Transit-oriented Development Becomes Focus of Local Governments

As national recovery from the latest recession continues to move slowly, state and local officials are eyeing measures they hope will hasten economic growth in their own communities.

Image courtesy Steven Vance

By Philip Shea, Associate Editor

As national recovery from the latest recession continues to move slowly, state and local officials are eyeing measures they hope will hasten economic growth in their own communities. One area of increasing interest is development on and around public transportation systems, better known as transit-oriented development.

Recently, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed into law an ambitious $200-million program focused on encouraging businesses to invest and develop their property in transit-accessible areas. Dubbed the Grow New Jersey Assistance Program, the measure is an extension of the state’s existing Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit program, which allocates tax credits to businesses based on capital investments in projects close to urban rail centers.

According to New Jersey’s Star-Ledger, GrowNJ’s focus will be on smaller development projects than were previously covered under the Urban Transit Hub program. Businesses will be eligible for tax credits of $5 million to $8 million over 10 years if they make a capital investment of at least $20 million in a qualified redevelopment zone. The program will bring development to both urban and suburban areas of the state and will include tax credits for hospitals and even certain neighborhoods that comply with its standards.

In an official statement, Gov. Christie said the bill was bipartisan and that its passage reflects that his state is “ensuring that critical economic development projects are moving forward and that businesses are staying, growing and creating jobs for New Jerseyans.”

In a similar move, the city of Stratford, Conn. recently set aside a new transit-oriented development zone near the Metro-North train line and local bus routes. While only one project has been adopted into the zone thus far, the city’s zoning commission hopes the measure will incentivize businesses to move closer to and subsequently rejuvenate the town center.

As with many transit development zones, Stratford’s plan comes with certain logistical requirements for properties to be included. According to the Connecticut Post, such restrictions may include a minimum area of three acres and a maximum height of three stories. Developers will also have to provide proof that their projects will benefit financially from inclusion in the zone.

Dallas, Texas is a city that has seen considerable growth from public transportation expansion and respective development. Since the creation of a light-rail system in the 1990s, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit, or DART, has been credited for generating a tremendous amount of local jobs and new residential and commercial property.

According to NBC/DFW, the city of Rowlett, Texas will see an extension of DART’s blue rail line to its city center by December 2012. Dennis Abraham, an engineer for the city, claims the project has already brought much-needed jobs to the area and is optimistic about what transit-oriented development can do.

“This would be the entrance for the future of Rowlett,” Abraham said. “Anytime a major infrastructure like this comes to town — whichever town it is, Garland or Rowlett — it brings a lot of employment in terms of construction.”

Despite optimism for what public transportation and surrounding development can do in some regions, California’s plan for a high-speed rail system continues to encounter significant obstacles. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, a state-appointed review panel recently recommended against authorizing $2.7 billion in bonds to begin work on the project. Preceding this, a public opinion poll revealed a sharp drop in support for the $98.5-billion project overall.

Yet Peter Calthorpe of the San Francisco Chronicle argues that while the initial cost for the system is large, the long-term benefit would be monumental for the state.

“It would become a catalyst for urban renewal,” Calthorpe writes. “Transit-oriented development built around high-speed rail and local transit would be denser. Detached single-family homes would drop from 62 percent of our state’s housing to just over half. Given that large-lot suburban homes now have declining value, this is a reasonable shift in housing type, ultimately making housing stock more affordable.”

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