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.