Earlier this month, both Minneapolis and Saint Paul released their property tax levy numbers, and for both cash-strapped core cities, they went up quite a bit. Despite the recent development booms in both downtowns, the fiscal facts on the ground remain stubborn. Saint Paul and Minneapolis have a lot of needs, and funding them is a real challenge involving trade-offs. Public safety comes at the expense of road maintenance. Libraries are pitted against rec centers. Given that older cities do a lion’s share of work providing housing and services for our state’s poorest people, it’s crucial that they remain economically stable. But for many years, critical state funding for core cities (called local government aid) has been shrinking, and local property taxes have been going up as a result.
That’s why it bothers me so much to see auto-oriented street designs in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, that undermine the fiscal stability of these governments. To my mind, transportation decisions play a huge, often misunderstood, role in determining the fiscal solvency of our older cities. Here are a few ways that works, ranked in order of least direct to most direct.
List of Ways Automobility Costs Cities Money
(Note: I’m probably missing some of these. Feel free to add omissions in the comments!)
#7. Decreasing Competitiveness versus the Suburbs
Occasional streets.mn writer Mike Sonn, loosed a nice line last year during a public hearing in front of the City Council, describing the relationship between bicycling and local businesses. “In 15 minutes in my car, I can be at the Rosedale Mall,” he said. “But 15 minutes on my bike, takes me to the Half-Time Rec,” a local bar where a bike lane was proposed.
Core cities like Saint Paul and Minneapolis, originally designed around walking and transit, have a fundamental relationship with the overall speed of travel in the city. The more that our freeway and road system makes it quick and easy to get in and out of cities, the more that people will spend money, buy homes, and live in the suburbs while using the city as a base for services (sports events, theater, restaurants, certain offices, etc.). Conversely, the slower the speeds of traffic overall, the more that the homes, neighborhoods, and proximate businesses in the city become inter-linked and interdependent. It’s a geographic trade-off.
When a high-speed road runs though a city and offers easy access between the city and the suburbs — think of Olson Memorial Highway, South Minneapolis’ one-ways, the 90s-era I-394, or the semi-connected Ayd Mill Road “freeway” in Saint Paul — sure there are some location benefits that accrue to the core, maybe around a particular downtown skyscraper, a regional shopping center (Trader Joe’s), or marginal benefits for people who reverse commute. But in general, high speed roads sever the economics of agglomeration. As urban auto-oriented transportation policy make outer suburbs more competitive, they reduce the relative competitiveness of urban neighborhoods.
This is admittedly vague, and the exact numbers would be impossible to figure, but with each new high-speed street or urban freeway, in general, peripheral cities go up in value and core cities go down. With transit and sidewalks, the opposite is true.
#6. Public Health Costs
Unhealthy populations are clearly an expense from a policy perspective, but remain difficult to quantify. “Cars are the new tobacco,” in the sense that inactivity is a big driver for health problems. By building streets where walking is dangerous but driving is relatively easy, cities send signals to their residents about priorities. These decisions come with a local price tag, as chronic illness associated with lack of physical activity get treated, especially by County governments. To the extent that we design cities designed for active living, cities and counties can reduce health care costs over the long term. For example, a recent study about bike lanes connected these dots, showing that money spent on bike lanes resulted in savings that ranged from 6X to 20X for local health outcomes.
Another direct public health impact is particulate pollution from proximity to freeways. (Even more direct would be actual cars hitting actual people.) In core cities, thousands of people live very close to high densities of idling cars. Often, because of the effects that freeways have on housing values (see below), these are some of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. There is a direct relationship between driving cars in cites and younger people getting asthma or other chronic health problems.
What’s the price tag on these health impacts? Well, Hennepin County spends half a billion dollars each year on human services. The 2011 research study linked above states that each additional kilometer waked per day reduces the likelihood of obesity by 5%. Someone could do some rough math.
#5. Road Impacts on Property Values
High-speed auto-oriented streets drive down the values of neighboring properties for lots of obvious reasons. These streets create noise and odors, and more importantly, they make the yards and sidewalks unsafe. If you live on a street with cars speeding by at 40 miles per hour, you’re not going to use your front yard. You’re barely going to be able to walk across the street half the day. You’re not going to know your neighbors, and (I’d love a realtor to help me with this) every property on one of these streets is going to go down in value. Nobody wants to live in a house on Snelling Avenue if they can avoid it.
The same goes double for freeways. Soundwalls and nicer pedestrian bridges help a bit, but in general being within a block or two of a freeway devalues entire neighborhoods. Think about the entire I-94 stretch through Saint Paul, or the 35W adjacent neighborhoods in Minneapolis.
A while back Alec Cecchini penned a rough analysis of how much money in local property tax value those roads “cost” the Minneapolis budget. He came up with something like $25 million dollars per year for the city of Minneapolis. He admitted it was a lowball number, but that’s the general scope of what we’re talking about.
