Friday, December 31, 2004

Smart Growth and Fairfax County, VA

A recent Washington Post article details what will be a typical trend in suburban politics over the next few years as suburban municipalities deal with the consequences of decades of unmitigated low-density growth.

Fairfax County was one of the protypical "Edge Cities" memorialized in Joel Garreau's influential book on the subject. Located just outside the DC beltway, it exemplifies the low-density, auto-centric, inefficient land use patterns of contemporary suburbia.

Recently, the county's Board of Supervisors has been taking a higher density, mixed use approach towards redevelopment--specifically around transit stops.

While this policy shift is long overdue as it streamlines the urban infrastructure and expands transportation choices, there is opposition from some long term residents who are worried that this will "urbanize the county."

Opposition, however, is unlikely to gain any traction for two reasons. First, land values have skyrocketed in many "inner ring" suburbs making high-density condominium developments attractive to real estate interests who hope to profit by people's interest in living close to work and public transportation amenities. Secondly, in an era of increasing costs of maintaining municipal infrastructure, decreasing federal and state funds, and anti-tax sentiment, there are really no viable alternatives to municiplaities other than to encourage high-density growth. This type of development generates more tax revenue and costs less (comparatively) to maintain.

It is somewhat ironic that the "wave of the future" in suburban development is actually an adoption of the longstanding elements of successful urbanism.

(Linked with Outside the Beltway)

Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Poverty of Edge Cities

As I indicated yesterday, transportation policy at the federal level in the US is moving towards placing greater burden on state & local governments as well as individual users.

The same trend is happening in Canada where the provincial governments are "downloading" expenses to municipalities.

Frank D'Amico--a former city councilor in Hamilton, Ontario--has an interesting op-ed piece that shows how many of Ontario's edge cities are facing more financial burdens as provincial funding has dried up while the costs for maintaining sewers, roads, sidewalks, etc.. continue to increase.

Edge cities are hit particularly hard because of the sprawling land use which results in inefficient use of public resources.

On a somewhat related note, James Howard Kunstler takes issue with a recent New York Times piece extolling the urban virtues of Las Vegas.

Kunstler observes that, like the meretricious nature of Vegas' economic base of gambling, the long term sustainability of Vegas' growth is questionable. Situated in a desert, built in a sprawling, low density fashion, Vegas relies on two things for its functioning: ample water supply & low fossil fuel prices.

With the Colorado slowly drying up and the global demand for dwindling supplies of fossil fuels continuing, the long term future for the Western metropolis will either require significant increases in taxes or a transformation in land use and environmental conservation.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

A Window into the Bush Administration's Transportation Policy

A recent op-ed published on planetizen by some of the architects of Bush's transportation policy is of interest as it provides a window into the administration's approach to urban and suburban development.

They begin their commentary by acknowledging the "fiscal dilemma" facing the federal government which assumes that:
Deficit reduction and spending discipline will be the Administration's and GOP congressional leaders' top priorities during the next session of Congress. Discretionary spending for non-security programs is expected to rise only about one percent next year.
Of course, "spending discipline" has not been the pattern of the administration thus far--given its anemic economic policy, its tax cuts for people in high income brackets and its (very expensive) foreign policy of military expansionism. A "fiscal dilemma" is undoubtedly the the rationale given by the administration for offering such a low figure in its SAFETEA legislation, but it is important to remember that the fiscal constraints were largely created by misguided policies in other areas of domestic & foreign policy and that transportation systems are being asked to bear the brunt of these failures.

In order to get beyond the "fiscal dilemma," the authors argue, states should be given more autonomy in allowing tolls to be levied on interstate highways. This money could then be mandated for use only for highway improvements and maintenance.

They see the future of transportation funding as shifting the burden from governmental sources to user fees.

While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with user fees, relying on them for financing the major infrastructural basis of our local and national economies is a very risky--and extremely inequitable--proposition.

Many state budgets are in crisis--partly due to federal policies that shift more spending burdens on states--making it likely that you would see states set up tolls to meet highway construction and maintenance costs.

As metropolitan areas have expanded utilizing low-density development and commuting times have risen, people of lower income will be more severely burdened by tolls if they have to travel long distances to work.

A more equitable way of meeting the "fiscal dilemma" might be generating congestion charges like they have done in London.

I will be exploring this policy in more depth in the coming weeks as Edinburgh votes on whether to establish the controversial charges in February.

For the uninitiated, a congestion charge is a toll that is levied against drivers when they drive into a certain area of a metropolis that is burdened by congestion. Unlike the toll scheme imagined by the Bush team, the revenues collected are put into more efficient transportation modes, like buses, rather than for highway expansion.

