Weekly Briefing

“Planning” is Not a Dirty Word

Transportation Forum, Poll and Election Results Highlight Need for Thoughtful Approaches to Growth

By Rob Schofield

Quick Take:

  • Those who favor more and better planning of North Carolina’s transportation and infrastructure needs received a boost last week.
  • New poll and election results and a well-attended transportation policy forum combined to lend new momentum to their cause.
  • Now that they have the momentum, it’s essential that planning supporters make the most of their opportunity.       

There were at least three encouraging developments last week surrounding an issue of enormous importance to the future of North Carolina: the state’s explosive population growth. On Monday night, voters throughout the state responded to an N.C. Policy Watch Carolina Issues Poll by making plain their desire for balanced, intentional, and planned solutions to the state’s transportation needs. The next day, primary election voters in the state capital region sent a similar and forceful message to local elected officials. Finally, on Wednesday, more than 110 people attended a forum in Raleigh to hear four of the state’s most important officials and advocates address the state’s transportation policy future. Once again, the need for thoughtful, planned solutions to the state’s transportation infrastructure needs quickly emerged as the unifying message.

It should not be surprising that so many North Carolinians would be starting to focus on the issue of growth. What was for so many decades a steady stream of newcomers has started to resemble a torrent. According to the Census Bureau, North Carolina was home to 8.7 million people in 2005 – up 650,000 in just five years. By the year 2030, the Bureau projects a state population of more than 12.2 million. If these projections are accurate, North Carolina will be the seventh largest state in the union – close on the heels of Illinois and Pennsylvania, with nearly two-thirds the population of New York state.   

The effects of this explosive growth are there for all to see – especially in the largest metropolitan areas in the Piedmont, but also in areas along the coast and in parts of the mountains as well: rapidly expanding sprawl, new demands on air and water resources, increased traffic congestion and a rapid decline in farm and forestland. In short, North Carolina is quickly becoming a place that is more crowded, more fragile, less healthy and less sustainable.

The Poll Results

The results of last week’s poll make clear that North Carolina voters appreciate the circumstances that the state confronts. When asked the best way for North Carolina metropolitan areas to avoid the sprawl of places like Atlanta, nearly seven in ten voters (69%) expressed a preference for a plan that includes a combination of roads, buses and light rail. Less than one in five people (19%) thought roads alone are the answer.

In a similar vein, 68% of poll respondents favored the coordination of new housing and commercial developments with transportation routes. Only 24% were for leaving the matter to the free market. On the question of whether North Carolina should emphasize repair and renovation of existing roads and bridges or push ahead with new road construction, the numbers were quite stark. According to the poll, 81% of voters favored the “fix it first” approach. Only 12% want to emphasize building more roads where none exist.

The Election Results

The poll numbers on planning in transportation were mirrored in many of last Tuesday’s primary election results – particularly in the state capital region. In the cities of Raleigh and Cary (two of the state’s largest and fastest growing cities), pro-planning City Council and mayoral candidates swept into office and/or extended their influence. Raleigh News & Observer editor and columnist Steve Ford put it best when he described the election results this way:

“If anybody expects the new crop of elected leaders to close off the growth spigot and leave Wake County’s two cities in a state of suspended animation, guess again. It can’t, won’t, shouldn’t happen.

But it’s fair to look to our city halls for some clearer perspective on the costs and consequences of the growth that is changing this region into a metropolis — and then to do a better job of managing it. People don’t want to sacrifice their quality of life so the developers, so desperate for influence, can stay fat and happy. At least, not most of the people who just voted.”

The Forum

Last Wednesday’s “Crucial Conversation” luncheon (“Where Do We Go from Here? The Future of North Carolina’s Transportation System”), featured four of the state’s most important voices on transportation policy. Again, the message came through loud and clear: “Growth, economic development and transportation improvements, yes; unfettered sprawl and indiscriminate road building, no.”

Dan Gerlach, Senior Policy Advisor to Governor Easley, signaled the tenor of the discussion when he began his comments by dismissing the much ballyhooed $65 billion figure used by some in the road building community to describe the supposed size of North Carolina’s funding gap for highway construction. Gerlach (and state Board of Transportation member, Nina Szlosberg) made clear that this number amounts to nothing more than the “wish list” of a narrow group that has little to do with the state’s real transportation needs. Gerlach also announced that Easley and legislative leaders would soon appoint and empower a special study group that would be charged with making sense of where the state really stands and how it might best chart a course for the coming decades.

The pro-planning approach was also endorsed by Szlosberg (who touted the Charlotte area’s new light rail system and the development that has sprung up around new rail stops), Southern Environmental Law Center attorney, David Farren (who detailed some of the recent progress in reining in unfettered development in Georgia and South Carolina), and Beau Mills a spokesperson for a local governments (who, while calling for urgent attention to the state’s transportation needs, echoed the other speakers on the importance of a balanced “multi-modal” approach that mixes mass transit, planning and upgrades of current infrastructure with new road construction).   

Saying “Yes” to Planning, but Not “No” to Growth  

Despite the new momentum, planning advocates face some difficult political challenges in the weeks and month ahead. Developers and market fundamentalists continue to loudly and aggressively portray supporters as naïve “tree huggers” who would condemn North Carolina to a dark and stagnant economic future. Ed Williams of the Charlotte Observer reminds us of the lengths to which some, well-funded, far right groups are prepared to go to torpedo mass transit.

Others have voiced skepticism that anything can really be done to manage or restrain growth. Yesterday, veteran Raleigh political columnist Rob Christensen authored a column in which he more or less dismissed those who would manage growth as just the latest in a long line of new North Carolinians who want growth to stop now that they are here.

But, of course, neither aspersion is accurate. The vast majority of those concerned about North Carolina’s exploding population and human footprint understand that more growth is inevitable and potentially good. These people welcome economic growth and increased prosperity. What they want, of course, is for growth and prosperity to be sustainable and broadly distributed. The mere fact a person came to North Carolina when growth was unplanned and unrestricted doesn’t mean that he or she is disqualified from arguing for better and fairer policies now.    

Going Forward

History is replete with the story of cities and states that have enjoyed explosive growth and prosperity only to see it evaporate as the resources that made the place desirable and prosperous in the first place were exhausted. Such vicious cycles seem even more plausible and predictable in today’s world of rapid economic and environmental change. That a sizable majority of the population wants their elected government officials to think about such a possibility and to take proactive steps to prevent it is anything but naïve or selfish and ought to be cause for great optimism. Let’s hope we make the most of it.      

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