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October 22nd, 2010
Profiles from the Recession
[VIDEO] Stretched To The Limits: Still driving to qualify after the housing crisis

As they post-mortem the housing crisis, policy makers are increasingly putting transportation costs under the microscope. Blueprint America visits the car -dependent suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, to learn about how transportation costs are making it harder for families to hold on to the American Dream.

Producer Fae Moore, editor David Kreger and special correspondent John Larson for Blueprint America

Laura Grosso lives with her husband Tony and their two sons in Queen Creek, Arizona, a suburb on the outer fringes of Phoenix. They bought this three bedroom in 2006. Even though it was far from work and family, it was just what they were looking for

We wanted Dominic and Franco to be happy here, and to have a nice childhood, like how we grew up. Because we grew up in the mid-west, where it was open and everyone had grass. So, this is kind of a little piece of how we wanted it to be for them.

Like millions of other young American families who bought during the last housing boom, the Grossos decided to trade more time behind the wheel for an opportunity to live their American dream.

We understood that it was really far out, but we thought, well, this is– we can afford this house, it’s big enough for us. And, here we go, we like the area.

You might think this is a story about how the Grossos are coping with a looming foreclosure. But it’s not.

It’s about how families hit hard by the housing crisis are also getting slammed by rising transportation costs.

When they signed on the dotted line, the Grossos never thought about what they would spend for gas, insurance and car payments …but last spring, when the transmission on their second car died, the cost became all too clear. They had already taken paycuts and they could not afford a new car.

With no mass transit, the only option for both Grossos to get to work? They go together.

They rouse the babies and they’re out the door before sun up.

First stop: 25 minutes to Mesa, to unload the boys at grandma’s house

20 minutes later, they reach Scottsdale, where Laura lets Tony off in time for his six AM shift as a security guard in a hospital.

It’s another 15 minutes to Tempe, where Laura works in administration at Arizona State University. After a full day’s work, they’ll do the whole thing in reverse in the afternoon…round trip that’s about 120 miles a day.

And how many hours you figure?

Well, it’s at least about two and a half, two hours. Depending on traffic and stuff.

It sounds exhausting.

We don’t think about it. We do it.

There’s no question driving is a way of life for most of the 4 million people who call metro Phoenix home.

It’s hard to grasp just how spread out the region is. Phoenix and the surrounding valley cover over 2,000 square miles.

The population grew by more than 1 million people in the past decade alone. A sea of new homes went up almost overnight. When gas prices spiked between 2007 and 2008, people were suddenly paying twice as much to get around…..and that’s exactly when foreclosures peaked in neighborhoods like Queen Creek.

It was a ghost town. The streets as you go down the street, it was just for sale signs, the houses were vacant…

Studies show this pattern – the farther out, the more foreclosures– held true in most major American sprawl towns…

As they post-mortem the housing crisis, policy makers are increasingly putting transportation costs under the microscope. Shaun Donovan is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

In some ways the foreclosure crisis has been a wakeup call on that front. What it said to folks is, “Hey, wait a second. Look at the houses that are on the periphery of these metropolitan areas. Those are the ones that have actually lost the most value.

The places that have retained the most value, where prices have dropped the least, are places that have access to transportation.”

It wasn’t just the marketplace that created sprawl, says Donovan.

This is the American dream of freedom on wheels….

The federal government has been in the business of promoting car dependent development for a long time… ever since President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act back in 1956.

Over the decades Washington spent trillions building highways, and subsidizing the suburban housing industry. As long as gas was cheap and there was room to grow it seemed to work. But today the American dream is gridlocked, literally. Clogged roads pollute the air, gas prices are high, and many people are spending more time on the road than with their families.

The average family in America today spends 52 percent of their income on housing and transportation combined. The single largest costs in the average American family’s budget.

We can no longer afford to sit still. What we need is a smart system of infrastructure equal to the needs of the 21st century…

The Obama Administration is trying to sell Congress and the public on a new blueprint. One that changes the way we design communities and get around in them.

A system that cuts congestion and ups productivity.

What we’re trying to do is provide more choice. And by the way, that’s what I hear when I’m out in communities every day – we want more choices. “Look, I’m not going to get rid of my car,” is what I hear. “It’s not that I’m going to not have a car. It’s that I don’t want always have to get in my car. I want to be able to get on my bicycle sometimes. I want to be able to walk. I want to have transportation choices.”

Providing more affordable choices means first and foremost promoting public transportation, something car loving Arizonans have historically resisted.

Until the Phoenix light rail. The controversial 1.4 billion dollar light rail opened in 2008 after a narrow margin of local voters approved a half cent sales tax and Washington agreed to pay for 40 percent of the construction costs.

So far ridership has more than exceeded expectations. About 33,000 people a day, many of them students, ride the 20 mile rail which connects downtown to the university neighborhoods of Tempe and Mesa.

Right now the rail only reaches a small portion of the region, but there are plans to extend it 57 miles out into the valley.

Emily Talen is a professor of urban planning at Arizona State.

The light rail has a certain sexiness to it that can really get people excited and energized.

It’s got to be seen as one step in an evolution of turning this ship around, this sprawling, unsustainable, place into a different kind of community.

The outlines of this community are starting to emerge. In the past five years developers have poured $5 billion worth of private investment into residential and commercial construction along the light rail

Most local and state politicians support plans to expand the system, but with the economy on life support few are willing to raise taxes to do so. Which means new trains will not be heading to the outskirts any time soon.

And for some developers on the outskirts, that’s just fine.

