March 2006

The Future is Now

   Land use and regulation has been minimized in the United States in favor of property rights. It's worked well for two hundred years. Land supply was not a limiting factor in growing jobs and the country. To open up more land for development, just cut in a road. It was as easy as growing weeds.
   But now the future has arrived and the suburban weed patch has squandered land. Houses and retail choke out the landscape, and finding a place for basic industry to grow has become difficult and expensive.
   The issue is fluid transportation and access given the current land-use quilt. Over the past five years residential land use growth has gobbled premium sites adjacent to transportation infrastructure along the old beltway. Forty-year-old job centers (industrial buildings) have been converted to mid-rise residential. Where do the jobs go? Further away from the people who need them.
   State and federal funding of highways has not linked with land use planning efficiently, and cross-town traffic flows are choking our economy. Metropolitan planning organizations, regional planning councils and federal agencies are beginning to think about this topic in a new light. Freight studies are engaging public and private parties in meaningful dialogue. To make a real difference in the next 10 years, however, the transportation infrastructure capital plan must be accompanied by hard and fast land use in critical zones that can serve employment centers … with basic industry.
   It's a challenge because much of America's land use is controlled by local government. State land use plans have helped but they don't control decision-making at a local level and in the hearts of landowners.
   An example may be useful here. Suppose 10 years of planning with local and state agencies and property owners permits a 1,000-acre employment park adjacent to excellent transportation access and then the market shifts. The owners sell to 40-acre tract-home-lot developers and the employment park opportunity is forever erased at that location. The next best site for such a project will require $20 million in new infrastructure — improvements that were "in place" at the original site. While the land owner(s) of the original property got $5,000 more per acre to sell for tract homes ($5 million more in total), the public sector will foot the bill for $20 million to replace the site opportunity.
   What to do? In future major public transportation projects affecting suburban and exurban areas, we need a land use plan with zoning that is firm. Further, for open agricultural land that is in the path of such growth enabled by transportation infrastructure, create an assessment upon reuse and
Mark your calendar …
development that refunds the public investment rather than such windfall accruing to the lucky few who speculate on the path of road projects. In the urban center, we should preserve industrial brownfields for industrial reuse and make it attractive economically and in terms of liability and regulation to the next-generation use.
   Truly this kind of thinking was viewed as somehow contrary to the founding fathers' values. But they didn't spend hours in daily commutes. This issue is being approached now by planners, and economic developers should strongly consider getting their political might aligned. At stake here for the private sector is a place to put its new industry — where people and freight can get to it.

Charles McSwain
IAMC Chair

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