As Ariz. degrades, folks may leave
Arizona Daily Star
May 6, 2008



ASU report looks at growth, quality of life and how they may affect the 'Sun Corridor'

By Tony Davis

Tucson, Arizona | Published: 05.06.2008

A symbol of Arizona's growth is the U-Haul, bringing in families pursuing sunshine, mountains, cheaper housing and jobs as they pile in from the Rust Belt or Southern California.

But someday, the rental trailers bringing in newcomers may be outnumbered by those leaving unless Arizona protects its quality of life and improves its schools and job climate, according to a new report.

The report, from an Arizona State University research institute, focuses on the "Sun Corridor," described as an area taking in Tucson and Phoenix and straddling three interstate highways and other major roads from Prescott south to Sierra Vista and Nogales. Planners and other experts have predicted for many years that this area could have a near-continuous belt of people someday.

This area, now home to 5 million people, could grow to 8 million to 10 million by 2040, said the report, compiled by ASU's Morrison Institute for Public Policy. But starting perhaps as soon as the early 2020s, that growth could be coming mainly from an increase in births compared with deaths. The number of people leaving the state may actually exceed the number entering, the report said.

"It's a quality-of-life signal that something would be pushing people away, that something is not going well in our state," said Nancy Welch, the institute's associate director. "That quality-of-life signal has much to do with how everybody experiences Arizona. When people leave, they still leave tangible pieces behind: the pavement, the stores, the schools and other buildings. But are they taking away valuable human resources and human capital that is going to leave us poorer?"

The report looks at growth in general, traffic, schools, jobs, water supply, open spaces and climate change. Some key questions and choices:

● Depending on how the school system turns out, the Sun Corridor could turn into a powerhouse of global commerce or a string of warehouses along the interstates linking Mexico to Canada and product distribution centers for Southern California.

● The region faces environmental challenges, including questions about how its lower-density, sprawling suburbs can adapt to the presence of more households without children, more single-person households and more minority households.

● "The Sun Corridor is on a collision course with traffic congestion," the report said, and finding money for the needed public and private investments to make transportation work properly could take trillions of dollars.

● The report also cites the "tragedy of the sunshine," in which newcomers create a need for more pavement, roofing and concrete that make urban areas hotter on summer nights.

"If we don't get our act together, if we make this place hotter with the heat-island effect, if we don't get good jobs versus more service jobs, this area may lose its attractiveness," institute Director Rob Melnick said.

For years, California has had a net loss of migration due to crime, traffic, pollution and high home prices. Growth also has been slowing down at Colorado ski resorts because some mountainous areas literally have no place to grow, and many areas have had spiraling home prices, Melnick said.

"At some point, you can have too much of a good thing, and that is what we are trying to point out," Melnick said.

Another expert said he doesn't think the state's migration patterns will reverse as quickly as the Sun Corridor report predicts, although ASU economist Tom Rex said he has no doubt that it will happen someday. Rex, who is working on another study on population growth, said he doesn't expect that his report will predict such a phenomenon occurring even by 2040.

Still, "I think that the people in general and the developer types and everyone should realize that we do have to be watching out for the quality of life," Rex said.

David Taylor, a veteran Tucson planner, said he doesn't see growth patterns reversing in Arizona anytime soon. Even in Southern California, most of the net migration has occurred in coastal counties, while inland Riverside and San Bernardino counties are "growing like hell," said Taylor, of the Pima Association of Governments.

The Sun Corridor report makes a number of recommendations to improve the state, ranging from regional government to higher-density development in urban areas to improved open-space protection to better education, particularly in languages and the arts. Many of these topics have been discussed with little progress made since Melnick moved here in the early 1970s.

The stakes are higher today, he said.

"We are closer to running out of resources," he said. "We have an opportunity, but it gets harder to turn this ship around as we get bigger and more complex."

● Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or