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Population Growth Burdens Roads, Schools and State Programs

October 22, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Amid explosive population growth, Arizona tackles the traditional problems of urban sprawl as it tries to create a new model for livable communities. Ray Suarez reports on the Valley of the Sun's transition in the face of growing infrastructure demands.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally, another in our series on infrastructure, “Blueprint America,” produced in collaboration with WNET New York.

Earlier this week, we looked at decaying roads and bridges and aging ports. Tonight’s topic: urban sprawl, its problems and possibilities.

For that, I visited some of the rapidly expanding communities in the state of Arizona.

Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Scottsdale, all part of Arizona’s vast Valley of the Sun, the fifth-largest and one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the nation, expanding in both size and population year after year.

DAN BEACH, Traffic Reporter, KTAR Radio: Growth. Oh, man, the growth. I’ve seen five freeways built in the last 18 years, and I’ve seen the growth of the valley probably double, almost triple in size, from a million people to three million-plus now.

RAY SUAREZ: This is Dan Beach, better known in these parts as KTAR’s Detour Dan, Phoenix’s eye-in-the-sky, the man who reports traffic tie-ups from overhead.

Beach has a bird’s-eye view of the kind of sprawl that’s plaguing Sun Belt cities like Phoenix, places where the population is booming.

To put it in perspective, in 1930, 48,000 people lived here; today, more than 4 million people are spread out across the region, connected by thousands of miles of streets and overcrowded expressways.

DAN BEACH: The word “closure” has come out of my mouth way too many times this morning, as far as I’m concerned.

RAY SUAREZ: With each passing year, Beach has to range further and further from downtown Phoenix to report on the area’s traffic.

DAN BEACH: Out west in the area of Buckeye and Avondale and Goodyear, what used to be just a quiet two-lane highway ride in, in the morning, just quiet as a mouse, is now a five-mile backup. They have their own rush hour out there these days.

RAY SUAREZ: Buckeye, 40 miles west of downtown Phoenix, sits right on the edge of the sprawl line. With lots of open land, this formerly quiet outpost has experienced its own explosive growth in recent years.

Down on the ground here in Buckeye, the elected and appointed officials who run this former farming community have decided to take charge of their own town’s growth.

SUPARNA DASGUPTA, Interim Director of Community Development: The growth is going to come to us no matter what. If we don’t plan for the transportation and the infrastructure and connect to what’s coming from California to us, then, obviously, we are not doing our job as to ensure that the growth is happening in a managed manner.

A need to plan before the boom

RAY SUAREZ: Their plan? Don't beckon new residents out here with the promise of a 40-mile drive to work in downtown Phoenix. Instead, grow a brand-new city with its own jobs and economic opportunities on a big tract of land where today cows munch and crops climb from the desert floor.

JEANINE GUY, Town Manager, Buckeye, Arizona: Maybe we have an opportunity now to position our city differently than other cities have been able to position themselves.

Because of the landmass that we have, because of the opportunities, because of the great technological advances that have been made, we have an opportunity now to not necessarily have to duplicate or do it the same way that other cities have had to do it.

RAY SUAREZ: As cities all over America wonder how they're going to keep up with infrastructure demands of a growing population, maintaining what they've got and building new, Buckeye has its own 21st-century to-do list.

It's meant to ensure that people who live here generations from now don't find themselves trapped in neighborhoods without stores, schools, or places to work, or, most importantly in the desert, without water.

In the teeth of a housing crisis, workers put the finishing touches on new subdivisions. A new plant to purify well water has far more capacity than the town needs today. Anticipating thousands of sinks and toilets not yet built, the sewage treatment plant is expanding.

And timing is everything: You can't build a new sewage treatment plant the moment the new people arrive, and you can't build it long before they come, or else there'll be no one to help you pay for it.

So far, the new roads, schools, and water treatment have met demand without falling behind.

