New York State’s legislative session ends in under a month, adding increased urgency to advocates’ calls for passage of statewide Complete Streets legislation. With a bi-partisan bill in the State Senate and a broad coalition of supporters, now is the time for New York to pass this important piece of legislation.
Decades of underinvestment in regular repair have left many states’ roads in poor condition, and the cost of repairing these roads is rising faster than many states can address them. These liabilities are outlined in a new report by Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense, released today, which examines road conditions and spending priorities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The report recommends changes at both the state and federal level that can reduce future liabilities, benefit taxpayers and create a better transportation system.
Repair Priorities: Transportation spending strategies to save taxpayer dollars and improve roads found that between 2004 and 2008 states spent 43 percent of total road construction and preservation funds on repair of existing roads, while the remaining 57 percent of funds went to new construction. That means 57 percent of these funds was spent on only 1 percent of the nation’s roads, while only 43 percent was dedicated to preserving the 99 percent of the system that already existed. As a result of these spending decisions, road conditions in many states are getting worse and costs for taxpayers are going up.
“Federal taxpayers have an enormous stake in seeing that our roads are kept in good condition,” said Erich W. Zimmermann of Taxpayers for Common Sense at a briefing earlier today. “Billions of precious tax dollars were spent to build our highway system, and neglecting repair squanders that investment. Keeping our roads in good condition reduces taxpayers’ future liabilities.”
“Spending too little on repair and allowing roads to fall apart exposes states and the federal government to huge financial liabilities,” said Roger Millar of Smart Growth America. “Our findings show that in order to bring their roads into good condition and maintain them that way, states would collectively have to spend $43 billion every year for the next 20 years – more than they currently spend on all repair, preservation and new capacity combined. As this figure illustrates, state have drifted too far from regular preservation and repair and in so doing have created a deficit that is going to take decades to reverse.”
The high cost of poor conditions
According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, every $1 spent to keep a road in good condition avoids $6-14 needed later to rebuild the same road once it has deteriorated significantly. Investing too little on road repair increases these future liabilities, and with every dollar spent on new construction many states add to a system they are already failing to keep in good condition.
State and federal leaders can do more to see that highway funds are spent in ways that benefits driver and taxpayers. More information about the high cost of delaying road repair, how states invest their transportation dollars and what leaders can do to address these concerns is available in the full report.
Across the country, communities fighting to stay one step ahead of the foreclosure crisis are struggling with abandoned and vacant properties that lower surrounding property values, cut into local tax revenues, attract crime, and perpetuate a cycle of disinvestment. New York State is one of the places this battle is being waged, and Smart Growth America along with our coalition partner Empire State Future have been working to support a bill that could help.
New York’s Land Bank Act (A00373, S663) would give New York jurisdictions the option to create a local entity to hold and manage problem properties and return them to productive use. In doing so the Act would bolster local economies and increase the safety, health, and vitality of struggling neighborhoods. In addition to these benefits, the bill is also revenue neutral and would achieve its aims without any added burden on New York taxpayers.
A recent op-ed in the Times Union by Empire State Future explains the benefits of creating land banks:
Land banks are able to acquire property, clear titles and dispose of land so the parcels again generate tax revenue. The best national example is the Genesee County Land Bank in Flint, Mich., a city of 102,000 people, down from 190,000 in 1960. This organization, formed in 2002, has developed innovative programs to facilitate the reuse of more than 4,000 formerly vacant and abandoned properties including side-lot transfer (more than 200 parcels), community gardens, housing rehabilitation and foreclosure avoidance (serving more than 1,300 families). Since its inception, this land bank has helped real property values in Flint to increase by more than $100 million.
The Land Bank Act could help make New York’s cities and towns more attractive for workers and businesses, and provide them with walkable communities close to shops, services and low-cost transportation choices. Land banks have been proven effective in other states and cities and have helped to revitalize many communities. New York today has towns, cities and counties that could turn their distressed spaces into valuable assets, but they need the power to do so.
In New York state, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney (R) is changing how her county approaches economic development. In a report from WRVO, Mahoney explains that encouraging development in downtown Syracuse, which lies at the heart of Onondaga County, will help the economy of the entire region.
Previous county executives focused development in the ring of suburbs outside of Syracuse, which lies at the heart of Onondaga County. By accommodating – and even subsidizing – growth outside the city center, the county has slowly eroded Syracuse’s once-thriving business district: more than a dozen office buildings downtown now stand 100% empty. Mahoney explains that Onondaga County can’t thrive if growth comes at the cost of downtown Syracuse, and she’s working to bring a different model of development to the county.
Mahoney also explains that the county is struggling to support development in Syracuse’s outer suburbs: it’s simply too expensive for the county to afford. While it might be cheaper up front to build a building on the outskirts of town, it raises the burden on taxpayers who then have to fund the sewer lines and roads to those new buildings.
