Sprawl has obvious drawbacks for Connecticut residents: It increases traffic
congestion, threatens the environment, eats up farmland and open space, limits
housing options and exacerbates the negative social patterns of extreme poverty
and racial segregation. As if these costs weren't steep enough, studies now
reveal that sprawl also puts a severe strain directly on our wallets.
As growth continues to decentralize and people move farther and farther
out to exurbia, basic infrastructure must follow as well. Gas lines, electrical
lines, new schools and roads all must be extended out to serve low-density
development. Sewers, for example, cost $70 to $100 a foot, sometimes more,
which comes to about $450,000 a mile.
Roads don't come cheaply, either. According to a report by the Biodiversity
Project at the University of Wisconsin, $200 million is spent every day nationwide
on building or improving roads. Taxpayers expend $6.3 billion each year to
pay off highway bonds, the report says.
These costs add up quickly. Rhode Island, whose population and growth patterns
are similar to Connecticut's, concluded in a recent study that it needs $181
million more under its current sprawling growth model than it would under
a controlled growth model.
Another money-hungry characteristic of uncontrolled growth is the sprawling
of school systems. A recent Sierra Club study in Washington state showed
that schools were the No.1 hidden cost of sprawl in the state. Even suburban
areas that are experiencing losses in student population are facing exorbitant
expenditures for school construction. Although Maine's student population
decreased by 27,000 from 1970 to 1990, the state still spent $727 million
on school construction. In Washington, each new single-family house demands
an annual $18,600 in educational costs, a figure comparable to that in many
Despite huge expenditures, many suburban towns across the country must still
use portable classrooms to serve burgeoning school populations. Meanwhile,
some cities and inner-ring suburbs sold school buildings for housing or other
As people have pushed farther away from cities, they've often built in areas
more vulnerable to natural disaster than central cities are. Forest fires,
mudslides and coastal flooding - although Hurricane Katrina was an exception
- usually hit sprawl housing the hardest. Taxpayers, including those who
stay in cities, have to pay for the damage.
Though low-density development is significantly more expensive than compact
development, our state and region's sprawling growth continues. The 2000
U.S. Census showed that in New England there was a 2.5 percent decrease in
the population inside central cities and a 3.4 percent increase outside.
Connecticut continues to rank among the top states in the country for increased
urbanized land and fewest persons per urbanized acre.
Connecticut will pay increasingly for the sprawling model of development
that it has chosen to follow, unless it makes a change. We must implement
smart growth initiatives not only to reverse the negative trends of sprawl
and ensure the state's competitiveness within the broader region, but also
to preserve and enhance the quality of life that Connecticut residents have
enjoyed for centuries.
Emily J. Moos is an associate planner in the Connecticut office of the Regional
Plan Association, a metropolitan policy group.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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