If ever there was a poster child for the deeply flawed federalism that is enabled by a congressional spoils system, it is the Rio de Flag flood control project in Flagstaff.
It’s bad enough that the project has languished for more than a decade while a series of First District congressmen and women scramble to take credit each year for the funds dribbling out of the Army Corps of Engineers.
But now, after the first major part of the project is actually constructed under Corps oversight, we learn in a preliminary Corps report that it was badly built and will cost the city even more time and money to get the project back on track.
It’s enough to make even the most loyal supporters of the federal government’s role in local capital projects rethink just how much federal involvement there should be.
To outsiders, flood control in a high desert environment might seem like a low federal priority amid scenes of devastation each spring and summer along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers — and now even Vermont.
But to residents and business owners in Southside, the Rio de Flag flood zone is a huge cloud hanging over their future. Without adequate flood control, property owners can’t even get affordable financing for renovations, much less put up new buildings unless they are willing to use expensive flood mitigation techniques (ie., raised foundations).
And if a 100-year flood were to sweep down the Rio de Flag past City Hall and through Southside, an estimate back in 2000 predicted 1,000 structures would be damaged at a cost of $395 million, plus $93 million more in lost city tax revenues.
A decade later, those estimates are likely to be much higher.
Some critics of federal flood control aid contend that if cities are going to allow development in known flood zones, it’s up to them to mitigate the danger.
Others go even further, contending that if property owners in a flood zone can’t afford the federal flood insurance needed to finance new construction, it’s up to them to form a flood district and tax themselves in order to finance the needed flood controls.
The latter is actually the option that Coconino County has taken with self-contained flood zones in areas such as Timberline and Doney Park — residents there pay higher taxes in order to get locally financed flood controls.
That approach is less effective, however, in river systems that cross city, county and state boundaries, which is why the Army Corps has stepped in to design coordinated flood control systems up and down the Mississippi, Missouri and other rivers.
FEDERAL BLOCK GRANT
But the Rio de Flag happens to be a relatively small flood zone that the city of Flagstaff, in concert with the county and the national forest, should have been able to address years ago by forming a regional flood control district. All it would have taken was a federal block grant with a required local match, then turning loose local engineers and contractors to build the project with the funds allotted.
It’s the process used by the feds at state and municipal levels to build new highways, bridges, light rail systems and airport runways, and it’s time local flood control received the same treatment.
Instead, the Rio de Flag has seen its funds dribbled out as either annual appropriations from the Army Corps or as pork barrel grants by congressional representatives dating back to J.D. Hayworth. Because of the long-term funding uncertainty, only parts of the project can be designed and built at one time, rather than placing it under one general contractor working with local subcontractors on a coordinated timeline.
Not surprisingly, the decadelong delay has caused the price tag to leap from $25 million to $80 million, with most of the work downtown still to be done. The first major project was a $5 million, 71-acre detention basin in far west Flagstaff that is not deemed critical for flood protection until decades into the future when that part of the city is built out.
Then, to add insult to injury, the dam at the basin turned out to have cracks. The $670,000 the Corps has spent to investigate the problem and the estimated $500,000 it will cost to fix it are likely to come initially out of project funds intended for future construction while the financial liability is litigated.
At this point, even though the Rio de Flag is a federally established flood zone and thus a federal responsibility to help mitigate, it’s time for Flagstaff to consider cutting its ties to the Corps and get the project done on its own. There is talk at City Hall of selling enough bonds up front to construct the project all at once under city oversight, assuming voters approve the taxes needed to pay back the bonds.
TRANSFER TO CITY
Given the uncertain prospects for continued federal funding through the Army Corps budget, the demise of congressional earmarks, and the unlikely chances for reform of the Army Corps’ command-and-control approach to local projects, we think transferring the entire project to the city is worth exploring. City voters last year rejected more than $60 million in proposed bonding for a new courthouse and a new public works yard, so there is enough unused secondary tax capacity to justify a feasibility study. But whether there is enough political support for such a project, especially as the recession lingers, is another matter.
For now, the continuing debacle that is the Rio de Flag flood control project is cause for everyone associated with it at the local level to explore new ways to get the project onto a fast track. We appreciate the role the federal government plays in immediate disaster relief. But when it comes to disaster prevention, that involvement in Flagstaff has itself been a prescription for disaster.