Triage is the process of prioritizing care in a resource constrained environment. The French first developed this technique on the battlefield when medics were overwhelmed and couldn’t provide sufficient help to every soldier who needed it. Triage separates the wounded into three groups: those who can be saved with immediate attention, those who are stable enough to be left for care at a later time, and those who are too far gone to be saved at all. This same process is beginning to play out in our failing communities.
First, let’s look at the suburban development pattern. Municipal governments anticipate rapid growth so they preemptively built infrastructure out on the edge of town to accommodate more of everything. This is very often done as a way of inducing growth before market demand is evident. So long as growth actually occurs the town’s investment seems prudent and orderly. It’s easier to build massive roads before the landscape is cluttered with buildings and already heavily used by motorists. Unfortunately, the road infrastructure pictured above was put in place twenty five years ago and the town is still waiting for someone to flesh out the adjacent vacant land. It’s entirely possible that this stretch of road will deteriorate and need to be repaved long before the desired shopping malls, office parks, and residential subdivisions appear. The traffic lights and turn signals alone cost $350,000. This ten lane road intersects an eight lane road. That kind of paving costs millions of dollars. That’s a huge sunk cost that was never actually needed and has drained away precious revenue from more important public works for an entire generation.
Here’s a more modest intersection where a six lane road crosses a four lane road. The lights and signals here probably cost $250,000. But look at the sparse level of development it serves. Half the land is vacant. The rest is composed of a few industrial sheds, some tract homes, and a scrap yard.
Here’s an intersection that was constructed in the 1960’s in a part of town that is fully built out. This is the best case scenario in terms of the suburban land use plan. All the nearby territory has been covered in respectable single family homes with tidy front lawns and backyard swimming pools just as desired. But look at the amount of pavement relative to the built environment. There’s a huge amount of road serving some pretty modest structures. Also notice that there’s so much roadway that the area is a safety hazard for pedestrians – or as the traffic engineers might say, the occasional pedestrian or cyclist poses a grave threat to motorists. The chain link fence ensures that no one is ever tempted to try and cross the street on foot. In a part of the world that is dedicated to raising children and allowing people to age in place it’s actually a pretty sucky environment once you wander out of the cul-de-sac.
We all know what happens to our homes as they age. The roof needs to be replaced, the water heater dies, the dish washer eventually fails, and so on. The same is true of municipal infrastructure. The question in this case is how to pay for the upkeep on these massively overbuilt roads and underlying pipes and cables as they deteriorate. The gasoline tax and Department of Transportation trust funds all over the country are already in the red. The states and feds are deep in debt. If you think the nice folks living in these neighborhoods are going to accept big tax hikes to repave these roads you’re sadly mistaken. Floating yet another municipal bond is going to be expensive when the banks and investors see how pathetic your town’s cash flow is.
Here’s the scale of the problem. Each red circle is an intersection that needs to be maintained at a price point that isn’t even remotely going to be covered by the local tax base. Now connect all those red rots with the connecting infrastructure… The numbers simply don’t add up and they never will. The growth phase of this area has come to an end and the maintenance bills are starting to arrive. That takes us back to triage. With scarce resources people need to start asking some tough questions. What gets maintained and what is let go?
I recently spoke to a group of civil engineers and local government representatives. The engineers all looked around and very quickly drew lines on the map. The older parts of town closer to the center were already pretty viable as they were. The newest developments on the edge of town were toast from a cost/benefit perspective and should have never been built in the first place. The stuff in the middle was a toss up. With a little work some of it could be salvaged and some of it will probably fail. Then there were the government folks who deal directly with the public. They looked at the map and explained that the wealthier most politically organized folks live out in the big new homes on the edge of town. The people who live in the older more central neighborhoods are predominantly poorer less educated ethnic minorities. Anyone want to guess how scarce resources are going to be spent moving forward?