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Readers Respond

We cannot afford the suburbia we’ve built | READER COMMENTARY

Strong Towns Baltimore is excited about transit improvements that would connect to the existing light rail line at the Lutherville light rail station.

Kathleen Beadell asks “Why can’t we just keep our lovely suburbia?” (”Baltimore County residents push back against transit proposals to speed riders between downtown Baltimore and Lutherville,” Dec. 16) The short answer is that we can’t financially afford the suburbia that we have built and attempting to do so is leading us (Baltimore County, in particular) to bankruptcy.

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The suburban development pattern combines the openness of rural communities with the infrastructure standards of urban communities. The result is communities that are impossibly expensive to maintain (given the tax base). Extending the reach of roads, water, sewer, trash pick-up, etc., throughout (low-density) suburbs requires tremendous resources, both up-front and ongoing.

Property taxes fall significantly short of covering the high cost of maintaining everything that many suburban residents have been led to believe are givens. The only reason our suburban pattern of development has been able to continue on for as long as it has without collapsing is because of constant growth, a set-up which amounts to a Ponzi scheme.

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As the infrastructure built to service older communities reaches end-of-life, the strikingly high costs required to maintain and replace it are covered by fees paid for by developers of new communities. However, in the case of Baltimore County, given its dwindling supply of development-eligible land, that growth is coming to an end. As such, our only palatable choice is to embrace a gradual densification of our suburban communities. This will allow us to spread the maintenance cost of all of the currently-existing infrastructure that we have built across a greater number of households and businesses.

In order to accomplish this shift, we need to fundamentally adjust our approach to transportation and land use. Simply put, our transportation system needs to become much less automobile-centric. Automobiles require wasteful allocations of land (in the form of parking lots and ever-widening roadways) that could otherwise be put to productive use, thereby expanding and strengthening the tax base.

Suburbs existed and thrived before the uptake of automobiles, made possible by streetcars and earlier forms of transit. The remnants of those streetcar suburbs still exist here — in Rodgers Forge, Lauraville, Catonsville, Overlea, etc. We can keep our suburbia, but need to model its future on its transit-centric roots.

— Michael Scepaniak, Cockeysville

The writer is co-president of Strong Towns Baltimore. Joining in the letter are: Matthew Keadle, Rodgers Forge; Joshua Spokes, Woodberry; John Locke, Catonsville; James Pizzurro, Towson; Ben Lawrence, Parkville; William Fedder, Roland Park; Zachary Blanchard, Federal Hill; Tristan Stefanović, Belvedere; Alex Bortkiewicz, Towson; Sarah Dotson, Towson and Henry Cook, Timonium.


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