Late last week, KSL ran a story about population growth in Utah County. The article includes some interesting information about growth in the area — for example, the county has seen a 40 percent population increase in the last 10 years — but also provides a perfect example of why sprawl wastes money. It also highlights exactly the sort of thing James Bacon was trying to point out when he argued that sprawling suburbs are antithetical to conservative values.
After a section that comically (and sadly) describes Saratoga Springs as occupying a “pretty central” location, the article explains how the government is spending money to cope with sprawling communities in northern Utah County.
Over the past five years, UDOT has spent $2.5 billion dollars on road improvements in Utah County.
The majority of that funding has gone to rebuilding 24 miles of I-15, but a long list of new roads and improvements are helping with the skyrocketing growth, and now, people are finding the commute is easier. State and local government have invested heavily in the transportation system, especially in north Utah County.
The I15 improvements obviously benefited existing communities, but there’s no reason the other money needed to be spent at all. If the population growth had been contained within existing communities, the government — and therefore all of us — would have saved a fortune. That growth could have been contained by adding housing in existing neighborhoods, either by infilling wasted space or by redeveloping certain low density neighborhoods into high density neighborhoods.
The reasons that sort of development would have been cheaper are too numerous and complex to list comprehensively here, but the most obvious savings would have been on roads and other infrastructure.
So, for example, if we build a house near an existing road, the government doesn’t have to pay to install and/or maintain additional streets, sewers, etc. The work cities already would have been doing anyway simply benefits more people. In other words, it’s a lot more bang for our buck.
However, the kind of growth described in the KSL article necessitated more roads. That benefits developers’ pocket books, but it means more construction expenses in the immediate future, as well as more maintenance costs in the long run. As James Bacon indicated, conservatives should object to this kind of wastefulness. This also happened to be one of my objections to Daybreak.
There are a couple of lessons here for Provo. The first is the sadest: Provo wasted decades and millions (or billions) of dollars letting the population of Utah County shift to Lehi, American Fork, and the west side suburbs. There’s not much the city can do about the past, but it can at least look to stanch the population flow.
The second lesson, however, is that the cheapest, most fiscally conservative option for growth is to build within existing communities.