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Growing Problem: Low Density's Costs Are High

October 9, 2005

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 Connecticut towns.

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 uses.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at
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