A proactive approach to accommodating population increase is bringing sustainability and transportation improvements to small-town Texas.
Hutto is a formerly tiny farm town in central Texas with a population that numbered only 1,250 in the year 2000. Flat land, an affordable cost of living, and good schools make Hutto an ideal place to farm, live, and raise a family. However, Hutto is located more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the region's major workplaces in Austin and, a decade ago, was accessible mainly by congested Interstate 35 (I-35). Given these transportation difficulties of accessibility and congestion, Hutto did not attract many newcomers.
Change came when State and local planners, stakeholders, the public, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) worked together to determine the final route for a new toll road, State Highway 130 (SH 130). The new highway now passes just 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) west of the downtown, and the intersection with U.S. 79 is the town's gateway. Hutto's new accessibility drew a flood of commuter residents, and by 2010 the Texas State Data Center estimated it was one of the fastest growing cities in the State, home to 17,227 people in 2006.
Hutto had become a bedroom community for central Texas workers looking for the fast-disappearing, small-town good life. Without new commercial or retail development, however, the town struggled to support its burgeoning population. In response, Hutto began to channel its growth, reorienting itself through a strategic, proactive planning process. That planning led to new design guidelines tailored to the community, new planning codes, and innovative agreements with developers. Armed with these tools, Hutto took on two significant challenges that other towns in the State may well face in the near future: a major population increase and a paradigm shift in transportation.
One of Hutto's guiding principles is to shift the balance between people and vehicles in the built environment. Practically speaking, that means planning mixed-use neighborhoods where residents can live and work without commuting long distances by car.
"What it means is traditional neighborhoods and transit-oriented development, with wide sidewalks, bicycle paths, and pedestrian trails," says Mary Meyland, director of the Office of Strategic Policy and Performance Management at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). "It means not having to drive to Austin or the nearby town of Round Rock for every daily need, and it means accommodating the single-occupant, combustion engine vehicle without being defined by it."
If the Hutto community initially did not hear opportunity knocking, housing developers did. From 2004 to 2007, Hutto boomed with new single-family residential housing. Cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets sprouted on former farmland. Until 2007, when development slowed somewhat, it was all the town could do to review subdivision permits, according to Matthew Lewis, the city's former director of community development.
Hutto's planning staff began to analyze the kind of growth that was changing the city. They com-missioned the 2008 Hutto, Texas Commuter Report, which found that 89 percent of the town's residents were commuting to work an average of 44 miles (71 kilometers) round-trip every day.
The city planners realized that SH 130 had created the potential for massive economic development, but the growth so far was limited to single-family residential development. The town was attracting young middle-class families, but not their parents or grandparents and not people to provide services to the families. Hutto offered reasonably priced housing but not enough commercial or retail businesses to develop the tax base a growing municipality needs for services and infrastructure. Monoculture development was threatening Hutto's ability to support its new population.
One Housing Option, Two Mobility Problems
Where Hutto had essentially one housing option, it had two related transportation problems. First, long commutes — mainly involving motorists traveling alone — impose a variety of costs on a community: Air quality declines because of carbon emissions, roads suffer wear and tear, and drivers lose time away from their families. The Hutto commuter report found that residents spent $50 per week on fuel, tolls, parking, and other expenses directly related to commuting. Furthermore, the commuters spent another $117 per week outside Hutto on meals, entertainment, services, and retail purchases.
Creating jobs in Hutto could help to staunch the flow of dollars out of the city as well as return personal time lost to commuting. It also might help to increase property values. A 2008 report, Driven to the Brink: How the Gas Price Spike Popped the Housing Bubble and Devalued the Suburbs, by an organization called CEOs for Cities, measured the relationship between gasoline prices and real estate values. The study found that a house 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) closer to the center of Austin was worth $8,000 more than a house 1 mile farther away. The report showed that each minute a house's location shaved off an average commute increased the house's value by $4,700. So while commuting long distances costs homeowners money spent at the gas pump and time lost in traffic, it also costs them in lower property values.
Hutto's second transportation problem lies in inflexible roadway design. Pressures growing on one high-speed road, U.S. 79, and two rural highways are demanding changes and improvements to the town's transportation network. Formerly located on the edge of town, U.S. 79 and farm-to-market roads 685 and 1660 are becoming major arteries leading into the center of town. They now serve different travelers and needs than they were originally designed for.
