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The StrongTowns Theory and Social Equality

If StrongTowns is correct and significant infrastructure changes are coming, we must remain aware of the social equity issues. It’ll be a question posed to StrongTowns on February 12.

In 1978, when California voters approved the property tax limitations of Proposition 13, I was on the board for a condominium association in Walnut Creek.

The condos were about a half-mile south of the Pleasant Hill BART station. Many of us began our daily commutes with a walk to the station. Other pedestrians on the route came from single-family neighborhoods further south and from more condos midway between us and the BART station.

When Proposition 13 passed, the Contra Costa County Supervisors had to find substantial cuts in the county budget. One decision, an admittedly minor one, but every penny counted, was to reduce streetlighting. The County decided to retain streetlighting within a quarter-mile of transit stops such as the BART station and within single-family neighborhoods, but otherwise to turn off streetlights in residential areas unless adjoining residents agreed to pick up the tab.

The inequity was obvious. Even though many residents of both condo projects had acquired their homes for the easy walking access to BART, the other condos would have their entire route home lighted, while we had to walk the last distance in the dark unless we agreed to pay. Meanwhile, the residents to our south would benefit if the streetlights remained lighted, but weren’t being asked to participate in the cost.

Several board members attended a meeting of the County Supervisors to complain. Not unexpectedly given the other priorities at the time, we were ignored. The condo association agreed to pay reimbursement and the streetlights remained on.

I mention this story not because of a lingering resentment over the few dollars that I might have paid as condo association dues 35 years ago, but to point out that the social equality of infrastructure is difficult even in the best of times. And when there is financial turmoil, the inequities can easily become worse.

StrongTowns argues that we have excess infrastructure and must soon make the tough decisions about what infrastructure we remain willing to maintain. If StrongTowns is proven correct, we’ll have hard decisions to make amidst financial turmoil that may make the 1978 adjustments for Proposition 13 look minor.

And I fear that the StrongTowns will hold up. In a recent post, I argued that it’s evident that we have at least some infrastructure that was poorly conceived to the point that it doesn’t justify the cost of maintenance. Quoting myself, "The question shouldn’t be whether some of our infrastructure is unjustified, but how much is. Is it two percent? Or is it 30 to 40 percent? My instincts tell me that the latter is more likely."

From a career of watching decisions get made in public forums, I have a sense of the decision-making process that would result if infrastructure winnowing is required. And my sense leads me to disturbing possibilities.

If a community as a whole decides to forego a particular element of infrastructure maintenance, I suspect that we’ll allow individual neighborhoods to cover the costs instead. It worked that way with streetlights in 1978. I see no reason why it would be different in 2013.

But what might happen is that the affluent neighborhoods would choose to support their own infrastructure while refusing the support the infrastructure of the broader community. It might be streetlights. It might be street repaving. It might be power lines. But in the end, affluent neighborhoods would continue to live as they lived in the past, while the poorer neighborhood would be dark at night, have crumbling pavement, and be subject to periodic power outages.

If the scenario sounds familiar, it should. It's what California has largely done with K through 12 education, allowing more affluent neighborhoods to create educational settings for their own children that are significantly better than are provided in poorer neighborhoods. And the educational results haven’t been good, at least if one believes in the ideal of social mobility.

The U.S. prides itself on social mobility. We like to believe that anyone in the U.S. can succeed despite humble beginnings. But current results may not bear out this belief. A recent study measured social mobility in developed nations. The measure was percentage of people who die in a different quintile of family income than that into which they were born. By that yardstick, the U.S. was 16th among the 23 nations studied. Far from being a beacon of hope and opportunity to the lower classes, we now lag much of the world in social mobility. I suspect that much of the reason lays in our schooling.

And now the StrongTowns theory comes along and raises the possibility that infrastructure will follow the same path of inequality as education.

The U.S. was founded in an expectation that we all have equal opportunities to succeed. Throughout our history, our implementation of this ideal has been imperfect, but we’ve largely retained the vision. Except in recent times when we seem to have become increasingly willing to go our own ways and not to care about whether children in the next neighborhood have the same opportunities as our own children. And now a problem with the economic sustainability of infrastructure may give us another opportunity to separate into our own boats, leaving our fellow citizens behind. 

This concern isn’t the fault of StrongTowns. They’re only pointing out the problem with infrastructure; they’re not telling us how we should handle the shrinking of our infrastructure without further disadvantaging poorer neighborhoods. But they’ll hopefully be part of the discussion about how to avoid the pitfall.

Which leads to one more opportunity to remind readers that Charles Marohn of StrongTowns will appear via video chat in Petaluma on Tuesday, February 12.  All are welcome to join us at Work Petaluma, 10 4th Street. We’ll start at 5:30. Marohn will present the StrongTowns theory and then take questions. The social equality issue is high on my list of questions.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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Wire February 13, 2013 at 11:33 PM
Here is a brain surgeon at Presidents Obama breakfast prayer. His mother being BLACK, one of 23 children, and she had two boys thank GOD and a dead beat dad. Who is richer in LIFE? Obama or this doctor? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyyHegP255g Now some more great news the Great Mall another Simon Mall, in Milpitas, 31 shops closed their doors after last Christmas things are looking bright! After prop 13 cities didn't lose any monies they taxed the rich with higher connecting fees or taxes, possible same fee that you need for your bench as an improvement to their land or is it your land. Builders needed to build parks. Now the one government of California is going after prop 13. First it will be the shops or businesses then the home owners.
Dave Alden February 21, 2013 at 12:32 AM
Retail closings would be consistent with StrongTowns theory. A continued backlog of infrastructure maintenance needs is an anchor on the economy, which is affecting all manner of businesses. There is no question that cities and counties imposed other fees to partially compensate for the Propostion 13 tax limitations. However, local tax revenues, expressed as a percent of the overall economy, remain below the pre-Proposition 13 levels. This is part of the reason for unfunded infrastructure maintenance.

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