Monday, February 22, 2016

What Route 32 tells us about Hogan and the future of Smart Growth

We know that our Governor pays close attention to giving back to the more rural areas of the State. "Putting the money where people actually use it", in his words, translated in transportation: Spend money on roads not transit. One can quibble with how many people actually use transit, but there is no question that a lot more people drive.

So what is wrong with a transportation policy that spends the money where the users are (and have paid for it with their gas tax dollars)?
Open space in western Howard County (SUN photo)

Turns out, that a whole lot is wrong with the diversion of transit funds from the Baltimore metro region to rural areas of Maryland on many levels. Even the assumption that this would put the money where it was generated is wrong.
Wasteful large lot sprawl development in western Howard County
  • First, so many people drive because US policy has subsidized driving over transit for at least the last 70 years. To use the results of a false policy as justification to continue it just reinforces the trend in an endless feedback loop. 
  • second: even if one followed the logic that the money has to go where it comes from (chiefly the gas tax), based on vehicle miles traveled and traffic counts, the vast majority of gas tax comes from the metro areas, thus the money would have to be spent in the same core region for which the diverted transit expenditures would have been used. With 200,000 vehicles a day on some sections of the beltway there is no area in the hinterlands of the Eastern Shore or Western Maryland that has anywhere near those transportation needs.
  • third: roads don't solve congestion, they create more through the unintended consequence of induced demand which will wipe out whatever benefits in travel time can be accrued in the short term. This rule holds true where the demand for travel is large. In thinly traveled areas toad investments don't bring travel time savings because one can already travel at the speed limit now.
  • roads fuel sprawl, a known unsustainable model of spatial allocation that makes it increasingly impossible to maintain all the necessary infrastructure and bankrupts public coffers.
Spending road money to widen Route 32 in western Howard County illuminates the issue quite well. In the case of  widening a road in the designated agriculture preserve of western Howard County proponents of the project don't even try to hide that they want to kill smart growth policies that have been in place for decades and were last re-affirmed in Howards Plan 2030. Land along Route 32 south of I-70 is zoned on both sides Rural Conservation (RC) or low density Rural Residential. The area is way outside the water and sewer service zone. With a republican Governor and County Executive, proponents of the road widening see their opportunity and want to upzone the land along the road. The traffic alone doesn't justify the widening. West of Route 108 volumes on Route 32 are about half of what they are east of 108. (26,000 to 53,000 vehicles per day).

Upzoning will only allow 300 additional dwelling units there says the new Republican County Executive. But that growth model is precisely the problem. Most of Maryland's growth happens inside the so called "Priority Funding Areas" but the small percentage that happens outside gobbles up the by far largest share of land simply because it occurs on large lots outside of the water service districts in those areas where minimum lot sizes are somewhere around three to five acres per house. 300 additional houses on 3 acre lots would gobble up 900 acres of farmland! In other words, maximal land waste for minimal gain. A totally unsustainable pattern, given that nobody can make more land.
27.6% of parcels consume 75.2% of the land area
From 1982 to 2010, 41.4 million acres (approximately 65,000 square miles) – an area equivalent to the state of Florida – of previously undeveloped non-federal rural land was paved over to accommodate our growing cities. Of these 41 million lost acres of open space, over 17 million acres were forestland, 11 million acres cropland, and 12 million acres pasture and rangeland.

Maryland State law currently requires State expenditures to be concentrated in "Priority Funding areas".  It looks like the Governor can easily circumvent those smart growth laws, two previous attempts by the 1000 Friends of Maryland to prevent Route 32 widening failed in court.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

For a more in depth analysis of the linkage between land use and transportation see my weekly blog which will be published this coming Friday on Community Architect.

SUN article about route 32
Vanishing Open Space
Howard 2030
Traffic Volumes in Maryland
Where Route 32 narrows down. (SUN photo)
The white area is the development area and the green areas are the western preserve

“if you continue to allow low-density sprawling development, then any developer in their right mind would say, ‘This will be lucrative,’ whereas smart growth is going to be complicated and expensive.” Dru Schmidt Perkins in 2009 in the Washington Post

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