Futurewire Newsletter

How much sprawl can Spokane afford?

Earlier this year, Spokane County voted to dramatically expand its Urban Growth Area – the places, mostly in and surrounding our cities, that have been designated for a majority of the county’s homes, jobs, and amenities. The County’s decision was made despite the fact that 25% of Spokane County’s growth in the last decade has happened outside its urban areas, yet the Urban Growth Area itself has not reached the population it was planned to accommodate. It was also counter to the recommendations of neighborhoods, Spokane cities, and the State Departments of Commerce, Transportation, and Fish & Wildlife – as well as common sense and good government.

Waste Not. Want Not.

The decision to urbanize nearly 7,000 rural and outlying acres, one of the largest urban expansions we’ve seen in the last twenty years, will not just impact the environment in Spokane County but it also commits Spokane County to providing urban infrastructure and services to these areas. According to a recent study by Smart Growth America, the up-front cost of infrastructure is nearly 40% less when development is urban infill versus sprawl. These costs only go up when total lifecycle costs are included. Greater separation and longer distances in sprawling development create greater expense in roads, sewer and water lines – and this is when local governments are finding it harder and harder to just cover basic services and maintain existing infrastructure. The fact is Spokane’s poorly planned development pattern is creating higher public costs for its citizens.

The County’s own study of the financial impacts of its decision shows the price tag for this expansion in excess of $1 billion – not including transportation infrastructure costs. Yet it has not identified any source of funding to pay for this hefty price tag. The County’s current draft Capital Facilities Plan – the six-year plan for maintaining and managing our infrastructure and services -- presents no new revenues to cover the increased costs caused by the UGA expansion. And while the additional transportation costs were left out of the study, it is noteworthy that Spokane Regional Transportation Council already predicts shortfalls in transportation funding in a no additional build-out scenario – meaning no new infrastructure and no UGA expansion. Below are the Spokane Regional Transportation Council’s preliminary projections (in draft form) of Spokane County’s road maintenance situation.

Spokane County already faces shortfalls in transportation funding for its existing repair and maintenance needs. By increasing expansion of its UGA by 7,000 acres, it will grow its need for transportation funding and consequently its backlog of transportation projects because it has not identified new revenues to fund it.

As more and more cities and counties struggle to pay for failing infrastructure, allowing further expansion without demonstrated need or method to pay for it, goes counter to good government and good financial management.

It’s the Local Economy . . .

Economies grow or develop in cities and regions due to a wide range of factors. These factors include quality of local workforce, the entrepreneurial instincts and market knowledge of business owners, the responsiveness of the public sector, and the fundamentals of the quality of life (which include diverse factors like climate, neighborhoods, available affordable housing, public schools, and open space).

For the Spokane economy, the location of houses and jobs is a key variable in the economic competitiveness. Long commutes reduce productivity. The spread-out pattern of work makes job access a challenge for people in lower income households, who have fewer choices of where to live. And without dense employment districts, businesses cannot take advantage of the sharing of ideas, workers, and clients, which close proximity to other businesses and employees brings. Proximity is an important factor in a company’s competitiveness. This is best achieved when jobs and businesses are concentrated into centers, near basic services, affordable housing, and good schools.

Traveling on any of Spokane County’s major retail and industrial corridors illustrates the impact of the County’s earlier gamble on sprawl. Downtown Spokane is riddled with more than its share of vacant lots and empty buildings, making the adage “location, location, location” a challenge for small businesses. Dramatic expansions to the existing urbanized areas before they have been built out have hurt the City of Spokane’s revitalization efforts. Keeping our growth focused in limited areas, closer to existing urban services and where development exists at sufficient densities will give greater certainty to businesses and help businesses thrive.

Recently the Spokane Regional Transportation Council and Spokane Regional Health District brought Dena Belzer from the Center for Transit-Oriented Development to town to speak to local leaders about the economic impacts of our land use and transportation planning. Housing affordability was one of the issues she highlighted. The two maps below provide a quick snapshot of the problem. The greenish yellow areas are considered affordable. On the top map, only the cost of the housing is calculated whereas the transportation costs are also included in the map on the bottom. When transportation (which is the second largest household expense for most Americans) is factored in, the existing urbanized areas become the most affordable places to live – this is true in Spokane and in most regions across the state and country.

Shifting Demographics. Shifting Demands.

Spokane’s massive expansion is both unnecessary and undesirable. The County’s study shows that we have more than adequate supply of land inside our existing urban areas to meet our projected needs for housing and jobs. This is especially true for housing when we consider a major shift in our demographics that will affect our housing stock for the foreseeable future. Single households and households without children have been on the rise over the last 30 years. And our population is aging. Currently approximately 50% of Spokane’s population is elderly, disabled, or under 18. Both demographics when surveyed prefer walkable urban development in cities near services than to suburban style auto-dependent patterns. Evidence is mounting that young adults and professionals without children are also joining aging boomers who want less to maintain and want more services near to where they live. The reality is that these areas being added to the UGA will not get transit service in the foreseeable future.

Just because it’s the way things have been done doesn’t mean it should stay the same. The fact is that if we want a future that is different from the present, we have to let go of the status quo and embrace change. Futurewise is working with our local partners to change the direction in Spokane County. Sprawl and shortsighted transportation decisions have already cost Spokane County and its citizens too much. Spokane County needs to embrace the benefits of good planning for good government and strong economic development, and let go of its ways of wasting unnecessarily our land, our economic opportunity, and our tax payer dollars.


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