Beware Metro!

by Randal O'Toole

In an article on neotraditionalism, I told the story of Oak Grove, a suburb of Portland protesting a plan to quadruple local population densities. Oak Grove is just one of many neighborhoods that Portland-area planners want to "densify" through a prescriptive zoning system that would impose apartments and commercial developments on quiet residential areas. These plans are coming from an agency known as Metro, which proudly bills itself as one of the strongest regional governments in America.

In 1973, a right-wing publisher called the Independent American issued a little book titled Beware Metro and Regional Government! Subtitled "an exposé of those who seek to destroy local self-government," the book is full of factual errors and paranoid delusions tying metropolitan and regional governments to the Rockefellers, the Council on Foreign Relations, and other favorites of conspiracy theorists.

At the same time, the book contains a glimmer of truth: that regional urban governments tend to restrict freedom and local self determination. This is clearly visible in Portland, where Metro and related agencies think nothing of passing rules that, among other things:

Metro and other regional governments, sometimes called "metropolitan planning organizations," are not an international conspiracy. Instead, they are a product of decades of struggle between central cities and the suburbs that surround them. As soon as streetcars and automobiles made it possible for people to live several miles from their work, some people began moving out of the established cities to places where land was cheaper, life was less regulated, and taxes were lower.

To central city officials, suburbanites were parasites, enjoying the advantages of the big city without paying their fair share of the costs. Annexations and city-county consolidations were attempts to include the suburbs in the tax base and make them pay their fair share. The suburbs fought back by incorporating towns of their own, making them immune to hostile takeovers--or so they thought.

In 1966, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development required that all urban areas seeking federal grants form "metropolitan planning organizations." Today there are more than 300 of these MPOs or metros scattered across the country. Some are little more than post office boxes; others are much more powerful.

For the federal government, metros were simply a way to insure that it would not have to consider competing proposals from different jurisdictions in an urban area. But for central city officials, metros were a new tool for extending their reach over the suburbs.

At first glance, the regional government idea seems to make sense. There are some issues, it is argued, that are clearly of regional (or metropolitan) concern, and the individual cities, counties, school districts, and other governments that make up an urban area can't handle those issues. These issues might include pollution, transportation, and protection of scenery and open space.

Like any bureaucracy, however, a regional government wants to grow. So, once established, it tends to take on more and more issues until it become exceptionally intrusive on the lives of urban-area residents.

Portland's Metro

Portland's regional government, which calls itself Metro, started out life as a solid waste disposal agency. Sounds innocent enough. Then it took over the Portland zoo. Then it became the chief planner for Portland-area transportation, again for the purpose of getting federal grants.

As Metro was growing, so was a new movement in urban planning called the New Urbanism. New Urbanists believe that cars are the chief problem in cities and that people rely on cars only because cities are poorly designed for transit, pedestrians, and cyclists. So New Urbanists call for urban redesign for transit and pedestrians.

New Urbanists also worry about sprawl and the loss of farms, forests, and open space. Everybody says that they don't want their city to look like Los Angeles, sprawling across thousands of acres of once-prime farm land.

A key New Urban prescription for both cars and sprawl is higher density development. Instead of building homes on half-acre lots, people should live in apartments located above retail stores and offices. Then they can walk to markets and work and their communities will require less land.

The "Neotraditionalists" who I described in my previous article are a special branch of the New Urbanists who believe that building design is as important and urban layout. Neotraditionalists want large front porches, tiny garages, peaked roofs, and other design elements. Otherwise, they are a part of the New Urban movement.

New Urbanism is fine so long as it is optional. There's nothing wrong with someone building or living in a walk-up apartment with shops on the ground floor. But the New Urbanists know that, given a choice, most people won't want to live like that. In some cities, New Urbanists are trying to build demonstration communities to show how nice high-density living can be. But in Portland, New Urbanists are going much further.

Portland's Metro has a five-part program for urban and suburban renewal:

Metro's efforts are also supported by a number of policies and regulations passed by various other federal, state, and local agencies.

Metro's Fifty-Year Plan

In 1992, Portland-area voters were confronted with a ballot measure titled "limits regional government." In fact, the measure gave almost unlimited powers to Metro, including the power to do all planning in the urban area and to force three counties and twenty-four cities to conform to its plan. Voters, most of whom did not understand this, approved the measure by a modest margin.

