Obvious Does Not Mean Correct

11 May

For those that do not follow urban planning issues regularly, locally in Buffalo or nationally, note that this graphic has been making the rounds:

Image courtesy joeplanner.blogspot.com

Chuck Banas, on his blog Joe the Planner, used the map in a piece he wrote on sprawl. It was picked up by Urbanphile and the generally well-respected Aaron Renn, urban policy commentator, and then later viralized to sites such as this. The national pro-urban/anti-sprawl advocates did not develop a sudden keen interest in Buffalo and our individual issues. Rather, in a classic example of shopping for facts to reinforce an already set opinion, the combination of Buffalo’s growing urban footprint and stagnated population numbers provided another stark (and seemingly newly discovered) example to use to support their agenda.

The headlines of the later pieces make two claims: 1) sprawl causes government deficits, and 2) you are stupid to believe otherwise. I find this to generally be a theme in anti-sprawl advocacy – the evils of this scourge are so self-evident that they don’t require explanation or defense. Are you an idiot? Don’t you get it? Sprawl is bad. See – it makes us broke (and causes obesity, and all other manner of societal ills of the day).

Note how blissfully free of facts or figures each piece is (to be fair, Mr. Banas provides more stats than the rest combined – more on his figures in a moment). In fact, only the much-reported census numbers get any real mention by Urbanphile or Streetsblog. One is then left to intuitively assume that an urban area three times larger is three times as expensive, and that this expensive infrastructure is causing bankruptcies.

Allow me to now intrude some of those facts and figures into an otherwise pristine echo-chamber. For Buffalo, or the Erie/Niagara County metro-region, to be used as an example of sprawl + population loss = bankruptcy, one would think we should actually be bankrupt. But of course we aren’t, and after parental supervision control boards were set up for the City of Buffalo and Erie County, we have been running surpluses. Municipalities that are going bankrupt have been in the South and West, that experienced both sprawl and population growth.

Likewise, if excess infrastructure was causing municipal financial pressure, one would think that spending on such would be a significant portion of the budget. That too, is wrong. Erie County has a total budget of $1.14 Billion. The Highway Department’s budget is $20 Million, or 2% of the total, of which the county pays $12.8 Million. The Highway Department’s budget could double, and pick up the federal matching share, and we’d still have surplus money from this year left over.

Of course, the cost of sprawl is more than the county’s highway budget. There are town highway budgets, sewer districts, longer garbage collection routes, longer commutes for workers, redundant school districts and a host of other costs. Let’s look at a few of these one by one, starting with the sprawliest spots. The cost for Erie County to provide sewer services to exurban areas, the fringe of new subdivisions, is $45 Million. The Town of Clarence spends $4.6 Million on their highway budget, and another $4.3 Million on water and sewer. Amherst spends even more – $40 Million combined on highways and infrastructure. Grand Island drops $2.8 Million on roads, and with its own water district and lots of sewer pipes, another $10 Million on total infrastructure. Real money, certainly, but small as a percentage of total government expenditures or compared to budget surpluses. Older towns and cities (Buffalo, Lackawanna, Cheektowaga, Tonawanda, Kenmore – the yellow spaces on the map) have costs too, of course, as infrastructure ages, but these would not be sprawl costs.

Which gets to the root of the problem. Teasing out how much of each budget is sprawl induced, and how much would exist anyway, is challenging. Transit Road would exist, sprawl or not, but would require less regular investment. Unfortunately, Clarence’s town budget in 1950 is not readily available. Even if it were, however, it would be overly simplistic to attribute every change in the budget purely to sprawl – the cost of materials, maintenance standards and practices, salaries and benefits matter at least as much as total mileage of roads maintained. 

Determining the cost of sprawl in school district budgets is also difficult. The school district in our region with the largest student population, Buffalo, also spends significantly more than most, $22,000 per pupil at last reckoning. Amherst spends $15K and Lancaster $14K. Would the total cost of teaching every pupil in Erie County go down if everyone lived within the 1950 boundary line? How can you be sure when some school districts, less dense but with the same geographic size as Buffalo (or larger), are spending less per pupil? Perhaps geography isn’t the main cost driver. But more on this in a moment.

