Metro's Urban Growth Boundary Expansion

Last week Metro added 2000 acres to our region’s urban growth boundary.  That decision reminded me of another number: $40 billion.

That’s the rough estimate of the total cost faced by our region’s service providers to maintain, replace and improve our community’s sewer, water, transportation, school, park and other infrastructure over the next 25 years.  Government officials think they may be able to raise about half that much from known revenue sources in the years ahead.

The rest? Nobody knows where it will come from; and the competition for dollars to build and maintain needed community services likely will be intense.

Numbers like $40 billion are inconceivable.  But there’s no question our towns and neighborhoods have a lot of needs.  Portland’s “Big Pipe” project and related efforts to keep sewage out of the Willamette; the massive ODOT project to replace the aging Iowa Street viaduct on I-5 in the West Hills; the Sellwood Bridge; the need to update old schools and build new ones throughout our region; the lack of sidewalks and safe pathways for cyclists and walkers in many neighborhoods; and the need to add transit service instead of cutting it—all these represent huge costs to meet real needs in our community.

So how do we fill a $40 billion hole?  The first step, of course, is to stop digging it deeper.

That’s one of the problems with the 2000 acres Metro has added to the UGB.  Today it’s all farmland.  Those acres have no schools, parks, bus lines or other urban infrastructure.  Yes, developers will pay some of the cost to install water, sewers and streets.  But you and I will pick up the rest of the bill.  More than likely, we will pay by seeing needed improvements in our neighborhoods deferred or cancelled, so that existing funds can be focused on highway improvements to serve the new growth areas, schools in the new growth areas, and bus service for the new growth areas.  We’ll just keep digging a deeper hole.

Of the 2000 acres being added to the UGB, about 300 are for industry.  If a major new employer locates there, it will certainly help our region’s economy, and the resulting state income tax revenue may indirectly offset the cost of extending locally-funded services. 

The rest of the land was added to the UGB to accommodate new houses, not jobs.  Why? We have more than enough land in the boundary to meet our housing needs.  But Metro planners think that developers won’t choose to build enough housing on the land already in the boundary.  It’s harder to build on some of that land—for a lot of reasons, including inadequate transportation and other infrastructure—than it is to build houses on flat, open farmland.  The planners fear that if we don’t add land for housing to the UGB, developers will build outside Metro—in Newberg, North Plains, Canby, Clark County—resulting in long commutes to jobs here in the Metro region.

We want to avoid that traffic and sprawl.  But the right way to do it is by removing the barriers to smart development inside the boundary.  In part, we can do that by spending money to improve streets, pipes, transit, parks and schools in our existing community, instead of on the edge.

Expanding the UGB paves over rich farmland.  Expanding the UGB increases traffic and pollution by spreading jobs and housing farther apart.  But even if we didn’t care about farmland and pollution, we all need to worry about diverting the dollars we need to fix the potholes, maintain the parks, build the sidewalks, run the buses and strengthen the schools in our neighborhoods.  We won’t have the money to do those things if we keep digging the hole deeper with UGB expansions.