What happens next?

Recent news suggests we have about as much chance of keeping up with infrastructure repair and replacement as George Jetson had with walking Astro:

Star Tribune: Front page, above the fold on February 17.   MnDOT tells legislature roads are deteriorating; give us more more money.  Minneapolis city staff say cutbacks in local government aid mean cities don’t have the funds to keep up with road maintenance and repair.

Faribault Daily News: Rice County tries to save money by doing seal-coating in-house.

“This isn’t a cure-all,” said [County Engineer Dennis] Luebbe. “But we have to attempt to save what we’ve got.”

American Society of Civil Engineers: The ASCE has graded the nation’s infrastructure for quite a few years; roads are currently getting a D-. (The aging infrastructure for drinking water gets a D-, wastewater does too). In addition to the road surfaces failing:

Congestion continues to worsen to the point at which Americans spend 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic at a cost of $78.2 billion a year in wasted time and fuel costs—$710 per motorist

And it’s not just individual motorists – think of businesses which rely on highway transportation which face delivery delays, uncertain supply issues, etc.

I blame Henry Ford. We’ve spent almost a century building for cheap and convenient transportation by automobile which has helped push cities and towns out into suburbs and exurbs (Full disclosure: my Great-Uncle Allan was one of Henry Ford’s inventors, so I guess my family is somewhat culpable – how embarrassing).  We can’t keep up with what we’ve built, so thanks Henry Ford for giving us mass production and cheap cars, but now we have to take a hard look at how much this development pattern costs in dollars for roads and pipes, productivity lost to congestion or just commuting time, energy costs, environmental damage, and limits to economic growth.

This is where I see the opportunity for a policy shift. Much as I’d like to see real policy innovation at the federal and state level, I get a bit pessimistic about institutions that large and that partisan changing quickly.  But here in Northfield, we’re small enough (only 7 non-partisan councilmembers!) to be able to rethink our policy and start to implement it. (For one overview of the current situation and some policy options, see the ULI  Infrastructure 2010 report).

First, land use planning (or, why the Comp Plan is right) as I’ve been saying with the business park, we should not extend infrastructure without a good idea how we will fund its installation plus maintenance and eventual replacement.  We really shouldn’t subsidize the kind of development which requires large extensions of infrastructure.  Future residential development should also seek to limit new infrastructure.  Increased tax base is good, but consider how much better increased tax base is on existing infrastructure.

Second, capital planning.  When I took my seat on the Council, staff talked about developing a 20 or 30 year infrastructure CIP, but I haven’t heard anything about this lately.  It’s a good idea, though.  I’d certainly like to discuss the overall condition of Northfield’s infrastructure and then look out 10, 20 and 30 years (using both pessimistic and optimistic projections of growth) to try to better plan and budget for Northfield’s needs, set some benchmarks and be able to track our progress.

Third, reducing vehicle miles traveled.  Part of this is land use – denser development means destinations within Northfield are closer together and easier to reach by foot or bicycle.  Part is improving non-motorized facilities – sidewalks and bike lanes.  Part is transit; transit works better with higher density, too (the transit hub is on the worksession agenda for Tuesday, 2/22)

Fourth, integration. By this, I just mean that land use decisions have financial implications, housing decisions affect transit, school placement affects the transportation system, infrastructure supports economic development, Northfield’s decisons impact the surrounding townships, and so on.   A sustainable Northfield will pay attention to the interdependence of our actions and attempt to spend its money in ways which help the city as a whole thrive.

Fifth, more money. And we’ll still have to look for more or new revenue to be able to catch up on maintenance.