Q&A With Sam Hoyt: Why New York State Needs a Smart Growth Law

mcmansions_golf_course.jpgState spending on infrastructure to support exurban McMansions drains people and resources from urban centers -- and costs taxpayers a bundle. Photo: highflyingknight12/Flickr
With Albany's legislative session drawing to a close, the state legislature is considering several initiatives to promote sustainable transportation and livable communities in New York state. One of those initiatives is the State Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy Act -- or the smart growth bill, for short. If enacted, the smart growth bill would shift state spending -- on roads and sewers, for example -- toward areas that have already been developed. Rather than subsidize more sprawl, New York would invest in its existing communities.

The sponsor in the Assembly is Sam Hoyt, who’s represented Buffalo since 1992 and serves as chair of the committee on local governments. In his time at the capitol he's made livable communities a top priority, creating a fund for bike path construction, strengthening tax credits for historic preservation, and championing smart growth.

samphoto_biopic.jpgAssembly member Sam Hoyt.

We spoke to Hoyt about why New York needs smart growth legislation, its prospects in Albany, and the differences between smart growth upstate and in New York City. We also talked about New York’s plans for high speed rail and Buffalo’s downtown-destroying highways.

NK: Let’s start by talking about what the smart growth bill does.

SH: The state has been lacking for some time in both acknowledging the problems associated with sprawl and actually being part of the problem in terms of inducing and incentivizing sprawl. The purpose of this legislation is to get the state -- the governor’s office and all of the executive level departments -- to embrace a set of smart growth principles and then insist that the investment of infrastructure dollars be consistent with those principles and the plans associated with the towns and municipalities where the money would be invested. There doesn’t seem to be any recognition that we keep building infrastructure where it doesn’t exist while, particularly in upstate cities, you have a vast network of existing infrastructure that is abandoned or unused that could be used for some development and save the taxpayers a whole lot of money.

NK: So why exactly is the state incentivizing sprawl, and how? Is it intentional?

SH: I don’t think it’s intentional, it’s again not recognizing -- I mean, one of the problems of the smart growth movement has been our failure to package this in an economic message and a taxpayer cost message. The fact of the matter is, every time we build a new highway, a new road, new sewer infrastructure, we’re dramatically adding to the tax burden of the municipality that has to provide the cost of building and maintaining that infrastructure. Is it by design? No. But is it shortsighted and ignorant? Yes.

NK: You framed smart growth as something particularly necessary for upstate communities. In Buffalo, for example, the metro area has tripled in land area over the last fifty years while staying about constant in population. But do you think this is a specifically upstate need?

SH: No, it isn’t exclusive to upstate. It’s Long Island, it’s New York City, it’s across the board. I think it’s accentuated by this strange dynamic that you just cited, that we’ve had a decline in population, a decline in economy, yet a dramatic growth in terms of the geographic area in which people live and people work, and that just causes enormous problems.

When some big developer wants to build a huge subdivision or office park, we quickly say, “Oh good. That’s growth, that’s development.” And we will subsidize the project by constructing sewers and building highways or roads, and it has a very disastrous multiplier effect, because it empties out the urban core where the infrastructure exists, it makes it more difficult for the workforce to be able to get to the jobs that may be created, and it dramatically increases the burden on the taxpayer, who has to pay for the construction and ultimately the maintenance of the new development.

"We’ve had a decline in population, a decline in economy, yet a dramatic growth in the geographic area in which people live."

NK: Do you think it will be as easy to attract new development into the urban core as it is to the suburban areas?

SH: We’re not saying that a project can’t be done. We’re saying that if you want state government assistance, then we’re going to insist that the first priority be that it be done where infrastructure already exists.

We have to kind of change the mindset, and this is the first attempt. Frankly, I’ve introduced more comprehensive and some may say extreme smart growth proposals. This isn’t by any means extreme, it’s just a message to the entire apparatus of state government that we are going to promote investment where there is an existing infrastructure as opposed to providing resources to perpetuate sprawl.

NK: How does this bill differ from those stronger ones you introduced?

SH: I had a comprehensive smart growth proposal several years ago that mimicked the Portland model, the Urban Growth Boundary, where essentially a boundary is set around a city. Investment within the boundary, yes; investment outside the boundary, no. The end result, in my opinion, has been exceptional. Portland is considered one of the most livable communities in the world, or at least in the United States. But there are powerful organizations and special interests that want to be very cautious.

NK: Even though it’s a more moderate approach, do you feel this bill has enough teeth?

"You have a vast network of existing infrastructure that is abandoned or unused that could be used for development."

