How Should the City Respond to the Uptown Sam’s Club? Establish a Parking Levy to Fund Public Transit

Maybe there's a silver lining in the Sam's Club controversy in the form of a new way to fund public transit in Dallas.

This morning Tim pointed out that the new Richards Group building includes 10 stories of parking. That building is located across Central Expressway from the planned Sam’s Club that those lazy, unethical developers at Trammell Crow, enabled by their less-than admirable financial backers, MetLife, are shoving down our throats. Together, just these two developments are providing space for a lot of cars in what is supposed to be the growing cluster of Dallas’ most dense and urban environment. They are going to attract more cars to the area, and those cars are going to make traffic problems on Central Expressway even worse. That’s going to make the imaginary number counters at the NCTCOG claim that we need more lanes and roads and the sky is falling and toll roads and blah, blah, blah. It all fits together.

Meanwhile, last week the DMN reported that during DART’s board retreat, in which the heads of our public transit agency stepped back to take a look at long-range ideas to make public transit in Dallas better, these transit geniuses came up with “toll road.” I know. I know. Insanity. More on that tomorrow.

For now, in my rage-inspired internet poking around and reading up on how other cities manage to have transit systems that don’t want to toll road their way out of their problems, I stumbled upon this paper on transportation funding produced by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. It lays out 18 ways local transit agencies can pay for service. My favorite so far: the parking levy. In short, a parking levy allows a city to collect a special tax on non-residential parking spaces, and it then uses that tax to pay for public transit. It’s a source of transit funding that simultaneously provides an incentive for compact development.

Hmm. Let’s play with this idea a little bit. So, you want to build hundreds of surface parking spaces within a given area, say within a 2-mile radius of downtown? Go for it. By all means. But each one of those spaces is going to cost X dollars in the form of a special tax made just for you. And those tax dollars, well, we’ll give them to DART with strings attached, of course. DART has to use that money to build better intra-Dallas transit focused on moving people, not expanding a sprawling public transit system that operates like a pyramid scheme, always having to gobble up new member cities in order to secure new sales tax revenues.

The real estate folks will probably play Chicken Little and say that it will collapse the real estate market. But look at this: In Calgary, the city owns most of the parking, and they have really tough parking regulations. The cost of parking downtown is comparable to New York. So, Calgary, which is a sprawling, suburban, post-war oil boom town, has huge levels of public transit ridership.

Why should we care about public transit so much that I’m proposing we tax people who build developments that incentivize increased car use? I think the Richards Group development demonstrates clearly why it is important. Imagine if that building had 10 more floors of office space instead of parking, housing all sorts of businesses. Imagine all those workers grabbing lunch, running errands, and doing what people do before, during, and after work. Those floors filled with cars represent a huge loss of potential economic and social activity in the core of the city.

The very fact that the building sits right next to a DART station demonstrates that: 1) Our light rail system doesn’t count as a real public transit, at least not in the eyes of decision makers at companies who want to work in the core. We need to improve public transportation desperately. And 2) Market demand is still driving development that is ill-suited to the long range viability and potential of our urban neighborhoods. As Tim said, in 10 years the Richards building is going to look silly, but today it makes economic and social sense. So if we know it is going to look silly later, how do we make it look economically and socially silly today?

These things will only be solved by smart and tough policy. A parking levy is one example of a policy that could both create an incentive for more efficient building in the central part of Dallas and raise money for DART. You know who is a fan of tough, stringent policies that foster a productive and creative environment? Stan Richards. It’s how he and his company succeeded, and his exacting standards could teach us a few things about how to operate both Dallas and DART.

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