The era of large-scale federal infrastructure investment, from the 1950s through the 1970s, coincided with the era of suburban development and urban decline. I don’t think that was a coincidence. Cities had paid for their own infrastructure with local money, were still paying bonds for that infrastructure, and it was aging. The federal government then paid for brand new, up to date infrastructure for suburbs, and for rural areas that became suburbs, with taxes collected in part in cities, even as urban infrastructure declined. Federal investment was limited to new infrastructure only at the time. Most older central cities never recovered, and those that did only began to do so in the early 1980s, after the Reagan Administration cut federal investment and added local flexibility to how it was used. More of it was then used to fix existing infrastructure, not just subsidize new suburban and exurban development.
Now it is 50 to 70 years later and the infrastructure of the suburbs is aging. And because of lower densities, and thus more liner feet of road, water pipe, and sewer pipe per taxpayer, it will be more costly to replace with local taxes. Some in the Strong Towns movement believe the suburbs are facing the sort of infrastructure decline the cities faced 50 years ago as a result.
An issue that will be most acute in private communities responsible for their own local infrastructure, where people live so they can control who walks on their streets and not share a tax base with pre-1960 neighborhoods. Who will pay up when private sewage treatment plants fail and have to be replaced? Did you hear about what happened at that collapsed Florida condo, where residents had argued for years about paying for fixes before disaster struck?
The older generations who live in these suburbs are used to getting things, but not fully paying for them. The “I’ve got mine jack,” tax cut generations. And here we have another federal infrastructure bill, enacted by suburban and Sunbelt Baby Boomers according to their preferred lifestyle, a lifestyle that poorer Millennials cannot afford and the global environment cannot sustain, to be paid for by those Millennials in the future, because most of it going to funded by soaring federal debts. With higher levels of governments (federal and state) making the choices as to how even the future money of city residents will be spent, how will New York and other older cities fare this time?
As an analogy this post will compare the suburban and city projects that the MTA promised in the Program for Action, released in early 1968 when it as formed, with the system expansions and maintenance of existing infrastructure that actually took place in the five-plus decades since. And go from there.Continue reading