America’s infrastructure is in dire need of repairs. The American Society of Civil Engineers notes that wear and tear on our nation’s roads have left 43% of our public roadways in poor or mediocre condition, a number that has remained stagnant over the past several years.1American Society of Civil Engineers, “2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.”
In regions of the country with growing populations, major investments are needed towards more and better infrastructure. But in the Mahoning Valley, where persistent population loss and expanding inventories of vacant buildings and land have reduced the demands on existing infrastructure, a different approach to investment is needed. Funds are required for repairs and maintenance, but also for reconfiguring and possibly downsizing infrastructure networks in response to lower demand.
Infrastructure agencies in older industrial cities throughout the Great Lakes region have kept sewer lines functioning, water flowing, and roadway networks in place despite steep declines in population, industrial production, and tax revenue. These communities need substantial federal infrastructure funding that is carefully calibrated to their specific needs and challenges. If funding does not materialize, communities will have to be even more efficient with dwindling budgets. Otherwise, the financial mismatch between rising maintenance costs and declining tax revenues could lead to massive infrastructure failure and municipal bankruptcies, with potentially tragic consequences for remaining residents and businesses.
Downsizing infrastructure networks could reduce municipal maintenance costs, but this process poses many practical difficulties. Reinvesting in the existing infrastructure of older industrial cities could help to reverse decline and stimulate regrowth. Climate migration and the pandemic-driven relocation of knowledge-based workers to cities with lower housing costs could begin to reverse population decline in some of these communities, providing a basis for rebuilding and reconfiguring infrastructure networks in anticipation of future growth.
Or demographic patterns could swing the other way. A rapidly aging population and a declining national birth rate could cause population loss in more US cities. This phenomenon is already underway elsewhere in the world, most notably in Japan and western Europe. Immigration has driven population growth in the US for decades. With federal immigration policy in flux, continued population growth is by no means a given.
Furthermore, increased use of autonomous vehicles and more people working from home may leave many cities (not just shrinking ones) with less traffic and excess road capacity. Surplus infrastructure might not be an aberration found only in shrinking cities, but a widespread phenomenon occurring in cities across the country.
Several years ago, Youngstown, Ohio, conducted an experimental program to decommission roadway infrastructure and allow disused pavement to “return to nature” in response to its own significant population loss and declining economic fortunes. Experiments like this could lay the groundwork for reimagining infrastructure across the US and offer lessons for cities facing similar surplus infrastructure.