What’s Water Got to do With It?

Parking lot at Wachovia call center on north Plantation Rd.

Monday’s Roanoke Times featured commentary by Robert Craig concerning Roanoke City Council members David Trinkle and Rupert Cutler’s proposal for a new stormwater management fee scheme to address the city’s aging drainage infrastructure.  Craig recognizes the need to improve the system but is against the proposed $3-per-month residential fee and $3-per-1,920 square feet for non residential users proposed by Cutler and Trinkle.  “Interesting,” you may say, “but what does that have to do with transportation?”  The answer is two words:  Parking lots.

Parking lots do two things in regards to stormwater management:  they create a huge amount of impermeable surface, and, by making it easy to find parking (often by providing a surplus of capacity), they encourage single-occupant vehicle trips, which means more roads (more impermeable surface), and related issues of congestion, vehicle emissions, and so forth.

By assessing a fee based on on the size of impermeable surface, the City creates an incentive to minimize that surface.   Developers may choose to eliminate surplus spaces, or to invest in bike parking or transit benefits in order to reduce parking demand and, thus, the necessary size of the parking lot.  As Trinkle and Cutler’s original commentary piece says:  “It is a plan that is funded based on the demands each property places on the storm drain system.”  This seems to be the most fair way to pay for the system improvements:  Charge the people who use it the most, and create a system which creates incentives for smarter development in the future.  In this regard, Craig’s fear that “Joe Blue-collar” will feel the bite of the fee (which amounts to $36 a year for homeowners) is a red herring; clearly, the real targets (and rightly so) are industrial and commercial sites who contribute most heavily to the problem.

Oil puddle on pavement - Wikimedia Commons

There is a secondary transportation/stormwater management intersection that has less to do with drainage and more to do with water quality.  Most cars of any age leak a little of something – oil, brake fluid, power steering fluid.  Probably barely enough for the average car owner to notice, and in some cases not worth the trouble to fix.  But that stuff collects, and aggregated across a huge parking fall full of cars (think of Valley View Mall during Christmas, or any of Virginia Tech’s parking lots on any given days), you can start to see significant quantities of toxic chemicals are building up.  For example, in an interview with PBS’s Frontline, Jay Manning, Director of Washington State’s Department of Ecology, says:  “[T]he volume of oil that is carried into Puget Sound by stormwater runoff [every two years] is equal to the oil spill in Prince William Sound, the Exxon Valdez spill.”  Granted, Manning is speaking here of statewide impact, but the principle is the same:  the stuff that drips slowly from the undercarriage of your parked car is eventually washed into the Roanoke River.

A funding scheme that buries the cost for stormwater management in property taxes or other general fund sources, as Craig proposes, might pay for system improvements but would do nothing to curb the growth of harmful development patterns that put additional strain in the system.

The main problem with Trinkle and Cutler’s proposal is not the fee structure but that it is limited to the City of Roanoke.  To be truly successful, this fee needs to be applied to all development within the Roanoke Valley and anything that contributes to the strain on our drainage system or runoff into the Roanoke River.  The danger with the fee as proposed is that it could encourage sprawl by pushing new development into the rural portions of Roanoke and Botetourt Counties.  Not only would this not solve the problem with drainage, it would exacerbate it by contributing to sprawl that, in turn, contributes to longer commute times and distances, more roads, and unnecessary energy consumption.  This effort is a necessary start, but the region should come together to take a more comprehensive look at drainage and water quality and make sure that the problem of unchecked growth does not outpace the proposed solutions.