Believe it or not, almost everywhere in the country, people are not paying for the cost of the street right in front of their own properties. I made a map of my home town to illustrate – you can hover over any property and see for yourself (click on the image below to open). I was recently interviewed about this on the Strong Towns podcast. This is the first in a series of maps and mapstories I’ll be making that show how city budgets are spread across cities. This map took a bit of ingenuity, which I have documented on a separate page if you want all the technical details.

So how are streets being built, if they’re not being paid for?

It’s simple – here’s how it works:
*Say a community is built in Year 1.
*The community’s streets need to be rebuilt every 30 years.
*In Year 30 a new, identical community is built. Now twice the amount of taxes are coming, and so for time being the property owners only need to pay half the amount.
*And 30 years later, in Year 60, two new communities are built; as long as the number of properties and property taxes are doubling every 30 years, they can continue to pay half the amount.

Most people don’t even know this is going on, even in city governments. Yet some people only need to look around and think – my Dad actually always used to say that there is no way we are paying for the cost of all the streets around us. It was years later that I finally read about this “Growth Ponzi Scheme” in the Strong Towns Blog. If you like real world examples like I do, the second part of the series is a must-read. As I wrote in the map description, make no mistake – except in our most dense cities, what you see in this map of Ames is happening everywhere, if not much worse. Ames is a remarkable town, tops many lists including being one of the most educated cities in the world; yet being a college town, even boasting a major Community and Regional Planning (CRP) college, like in most of academia, very little of its education is put into useful practice. If anything, modern city planning has brought about its own demise through its pseudo-intellectual hubris that Jane Jacobs compared to bloodletting.

The Calculations

Now with my mapping skills, I figured I could put my Dad’s intuition to the test, and apply those examples across a whole town. For the cost of streets, I simply asked a civil engineer what the typical range is of the costs of repairs and the typical lifecycle of streets. Now, many people might jump up and down and say “that varies”… the thing is, numbers like these hardly vary outside an average. If the cost of something like streets varied infinitely, then we would never be able to plan ahead. Really, if 80% of the time the numbers don’t vary by much more than 20%, then we’re fine. I used the upper end of the lifecycles to be conservative.

Average cost of streets per square foot:
*Asphalt = $17.77/sq ft, 25-30 yrs
*Bituminous Seal Coat = $18.10/sq ft, 25-30 yrs
*Concrete = $15.22/sq ft, 35-40 years
*Composite = averaging cost of Concrete and Asphalt = $16.50, 35-40 years

The overall cost of a street, using my own parents house, the house I grew up in:
*Street frontage: 82.88 ft
*Road width: 26 ft
*Pavement type: Asphalt
*Expected lifecycle: 30 years
*Cost: 82.88 ft x (26 ft /2) x $17.77/sq ft = $19,146.11
*Cost per year: $19,146.11 /30 years = $638.20

Then I looked into how we pay for streets. Many people, even in city government, are under the assumption that local streets are paid for by the gas tax. This is wrong, this is only the case with state and federal roads. As the following map illustrates, of the 250 miles of streets in Ames, 90% of them are local, and are either handled by the City of Ames via property taxes (brown lines, 200 miles) or Iowa State University (most of the gold lines, 25 miles).


What is being paid for streets, in the case of my parents:
*Property taxes: $2,601
*Street Levy: 2.18924 per $1,000 valuation
– can be seen on Page 310 of the City of Ames 2015-15 Budget
*Value of property: $310,200
*Residential rollback: 0.557335
*Amount of taxes going to streets: 2.18924 /1,000 *310,200 *0.557335 = $378.49

And finally, the portion of the overall cost (this is what you see on the map):
*$378.49 /$638.20 = 60%

Now, this is only for what is right in front of each property; a lot of streets are not directly in front of any property, and they have to be added to each property’s shared costs: these include the streets leading up to circles, intersections, additional streets along corner lots, and collector and arterial roads. I made two separate buttons in the upper-right, one for the lane right in front of each property, the other adding these shared costs. For my parents’ property, that adds another $326.51 of shared costs, which brings the total up to: $964.71, which is about $378.49 /$964.71 = 40% of its costs.

