How to Make $39 Million Look Less Expensive

Wilonsky at the DMN prodded me with a tweet about the City’s Complete Streets 15 Pilot Projects, with a total bill for implementation being $39 million and change.

The Better Block guys and I chased this project based on the idea of incrementalized costs. In that, the full implementation wouldn’t be realized (or expensed) until there were cheap trial periods in all of them to acclimate the citizenry and businesses alike along the corridor. In effect, testing and proving up the designs. And therefore, allowing an adaptation phase where things could be tweaked.
The manner the city decided to take incorporated some of these ideas, but ultimately decided on a more conventional approach and we see that in the costs quoted, ranging from between $600K and $6M. Our point was that these costs would be easier to swallow not all at once but after seeing new business and investment buy into the idea of complete streets as sociopetal places that bring people together to hubs of social and economic activity rather than sociofugal, essentially commercial arterials which are truly hell on earth.
After reviewing the briefing here, I like many of the streets chosen. However, my point isn’t about the expense, but rather how cheap that $39M number is when we reframe the conversation. Let’s look at the Magnolia example in Fort Worth, where the TIF paid for restriping of the streets, narrowed the road and added parallel parking. What was a four-lane road, became two-lanes with a shared center turn lane, bike lanes on both sides, and parking. I’ll have to verify the cost figures with Kevin from FortWorthology as he’s been directly involved, but while I don’t think it ran into the millions, the cost was offset by rise in property values (hence the TIF paying for the improvements) and afterwards by an increase in sales receipts.
The key numbers are here:
  • Property values in the Magnolia “Urban Village” (Fort Worth’s nomenclature for their priority improvement areas) – 2004: $33.6 million – 2011: $79.6 million
  • Sales receipts jumped in the year after implementation from a little over $3million to over $10million along the Magnolia Street corridor.
Again, I’ll have to verify these top-of-my-head numbers with Kevin, but the specifics aren’t as important as the general gains. Between the $46M increase in property value and the $7M increase in sales receipts, the city is recouping their upfront costs and will continue to do so in perpetuity because of the increased taxable value and economic activity.

Imagine if we could achieve similar results with our fifteen selected streets? $46M times 15? That’s a $690M bump in land value. $7M corridor sales receipt increase times 15? That’s $105M. At 2.71% property tax and 1% local sales tax, that equates to the city generating $18.77M more in tax revenue each year along these corridors cumulatively. In other words, that $39M for implementation is paid back in 25 months. After that, it’s straight cheddar.

Or, ya know, we could spend to build more highways and ship tax base out of the city proper and do economic development the old fashioned way. I prefer the Magnolia/Complete Streets model.

Of course, this means our fifteen would have to be executed as well as Magnolia in Fort Worth. Can we do that?


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  • This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Ian

    (I really need to edit before I hit send…)

    I think one of the issues the drives up the price tag is thinking of these projects as Projects. As in, if we’re going to spend bond money, we’d better BUILD something. Toss up pretty streetlights, widen sidewalks, install planters. Do a full Lower Greenville treatment on them.

    Yes, many of these corridors need some infrastructure work…replacing the neglected and heaving sidewalks, repairing road pavement, etc. Until the City Hall thinking on what it takes to change the look and feel of a street (striping is sometimes all you need) you’ll run into the reaction we got with the bike plan — big price tag, therefore we can’t do it, or we have to do tiny pieces of it that make little sense.

    What I’d really like to see is the Better Block and the regular street infrastructure budgets (and thinking) merged. Every time a street rebuild or a lane striping has to happen, the first question should be…what can we do on this stretch of road to make it people- and bike-friendly?

    I think it was Live Oak — might have been parts of Ross — that in recent years got an asphalt overlay. Made for a nice new feeling road. But it just means that cars can drive faster now, since nothing about the road’s design changed and drivers aren’t having to slow down for the potholes. I see it as a lost opportunity for transformation of a main NE-SW corridor.

  • Agreed. Where you’re taking pragmatic approach, let me add the scientific/theoretical in terms of how simple changes in functionality of a street can lead to big investment.

    First, the counter example. All throughout downtown, I suppose as part of the downtown 360 plan, the city has been replacing the “furnishing zone” of sidewalks with brick. The furnishing zone is the area closest to the street where garbage bins, light poles, benches, and street trees are placed (ideally) providing some buffer or friction between moving cars and pedestrian space. (Did I say street trees? We hardly have any of those downtown.)

    The thing is, this is money spent on simple decoration. While the brick may look pretty it does zero for the overall functional change to the street. Sidewalks aren’t wider. Cars aren’t slowing. More people aren’t crossing the street. The overall degree of integration stagnates. And it’s integration that doesn’t so much drive demand (which is latent), but releases it like a valve. We focus on linear movement of streets and that is really all transportation types are concerned about. Crossing streets interrupts flow. But it is the crossing that ties places together and drives value. Integration begets accommodation.

    This is what the Better Block stumbled upon when they were simply trying to recreate streets of yore. Then it was attempted in Deep Ellum without calming traffic, narrowing lanes, etc., and it failed. When adding decoration without integration, you end up spending a lot of money for little return. When focusing on the basics of overall integration, you spend little and get a lot of return on investment. See: Magnolia in Fort Worth. Then as the values and investment rise, you can increase decoration and make it look pretty.

    First step, is we have to determine what streets are for. Purpose. Move cars? Or connect people, places, and things the way cities are meant to do, driving value and intensity of use (via desirability) so that the tax base is there to support, “own,” and maintain the infrastructure.

    Then, we have to focus on the complex network of connections. Not just throughput, but cross traffic as well. Pedestrian and vehicular. Integration begets Accommodation followed by Decoration.