The Argument for Less Infrastructure

Johnny Sanphillippo is a Strong Towns member living in San Francisco and doing some amazing blogging at Granola Shotgun. We pulled this post of his off our member blogroll and share it here with his permission.

What would our neighborhoods look like if we voluntarily reduced the amount of infrastructure? This isn’t a purely academic question. As municipal, state, and federal budgets get squeezed there’s going to be a point at which we have no choice but to stop building new roads and even reduce the amount of maintenance on the roads we already have. We could approach this situation with dread and a sense of loss, or we could embrace it as an opportunity to get a better quality of life for a whole lot less money.

I grew up in New Jersey. Like most states the New Jersey Highway Trust Fund is just about bankrupt this year. Unless the gas tax is raised all revenue will go exclusively to debt service. If revenue were to drop below a certain point, due to lower gas prices or lower demand for gas, there won’t be enough money to service the debt either. We’re likely to see triage one way or another.

This is the historic Water Witch subdivision above Sandy Hook that was first built in 1895, not too far from New York City. Twenty five years ago I had friends who bought an old house here when the neighborhood was only beginning to come back after a long period of decline. Back then the houses were old and in varying states of disrepair. My friends saw the potential and started renovating their place and helped spearhead a revitalization of the neighborhood. These days it’s a posh address with rather expensive homes. But notice the narrow gravel roads.

Water Witch is a private community, although it isn’t “gated” in the contemporary sense. That means the HOA members pay to maintain the roads not the government. This is a really important distinction. When people believe their property tax money entitles them to certain things they often have high expectations. They tend to have a very different attitude when they know they’re going to be writing a check directly for the level of service they ask for. This difference in who pays for the roads leads to different outcomes.

Back in the late 1980’s I was privy to HOA meeting debates where some members demanded that the roads be paved. They were tired of the ruts, mud puddles, and problems of snow removal. The dirt roads were one of the things that had kept property values depressed for decades. So a consulting engineer was brought in and explained exactly what it would cost to pave the roads. It would be many millions of dollars divided by the forty two homes in the community.

That conversation came to a halt instantly. So much for paved roads at Water Witch. The compromise was to maintain the gravel roads to a slightly higher standard with annual adjustments that were far more cost effective. The resulting bucolic country lanes twist up the hill and provide a feeling of retreat from both the nearby city as well as the surrounding suburban sprawl. It also ensures that no one will ever be temped to speed since the roads won’t physically allow it. This keeps the neighborhood safe for pedestrians and cyclists. And it also happens to be more ecological as an extra bonus.

Now, there were some people in the HOA that didn’t even want to pay for the annual gravel upgrades. These weren’t what you would call poor people, but no one wants to pay for anything if it isn’t absolutely necessary. It was suggested that the community clubhouse could be rented out for special events to generate the needed revenue to pay for road maintenance. Other people objected. Why live in a private community if an army of strangers would come marching in day and night?

So the HOA found a sweet spot. The clubhouse would be rented for only twelve events per year between April and October. Valets would be hired at the expense of the renters to manage traffic. Those twelve days would bring in enough money to pay for the road work each summer. It was a reasonable compromise and a good financial deal for everyone. The fact that Water Witch was distinctive and countryfied compared to the unrelenting highways and strip malls of most of New Jersey made it that much more desirable for people looking for a unique event space. People pay extra for charm.

By the way, notice how some people have paved their private driveways with asphalt or stone while the HOA roads and the parking lot at the Clubhouse are gravel. It matters who’s responsible for paying for things and how those decisions are made.

In contrast, here’s a newer upscale residential subdivision not far from Water Witch. Notice the massively wide paved roads and enormous cul-de-sac. I have to ask… What does all that paving really do for the neighborhood? You could land an Airbus A380 on this much tarmac. But what’s the point? You can be quite sure that when these roads become cracked and potholed the wealthy well-connected residents of these grand homes will mobilize and bang heads at the public works department. Somehow the government will be made to absorb the expense of repave things even if the (very high) property taxes from these specific homes doesn’t come close to covering the real cost of maintenance. Would these home owners accept a different standard if they were directly responsible for maintaining their own road?

Now let’s look at a more reasonably priced home in a middle class neighborhood. This is my sister’s house in another part of the state. She and her family live in a respectable 1960’s tract house on a half acre lot. Look at the cul-de-sac in front of her place. It’s nearly a half acre as well. Look how tiny the parked cars are compared to the amount of pavement. Again, what exactly does the neighborhood get out of this arrangement other than a massive heat island effect in summer, a storm water runoff problem, and a lot of high speed traffic that puts children, pedestrians, and cyclists in danger? Think of all the ways that much land could be put to better use to add value to the neighborhood instead of just chipping away at the county budget.

At a certain point hard choices are going to have to be made. The current political conversation involves questions about how to raise taxes while lowering levels of service. But there is another way. We could spend a whole lot less money both publicly and privately and still get a higher quality of life. I’m not sure we as a society are really ready to have that conversation.

Consider joining Johnny and the many others working with us to build a stronger America.

All photos from Google except where noted as being from Justin Tinpay Photography.