And that’s still above average – for the whole city, our annual liability is about $15.9 million, and the total property taxes going towards streets is about $4.7 million, or 30% of what our streets actually cost.

In conclusion – we are all deadbeats. We are earning money from our children and children’s children. My parents and their parents did not intend for this, but there it is, it’s happening. And the richer deadbeats are the bigger deadbeats. We are financing our own unraveling, using our wealthier inner cores to finance our outward expansion. If you think the value of properties in the newer, richer parts of town say otherwise – wait another generation – just like how people fled one suburb for another, it will happen again, unless we get our act together.

The Choices Ahead

The solution? This comes down to math, and there are 3 options or a combination thereof:

(1) Pay more taxes. In the case of Ames:
– how much we need: $15.9 million – $4.7 million = $11.2 million
– how much we have: $26 million in property taxes (2015-16 Adopted Budget)
– how much we would need to increase property taxes: $11.2 million /26 million = 43%

(2) Adjust the balance sheet – increase expenses to meet future liabilities, and reduce expenses on other things. This would mean vast cuts. Most of the property taxes that don’t go towards paying debts goes into the general fund. I made a nice Sankey Diagram of our general fund, below using a nice free online program. The General Fund is $30 million, and moving $11.2 million out of it would mean cutting most general government expenditures by about a third on average – including law enforcement, fire, inspections, parks and rec and the public library.

By the way – as you can see, Sankey Diagrams are awesome; if you find this diagram impressive, I plan on doing this for the whole City budget, and hope to help develop an application where someone can explore any budget, and exactly where their taxes go.


(3) Reduce our liabilities. This means halting any and all sprawl going forward, growing in and not out, and reducing our public infrastructure by reducing the number, length, width, and material needs of streets. This is what makes the most sense, and will bring the bulk of change.

In the map, you’ll notice that there are areas that are green. I marked some in blue which provide much more than they require – in most cases these are correct, but in some cases are mistakes in the data. In any case the green and blue areas are providing vast surpluses compared to the rest of the city. Now check out the map I made below, which was inspired by Strong Towns’ incredible Curbside Chat – this shows height by property value (and thus also property taxes) per square foot. As you can see, there are three areas of Ames that tower above all others. The tallest is Campustown, the second is downtown, and the third is actually a New Urbanist subdivision called Somerset, which is a recent development that is an attempt to get back to the way things once were. These three areas are barely financing their own infrastructure, and what surpluses they provide are lost across the rest of the city, which like all cities in America, is growing like a cancer.

We do need to adjust our finances a bit, but really, we need to grow intelligently, like we always did. And don’t be mistaken by the surpluses run by our mall or our “miracle mile” strip mall that was built in a floodplain, or our industrial park or research park – as you can see, the surpluses these provide are spread out, and they could have very easily been built in the city, where they would create vital, thriving communities as our traditional areas have from their beginning. One tech company, Kingland Systems, decided not to build in the ISU Research Park and instead decided to stay in Campustown – they will soon be providing the largest bang for the buck to the city, by orders of magnitude. On the other hand, our largest single taxpayer – Barilla Pasta – provides the lowest value per square foot to the city; it could have been built on a much smaller lot in a better location, if only things were zoned that way. I produced this map to be used in Google Earth, with a time slider that I used as  a “data slider”, that divides everything into 0.1-percentiles; you can download and play around with the file, in both 2D and 3D versions. One day we will use data sliders like this in MapStory as well.


First and foremost, we need to abolish the laws that caused this all to happen. Yes, that’s right – all of this was required to happen, by law. Many people think that sprawl is a free market phenomenon, and they are exactly wrong. Sprawl is caused by the following policies – I call these Sprawl Laws; you can find them for yourself in your local city code (for the most succinct explanation, see this paper):

*Minimum parking requirements
*Minimum lot sizes
*Maximum units per lot
*Minimum road widths

And these laws were in turn were driven by none other than our Federal Government in the postwar era, particularly the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which to this day continues to require all mortgages they insure (over 95% of all mortgages in the US) to be unmixed with commercial and other uses. This in turn creates a cookie-cutter financial industry and building industry that is made in the image of generations of regulations and repetitive know how. And on top of this, there is the vast spending on all levels on roads, roads, roads as opposed to more efficient and convenient modes of transportation.

