Randal O’Toole: Texas Private Property and Transportation

Note: This article can be found on the Antiplanner Blog. The presentations will be linked here as soon as they are available.

Private Property and Transportation Presentations

by Randal O’Toole to a Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) conference, January 8, 2015.

The Antiplanner was in Austin yesterday (January eighth) speaking at a Texas Public Policy Foundation conference for Texas legislators. I gave two presentations, both of which are available for download.

First, I talked about how Texas can keep the “Texas miracle” going by protecting property rights (8-MB PowerPoint show). I made three recommendations:

Don’t give counties the authority to regulate land uses. Texas may be the only state that doesn’t allow counties to zone, and this keeps city zoning from being too restrictive because developers can simply avoid city rules by developing outside of the cities.

Relax the financial requirements for municipal utility districts. Municipal utility districts allow developers to borrow funds to install infrastructure and then charge homebuyers and other property owners a fee for 30 years to repay the bonds. After the financial crisis, the Texas legislature required developers to put up more of their own funds for infrastructure, leading to a significant increase in housing prices. I argued that the risk of defaults was worth it to keep housing affordable.

Retain city authority to annex land without the permission of the residents being annexed. Most debates over urban sprawl are really debates over who gets to collect taxes. In states where cities have a hard time annexing land, they use other tools, such as urban-growth boundaries, to limit land development. While annexations without voter permission are controversial, the alternative is worse. However, Texas cities are also allowed to have control over certain “extraterritorial” lands outside their city limits. This does not seem to be needed to keep housing affordable and eliminating that control would relieve many of the debates over annexation.

My second presentation (download by clicking here: rotfortppflanduse) was about how Texas can meet the transportation needs of the twenty-first century. Because it includes some videos, it is about 66 megabytes in size.

I made two main points. First, infrastructure funded by user fees tends to be better maintained than infrastructure funded by taxes. Second, self-driving cars are going to change the transportation picture in many ways, some of them unpredictable, and so cities and the state should not make expensive long-term transportation investments unless absolutely necessary in the short run.

Put these two notions together, and they suggest that unless user fees can pay for something very quickly, it should not be built. Instead, transportation agencies should attempt to solve today’s problems as cost-effectively as possible by doing things like traffic signal coordination, fixing bottlenecks, and doing basic maintenance to make the road system as friendly as possible to increasingly autonomous automobiles.

Someone pointed out that Texas has seven of the nation’s fifteen fastest-growing cities. While such growth causes strains and some people argue that one way to relieve such strains is to build lots of new roads, I’m not sure this is a great idea. It is especially a bad idea if these roads have to be paid for with tax dollars as opposed to user fees. New roads may be worthwhile only if user fee revenues can quickly pay for a road. I did suggest that people think about mileage-based user fees, which would both encourage people to drive at less-congested times of the day and give transport agencies accurate signals about where capacity needs to be increased.

The tollways that Texas is building often use variable pricing to insure that lanes never become congestion. As a practical matter, this means adjusting the tolls to limit traffic to no more than 1,800 vehicles per hour. While the Antiplanner nominally supports congestion pricing, I also recently pointed out that cars with adaptive cruise control can potentially increase flow capacities to more than 2,700 vehicles per hour, or more than 50 percent, without spending a dime on new pavement.

Even having just 25 percent of cars on the road using adaptive cruise control can almost completely eliminate congestion by interrupting “waves” of traffic slowdowns. Although I didn’t say so at the policy conference, this suggests that, rather than building more roads out of general funds, it might be both less expensive and more effective to give new car buyers a $500 or $1,000 tax credit if they buy a car with adaptive cruise control.

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