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul  @jerikjonsson Yeah, that's exactly right. Hunt, Griggs and Greyson forced TxDOT to pony up their projections. For the reasons you cite -- it doesn't go where traffic wants to go --TxDOT's own projections showed that the toll road would do a relatively piss poor job of relieving congestion downtown. Fixing the mixmaster, on the other hand, which costs a quarter to half as much, does a much better job of moving traffic and relieving congestion. It was then that the mayor and Michael Morris of the COG saw that the three councilpersons had the ammo to shoot down the toll road. So they came up with this whole new theory that, no, the toll road is better because it creates more capacity, which really just means it creates more concrete. But it's not concrete that goes where people want to go, so it does little to relieve congestion on the existing freeways downtown, which is what they said this was all about from the beginning. It's absolute shell game bullshit, but Morris always banks on people not being able to figure out his bullshit. He's kind of a like a nightclub magician who depends on misdirection. There are people who want this road. They are very powerful. They will say what they have to say to get it. But it's bullshit.

mcdallas
mcdallas

 @Montemalone  @Scruffygeist We don't have time to consider the energy source of solar powered taxis.  We just need to build it.  I vote for using the same team that designed/built the canoeing rapids downtown.  We'll "cross the bridge" of viability AFTER it's built, thank you very much!

Montemalone
Montemalone topcommenter

 @mcdallas  @Scruffygeist Now how do you use a solar powered water taxi in a tunnel? It'll have to be coal powered. That'll get Ralphie on board for some federal funds.

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