Metro immediately began writing a fifty-year plan for the Portland area that will be finished in 1997. Cities and towns will then have three years to revise their zoning codes and other ordinances to conform to the plan. Metro has already given all cities in the area new population targets for both residents and jobs, and many are moving to revise their zoning codes.

The plan designates thirty-five "centers" connected by "main streets" and transit "corridors." These areas occupy about a quarter of the urban area, but planners want them to house nearly half of all new residents over the next half century.

Needless to say, if Soviet five-year plans were failures, then Metro's fifty-year plan will be ten times worse. As in the Soviet case, Metro's planning will lead to severe shortages of some things--notably congestion-free highways and single-family homes--and huge surpluses of others--notably an obsolete transit system and high-density apartment complexes.

The Urban-Growth Boundary

Oregon's 1973 land-use law requires all cities to have urban-growth boundaries outside of which developments would be minimized. Metro set Portland's boundary in 1979. Supposedly, the boundary would be expanded when most of the land within it was developed.

More than half of the land inside the boundary that had been vacant in 1979 was developed by 1990. Portland grew exceptionally fast in the early 1990s and housing prices shot up. Homebuilders argued that rising home prices were due to the lack of vacant land within the boundary and convinced the 1995 legislature to pass a "truth-in-planning" law requiring expansion of urban-growth boundaries to insure a twenty-year supply of vacant land.

Libertarians argue that the boundary is an uncompensated taking of private property. But a more insidious problem has developed: Now that the boundary has been set, it is sacred. Many local environmentalists and city officials are lobbying relentlessly to insure that it not be expanded. Since Portland is growing rapidly, the only alternative is to pack more people within the boundary. That seems to be Metro's goal.


Instead of expanding the boundary, Metro responded to the truth-in-planning law by giving all cities in the area targets for increased residential densities. Even though the fifty-year plan is incomplete, several cities have begun rezoning to meet these targets. The targets also include jobs, and zoning must provide for these as well.

Region-wide, Metro wants new housing developments to average more than 15 units per acre--less than 2,900 square feet per unit. That includes both multi- and single-family homes; developments of just single-family homes are to average 4,100 square feet per lot (e.g., 41 feet by 100 feet or 64 feet square). That's less than half the recent average of about 8,500 square feet per new home.

Densities in areas designated centers must more than double; corridors must nearly double. Existing neighborhoods of single-family homes will be left alone only if they are outside of a designated center or corridor and if cities can meet their population targets elsewhere.

In many places, these targets are ludicrous. In the centers, Metro wants to triple or quadruple existing population densities and to require retail developments on the same sites, thus meeting the New Urban goal of a mixed-use neighborhood where people can walk to market or work. Metro plans to have nearly half of all newcomers to the Portland area live in such high-density, mixed-use areas.

For example, a typical urban office complex today might employ 60 or 80 people per acre. A typical apartment building might house 12 to 24 families per acre. Only in downtown cores are jobs or residents denser. Yet Metro is proposing several developments that would employ 90 people and house 25 or more families all on the same acre. Effectively, Metro wants to build new downtown Portland's all over the urban area.

Frank Lloyd Wright realized 75 years ago that the automobile, electricity, and the telephone effectively made downtowns obsolete. Joel Garreau, author of Edge City, says that Wright was right: Americans haven't built any new "downtowns" in more than eighty years. Yet Metro planners are betting that nearly half of all new Portland-area residents will want to live in a downtown-like setting.

The New Urbanists have an answer for those critical of their downtown orientation. It is called light rail.

Light Rail

Light rail, says Metro planners, will attract people to live in centers, corridors, and other high-density areas. So Metro wants to build a huge system of light-rail lines throughout the Portland area.

Portland already has one light-rail line completed in 1986. Planners projected that ridership would reach 41,500 people per day within five years of completion. In fact, ten years later, ridership is only about 27,000 people per day.

The reason for such low ridership is simple: Light rail is an inflexible system that doesn't go where people want to go. Developed over a century ago (when people called them "streetcars" or "trolleys"), light-rail vehicles made sense in cities with no cars and little pavement, but can't compete against the almost infinitely flexible and convenient automobile.

In a place such as New York City, population densities are high enough that a rail system can make sense. But even if light rail can attract people in Portland to live in higher densities--which is unlikely--light rail suffers from another problem: Pork.

