Ask the average North American how they help pay to keep the street that runs in front of their home in good shape, and they’ll probably say something vague like “Well, I pay my taxes.” If they’re a little more in the know, they might say that their state transportation funding comes largely from gas taxes, or user fees, or tolls, or some grand mix of many of these things. But no matter how sophisticated your understanding of road funding is, few among us wouldn’t be surprised to open our mailbox and find a notice from the city that says all that money we’ve thrown into that mysterious communal pot still hasn’t covered the costs to maintain our neighborhood street—oh, and by the way, here’s a hefty bill for the difference.
That’s exactly what happened to many families in St. Paul, MN this year. Under a new road funding system, homeowners are now responsible for paying 50% of the costs to “mill and overlay” the damaged roadways in front of their property, with the city picking up the rest. It’s a process called direct assessment— and if you’re nodding your head reading this and saying to yourself, “Good! Those suburban cul-de-sac dwellers should pay for more of that stuff!”, then we’ve got some bad news for you. Because these assessments are being applied not just on dead-end streets, but on major arterials, too—and if you have the misfortune to live on a stroad that thousands of cars use every day, your bill could get pretty hefty.
How hefty? We’re talking $8,000-surprise-invoice hefty.
So what does a Strong Towns advocate say to all this? Are debates over the fairness of direct assessment programs just a distraction from the real problem—the fundamental financial insolvency of our cities? Are they a good idea that’s being misused in St. Paul, but could be re-engineered to make drivers who choose to live on on massive double lots at the end of streets that function as private drives finally pay their fair share? Or is the answer a bit more complicated than that?
In this episode of Upzoned, Chuck and Kea dig deep into the idea of direct assessment programs and what it’ll take to build a road funding system that’s actually fair to everyone. And their respective responses right surprise you.
Then in the Downzone, Chuck and Kea talk about the media that’s easing them into the summer season: Midnight in Chernobyl for Chuck, and a double-feature of Avengers: Endgame and Pokemon: Detective Pikachu for Kea.