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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Reality to the Suburbs: "Wake Up, It's Time to Die"

Posted by on Thu, Jan 23, 2014 at 8:12 AM

Atlantic Cities:

From the Chicago Tribune comes the strange story of Long Grove, a well-to-do suburb that nevertheless can't pay to maintain its roads. Housing permits helped subsidize the cost of road maintenance in the village for years. Then the crash hit and the permit fees dipped to zero, which the Tribune emphasizes in its accompanying bar graph by writing "0" where there's already no bar. Now Long Grove has resorted to an "unusual plan":

Facing an annual funding gap of more than $1 million, Long Grove trustees have twice in recent months affirmed a plan that could privatize nearly half of the village's public roads — transferring the cost of upkeep and plowing to the residents in the process.
It's an uncertain time for public roads in general. Deals to privatize public infrastructure have been on the rise in recent years, and experts believe the trend will only continue. The difference in Long Grove's case is that we're talking about a local road network with no hope for the toll revenue that's attracting business partners to major highways and bridges. What Long Grove seems to mean by privatization is closer to what occurred in pre-colonial post road days: everyone taking care of their own.

This is not a strange story; this is one of the big stories that's clouding the future of the suburbs. No has has told millions of Americans that basically maintaining lots of roads for small populations is not financially realistic. As the civil engineer Charles Marohn argued a few years back, suburban sprawl is basically a fantastic Ponzi scheme. The state, which is directed by the interests of huge energy corporations, happily and eagerly provides the infrastructure with the expectation that developers will make investments that will attract buyers who will eventually absorb the cost of the very expensive infrastructure. The government has no real long-term plan to financially support these roads and civil facilities, nor do the developers, and eventually nor do the homeowners.

The US is currently faced with something like $2 trillion worth of needed infrastructure maintenance (read Leigh Gallagher's sober The End of the Suburbs), and much of this money does not exist. And privatizing these roads, which seems as inevitable as rising fuel prices, will only begin to reveal to suburbanites the true cost of their homes and cars.

What will happen? What's already happening: Those with money will return to the city and those who do not will get pushed out of it, out into the very areas that have bad, privatized roads and deteriorating services.

  • Ashley Siple


Comments (21) RSS

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Keekee 1
Cool photo.
Posted by Keekee on January 23, 2014 at 9:07 AM · Report this
lark 2
Interesting comment. I actually when to a wedding in Long Grove, IL once. As I recall, it is located near or at the Fox River in the far western suburbs (exurbia) of Chicago. Also, I believe the photo is of I-5 near Snoqualmie. I recall being on a trail once and seeing I-5 above me. Can't remember exactly where that is though.
Posted by lark on January 23, 2014 at 9:08 AM · Report this
lark 3
@2 Whoops! Meant to say "went" not "when".
Posted by lark on January 23, 2014 at 9:09 AM · Report this
@2: Yes, I also thought that photo was taken on the Denny Creek Trail.
Posted by J.R. on January 23, 2014 at 9:12 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 5
We go through cycles. I guarantee that the burbs will be back. In the meantime, their purported demise is caused by flight to exurbs as much (if not more) than the influx of new urban dwellers.
Posted by Matt from Denver on January 23, 2014 at 9:16 AM · Report this
Urgutha Forka 6
I briefly (very briefly - 6 mo.) lived in an area of Boulder, CO that had completely privatized maintenance of the roads in about a 10x10 or so square block area. Mostly I didn't notice, but then a blizzard hit and the streets - all the streets - remained unplowed for weeks. Everyone was stuck in their home unless they walked through knee or waist deep snow to get to a cab on a plowed road. Some cars tried to get out, only to become trapped in the middle of streets, where they waited until the snow melted. Even people with plows on their pickup trucks couldn't do anything because they were stuck under snow too. There were ragtag, crisscrossing lines of shoveled areas connecting a few houses, but mostly everyone was stuck. The postal service kept everyone's mail at the post office because no delivery trucks could get through. I had wondered what would happen if someone needed the police, or fire dept., or ambulance. There was simply no way in or out.

Apparently, their community-approved plan in case of snow was: "just wait for it to melt."


I'm SO glad I don't live in Boulder anymore. They project an image that they're super liberal and progressive there, but in truth, they've got a deep seated libertarian mindset going on.
Posted by Urgutha Forka on January 23, 2014 at 9:23 AM · Report this
Sargon Bighorn 7
NPR had a piece about a CO town that did not want to be taxed in order to provide street lights because they knew deep in their Loving hearts that Government is evil and can't do a thing right. The lights went out. It took awhile but people began to ask why the street lights were not on. Things got pretty bad.

The suburbs won't be back like we know them today. The suburbs will be a farm situation sort of like America had in 1880, you hitched up the horse and wagon twice a month to get staples in the city. Then you rode back to the suburb/farm and worked you tail off trying to survive.
Posted by Sargon Bighorn on January 23, 2014 at 9:48 AM · Report this
wisepunk 8
I think that is the new Issaquah exit on I-90. I-5 is nowhere near denny creek. If @2 wasn't such a hippie-commie-bike riding-no car-public transit-2 block radius-hipster they would know this.

