A Strong Towns member sent us this article (Promoting Municipal Fiscal Health) from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. It sounds so good yet misses the mark in so many fundamental ways.

Here's the objective, which is quite worthy:

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy today launched a multi-year campaign to promote Municipal Fiscal Health in the U.S. and worldwide, to help cities confront an epidemic of insolvency and restore the capacity for local governments to provide basic services and plan for the future.

Then you have the rhetoric, which comes from the all-too-familiar School of Conventional Thinking but leaves open a shot at redemption:

“Our roads, sewers and levees are crumbling under the weight of fiscal stress and underinvestment,” said former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, co-chair of Building America’s Future and a Lincoln Institute board member. “Putting cities on strong financial footing is critical for protecting the basic public goods and services many citizens take for granted.”

But alas, it doesn't take us long to get to core dogmatic belief of practically all of these efforts: we just don't have enough money.

Whether measured in infrastructure gaps -- $3.6 trillion in the U.S. by some accounts -- or precarious financial instruments -- $3.3 trillion underfunded municipal debt in China -- the fiscal challenges facing the world’s municipalities are deeply troubling. 

At the same time that cities face such historic needs, numerous municipal bankruptcies, most notably Detroit in 2013, have highlighted the problems of chronically meager or diminishing revenues, increasing costs of providing public goods and services, mounting historical obligations, and expanding responsibilities imposed both by higher-level governments and local citizens. 

So disappointing.

Hurricane Katrina damage was caused by a lack of total investment in infrastructure or a lack of focus in prioritizing spending?

Hurricane Katrina damage was caused by a lack of total investment in infrastructure or a lack of focus in prioritizing spending?

To illustrate, one of the key areas that the Lincoln Institute's campaign on municipal fiscal health is going to focus on is Capital Accounts and Infrastructure Investment. Here's what they say about that:

Fiscal stress can have a serious impact on capital accounts, and is a factor in the chronic underinvestment in infrastructure -- $3.6 trillion in the U.S. and up to $40 trillion globally. Failure to maintain infrastructure has been responsible for catastrophes such as the collapse of an interstate highway into the Mississippi River, the explosion of buildings in Harlem due to leaks in century-old gas lines, and the failure of levees during Hurricane Katrina.

Sounds so logical, but as this Member pointed out in his email to me:

actually, it's backwards... we shouldn't be surprised if a) under performing assets are dis-invested in, or, b) if we rob peter (from productive assets) to pay paul (build shiny new things).  

He is absolutely right. When we make low-returning investments, we invite decline. When our places are not financially productive, we should not be surprised when they struggle financially. When we look at infrastructure as solely a revenue problem, we fail to grasp the actual meaning of the word "investment" and it's implications for a return.

Finding more money to build more infrastructure is not a solution and, in fact, will only make the current problem worse. We first need to address the financial productivity problem, the fact that our auto-oriented development pattern costs a lot to build and maintain and does not produce enough excess wealth to meet these ongoing obligations.

As the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy launches this new campaign, let's hope that they resist being just another member of the Infrastructure Cult and instead become real advocates for a stronger America.