While the tax is regressive (currently it's £5), the money is utilized to build up a public system of transportation that is accessible to people regardless of income. Because of its expense, more people are inclined to take public transit, increased ridership offers more funds from the farebox and the added funds from the congestion charge provides the public transit agency more resources with which to improve the system.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Ontario's Growth Management Challenge

The Provincial government of Ontario is currently considering dramatic growth management legislation. Entitled the Places to Grow Act, it would give the Provincial government the authority to oversee regional planning in the high-growth areas of Ontario--notably the "Golden Horseshoe" region that stretches around northern and western Lake Ontario.

Like the United States, Canada has a decentralized system of land use and transportation planning. Municipalities have quite a bit of autonomy to institute policies relating to these areas of metropolitan development.

With autonomy, however, comes a propensity for uncontrolled growth. Municipalities institute polices, approve residential and commercial developments, widen roads, and engage in other planning efforts that can have affects on neighboring cities and villages. The lack of coordination is a major contributor to sprawling-type of development.

Of course, effective regional planning, often requires competing municipalities that share a common future to give up a degree of autonomy--a prospect that is politically controversial.

Ontario's Places to Grow legislation will give the Provincial government a significant amount of power to enforce growth boundaries and demand municipalities develop in a way that comports to provincial interests.

One point of controversy is the Provincial desire to encourage high-density development rather than the low density sprawl that is indicative of the exurban fringe of Ontario's urban areas.

A move toward more high density development is certainly essential to control the environmental consequences of growth and to insure more metropolitan efficiency. However, many current municipalities are nervous as to how this might affect their current urban landscape.

For instance, according to the Barrie Advance, Provincial restrictions on growth could limit the amount of land available for new development. This may drive up the cost of land, pricing some out of the market.

The Globe and Mail reports that in Toronto, there is a fear that higher densities will disrupt the historical character of its neighborhoods, while further out on the exurban fringe, yorkregion.com says that environmentalists want more restrictions on growth to sustain important Rouge River watershed. Similarly, farmers contend that the proposed law will do little to save greenspace in the province.

Ontario--like many other provinces and states in North America--is marked by numerous conflicting constituencies. How the province manages their disparate interests and whether it can be successful in mitigating urban sprawl should be closely watched for those people concerned with the issue.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

TEA 21- Reauthorization Update

It is not surprising, but last month's lame duck session of the 108th Congress failed to take up the matter of reauthorizing the major transportation funding bill, TEA-21 (now called SAFETEA).

TEA-21 expired in September of 2003 and has been periodically extended. At issue is various discrepancies in funding levels proposed by the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the President.

Currently, the law stands in conference committee waiting for a compromise between the House and Senate versions to be hashed out. The House version of the bill (H.R. 3550) calls for $275 billion over six years. The Senate version (S. 1072) calls for spending levels at $318 billion over the same period; and the White House has indicated that he will veto any bill exceeding $256 billion. With the coming of the 109th Congress in January, new bills will have to be submitted to Congress, but reports indicate that there will not be a significant change in these numbers.

The next few months should be interesting as Congress takes up a compromise bill. Even if the House and Senate split the difference, the funding level will undoubtedly be above what the White House is comfortable with. The Bush Administration's penchant for discipline within the Republican ranks could be disrupted over this bill--which is one reason why Congress failed to go ahead with reauthorization during the election season.

For members of Congress, transportation projects are pointed to as important examples of bringing federal funds to their constituencies and, hence, demonstrating their effectiveness as legislators. The President's policy priorities for his next term--Social Security "reform" and further cutting taxes--are going to require either increasing the deficit significantly or cutting spending. Wall Street, European allies, and international investors are becoming increasingly worried about the US deficit spending, making the pressure for bringing federal budgets under control significant.

Where the future of transportation funding will fall within this complex array of competing interests and needs is still unknown. What should not be underestimated, however, is the importance of a viable transportation system for the sustenance of the nation's economy and the quality of life in our metropolitan areas.

The extended reauthorization process has already tied the hands of many localities who are depending on federal matching funds for important redevelopment efforts.

The latest example to run across my desk is from Warren, New Jersey where a mixed-use downtown redevelopment project is being stalled as local officials wait for funds.

Many locales are rethinking the dominant "sprawl" type development that separates offices, residential sectors, and commercial districts through low density planning by encouraging integrative developments. These more pedestrian-friendly spaces, demand less public infrastructure in the form of highways and are more amenable to a variety of transportation choices.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)