(did I nail the suburban dickish attutude correctly)?
Posted by wisepunk on January 23, 2014 at 9:50 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 9
@ 6, were you actually within city limits?
Posted by Matt from Denver on January 23, 2014 at 9:59 AM · Report this
And how is this privatization plan better in their minds than taxes?
Posted by ohthetrees on January 23, 2014 at 10:08 AM · Report this
I do not envision any serious decline in the future of the suburbs for a multitude of reasons: Cheaper and bigger homes with a bigger bang for the buck than the city proper; The bigger homes for the ego trip breeding of kids and perceived safety and quality of those school systems for those kids away from the big dirty crime ridden city; and an opportunity to have separation from progressive politics, lifestyles and culture and in some cases, dare I say it, dark skinned people--around here, maybe not Kent or certain parts of Bellevue, but arguably applicable to much of Sno Ho County and east of the mountains
Posted by neo-realist on January 23, 2014 at 10:13 AM · Report this
AFinch 12
Meh - they will put up with this "privatize" nonsense for a while and then they'll cave and agree to increased tax revenue - that's the real end result. Sprawl is driven by tax arbitrage, it's true, with mature places (dense cities) at the high-tax/high-service end of things, and with formerly rural low-tax localities gobbling up revenue and proffers from an influx of taxpayers and developers before the 'externalities' and associated taxpayer costs become apparent.

That does not mean sprawl will stop though. I think you're dreaming if you think maintenance costs are unsustainable just because of lack of density in many of these cookie-cutter PUDs. They'll re-reach equilibrium by eventually caving to the demand for increased taxation.

It's more or less like those special assessments that condo-owners get stuck with: yes, the builder left you holding the bag and should be the one paying for the repairs, but you're the one living under a leaking roof. Or on the un-plowed street to use the example from @6. You get a few of those snowstorms on a regular basis, or the inevitable potholes, and slowly, painfully and in ultimately on the most expensive path possible, you'll arrive at "socialism": collective taxation for a common (public) good.
Posted by AFinch on January 23, 2014 at 10:16 AM · Report this
Joe Szilagyi 13
It ought to be noted that not all suburbs in all parts of the country are insane. In my old homeland of Connecticut, realm of endless suburbs, things tend to work because the populace isn't made up of anti-tax and anti-government zealot refugees from Galt's Gulch.
Posted by Joe Szilagyi on January 23, 2014 at 11:08 AM · Report this
Urgutha Forka 14
I think so, but on the edges for sure... In Table Mesa, sort of near to where that winding uphill road to NCAR begins.
Posted by Urgutha Forka on January 23, 2014 at 11:21 AM · Report this
Will in Seattle 15
Cheap energy is over and wasteful car-subsidizing living as well.
Posted by Will in Seattle on January 23, 2014 at 11:22 AM · Report this
Nice image Chucky! Citing Blade Runner is, for you, perfect. That dense, decaying polluted nasty and gloomy mega metropolis where neither sun nor color nor hope ever intrude is exactly your dream habitat.

Posted by Seattleblues on January 23, 2014 at 11:30 AM · Report this
Prescient post Charles. I dig it.
Posted by Justin on January 23, 2014 at 12:13 PM · Report this
Twilight Sparkle 18
If we accept Charles' premise that suburbs aren't, or soon won't be viable, we've got a couple options; Abandon them, or turn them into city. Given the vast amounts of money tied up in suburban real estate, #1 probably isn't on the table, even in our children's lifetimes. #2 is more intriguing, and compelling considering that in Seattle's case, 85% of the region's population lives outside the Seattle city limits. The places where millions of us live could become more financially and ecologically sustainable if they were subject to targeted design and policy interventions. We in the city have the benefit of inheriting a built form that was created for a world before mass car ownership, thus a transit supportive fabric is intrinsic to our urban form. our eastside counterparts aren't so fortunate. There's a growing literature on how to retrofit auto-based urbanism for the future. This may be the defining challenge for 21st century American urbanists.
Posted by Twilight Sparkle on January 23, 2014 at 1:09 PM · Report this
Deimos 19
I grew up in north Florida, so I know rednecks. The deterioration of roads will only encourage them in that they will have a better justification for driving absurd vehicles.

"Jimmy, did you just drive to work on a camouflage ATV?"

"Hell yeah man, I need that. I live out in Oakriverridgeton, that old gated community. We ain't seen a road crew since '09, but I got me a McMansion with 12 bathrooms an' all I had to do was put in a septic tank and a rainwater cistern. I turned the master bath into a deer butchering room."
Posted by Deimos on January 23, 2014 at 1:50 PM · Report this
kk in seattle 20
Gravel is the new black[top].
Posted by kk in seattle on January 23, 2014 at 2:34 PM · Report this
tainte 21
hey chuck, i'd really love to have you over sometime. we can kick back by the creek, dip our toes in the water (hey, if you come in october we can watch the salmon swim upstream), and have a beer. maybe we'll roast some marshmallows over the campfire as the sun goes down through the trees. i'll bring my guitar and play you some nice, calming music. it would do you good to get out of the city once in awhile.
Posted by tainte on January 23, 2014 at 6:12 PM · Report this

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