As in many big cities, the infrastructure here is crumbling, a problem exacerbated by decades of neglect and a network of residential roads, including Ms. Amoura’s, that have never met code. But Omaha’s solution is extreme: grinding paved streets into gravel as a way to cut upkeep costs.
“I wouldn’t like it and neither do the residents that live on those streets,” said Mayor Jean Stothert, a Republican who is nearing the end of her first term. “We are about 50 years behind where we should be as far as resurfacing and repair. I can’t catch up on 50 years of neglect in three or four years.”
While President Trump has called for extensive investments in infrastructure, federally funded efforts are likely to go to decaying interstate highways and airports and dams. Some experts estimate that $1 trillion is needed to repair roads, bridges and rail lines over the next decade.
But infrastructure is also decaying at the most local levels — on cul-de-sacs and in neighborhood playlots unlikely ever to see federal funding. So cities like Omaha have resorted to unusual solutions.
In Youngstown, Ohio, officials closed off some uninhabited streets. In Gary, Ind., some of the city’s parks could close — a process city officials call “renaturing” — after years of neglect. And in one Michigan county, a deteriorating bridge was torn down, not replaced.
“This isn’t something that happened over one year or two years,” said Brooks Rainwater, a senior executive and the director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities. “This has been decades of not investing in our infrastructure.”
Omaha’s most problematic streets were mostly built by developers decades ago who skimped on costs by paving with asphalt instead of concrete, and by forgoing sidewalks and sewers. In other cases, Omaha annexed suburban-looking neighborhoods with roads not built to city standards.
For years, an uneasy truce persisted: Public works crews would fill potholes and perform other maintenance work on those roads, but insisted that residents pay if they wanted repaving. Those streets, labeled “unimproved” by the city, account for about 6 percent of Omaha’s roads.
Then repair costs escalated, and potholes started going unfilled. On particularly troubled blocks, the city converted the asphalt surface into a gravelly dirt, a peculiar sight in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods in the center of a city. Only a small fraction of them, less than 10 miles, have been reclaimed.
“I can’t even open my windows on that side of the house,” said Sharon Thonen, a retiree who lives on what is now a dirt road a block from a busy Starbucks. Children stopped riding their bikes on her street after the asphalt was ripped out, Ms. Thonen said. “During the summer, it’s just a dust bowl.”
Residents have responded with angry phone calls, neighborhood meetings and at least one lawsuit. But Todd Pfitzer, the city’s assistant director of public works, said Omaha’s policy on unimproved roads is a matter of equity. When the houses were built two generations ago with subpar streets, he said, the builder and homeowner saved money.
“Now you’re asking the rest of the citizens to come in and essentially subsidize you and rebuild your road,” Mr. Pfitzer said. Bringing all of Omaha’s unimproved streets up to city code would cost about $300 million, officials estimate.
Still, for many homeowners, tearing up roads defies logic and sets back the stature of a city that by many metrics is thriving. Omaha, which has more residents than Miami or Minneapolis, has a growing population, a stable economy and a busy downtown with new developments and a glimmering baseball stadium that hosts the College World Series.
“In grinding up streets and putting gravel roads in the middle of the core of your city, that damages the reputation, that damages the image and brand of a city,” said Heath Mello, a Democrat and former state lawmaker trying to unseat Ms. Stothert this spring. For her part, the mayor said that along with turning some roads to gravel, her administration also has increased annual funding for resurfacing by about $4 million.
In fact, 27 states have seen such pavement-to-gravel conversions, a 2016 study found. But in most cases, streets were in rural areas or small towns, not major cities. And while other urban areas, such as Oklahoma City and Lincoln, Neb., have some gravel roads, those streets had never been paved.
Public works experts say turning pavement to gravel can be a defensible strategy when it comes to old infrastructure and limited money.
“In areas where there’s lower traffic, less use, perhaps the terrain is flat, it can totally make sense,” said Rick Brader, a road engineer for King County, Wash., who manages streets outside Seattle.
But it is far from ideal. “I think that’s a step backwards in the infrastructure business,” said Mac Andrew, a retired public works director in the Kansas City area who was named one of the best in his field by the American Public Works Association.
Given the complaints, Omaha has put in place a moratorium on “reclaiming” additional streets while a committee studies the issue. And the city has compromised with some homeowners by splitting the costs of repaving streets.
Bruce Simon, the president of Omaha Steaks, a major employer here, sued the mayor and the city last year after finding out that the asphalt road in front of his $2.3 million house was scheduled to be pulverized into gravel. He dropped the lawsuit after Ms. Stothert helped negotiate the 50-50 payment deal.
“I got a road,” said Mr. Simon, who paid $5,200 to cover his share of the smooth new asphalt surface. “Did I like chucking out the five grand? No. Did I like spending the money with an attorney to deal with it? No.”
About a mile away, on Leavenworth Street, Ms. Amoura and her neighbors are waiting to hear from City Hall about whether they will get a deal similar to Mr. Simon’s. But on other reclaimed streets, residents have scoffed at the notion that they should have to choose between living on gravel and paying for new pavement.
“I’d like it to be the way it was,” said Ms. Thonen, who has lived in her home for more than 30 years and has no interest in splitting the cost of repaving with the city. “I pay my taxes.”