There has been a lot of discourse in the local media lately about the need for transportation funding in Maryland and Virginia, with some folks arguing that all of whatever money is available should be spent on mass transit. Others argue that while mass transit is important, we need to spend most of the money we have on highway improvements. As a builder, this is an issue about which I have an opinion and, guessing that the purpose of a blog is to offer an opinion, I will do so here.
First, as a reminder for anyone who reads this, my company has long been involved in developing, building and managing high density housing. We have been building in planned community and urban areas for most of the time we have been in business. We have built, and love to build, right on or adjoining public transit sites. We love Smart Growth. We believe in and have practiced Transit Oriented Development. We think of ourselves as a company that will thrive as America becomes increasingly urbanized.
Secondly, and before getting into the issue of how transit money should be spent, it seems important to make the point that it needs to be spent. Despite the need to pay down our national debt, we desperately need to spend money to improve the infrastructure in this country. If one looks at developed and developing countries around the world, what clearly differentiates prospering countries from those in which economic development has been held back is the level of national commitment to infrastructure. There was once a time when America’s commitment to its infrastructure allowed us to lead the world in economic development. Not anymore.
Today, our roads are a mess. Our transit systems are an embarrassment when compared to those in much of Europe and Asia. And our utility systems, as most recently demonstrated by Hurricane Sandy, are pathetic. We cannot continue to ignore them.
But this piece is not about our utility systems. It’s about transit. And it is about the need for us as a country and a region to spend money on both public transit and roadways.
For some reason, thinking has emerged among a small coterie of people that a dollar spent on highway improvement, expansion, or maintenance is a dollar taken away from public transit. The argument I suppose goes something like this: every time a road is expanded or repaired it allows more people to escape to the suburbs; the suburbs are bad because they are an inefficient use of land and besides, they are boring; so we should not spend any money allowing people to live there. The flaws in this argument are that first, a lot of people already live there and second, the people who live there and those who want to are taxpayers too.
What we in our company see among the thirty-some thousand people who rent from us and the thousands who have bought homes from us is that people are different and have different tastes in where they want to live. An increasing number of people, and particularly those without children, want to live in-town, in very high density situations, and ideally, in a place where they can walk or take transit to everything. On the other hand, as they get older, many of these same people and others of all ages would rather live in a planned community in the suburbs or just in the suburbs. Many of these too would love to minimize time in their car but they can’t because low density doesn’t support public transport. The car is what these people use to get to work, to shop, and to get most everywhere else they need to go.
To argue that we should purposely refuse to maintain the roads these people need or refuse to build new ones based on the wish that doing so will force everyone to live in urban environments where they can walk to work strikes me as hopelessly naïve. It also strikes me as being fairly un-American; but then, that’s just me.