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Pretend Primary: Sprawl and Lost Time

For the most part, presidents don't decide when and where to build roads, transit, housing or schools. That's the purview of state and local authorities. But few issues hit home quite as hard as the elements that make up quality of life--the growing strains on time and community caused by suburban sprawl, unaffordable housing, and outdated transportation infrastructure.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, there's not much reason for presidential candidates to talk about any of this: In those relatively thinly populated states, people think a 20-minute back-up on the Interstate is bad traffic. The heroic/moronic multi-hour commutes that rip the heart out of family life and friendships in suburban Virginia and Maryland are pretty much unknown in the places where presidential candidates have spent recent months. That's why today's installment of our Pretend Primary focuses on sprawl, lost time and other such strains on daily life in this region. If we had presidential primaries that meant anything, the voters of Virginia, Maryland and the District would demand that candidates address the sprawling array of issues that surround questions of where and how we live.

Just two cycles ago, in the 2000 campaign, sprawl, growth and development indeed pushed their way onto the campaign agenda. Al Gore and George Bush both talked about the pressures that many Americans were under as they came to live farther than ever before from where they work. President Bill Clinton's government had proposed measures to help local authorities preserve open space, ease traffic and explore environmentally-minded methods of economic development. But the campaign discussion didn't get very detailed, and both candidates ended up trafficking more in soothing generalities about wanting to boost the quality of life than in any particular plan to alter development patterns.

There's little in the way of meaty talk about these issues this time around, either. Is any candidate seriously discussing how to incentivize developers to focus on building walkable communities or whether it makes sense to revive rail travel in a country where gas prices are soaring and are likely to shoot up even more dramatically during the next president's term? There's a lot of talk in the punditry world about how the nation has finally gone green and accepted that we cannot continue to live as we have--there's lots of optimistic talk about readiness to sacrifice on behalf of the climate of the future. But if that's true, then where is the national political conversation about higher-density housing, about changing the structure of retail and residential development to favor pedestrians over cars, about how to push business toward investing in alternative energy technologies?

There is a nascent debate about a return to nuclear energy as a clean source of non-carbon-based energy, with Barack Obama saying that nuclear power is essential to creating a new menu of energy options, while John Edwards takes the safer Democratic position of absolute opposition to nuclear. Hillary Clinton, like President Bush, calls for a deep reduction in our dependence on foreign oil, and unlike Bush, she would tax oil companies to create a strategic energy fund, but Sen. Clinton is much more enthusiastic about ethanol than about nuclear, which she questions as costly, unsafe and marred by toxic waste issues.

On the Republican side, sprawl and development have made few appearances in campaign rhetoric. A few years ago, a bunch of the new generation of GOP governors got into the sprawl issue in a big way, sounding much like Al Gore in their proposals to promote growth in greater density around mass transit and in urban centers and suburban Edge Cities. New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman sought to raise gas taxes and then pushed through a bond issue to buy open spaces and protect them from development. Utah's Mike Leavitt, Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge and even Massachusetts's Mitt Romney talked a lot about the evils of sprawl. Romney said this: "Sprawl is the most important quality of life issue facing Massachusetts." (Boston Globe, 10/12/2002) As a presidential candidate, however, Romney--who at times seems to be a wholly different person from the character who played a Massachusetts governor--appears to have lost interest in the topic.

Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani seem to be blank slates on questions of sprawl and development. Giuliani's talk on energy policy, which like those of most candidates has little to say about sprawl, focuses on expansion of nuclear power plants and hybrid cars, but makes no mention of development patterns or transportation policy and its impact on shaping growth.

Similarly, John McCain appears to have given these issues little consideration. Back in 1999, McCain, during his last presidential effort in New Hampshire, was actually asked about sprawl by a voter at a meeting or Realtors. As a National Review piece back then made clear, the exchange did not go well:

One of the Realtors asks McCain what should be done about suburban sprawl in New Hampshire. "If I had any advice for you," he says, "I would say probably you might want to get together with the legislature and with some of the environmental community and others and try to sit down and start planning out some of these things so you can anticipate . . . So I would try to get out ahead of it." A puzzled woman asks, "But how?" McCain takes another stab at it, but is just as fuzzy.

What would you want the candidates to be saying about growth, development and sprawl?

(And what else should they be talking about in the few remaining weeks before our Pretend Primary here on the big blog--be sure to come on back on Dec. 13 for the vote that will assuredly rock the nation.)

By Marc Fisher |  November 15, 2007; 6:20 AM ET
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Excuse me the govt needs to stay out of my life. And govt Fed, state or local should never set any policies, laws or regs which hinder my ability to live anywhere I choose that I can afford be it a condo in Ballston across the street from a job or a 20 acre farm which would be a 90 minute commute. Not the govt's job. And something the govt is not good at doing. If I make bad or stupid decision about where to live it is my fault. I dont need a nanny or overeducated govt lawyer telling me where I can live. I don't care about the carbon foot print I leave and dont give a rat's a*s about global warming since if everyone right now drove Priuses instead of their current vehicles in the US it would have zero effect on global warming. And screw future generations they wont care about me and I dont care about them. Now I need to get in my Hummer H1 turbo Gale Banks diesel powered 1000hp 10mpg and contribute to global warming. No that isnt nuclear winter but the clouds of thick black diesel smoke I spew when i hit the loud pedal. And I feed my sheep a special diet so they fart more and contribute to global warming ie grass organic!

