For the past 25 years, Stephen C. Smith has been executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning & Economic Development District, an organization responsible for long-range planning for much of Southeastern Massachusetts.
The agency was the first regional planning agency in Massachusetts, founded in 1956 by an alliance of area cities and towns. With 27 communities now members, its responsibilities span 800 square miles and a population of 600,000.
Under Smith's leadership, SRPEDD has been an advocate for improved transportation, protection of natural resources, and smart growth.
Globe correspondent Robert Preer spoke recently with Smith, a resident of Freetown, at the agency's office in Taunton, about the region's future. Following is an edited transcript.
Q: We've been hearing for some time that Southeastern Massachusetts is the fastest-growing part of Massachusetts. With the economic slowdown that has occurred, is this region still growing?
A: We're not a high-growth area if you compare us to Phoenix and Las Vegas, but we certainly are compared to the state as a whole. Our population growth has been for some time three times the rate of the state. We've developed more land in Southeastern Massachusetts in the last 50 years than we did from 1620 to 1960. Our major cities have been stable in population, and the towns around them have grown in excess of 100 percent. In the past we had a lot of sprawl that hurt our cities and destroyed our natural resources. In some ways the second surge of growth we are undergoing right now is an opportunity to do it right.
Q: What are some of the major challenges and policy questions the region is likely to face in the next decade?
A: Our economy has not transformed as rapidly or successfully as the metro Boston area. We still have a predominance of manufacturing - which is not all bad. They tend to be good jobs. But in terms of the 21st-century economy - biotech and high tech - we are not on the cutting edge. We have to transform our economy and that includes things like marine science along the south coast and biotech and other types of businesses elsewhere.
We have enormous infrastructure needs. It's primarily transportation, but not exclusively. We've seen the traffic counts on Route 24 triple in the last 20-plus years. The real crisis is that we have to face up to paying for the infrastructure improvements that we need. There really is not enough money in the system.
A third thing is protection of our natural resources. Because of sprawl, growth is consuming much more land. There are still some remarkable areas that are unspoiled in Southeastern Massachusetts that we need to try to preserve.
And housing is always an issue in Massachusetts. One of the things that is fueling growth in this region is the fact that people can buy a home for a lot less money here and then commute to jobs outside of the region. That's not a sustainable situation with the price of gasoline going up the way it is.
Q: How important is the extension of commuter rail to Fall River and New Bedford to the region?
A: The commuter rail project kind of addresses all the things I just mentioned in one way or another. It's a transportation investment that is an alternative to the single-occupancy vehicle. It will hopefully allow some urban reinvestment, and generate growth in the cities to counterbalance the sprawl that the highways caused. There are potentially some real environmental benefits as well.
It's a very controversial project for environmental reasons, particularly where it passes through wetlands. But there are opportunities to do mitigation that actually improves those wetlands. There would be air quality benefits and the lessening of traffic congestion and urban reinvestment that on balance make it a very positive project from an environmental standpoint.
Q: Until the new commuter rail line opens - and no one knows when that will be - Route 24 will probably be the main route to Boston. Do you see any improvements coming to the highway?
A: The top project that needs to happen on 24 is the interchange at Route 140, which is the main feeder from New Bedford to Boston. It's a major choke point. That needs to be upgraded. There is money in the system to do that. It's a matter of the state agreeing on a design.
There is a long-term plan that has not really advanced very far to convert Route 24 to an interstate highway. That would require lots of work on the interchanges and overpasses because they don't meet interstate standards for the most part. That could address a lot of the problems.
Q: What are the prospects for a new interchange on Route 24 on the Freetown-Fall River line?
A: There are the usual obstacles, mainly environmental, but the state is moving forward with it. It will open up land for industrial development both in Fall River and in Freetown. It also will be close to one of the proposed rail stations and will create a nice synergy for some good planned development in that area.
Q: I know you have been critical of planning for the proposed Mashpee Wampanoag casino in Middleborough. What are your concerns?
A: SRPEDD really does not have an official position on the casino, but we do have to evaluate what the impacts will be. There is no clear process for mitigation in the surrounding towns, where a lot of the impacts in terms of housing, traffic, and schools will be felt. And whether it's a casino or just a large resort development, the fact is that as it now stands, one community gets the benefits in the form of money and mitigation, and the other communities are basically standing at the town border with their hat in hand.
Q: SRPEDD was talking about smart growth long before it was fashionable. Do you see cities and towns responding by changing their zoning regulations? Isn't that where changes need to happen?
A: Yes, exactly. There are things happening, although they're not happening at the pace I'd like to see. Taunton is adopting a transit-oriented development zone. Communities are looking at cluster zoning. . .at 40R, which is a state program that allows development at a higher density and compensates communities for additional school costs.
Q: We have one of the first desalination plants in the Northeast United States opening in Dighton now to serve Brockton and Norton and possibly other communities. Do you think extraordinary projects like this will be necessary to meet the region's water needs?
A: I hope not. I think to some extent the desalination option is the result of a failure to properly manage the resource. I don't think in the final analysis we really have a shortage of water. What we do have is a very archaic system of laws in terms of who owns it and how we distribute it. We're also not careful enough about protecting our groundwater.