The federal government pays from 50 to more than 80 percent of the construction costs of light-rail lines. For many city officials, then, light rail becomes a way to transfer money from the feds to local contractors. Transit has nothing to do with it.

At a cost of about $14 million per mile, the first light-rail line went 50 percent overbudget, but it was cheap compared to the lines now under construction and in the planning stages. A line now under construction is costing $55 million per mile, while two more lines being planned are projected to cost $100 million per mile.

The total cost of one planned eleven-mile route will be $1.5 billion. All eleven miles closely parallel a line of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which the Union Pacific just bought for $3.9 billion. For less than three times the price, Portland could have bought a 15,000-mile railroad, instead of just eleven!

To Metro, the high cost of light rail has a benefit other than pork: It reduces the funds available for activities that might actually reduce congestion, such as highway expansion or improved bus lines. Metro says that it regards congestion as a sign of "positive urban development." What this means is that, since Americans tend to live, on average, within 22 minutes of work, increased congestion will make Portlanders want to live in higher density areas--which is Metro's real goal.

Portland already spends two-thirds of every public transportation dollar on transit. Boosting the cost of light-rail construction will increase this to at least 75 or 80 percent. This means that highways will slow to a crawl. People will continue to drive, because even in bumper-to-bumper traffic autos remain more convenient--and usually faster--than light rail (whose average speed is only 19 miles per hour). But they will tend to settle closer to work to keep their commute times down.

Transit-Oriented Developments

Metro plans to supplement light rail with "pedestrian-friendly" and "transit-oriented" design codes aimed at reducing people's dependency on the auto. Pedestrian friendly means that people can easily walk or take transit from home to work or market without being confronted with seas of parking lots, difficult-to-cross streets, and whizzing cars.

New Urban design codes call for all stores to front on the streets, with parking hidden in back if it is available at all; residential areas with homes on small lots and narrow streets; and more pedestrian ways and bike paths. To the New Urbanist, "pedestrian friendly" means "auto hostile." So parking will be limited throughout the city; traffic will be "slowed" under the theory that more congestion means more local business; and the rate of highway expansion and improvement will be far slower than the rate of population growth.

In effect, Metro is designing a city for the 6 to 10 percent of people who walk, bicycle, or ride transit to the exclusion of the 90 to 94 percent of people who drive or ride in automobiles.

The Results

Will light rail, urban-growth boundaries, and high-density, pedestrian-oriented developments make Portland a better place to live? Many Portlanders seem to think so, as they have supported Metro in several elections. Portland's mayor, Oregon's governor, and numerous other elected officials strongly support Metro's efforts. Suburbanites are less supportive, including several suburban city officials, but Metro is still too distant for most people to understand the real trade-offs.

Metro claims that its fifty-year plan will increase Portland's livability by reducing congestion, reducing pollution, and protecting open space. But at least one major organization suspects that Metro's plan will, in these respects, make Portland far worse to live in. According to this organization,

Who is making these predictions? Why, Metro itself. All of these numbers are published and readily obtainable in Metro documents. But Metro supporters choose to ignore them, believing instead in myths and fables such as the idea that light rail and higher population densities will reduce congestion.

Currently, says Metro, about 94 percent of all trips in the Portland area are by auto. Less than 3 percent are by transit and the rest by bike or on foot. Metro predicts that spending some three-fourths of Portland's transportation budget on light rail will have zero effect on auto usage. Higher density developments may reduce auto usage a couple of percentage points, while pedestrian-friendly design and higher parking costs may reduce it a couple more points.

The result is that, after fifty years, 90 percent of Portland-area trips will still be by auto--and that is according to Metro's transportation computer model, which is probably optimistic. With projected population growth, this means that overall auto-miles driven will increase by 68 percent--yet Metro plans to increase the highway system's capacity by only 13 percent. Metro expects that the number of miles of congested roads will increase from 160 today to 620 in fifty years. Since most pollution is generated in congestion, this will produce far more pollution than a less congested alternative, and more of some types of pollution than is generated today despite cleaner cars in the future.

If the fifty-year plan won't reduce congestion or pollution, then its only saving grace is its protection of open space. But, to save "open space" outside the urban-growth boundary means Metro must force the development of farms and other lands inside the growth boundary. At least 13,000 acres of lands inside the boundary are currently farmed by people who sell their produce to urban residents. These farms are protected by Oregon tax exemptions designed to preserve farms and open space.

