By Carol J. Bova
Jim Bacon’s post on November 12th, “Too Little Density, Too Much Road Surface,” concludes that if local zoning policies encouraged higher density population areas, there’d be fewer roads, resulting in lower road maintenance costs. This is urban-centered thinking that assumes only nearby residents use the roads and that none are privately maintained. The idea also overlooks the need to transport locally grown agricultural products, timber and seafood over rural roads to more densely occupied areas. But in addition, we need to examine the study that led to that conclusion.
The Smart Growth America and New Jersey Future road study of New Jersey cited in the Bacon post suggests great savings in road maintenance if there were a minimum of 10 people on each acre. At first glance, that doesn’t seem very dense, but population density is usually referred to in square miles. With 640 acres per square mile, we’re talking about 6,400 people, more than any locality in Virginia except Alexandria.
This must not have seemed extreme for a place like New Jersey, where a 2006 study noted every New Jersey “county in the state is classified by the Census Bureau as ‘metropolitan.’” (Robert E. Wood, Farmland Preservation and Agritourism in South Jersey: An Exploratory Study. ) The Census Bureau uses metropolitan to describe “a core urban area of 50,000 or more population … as well as any adjacent counties that have a high degree of social and economic integration (as measured by commuting to work) with the urban core.”
So how did Smart Growth America and New Jersey Future come up with their numbers? They used different approaches, but in both cases, added the population of a given area to its employment numbers. Smart Growth America eliminated protected land like state parks or wetlands, and computed the amount of road surface per person. New Jersey Future took the population plus employment number and divided by developed square miles to get activity density– after eliminating undeveloped land and excluding roads maintained by the state.
Even without the exclusions, Hudson County, N.J., has a population of 13,731 per square mile. No surprise that Hudson County has the highest activity density in the Smart Growth America report and the lowest per capita road maintenance cost. But per capita cost doesn’t tell the whole story. There is an underlying assumption the New Jersey road maintenance level is adequate. Not true.
Endnote 8 in the Smart Growth America report states that the Reason Foundation said, “…the State of New Jersey spent $42,317 per lane mile on maintenance in 2012.” But the Reason Foundation also said:
• New Jersey ranks 48th in the nation in highway performance and cost-effectiveness, down from 46th in 2009.
• New Jersey ranks 50th in maintenance disbursements per mile and 50th in capital bridge disbursements per mile.
Tripnet.org in ”New Jersey Transportation by the Numbers” said, “Driving on deficient roads costs New Jersey motorists a total of $11.8 billion annually in the form of additional vehicle operating costs, congestion-related delays and traffic crashes.”
How did lower density Virginia do in Reason Foundation’s 21st Annual Highway Report?
• Virginia ranks 25th in the nation in highway performance and cost-effectiveness, down from 15th in 2009.
• Virginia ranks 32nd in maintenance disbursements per mile and 1st in capital-bridge disbursements per mile.
Overall, Smart Growth America’s recommendation to increase density to reduce the number of roads is more likely to have led to higher road maintenance costs because of the increase in average daily trips over fewer road miles. If rural areas with low density had been somehow induced to consolidate into areas of 6,400 people per square mile, it would have required development of municipal water supply and sewage treatment instead of the existing rural wells and septic systems which can only be used in low density situations. Not only would a municipal water supply be costly, there’s a larger question of where the water would be taken from, especially in areas where aquifers are already overused.
If we want to reduce road maintenance costs in Virginia, let’s find a way to get the Virginia Department of Transportation to adhere to their own guidelines, use proper maintenance methods and start performing preventive maintenance to extend the life of our roadways.
Carol Bova is author of “Drowning a County,” a book documenting VDOT’s neglect of its roadside drainage ditches in Mathews County.There are currently no comments highlighted.