Off the Northway: The argument for fixing the region’s cities

If Tech Valley becomes another Silicon Forest or Silicon Saxony, all those economic benefits won’t c

If Tech Valley becomes another Silicon Forest or Silicon Saxony, all those economic benefits won’t come cheap.

Over the next 20 years, just keeping up with the region’s anticipated population growth will require maybe $1.7 billion in investment in things like new water and sewer lines, school buildings, and fire/ambulance services, the Capital District Regional Planning Commission estimates.

If the hyper-growth some people are predicting actually happens, it would require billions of dollars more, especially if the suburban development pattern — the conversion of more open land into housing — is going to continue.

That’s the sobering message of Rocky Ferraro, the executive director of the regional planning commission.

“We do want growth, but we have to manage it more effectively,” Ferraro said at a seminar in Saratoga County this week.

He spoke at the first part of a seminar series sponsored by Saratoga PLAN, a series that is looking at what the arrival of the GlobalFoundries computer chip plant will mean.

The conventional wisdom is that it will be transformative — the equivalent of the arrival of General Electric in Schenectady lo those many years ago.

Great, maybe. But transformation means change, and as the folks at Coca-Cola once learned, not everyone likes change.

The Center for Economic Growth contracted with the regional planning commission to work through several different development scenarios for Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga and Rensselaer counties.

If suburban development is going to continue the way it has, Saratoga County will continue to see nearly two-thirds of the growth, the study found.

The county is already sinking millions of bucks into expanding water and sewer systems, but they will need millions more in investment. The commission also found more than a half-billion dollars in new school buildings will be needed as the number of young families grows. That doesn’t even count the cost of the teachers to wrangle those young minds.

If the population grows faster than predicted, the costs would be correspondingly higher.

The way to hold infrastructure costs down, according to the planning commission, would be to somehow encourage the further redevelopment of Schenectady, Albany and Troy, the core cities.

Those cities have all lost 25 percent to 35 percent of their populations since 1950, leaving fewer people and smaller tax bases supporting aging infrastructure that was built for bigger cities. You know what that means: higher taxes and fewer services, both at the same time.

Ferraro argues that investing now in making the cities more attractive places to live will lower the entire region’s future costs.

“It’s a billion-dollar question: who’s going to be the champion for denser, more managed growth in the Capital Region,” Ferraro said.

But municipal planners are sometimes like Defense Department war planners. They can talk a lot of sense, but the brass doesn’t necessarily want to hear it.

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