Sunday, January 2, 2005
By Thomas Hylton
It’s the season of giving, and no one radiates the spirit more than Gov. Rendell. True to his campaign promises, the governor bargained successfully with the legislature this year for more than $2 billion in state subsidies to energize the economy.
In whirlwind visits across the state, the governor has handed out tens of millions of dollars from Erie to Easton, including $73 million for Allegheny County projects ranging from light manufacturing in Leetsdale to neighborhood revitalization in McKeesport. Even my small town of Pottstown received $2.6 million to restore an 1880 office building and re-use a former pie factory site for housing and retail development.
The purpose of all this spending, Gov. Rendell says, is not just economic growth, but revitalizing Pennsylvania’s cities and towns. Certainly, providing state subsidies to redevelop these communities is essential to prime the pump. But it’s equally important to cut back state spending for development on virgin land outside our towns. Otherwise, the government is just wasting everybody’s money.
That’s why Gov. Rendell should embrace the recent suggestion by Republican legislative leaders to cut or delay highway projects - not just as a stopgap source of money for mass transit, as the Republicans had in mind, but as a long term policy to ensure Pennsylvania’s energies are focused where they’re needed and not diluted all over creation
During the first 250 years of the commonwealth’s existence, Pennsylvania concentrated its investments in the cities, boroughs, and close-in suburbs where nearly 80 percent of the population lived. Even in rural areas, small towns like Bedford and DuBois were supported as the anchors of their regions. But starting in the 1950s, the state began spending billions of dollars on highways extending into the hinterlands, fostering a migration of jobs and residents away from established population centers.
The consequences of this policy have been disastrous. Pennsylvania stopped growing and started sprawling. Of the 50 states, Pennsylvania now ranks third from the bottom in job creation and population growth, but fifth from the top in the amount of land consumed for new development. Thousands of homes and industrial sites have been abandoned in big cities and small towns, while vast agricultural areas have been lost to strip malls and housing subdivisions. Pennsylvanians are driving 60 percent more miles today than they did just 15 years ago, spending ever more of their lives behind the wheel.
New highways have been touted as catalysts for new jobs and population growth. But that hasn’t been Pennsylvania’s experience – especially in the southwest. The region continues to lose population despite $1.4 billion invested for highways like the Greensburg Bypass and the Beaver Valley Expressway. The latest panacea, building the northern end of the Mon-Fayette Expressway, will chop up Mon Valley communities and most likely disperse, rather than increase, the region’s jobs and housing. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s economic engine remains the southeast, where no such grandiose projects are planned.
Once highways are built, of course, they must be maintained. Next year, near Carnegie, PennDOT will spend $106 million to rebuild just 5.5 miles of Interstate 79, a 1970s highway that helped fuel suburban sprawl. No wonder PennDOT’s remedial backlog is growing despite a $1.3 billion annual maintenance budget.
A recent study of PennDOT spending by 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, a statewide land-use group, found that towns and older suburbs representing 58 percent of the state’s population receive just 42 percent of the state’s highway investments. That ratio needs to be reversed. And PennDOT should concentrate on fixing existing roadways rather than building new ones.
The strength of traditional towns lies in their compactness and diversity of activities. By placing houses, stores and offices in close proximity, towns create a distinct identity and allow people to walk or take public transportation to a wide variety of destinations.
Changing demographics mean more people are willing to try that lifestyle. Singles and childless couples, good candidates for urban living, comprise an increasing portion of our households. The baby boomer generation, 77 million strong, is reaching retirement age and looking for smaller dwellings within easy reach of cultural attractions, medical facilities, and lots of other people. Sophisticated young workers seek vibrant communities with close ties to higher education.
If Gov. Rendell wants to revitalize our towns, he needs to build on their assets, not undermine them with more sprawl-inducing highways. Hedging your bets may work on Wall Street, but it won’t help Main Street.