SH: We’ve been toiling at this for a long time. Eliot Spitzer set up his smart growth cabinet; David Paterson kept that around and kept it active, it’s met on a regular basis. There will be a new governor come January 1st, and we’ll see what his views are with regard to smart growth. So the answer to the question is: I wish we could go further and yet I think that it’s a very significant step in the right direction. I hope that it will pass both houses and be signed into law by this governor. And the next governor hopefully will enforce it among his executive agencies, but also join us in going further.

NK: While we’re talking about the politics of the bill, where are you finding the strongest support and opposition?

SH: The support is coming from mostly upstate, the Westchester area, and Long Island. In Westchester, Suzi Oppenheimer, she’s been a great champion. And opposition? We’re going to find out where the opposition is in the next three weeks, because the heavy push to enact this into law is now. But to date, maybe because it hasn’t been viewed as imminent, there has not been much opposition at all.

NK: You didn’t mention New York City legislators as being particularly supportive. Any idea why?

SH: I don’t mean to imply that they’re opposed to it, it just isn’t viewed as much of a crisis in New York City compared to other parts of the State. I think that the concept of sprawl is considered more of a suburban and upstate urban problem.

NK: Is there a way to better explain to New York City’s representatives that every bit of sprawl on the end of Long Island, say, is investment that doesn’t come into the city?

SH: Yeah. Plus the problems that we’ve talked about with the workforce. The workforce is typically in the city, and we make it more and more difficult to get the city workforce to where the jobs are. So yeah, maybe we failed to -- I failed to educate the New York City delegation as to how this is having a negative impact on them as well. The shrinking population and economy has made it just more of an upstate issue than in New York City, so we’ve got to do better in getting the New York City delegation motivated and acting on this.

"You can’t just add another lane to a highway each time it reaches capacity."

NK: I want to talk quickly about a few other initiatives you’ve worked on. One of your stated priorities is waterfront redevelopment. In Buffalo, the Skyway Bridge and Route 5 are ranked third on a list of Freeways Without Futures by the Congress for New Urbanism.

SH: Are they really? Route 5, unfortunately, is outside of my district, but it’s certainly been a big issue in Buffalo. Those of us who promoted turning that into an at-grade boulevard failed. Unfortunately, this is another example of DOT not being terribly enlightened. They went ahead and pushed through this elevated highway. It’s 20 feet above grade, to move people as quickly as possible in and out of the city. A boulevard would have been a lot more sensible. It would have allowed for greater development in the area, greater access to park and waterfront space.

The Skyway has long been debated. I think the primary concern there is just cost. Whether redirecting traffic, tunneling, or making it at grade, it would almost be a Big Dig situation, because it goes right through the heart of the city. But it is definitely a deterrent to the investment taking place on Buffalo’s waterfront of late. So that’s still on the table, nothing imminent, but a lot of us are pushing for some sort of elimination of the elevated highway.

NK: You’re also the co-chair of the Assembly Task Force on High Speed Rail. I’ve heard criticism of current plans to do an Albany to Buffalo line, saying there’s not enough population on the route for the distance it’s traveling. Others say we need to be investing more in the northeast corridor instead. You’ve called for it going to Toronto. How do we do it right?

SH: I’m a strong believer in making it an international corridor. I say the three greatest cities in North America -- don’t laugh -- are Toronto, New York City, and Buffalo, and then there’s all the great cities in between. When you talk about major population centers, Toronto and New York City are probably the most significant in North America as far as I’m concerned, and connecting those two, ridership and usage could dramatically increase.

If you just talk Albany to Buffalo, yeah, one could say the population base isn’t there. If you do a simple survey, it might seem that the ridership isn’t there. But I maintain that if you dramatically increase the speeds, on-time reliability, frequency of trains, modern equipment -- as someone who drives the Thruway once or twice a week, seven months a year, I can tell you -- that will bring a lot of people off of the highways. It potentially could also increase tourism in these upstate cities because the passenger transportation opportunities aren’t available today. You can’t take a plane from Rochester to Albany without transferring to two or three different cities.

We are seeing dramatic growth at both ends of the line; you can’t just add another lane to a highway each time it reaches capacity. We’re seeing dramatic growth in the airports and diverting that traffic onto the rails makes sense. That’s not to say we shouldn’t invest more in the northeast corridor, we should, but what Barack Obama has been talking about is connectivity

NK: One final question: How do you get to work?

SH: In Albany, I walk. In Buffalo, I’m walking a lot more. And from Buffalo to Albany, I used to take the train, but it became so unreliable that I now drive.