New roads contributed to sprawl, group states

But transport officials contend growth spurred highway construction

January 04, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Maryland's program of highway construction over the past 50 years has contributed to the sprawl development that stretches into the state's suburbs, according to a report from an environmental lobbying group.

Although land-use planners have long said that new highways lead to new development, the report released yesterday by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG) is the first to document the effect in the state, said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland.

"We all have anecdotal evidence; now we have hard-core numbers," she said. "Now we can say, `Here are the facts.'"

Suburban sprawl has been blamed for damaging the environment by turning farmland into housing developments and warehouses, forcing local governments to spend money on new roads, schools, police and fire and other services for growing populations.

State planners said they weren't surprised by the findings, but transportation officials were not impressed.

"You have to ask where the traffic is coming from," said Marsha Kaiser, a state transportation planner. "We're building roads to keep up with development. It takes at least 10 years to build a new highway."

But new highways draw traffic from older, smaller nearby roads, said Doug Porter, president of the Growth Management Institute, a Chevy Chase consultant. And developers want to build where the traffic is.

The MaryPIRG report, which used state planning department records to trace highway construction and development, found that new homes, malls and other businesses followed Interstate 270 through Montgomery County and Interstate 70 through Howard County toward Frederick.

In Howard County, 94 percent of the properties within five miles of I-70, I-95 and Routes 32 and 29 were developed after the highways were built, according to the report. The figure is 89 percent for Montgomery County and 83 percent for Frederick County.

Development on the Eastern Shore jumped with each improvement to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and to U.S. 50, the road to Ocean City, the report says. The development rate doubled in the two years after the first Bay Bridge span opened in 1952. It tripled after improvements in 1965.

The report concludes that state plans for $4.3 billion in highway improvements over the next six years should be slowed and more money spent on public transportation.

Gigi Kellett, an environmental associate with MaryPIRG, said that Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan to spend $750 million on transit improvements over the next six years is "a good first step," but added that "much more needs to be done."

Porter, however, says it's "not that simple."

"After all, the region is growing by leaps and bounds, and the development patterns require some new highways," he said. "The bigger question is what land-use patterns will evolve over time to make things work better."

To change land-use patterns to encourage more use of mass transit "is a 20-, 30-year deal," he said.

Schmidt-Perkins said the report should guide transportation decisions.

"If we make it easy to live 40 miles from work and get there in 40 minutes, people will do that and we'll have more sprawl. It will create an endless problem we can't afford to fund socially and environmentally. We need to look at why people are leaving our cities and start reinvesting in the cities."

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