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Back to the Future – Mayor Mike Huether’s Capital Improvement Plan [OPINION]

FILE: Downtown Sioux Falls
Anthony Wright/KSOO-AM

The Mayor of Sioux Falls, Mike Huether, has released a $429 million capital improvements plan for the next four years. Sioux Falls’ rapid growth presents challenges as existing infrastructure becomes insufficient to meet the needs of a city growing both in terms of population and area. Planning to meet future needs is a hallmark of good government and the Mayor deserves credit for attempting to look forward.

However, in one crucial way, the Mayor’s plan represents a step backwards. About 42% of the plan is earmarked for road improvement, while no substantial commitment is made to mass transit or making Sioux Falls a more walkable community.

American cities have essentially been built in two phases: what was built before the car was a mass market, household item and what was built after that.

In most cities the dividing line is around 1950. Before then people lived close to the center because that was where almost everything was. Imagine simple day to day activities like going to work or bringing home groceries without an automobile. Downtowns and surrounding core neighborhoods were built to be walkable, because people needed them to be.

Cars and suburbs changed all that. Downtowns and old neighborhoods suffered severe disinvestment as city borders expanded to include strip malls, office parks and endless subdivisions on what used to be farmland. Where people lived, worked and shopped came to be much farther apart, yet cars made commute times faster and carrying things more convenient.

This post 1950s living arrangement is not without its discontents, including lost sense of community, traffic congestion, and the financial costs associated with car dependence. You need only look at Atlanta, Phoenix or Los Angeles to see where this leads if left unchecked. In city planning circles these concerns have been heavily researched, and since the early 1990s the push has been toward revitalizing downtowns and discouraging sprawl by reinvesting in the core.

Mayor Huether has stated in interviews that he wants to see Sioux Falls go in this direction. The problem is that for all the good in the capital improvement plan, it just doesn’t reflect that wish at all. We all want roads to be well maintained, but widening key roads in order to make commute times faster, does nothing to encourage people to live in the core, it does the opposite.

It is too late to stop sprawl from happening. That ship has sailed. All that can be done to slow its growth is to make living downtown, or close to it, more attractive. You do that by encouraging employers and retailers, especially small groceries, to return to the core. Improved public transit is also crucial, but the Mayor’s plan does nothing to add routes or increase their frequency.

Most people aren’t city planners and can hardly be faulted for not knowing the ins and outs of making a city a livable, walkable place, but Sioux Falls needs more from its Mayor. We aren’t getting a plan for the future if it still reflects the priorities of the 1950s.

Next: Corporate Traitors – Tax Avoidance is Not Patriotism

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Gossom and do not reflect Results Radio, Townsquare Media, its sponsors or subsidiaries.

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