Growth task force agenda a loser

Doug French

The Clark County Community Growth Task Force made expansion of the county mass transit plan a priority recommendation for “furthering the Urban Design goal” in its recent report.

Given the make-up of the task force, this is not surprising. These smart growth ideas have been the rage with government planners for the last decade. The movement gained national exposure in 1999 when Al Gore announced the “Clinton-Gore Livability Agenda”—dubbed by the media the “war on sprawl.”

At this Southern Nevada gathering of the worthies were no free-market advocates. Included instead were three representatives from UNLV, ex-politicians, an employee of Sun newspaperman Brian Greenspun, members of the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, and tax task force chairman Guy Hobbs.

Under the guise of improving air quality and combating sprawl, the report consistently expresses utter disdain for the automobile. It misses the fundamental point that, in the words of privatization and transportation policy expert Robert Poole, “highways follow growth rather than lead it.” Speaking to a FreedomFest crowd this month, he called smart growth “a pipe dream.”

The growth report touts mixed-use development and places “heavy emphasis on linkage to mass transit systems and development” in a strategy to “Reduce dependency on automobiles; and Increase ability for residents to invest in housing rather than automobiles.” 

What task force members miss is that people drive automobiles because they want to. The idea that poorly designed neighborhoods force people to be dependent on automobiles is a myth. 

The task force recites the conventional dogma: “There are significant social benefits associated with mass transit (e.g., air quality improvements, reduced congestion, reduced travel related deaths, increased individual mobility, and improved access to housing).”

In actuality, the results will likely be much different, according to Randal O’Toole, senior economist with the Thoreau Institute and expert on urban land-use and transportation issues. “Planners demonize the automobile for killing people and polluting the air, then promote transportation policies that increase accidents and air pollution. Planners implement policies and declare victory no matter what the outcome,” he says.

O’Toole’s book, The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths – How Smart Growth Will Harm American Cities, shows that rail lines of all kinds do not fulfill any of the promises made for them. Not only is rail enormously expensive, but it does nothing to reduce congestion, help the environment, promote urban development, or do anything else that rail supporters claim.

The task force encourages “increased density, when and where appropriate,” especially in mixed-use developments built around mass-transit systems. In truth, there is often little demand for housing in these areas. “Some surveys indicate that as few as 17 percent of Americans aspire to live in high-density, mixed-use developments,” points out O’Toole, “and the demand for such development is often fully met by housing in and near downtowns.”

Task force members list “Reduction in incidence of obesity” as a benefit to mixed-use and higher density projects. They believe that increasing density will reduce highway congestion because more people will walk, bike, or ride transit. This is nonsense on its face. If it were true, Manhattan and Brooklyn would be the least congested areas of the, country, while rural areas would be the most congested. A study of 391 major urban areas shows the relationship between miles of driving and density, while visible, is weak,” contends O’Toole. “Taking out New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston and Baltimore practically eliminates any effects of density on commuting.”  

The war on the automobile in the name of quality of life has, since 1964, led to more money being spent on mass transit than on highways. Despite this huge subsidy, points out Poole, the market share for mass transit continues to fall. Between1980 and 2000, auto miles traveled increased 82 percent, while only four percent more auto lanes were added. At the same time, air quality has improved drastically. It will continue to improve, says Poole, as new cars replace the old clunkers that do most of the polluting.

The fundamental transit problem in Las Vegas and everywhere else, argues Poole, is that roads and highways are produced under a Soviet-style system—centrally planned, without market pricing and with political considerations outweighing economics.

If the Growth Task Force gets its way, Southern Nevada taxpayers will be saddled with millions in taxes to fund a “smart growth” agenda that is a proven loser.

Now is the time to stop the mass transit madness—before it starts.

Doug French is executive vice president of a Southern Nevada bank and a policy fellow of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.