A Facebook post by Erin Brockovich spurred concern by Plano residents over the local water supply. (Photo by Dean Terry via Flickr)

Urbanism

How Successful is Regionalism? Let’s Do the Math.

If you are drinking the regionalism Kool-Aid, then its time to take a hard look at the long-term costs of DFW's rapid decades of wild growth.

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a mayoral election this Saturday. One of the ways the race is being framed is as a battle between candidates who want to place the growth of Dallas’ job base and the strength of its urban neighborhoods front and center, and those who wish to continue to champion Dallas’ allegiance to regionalism.

Perhaps, I should say “misframed,” because I’m not sure that’s exactly how the diverse field of candidates breaks down, but it is the way that outgoing Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings frames it in this alarmist Star-Telegram article about the race. Rawlings seems to believe that the candidates who are arguing that the next mayor needs to put “Dallas first” are somehow working against the best interests of the region. He even goes so far as to evoke that boogieman of the present moment, accusing the so-called divisive candidates as engaging in “Trumpism.”

“If that takes hold and we get a ‘Make Dallas Great Again’ or ‘Make Fort Worth Great Again’ mentality, it will slow things up.”

Rawlings called it an “insecure chip on people’s shoulders, this idea that we’re getting the short end of the stick.”

Rawlings’ comments to the Star-Telegram article strike me as a little disingenuous. If anything, the insecurity belongs to Rawlings. He’s the one who seems to lack the ability to take a sincere, mature look at the stark reality of the moment. Yes, the DFW region has undergone a tremendous boom in the last few decades, but the pattern of that growth has deepened economic divides within the region and driven growth down a path that is fundamentally unsustainable.

We’ve written plenty about these fissures in the veneer of regional success. They include the way regionalism has  led to a migrating economic center, dispersing jobs in a way that has led to deepening economic divides and income inequality by neighborhood. We’ve talked about the issue of housing affordability and how, when accounting for transportation, Dallas is one of the least affordable cities in the country. We’ve talked about the city’s endemic poverty, crumbling infrastructure, and de facto segregation–all issues that tie into the fact that the city and region’s leaders have prioritized a version of economic growth that takes advantage of DFW’s ample cheap landmass to spread new investment out across a vast landscape, reaping short-term economic success while ignoring the long-term challenges of sustaining this growth.

The candidates who believe the city should refocus on Dallas can see that regionalism is one word for what others have called “The Growth Ponzi Scheme.”

Significantly, concern about the Growth Ponzi Scheme shouldn’t be limited to Dallas. Fort Worth, as well as DFW’s many suburban cities, should also be concerned about continuing a pattern of growth that is already proving unsustainable. A great article on Strong Towns illustrates the point by breaking down the basic numbers around maintaining regional infrastructure long-term.

Alex Zhang writes about his home town of Plano, the postcard image of DFW’s regional success. Plano is a fast-growing, affluent suburb that has attracted some of the region’s wealthiest residents and largest corporations, including Toyota, the latest relocation.

But Plano’s growth also exemplifies the hidden costs and pitfalls of this brand of growth. Today’s economic success belies tomorrow’s public liabilities. Short term regional growth can’t pay for the long-term costs of sustaining that growth:

On the surface, my hometown of Plano, Texas seems to be on solid footing. Its officials often tout that we have both low taxes and good public services. Its AAA bond rating [the highest credit rating a city can have] is mentioned 10 times in its most recent budget report. The city held a per capita debt of $1,303 in September 2017; of North Texas cities, only Allen and Garland have lower debt levels per capita.

There’s just one problem: Plano, like almost all of the cities in this country, has a staggering amount of long-term infrastructural liabilities that it cannot pay for. And because Plano doesn’t practice accrual accounting — where the long-term liabilities and the replacement cost of infrastructure are recorded up front, rather than the year they are due — much of this is invisible to the public eye, or even to city officials themselves.

Then Zhang crunches the numbers:

Here are some figures estimating the replacement costs of Plano’s roads alone:

By comparison, Plano’s revenues and tax base:

  • Plano’s 2018–2019 general fund revenues: $304.3 million (page 28 of Program of Service)

  • Plano’s total taxable real estate: $42.7 billion (page 17 of Program of Service)

  • Public investment to private wealth ratio (roads only): 11.65 : 1 (for reference, a sustainable ratio is at least 20:1 and ideally 40:1)

  • Annual property tax burden for road replacement alone on a $300,000 house: $858.94
    ($3.67 billion road replacement cost / $42.7 billion taxable real estate * $300,000 house value / 30 year average lifespan of infrastructure)

Of course, roads aren’t the only infrastructural obligations a city has. In pages 97–98 of the report, the city reports the following inventory:

While the lifespan of (waste)water services is mercifully longer, there still needs to be an effort to catalog the replacement cost and prepare accordingly on how to fund it. Estimates are much more difficult to obtain here and they are influenced by many factors, but a replacement cost of $1 million per mile or more would not be unusual.

If the actual replacement costs are anywhere close to the rough estimates provided above, Plano is in deep fiscal trouble. The full bill may be decades away, but so is climate change! And good luck asking for a property tax increase of that magnitude after boasting about low tax rates for so long and after residents are already complaining that their taxes are too high.

So what is the solution? The solution is the same for Plano as Dallas. Sustainable growth comes from incremental development, strengthening a tax base by allowing its urban form to mature over time. This means creating opportunities for density. Density creates a tax base that can support infrastructure. Density allows cities to diversify their mobility options while reducing costs, since so much of the infrastructure debt is generated by over-relying on automobiles as a singular form of transit. Density also allows residents to live closer to where they work. It is not an accident that most of the most upwardly mobile communities in the country are also dense cities where more residents have greater access to more jobs through enhanced urban mobility.

In other words, Plano’s challenges sound a lot like Dallas’ challenges, and the solutions to those challenges sound a lot like the solutions being proposed by the so-called “divisive” candidates. What Rawlings’ version of regionalism fails to see is that the candidates who are sounding the alarm on the need to reinvest in Dallas are also the ones who are looking out for the best interest of the region’s long-term success.

I’ve also written about Plano’s struggles with growth and the NIMBY backlash that tends to accompany it, conjuring boogeymen of crime-ridden apartments and over-crowded schools. That backlash smacks of Rawlings’ own skepticism, a protective mindset that wants to hold on to a worldview built around some bad fundamental assumptions. As Zhang alludes, it is a little bit like climate change. We can pretend the long-term costs of today’s decisions will forever stand on some distant horizon. But they won’t.

We can’t sustain the pattern of regional growth that has defined DFW for the past 70-years. The future starts by strengthening the core of the region–the urban centers of Dallas and Fort Worth–as well as diversifying the urban landscape of cities like Plano. At some point there needs to be a reckoning that regionalism isn’t a real long-term solution for DFW. That reckoning could come Saturday.

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