Built along the Union Pacific railroad tracks, U.S. 79 once defined the southern boundary of Hutto's main street and original residential neighborhood. A major U.S. highway, the route was designed to carry high-speed regional traffic in a relatively rural context. With the real estate boom, however, new residential development began growing south of U.S. 79. Hutto was quickly becoming a small town with a high-speed rural highway running through it.
The Problem With Sprawl
In a 2000 treatise on American urban planning, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, planners Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck define sprawl development as an artificial and financially unsustainable invention of the post-World War II era. The authors contend that because the layout of typical suburban neighborhoods geographically separates daily activities, residents are forced to travel farther than required in traditional neighborhoods. Sprawl typically supports only one kind of transportation — the automobile — and generates more traffic than traditional neighborhoods do. It also requires a disproportionate amount of publicly funded roadway and other infrastructure, such as pipes and conduit for gas, water, and electricity. These expensive and inefficient planning choices contribute to the failure of new growth "to pay for itself at acceptable levels of taxation," according to the authors.
"Highway 79 needs to be tamed," says William Guerin, a Hutto city planner. "There are few pedestrian crossings, no sidewalks, and although the speed limit has been reduced, that may need to be reexamined for further reduction." Growth is demanding changes such as turn lanes, traffic lights, and easy access to retail stores. Similarly, the areas along routes 685 and 1660, now serving much denser residential and business communities than originally planned for, may need to undergo comparable changes.
"In a time when transportation resources were cheap, clean, and available, land use planning that favored the family-sized, combustion-engine vehicle was acceptable," says TxDOT's Meyland. "But when gasoline becomes expensive, air polluted, and funding for transportation infrastructure hard to come by, being saddled with only one transportation option that is expensive and arguably unsustainable can limit a community's chances for economic growth."
Meyland goes on to say that in the same way that diversification protects financial investments or agricultural crops, diversification in housing and transportation options protects communities. New development codes that promote mixed-use communities and several transportation options can provide current and future residents, spanning several generations and income brackets, with alternatives to high gasoline prices and time lost to commuting. Those improvements, in turn, can lead to a high quality of life and long-term economic health for a community. That is the path Hutto has chosen.
New Urbanism Comes to Hutto
At first glance Hutto seems an unlikely candidate for the context sensitive planning principles of smart growth and new urbanism. Design concepts such as mixed-use neighborhoods and pedestrian mobility appear to be a big leap for this once-agricultural community with deep historical roots.
Yet those are some of the principles Hutto is pursuing to maintain its history and culture. Sensitive to the community's concerns about the changes already taking place, Hutto's planning staff began working with consultants to create a SmartCode to shape future growth. SmartCode is a regulatory approach that assigns planning rules based on six "transect zones" that span rural to urban uses and four transitional uses in between. Planners can customize SmartCodes to reflect a community's culture and its citizens' preferences. Hutto hopes this approach will support a new paradigm: growing gracefully.
Hutto's Guerin notes that public involvement was the most important contribution to the city's planning success. "We started our public involvement process in 2006 when we began public planning meetings, developer and landowner workshops, and other meetings where we were able to hear the community's priorities about growth," says Guerin. "That process culminated in a design charrette we held in November 2008."
The charrette yielded a first draft of the Unified Development Code, a revision of Hutto's Code of Ordinances. The unified code includes an overlay of the SmartCode and the Heart of Hutto Old Town Master Plan, codifying the community's vision for its future downtown. The charrette also produced a master plan for a mixed-use development, Shiloh at Jake's Bridge, that will adhere to the SmartCode and resulted from collaboration between the developer and surrounding landowners. At that point, Hutto had articulated a vision for its future.
The town, its citizens, and its private sector can define and control many of the land use changes they want to make. For transportation, however, a municipality rarely works alone. Many of the designs that Hutto would like to implement on U.S. 79 require the collaboration of State, regional, and Federal transportation officials, specifically TxDOT; Williamson County, where Hutto is located; the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization; and FHWA.
Redesigning U.S. 79 through Hutto as a high-capacity urban street rather than a high-speed rural highway would help realize the community's hopes for a new downtown with a walkable, mixed-use, neighborhood environment. Design elements such as pedestrian crossings and slip roads would make it possible to accommodate motorists, pedestrians, and shoppers in one transportation facility.
