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Smarter Money Would Be On Main Street


December 27, 2009

After the federal bailouts were faulted for enriching Wall Street and for proving rather anemic in creating jobs, the president and congressional Democrats sent a message in choosing a name for the jobs bill they introduced this month. "It is with great enthusiasm that we present our 'Jobs for Main Street' legislation," Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced last week just before the bill passed.

It's progress this time that the funds will be flowing away from, not toward, Wall Street. And the legislation will keep some people working, especially in local and state government. But will funds from this bill really reach Main Street, as its name implies? Well, not so much. When it comes to the largest spending item in the bill — $27.5 billion in highway spending — Main Street is missing.

The $27.5 billion isn't targeted to rebuild streets at the heart of older cities and towns, the cherished settings for Memorial Day parades and holiday light displays. No, the money will primarily go to projects that government knows best —the expansion of wide, motor-vehicle-only highways that go hand-in-hand with energy-wasting sprawl. This follows the earlier stimulus bill that favored massive highway projects, including a batch of expensive "highways to nowhere" that an examination by the Infrastructurist website concluded "make no sense."

The new bill does reserve $8.4 billion for transit and $800 million for Amtrak. But just when U.S. real estate markets are turning to Main Street and traditional neighborhood design, Congress throws $27.5 billion at the infrastructure — road widening — that supports sprawl.

Whether the setting is small towns like Guilford, older suburbs like West Hartford or bigger cities like New Haven, the traditional Main Street in Connecticut and other states is proving to be a model around which to build livable and energy-efficient communities. A report by economist Joseph Cortright for CEOs for Cities is the latest to find homes within walking distance of shops, schools and other amenities commanding significantly higher prices than sprawl counterparts.

And in the world of commercial real estate, the hot trend — named by Time Magazine as one of "ten ideas changing the world" — is "retrofitting suburbia" with walkable, mixed-use development. None other than Tyson's Corner, Va., the largest sprawl commercial complex in the country, is due for a multibillion-dollar urban makeover complete with traditional main streets.

Where grade-separated highways function basically as high-volume sewers for car traffic and erode both a neighborhood's sense of place and its property values — a lesson Hartford has learned painfully in the blocks closest to I-84 and I-91 — traditional main streets and the connected networks around them add value in many ways:

•They distribute traffic more efficiently. Local trips are less likely to clog major thoroughfares.

•Compared with disposable big-box strips, they support more diverse job creation and better long-term real estate value, a trend now paying dividends both in established downtowns such as Westport and Ridgefield and in revived areas of Middletown and South Norwalk.

•They help transit function more efficiently and do the same for other municipal services, including emergency response.

•Their compact blocks and mixed-use urban form facilitate walking and better public health, along with reduced driving and lower carbon emissions.

•Their infrastructure can be funded, in part, with value capture mechanisms such as tax-increment financing and business improvement districts, better leveraging federal investment.

Evidence shows these networks save money — and they save lives. Research by engineering professors Norman Garrick of the University of Connecticut and Wes Marshall of the University of Colorado-Denver reveals that traffic injury and fatality rates are three times higher in California cities with sprawling streets than in those with compact, connected networks.

Brookings-backed research from the Center for Neighborhood Technology shows that highway-served sprawling areas in region after region have the highest household transportation costs and highest per-capita carbon emissions. Each months, residents of walkable, transit-served neighborhoods save hundreds of dollars in average transportation costs.

The federal government is learning these benefits, just not fast enough. With the jobs bill on its way to the Senate, maybe the senators will actually find America's Main Streets. It's really not hard: Voters actually live on them in homes and apartments with actual street addresses. The House got the title right — Jobs for Main Street. Now maybe the Senate will make it reality.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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