Faced with reduced revenue streams and urgent infrastructural demands, municipalities around the United States are looking for novel ways to raise funds to keep running smoothly.
One such mechanism is transit value capture, which assesses taxes on property owners who stand to benefit from the introduction of a new transportation line. But transit value capture is usually studied through a dominant financial or technical lens, often at the expense of messier questions surrounding its implementation and social-historical contexts that can constrain its success and popular support.
In "'Tax Discrimination District', The Intersection of Race and Transit Value Capture" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 88, No. 3), Lauren Ames Fischer narrates a rich case study of transit value capture planning in Kansas City, Missouri, emphasizing that the fates of the city's campaigns can only be understood by foregrounding the role of racial and economic segregation there.
Exploring the different frames and outcomes of two transit development district (TDD) proposals — one in 2012 that was handily approved by voters, and another in 2014 that was defeated due to two different reasons — Fischer examines the political dynamics behind "using value capture to expand transit-led redevelopment to marginalized and racially segregated neighborhoods."
A map illustrates how Troost Avenue bisects the city and forms a dividing line between areas with different demographic structures.
Many of the differences in community support or opposition to the transit development district campaigns can be related to the city's main north-south thoroughfare, Troost Avenue, which separates relatively affluent, whiter neighborhoods to its west from areas to its east, which have a greater Black population and struggle with higher rates of poverty.
After the release in 2013 of the second TDD proposal, which envisioned a light rail route running parallel to Troost Avenue, two main reasons for opposition emerged that roughly mapped onto the city's demographic split. Residents from the wealthy, western district of Brookside argued the tax burden was not commensurate with the potential benefits, and succeeded in having the area removed from the TDD.
In contrast to this accommodation, complaints from residents and leaders in Eastside neighborhoods, which centered on the idea that the new TDD would reinforce power imbalances in the city, were dismissed by planners and policymakers.
Ultimately, the second TDD proposal was voted down by residents, many of whom saw a latent discriminatory aspect in its implementation. As Fischer writes, "It illustrates how leadership was willing to selectively recognize power imbalances and structures of domination related to equal opportunity [e.g., the Brookside appeal] while ignoring those based in claims of racial marginalization [the Eastside criticism]."
The original (left) TDD boundary and revised (right) TDD boundary with Brookside removed.
So, given the manifold complexities inherent to the designation and implementation of a TDD, what can planners do to avoid its pitfalls and successfully "sell" it to affected residents? Fischer offers three lessons gleaned from the Kansas City case:
- See transit value capture as a political tool with technical aspects, rather than a technical-financial instrument with minor political or social components. As such, offer mitigation measures to make such campaigns more beneficial and palatable.
- Transit value capture should be used as part of a broader, proactive planning dialogue that begins by asking residents what they need, rather than imposing it absent of engagement.
- Planners ought to be cautious about their responses to different neighborhoods with different criticisms and different demographic profiles or historical characteristics, in order to ensure a sense of equity and fairness in planning processes. Aspects of marginalization should be addressed directly instead of avoided.
Fischer's account of transit value capture in Kansas City felt instructive in three main respects: its methods, its focus on the understudied social context of taxation, and its broad message to practicing planners. Methodologically, the article displayed how close, textured analysis of hyperlocal dynamics through a slew of media sources and informants can amount to a strong analysis of a more general phenomenon and broadly applicable lesson.
Despite focusing on the Kansas City case, the analysis and lessons resonated at a much wider level. The piece also reflected a recent interest in the social and cultural consequences of different forms of taxation, and how their often discriminatory applications or results might be drivers of protest or discontent among already marginalized communities.
Lastly, Kansas City's experience with transit value capture, like so many other local experiences with implementation, illustrates the core importance of trust and engagement between residents and planners to achieve real, material changes in the urban environment.
Whether it's listening to the complaints of one community while ignoring those of another, or flouting historical or cultural contexts in rolling out even well-intentioned interventions, Kansas City's TDD pitfalls proves urban development that proceeds in a "tale of two cities" style is not only inequitable and unsustainable, but fundamentally unproductive.
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About the author
Akiva Blander is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University.