A common theme of 21st century America will be that we can't do it all anymore. In post-WWII America we basically spent money on everything - big roads everywhere, public transit, housing programs and so much more. It should be obvious by now that we won't be able to afford to continue in this manner, and will have to learn how to make priorities. The priorities will involve strategic choices and in many cases, upset a lot of people. A couple of examples from recent posts show this process in its infancy, and the predictable blow-back.
In New Jersey, James Russell writes about the reality of planning for "Managed Retreat" post-Sandy:
Data supplied to Rebuild participants shows that sea level rise over decades will inundate the barrier islands that line America’s Atlantic coast, home to almost five million people, not to mention low-lying communities inland. Yet moving away from the places at greatest risk — from rising oceans, but also flooding rivers and forest wildfires — can mean catastrophic financial loss. It can also be unimaginably wrenching when people must leave behind those places where cherished memories were made, often over generations.
And so, while most professionals and those without a personal stake know the reality, it's difficult to make change. The issues are emotional as much as rational, especially in a country where central planning is anathema.
A similar, but unrelated issue is taking place throughout rural America. Daniel Vock writes about state transportation departments that are eager to unload their vast road networks:
Nationally, state governments own about 19 percent of the roads within their borders. But West Virginia, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina all own more than 60 percent, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The state with the next-highest share is Maine, at 37 percent.
Each state amassed its huge network in a different way. But generally, state officials took over county roads and other farm-to-market routes because localities did not build enough of them or failed to maintain them adequately.
Decades later, states that gobbled up local roads no longer have the appetite to keep them. In growing areas, highways that once linked distant towns are now major local arteries. In some cases, states own odd stretches of local roads because of political reasons that were forgotten long ago.
States increasingly see their shorter, less-traveled roads as a drain on resources at a time when resources are increasingly scarce.
So, while couched in offering local control, the reality is that states realize that they don't have the money to maintain extensive road networks in lower-density areas. They're making the choice to off-load them when possible, though obviously a lot of local governments are not eager to take on the financial liability. For many small towns and cities, the choice between local control/ownership vs long-term financial liabilities is not as easy as it sounds.
Choices and priorities are usually difficult, whether in our personal lives or collective lives. Expect more friction as we own up to the new reality.
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