County News

Growing counties need more transportation investment

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(Note: This is the first in stallment of a two-part series that looks at how population growth, commuting and employment patterns have reshaped the need for spending on transporta tion in the nation's counties, and how these most significant players in the intergovernmental system are meeting the challenge.)

Maui County, Hawaii, whose population has grown from 70,000 to more than 155,000 since 1970, faces challenges similar to other counties across America. Providing well-maintained roads and bridges with enough capacity to keep up with traffic and affordable transit are two of the county's highest priorities. Where is Most Growth Taking Place?

Since 1950, the share of U.S. population in central cities has de clined from 44 percent to 20 percent and the share of the suburbs has increased from 23 percent to more than 50 percent. For example, in the decade from 2000 to 2010:

While Washington, D.C. grew by 30,000, the suburbs surrounding it governed by counties in Virginia and Maryland grew by 740,000.

  • In the Los Angeles metropoli tan region, L.A. grew by 100,000, while the five counties surrounding it grew by 1.5 million.
  • In the Miami, Fla. metropoli tan region, the city grew by 40,000, the three counties surrounding it grew by 570,000.

In fact, mid-sized counties like Maui, Hawaii, with populations between 50,000 and 250,000, are some of the fastest growing in the country. Good examples of this are Kendall County, Ill., popula tion 104,800, which has grown 92 percent since 2000, and Forsyth County, Ga., population 174,500, which has grown 77 percent. Kitsap County, Wash., just west of Seattle, in which I served as a county com missioner, has seen its population more than double from 101,000 in 1970 to 254,000 today.

"The Burbs are Back"

According to urban analyst Joel Kotkin in Forbes Magazine, Septem ber 2013, "People are not moving back to the city, but further out In the last decade in the 51 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, inner cores within two miles of downtown gained some 206,000 people, while locations 20 miles out gained over 8.5 million. During the last decade, suburbs and exurbs accounted for four-fifths of all household growth."

Interestingly, this pattern is supported by a personal preference survey done in 2009 by the Pew Research Center. According to Pew, the current pattern shows 31 percent of Americans living in cities, 26 percent in suburbs, 26 percent in small towns, and 16 percent in rural areas. Its survey shows their "ideal preference" to be 23 percent city, 25 percent suburb, 30 percent small town, and 21 percent rural. People are voting with their feet.

Where are Most New Jobs Being Created?

As most new housing, commer cial development and office space is being built in county suburbs, commuting patterns are changing as well. The dominant commuting flow of the 20th century was from suburb to downtown. According to Commuting in America III, by Alan Pisarski, the commuting flow of the 21st century is different. The percentage of commuters from suburbs to central cities has dropped from 20 percent to 19 percent, and the percentage of those living in and commuting to jobs in the central cities has dropped from 28 percent to 26 percent.

Meanwhile the percentage of workers in the suburbs commuting to jobs in the suburbs has increased from 44 percent to 46 percent, and the percentage of workers in central cities commuting to the suburbs increased from 8 percent to 9 per cent. What has really jumped is the percentage of workers living in one county while commuting to jobs in another county. Roughly half of all the workers added between 1990 and 2000 worked outside their county of residence. This seems to go beyond the suburbanization of jobs and the consequent domina tion of circumferential commuting.

How do Counties Fit into the Nation's Transportation Syste m?

Of the 4.1 million-mile U.S. road system, 45 percent of the road miles are owned by counties, 32 percent by cities and townships, 19 percent by states and 3 percent by the federal government. Counties own 228,000 bridges out of the national total of nearly 600,000.

For other transportation modes, counties are involved in the funding and ownership of nearly one-third of airports and around 30 percent of transit systems.

In the end, counties invest more than $106 billion each year in public works and infrastructure. Nation ally, in 2010 of the $204 billion being spent on roads by all levels of government, local governments invested $57 billion.

Fiscal Crisis 2008 2012

When the economic collapse hit the nation in 2008, the bot tom dropped out from the tax base of counties, cities and states alike. Instead of investing in the new transportation capacity for highways and transit that their communities needed, many were forced to cancel new construction, cut spending on road repair and reduce transit service. Now that recovery is on the way, counties all over the country are looking for ways to restore transportation investment to the levels needed.

Counties are Where the Need for Transportation Capacity is the Greatest

Since 1980, the population of the U.S. has grown by 90 million, the number of vehicles on the road has increased by 93 million, and traffic has doubled. As I described earlier, because so much of this growth has taken place in areas for which counties are primarily responsible, they face the greatest challenge. They need to find the resources to maintain their roads, bridges and transit systems in good condition. They also need to add the new capacity needed. The good news is that many counties are actually finding ways to fund what is needed.

Where do most people live in the U.S.?
  • Of the 10 local governments serving the largest populations, eight are counties and two are cities.
  • Of the 48 with populations of 1 million and above, 39 are counties and nine are cities.
  • Of the 328 with populations of 250,000 and above, 253 are counties and 75 are citi es.

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