Sunday, April 16, 2017

Can our alley be sustainable?

We had a lot of rain this weekend, a series of downpours beginning Friday afternoon and continuing off and on late into Saturday night. Our weather wasn't as severe as in northern Iowa, where there were reports of tornadoes, nor was the aftermath as notable as the standing water I noticed all over the Chicago area where I traveled last weekend.

Nonetheless, on my block we experienced a rather common occurrence after strong rains: loose gravel had washed down our alley and been deposited into Blake Boulevard.

I think the alley must be about 80 years old. That's the age of most of the houses on the block. It's paved, but hasn't been repaired in a long time, and shows quite a bit of wear.

The pothole-riddled surface requires careful walking, and is particularly tricky for bicycles (and, I would imagine, strollers). The sandbar at the intersection with the street is an obstacle for cycling, although eventually a city truck will scoop it clear.

I don't know if it's the result of an official policy, but the alley's neglected condition reflects a nationwide reality: Having overbuilt our auto infrastructure for decades, financially-strapped governments face increasing difficulty keeping up with maintenance. It may be rational in places to let some trafficways regress without maintenance. Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn heard former Iowa transportation director Paul Trombino say a couple years ago the state highway system was going to be downsized, although Trombino's subsequent statements suggest he was speaking about low-use roads in remote areas.

All other considerations aside, I might want the city to repave our alley, and hereafter provide regular maintenance. Alleys do have clear functionality in well-populated urban neighborhoods (Reardon and Storch 2005). They provide places for trash pickup away from the street itself, and access for cars that doesn't require a lot of curb cuts on the streets.

But all other considerations are not aside. The city of Cedar Rapids, like nearly all local governments in the United States today, is not flush with cash. And we want our city to do more than provide places for cars to drive. The public library, which could be a civic jewel of the region, has recently been forced to reduce its operating hours, and that matters to us, too.

Although it's operated separately, the school district has just floated a proposal to reduce the number of elementary schools in the city by more than a third. Just maintaining the existing level of public services is requiring difficult choices, leading to what some might call desperate solutions.

I'm not enough of an engineer to know what I'm looking for, but I'm thinking redoing the alley with a surface--packed gravel? permeable pavement?--that would resist erosion but be inexpensive to maintain. If it's not too difficult, we might regrade the alley so rainwater goes off to the side rather than flowing like a river to the street. We need to do what makes sense, in light of the functions the alley performs but also the many other things we need our city budget to do.

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