Planning to fail

by Carolyn Chase


issing from the recent "Smart Growth Conference" convened by Supervisors Roberts and Slater, was any public discussion of the looming reality of the costs of past growth mismanagement coming home to roost and who should pay. But that reality is not too far away.

SANDAG released a report on March 4th entitled "Development Fees for Regional Transportation Infrastructure" which looked at just one sector in the bag called infrastructure. The report calculated the development fees needed if local jurisdictions were going to require that new growth paid for the transportation infrastructure needed to absorb the estimated increase in "Average Daily Trips" from new developments.

The report describes the legal framework for imposing such fees, calculates alternative fee levels for funding regional transportation projects, and compares these fee levels with current development fees in the region. It discusses ways to implement a fee program for regional transportation purposes and addresses "the difficult and debatable question of who bears the burden of development fees."

Here is one of the main payoff paragraphs: "The capital cost of implementing the Preferred Regional Transportation Plan is estimated at nearly $11.76 billion through the year 2020. Revenues from existing sources are expected to total $5.84 billion, leaving a shortfall of $5.92 billion. However, completion of the facilities identified in the Preferred Plan still would not maintain existing service levels on the regional system. The Preferred Plan's implementation by 2020 could see 50 miles of heavy freeway congestion, compared to 30 miles today. About 100 freeway miles could be heavily congested if the project funding is limited to revenues from existing sources."

So we are in the hunt for another $6 billion for a system that is only being designed to get worse. And I emphasize the term designed. We are pursuing this course with our eyes and pocketbooks wide open.

Our current political process is seeking to increase someone's taxes somewhere by an additional $6 billion to buy us an additional 20 miles of heavily congested freeways. Taxpayers are already evidently going to pony-up the financing to buy a system that's going to give us another 100 miles of heavily congested freeways.

Surely this must strike someone as insane. It's certainly not very smart. In all the questioning about what is smart growth, perhaps we should look around at the dynamics of stupid growth.

Without even looking at the specific projects involved, surely this plan is unsupportable with such fundamental evidence for system failure. This plan could best be described as - we've got to do something, so let's do what we can even though we know it's not going to solve our problems and in fact we know it will just be a part of having the problems get worse.

Why can't we solve these problems? Stop-gap approaches are part of our dysfunctional paradigm of dealing with growth. Many communities are fed-up with having to absorb the costs, but developers, industry and taxpayers don't want to have to pay for them. So the political system has only been able to put off the costs.

Mick Pattinson, President of the Building Industry Association, lamented that 20 years ago the state spent 20% of it's budget on infrastructure, now it's only 5% and a lot of that is debt service.

Eric Bowlby, Chapter Chair of the San Diego Sierra Club noted "We are going to need infrastructure and we should not be afraid to allow development and building to pay for the infrastructure we're going to need. It's an investment in our quality of life."

The SANDAG report states that "a development fee of $1,286 per average daily trip would raise the $5.92 billion by 2020....The fee would be $12,860 for a single family home. Commercial and industrial projects would be subject to much higher fees based on traffic generation rates. . . The fees on commerical buildings would be 6 to 46 times greater than current fee levels. On industrial buildings, total fees would be one-half to 9 times greater than current fee levels."

But hold on a minute here. Before we start playing politics over who should pay, let's make sure we're actually buying something that is designed to break us out of our politics-as-planning paradigm of parochial incrementalism. No one should be having to pay for a system that is designed for failure. If you want to raise my taxes or increase the costs of doing business, at least make sure it's for systems that actually have a chance to work.

It comes back to design. Until systems are being designed to provide standards of service that meet market demand, the systems will be badly priced and poorly used. Politicians will be perpetually stuck looking for someone to foot the bill or otherwise compelled to offload the costs onto the environment or the community.

County Planning Commissioner Gary Piro attended the meeting with a proposal to form a "Smart Design" sub-committee - rightly pointing out that at the heart of all these processes is the need to look at the design standards for our systems. At least at this juncture, no one seemed "smart enough" to take him up on it.

Alan Hoffman, a transportation planning consultant puts it this way, "Here in San Diego, we need to become better consumers of transportation plans. We too often hear only two dominant voices: the uncritically pro-transit view of some, and the uncritically anti-transit view of others. We need more voices of people who understand what transit can accomplish and what transit NEEDS TO DO in order to accomplish it. We need to talk more about network design (which points A get connected--and how--to which points B) and less about modes (bus, trolley, train) and corridors; we need to talk more about network performance (travel times, frequencies, service hours, capacities) and less about "how do we convince more people to get out of their cars"; and we need to talk a lot more about the kind of transit experience we want (what it feels like, looks like, smells like, etc.) and less about "how do we make driving so bad people will beg to take transit."

But it's the politics that block, make or define progress. The political system is gearing up to make something happen to deal with the next million people that everyone seems resigned to having come here.

Surely we are smart enough to come up with plans that are designed to succeed. This means that we must stop supporting plans that are designed to fail.