Patrick McSweeney


A Better Way to Grow


Suburban sprawl is the product of government subsidies. A free market approach to development would be far more efficient.


Most of the responses to my last column ("At Last, a Debate on Sprawl"), which argued that sprawl is accompanied by real costs, came from Republicans.  Some were quite annoyed that I would lend credibility to the notion that sprawl is a problem because curbing sprawl has been an agenda item of Democrats and environmentalists.


Refusing to acknowledge the adverse effects of sprawl is not a wise course for Republicans. If development continues as it has for many decades, the associated costs will eventually become intolerable. We should not expect to see an indefinite pattern of extending new residential and commercial development into areas where land costs are relatively low.


Differential land costs are not the only costs to be considered. An offsetting cost is the public expense of providing infrastructure to serve this extended growth, which is generally higher than the expense of serving more compact development.


Sprawl can’t be blamed on developers exclusively. Many people prefer to live on large lots rather than in dense urban settings. They generate the demand.  Developers respond.


Government policies have provided hidden subsidies for sprawl, inducing growth where it otherwise might not have gone — at least as quickly.


Traffic congestion is currently a major concern. Congestion not only follows sprawl, but is also greatly exacerbated by scattered development. Before any consideration is given to devoting more taxpayer funds for transportation “solutions” for this congestion, we should be careful not to repeat the mistake of 1986, when the legislature agreed to raise taxes to build more roads and thereby contributed to a dramatic increase in sprawl.


There are essentially two ways to address sprawl. One is through more governmental regulation and taxpayer-subsidized transportation projects, particularly mass transit. The other is through market-based policies that eliminate subsidies and force the otherwise hidden costs of sprawl to be accounted for when developers and homebuyers make decisions.


Any strategy that curbs sprawl will increase the cost of land for residential and commercial development. That is an unavoidable reality. But higher land costs must be analyzed together with other costs that are reduced or avoided when sprawl is limited.


The scarcity of affordable housing is already a social and political problem. Those who depend on employment in the three largest urban areas in Virginia are often forced to find housing that is within their means at great distance from their jobs.


Taxpayers currently subsidize this pattern of growth through increasingly expensive transportation projects.


The burden of providing these transportation projects has mounted exponentially. Sprawl constantly increases the average number of trips and the average length of trips taken by residents and the businesses that serve them. This is why increased spending for roads never seems to provide lasting relief, no matter how much is spent.


Former Gov. Gerald Baliles continues to advocate the approach he persuaded the General Assembly to adopt in 1986 — raise taxes to build more roads. It worsened the situation then and will have the same effect now. The primary reason is that this kind of “public investment” is grossly inefficient.


The approach that relies on government control, and “investment” gives planners and politicians excessive power to decide where people will develop, live and work and how they will travel.


The market-based approach gives individuals and private entrepreneurs greater discretion to make those decisions for themselves. The former option is also far less cost-effective than the latter, self-directed option.


I’ll continue to examine the relative merits and flaws of each approach in the next column.


-- December 14, 2005










Contact Information


McSweeney & Crump

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



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