Monday, June 17, 2024 Jun 17, 2024
81° F Dallas, TX

Fun with Numbers/Dallas Budget


So in light of the City of Dallas experiencing a nearly $200 million dollar budget deficit, I thought I would have a little fun with numbers while we watch education, police, fire, and presumably every other necessary service get slashed while road maintenance and upkeep retain highest priority.

First of all, I should say that compared to many other cities that I have been to and worked in, Dallas is getting off light. The city is both lucky and unlucky given its defined boundaries. Many smaller cities are experiencing much more severe budgetary constraints. For example, one city of approximately 100,000 had a projected shortfall of $250,000,000 equalling $2,688 per person. And THAT number was strictly for infrastructural upkeep and maintenance (and upgrades. Can’t forget upgrayddes. That’s how I will spell it from now on whenever an engineer uses the term road improvements or upgrayddes because it is such a bastardization of terminology), meaning no new construction. Compare that number to $146 per person in Dallas. That’s nearly 20x.

Building low density sprawl had come home to roost. We simply can’t afford the level of infrastructure that sprawl expects. The primary issue is that logically and throughout history level of services and amenities increased with greater density. It makes sense, more people sharing burdens and costs, the more can be achieved with that pooled wealth. The countryside couldn’t afford sewer and roads and power, etc.

This is why I state over and over that Deep Sustainability comes in two forms, self-sufficient and very sparse (the Jeffersonian Ideal) or the very dense cities (but I expect due to material constraints this means lower scaled, but still dense building in the model of Florence, for example). As we know, the very necessitation of human settlement patterns (and community) is shared common hardships and then, in turn, quality of life improvements through gains in standard of living brought about by the economics of sharing, trading, cooperation, markets, etc.

This pattern can be traced directly to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Imagine ourselves as lonely neanderthals at the bottom of the pyramid, rising to the highest of levels during times such as the Renaissance, or the Enlightenment, or the even the technological revolution of today leading to increased levels of interconnectivity. And then crash back down to the yellow in our fractured and disconnected society via the car, the television, etc.

With out new found wealth and suburban explosion, we expected the best schools and similar level of infrastructural support to follow. For a time it worked, but upkeep has proven to be the problem. The infrastructure and population density are spread so thin that we put so much pressure on such brittle apparatus that it begins to collapse due to overuse often caused by our dendritic arterial system versus a more choice-laden, adaptable and dispersive grid network and underfunding.

So getting back to why the City of Dallas’s budget shortfall is 20x less than that of smaller cities as discussed earlier, Dallas is lucky in that it is landlocked by its suburban neighbors. Dallas proper can do very little in the way of new growth, which has mostly happened in areas like Rockwall, Mansfield, and Frisco, meaning less no roads (despite everyone from the City to the State, to COG, and to TxDOT’s best efforts). So we can ideally focus our efforts on QUALITATIVE over QUANTITATIVE growth.

This is unlike Houston which annexes all of its growth. The future of these two cities can go either way from this tipping point we have reached due to their nature. Houston could become much more responsible with its growth, spending, inertia, and annexation or Dallas could be more successful as it can focus on a much smaller land area.

Where this bites Dallas in the butt, is that there are so many commuters coming in from Richardson, Plano, Arlington, Mesquite, et al., this means Dallas ends up with a very high freeway miles per capita number. Essentially because commuters’ trips to Dallas are subsidized at the expense of state and federal taxpayers, but the real cost is the burden on the well-being of the City itself.

Often when the argument of mass transit comes up, I’m both dumbfounded and frustration by the simplicity of the dollar values and supposed wastefulness that is bandied about. Such things as revenue generation, long-term maintenance, real estate values, etc. are always ignored in favor of startup costs strictly against Mass Transit. Well, how about we take a look at how much embedded wealth we have sunk into all of our roads in Dallas.

**Disclaimer: Very rough numbers.

The chart above shows the City of Dallas at .88 freeway miles per 1,000. This chart from 1999 shows freeway equivalent miles at 1.291. I’ll use this number because freeway equivalent sounds an awful lot like freeway. Call me crazy, but I’ll assume it costs something similar. Also, note how many Texas cities in the top ten. And we wanna build another one as part of the Trinity River Project? Sounds like a good plan (or a racket).

So we know that we have the freeway equivalent of 1.291 lane miles per 1,000 people, approximately 1.3 million people at a density of 3,605 per square mile. And a land area of 385 total square miles. This suggests that 1 freeway lane mile in a congested urban area can cost upwards of a $100 million multiply that over the 1678 freeway lane miles in the city and we get a cost of $167 billion or a cost of $130,000 per person.

But, what about the other roads? Since Dallas was built on mile-square arterial grids we’re going to apply this pattern to get a sense of how many overall road miles there are per capita in this city. As you can see in the graphic below, each super block is bound by 1 mile length arterials and further broken up into blocks by internal collectors or residential streets. The total perimeter equals four miles, but I’ll go with half that or 2 miles because each arterial is shared by another 1-square mile super block.

Internal to this superblock, I will estimate approximately 10 miles worth of neighborhood streets cross this block. This is more difficult to get a sense for as each superblock is subdivided differently due to geography, density, or whim. But, to assume the equivalent of five N-S and five E-W streets is pretty conservative considering that leads to about 800′ x 800′ blocks, not unusual for the ‘burbs.

At 3,605 people per square mile in the city that means that these blocks then have .00277 of residential street per capita (not unreasonable as that equals 14′ of street frontage) and .00055 arterials per capita. I’ll cost the residential streets and infrastructure at $5 million per mile (which assumes NOT a very nice streetscape) and $10 million per arterial.

If we are to extrapolate these superblock numbers over the entire city that means we have spent $7.2 billion on arterials, and $1.8 billion on residential streets and infrastructure. Add in the freeway equivalent costs and we are at $176 billion dollars JUST for construction, or $135,384.62 per Dallas resident. Did we realize we can’t afford that?

Next time somebody complains about a transit line costing X amount of dollars throw some similar numbers like that at them. We already know the difference in quality of place the two create.

Maybe to save our budget and essential city services, we can stop building or “upgraydding” roads and start building for people, not for cars.

Better caption? Money Well Spent or Return THAT Investment?