CNBC released its list today of the top 10 most walkable cities in America, and includes in it a discussion of the growing trend among towns and cities to create neighborhoods with pedestrian-friendly streets and bustling downtown shopping districts. These features are a key part of smart growth development strategies and, as CNBC writer Cindy Perman explains, walkable neighborhoods have benefits beyond street-level charm. Walkable neighborhoods feel safer and more social, and help build exercise into daily routines. But even more importantly, walkable neighborhoods bring economic benefits:
You wouldn’t spend much time hanging around in the parking lot of a strip mall in a car-dependent suburb. But, you would linger in a very walkable city, which means you’re more inclined to spend more. Quite a bit more, in fact. The Urban Land Institute studied two Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, one walkable and one not. They found that the Barnes & Noble book store in the walkable suburb made 20 percent more in profits than the one in the driving-dependent suburb.
“We call that a place-making dividend,” McMahon said. “People stay longer and come back more often and spend more money in places that attract their affection.”
There’s an economic benefit for homeowners, too: Homes in walkable cities hold their value better than those that were heavily reliant on driving, according to Smart Growth America, a group that promotes “smart growth” instead of suburban sprawl.
Smart Growth America’s coalition partner Regional Plan Association works on plans and policies to accommodate and encourage future growth in the Northeast corridor. The Northeast has a number of unique features and challenges, but the Regional Plan Association’s work is exemplary of how regions across the country can identify future growth and transportation challenges and work now to find solutions.
For the Northeast, RPA explains, building a high speed rail network in the region could avert imminent transportation problems. The region is projected to gain 18 million new residents over the next generation but roads connecting towns and cities in the region are already congested. High speed rail could better connect residents and businesses in the area and that doesn’t just mean less traffic: it means a stronger regional economy and better opportunities for economic growth:
In particular, U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro, 3rd District of Connecticut, explained the economic boost such a system would bring to her area:
When we begin to connect cities and rural areas – cities like New York, New Haven, Providence, Boston – what you are doing is producing economic growth and economic competitiveness…It is the direction we ought to be moving in in order to look at job growth, competitiveness, economic development, and a key to our economic future.
High speed rail has been controversial in some places, but many of the arguments in this video apply to transportation options of all kinds, including buses, streetcars or subways. Creating these transportation options means better serving more people, accommodating more travelers in the same space and creating more efficient ways to get between home, jobs and stores. Large or small, every community can use smart growth techniques to give people the freedom to choose how they get around.
Commuters sitting in gridlock may find it hard to believe, but many smaller and mid-size cities in America have under-used highways. In some of these cities, highways that were built decades ago are now impeding potentially valuable real estate development. And as many highways from the middle of the last century deteriorate past the point of minor repairs to needing to be entirely rebuilt, leaders in these cities are starting to question the cost and efficiency of maintaining certain pieces of their highway systems.
In Seattle, Cleveland, Syracuse and a number of other cities across the country, leaders are debating the merits of removing portions of their underused, crumbling highway systems to allow for economic development instead. As older highway segments meet the end of their useful life, civic leaders are presented with a rare opportunity to reduce expenses on underused infrastructure and create new opportunity for development at the same time. (editors note: according to transportation engineers, a road or bridge’s “useful life” is determined to be over when repairs are so expensive and the conditions are so bad that it would cost several times more to rebuild the road or bridge than to tear it down and build something different.)
New Yorkers are lining up to support bills S1332 and A1863, known as “Brittany’s Law,” which would direct inclusion of all users in state transportation projects. The law takes its name from the tragic death of 14-year-old Brittany Vega, whose mother Sandi is tirelessly advocating for Complete Streets policies at the state and local level.
While it “wonderful” may be an overstatement, with a half-dozen state legislatures looking at new Complete Streets bills this year, it is an exciting time for the Complete Streets movement.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama called on Americans to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world” to win the future. To rebuild America, he said, we will aim to put “more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges.”
A new report from Smart Growth America analyzes states’ investments in infrastructure to determine whether they made the best use of their spending based on job creation numbers. Recent Lessons from the Stimulus: Transportation Funding and Job Creation evaluates how successful states have been in creating jobs with their flexible $26.6 billion of transportation funds from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA). Those results should guide governors and other leaders in revitalizing America’s transportation system, maximizing job creation from transportation dollars and rebuilding the economy.
According to data sent by the states to Congress, the states that created the most jobs were the ones that invested in public transportation projects and projects that maintained and repaired existing roads and bridges. The states that spent their funds predominantly building new roads and bridges created fewer jobs.
As Newsweek’s David A. Graham explains, investments in transportation create jobs in the short term and longer term economic prosperity too:
Injecting money into transportation projects, the thinking goes, is an especially potent jobs-creation tool because it not only puts construction workers and contractors to work quickly, it also lays the groundwork for future economic growth and development. Obama predicted the transportation money alone would put hundreds of thousands of workers on the job.
As “Recent Lessons from the Stimulus” explains, not all transportation projects reap these benefits equally:
[S]tates spent more than a third of the money on building new roads—rather than working on public transportation and fixing up existing roads and bridges. The result of the indiscriminate spending? States missed out on potentially thousands of new jobs—and bridges, roads, and overpasses around the country are still crumbling. Meanwhile, the states that did put dollars toward public transportation were richly rewarded: Each dollar used on transit was 75 percent more effective at putting people to work than a dollar used for highway work.