Suburban Sustainability: The Rockford Files Edition

And I mean Rockford, IL (boldface mine):

Rockford is located about 85 miles west of Chicago, was chartered in 1852, and currently has a population of about 150,000. An industrial giant in its heyday, Rockford faces the challenge of reinventing itself while also meeting the mounting obligations of decades of infrastructure expansion….

Those pretty pink and purple lines indicate pipes that were installed over a century ago, and in fact, there are 120 miles of pipe that were installed pre-WWII and have exceeded their useful life of 70 years. The City CIP indicates an additional $200M is needed, today, to replace those pipes (for perspective, the full 2015-2019 CIP totals only $139M). Public Works aims to replace 3-4 miles of pipe every year but a combination of unexpected breaks requiring emergency repair and deviation from the scheduled triage of replacement due to road work projects has led to only about one mile of pipe being replaced each year for the past decade. In the second map, red lines indicate pipes that have been replaced since 2010. Nearly every inch can be explained by an IDOT road project on a state highway that runs through the city.

But obviously, this is not a problem that happened in just the past decade. This gap between available CIP dollars and existing obligation has sprawled wider and wider, just as the land area of Rockford has sprawled out in every direction. Perhaps if the development had maintained the tight grid of those pre-WWII neighborhoods, the revenue would have been sufficient to cover the obligation. But since 1970 the area of the city has doubled while the population only grew 1.2%. For every Rockfordian in 1970 there was 14.51 feet of pipe, today there is 30.45.

On December 1, 2015, the water usage rate increase approved by City Council began (and rates will increase each of the next five years). According to the presentation made by Public Works regarding the water rate changes, “Current capital budget is insufficient to ensure sustainability of the water system.”

…The best possible outcome of these rate adjustments means four miles of pipe will be replaced each year. This outcome is only achievable if water usage remains steady, if winters aren’t terribly cold, and if the careful triage of pipe replacement determined by the water division is not undermined by road projects. Even if we achieve this best possible scenario, it will take 30 years to replace the 120 miles of pipes that need to be replaced TODAY.

…70 years of expansion of the system, of subsidizing business and residential development on the fringes has not provided the revenue necessary to maintain the water system that existed before World War II; imagine what revenue will be necessary to maintain the 700 miles of pipe that have been laid since then, and all the related roads, sewer, etc. etc.

This, not rising housing costs in urban centers, will be the great challenge the U.S. faces. If current funding models don’t change, property taxes and sales taxes, along with user fees will have to increase–and, of course, public services will be cut back. That’s not conjecture on my part either:

Rockford faced a $3.5M budget deficit before 2016 even began. At last check, some of the “best” options for balancing that budget included removing hundreds of street lights, decreasing funding to the mass transit division, and increasing resident refuse fees.

There is another option, but it’s one our current political dogma simply won’t countenance: deficit spending at the federal level. One doesn’t even have to go Full Metal Chartalist/MMT/MMR (though it helps!). The employment rate still is lousy and we have infrastructure needs. We could spend some money and fix this stuff. That does lead to the question of whether we should be subsidizing suburban sprawl even more than we do now. Can’t wait for that argument.

A wonkish joke-like-thing (not sure it rises to the level of an actual joke) is that the government is a pension and medical plan that also buys a lot of guns. It might be that we start to add ‘sewer builder’ to the list.

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1 Response to Suburban Sustainability: The Rockford Files Edition

  1. Concerned Netizen says:

    Maybe the government can just not build the F-35 fighter jet that doesn’t work well? For every single F-35 we don’t build, that’s about $100 million we can put towards fixing things that actually employ more Americans. I know, I know. Heaven forbid we spend more than the next SIX countries combined instead of the next EIGHT countries combined on “defense”.

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