They can get this 4,000 square foot house for $236,000.

Dennis Webb is the vice president of operations for Fulton Homes, one of Arizona’s largest home builders. Just a few miles down the road from where thousands of foreclosed houses sit empty, Fulton Homes is building brand new ones. Once the economy comes back, he says, so will the market for the exurban lifestyle that he’s selling.

People want to live in a safe, family environment, where they can have their kids right nearby, have a pool, have a backyard and barbecue and things like that. That’s the way they want to live.

I took a little drive around the development and I was looking for the light rail station. Now where–

Keep looking!

Webb doesn’t see people giving up their cars any time soon. And government efforts to fight sprawl rub him the wrong way.

It’s the West, it’s the frontier. I think the government has very little– should have very little voice in dictating where people want to live.

Meanwhile, the Grossos just keep on driving. They aren’t expecting trains to help them out of their financial difficulties any time soon….they’re just trying to hold onto what they’ve got.

What would be the worst possible thing that could happen now.

Well, the car thing, I think, I mean, that’s… that car is our lifeline right now. So, everything we do revolves around that car. So, if that goes, we do.

  • Dowdin

    Good story about how rural Arizonans spend so much time and money on highway travel commuting and that they could benefit from the President’s rail push. Arizona State Representative Barbara McGuire represents LD23 which is the heart of CD1(Queen Creek, Maricopa, Casa Grande, Apache Junction and more). Rep. McGuire met early on with former Gov. Napolitano asking for the Arizona rail system idea. Governor Napolitano called it the “time tax” that Arizonans face commuting. Rep. McGuire and then Governor Napolitano started pushing in 2006 for the Arizona short line connects of all the rural Arizona systems to the metro and fought for Phoenix to Tucson and link to western corridor passenger rail system. State Representative Barbara McGuire was a key speaker at Federal Transportation Steering Committee in May 2010. At the event, the volume and importance of the Western Rail Corridor was the emphasis. Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BSNF) seems for it, and Union Pacific not so much because they have to “pull over” the slow freight lines for the hi speed passenger rail, but they will likely work this out to the benefit of Queen Creek and all the LD23 and rural Arizona communities that have rail lines available. Representative McGuire asked for rail service in the western portion of Gila County collect in the eastern portion of Pinal in Superior and pass thru and stopping at Florence, Queen Creek, Apache Junction, Casa Grande, Maricopa and other of her rural towns. This is something PBS did not mention: Representative McGuire speaks of the benefit of short line (rural rail) connects using innovative low cost kinetic powered rail cars or the innovative low cost immediate idea to put rail undercarriages on buses on existing rail lines. The rail undercarriages could be lifted hydraulically or electronically and the bus could travel to its final destination. There are innovative solutions out there that are not heavy capital outlaws to at least get that segment rolling now! We have seen even seen ideas like low cost air tube travel possibilities like China and India are considering. Under that idea, a one way ride from Phoenix to Tucson would be as little as $1.23 supposedly. Federal plans for passenger rail seem more capital intensive and to not take effect until 2016. It would be mag-lev probably or traditional expensive sturdy trains. However, there is some construction relative to some parts of the system near Picacho underway. Union Pacific did put on the brakes when they took the other available adjacent Phoenix to Tucson land to start another freight line then stopped. I think there is a Federal rule of not sharing freight with passenger rail so once they designated it as freight it may or may not be available for passenger service. After all, UP trains would have to “pull over” to let the speedy passenger trains blitz by. But, I am sure they will work it out. As for the short lines, ADOT (Arizona Department of Transportation) has done and excellent job planning out the network and closed comments on the plan on September 24, 2010. However, ADOT did not mention or know of the idea of using busses immediately on the available short lines to link communities like Globe, Nogales, Superior, Queen Creek, Avondale and more to the metro systems of Arizona and State Representative Barbara McGuire did point that out to them but ADOT has not yet acknowledged or conversed on that idea. That may be a Federal rule that can be worked on to allow less capital intensive system that would promote commerce and solve some commute problems right away, like now! The time horizon should be expedited given the growth projections. You may want to talk to Arizona State Representative Barbara McGuire who has been pressing for nearly 5 years on linking the rail systems of Arizona to the metro and proposed hi speed rail, particularly the heart of America’s largest rural district LD23 of CD1. Her contact is 602-926-3012.

  • Rob

    Contrast “It’s the West, it’s the frontier. I think the government has very little– should have very little voice in dictating where people want to live” against “The federal government has been in the business of promoting car dependent development for a long time… ever since President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act back in 1956.”

    Ummmm . . . the frontier didn’t have paved roads to subsidize travel and development. If you don’t want government assistance, support, or regulation, then build a development without it and let the cost of each unit be loaded with all costs the government otherwise bears to subsidize ill-advised construction. There was a reason why the fontier was the frontier – people who went their knew and accepted the risks, and paid their way with an often rough a meager lifestyle; iIt wasn’t developed and there weren’t a lot of jobs because it was relatively inaccessible and inhospitable to most. “It’s the West, it;s the frontier?” Please . . . it’s more like dining at a trough of public subsidy and then going out to prey on the elderly and infirm for desert.

  • Dewy

    The great land give-away to build the transcontinental railroad wasn’t a public subsidy? The Alaska highway wasn’t an expensive public works project (along with permission from our friends to the north)?

    Oh, I get it, nostalgia for when there was a frontier. I dream of more than the wild, wild west. I hope for a country that’s doing it’s best, not behind other G8 countries in many ways.

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