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Small Cities Can’t Manage the High Cost of Old Infrastructure

Without federal help, cities in the Northeast and Midwest face heavy cost burdens to upgrade aging roads, bridges and water systems. Younger municipalities in the South and West are beginning to have similar problems.

A section of Woodward Avenue in Ferndale, Mich.
(Steve Lagreca/Shutterstock)
Woodward Avenue is the most storied roadway in Michigan, and arguably in America. This 27-mile stretch of asphalt runs from central Detroit through its northwestern suburbs and up to the city of Pontiac. In 1909, a single mile of it in the city, between Six Mile Road and Seven Mile Road, became the first stretch of paved street in the U.S.

For Ferndale Mayor Melanie Piana, however, her two miles of Woodward Avenue are a constant source of concern. The eight-lane roadway slices through her downtown, and she constantly hears from residents who feel endangered when they cross this thoroughfare in her otherwise pedestrian-friendly town.

“The No. 1 reason people move to Ferndale is because of our walkability,” says Piana, “and the No. 1 complaint I get from residents is they feel uncomfortable and unsafe getting across this eight-lane corridor.”

Woodward Avenue is 200 feet wide, and only six percent of that expanse is dedicated to sidewalks. Almost everything else is for cars, four lanes in both directions with a grassy median dividing the road in half. It is essentially a highway in the middle of a commercial district, and Piana hopes to do something about it.

“[We want to be] building places where people feel like they belong and have access to the community, [and so] retrofitting this major corridor into something that knits our downtown together is a priority for us,” Piana said at a June press conference with the liberal Center for American Progress and the National League of Cities.

In 2022, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) will be repaving Woodward Avenue, so Piana has partnered with the neighboring city of Pleasant Ridge to reimagine their combined stretch of roadway. But the state will only pay for remaking the road exactly as it was. Any efforts to pedestrianize parts of Woodward or efforts to calm traffic — even studies to prepare for such moves — have to be paid for with resources wrangled by the local government.

Ferndale does not have the resources to cover those expenses on its own. Piana applied for a $3.9 million federal Transportation Alternatives Program grant and is waiting to see if her city will be awarded the funds. Even if they get it, she will have to contribute $1.2 million in local funds, about the amount the city spends on street maintenance for the whole municipality every year.

“We have very limited funds to make the improvements that the community and our businesses really desire,” says Piana. “If we don't get the grant, we can't make these improvements, and MDOT will repave next year regardless. Then we wait for another 10-15 years for them to resurface again for us to do this.”

Piana spoke at the liberal think tank’s press conference to emphasize how much local governments like hers, in small cities and inner ring suburbs, need federal assistance with their infrastructure needs. President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure bill includes $115 billion for roads and bridges, $20 billion for street safety, $85 billion for transit and over $100 billion for water infrastructure.  As the administration attempts to negotiate with various combinations of bipartisan senators to get a bill passed, with a prominent alternative proposal coming to far less than half Biden’s initial pitch, this small story about the dangers of Woodward Avenue shows what is at stake.
The reality for mayors like Piana is that older cities across the nation face staggering infrastructure needs, which they can’t tackle on their own. They are calling for increased federal investment, with supporters of higher spending noting that only 2.4 percent American gross domestic product is applied to infrastructure, in comparison with 5 percent in the European Union and 9 percent in China.

Advocates of increased infrastructure spending also note that before the 1980s there were greater federal commitments to at least some local projects. In the 1970s, the federal government paid to update many drinking and wastewater systems to bring them up to newly instituted environmental standards. But federal investments in water infrastructure fell during the 1980s.

Without federal support, many communities have struggled to remain up-to-date with their infrastructure needs. The water crisis in Flint, Mich., is only the most striking example of the consequences. In other areas like Ferndale, where inequities are less extreme, there is still a funding gap between aging localities' needs and their means.

Sunbelt Cities Feel Infrastructure Fiscal Crunch

“All across the Northeast and Midwest, even in mature southern cities, you have areas that are stagnant in their population, stagnant in their property tax base,” says Bill Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston. “They can't [keep up with infrastructure needs] without vastly increasing their property tax revenues. If older cities just keep jacking the property tax rate up, that creates a vicious downward cycle where more population leaves.”

This dynamic is especially painful in the so-called older, colder parts of the U.S. But Fulton says that in the future, the Sunbelt will not escape these dynamics.

In many cases, more recently developed regions have leveraged population growth to get developers to build a lot of their necessary infrastructure. As a side effect, the consequences of the strict caps that states like California and Washington place on property tax increases were not felt. Today, however, population growth is slowing and developers are not on the hook to patch up the infrastructure they built decades ago. Property taxes revenues are not keeping up with regular expenditures, let alone expensive infrastructure investments. In this context, profound local infrastructure problems will not remain a Midwest and Northeastern issue.

“We're about to enter a second generation of suburban growth in a lot of these areas in the South and West,” says Fulton. “We're not going to be paying for it that way anymore. We’ve got to find a different way to pay for it. And I think that's going to be tough.”

All of these issues will only be heightened by the climate crisis. Many western states are facing growing water shortages. Flooding is becoming increasingly common in other parts of the country, with many of the nation’s largest transit agencies coping with expensive risks to their underground infrastructure (as Hurricane Sandy proved in New York and New Jersey). Even landlocked localities like Ferndale face an increase in flooding risks. As Michigan gets hotter and wetter, the city is seeing more rainfall. In 2014, torrential storms flooded 80 percent of its residences.

Piana wants to address this challenge in part through reimagining Woodward Avenue. She says that streets are the primary delivery system of runoff into the combined water and sewer system. Without the money to separate those entities, she instead wants to install bioswales — green alternatives to concrete storm drains — to both reduce flooding risks and create a nicer pedestrian environment.

That’s just a pipe dream in the absence of greater federal commitments to local infrastructure, however, which explains how Piana came to be talking to the Center for American Progress’ John Podesta about her small city’s needs.

“If we had more money, we could be putting bioswales on 30 to 60 intersections along the entire corridor,” says Piana. “That's not in our grant application, but this is what we could be doing if we had more funds to offset the impact of climate in our community.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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