#4. Parking Lots Erase the Tax Base
From a strict assessment perspective, there’s nothing less valuable than a surface parking lot. (OK a nuclear waste dump would be worse…) But designing streets to privilege cars means you’ll almost always be building lots of surface parking, scattered in between older or newer core city buildings, around strip malls or industrial parks. Often this involves bulldozing old buildings where half the density has been replaced by parking. The “floor-area ratio” offers a good shorthand measure for how this works, the ratio of useable space-to-parking lot or green space.
One of my favorite local FAR examples is on Rice Street in Saint Paul, the former Capitol Bank (now a credit union) where one small one-story bank branch and its separate 4-lane drive thru take up almost two full blocks along a former streetcar street. The bank complex has an overall FAR of something like .20, but given that the building and drive thru could easily be combined, it seems like that number should be halved.
The point is this: every time we pave over the old urban fabric to use it for car storage, we reduce the bottom-line for the city. Imagine what the tax rolls would look like if half or two-thirds of our urban parking lots were valuable buildings instead.
#3. Traffic Safety Enforcement and Crashes
Actual cops on the city dime spend a significant percentage of their time enforcing traffic violations and cleaning up after crashes. (I’m sure they don’t enjoy it.) In street design, there’s often a tradeoff between design / engineering approaches to safety and education / enforcement approaches to safety. To the extent that we can start using design to create safe streets, cities can use their police time and energy to solve non-crash-related public safety issues instead.
This is a big deal, as local police budgets are a major chunk of the overall expenditure, somewhere around 10-15%. In Minneapolis and Saint Paul, those numbers are $140 million and $90 million each year, respectively. What percentage of those dollars go to traffic safety issues that could be solved through design? How much does each crash cost the city?
#2. Direct Road Construction and Maintenance costs
In many cases, high-speed auto oriented roads are paid for at extra-municipal levels of government. All freeways (except for “Ayd Mill Road”, a real Saint Paul bottom-line boondoggle) are owned and financed by the Federal or state governments through Mn-DOT, and most arterials are funded through the Counties. (See for example pretty much all of the “four-lane death roads“, like White Bear Avenue pictured above.)
But all the rest of the streets are city obligations, and the more that people drive, the faster they wear out. To the extent that cities like Saint Paul and Minneapolis can reduce vehicle travel in general, they save money on road maintenance.
One thought experiment: it’s possible to imagine a world where proposals like the North Minneapolis Greenway were more popular, and spread through the city. Good idea or not, if they could reduce overall VMT by replacing car trips with non-motorized options, they’d end up saving a lot of money over the years on road construction and maintenance costs. What’s more, if entire streets were taken off the municipal maintenance rolls, that would be a big cost savings for city Public Works budgets.
#1. Actual Land Taken for Roads
Finally, and most directly, there’s literal city land that’s been “taken” for freeway and roadway construction. This happens at large and small scales, each of which displaces residents or businesses, decreases urban density, and removes property from the tax rolls. At the large end of the spectrum, the I-94 corridor through the Rondo neighborhood involved the demolition of thousands of homes and businesses. Same for Highway 55 through Near North Minneapolis, I-35W through South, or really any of the freeways.
(Another thought experiment: how much money in direct property taxes did Minneapolis “save” over the years by stopping the I-335 freeway expansion? Over 40 years, the answer would be in the billions of dollars. And that’s conservative, as it’s doubtful that many of the North Loop properties would have been built.)
On a smaller scale, expanding arterial roads also removes property from the tax base. At a certain point, Dale Street North of University Avenue was doubled in width, demolishing all the buildings on the East side of the street. Similarly, over half of the “Seven Corners” area of Saint Paul has been demolished for wider roads.
That was years ago, but even today, Ramsey County has slowly been demolishing properties at arterial corners in order to add turn lanes (e.g. Maryland Avenue at Payne and Rice Streets, or this rejected proposal from last year to demolish a two-story building on the corner of Lexington and Randolph). Each time this happens, the tax base of the city is decreased as land is literally transformed from urban habitat into asphalt.
Conclusion: Cities Have a Lot to Gain from Walkability
The point of this rough accounting is to get a sense of the tradeoffs for cities as they make decisions about street design. Having an auto-oriented city, where it’s easy for drivers to speed quickly through a city, comes at a cost. Many of these costs are indirect and difficult to quantify. For example, creating unwalkable or dangerous streets has many diffuse effects. But many of these costs are also pretty straightforward, coming at the expense of the bottom line for older cities like Minneapolis and Saint Paul. When combined, they leave core cities in precarious financial positions, with lots of commitments but with a reduced and devalued tax base.
At the same time, there’s a lot of potential for older, potentially-walkable cities to reverse the trend. When it comes to the fiscal stability for older cities, I think about what I call the “virtuous cycle of walkability.” It goes like this: the more that we build walkable streets and prioritize transit, the more we can increase building car-lite or car-free density. And the more we increase walkable density, the more we can prioritize safe streets and transit.
In other words, sustainable land use and transportation feed off each other. When cities begin entering into this walkablity feedback loop, and getting out of the self-destructive cycle of automobility, they become physically and fiscally healthy.
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