Atlantic Cities

What Happens When a Suburb Can't Afford Its Roads

What Happens When a Suburb Can't Afford Its Roads
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From the Chicago Tribune comes the strange story of Long Grove, a well-to-do suburb that nevertheless can't pay to maintain its roads. Housing permits helped subsidize the cost of road maintenance in the village for years. Then the crash hit and the permit fees dipped to zero, which the Tribune emphasizes in its accompanying bar graph by writing "0" where there's already no bar. Now Long Grove has resorted to an "unusual plan":

Facing an annual funding gap of more than $1 million, Long Grove trustees have twice in recent months affirmed a plan that could privatize nearly half of the village's public roads — transferring the cost of upkeep and plowing to the residents in the process.

It's an uncertain time for public roads in general. Deals to privatize public infrastructure have been on the rise in recent years, and experts believe the trend will only continue. The difference in Long Grove's case is that we're talking about a local road network with no hope for the toll revenue that's attracting business partners to major highways and bridges. What Long Grove seems to mean by privatization is closer to what occurred in pre-colonial post road days: everyone taking care of their own.

The story is worth a full read; Tribune reporter Duaa Eldeib did a bang-up job collecting local characters. One resident makes a phenomenal reference to non-existent "road fairies." The village president discusses physical roads and metaphorical roads in the same sentence. There's a general air of gated-community-neighbor against gated-community-neighbor. These are troubled times in Long Grove.

They're also quite strange ones, and there's a lot about the situation that doesn't make great sense to an outsider. For one thing, there's a very straightforward alternative to privatization: residents can tax themselves and still have the village do the maintenance. That idea doesn't sound so bad when you considering that Long Grovers don't pay a property tax. And apparently half the village roads are already privatized, so is the really the start of an unknown era?

In any event, there are a couple broader lessons here. The first is one that many cities and local governments across the country have been learning all too well since the recession: the sources of transportation funding need to be predictable and diversified. Putting too much weight on a single funding source — whether for roads or public transit — is a risky move. Just ask Wichita.

The second is that localities should be on alert about whether or not they might have reached peak road. Long Grove has what Eldeib describes as "an expansive system of 29 miles of public roads for a relatively small population of about 8,000." Maybe what's happening in the village isn't really a dilemma about maintaining many public roads but a sign that it's time to live with fewer.

Top image: Ivan Smuk /Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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