What do you get when you combine:

  1. A scenic country road, 
  2. Rigid road standards handed down from on high, and
  3. Excessive government subsidy?

Answer: Bad spending decisions that destroy neighborhoods and waste millions of dollars.

Let's study these components:

A scenic country road. Riverside Drive north of Brainerd, MN, is one of those classic country roads. It winds through the forest with a lake on one side and steep hills and homes on the other. It is one of those drives where my dad used to throw the kids in the VW Bug, swing through the DQ and just drive. One other critical fact about Riverside Drive: it has the misfortune of being part of the county road system.

Rigid road standards handed down from on high. For country roads there are two types of standards that apply. The first we'll call the local standard. For road projects that do not receive any state or federal money but instead are paid solely out of the local budget, the local standard will apply. The local standard is the road that locals would build if left up to their own budgets and their own priorities. As such, it is typically narrower, has more curves and more hills than the other type of road due largely to the fact that, with only local funds, rational decisions to prioritize certain design requirements are made.

That rationality is lost in the other type of country road, the ones that receive state and/or federal subsidy. In those cases the new road must be built to a federal or state standard, one that usually far exceeds the local standard in intensity. Lanes are widened, curves are straightened and hills are leveled so that traffic can flow more quickly and, ostensibly safely. Wide. Straight. Flat.

Excessive government subsidy. More and more county roads are being reconstructed with state and federal dollars. Stated a different way, counties are turning to state and federal funding sources more and more often to maintain their over-expanded road systems. With the infrastructure part of the federal stimulus money now flowing into the system, if you have the project, we have the subsidy.

A $2 million project to "update" Riverside Drive has received the preliminary go ahead from Crow Wing County. The original project was stalled due to the $700,000 local match. (Note, the road was not a high enough priority for the county to justify the $700k at this time). With the stimulus money, it is now full speed ahead with no local match.

Predictably, the property owners are not happy. The scenic road that served their neighborhood for years is now going to be widened into a "major artery". They simple want it resurfaced. From the article,

Lyle MacIver, Ashmun Road resident, asked why repaving the road wasn't an alternative.

"I don't think people have properly and completely looked at the risks that this Ahrens Hill is going to collapse into Gilbert Lake," MacIver said. "If we spend the taxpayers' money to do this and it fails who is going to pay for it. And the third is illogical to me that if the money is there we've got to use it."

MacIver said it doesn't make sense to spend this amount of money on this short roadway.

Dr. MacIver, who is a gentlemen in addition to being a really smart guy, correctly states that this does not make sense. The road does not need to be widened, straightened and flattened. It simply needs a new surface. Transforming this scenic route into another shortcut thoroughfare will not just detract from his neighborhood. It is a tremendous waste of money, particularly when so many other area roads actually need maintenance and reconstruction. Why spend this much money here?

From the article,

Those funds [stimulus dollars] would not be available for a resurfacing project because the current road doesn't meet design standards.

In other words, the county is not subsidized to do a project that fits with the neighborhood and is financially proportionate to the situation. There is no outside money for that. Instead, the county is enticed to overbuild the roadway on someone else's dime. From the county's perspective (if they bother to think this far - there is no sign that they or anybody else in their shoes actually does), the worst that can happen is that the added capacity induces even more traffic throughout their already-frayed county road system. This system will now include a new Riverside Drive that will be built to a standard that the county won't be able to afford to maintain twenty years from now.

Widen the road. Induce more demand. Add more capacity and increase the long-term maintenance costs. Ultimately, the system grows beyond any scale that can reasonably be financially maintained. Seen this nightmare before?

Unfortunately the long-term imbalance is a minor concern when compared to the immediate enticement of more free money. After all, with the "savings" the county now has they can afford to improve other roads.

Stimulus money for Riverside Drive means dollars will be available for other projects, [Commissioner Phil] Trusty said.

If we want to end this madness, we need a change in state and federal policy. No more subsidy for converting neighborhood roads into major thoroughfares. No more sprawl-rewarding shortcuts on the public dime. No more infrastructure that, even if they had the money, the locals would never choose to build themselves.

"I don't know if the stimulus money is the answer, but I've seen it work," Trusty said.

This system is out of control. We need to adopt a Strong Towns mindset from top to bottom before the hole we are digging for ourselves falls in on us.