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Stop Sprawl
Sprawl Costs Us All


Suburban sprawl 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 sprawl.

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.

What's Inside

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.

Corporate Subsidies
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 developing it.

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.

Next: Roads and Highways | Report Main

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