As noted in the Growth Ponzi Scheme, city governments regard new infrastructure like it’s free. I experienced this personally with the Intermodal Facility in Ames – a large parking structure that was funded a few years ago by federal stimulus money to benefit the city and university. To this day, the public portion of the multi-million dollar facility is empty, simply because it lacks signs that say “Public Parking”, and when I asked the City whose liability the structure is, the City’s or Iowa State’s, they actually told me that they hadn’t decided that yet. This same lack of accountability that comes from not paying for your own things is repeated every day in Ames and in every city in America, where the building of infrastructure has been financed by governments further up the hierarchy, leaving us all pathetically dependent. We need to adjust our attitude and have the self-respect to remain solvent by paying for our own things, within our own means.

We need to go back to how all the best places in our country were built. In any area of town where over 80% of the buildings were built before 1940, you can take a look around – it is mixed, and the area is probably actually worth caring about, or at least has a lot of potential. As Ames is the pilot project for MapStory Local, you can see how we grew for yourself in the video below – the first few seconds show what was there before our city and country’s postwar development policy, and they are the only parts of town that are really worth visiting:

A lot is changing for the better – people are moving back into cities by the millions, fed up with the soullessness of suburban monotony. In Ames, there is an enormous demand for housing in the urban cores, which is in disrepair after decades of neglect. Unfortunately, many developers, like Kingland Systems, which I mentioned earlier, are demolishing entire blocks of historic buildings that have local businesses, and replacing them with chains that they can easily line up, again in a cookie-cutter fashion. To avoid these harsh ironies and to make real change, we need to make leaps in the right direction, just like how we made a leap in the postwar era, in the wrong direction. Luckily, we won’t be going too much out on a limb, because this has already been done forever. Problem is, we have to relearn what our ancestors have done forever, and it really goes against the way we think in the modern world. While a lot has been done by the New Urbanists in this regard, I personally lean towards the work of Christopher Alexander, who has studied the way towns grew organically, and has successfully shown how development can take place by adopting age old principles. I will be helping launch some community efforts in Ames to adopt his ideas, which I’ll be documenting as they unfold.

What’s Next?

As with everything I do with MapStory, next I need to create a “mapstory”, or animated version of this map, showing how this financial situation changed over time. Imagine the mapstory you see above of Ames growing, with properties shaded like in the map featured here. I’m imagining it looking like a bomb of debt going off, with the city spreading further out and turning deeper red. To collect historic data will mean going into the history of property values for properties, and how much of the owners’ property taxes were going to streets, as well as the historic costs of street construction. While the City of Ames handed over their assessment records to the Ames Historical Society, which only appear to go back to the 1960s (examples below), I’m not sure what it has as far as its historic financial records. It would be sad if this was all thrown away, which would not be surprising – more useful data is deleted every day than burned in the libraries of Alexandria (perhaps not always as useful). There may be something as far as bond records however, which can perhaps be used to determine what has been paid over time. As for the cost of street construction, that would require reading up on how tech has changed, and perhaps digging into historic capital improvement records.

All of this will be daunting, but perhaps I can just get a general idea to start. Perhaps I can start with a single property or a sample of assessment records and determine what portion of their taxes went to streets. Or perhaps find information that’s even more general. As of now, I’m even having a little trouble even finding the history of municipal finance – I’m guessing that in the early days, everything was done with savings, and financial instruments like general obligation bonds became popular and standardized over time. All is yet to be seen, and if anyone can provide help, it would be much appreciated. Once a mapstory is told, it will do much more than this map to demonstrate how we got to the place we are today financially, and convey a deep lesson that we can hopefully add to our wisdom going forward.

In addition to the one below, examples:
*1960s to 1980s: Front | Back
*1980s to recent: Front | Back
*Multiple Listing Service (MLS)

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