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Where is the coercion in land use?

by Emily Washington on July 27, 2012

in City Life, Regulation

On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal published an article about Denver’s light rail expansion plan. Two Cato analysts came down on different sides of the issue. Randall O’Toole, writing at Cato-at-Liberty, says that the expansion is a waste of money. He writes:

Under RTD’s latest “rethink,” transit will no longer take people from where they are to where they want to go. Instead, planners will try to coerce and entice people to live in places served by rail transit and go where those rail lines go.

The expansion comes with a steep $7.4 billion price tag, and O’Toole is likely correct that this is too much to spend; light rails across the country lose money, and the 122-mile above-ground expansion has experienced a cost overrun from $4.7 billion in 2004. The United States is notorious for unreasonably high transit construction costs compared to other countries. Additionally, the light rail is an airport connector, an often poor use of tax dollars, particularly when the airport is located far from downtown, as in Denver.

However, O’Toole’s judgment that the new plan amounts to coercion seems to be based not primarily on the light rail’s cost, but rather on zoning rules that will distinguish the new light rail stations from some of Denver’s existing light rail stations. The land around the new stations will not be dedicated to government-owned parking lots; instead developers will have the freedom to put housing or commercial uses adjacent to the stations with parking garages as far away as 1000 feet.

Timothy Lee, a Cato adjunct scholar writes at Forbes:

If the plan is to dump government-owned parking garages and instead sell the land to private developers, that’s a clear win from a free-market perspective. And if planners liberalize zoning rules to allow high-density construction that’s illegal in most suburbs, so much the better. On the other hand, if the plan is to actively subsidize or even require dense development, that is worth criticizing. But it’s important to be clear that the problem is coercive means, not the goal of providing more walkable neighborhoods.

Lee makes a key point here. The suburban style development that we see in many parts of Denver is not the free market at work, as O’Toole assumes. Rather, more dense, urban development is outlawed in many parts of Denver and cities across the country. Both O’Toole and Lee make some good points on the plan, but if a city is going to spend too much on transit, that doesn’t mean the transit should be strangled with liberty-limiting suburban zoning laws.

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