City officials are learning an expensive lesson about allowing brick streets to be exposed in older neighborhoods.
A block of brick street in Old West Lawrence raises some interesting questions about the city's responsibility to maintain infrastructure and respond to specific neighborhood desires.
First, the city has little choice but to repair the 700 block of Mississippi. Cars can easily drop into a brick gully and scrape bottom even if they are traveling at a legal rate of speed on the street.
But who is responsible for the cost of fixing the street?
The current problems on the block apparently are a direct result of the bricks being exposed at the request of residents two years ago. The city allowed the bricks to be exposed so it bears some responsibility for the action. But are the residents who requested and helped remove the asphalt that covered the bricks completely blameless? Because this was a special request of property owners on the street, is it unreasonable to suggest that a special assessment might be in order?
Residents wanted to expose the original brick to add to the historic character of the neighborhood. That's fine, but the result has been a substandard city street. Residents also wanted to slow traffic in front of their homes. The current street certainly accomplishes that goal.
The city has looked at several options. Having a contractor install a new base and bricks would cost $400,000; having a contractor install thinner, brick pavers would cost $242,000. Those estimates prompted commissioners to look at other options and the leading plan now seems to be to have city crews do the work. That will decrease the cash outlay for the project, but it will still cost local taxpayers.
This situation is ironic in light of periodic protests in Lawrence about the costs of new residential development. Some local residents have gone so far as to contend that special fees should be placed on new houses to cover all the costs of extending streets, utilities and other city infrastructure into new areas. Owners of existing homes shouldn't have to foot the bill for new construction, they say.
Yet, the Mississippi Street situation clearly shows that maintaining and replacing existing infrastructure in Lawrence's older neighborhoods also has a cost. It certainly will be more expensive to replace the 700 block of Mississippi than to build a block of new street. The traffic-clogging replacement of sewer lines along Ninth Street downtown surely must be more expensive per foot than extending sewer lines to a new development. But no one ever questions whether such costs should be borne by all Lawrence taxpayers.
The city probably will end up footing the entire bill for the Mississippi Street repairs, but the project may buy a valuable lesson for city officials. Commissioners are right to ask staffers to develop a comprehensive plan for repairing and restoring brick streets in town. If taxpayers are going to have to share the cost of such projects, policies must be adopted to avoid repeats of the current Mississippi Street mess.