Slip roads are defined in Hutto's SmartCode as outer vehicular lanes of a thoroughfare, designed for slow speeds while inner lanes carry higher speed traffic. Inner and outer lanes are separated from each other by a planted median. When slip roads run next to parking lanes, they can facilitate safe parking and dropping off and picking up of passengers. Other transitional design elements, such as traffic signals and reduced lane widths, also characterize these urban thoroughfares.
Scott Polikov, president of Gateway Planning Group, Inc., which was closely involved in the downtown redesign, says, "If Hutto and TxDOT can partner to enhance the redevelopment momentum created in the downtown through the long-term redesign and reinvention of U.S. 79 — as envisioned in the downtown plan and code for the city — a new partnership paradigm will have been created for fast-growing communities in exurban areas bisected by highways."
Urban Thoroughfares Committee
To promote the sort of flexibility in highway design needed to redefine routes like U.S. 79 at Hutto, the Texas Transportation Commission created the Urban Thoroughfares Committee in October 2007. Representatives of local and Federal agencies (including FHWA), private sector planners and engineers, academics, and TxDOT staff comprise the committee.
The committee's charge is to support context sensitive smart growth and new urbanism in project development, bringing in stakeholders early in the process and cultivating projects that satisfy the purpose and needs of the community as a whole. Additional goals include enhancing safety for transportation users and the surrounding community; meeting the needs of various modes of travel, including foot traffic, bicycling, public transportation, and vehicles; adding lasting value and excellence to transportation facilities; and preserving scenic, historical, aesthetic, and environmental resources.
The committee completed its first phase of work in early 2009, resulting in significant revisions to TxDOT's Project Development Process Manual, which planners and engineers follow when developing transportation facilities. Those changes took effect in June 2009 following FHWA's approval.
The revisions provide specific, mandatory instructions for more robust, collaborative practices in the early planning stages of urban transportation projects. Previously, TxDOT directed planners to determine a community's urban transportation needs by modeling travel demand, a measurement based on traffic flow and demand. The revised manual mandates that planners now consider not only roadway projects but also sustainable street and transit networks. In addition, they must consult no fewer than seven specific local parties and sources to identify community needs.
Significantly, the new guidelines also encourage arrangements that support alternative funding options and long-term sustainability of transportation facilities. The U.S. Department of Transportation defines sustainable transportation as "effective and efficient system performance, with positive impacts on the social quality of life, economic competitiveness, and the preservation of the natural environment."
Perhaps an even broader definition may apply here: the ability of an activity to continue by its reliance on renewable resources. In this sense, TxDOT's new planning guidelines direct planners to seek practices that replenish the funding sources for delivering transportation and do not rely on motor fuel taxes alone to continue. Context sensitive solutions, the manual suggests, can promote public and private partnerships to provide funding for operation and maintenance of projects, create funding for future projects, and optimize return on public resources such as local tax bases.
In a new subsection on funding alternatives, the manual lists seven nontraditional options to consider when initiating a project, such as value-capture mechanisms. These innovative public financing mechanisms include public improvement districts, tax increment reinvestment zones, and other special districts or public-private agreements.
In a November 2008 Status Report, the Urban Thoroughfares Committee explains that value-capture mechanisms recognize that changes in a transportation facility's access, noise, aesthetics, safety, or reliability affect a parcel of land, and "with each transportation investment some marginal improvement or marginal decline occurs in the value of the surrounding land." A value-capture tool recaptures a portion of the value increase and returns it to the public facility that contributed to that increase. The return occurs either indirectly through land-related taxes or fees, or directly through onsite improvements that benefit the community generally.
Capturing Value in Hutto
Hutto incorporated a value-capture mechanism in the master plan for The Crossings of Carmel Creek, a future mixed-use development straddling SH 130 at its intersection with U.S. 79. Plans for the 466-acre (189-hectare) development include commercial and retail space, multifamily residences, row houses, parks, open space, and hotels. The master plan also promotes sustainable transportation: The Crossings is a transit-oriented development with a rail station slated for the southeastern corner of the intersection. The development also is pedestrian oriented, with plans for sidewalks and bicycle facilities, so that the various transportation modes are within walking distance of most of the homes and businesses.
From the outset, the development agreement for The Crossings supported multimodal, sustainable transportation under the Texas Local Government Code. The code authorizes municipalities to create and administer economic development programs and make grants of public money for projects that contribute to the economic well-being of the State. Toward that end, the statute allows municipalities to partner with a wide range of public and private entities.
