Urban Sprawl: Growing Pains in Valley
By Mark Baldassare
The Central Valley is growing and changing at a dizzying rate, even while the state remains mired in an economic slump. During the past decade, the 18-county Central Valley -- stretching from Bakersfield to Redding -- gained more people than either Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay Area. By adding nearly one million residents, the Central Valley has now reached a population of 5.5 million.
And this is by no means the endpoint of the region's phenomenal growth: According to the state's demographers, the Valley will add 2.5 million people in the next 20 years, surpassing the Bay Area in population.
As a result of this rapid transformation, Valley residents are becoming increasingly concerned about growth and its consequences, according to a recent survey of 2,004 Valley adults by the Public Policy Institute of California and the Great Valley Center.
When residents are asked to name the most important issue facing the Valley today, growth now tops the list. Compared with those living elsewhere in the Valley, residents of the Sacramento region are even more likely to focus on growth rather than other issues.
To place these concerns in perspective, it is interesting to look at the top issues for Californians generally: In the 2002 statewide surveys of the Public Policy Institute, the economy, education and electricity are named as top issues by the largest numbers of state residents.
In addition to their overall concerns about growth, residents appear to be even more bothered by its consequences for their communities. Two in three residents said that traffic congestion, growth and development, the loss of farmlands, and air pollution are at least somewhat of a problem in their part of the Valley. Indeed, in the three years since the Valley surveying began, there have been significant leaps in the numbers of residents who say they have "big problems" with traffic, growth, air pollution and the loss of farmlands in their vicinity.
The perceptions of growth-related problems are even more noticeable in the Sacramento area. More than half of this region's residents now see traffic as a big problem, while about four in 10 rate growth, air pollution and the loss of farmlands as major concerns.
Since the 1999 survey, the Sacramento region has seen double-digit increases in the percentages of residents who view growth- and development-related issues as big problems. Moreover, the differences we found in earlier surveys between newcomers and lifelong residents are disappearing. Simply put, more and more residents are recognizing that growth is affecting their quality of life.
When they talk about their region's problems, residents of the Sacramento region are sounding more and more like the Californians who live in the dense, urban coastal areas.
They now complain as much about their traffic as people living in Orange County, which is home to 2.9 million people and the second-densest county in the state. Sacramento residents are almost as likely to complain about air pollution as those in Los Angeles, an area that is notorious for its smog and poor air quality. And Sacramento residents are more troubled about growth and development than people in the Bay Area, the region famous for passing local growth controls.
Despite these problems, Valley residents are still satisfied with life in their local community and pleased with the public services they are receiving. At the same time, they are less than impressed with the efforts of their local governments. When it comes to solving problems that their localities are facing, only four in 10 residents say that their city and county governments are doing an excellent or good job.
Valley residents actually ranked their city and county governments below their state government when it comes to whom they trust to solve the most important issues. This is not a glowing endorsement of state officials -- few residents say they have a lot of trust in the state government to handle their area's problems. Rather, it is a vote of no confidence for local officials who are seen as ineffective in dealing with today's regional challenges.
In what should be a wake-up call for city and county officials, seven in 10 Valley residents want their local governments to get together and agree on regional growth plans. Public consensus for a regional approach to growth and development is overwhelming -- across the Valley, among Democrats and Republicans, in all of the major demographic groups, and for newcomers and lifelong residents.
To date, city and county officials in the Central Valley have had a mixed record when it comes to thinking regionally.
Currently, a state bill authored by local Assemblyman Darryl Steinberg seeks to reduce cities' competition for sales tax funds. Supporters of the legislation believe this competition has contributed to a rush to build auto malls and "big box" stores instead of funding projects that could ease the region's growing pains.
Specifically, AB680 calls for carving up future sales tax growth in the Sacramento region: One third of the sales tax would go to the place where it was collected, one third would be distributed regionwide on a per-capita basis, and the remaining one third would either stay with the locality if it meets growth and planning goals or else it would be used to fund regional projects.
Although it is regionally oriented, AB680 has met with strong local resistance from areas that feel they will lose out in a broader tax-sharing scheme. Its future is now uncertain.
On the other hand, there has been positive movement in the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. City and county governments in the metropolitan area recently agreed on a 25-year transportation plan that would provide for much-needed expansion of roads, bridges, buses and transit to accommodate expected growth.
The plan goes a long way toward linking growth-driven issues such as transportation, housing, jobs, open space and air quality. Voters will need to approve a two-thirds cent sales tax to pay for projects in the 25-year plan, since the current half-cent sales tax will expire in 2009.
As a next step to solving growth problems, Valley residents will have to recognize that they are part of the problem, as well as a critical part of the solution. The choices that residents are making today about where they live, how they commute and what type and amount of development they want in their cities are shaping the region.
Ultimately, voters will have the final say about whether the tax dollars will be available to pay for new transportation projects. But first, the Valley's leaders must build public support and trust in a long-term regional approach to problem solving. Local officials must lead by example, set aside their parochial interests and work together toward a better future for the entire region.
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