By John Diers
September 17, 2016 Column
I was home, just getting out of my car, when the news came over the radio. It was 6:05 PM August 7, 2007 and the I-35W Bridge had collapsed, sending 111 vehicles into the Mississippi River, injuring 145 and killing 11. I felt a chill when I thought how many times I’d driven over that bridge. I knew we had an infrastructure problem. I could see it every time I traveled the cracked and crumbling I94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul, or drove along West River Parkway and looked up at the spalling concrete beneath the Franklin Avenue Bridge, but I’d never expected anything like this.
Governor Tim Pawlenty was in office at the time, and I was critical of him for being a pinchpenny on infrastructure needs. Clearly, I reasoned, we needed to spend more on transportation and transit. I reflected on my years in the transit industry, and remembered how MTC and Hennepin County lost the fight for light rail at the legislature in 1989, how it was opposed by the Citizen League and the editorial pages of the Star Tribune and how it finally took a maverick Governor, Jesse Ventura, to get the first trains rolling to the Mall of America in 2004.
I was wrong, not about transit, or roads, or the need for infrastructure, but I was being stupid about how and why we finance, and tax, and accrue debt for such projects and how we’ve been behaving like a dog chasing its tail since the suburban boom took off after World War II.
Consider the problem. Prior Lake, like any suburb, wants to grow and develop. It has a cadre of businesses, real estate promoters, investors and property owners who want to turn their assets into cash and make money. City government sees a growing population and an opportunity, so it takes advantage of “free” state or federal money for roads and infrastructure, takes on long-term debt and, then, a developer comes along with a housing project. So far so good, the developer fronts the money for the housing project and its associated infrastructure, sells the homes, recoups the expense, plus a nice profit, and moves on. The city gets some cash and gets to keep all the revenue from property taxes.
Good deal, right?
Not quite, not according to Chuck Marohn, a “reformed” (as he puts it) civil engineer and planner and the founder of Strong Towns http://www.strongtowns.org. Marohn is the author of several books and articles on what he calls the “suburban Ponzi scheme.” I’ve written about Marohn and the growth Ponzi scheme before, but its budget season. Decisions are being made, and its time for another look.
Marohn argues the problem with this “good deal” is that taxes don’t begin to cover the full, long-term costs that come with low-density suburban development. He notes that only four to 65 cents for every dollar of infrastructure expense gets returned as tax revenue. Add to that the unintended consequences, the traffic, the noise, the environmental degradation, not to mention the need for more classrooms and schools.
He’s quoted in the July 28, 2014 issue of Time Magazine. “Most suburban municipalities are unable to pay the maintenance costs of their infrastructure, let alone replace things when they inevitably wear out after 20 or 25 years. The only way to survive is to keep growing, or take on more debt, or both. While this has been an issue as long as there have been suburbs, the problem has become more acute with each additional life cycle of suburban infrastructure (the point at which the systems need to be replaced—funded by debt, more growth, or both). Older U.S. suburbs are now on their third life cycle, and infrastructure systems have only become more bloated, inefficient, and costly.”
The dog is chasing its tail.
Our 60-year suburban experiment brought us a great quality of life and is the American Dream, but is it a fiscal failure? Dispersed development is more expensive to build and sustain than the older and more traditional single-family residential neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Wider, four-lane roads mean more pavement and cost more to maintain. Dispersed development means more extensive sewer and water systems and more police and fire stations and personnel to ensure adequate response times. That and larger and more costly school bus fleets and mileage to get kids to school—not to mention the inability to operate efficient, cost effective public transit systems. Many families have two or more cars just to satisfy the mobility needs of ordinary life.
Is this sustainable? Or is it time for Prior Lake and other local governments, with the Met Council, to take a long look at the question of sustainability rather than promoting 2040 visioning workshops and long range plans that perpetuate unsustainable growth. If the answer is that we need to change our approach to growth and development and land use, then what to do, and how do we change? Or is change off the table as long as we’re willing to pay ever increasing taxes to avoid the difficult decisions that need to be made. More money won’t solve the problem it just postpones the pain.
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John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email email@example.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)