Patrick McSweeney


At Last, a Debate on Sprawl

Inefficient patterns of development contribute to pollution, traffic congestion and local fiscal stress. With the election of Tim Kaine, suburban sprawl has finally become a statewide issue.


Virginia has a sprawl problem. There is no doubt about it. The initial question, however, is whether it is real or imagined.


The pattern of suburban development has had certain unmistakable impacts. It made suburbanites more dependent on automobiles, added to the average number of daily automobile trips, elongated commuting distances, contributed to worsened air quality and substantially increased the per capita burden of street maintenance cost because the number of lane miles in the state highway system increased exponentially.


Public transportation has been made less cost effective because of the distribution patterns in Virginia ís suburbs. The cost of providing other infrastructure has also increased disproportionately.   Sprawl has also displaced what were once forests and farmland at a dramatic rate. Larger lot sizes and the areas needed for automobile travel, including roads, driveways and parking lots are the leading causes of this displacement.


The cost of sprawl measured by adverse impacts on natural streams and the cost of governmental programs to address those impacts is enormous. Where streams formerly meandered within their ancient banks, we now see huge, channelized rivers constructed with substantial taxpayer funding in a futile attempt to deal with the heightened runoff from land cleared for suburban development. We hardly bother to measure the environmental cost of the loss of these natural streams, as well as the forests and fields that had retained some of the rainfall, slowed the rate of runoff and allowed normal recharge of aquifers. Oh, did I neglect to mention the loss of flora and fauna?


Virginians, like their compatriots elsewhere in the United States, are of two minds about sprawl. They decry the effects, but are unwilling to take the painful steps necessary to stop it. They favor increased spending for public transportation, but generally will not abandon their own automobiles to use it. They want to retard new subdivisions, but only after they have their own homes on large lots.


Even if suburban sprawl isnít a major cause of congestion, air pollution and inefficient use of land around Virginia ís major cities and in Northern Virginia , it is a major political issue. Many Virginians view sprawl as an undesirable condition. Because of that perception, controlling suburban growth became the sleeper issue in the 2005 gubernatorial election.


Tim Kaine gambled that the voters in battleground suburban precincts were more inclined to conclude that their daily frustrations with traffic are a result of poor governmental planning than the consequence of insufficient funding for construction of new transportation facilities. It appears that Kaineís gamble paid off.


Kaine advocated giving local governing bodies the authority to reject applications for new residential subdivisions, new shopping malls and other development when the public infrastructure, particularly transportation facilities, were not available. Kilgore proposed funding new road construction to ease the commuting pains of suburbanites residing around Washington, D.C.


Neither of the gubernatorial candidates offered a solution to the congestion problem. Kaineís proposal encourages local governing bodies to act irresponsibly by pushing the problem off on no one in particular. Kilgoreís might, at the very most, have eased commuting travel in the short run only to make it worse in the long run.


We will never solve our suburban congestion problem without addressing the sprawl issue. Roads canít be built fast enough to meet the rising demand. Mass transportation solutions will be more expensive than users and taxpayers will tolerate.


The subject deserves more attention than permitted here. The options I intend to explore in future commentary wonít be painless. Nothing short of radical change will do.


-- December 12, 2005










Contact Information


McSweeney & Crump

11 South Twelfth Street
Richmond, VA 23219
(804) 783-6802



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