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Potholes & politics: We get what we pay for

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These days it seems the whole world's apoplectic. As if fighting wars on two fronts weren't enough, we're lobbing missiles into Libya, people are getting blown up (again) in Israel and Japan's milk is radioactive.

Closer to home, the rich are getting richer while the rest of us are bankrupting the country. Apparently that's because we've got too many rights.

And did I mention that the glaciers are melting?

At a time when we are being ravaged by so much significance, it may seem beneath us to talk about something so commonplace as the state of Indianapolis' streets. But I was driving around downtown the other night; as usual, it was a teeth-rattling experience. So I'm going to say here what I've been muttering under my breath for years: our streets suck.

I'm not talking about the crews that have been out industriously patching potholes for the past few weeks. They — and Mayor Ballard's administration — deserve credit for making the city navigable.

But let's face it: the streets in this town are a mess. They're a patchy, cracked and coagulated mass of civic denial symbolizing Indianapolis' unwillingness to get the most basic things right.

It's ironic that a city known the world over for hosting "the greatest spectacle in racing" is so careless in maintaining its roadways. You'd think that a community as car-crazy as ours would insist on state-of-the-art paving. Then again, maybe this is a kind of safety measure, a way of holding everyone's inner Andretti at bay.

But keeping our streets up to par would cost money. A lot of money, given the incestuous relationship between the contractors who do the work and the politicians who arrange to pay for it. It seems resurfacing a city street is a little like trying to sign a free-agent football player: the amount you have to spend is bound to be more than it should be.

That may be OK if it wins you a championship, but it offends the Hoosier DNA when it comes to making civic improvements. Under these circumstances, we revert to our default mode and... do nothing.

Indeed, the inability to get our roads right isn't limited to Indianapolis. For years I've had occasion to drive Highway 12, a four-lane road connecting Michigan City, Ind., and New Buffalo, Mich. It's uncanny: even though both towns share the same weather, Indiana's stretch is always pocked and pitted. As soon as you cross the Michigan border, hey presto! The road becomes smooth. Must be that pesky time change.

It's not as though our elected officials aren't aware of the problem. Gov. Daniels leased the entire Northwest Indiana Tollway in order to raise funds for infrastructure improvements. But this was the same Daniels who told a group last year that they should consider using a thinner grade of asphalt to cut costs on the I-69 extension. If they do, you can expect that road never to be finished. There will be crews out there patching and repairing great hunks of it for generations to come. Contractors call that a gift that keeps on giving.

For his part, Mayor Ballard is trying to find money for better roads by selling the water company to Citizens Gas. As with leasing the toll road, cashing out a formerly public asset turns out to be a handy way of raising money without having to ask the public for a tax increase. In both cases, the public seems comfortable with this kind of deal.

That's the trouble. We're the ones who elect these folks, so the blame for the deplorable condition of our streets really belongs to us. Ask most local politicians what's with the roads — or the sewers, the bridges, the sidewalks — and they'll tell you how the buck has been passed from one administration to the next, going back decades. Nothing more than the minimum in road repair is ever done because We the People punish whichever politician tells us what it'll cost.

This says something about how we think of our city. It suggests that many people in Indianapolis are still uneasy about urban living, wary of investing themselves in a place where the quality of life is determined by their willingness to connect with one another. The city likes to brag about its volunteerism, but volunteers don't fix streets.

Lucky for us, we have an election coming this fall. Elections are great for streets. They affect mayors the way spring affects hibernating bears, creating sudden flurries of visible activity. For example, in a few weeks, they're finally going to start resurfacing Meridian Street. It's about time. Some cities have alleys that are in better shape than the outer lanes of this once-proud boulevard.

In scheduling this job for the months leading up to his reelection bid, Mayor Ballard is exercising a prerogative of his office, just like every mayor has before him. And to be fair, Ballard has paid more attention to streets than most. That just shows you how far we've let things slide — our streets still suck.

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