Admit it: you’ve seen them. Those cheesy reality shows where the producers find a desperate family who can’t seem to catch a break, and over the course of 21 hyper-produced minutes, give them the gift of a lifetime: a fully renovated, free-and-clear mansion to live out their days in comfort and style. You might have even gotten a little misty as you watched these families open the front door and discover their blinged-out new living room. After all, who doesn’t like to see good people get something great once in a while? Who wouldn’t want a beautiful house designed just for them—and with a paid-off mortgage, to boot?
The only problem? Often, those families don’t stay in their dream houses for all that long. They get overwhelmed by the increased tax bill, and the maintenance costs, and all the extra utilities it takes to heat and cool their huge new castle. They simply can’t afford their big, free house—because even if there’s no loan to pay back, homeownership can still be a serious liability.
This month, the federal government announced that they were giving states a giant, shiny prize of their own: more than $4 billion dollars in re-allocated highway funding, doled out to Departments of Transportation via formula like some algorithmic Oprah taping luxury sweater capes underneath her audiences’ seats. The DOT’s, understandably, were thrilled, and most Americans probably would be too—after all, who wouldn’t want their state, and all the good people who live in it, to get some great new infrastructure for nothing?
The only problem, of course, is one Strong Towns advocates are all too familiar with: even the greatest gift in the world can become a curse if you don’t have a way to maintain it. And in many of our communities, the last generation’s bonanza of highway funding has already left them feeling like a reality show contestant with a big, gorgeous home that they can’t afford to fix, and no one wants to buy.
Today on Upzoned, host Kea Wilson and semi-regular guest-host John Reuter talk about what states should do differently if they want to avoid what happens after the cameras go home and the free-money party is over. Should we just say “no” to big buckets of federal cash? Is there a better way we should let our cities and states spend those dollars, rather than endless lane-widenings and new highway miles? And most importantly, how can more of our infrastructure become high-returning assets for our communities, rather than crushing future liabilities in disguise as present-day windfalls?
Then in the Downzone, John and Kea talk about how they’ve been spending the last days of summer: reading sci-fi novels about a near-future Berlin where generosity has been turned into a pharmaceutical product, and wandering dog parks with cute puppies, wondering about what they mean about our communities (including one much-publicized DC dog park dust-up).
Top photo via Creative Commons.