Posted by: bkivey | 15 June 2011

Down and Dirty

Let’s say you lived in an American city in the second decade of the 21st century. Let us further suppose that this community spends a lot of time patting itself on the back about how livable it is and how sensitive it is to the needs of ‘impacted’ groups. A member of an ‘impacted’ group would be anyone mentioned by certain politicians when someone proposes that one dime of government spending be cut. You know, the old, the young, the non-white, the economically displaced and disadvantaged.  We can also stipulate that the city leadership spends a lot of money on projects that have a tenuous relationship at best to core city functions. Said city’s finances are sound; better, in fact, than the state in which it’s located. You might think that the basics like public safety and infrastructure maintenance would be well in hand.

You’d be wrong.

In a shining example of the kind of reporting that the local paper of record should be doing, but often doesn’t, the local alternative weekly Willamette Week published a story on the 59 miles of dirt roads inside the city limits. While this represents only about 1.5% of the city’s 4000+ miles of streets, the WW helpfully included a list of cities of similar size and the amount of unpaved roads in each. I’ve included only the cities on their list +/- 10% the size of Portland and the most recent population figures, which the WW didn’t include. The number after the population represents the number of miles of unpaved road in each city:

  • Las Vegas (565,000) 0
  • Atlanta (541,000) 0
  • Denver (610,000) 0
  • Portland (566,000) 59
  • Oklahoma City (560,000) 166

Hmm, at least Portland isn’t Oklahoma City. The majority of the article delves into the fact that the current mayor and a number of city councilors all promised to start paving roads, but when they got into office, it was all about bike lanes. A map accompanying the article graphically illustrates a fact that will come as no surprise to the politically aware: all of the unpaved roads are well away from the well-to-do donor base in and around the downtown area.

The Streets webpage on the city’s Dept. of Transportation site is bluntly unequivocal:

The City of Portland does not pay for the construction of streets and sidewalks. These improvements are paid for by adjacent property owners.

 The line you’ll hear from City Hall is that the city has always required residents to pay for the paving of streets adjacent to their property. This is conventional wisdom, oft repeated, and completely untrue. As the paper points out, as recently as 2000 the city picked up most of the tab for street paving. Now they won’t even maintain the unpaved streets. The money for all those bike lanes, bioswales, newly created city bureaus, college scholarships, and $700,000 ‘demonstration’ houses has to come from somewhere.

I checked the municipal website for Las Vegas, because it has a population nearly identical to Portland, and has 59 fewer miles of unpaved roads. While it’s true that Las Vegas only has about a third of the street miles Portland does, it’s also true that the city has an active street maintenance and repair program.

There are some people who claim to like dirt roads for their aesthetics and traffic calming. A much more realistic view of what it’s actually like to live on a dirt road can be found in this selection of emails from citizens of Scottsdale, AZ, to the City Council. As these people relate, and I know from experience, that unmaintained, unpaved roads are subject to erosion, contribute to excessive vehicle wear-and-tear, cause respiratory problems even in healthy people, and contribute to dust and dirt problems inside residences. I suspect that if a dirt road advocate were to suffer the misfortune of  a burning house or serious health problem, the charm of an unpaved road would quickly fade as they watched the emergency vehicle struggle up the road.

 My favorite email in the Scottsdale collection is the threat by one resident to get EPA involved if the city didn’t do something to mitigate the dust problem from the unpaved road by their house. As much as I’m not a fan of EPA’s practices the last decade or so, the thought of hoisting a bunch of irresponsible idealists by their own petard is delicious.

The article points out that some residents have taken matters into their own hands by filling potholes with rubble and blocking off sections of road too dangerous to travel. They don’t bother to ask the city for permission. I think maybe they should instigate a legal and regulatory battle and let the lawyers and bureaucrats fight it out. But as more and more money is spent at all levels of government on projects increasingly divorced from core government functions, I think we’re going to see a more of this type of independent citizen action.

 From the Peanut Gallery

In the Comments section to the on-line version of the article, we find this gem from Collin Roughton:

Professor Rufolo – The spending might be “distorted” from an economic perspective, but dogmatic economic logic is fundamentally distorted from a humanistic perspective.  Maybe that’s why economists are rarely elected to public office?

Feeling: More Important than Thinking.

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