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September 11, 2003
Despite the sagging economy, many areas around Puget Sound are growing rapidly, leaving local governments to grapple with the effects of growth on transportation and development.
The Puget Sounds Regional Council’s recent assessment of local concurrency measures can be found online at www.psrc.org/projects/growth/concur/concurrency.htm.
The mayor of a fast-growing suburb asked at a recent city council meeting whether the city had done itself a disservice by granting capacity certificates for 2,000 new residential units. The decision had been based on a volume-to-capacity ratio that included future capital improvement projects — projects that the city knows it will probably never be able to fund.
Legal issues aside, the answer to the mayor’s question depended on whether the city wanted the 2,000 units. The mayor replied that the city did want the units, but over 20 years, not two.
The story illustrates the difficult choices jurisdictions must make every day as they seek to balance land use and transportation. It also illustrates that concurrency — which governs the amount of infrastructure improvements that must accompany new development — is as much a philosophical endeavor as a technical one.
Over the past two years, the Puget Sound Regional Council has inventoried concurrency programs of local jurisdictions, held focus groups with senior staff from those jurisdictions, reviewed concurrency-related case law, and conducted a full-day workshop where participants tried to resolve common issues.
Following this, the Regional Council’s policy and executive boards reviewed and adopted a series of recommendations for local concurrency programs.
The investigative phase of the work uncovered what many already knew — that jurisdictions vary in their philosophical approaches and technical methodologies for implementing concurrency. Programs range from screenlines to travel times, travel distances and areawide averaging. And the lack of prescriptive guidance in the law allows this variation.
Straying from the goals of the Growth Management Act, most concurrency programs measure only automotive capacity (congestion), often neither recognizing nor promoting alternative modes of travel.
Jurisdictions also do not collaborate to any great extent — meaning that while traffic effects cross jurisdictional borders, mitigation funds do not. Most important, few programs have had an effect on development, although a few jurisdictions are nearing the point of potentially denying development based on concurrency.
On the upside, many jurisdictions are finding innovative ways to make their programs work. For example, one jurisdiction sets different standards for rush hour versus non-rush hour traffic so that pass-through traffic — which they do not control — does not control their decisions. Others are lowering fees and standards to focus growth in their centers, and many are using exemptions to support uses that are important to them (including outdoor cafes!).
At a concurrency workshop last fall, more than 70 people gathered to discuss coordinating service standards, developing consistent methodologies, raising development-related charges in a coordinated fashion and sharing mitigation revenues. They also discussed appropriate roles for regional and state agencies.
The conference revealed that participants believe the state law needed no major changes and that concurrency should remain predominantly a local tool.
However, many indicated that greater coordination and consistency must be pursued in non-prescriptive ways, and that the Regional Council and countywide planning groups have important support roles to play — especially for regionally significant issues such as regional urban centers and corridor-level planning.
Participants also believed that alternative travel modes, particularly transit, needed to be incorporated into local programs, that cross-jurisdictional impacts needed to be addressed more consistently, and that somehow the public needs to better understand the interrelationships of the discrete decisions that are being made.
The results of the workshop formed the core of the recommendations that the Regional Council’s boards considered over the summer. A series of recommendations were adopted in July that provide guidance for tasks the Council can undertake to help localities in their concurrency efforts, while other recommendations are geared directly to local jurisdictions for consideration.
The recommendations seek to ensure that concurrency becomes more multimodal and transit-supportive, better coordinated among jurisdictions, more consistent in the methodologies being practiced, better tailored to focus growth, and potentially more aggressive in raising revenues.
The majority of the recommendations are policy-related, with some focused on developing better tools and guidance. The recommendations will take effect over the next few years in order to give local jurisdictions time to adjust.
Over time, the recommendations will provide suburban city leaders better tools to guide growth and development. For now, however, those leaders can take some comfort in knowing they are not struggling alone, some good models exist, and the state of concurrency practice remains an evolving art.
Ivan Miller is a senior planner for the Puget Sound Regional Council, a forum for developing policies and making decisions about regional growth and transportation issues in the central Puget Sound region.