Omaha And Dirt Roads: The Unsustainability Of Suburban Infrastructure

I might have mentioned once or twice how the truly hard problem isn’t the urban housing cost crisis (there are way to fix this; we just don’t want to do it), but the fiscal unsustainability of the suburbs:

While Paul Krugman’s recent column about urban inequality and gentrification has been lighting up the internet, to a considerable extent, it’s irrelevant. As I’ve discussed before, cities–not metro areas, but actual cities–will never hold but a fraction of the U.S.’s population (though hopefully an increasing fraction). The problem we will face is how to keep suburbs economically viable, both in terms of infrastructure and quality of life. Part of that will have to involve increasing ‘urbanization’ of the suburbs, while other suburbs will be left to decline. But this, not gentrification (which can be reduced with progressive taxation) is a much more difficult problem. Not only will there be resistance by homeowners to changes, but the very, well, infrastructure of the suburbs doesn’t lend itself to increasing density. Very basic and expensive things like altering the road grid (or, more accurately, turning the suburban knot into a grid) will meet a lot of political resistance, even if the funds to do this can be found.

If you think the politics of resentment are bad today, just wait a decade or two as a bunch of suburban homeowners see their nest eggs turn to shit.

Which brings us to Omaha, Nebraska. I bear no ill will towards Omaha: I used to have relatives there, and visited often many moons ago. But much of the growth in Omaha, even though it is a city, is exactly like that of a suburb. So you’ll never believe what happened next! (boldface mine)

It’s a model of comfortable mid-American living, with one unusual exception: thanks to a quirk in how Omaha developed, about 300 miles of streets in these nice neighborhoods are pitted with potholes almost big enough to swallow an SUV.

The bad roads have been both an anomaly and a source of complaints for years. But recently, they’ve become the center of a mini-crisis after local officials began dispatching crews to tear up the asphalt in the neighborhoods and turn the streets back into dirt roads, much like what existed in the city’s frontier days…

Nearly every U.S. city faces a backlog of needed roadwork as streets built decades ago wear out, but the situation is especially vexing in Omaha, a sprawling city of 435,000 people with 4,800 miles of road and not enough tax revenue to maintain them.

Decades ago, a number of developers sought permission to lay down asphalt roads, rather than longer-lasting concrete, in several sections in the middle of town, and to skip installing curbs and gutters preferred by the city. The city agreed, with the understanding that homeowners be responsible for occasional repaving. Some substandard roads also were in areas once outside the city but that were later annexed.

For years, the arrangement held up. But as the roads began to age and crumble, and as new residents replaced the original homeowners, resentment intensified about a city government that maintained some neighborhoods while ignoring others.

“It’s a matter of fairness,” said Omaha streets superintendent Austin Rowser. “Some property owners paid for better streets and a minority didn’t.”

He added that the city simply can’t afford the roughly $300 million bill to fix all the substandard streets.

That doesn’t fly with residents who say that dirt roads or crumbling pavement are unworthy of a well-off community with a growing population, a tiny unemployment rate and four Fortune 500 companies

According to urban planners, the dispute is a case study in how short-term deals that cities make about seemingly minor issues can backfire when the cities and circumstances change.

I’ll say. Keep in mind, Omaha is a reasonably prosperous city in a low-cost state. And it still can’t afford the current costs of road maintenance. What chance do less affluent areas have?

By the way, how do you think those property values are doing along those dirt roads…

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One Response to Omaha And Dirt Roads: The Unsustainability Of Suburban Infrastructure

  1. zero says:

    New buyers frequently are not told about these little ‘arrangements’ with developers. (Usually it gets disclosed as required by law but often it’s buried in the fine print. Always read all of the fine print when buying a house.) People call the city and complain only to be told they are the ones who would have to pay. Some neighborhoods refuse and try to make the city pay, with dirt roads the best result. Other neighborhoods get paved and then get billed. Omaha is not the only place this happens, but like many conservative states there is little state aid, low gas taxes, low road-use fees and almost no appetite for local taxes to pay for essential infrastructure. There are typically only three things people *are* willing to pay for, generally through bond initiatives: new school construction, sporting facilities like football fields and tax incentives to lure businesses (though these incentives are never described as something locals are paying for).

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