Smart growth ‘pioneer' Glendening touts transit

Says problems require better land use, transportation

Friday, April 15, 2011

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Former Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening, center, talks to Sherman Williams of Waldorf, left, and Samantha Zanelotti of La Plata at Thursday's Charles County Green Symposium at the La Plata campus of the College of Southern Maryland.

Steep rises in gas prices are inevitable, so development patterns must shift to allow people to live and work without relying on cars, former governor Parris N. Glendening said at the Charles County Green Symposium, where he was the keynote speaker.

The Wall Street Journal has predicted prices of $9 or $10 per gallon by 2020, said Glendening, a champion of denser "smart growth" development patterns, and "it is a fact it is going to be $7 a gallon. I say this very firmly." He spoke Thursday at the La Plata campus of the College of Southern Maryland.

At those prices under the current system of sprawl development, employees will not be able to afford to get to work; or will not be able to afford other forms of consumption, hurting the retail economy; or will demand pay raises, setting off inflation, Glendening said.

Part of the solution is the development of planned urban centers, large or small, that decrease the need to travel and accommodate the growing number of single-person or childless households, he said.

While housing costs alone are lower in outlying areas like Southern Maryland, savings can vanish when the cost of commuting is included. The rising cost of transportation already is driving higher foreclosure rates in bedroom communities like Charles County because "families either cannot afford to live in these remote locations anymore or they cannot find willing buyers" when they need to sell, he said.

People also have to adjust their idea of what defines good growth management. Some people "hate sprawl and hate density and they're fighting against both of them. When you think about it for a moment, that's not going to work," Glendening said. As it is, governments have done a "horrible job with density in American cities, with high-rises surrounded by empty open space, which feels unsafe and unwelcoming," he added, showing a diagram of a development in Detroit featuring widely spaced skyscrapers with nothing between them.

Ecologically sound development doesn't have to be more expensive than other construction, and may take place for purely economic reasons, he said. When he visited Beijing, Glendening said, air pollution was so dense that he didn't realize there was a mountain outside of his hotel window until it rained. But when he asked the businessmen who had invited him if pollution concerns were driving their interest in high-speed trains, they said no: "We're doing this because we have to get our workers to work."

Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) embraced Glendening's vision.

"He's the pioneer when it comes to smart growth," Robinson said.

Development in Charles County already has followed the old pattern of widely spaced subdivisions and town centers, and while this cannot be reversed a focus on mass transit will make it easier for residents to get to work as gas prices rise, he said.

"I don't think we can undo it, but I think the down economy has helped us. We hit a brick wall, and it's an opportunity to take a deep breath and figure out how to go forward from here and focus on fixing what's broken," Robinson said.

Unlike some others, Robinson is a pessimist about bringing a Metro or light rail link to Charles County, saying it will take too long. He prefers to focus on running commuter trains along existing freight train tracks.

Commissioners' President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) also considers transit the key to the county's future prosperity, but said the county isn't getting the attention it needs from the state to build the necessary infrastructure, if only a dedicated commuter bus lane to get people around quickly on commuter arteries.

"Everybody talks about funding, and we're not a priority in the state," Kelly said. "It's very, very discouraging. We are so well-positioned and critical to our growing in the right, proper, correct and sustainable way is the transit component."