has been rightly blamed for many things: destroying green space, increasing air and water
pollution, fracturing our neighborhoods and forcing us to drive gridlocked roads for every
chore. But there is one consequence that usually goes unmentioned - sprawl is draining our
pocketbooks and raising our taxes.
Sprawl is the result of over five decades of subsidies paid for by the
American taxpayer. These range from the obvious to the obscure and include big
projects-like the billions we spend on new roads as well as smaller ones-like the
tax-breaks that encourage businesses to move to the edge of town. We've subsidized sprawl
at such a basic level for so long, that many people believe the status quo is actually
fair and neutral. This is false-what we think of as a level playing field is tilted
steeply in favor of sprawling development.
How we subsidize sprawl:
- building new and wider roads
- building schools on the fringe
- extending sewer and water lines to sprawling development
- extending emergency services to the fringe
- direct pay-outs to developers
How do we subsidize sprawl? Through an array of state, local and federal
programs-and through incentives built into the develop-ment process itself. The biggest
federal contribution to sprawl is the billions of dollars spent on building new roads.
Over the past 50 years, we have built almost 4 million miles of highways. This massive
network of roads has done more than speed us from point A to point B - it has reshaped the
landscape by opening up rural areas to suburban development and it has reshaped our
society by making the car king. Travel by car has become not just another option-in too
many places, it has become the only option.
Other federal programs are also encouraging sprawl. For years we have
subsidized construction in flood plains while making it far too easy to destroy critical
wetlands. This encourages the destruction of open spaces and adds to the pressure to
The growth of suburban sprawl, though aided by federal spending, is also
the product of decisions at the state and local levels. The corporate enticement
game-played by everyone from governor to county supervisor-encourages commercial
development far from cities and towns. Over the past few decades, corporations have become
increasingly skilled at playing one community against another in an effort to wrest
greater perks from state and local governments. Big-box retailers and isolated business
parks are unwittingly subsidized by our own tax dollars.
Sprawl subsidies are also built into the development process itself. Most
new, sprawling development costs more to build and service than the taxes or fees it
generates. When a new residential or commercial development is built outside of an
existing community, roads, sewer systems and water lines have to be built. As the
development expands, it requires schools and emergency services. Where does the money for
all this come from? In most cases, neither the developers nor the new residents pay their
full, fair share - it is the rest of us who make up the difference. The bottom line is
that new development is costing us money.
This report identifies the most common subsidies that create sprawl and
provides examples from across the United States. For each type of subsidy we provide
analysis and solutions. Where appropriate, our report also provides figures for the cost
of these subsidies and calculates the cost of sprawl.
Roads and Highways
Roads are the lifeblood of sprawl. Building new roads encourages sprawling
development and, because of the high cost, crowds out other transportation options. And
when driving becomes the only choice, residents must drive for every chore. This leads to
gridlocked traffic, frustrated drivers and calls for bigger roads. But it's impossible to
build our way out of this mess-new lanes and new roads act like magnets for new traffic,
encouraging more people to drive more miles. Recent research has shown that up to one-half
of the additional lanes or roads built are filled by this new traffic. This means that
highways designed to meet an area's needs for a decade or more become full of traffic in a
fraction of that time - putting communities right back where they started.
A good education is priceless and our children deserve top-notch schools. But,
like a cat chasing its tail, sprawl is forcing our school districts to blow their budgets
building new schools rather than making our school system great. In community after
community, we've seen districts shutting schools in existing neighborhoods as they build
new ones on the fringe. The result: We lack the money we need for programs and teachers;
the quality of education suffers and our kids pay the price.
Building a housing development outside of town saps resources from the community that
provides the utilities. The high cost of extending water and sewer systems out to the
fringe is rarely paid for by new development. And haphazard growth just compounds this-the
farther from existing resources and the more spread-out the development, the more
expensive it is to extend the needed infrastructure.
Not only does sprawling development require roads, schools and utilities, it also
requires police, fire and emergency medical services. These services are as expensive as
they are important. But once again, the taxes and fees generated don't cover the
costs-turning a shared resource into a hidden subsidy.
Though the overwhelming majority of Americans want to protect green spaces like
parks, wetlands and farm land, many state and local governments actually encourage the
development of these lands. Why? Politicians responsible for the giveaways claim that they
are necessary to grow the local economy. However, as we detail, this Faustian bargain
rarely nets the economic benefits that its boosters promise. In fact, in many cases,
leaving a field undeveloped or a wetland unfilled is better for an area's economy than
In our conclusion we discuss innovative solutions and successful communities. The
good news is that some of the most sprawl-choked places-like Virginia's Prince William
County and Florida's Palm Beach County-are turning back the tide of haphazard growth with
simple changes in civic and fiscal policy. Though the approaches differ, the underlying
principle is the same: We must require developers to pay the true cost of new development
and use smart-growth techniques to both minimize these costs and protect the environment.
The vast majority of Americans want clean, safe, livable communities -yet
many fear that we are powerless to slow sprawl. The good news is that there are solutions.
There are many ways to reign in out-of-control development. And, as this report
illustrates, there are many ways to prevent it. Sprawl is the fruit of 50 years of
government subsidies. Cutting these subsidies will not just save us billions of dollars-it
will save habitats and green space, lead to cleaner air and water, and revitalize our
towns, cities and suburbs.
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