Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013
This week’s timelapse is a special one for me. As many of you know, I grew up in Southern Indiana near Louisville, so I’m delighted to be able to feature this time lapse of that city by Eric Stemem. It’s only two weeks old, but I’m using executive privilege to bump it to the front of the queue. It isn’t quite as cool as say many of the videos of Paris I’ve posted. But for a small city, this is very well done. The only major things that seem to be missing are the actual horses running at Churchill Downs and Thunder Over Louisville. Both could be timing or permissions issues. I particularly like that he actually includes a bit of decay in there. Full screen viewing recommended. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
There are too many folks to thank here for me to list them all. Let’s just say my inbox blew up with this thing this week.
Thursday, September 26th, 2013
During the lengthy planning process for the Ohio River Bridges Project nearly Louisville, the bi-state study group surveyed the public on preferred bridge designs. This was a high profile endeavor that was prominently covered in the papers and such. The public even got to vote on what designs they liked. It was quite a spirited debate, but at the end of a lengthy design selection process (I’m told it lasted three years), this design by Boston architect Miguel Rosales was chosen for the East End bridge:
To give you a feel for the process and how important it was for the community, Louisville Magazine did a review just of the selected designs before they were built. Here are some key excerpts:
We now have the designs for two new bridges accompanied by a chorus of anxious proclamations by civic leaders declaring an end to the debate.
[ The Downtown and East End bridge designs] also reflect tremendous outreach to the community on the part of the Kentucky and Indiana Ohio River Bridges Project (ORBP), which sponsored numerous public meetings and surveys. Both bridge designs deserve serious consideration, as they will affect the city’s relationship to the river and the city’s sense of identity for decades to come, and both have strengths and weaknesses to be debated.
Of the two, the East End bridge is the more simply and elegantly designed. Officials with the ORBP said that the public voiced a strong desire for the bridge to be as “visually transparent” as possible, both for those on the span looking out over the river and the landscape and for those on land looking at the river.
“I believe this design was felt to be the best overall choice for this pristine rural context,” says Daniel Carrier, project manager for the East End bridge. “The public wanted a design that wouldn’t obstruct the landscape.” This sensitivity reflects widespread concern about the impact on the river corridor, especially in the sparsely developed East End, which includes a valuable nature habitat, unspoiled view corridors and historic properties.
You already know what’s coming. When the Indiana Department of Transportation, which is responsible for the East End bridge construction, awarded the contract to build it, they unceremoniously dumped the previously selected design in favor of this:
This design change was simply presented to the public as a fait accompli without any public input or consultation. The only consultation appears to have been between INDOT and its contractor.
Not everyone was pleased. From the News Tribune (a Southern Indiana newspaper):
The change, for some nearby residents, was not met with adoration. “I’m disappointed, truthfully,” said Welby Edwards, a Quarry Bluff resident. “The other bridge was absolutely fabulous.”
“It’s just a beautiful structure,” he said of the [original] median-tower design. “It was wide open. It just had elegance to it. It was not going to be an eyesore. They solved a lot of problems by putting a beautiful bridge in there. It wouldn’t have been utilitarian, it was going to be something worth looking at. [Now] it’s a bridge that’s not going to be anything you’re going to brag about.”
Beyond the aesthetic, Edwards questioned why a design change was made now.
“I don’t understand how you have one bridge for six years and change it at the last minute?” he asked. “That’s what they sold us, that’s what they should build,” he said of the original design.
Edwards wasn’t the only one that preferred the design chosen by the state. “Aesthetically, I think I like the previous one better,” said Utica Town Board President Hank Dorman. However, he said he believes the span that will likely be constructed by WVB will be a very attractive bridge. Doorman, too, questioned the changes being made to the project plan at this point.
INDOT justified the switch by saying that a) they’d signed away the design rights to their contractor and b) the new design is cheaper to build and maintain.
Let’s not go overboard. The new design isn’t the end of the world. While it’s certainly not a signature structure, it’s quite serviceable in my opinion. And the original one itself wasn’t the Golden Gate Bridge.
Let’s also take INDOT’s statements at face value and accept that the new design is cheaper than the old one (though their claim that they saved $220 million appears to be bogus). Saving money is a perfectly legitimate reason to make design changes. I think we can all relate to making personal decisions to change approaches on home projects or whatever to save money. And as I guy who worked for a consulting company (not in the transportation space) I can tell you that a contractor suggesting money saving changes is definitely something you want. I may well have made the same decision if I’d been in charge of it.