Reflecting on these numbers, it appears the anti-sprawl advocates are subconsciously making an argument that duplicated and redundant services are prohibitively expensive, not necessarily expanded ones. Mr. Banas seems to understand this, as he spends considerable time in his column discussing the duplication issue, and advocating for a regional government. Here I find common cause with him, though I find it interesting that his commenters do not, and even Mr. Renn wades in to note that the regionalism solution is tangential and superfluous to the real issue at hand: sprawl. Note again the self-licking ice cream cone.

We still haven’t considered the cost to the citizen, in commute time and fuel, to live in a sprawltastic suburb. If everyone lived in a denser area, workers would theoretically have more time to be productive and extra disposable income to spend on curbside coffee houses, money formerly spent on gasoline. But here too the reality of Buffalo, our specific situation, intrudes. In a comparable orgy of statistics, Mr. Banas spends a bit of time noting driving patterns, and factors in that WNYers drive 53% more now than we did in 1980. This sounds bad, except he also notes the average American now drives 151% more. Combine that with Buffalo’s famously nation-leading low commute time, and it would seem this portion of sprawl’s ills does not unduly affect us.

Back to the original proposition: we’re broke (but we’re not – see above) and sprawl is the thing that did it. To be fair, while Erie County’s, the City of Buffalo’s, and most school district’s finances are in fine shape now, all warn of trouble on the horizon. So while the sprawl-related financial strains are a mixed bag at best, it is worth asking where the real problem is. What will make our community broke? A fair place to start is Erie County’s largest budget line: Medicaid.

New York’s Medicaid mandate is the largest in the country and costs double the national average, equal to the combined programs of California and Texas. Medicaid costs the average New York family of four $5000 a year. Compare that to the $64 a year in gasoline an idling Buffalo commuter wastes in sprawl-induced traffic under the tyranny of $4/gallon gas. Closer to home, Erie County has a Department of Social Services budget of $577 Million (the lion’s share of which is Medicaid), about half the $1.14 Billion total and far more than the sum of the infrastructure budgets of the county and assembled towns. $577 Million is more than the combined 2009 profit of all 18 public traded companies based in WNY – National Fuel, Greatbatch, First Niagara, M&T, Columbus-McKinnon, Moog, CTG, Gibraltar, Sovran, Financial Institutions, Astronics, Graham, Cleveland BioLabs, Mod-Pac, Evans Bank, Rand, Taylor and E&E. $577 Million is 1.3% of our region’s total GDP of $43 Billion. Buffalo is ranked 48th in population nationally but 55th in GDP. We punch below our weight, not surprisingly, as a third of the City of Buffalo lives below the poverty line. Providing services to the poor who cannot afford it costs money – $577 Million currently, and many advocate for more. In other words, its not the sprawl that’s going to make us broke, its our generalized poverty and neediness.

There are two sides to this social services coin. Providing healthcare and housing to the impoverished and elderly is a major industry in Buffalo – our largest employers are healthcare conglomerates who provide new hearts and knees to those that can pay, and emergency medical services and the bare minimum to those who can’t. Federal Medicare payments are a major influx of cash to our region, and we’re building new facilities at the Medical Campus and ECMC to grow the already profitable portions of the business. Likewise, nursing homes are going up far faster than downtown lofts, as our region gets greyer. And it is no coincidence that some of our most successful grassroots non-profits and social justice advocates ultimately get their funding from federal HUD block grants targeting home refurbishment. 

On the other hand, the cost to healthcare providers of caring for those on Medicaid does not match the reimbursement rate, and clinics and nursing homes are closing. Smart, able, young talent is doing great work on the West Side to improve the lives of our neediest . . . and thus they are not entrepreneurs starting innovative companies, making money and reinvesting capital in the region. Buffalo’s big business is caring for the elderly, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, and curing the cancers of an industrial legacy. No one gets rich doing that work, and that’s why we’re broke.

13 Responses to “Obvious Does Not Mean Correct”

  1. Mark May 11, 2011 at 11:07 am #

    Perfectly stated concluding paragraph.

    In general, there is value in subsidizing an infrastructure that people want. The region owed it to itself to invest in suburban development after WWII in order to stay nationally competitive because in all honesty, that’s just the way things were being done. No one should pretend that Buffalo was in a position to take a defiant stand against sprawl, implement an urban growth boundary and then turn into Portland part deux because the majority of Buffalonians would be horrified at the thought of a UGB and that mindset has not really budged.

