Cities and towns along Interstate 495 could more than double the region’s workforce if officials and developers channeled growth to town centers and vacant industrial parks while also preserving forests, farms, and orchards, according to specialists who have studied the transportation corridor.
But everyone might have to wait a century before the region achieves its maximum potential for hiring if current building patterns that encourage sprawl continue, authorities on the subject warned. The problem, they said, is the sprawl-related costs of new roads, water lines, and traffic congestion undermining the benefits of development.
“We see the Route 9/495 corridor as really being the sprawl frontier,’’ said Heidi Ricci, senior environmental policy specialist at the Massachusetts Audubon Society, one of the members of the 495/MetroWest Development Compact. “We know at some point development will pick up again. Will it follow the same pattern or can we chart a better path?’’
Ricci was one of several analysts who spoke at a Nov. 15 forum sponsored by the compact in Framingham Town Hall.
The compact unveiled the results of a $300,000 state-funded survey that asked officials and planners in 37 communities along I-495 to identify sites that they wanted to target for either development or preservation.
Composed of the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the quasi-public Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the 496/MetroWest Partnership, a private advocacy organization based in Westborough, and other groups, the compact is an initiative designed to study growth in one of the state’s fastest-growing regions.
Compact members winnowed 800 responses from local officials down to around 300, with a third of the sites designated for development. The development list includes industrial parks in Marlborough, commercial parcels on the Devens property, and downtown Littleton, while areas marked for preservation include forests in Berlin, and the headwaters of the Charles River in Milford.
Data gleaned from the survey will help towns avoid sprawl while still attracting new employers, said Barry Keppard, a planner from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council who spoke at the event.
The cities and towns along I-495 now have around 140,000 workers, said Keppard. If current trends continue, local employers will hire an additional 52,000 people through 2035, he said. That might seem like a lot of new jobs, but the region has the capacity for 204,000 more employees, Keppard said. At the current pace of economic development, he added, it would take 97 years for the workforce in the region to reach those capacity numbers.
The pace of job growth is relatively slow, said Keppard and others, because the expenses associated with setting up operations in undeveloped areas are increasingly holding back new projects. Communities are straining to maintain their current infrastructures, while businesses are increasingly daunted by costly permitting applications.
“There’s a lot of agreement among the developer and environmentalist communities on the costs of sprawl,’’ said Angus Jennings, director of land use management for Westford, who spoke on the panel.
With the compact’s new list, officials can signal to developers where they would welcome new building or renovations, such as areas that already have infrastructure, and tell environmentalists where they might work to protect sensitive wildlife or historic areas.
“Are funds going to go to maintain places that have existing infrastructure, to invest in the capacity that is there and take advantage of those connections, or start something new and have to maintain it in the future?’’ asked Keppard. “There are limited resources, and people are looking to invest in a way that is a good return.’’
If current trends continue, around 23,000 new jobs will sprout up through 2035 in municipalities that don’t have public water systems, placing an enormous strain on local aquifers, said Keppard. On the other hand, he said, if towns preserve and foster growth in the areas identified on the compact’s list, only around 7,500 jobs will appear in areas without public water over the same period.
The state’s housing and economic development secretary, Greg Bialecki, speaking at the event, said Governor Deval Patrick had ordered agencies to take the survey’s findings seriously when communities apply for state funding for construction projects. The idea is to focus on projects that everyone agrees are desirable. “This is in fact affecting how we make internal decisions,’’ he said.
Residents have until Tuesday to submit comments on the compact’s findings, said Paul Matthews, executive director of the 495/MetroWest Partnership.
“It’s not as if development is done,’’ said Matthews. “There are still opportunities out there, and development and preservation don’t have to be polar opposites. I see deer go by my office. There are benefits to that.’’