The Crossings is designed to capitalize on its proximity to major transportation facilities, SH 130 and U.S. 79. Part of the economic well-being that the development is designed to support is the quality and sustainability of the transportation projects associated with it. Specifically, percentages of the sales and hotel occupancy tax revenues arising from the development will go back to the developer to fund roadways, sidewalks, and pedestrian and bicycle paths. The performance-based, incentivized agreement puts the burden on the developer to create a high-quality development where people want to live and spend money.
"This development has not, as so many have, tried to turn its back to the road," says Lewis. "Rather, it has embraced it, and celebrated that embrace both in its physical design and in the mechanisms of interdependence that should provide mutual benefit between road and community in the years to come."
Whether The Crossings goes forward as planned — the parcel has changed hands more than once since it was drawn up as a Planned Unit Development — the lessons learned from the planning process have advanced other developments in Hutto. For example, Shiloh at Jake's Bridge has begun taking shape around similar principles. The Shiloh plan is still in the early stages, but the developer and city planners have discussed funding tools similar to those used for The Crossings, says Hutto planner Guerin. In addition, the Shiloh developer will receive a 50 percent reduction in building fees in return for opting into the SmartCode.
Neither of these communities has broken ground. Yet the principles they adhere to are already generating attention and market value for the region. Envision Central Texas presented its 2009 Community Stewardship Award for Public Planning and Policy to the city of Hutto for its Heart of Hutto Old Town Master Plan and SmartCode. The Texas chapter of the American Planning Association presented its 2009 Current Planning Award to Hutto for the SmartCode.
The mixed-use, master-planned developments are creating buzz for the SH 130 corridor as well. In a 2010 update on the metropolitan Austin area, the Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investment Services predicted that developments like Hutto's in the SH 130 corridor are emerging as competition for the Austin housing market. "When the State's economy rebounds, those developments will be well positioned to thrive when new residents and businesses begin seeking homes in growing central Texas," says Michael Watson, regional manager at Marcus & Millichap.
Other Texas communities could soon face the same two transportation-related challenges Hutto is already addressing. First, the State population is expected to increase by as much as 37 percent by 2020. That number pales compared to Hutto's 1,120 percent increase over the last 10 years. Nevertheless, accommodating that much change requires serious planning, forethought, and willingness to change in order to avoid the congestion that results from population growth and to enjoy sustainable, high-quality living.
Second, Texas towns also might have to change a transportation pattern that is no longer sustainable. "The era of the single-occupant vehicle, driven over roads funded with motor fuels tax, could be coming to an end," says Ron Hagquist, operations research analyst in TxDOT's Strategic Policy and Performance Management Office. "This tax model has been slowly failing because the tax remains fixed while the cost to build and maintain roads continues to rise. The popularity of hybrid vehicles, which use less gas than conventional models and therefore generate less tax revenue, also is reducing the effectiveness of this funding mechanism."
Further, adds Hagquist, the U.S. oil supply is increasingly unstable because of market volatility and fears that the resource itself is near exhaustion and could become prohibitively expensive. Finally, climate change also could raise the cost of maintaining roadways, as increasing extremes of temperature and more frequent submersion from coastal storms and flooding accelerate pavement deterioration. "All those influences point to the need for alternatives to traditional transportation funding and more transportation mode options," says Hagquist.
Given those scenarios, the changes in TxDOT's Project Development Process Manual are not insubstantial: They direct planners to pursue sustainable funding models that support transportation facilities from their inception and that do not rely on the motor fuels tax alone for construction and maintenance. The fact that Hutto already has begun implementing some of these models, with several transportation alternatives to the automobile, means it will be better prepared than other communities for changes in the transportation sector.
Hutto is planning a sustainable community supported by transportation alternatives, with nontraditional, self-sustaining funding mechanisms, and flexible zoning laws that can change with the community. Hutto can be a community where several generations can live comfortably and drive, bus, walk, or bike to work and play. If small towns are the laboratory where U.S. planners can rediscover the art of town planning, as some policymakers have suggested, Hutto could prove to be a leader.
Gretchen Stoeltje works in TxDOT's Office of Strategic Policy and Performance Management. She researches, writes, and makes films about transportation and its connection to other areas of public policy. She earned a bachelor's degree in film theory and a graduate certificate in film production from the University of California Santa Cruz. She earned a law degree from Santa Clara University.
For more information, please contact Gretchen Stoeltje at 512-416-2064 or email@example.com. Also, see http://onlinemanuals.txdot.gov/txdotmanuals/pdp/index.htm.