Mobility Fees and UGBs

Hillsborough County, FL (where Tampa is) is considering passing what is in essence a pigovian tax on sprawl, creating something called Mobility Fees.  A mobility fee is an updated version of an impact fee that development typically pays in order to help cover the cost of infrastructure.  However, they’re typically a drop in the bucket and don’t accurately assess the cost/benefits of different kinds of development.  As the piece points out:

“Mobility fees charge builders more for the roads and transit needed to support new development, especially if they build outside the urban core…Doing so means updating an antiquated tax known as impact fees, a sum paid by developers at the completion of a project. As it stands, the county actually charges less for new developments, even though that kind of growth costs the county more in support roads and infrastructure.”

Sprawl has enormous externalized costs, puts severe strain on infrastructure delivered to its low density, spread out land use patterns, and its tax base typically doesn’t support more than one lifespan of the infrastructure (which was usually subsidized in order to incent that tax base – whoops, we’re upside down).  Since greenfield land is cheaper to build on (especially if the existing tax base is paying for the infrastructure – essentially subsidizing sprawl) and the cost sprawl externalizes onto society is not accurately assessed, there is an underlying incentive to further sprawl.  What Hillsborough County is trying to do is level the playing field, if not completely reverse the paradigm with the mobility fee.  I suppose that will come down to how much the fee actually is.  What is certain is they’re trying to ‘goose’ the market to favor infill development, better utilization of their existing infrastructure in smarter more efficient, less car-dependent land use patterns and a healthier tax base/tax burden ratio.

“We’re trying to turn the paradigm around,” said Lucia Garsys, chief administrator for development and infrastructure services. “This is a new way of looking at these fees that can transform our community.”

This is very smart (again, dependent upon how much this fee will be and how much will go towards upgrading and modernizing the infrastructure in infill locations (We’d just put it to more highways).  It’s effectively changing the underlying DNA of development.  Sprawl is no accident.  Nor is it the by-product of simple market forces, but instead the systematic outgrowth of land use and tax policies as well as infrastructure priorities and expenditures from the federal level all the way down to the local level.  It does the same as Oregon’s Urban Growth Boundary law does without being as top down and authoritarian.  It makes a lot of sense in red states (despite Oregon’s UGBs being enacted by a conservative governor seeking to ahem conserve agricultural land from the grim reaper of the sprawl building bulldozers.  It’s a libertarian approach to development in attempt to pay accurate costs of development.

This is also something we should pursue here where 83% of housing starts are on never built upon before greenfield, ie sprawl (even if its sprawl-lite, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, sprawl dressed up with stoops).  However, this couldn’t work at the county level as in Hillsborough where there is still plenty of greenfield.  The only greenfield left in Dallas County is on the south side where we don’t necessarily want to restrict new development (and we badly need underground infrastructure).  So could it happen at the metro level?

The question becomes whether MPO’s would have the authority to level such fees.  I don’t know the answer to that, but my guess would be no since its purpose is transportation coordination between the 16 county and eleventy billion municipalities.  However, if it’s called a regional mobility fee similar to Hillsborough’s nomenclature perhaps that might have some legs.  Of course, and again, we would immediately put all revenue to building more highways.  Since this becomes a tax on the developing outer-lying counties in order to pay for the failing infrastructure in the core, I don’t see them going for it – especially because they wrongly think their exploding population will have no long-term costs.

Therefore, this would have to be implemented at a state level.  Good luck passing any legislation that helps the cities from our state legislature that is openly hostile to our cities, even if they are and will increasingly be the economic engine of the state.