Suburban Sprawl Is Expensive, When You Actually Have To Pay For It

A while ago, we noted that the wicked problem isn’t affordable urban housing, but the fiscal sustainability of the suburbs:

Something that’s lurking in the background of the U.S. economy, and which will erupt with a fury in ten years or so is the need to replace suburban infrastructure: underground wires, pipes, and so on. This is something new that most suburbs, unlike cities, haven’t had to confront. A suburb that was built in 1970 is long in the tooth today, and time only makes things worse. No suburbs that I’m aware of ever decided to amortize the future cost of repairs over a forty year period–that would require an increase in property taxes. In fact, many suburbs never even covered the expenses of building new subdivisions, never mind worried about expenses decades down the road.

Worse, there’s a tax base problem. That is, the value of property per unit of infrastructure (e.g., the property tax base per square foot of water main) is much lower in the suburbs than it is in cities. Relatives who live in a wealthy suburb close to D.C. (homes go for $900,000 give or take) are in a subdivision with about 40 homes on 25 acres, with a rough property value of $45 million. In D.C., I live in a building assessed at a little over $50 million that covers a quarter of an acre (the population of these two groups is about the same). Once suburbs start having to repair their infrastructure, it’s going to get very expensive to live there (and that doesn’t even include the transportation ‘tax’ of suburban living). Keep in mind, the suburban development I’ve described is definitely on the high end of things–many places will be worse off.

Which brings us to the Great State of Texas (boldface mine):

Most homes have sewer lines that connect to a “sewer main” or main line. These “lateral lines” often go under public roads. If a resident were required to pay for a repair under a city road, the cost would be in the thousands of dollars.

Turns out Killeen homeowners have to do just that.

When homeowner Lee Huggins found out there was a problem with his lateral line, Huggins told Channel 6 the City of Killeen identified an issue with the lateral line outside his property line on the edge of the road. He asked the city to fix it, and instead they gave him a letter.

The letter states the sewer service line is a “private lateral,” and “was never accepted by the City for maintenance.” It states “the City is responsible only for the maintenance of the sewer main” and references a court case: Pittman v City of Amarillo in 1980.

This means Huggins would have to pay a contractor to dig up the city street to repair the lateral sewer line, and he told Channel 6 the estimate was in the thousands.

“My estimate for this repair is at least thirteen thousand (dollars), because it’s thirteen feet and that involves excavation, cutting of the concrete and repairing, according to city requirement,” Huggins said.

Uncharacteristically, part of the cost of infrastructure repairs was not externalized to the public at large, but, instead, has to be borne by the homeowner. Of course, if foisted onto the city, then that just means taxes will have to increase (unlike the federal government, local governments have to balance budgets, meaning raise taxes, or borrow in a currency that they don’t issue).

This is just a very small instance of what is coming–suburbs need to be repaired and that’s very expensive. And I don’t see a way around this without a massive federal infrastructure bill. Whether or not we should repair all of our suburbs is a separate question, but maybe this would make deficit spending attractive to moderates?

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2 Responses to Suburban Sprawl Is Expensive, When You Actually Have To Pay For It

  1. RossK says:

    Interesting point that this may shift the appetite for deficit spending among moderates.

    As for all those libertarian suburban mortgage holders out there…I’m sure they will be happy to pay for any and all ‘personal’ infrastructure repairs and upgrades regardless their location and/or cost, right?


  2. John Magoun says:

    I’ve read about this before. Another time bomb left over from our amazing economic and social expansion in the imperial years after the wars.

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