The authors say that while the congestion studies suggest the solution is to build more highways, they wanted to look at the price of land-use patterns that force people to travel farther to get from home to work, shopping and other destinations.
So City Observatory, an online urban policy think tank, put together what it calls a “sprawl tax,” which includes transportation costs, plus the excess hours spent commuting. The first analysis estimates that commuters in the nation’s 50 largest metro areas pay a sprawl tax of more than $107 billion a year, nearly $1,400 for the average worker. That total rivals the $124 billion estimate for the cost of congestion – time and money lost stuck in traffic.
Atlanta ranks worst, and if you’ve ever driven there, you know why. Other usual suspects in suburban sprawl, including Houston and Phoenix, also have high costs.
The Sacramento area is the worst among California metros in the study and ranks 24th nationally, with a sprawl tax of $1.4 billion a year, nearly $1,500 for the average worker. Los Angeles is No. 33, while San Francisco comes in at No. 43.
Avoiding sprawl is one reason why planners are trying to steer the Sacramento region’s growth toward infill and away from far-flung suburban development. One huge urban project that is finally starting to get off the ground is the 244-acre railyard on the edge of downtown Sacramento, always described as one of the largest infill sites in the country. If fully developed, at the end of 20 years, it would include as many as 10,000 residential units, more than 5 million square feet of office and retail, as many as 23,000 jobs and as many as 21,000 residents.
Its boosters say creating a minicity where people live and work would reduce commutes dramatically, with one third of trips starting and ending within the railyard, or made by foot, bicycle or transit.
Planners also say long-range transportation plans need to be more about transit, not just more roads. On Tuesday, Sacramento County supervisors put on the November ballot a measure for a half-cent sales tax that would raise $3.6 billion over 30 years, with 70 percent going to road projects, 26 percent to transit, and the rest for senior and disabled transportation.
One way or another, we all pay the costs of sprawl.
By the numbers
Ranking, total annual “sprawl tax” per worker, and total for selected metro areas:
- 1. Atlanta, $3,291, $8.6 billion
- 3. Houston, $2,878, $8.8 billion
- 7. Phoenix, $2,317, $4.6 billion
- 24. Sacramento, $1,464, $1.4 billion
- 28. Riverside, $1,230, $2.15 billion
- 33. Los Angeles, $977, $6 billion
- 37. Portland, $871, $981 million
- 42. San Diego, $705, $1.1 billion
- 43. San Francisco, $442, $991 million
- 46. San Jose, $316, $302 million
Source: City Observatory