But Metro regards farms inside the growth boundary as "vacant land" that is wasted if not developed. So Metro wants to take away the farmers' tax exemptions, which it says are "counterproductive to good planning." Meanwhile, many farmers outside the urban-growth boundary want to develop their land--in some cases because the land is not really suitable for farming anyway. Metro and other planning agencies are trying to prevent this by forbidding development of land in small parcels.

But some people simply want to live on large lots and won't be satisfied with a new home on a 41-foot-by-100-foot lot. If just 5 percent of the people who would have been happy on quarter-acre lots inside the growth boundary build instead on 20-acre lots outside the boundary, then Metro's plan will accelerate, not slow, urbanization.

The open-space question is a red herring in any case. Only about a third of the Portland-area is residential, and allowing people to build on bigger lots won't add that much to the urbanized area. Even if it did, Portland's urban area takes up only three-eighths of one percent of Oregon, so doubling the urban area's size would bring it to just three-quarters of a percent. That hardly represents a major loss of farms, forests, or open space.

Even though its own numbers show that high densities and pedestrian-friendly designs won't reduce congestion or protect much open space, Metro persists in promoting such developments. Metro and Portland-area cities such as Gresham, Hillsboro, and Beaverton have given millions of dollars in tax breaks and direct subsidies to developers who will build to high densities. The developers readily admit that, but for the subsidies, they expect their developments will lose money.

There won't be enough subsidies to go around, but within a few years Metro expects to have all local zoning codes revised to mandate such developments. The city of Gresham has already passed such a code requiring high-density apartments in an area of single-family homes. City officials assured residents that their homes would be "grandfathered" in so long as they wanted to keep them.

After the first apartment complex was built, with subsidies of course, some families decided to move--and found that they couldn't sell their homes. The new zoning code specified that a single-family home destroyed by fire couldn't be rebuilt without special permission from the city. Since banks won't lend on a house that can't be rebuilt after a fire, no one who wanted to buy in the area could get financing.

Federal and State Support

Many federal and state agencies are supporting Metro's New Urban goals with similarly draconian rules. Although transportation planners traditionally see their job as reducing congestion, the U.S. Department of Transportation is enthusiastic about Metro's plans to congestify Portland. Ironically, federal funds aimed at congestion reduction are a major source of Metro grants to developers of high-density housing.

The state Environmental Quality Commission passed a rule requiring employers to attempt to reduce their employee's use of autos for commuting by 10 percent. Employers who failed to make a good faith effort to do so can be fined. Another state agency passed a rule requiring all major Oregon cities to reduce per-capita auto usage by 20 percent in the next thirty years. Since per capita auto usage has increased steadily by 2 percent or more per year for at least 75 years, this seems impossible. The same agency also requires a 10 percent reduction in per-capita parking in all cities.

These rules won't work. Reducing parking, for example, may merely cause people to drive more looking for a parking space. But rules and red tape will confirm the suspicions of many that government is too big.

Unfortunately, Metro's plans, rules, and regulations will all be in place before many Portland-area residents wake up to the problems. To date, Metro's only opponents are the developers--and they are widely ignored because of their "conflict of interest." Local newspapers print Metro fables as if they were fact and ignore other viewpoints. And most people are happy to vote for light-rail boondoggles in the hope that they will reduce congestion even though most voters will never ride a light-rail vehicle themselves.

Oak Grove, where I live, seems to have escaped Metro's grasp. Metro had tentatively designated Oak Grove as one of the centers whose population density would be quadrupled. After neighbors loudly protested the county's planned densification, the county asked Metro to not designate Oak Grove as a center. Perhaps fearing that Oak Grove's protest would spread, Metro complied.

Oak Grove lucked out that the county decided to rezone the nighborhood before Metro's plans were finished. Other neighborhoods will not be so lucky, and residents will wake up one day to find the bulldozers and their door driven by local officials with a mild apology that "Metro is making us do it."

For cities elsewhere in the nation, Portland is widely regarded as a testing ground for New Urban ideas. Planners tout Portland's light rail and urban-growth boundaries as a great success, and few know enough to answer them. So it is not surprising that cities all over the country are building, planning, or considering light-rail lines, transit-oriented developments, and other New Urban ideas. If you live in one of those cities, hang onto your pocketbook and plan to either loudly protest or make a quick getaway.

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