Posted by: Anonymous | November 15, 2007 8:32 AM

sprawl, growth, commutes - are these issues to me? yes. Is this what I want those running for election focusing on. Not really. I am having trouble paying my bills, because of increased energy costs, increased food costs, higher credit rates, higher taxes (in fact, just about everything I pay for today is steadily growing more expensive). I see the dollar steadily losing value. I see the president trying to get another huge chunk of change for his war. I see a small group of people steadily becoming more and more wealthy while the vast majority of americans fall farther and farther behind. That's what I want these candidates to focus on, and that's what I want them, and congress to deal with.

Posted by: jj | November 15, 2007 8:35 AM

I suppose commenter #1 builds and maintains his own roads.

Some people . . .

Posted by: Mike Licht | November 15, 2007 9:01 AM

More socialist rhetoric from Karl Marx, er I mean Marc Fisher.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 15, 2007 9:14 AM

Mr Licht,

I have a H1 Hummer w/ a 1000hp I dont need roads. And my tax dollars should be going for roads not public transit. Screw Metro rail and Metro bus. Traffic gets too backed up and I just drive right over your Prius. Again not the govt's job to set policy to force people to live where they want them to. Have no desire to live a 500 or even a 1000sq ft condo in Ballston w/ neighbors all around me. Prefer my 20 acres and the howling coyotes to a bunch of overeducated MBAs and techies. I like my geothermal heated and cooled home w/ solar water heating and electricity. But its my choice not birkenstock wearing socialists like Marc.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 15, 2007 9:28 AM

The "smart growth" movement is a bunch of nonsense and will make the problem worse.

People who want to live in a 3500sqft house are not going to buy a condo next to a metro station.

Mass transit needs much improvement - the biggest problem is inadequate capacity to support current commuters and a lack of parking at almost every metro station - people want to take mass transit - but politicians and urban planners make it hard - rather then easy.

Changing zoning restrictions to allow building thousands of new condos in NoVa will only add traffic to our roads.

Posted by: growth | November 15, 2007 10:27 AM

I can't really tell if the commentary from the unsigned poster is real or a clever satire of the type of American the world loves to hate.
The sprawl issue is very real and our overreliance on the auto should be addressed at a national level. Certainly local jurisdictions need to determine their own solutions but the build and pave and drive and consume model is not sustainable.
Of course the irony is that the people who think they are escaping the urban rat-race for their twenty acres and coyotes soon find that some enterprising developer has plans to erect the next Ballston in their backyard.
There goes the coyotes!

Posted by: Pope Urban X | November 15, 2007 11:55 AM

I think we need less gov't...

If you build a 5,000 sq. foot house (built by illegal immigrants) in a Phoenix suburb and keep the A/C on full blast and consume 100+ gallons of water its up to the private sector to make that unaffordable not the gov't.

If we charged this owner for what it costs to build the streets, schools, highways to the job in the city, water pipes, electrical lines and actual cost of energy they would re-think their move. Instead the gov't pays it all and we all flip the bill for these idiots.

Not to mention the mortgage they couldnt afford from the bank that doesn't give a crap, which is now cripling our economy so the gov't again is deciding to bail them out, while the ex CEO runs off to Bermuda to spend the $180 million he collected in his offshore bank account.

Sprawl will continue as long as the gov't continues to subsidize it with our taxes. So I agree with the first poster...keep gov't out of it and let the burbs fail.

Posted by: Southeasterner | November 15, 2007 1:51 PM

The Government appears so inept with its paralyzing bureaucracy, posturing politicians and out-and-out corruption that it's easy to dismiss any solution that involves government intervention.
However, the notion that the "market" will provide the answer through its invisible hand is not only naive but pernicious.
The wisdom of the market always favors short term gain at the expense of long term consequences.
An unfettered market will certainly lead to sprawl and environmental degredation but also threatens economic instability and social dysfunction.
There are creative ways for government to use market forces to create beneficial outcomes but to think that the "private sector" left to its own devices, has either the will or the ability to do anything but amass more money into fewer hands is simply delusional.

Posted by: X Urban Pope | November 15, 2007 4:22 PM

Hummer Guy is either a badly-failed humorist or a potential off-road trespasser. If the latter, too bad. Civilians can't buy bullet-proof Hummers, and we shoot trespassers in these here parts.

Posted by: Mike Licht | November 16, 2007 10:16 AM

Generally, this is a state and local issue that the feds should just provide some assistance with -- such as tax incentives. However, DC is a dysfunctional metroplex straddled across two states and a federal jurisdiction. Since the feds are responsible for its central city, I would like to see a presidential candidate pledge to make the DC area a model in regional planning and land-use administration, taking control from the states for these functions and giving them to a regional government consisting of DC, NoVa, Montgomery, Prince George's, Prince William, Loudoun, Charles and Stafford.

That way we would get "smart growth" where it makes sense (inner suburbs and central city infill) and not where it doesn't (exurban counties, which should remain low-density.) We would also get a transportation network and land-use patterns that functioned efficiently.

Posted by: Not Bill Howell | November 17, 2007 12:41 AM

-More Metro/light rail, improved bus system
-Gasoline charged without subisdy
-Developers should be paying the real cost of exurban development
-credits for energy efficiency/LEED certification
-Transportation planning which favors pedestrians, bicycles and other non-auto forms of movement, especially inside the Beltway

Posted by: DCer | November 18, 2007 8:02 AM

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