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Bumps in the Road 

Caving to developers = bad streets

Toughen up your suspension and buy new shocks. Get ready for more potholes on Charlotte streets.

A recent report to City Council revealed what we already know: Charlotte's streets are getting worse, and they're going downhill faster as standards of new construction decline and the money to maintain them shrinks. Ideally, city streets should be resurfaced every 12 years, but this year Charlotte's budget has only enough money to pave streets at a rate equivalent to a 20-year cycle of repair. Next year's budget envisages spending at an even slower rate; your street could wait thirty-four years before it's resurfaced. As city streets grow by miles and miles each year with new subdivisions, it's likely we'll never have enough money to maintain our infrastructure. The recent massive bond package approved for roads and sidewalks in Mecklenburg is an attempt to get back on track, but it's a losing battle.

This bad situation is exacerbated because Charlotte now spends millions of dollars to repair streets that are only five years old, a clear indication that construction specifications and standards are not good enough.

The primary problem is that Charlotte's standards for streets are lower than rules in other cities, and they must be improved. But guess who'll flock to the government center to protest another example of "excessive government regulation"? Local developers.

Developers build streets and the city maintains them, so developers are always anxious to reduce costs by lobbying for lower standards of new construction, and passing high maintenance costs onto the city's taxpayers. One of the reasons we have weak standards today is because, for years, developers have cajoled and bullied the city into accepting mediocrity as Charlotte's benchmark.

Road maintenance is one of the not-so-hidden costs of sprawling, low-density growth. The pernicious health effects of smog and dirty air, driving habits that promote obesity and related physical disorders, and ugly, stressful environments that raise blood pressure, are all "invisible" factors. They're just the stuff of our daily lives we endure everyday.

Cracked and bumpy roads are different: they make us mad. We suffer once during the bone-shaking ride along city streets and then again when the tax bills arrive.

The kind of growth that envelops Charlotte and our region does not pay for itself. The existing taxpayers always end up footing the bill for new schools, public services and street maintenance, despite the protestations of homebuilders and Realtors. While developers' groups finance research that purports to refute this fact, objective studies across the nation reveal the truth. The more we grow, the higher taxes we have to pay to support that growth with roads, sewer, water, police and fire services, parks, libraries and schools.

I despise the hypocritical duplicity of right-wing politicians who pledge to reduce taxes, because the only ways to do this in a city like Charlotte involve radical regulation of the private property market, which is political anathema to conservatives. If someone tells you that Charlotte can continue growing the way we do now, with no reduction in the quality of life, while at the same time reducing taxes, they're either lying, or they don't know what they're talking about. "Market-driven," sprawling development means higher taxes. Period.

The only ways to stabilize taxes, let alone reduce them, are either to drastically curtail growth and construct a "steady-state" city where means and ends meet, or to grow carefully in a well-designed, compact manner where municipal services are funded by "impact fees" levied on the new developments that create the need for those extra services.

The development and real estate industries hate both options, as both require more government regulation. But this doesn't mean more planning. Charlotte's suburban sprawl is already planned to death. It means better design. Compact mixed-use neighborhoods (like our old streetcar suburbs), connected street systems, shopping and office developments that are walkable, convenient parks and playgrounds all enable us to inhabit a more ecologically and economically balanced city. This is a city where we drive less (by choice) and one that's more healthy and beautiful.

The ugly way Charlotte sprawls across the landscape means that we currently have 2,175 miles of city streets, more than Raleigh and Greensboro combined! And this huge figure doesn't include the large thoroughfares like Harris Boulevard, Providence Road and other highways that are maintained by state funds. Developers add more miles of asphalt every week, creating new infrastructure that we have to maintain with our taxes.

But we're our own worst enemy. We live a profligate lifestyle, driving bigger and heavier vehicles that wear out the road surface faster, and we increase the stress on suburban streets by driving more miles every year. The choice is simple: either we change our urban habits and live within our civic means, or we continue our merry, wasteful way, paying higher taxes and cursing deeper potholes.

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