    On the other side of the coin, that is no longer the way things are being done. Rust Belt cities were still important enough to be quickly responsive to emerging development trends in the 40’s and 50’s but most are now crippled by low expectations, an insulated majority, and more importantly, insulated politicians that do not understand the emerging demands of my generation when it comes to what we expect out of our ideal neighborhoods and workplaces. Sadly, Citi and Geico don’t want “top” talent to come to their Amherst campuses, they want “talented, but willing to take shitty pay because they want to stay in Buffalo” workers. If they wanted “top” talent they would have sexy downtown buildings in a sexy city. First Niagara moved its HQ’s in a sexy building in an emerging urban area and that’s not a coincidence-they’re not using it for just back office or call centers-its for all the employees that “matter” so rural Lockport is no longer an option. I’m not sure how much longer M&T can keep its HQ’s in Buffalo because the more it grows, it has to attain more prestigious talent. You can’t just rely on just re-pats and lifers for a top 20 bank.

    So now you are seeing this weird reversal of what planners envisioned in the 50’s and 60’s where you’re based in the suburbs but work downtown. Now almost all my Buffalo-based friends in their early to mid 20’s live on the West Side or Downtown and commute to Amherst or Tonawanda.

  2. Chris Smith May 11, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    Good comment, Mark.  M&T has slowly been moving infrastructure and operations to Baltimore for several years now.  The bank has made significant investments lately in the. booming Mid-Atlantc area and the writing is on the wall.  Positioning Buffalo as a stateside Bangalore as the BNE/BNP have done is not doing much to attract investment or create a class of entrepreneurs.  HSBC will soon vacate Buffalo and M&T will not be far behind them.

  3. STEEL May 11, 2011 at 4:13 pm #

    I am not sure how you take the roads and other infrastructure costs in Buffalo and inner ring burbs out of your calculation. How is it not a sprawl cost to have a city with half its high population paying for the same amount of infrastructure with a drastically reduced tax base. It amazes me how sprawl advocates can claim that you can add 2 to 3 times the infrastructure fro the same number of people and somehow it is free. Free means some of it you stop paying for and it degrades.

  4. Brian Castner May 11, 2011 at 4:40 pm #

    Thanks, STEEL, for providing a logic and fact free response, and proving my paragraph #3. To your points: I remove Buffalo and inner ring suburbs from my sprawl calculation because they aren’t sprawl. They are the pre-1950 city. Now, as you reference, that may also be too simplistic, as one would have to assume Lackawanna’s highway budget would have to go up if more people moved in and caused wear and tear on the roads. But when calculating (or more properly, showing the difficulty of calculating) the sprawl cost to the government, I did leave that out. I don’t think you can have it both ways – count Buffalo’s highway budget as sprawl because its empty and Clarence’s budget because its full. Please provide how you’d like to calculate sprawl infrastructure cost per person instead.

    Secondly, I don’t know who these sprawl advocates are you are talking about, but I certainly never said sprawl was free. In fact, I referenced actual numbers over and over again for how much it costs. My claim is that it is not bankrupting us, for the reasons I cited.

  5. STEEL May 11, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

    Sprawl is not the only reason we in fiscal straits but it is a significant cost in our system. To say that Buffalo is not part of the sprawl equation is sill. I own a house with my wife and kids and then decide to buy another house I now have 2 houses to pay for for the cost of one. Now in the true Buffalo way of doing things the kids go off to college and the wife and I decide to buy a third house. Now we are paying for the kids dorms and three houses, Needless to say we have to put off the new roof and paint job for the first house – too bad because it is not looking too good these days.

    To say that local government is not broke is to believe that NYS is going to be printing Money soon. Because in reality the towns don’t really pay for their roads. Higher up governments do. Could Cheektowaga really afford to pay to rebuilt the Thruway that passes through its land? I don’t think so. After all the County surplus is due to Federal stimulus money that the Feds printed. How Ironic that the right wing County Executive gets to claim a surplus on the Back of Mr. Obama.

    I am not an expert on the numbers and don’t claim to be. Sprawl is a heavy cost especially in a shrinking metro filled with poor people. Look around at the empty buildings and rusting bridges. How far out can Metro Buffalo sprawl without adding any wealth. The current plan is insane and absurd.

    • Alan Bedenko May 11, 2011 at 5:45 pm #


  6. Brian Castner May 11, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    To use your analogy but keep the percentages in perspective, it would be more fair to ask if I can afford to go to the movies three times a month, not own three houses. And so far, the answer is yes.