Buckeye has made long-term plans, plans that still could be upended by a long economic downturn, especially since Buckeye has bet so heavily on vulnerable parts of the economy: home construction, job creation, and public works.

And while people have continued to move here, even as Arizona has become an epicenter of America's real estate earthquake, some of the relatively new arrivals are already thinking of leaving town.

Darla's has been dishing up breakfast to the people of Buckeye for more than 60 years. It brings in longtime residents and newcomers. And not everybody here is comfortable with how quickly things are changing.

Priscilla Wydel came here just three years ago and wants to leave.

PRISCILLA WYDEL, Resident of Buckeye, Arizona: They're building houses that are -- the roofs are five feet from one another. You can jump from one house to another.

And the fields are gone, never be there again. So it causes the temperature to go up and, you know, congestion. They can't keep up with the schools. Taxes have gone up quite a bit, you know, the whole nine yards.

Schools feeling the strain

RAY SUAREZ: The schools of Buckeye have been especially impacted by the area's growth. In Arizona, developers are encouraged -- but not required by law -- to make land available for school construction in their newly built communities or make donations to cover the costs of providing classrooms for all those new residents.

So far, that incentive plan has worked here. But Arizona's tough economy and tough housing market have left the local school superintendent wondering whether this voluntary program can make classrooms appear fast enough year after year.

MICHAEL MELTON, Buckeye Elementary School District Superintendent: In a rapidly growing environment, that is really a challenge. In 2005, I grew by 57 percent in one year. The growth was that rapid coming.

And it's a challenge to be able to provide. You know, so many -- it's so easy to say, "Well, you should have planned for it." You cannot plan for 57 percent growth.

RAY SUAREZ: It's also tough to plan for a sharp economic downturn like the one that now appears to grip the country. States are coping with sudden plunges in revenue from sales taxes, income taxes, property taxes, just as commitments for unemployment payments, health care, and emergency assistance are growing.

Even if the national economy recovers, it may be years before state budgets do. So how about a new interchange to connect Arizona's Interstate 10 to Buckeye's streets?

First, the director of Arizona's Department of Transportation says he has to see if Buckeye's plans match up with the state's spending and planning priorities.

VICTOR MENDEZ, Director, Arizona Department of Transportation: If, in fact, it is in the plan, then the city would have an option of accelerating the improvement. If they need it right away, they would have to pay to finance that acceleration. That's one option.

If the improvement is not in the plan, then they have several options they can execute. They can either pay for the improvements themselves. They can work with the developers, the development community, to maybe set aside the land that is necessary.

Growth brings increasing demands

RAY SUAREZ: But somebody's got to come up with the money to pay for all of this, and the state is not obligated. If the state doesn't pay for a new interchange, the town must turn to companies driving the growth to pay for the costs growth brings.

Developers already pay an impact fee -- around $18,000 per new house -- and it's anybody guess if they would be willing to pay more.

Buckeye will also need shopping, recreation, libraries, buses, and cops.

MAYOR JACKIE MECK, Buckeye, Arizona: We've grown so much, we need more space.

RAY SUAREZ: Mayor Jackie Meck says the efforts to build a new American city in this valley won't work if Buckeye becomes nothing more than a bedroom community for Phoenix.

MAYOR JACKIE MECK: Our biggest emphasis right now is on jobs. We're trying to get companies in that bring in jobs for the people so they can live, work, and play within the master-planned communities, as we have them.

But if we can keep that concept with each one of these communities, we can get people off the freeways, and the come-off the freeways hopefully takes pressure off of the freeways by having less cars. So we want people to live here, work here, and play here.

RAY SUAREZ: For a barometer to see if Mayor Meck's dreams for his hometown come true, watch the farms. One longer farmer says the fields of alfalfa, corn, and cotton will be gone in 20 years because housing is driving up land prices.

But if the finance crisis continues, crops, not cul-de-sacs, will continue to grow here, putting Buckeye's dreams of a big city future on hold.