North Texas, faced with a shrinking transportation budget and a growing population, is planning for a denser, more compact future.

MacCleary_2_351In Texas, big has traditionally been beautiful. And when it comes to transportation, the state is home to some of the most expensive and extensive highway projects in the country. But the tide is turning against big road projects located on the suburban fringe. In Dallas–Fort Worth, projections are showing both diminishing federal, state, and local revenues and a growing, changing population. As a result, the region is planning for a future that will look very different from its past.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), given the task of planning transportation investments for the 12-county Dallas–Fort Worth metropolitan region, is leading the thinking on this shift. Mobility 2035, the regional transportation plan prepared by NCTCOG and approved by local leaders in March, lays out the area’s transportation resources, priorities, and policies for the next two decades.

Mobility 2035 identifies transportation funding of $101 billion, a $44 billion reduction from the levels the COG projected when it prepared its 2030 transportation plan five years ago, and far short of the $395 billion the COG thinks would be necessary to make a real dent in congestion. The lower revenue projections reflect continued uncertainty in federal transportation policy, the effect of more fuel-efficient cars, and a more conservative set of assumptions about how much federal and state gasoline taxes will increase over the planning horizon (the 2035 plan projects a 10-cent total increase in federal and state gas taxes by 2020, while the 2030 plan assumed that taxes would increase 15 cents earlier on).

Texas has been a public/private partnership (PPP) innovator, as has the Dallas–Fort Worth area. Two PPP deals in the region for managed toll lanes worth more than $7 billion closed last year. But PPP projects are no cure-all for the region’s funding challenges; they are appropriate only for some kinds of transportation investments and can pose political challenges if they involve foreign owners or operators.

Despite the fall-off in funding and the national economic downturn, however, the COG still anticipates robust growth in employment and population. “Between now and 2035, it is anticipated that the region’s population will increase by 48 percent and employment will increase by 47 percent,” Mobility 2035 states. This translates to an increase of about 3.5 million people between now and 2035. The population is expected to be increasingly diverse and made up of a growing percentage of people over age 65.

What all this means is that the old ways of doing things—of “extending roadways and rail lines and adding lanes in existing corridors,” as the plan puts it—will no longer suffice. Instead, the plan supports “growth management to achieve a more efficient land use/transportation balance.”

Specifically, Mobility 2035:

  • Defers $33.5 billion in funding for major highway projects, including a majority of the “regional outer loop” representing 250 miles (400 km) of additional roadway.
  • Allocates $3.9 billion—a $1.8 billion increase in funding compared with Mobility 2030—to strategies that promote livability by linking land use, development, and transportation. A program that helps offset development costs by funding infrastructure for mixed-use and transit-oriented projects, as well as a program that improves coordination of location decisions for huge new suburban schools, are funded from this pot of money.
  • Provides $4.8 billion—an increase of $1.7 billion from Mobility 2030 funding levels—to maximize the operations of existing roadway capacity through demand management strategies, bicycle and pedestrian improvements, and intelligent transportation systems.

These priorities build on the Vision North Texas initiative, a project of ULI North Texas and its partners that analyzed the pitfalls of continuing on a business-as-usual course; demonstrated market demand for more compact, walkable development products; and built consensus and support for a revised version of the future for the region.

North Texas is also experimenting with innovative ways of funding transit. The region is using value capture to finance construction of the Cotton Belt Corridor Regional Rail, a 62-mile (100-km) system that will connect the city of Fort Worth, Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport, several north Dallas suburbs, and the city of Plano. The $1.5 billion line will be financed in part using strategies that raise private equity based on real estate and economic development near the line.

“The Dallas–Fort Worth region has added 1 million people every ten years since 1960. This trend is expected to continue over the next three decades, with the population approaching 10 million people,” says Michael Morris, NCTCOG’s Trans­­por­tation Department director. “Transportation decisions focused on sustainable land uses are critical to maintaining the quality of life in the region.”

What does it all add up to? Driven by demographic changes, shifts in market demand, and an expectation of diminishing federal, state, and local resources available for transportation, transportation priorities in Dallas–Fort Worth are changing. As a result, development opportunities in north Texas can be expected to shift as well.

Mobility 2035 embraces a more downsized future, one in which transportation and land use are more closely tied together and investments focus on improving the performance of existing capacity and supporting more transit-oriented, walkable, compact development. Even in Texas, which has traditionally been the land of unabated free market development with few regulatory limitations on growth, Dallas–Fort Worth is rethinking the way it should grow and what kind of transportation investments can help guide that growth.

To learn more, see Mobility 2035 and Vision North Texas.