States Wear Blinders On The True Costs of Sprawl

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States Wear Blinders On The True Costs of Sprawl
By Mary Newsom
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Across the U.S., civil engineers are practically giddy–well, they’re as giddy as civil engineers are ever going to be.“For the first time in my career,” says Wayne Klotz, a Texan who is president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, “infrastructure is a hot topic.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, president of the National Governors’ Association, has for a year been trying to spotlight the nation’s serious infrastructure needs–although (don’t tell Klotz) Rendell himself concedes the topic lacks a certain sexiness.

But these days, recession-pummeled Americans are following the federal stimulus package almost as avidly as, in happier times, they obsessed over Anna Nicole Smith or Laci Peterson. They’re arguing whether stimulus money should go to the arts, or to repair and expand infrastructure, such as fixing bridges, boosting transit or finishing urban loop roads.

It’s about time people noticed those public works projects.

Klotz — speaking recently in Raleigh, N.C., at a statewide conference on growth and infrastructure — gave a shiver-inducing rundown of failing bridges, inadequate levees and high-hazard dams. In January the engineering group’s latest report card on the nation’s infrastructure rated it “poor.” Drinking water? D-. Levees? D-. Roads? D-. Transit? D.

“We continue to use the ‘patch-and-pray’ system,” Klotz said. Yet every $1 spent for maintaining infrastructure saves $16 in repair costs when something breaks, he pointed out.

But is the welcome public attention also spotlighting one of the reasons our infrastructure spending is so high–the vast sums required by suburban sprawl? In fast-growing North Carolina, at least, it isn’t.

Amid plenty of talk at that two-day conference about huge needs and inadequate money, about transit funding and open space preservation, one topic went all but unmentioned: Sprawl and its costs.

You’d think more of the leaders in this fast-sprawling state would be paying attention, because huge sums are at stake. For instance:

  • The outerbelt highway for Charlotte, the state’s largest city, will have cost at least $1.2 billion in state and federal funds by the time it’s finished, some 30 years after it was begun. Yet uncontrolled development along its route induced congestion almost as soon as each section opened.
  • State transportation officials project a $65 billion gap over the next 20 years between transportation revenues and transportation needs.
  • Charlotte officials estimate it will cost $7.4 million per mile in state and local money to upgrade old farm-to-market roads now carrying suburbanites to and from home, work and shopping.

While there’s plenty of head-scratching about how to find the money, state policymakers are bafflingly silent about the dollars wasted by spread-out, low-density, metastasizing suburban sprawl–and how much the state needs to reel it in.

Part of the problem is a simplistic yet potent belief that “growth is good,” and any new development is a net revenue gain. That idea is “fool’s gold,” ex-developer Rand Wentworth, president of the national Land Trust Alliance, told the forum. Typical suburban development costs $1.15 in services for every $1 in revenue it brings in, he said.

Another piece of the problem is that in North Carolina, state government types pretend growth is a local issue. They practically stick their fingers in their ears and shout “La, la, la, I can’t hear you!” when state growth policy comes up.

Yet the state has plenty of skin in this game. Consider state road money. The state spent millions in past decades to build so-called “bypass” highways around many of its town and cities. Then local decisions lined those bypasses with big-box stores, fast-food joints and strip shopping centers. Now, because developers have strip-mined the “bypass” highways, the state wants to build expensive “bypass-the-bypass” highways.

In another example, state-maintained roads through cities and towns tend to be major thoroughfares, lined with subdivisions and shopping centers. They carry exponentially more traffic than if the cities had adopted common-sense requirements for connected street grids, and had banned cul-de-sacs and gated subdivisions, which funnel traffic onto those quickly clogged thoroughfares. Then the state must pay for more lanes, wider intersections and other costly “improvements.” Why isn’t the state looking at its expenditures and telling the cities to stop this idiocy?

An intriguing study from Charlotte’s city staff illustrates another of sprawl’s hidden costs, with city taxpayers in this instance footing the bill: Fire station costs are sharply lower in older parts of town where streets connect. The study analyzed eight stations and found the annualized per-household life-cycle cost almost five times greater in disconnected, cul-de-sac-laden suburbia. That’s because fire stations in neighborhoods with traditional street grids can serve more square miles, since they can reach more homes within acceptable response times.

It’s heartening to hear President Obama declare we’re past “building sprawl forever,” that there has to be a smarter way to design communities. Now, we just need more officials at all levels of government to heed his words.

Mary Newsom is an associate editor, op-ed columnist and blogger at The Charlotte Observer. Her e-mail is