The last time that oh-so-sexy topic of frontage roads was raised on this blog was back when we caught wind of the Texas Department of Transportation’s preliminary renderings of the Interstate 30 redo. The renderings bore little relation to the ideas put forward by the intensive CityMap study that TxDOT also completed. That was a first-of-its-kind study to revolutionize the way the state agency plans for highways that run through dense urban areas. In those engineering sketches, frontage roads were added to the I-30 expansion in downtown up through East Dallas , one of a laundry list of same-old, same-old highway schematics that we argued would also perpetuate the negative impact I-30 has had on East and South Dallas since it was constructed around a half-century ago.
A few days ago, a community a little further down the turnpike received word that TxDOT is planning to expand frontage roads along I-30. There is traffic congestion on I-30 in Garland and Rowlett near Lake Ray Hubbard, and so TxDOT plans to spend $138 million to add six lanes of frontage roads across 2.4 miles of Lake Ray Hubbard. There are currently no frontage roads across the lake because, you know, it’s a body of water, so why pave it over with access roads? But now developers behind a lakeside property are pushing for the expansion to help funnel more traffic into their site.
Now, admittedly, the rules for highways in the less dense areas of the metropolitan region are not the same as in the center part of the city. Whatever aesthetic blight adding lanes to I-30 over the lake may present, those new frontage roads aren’t going to mimic the devastating impact they’ll have in Dallas. Here, they’ll be cutting off neighborhoods, inhibiting multi-mobility, and increasing traffic speed. All of which contributes to the devaluing of what should be the most expensive real estate in the region.
But what this latest TxDOT plan ignores is the fact that frontage roads tend to be bad for communities no matter where they are, according to the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2001, the research center was commissioned by TxDOT to analyze the impact of frontage roads to help the agency make better-informed policy decisions about spending limited public dollars for transportation and mobility projects.
The report is a hefty 192 pages of reading—essential stuff for any policy wonks out there. But here are the key takeaways. First off, frontage roads are terrible for the neighborhoods and communities they run through. Analyses of land corridors along frontage roads show that they typically possess lower household incomes, lower population densities, lower percentages of bike trips to work, lower vehicle occupancies for work trips, and higher unemployment rates. Frontage roads are also associated with lower employment densities.
That is all somewhat intuitive. No one wants to live or work next to a frontage road, and if you live next to a highway, you’re not exactly jumping on your bike to get anywhere. The report doesn’t specifically analyze the effect frontage roads may have on boating out on Lake Ray Hubbard because, well, who would think that TxDOT would build frontage roads on a lake?
But here’s the thing—the study also finds that frontage roads don’t even do the job there are constructed to do very well, particularly in places like Rowlett. If areas are heavily developed, frontage roads may improve traffic flow on highways, but in less developed areas they don’t impact that flow of traffic on highways. From the report:
Arterial systems in these simulations were supplemented by frontage roads and thus also performed better in their presence. The financial costs associated with frontage-road facilities were found to be considerably higher than those associated with non-frontage road facilities, except in cases of extremely high accessright values.
And so, we have a pair of tradeoffs. Frontage roads don’t perform well in less-dense areas like Garland and Rowelett, they are expensive to build, and they further devalue land adjacent to highways. In a world in which public dollars are becoming increasingly scarce, is it worth dumping $138 million into new frontage roads that will expand the footprint of a highway on a lake just to help funnel more traffic to a new development?
The curious thing here is, as with CityMap, TxDOT sponsored this study of frontage roads. And again, as with CityMap, when TxDOT manages to back forward-thinking studies about how highways should be constructed, the inertia of institutional thinking seems to supersede any thoughtful revisions of existing policy. The thinking that always rules the day is that more roads solve all road problems. This is happening in Dallas along I-30. It is happening in Plano along U.S. Highway 380. Now it is happening in Garland and Rowlett. Hopefully the fiscally minded suburban dwellers will begin to realize that TxDOT is selling false panaceas for transportation planning and the agency needs a serious reboot in the way it does business.
Editor’s Note: We let slip a reference to Lake Ray Roberts. It should’ve been Hubbard. Our apologies.