Posts Tagged ‘Strong Towns’

The case against infrastructure

November 23, 2021

STRONG TOWNS: A bottom-up revolution to rebuild American prosperity by Charles L. Marohn Jr. (2020)

I wish I’d read this book before I posted anything on my blog about infrastructure.  Charles L. Marohn Jr., an engineer and land-use planner, calls attention to something important and obvious, once pointed out, but which I overlooked.

It is that infrastructure involves a maintenance cost as well as a benefit, and the cost can and often does exceed the benefit.

When you buy a house or a car, the longer you have it, the more it costs to keep it in repair.  The same is true of public roads, water and sewerage systems,  and other physical infrastructure.

The long-range cost of maintaining a road or a water and sewerage system can exceed the economic benefit of the system.  Benefit can be measured in the willingness of the property-owner to pay taxes and fees in return for the benefit, or in the revenue per acre from the land whose value is enhanced by the infrastructure.

Neglect of this truth is a main reason why so many American cities are in financial trouble these days.  The other reason is the financial obligations, such as employee pension funds, that they’ve taken on over the years.

Something beneficial was done, or some problem was solved, in the short term by taking on a long-term obligation.  Future growth was supposed to take care of the long-term obligation.  For many decades, it did.

I’ve posted a good bit on my blog about declining infrastructure.  I’ve quoted estimates by the American Society of Civil Engineers about the huge cost to bring existing U.S. infrastructure up to snuff.

But I failed to make a distinction between spending to maintain existing infrastructure and spending to build new infrastructure.  As I’ve said, it’s not feasible to be constantly building new stuff if you can’t afford to keep up the old stuff.  I can’t figure out from news accounts how much of President Biden’s infrastructure bill is for maintenance and how much is for new construction.  

Marohn wrote that the USA doesn’t need one brick of new infrastructure, but only to maintain what it’s got.  I wouldn’t go so far, but I understand what he’s getting at.

We in the USA have come to the end of the era of growth, Marohn wrote.  U.S. cities are limited by what they can afford, and should not make capital investments that do not produce a return.

Now, this kind of reasoning sounds like the rationale given for red-lining poor and majority-black neighborhoods in the bad old days.  The decision to disinvest became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Nowadays this is understood to have been a terrible wrong, whose consequences continue today..

But Marohn argued that the poor neighborhoods aren’t usually the ones that don’t pay their way.  He gave examples from his home city of Brainerd, Minnesota.  

On one side of a street is an Old and Blighted Block, on the other a New and Shiny one.  On one side are  nine marginal businesses, including a pawn shop, a bankruptcy attorney, a couple of liquor stores, a barbershop and a neighborhood restaurant.  On the other is a Taco John restaurant franchise, with plenty of green space and off-street parking.

But the assessed value of Old and Blighted is $1.1 million.  New and Shiny is only $620,000.  Furthermore the Old and Blighted businesses hire local accountants, attorneys, printing shops and other services; it’s not known whether Taco John does.  And the nine marginal businesses may well employ as many full-time equivalent workers as Taco John.

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