  7. Eisenbart May 11, 2011 at 9:53 pm #

    With out state and federal aid would the Buffalo metro be able to afford it’s infrastructure?

    You can break it down by municipality and break it down by each service provided and break it down even further to what that municipality paid versus what the feds paid (we talk like federal money comes out of thin air around here) and say “hey what a small percentage” then go on to say that percentage is small because medicaid inflates the budget by dwarfing everything else. Well it all adds up and the cost to maintain it all will go up as well as it gets older right?

  8. Mr. Mackey May 11, 2011 at 10:25 pm #

    Sprawls Are Bad, M’Kay..?

  9. Brian Castner May 12, 2011 at 9:23 am #

    @ Eisenbart – I think breaking down the numbers is important because it puts facts behind feelings. Its easy to feel the sads about sprawl, but shouldn’t policy be based on more? To your first question, I don’t know if Buffalo, or any municipality, could afford to do all their own maintenance. They probably could if they got the federal gas tax meant to pay for such work. Whether we can afford it collectively? The last 5 year highway bill (from 2005) was $300 Billion, or $60 Billion a year. $60 Billion of a $2.1 Trillion budget. I think we can afford that too – once again, I’d look to Medicare, SS and the defense budget as to why we are going broke federally.

    Once you introduce numbers, suddenly sprawl looks like the earmark debate – it makes everyone feel bad, but McCain’s quest was ultimately about a tiny problem.

  10. Christopher Smith May 12, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    “To say that Buffalo is not part of the sprawl equation is sill. I own a house with my wife and kids and then decide to buy another house I now have 2 houses to pay for for the cost of one. Now in the true Buffalo way of doing things the kids go off to college and the wife and I decide to buy a third house. Now we are paying for the kids dorms and three houses, Needless to say we have to put off the new roof and paint job for the first house – too bad because it is not looking too good these days”

    I have no idea what it was that Dave was trying to communicate here, but I just felt it important to tell him that it made absolutely no sense and we’re all dumber for having read it.

  11. lefty May 12, 2011 at 11:47 am #

    The whole “Buffalo was killed by sprawl” argument is for idiots.  At least if that is your main argument as to why Buffalo is the way it is.
    Here are some facts.
    Buffalo is still one of the more densely populated cities in the US.  Just going off 2000 data, Buffalo had a density of 6,470.6 per sq mi.  Even with the loss of population in the last 10 years, that is still more dense than places like Las Vegas, San Diego, Denver, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Raleigh, Phoenix and Portland.
    Considering that hardly anyone lives on the East Side or Downtown, large sections of the city are VERY HEALTHY in terms of density.  Sure the commercial corridors are not lined with bike racks, hipster hang outs and spot coffee locations…but there is more than enough people living in the COB for it to make a come back!
    The problem with simile charts and simple math is they are for simple thinkers.  Simply comparing Buffalo to other cities, without considering land mass and more importantly population density, is comparing apples to oranges.
    The COB is only 40.6 sq mi.  Which is rather small.  IF the COB were to have annexed all of the first ring burbs, the size of the city would be under 175 sq mi. and the population would be just under 700,000 residents STRONG!.  A COB population of 700K residents would place the “COB” in the top 25 in terms of population.
    However, If the COB included all of the 1st ring burbs…people like Steel would not have an argument or fun charts to use instead of thinking the issue through.  
    I simply do not see how building and maintaining ~7miles of road like Main from the Inner Harbor to Bailey is good but taking that same road ~6miles more to Transit is bad.  If the first ring was included in the COB, that would be just the NE section of the city and people would not say shit.  
    All this boils down to is people in the COB looking for excuses as to why things have gone bad for the last 50 years where blame can be places on another group of people.  

  12. homebrewer May 15, 2011 at 11:39 am #

    Mark wrote: “Sadly, Citi and Geico don’t want “top” talent to come to their Amherst campuses, they want “talented, but willing to take shitty pay because they want to stay in Buffalo” workers. If they wanted “top” talent they would have sexy downtown buildings in a sexy city.”

    This is not true. Geico, for example, has set up shop in Amherst because the suburban office park suits its business model and has little to do with attracting top talent. This is true in other metros sexy and otherwise. NYC is as sexy as it gets yet their Downstate claims center is in humdrum Woodbury.

    Even in “sexy” metros with sexier downtown high-rises, the vast majority of class A space is in Crosspointe style office parks.

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