Thoughts on NCTCOG’s Investigation of a US 67 Boulevard

Background

On March 3rd, Senator Royce West sponsored a morning community town hall meeting to discuss current transportation initiatives affecting Oak Cliff and South Dallas including the “Southern Gateway”, a proposed rebuilding and expansion of I-35E and US-67 through Oak Cliff. The proposed rebuild is expected to cost over $500 million.

At the meeting, it was proposed to temporarily remove the US-67 leg from the project and study the possibility of removing the limited access design of the highway and replacing it with a traditional commercial boulevard style arterial, similar to the redesign and rebuild that being scheduled for the S.M. Write Parkway. NCTCOG agreed to study and model the proposal, and on Wednesday 17 June 2013, NCTCOG responded with their results.
(A pdf copy can be found here: NCTCOG US 67 )

Theory

US-67 Serves as a hypotenuse that is placed to shorten the trip between downtown Dallas and southwest Dallas and Dallas County. However, a quick Google Maps directions result shows (shown below) that taking the hypotenuse saves a driver less than 5 minutes of drive time.  (note: A comment was made to me recently that I obviously just chose an opportune time to take the screenshot. This isn’t so, I took it at functionally a random time. Google Maps provides a great tool to estimate travel times during different times of the day. Results don’t vary that much.) (Image: Google Maps)

67 a

TxDOT currently collects data in 3 places along US67, as shown below:

(image from: http://ftp.dot.state.tx.us/pub/txdot-info/tpp/traffic_counts/2013/dal_base.pdf)

67 b

The three traffic counts read (north to south) 85405, 79485, and 94621. Keep in mind that the road as currently designed supports well over 100,000 cars per day. It is not at capacity now, the only need for expansion is “projected traffic”.  The middle number is interesting because it puts a ceiling on the total number of through trips. It is likely quite a bit lower, but, according to TxDOT’s published data, no more than 79k cars pass through South Oak Cliff each day. The middle number shows that at least 14000 of the higher 94000 vehicles begin or conclude their trips in South Oak Cliff. The actual percentage of the total that begin or conclude their trips in Oak Cliff is probably higher. A major commercial arterial could be built to handle a good portion of that traffic. Many existing arterials in Dallas County handle well over 20000 vehicles and some as many as 40000 and still maintain healthy traffic flow.

In their assessment letter, North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) predicts that if rebuilt and expanded the US-67 corridor could be expected to move up to 100,000 vehicles per day. (Roughly same number as the current road carries.)   The discussion above shows that if a commercial boulevard is constructed, the number of vehicles that would would be pushed to 35 would likely between 50000 and 70000 (assuming the highest predicted traffic demand for US-67).

Summary of NCTCOG Findings

NCTCOG reports that bringing US-67 to grade as a commercial boulevard would remove 42 lane miles of freeway from what is proposed for the expansion. The report stated that this would cause increased traffic on Westmoreland Road, Hampton Road, and Lancaster Road. The localized delay would cost citizens approximately $38 million annually. Images of traffic impacts are shown below in the PDF attached above.

Discussion of NCTCOG Findings

The traffic results are at first glance much like one would expect. Removing a freeway appears to decrease the effectiveness of the system. But, upon closer analysis there are some very interesting features.

  1. It’s important to note that while it is customary to label roadways with “A-B-C” style grades, the grades do not work the same way as grades in school. For example an “A” road is a worse grade than a D or E because an A means the road was over built and public money was wasted. The optimum roadway would be rated a D or E and colored blue. That would signify an optimum cost/benefit ratio.
  2. Traffic efficiency on I-20 is unimpacted. (It’s rated F in either scenario.)
  3. Traffic on I-35E north of Wheatland is unimpacted.
  4. I-35E at the split is impacted.
  5. According to NCTCOG’s findings, creating a boulevard out of US-67 would actually improve traffic through downtown as shown in the last map above. The traffic rating improves from F to D/E.
  6. $38 million dollars in cost due to “localized delay.”

Let us consider that last line. NCTCOG has calculated, in terms of dollars, the amount of “cost” that would be applied to the local economy by building the boulevard instead of expansion. They have taken all of the cost and wrapped it into a single number. $38 million annually sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But this is not actual dollars. It is an approximation of lost economic activity due to increased traffic delay. So, the challenge in justifying the loss of the freeway will be finding $38 million economic value to break even. Over a seven miles of ROW reclamation, that is not very hard.

Let us start with the cost. TxDOT predicts that the full Southern Gateway will cost $2 Billion dollars. TxDOT does not break the value out any more, but if we believe that the US-67 portion would cost 25% of that, the US-67 portion would be expected to cost about $500 million dollars, roughly in line with other projects of similar scope. The cost of the boulevard has not be estimated, but thankfully we have a comparable. S.M. Wright’s teardown cost is estimated at $150 million. Assuming that since US-67 is longer it would cost more, we can double that estimate to estimate an even $300 million to build the boulevard. That alone saves us $200 million. Divide that cost by 20 years for the 2035 plan and by simply not expanding the freeway we can decrease the annual losses from $38 million to $20 million.

Now, how does one find $20 million in economic activity along a 7 mile corridor. Very easily. We need to attract one Walmart Supercenter. If rezoned and provided the reclaimed Right-of-Way land for free, we could attract Walmart to build at least one Supercenter. A typical Walmart Supercenter has revenue of hundreds of thousands dollars per day. Attracting a Walmart Supercenter will bring needed employment and close a “food desert” that has currently been identified along the US-67 corridor. Further, attracting a Walmart Supercenter will quickly attract more investment from other sources to be involved in the new development including restaurants, banks, and local businesses. Even when ignoring all other potential for development and economic activity, attracting a single Walmart Supercenter alone will easily close the $20 million per year economic gap. When the remainder of the 7 miles of ROW reclamation is accounted for, it is very easy to see that the financial and economic advantages of a US-67 boulevard far outway the value of a limited access highway with toll lanes.

Conclusion

Given the extremely high potential for economic opportunity for South Oak Cliff, NCTCOG and TxDOT should reconsider their proposal to rebuild and expand US-67. Bringing the freeway down to grade and using intelligent zoning and opportunistic land distribution, a US-67 boulevard could become a major economic arterial and job generator for the City of Dallas, Dallas County, and specifically South Oak Cliff.

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