But even with the noblest of intentions, the sequence of events is incredibly troubling – and sadly all too common. During the planning phases – when, incidentally, public input is legally mandated and in which transport agencies are trying to secure support for project approval – very nice designs are chosen, only to mysteriously disappear via “value engineering” when some nameless, faceless member of the green eyeshade brigade gets ahold of it – generally right before construction, when it’s too late for anyone to effectively object. If lowest cost was always going to be the selected option, why go through the process of a design selection?
That design process was ultimately nothing more than a dog and pony show, if not an outright bait and switch. If any private individual or company had done that, they’d have the Attorney General (if not the county prosecutor) breathing down their necks. But this is the government we’re talking about. If INDOT really did save a lot of money on this, perhaps they should be using it pay compensation to everyone who participated in the design process for wasting their time (the value of which, by the way, DOTs know quite well, since they use it to calculate the cost of traffic delays). What’s that they say? You’ve got to dance with the one that brung ya. That certainly didn’t happen here.
We actually do want to make tradeoffs between cost and design. But the public needs to have its part in that debate. Whatever the case, clearly this type of process where you spend years consulting with the public only to pitch the result in the garbage can overnight is not appropriate. The ability to have public input throughout, from planning through to construction needs to be designed in to the process. Otherwise you’re just wasting everybody’s time.
Thursday, September 19th, 2013
I’ve written a lot about the $2.6 billion boondoggle project to build two new bridges across the Ohio River in Louisville (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). A new East End river crossing is without a doubt necessary and adds regional value, but the rest of the project is basically bad news.
But no matter how crazy this project is, it always manages to find ways to show that it’s even more wacky than I thought. The latest installment comes from the so-called “investment grade toll study” that was conducted in order to set toll rates and issue bonds.
New Bridges Plus Existing Downtown Bridge to Carry Less Traffic Than Existing Downtown Bridge Today
The entire premise of building this mega-boondoggle instead of a simple East End bridge has been congestion. That is, the existing bridges are over capacity. For example, we’ve been solemnly told that the I-65 Kennedy Bridge has a capacity of only 105,000 vehicles per day but carries 122,000 today and will carry much more than that in the future. So to deal with that a new parallel span is being built that will give I-65 about six lanes each direction at the river, plus a new I-265 bridge is being built with four lanes (two each direction).
After building this, how many cars do you think these bridges will be carrying in 2030 (the latest year for which the study provides a breakdown)? Would you believe less than the existing Kennedy Bridge carried in 2007? Crazy as that sounds, it’s true.
Source: Louisville-Southern Indiana Ohio River Bridges Traffic & Revenue Study, Table 6.4, Page 87 (page 107 in PDF) and Table ES-2, Page ii (Page 6 in PDF)
This value is significantly less than the 155,000 projected traffic in 2030 from the “Do Nothing” scenario in the Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS, Table 2.2). Now that the region is doing $2.6 billion worth of something, traffic will actually be less than in 2007.
Incidentally, the forecasted traffic on the Downtown + East End bridges in 2030 is now much less than in the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement used to get the project approved, 132,000 now vs. 157,000 then. More on that in a moment.
Doubled in Capacity Downtown Bridge Will Never Carry As Much Traffic As Existing Bridge Today
But wait, there’s more. Let’s zoom in on the downtown bridge. The toll study doesn’t report the breakdown of traffic by bridge post-2030. But if we assume the split as of 2030 remains constant, and use their total toll collection figures and leakage factors, we can estimate traffic by bridge until 2054.
Traffic on the downtown bridge will never again reach what is currently being carried on the existing Kennedy Bridge.
Source: Louisville-Southern Indiana Ohio River Bridges Traffic & Revenue Study, Table 6.4, Page 87 (page 107 in PDF); Table ES-2, Page ii (Page 6 in PDF); Table 6.7, Page 91 (page 111 in PDF); and Table 5.17, Page 79 (page 99 in PDF)
Not only will this massive new twin bridge never carry what just the old bridge does today, it doesn’t even exceed the design capacity until 2050 and never exceeds it by more than a modest amount, which is actually common on roads that function well and need no improvement.
In short, no new downtown bridge needed to be built at all. So Indiana and Kentucky are flushing $1.3 billion down the drain.
The declines in projected traffic vs. the studies that got the project approved even caught the attention of the Courier-Journal, normally an unrelenting cheerleader for the project. The C-J noted:
The report also predicts fewer drivers than previously thought for the area’s five Ohio River bridges. An estimated 285,000 vehicles would cross by 2030, down from predictions of 310,400 made two years ago and a prediction of 362,900 made a decade ago. Currently, about 224,000 vehicles cross the river each day.
Louisville resident Tyler Allen said of this, “When it comes time to issue bonds, all of a sudden everybody gets all serious.” But an alternate explanation could be that since the project is already under construction, it doesn’t matter what the numbers say anymore. As Oxford researcher Bent Flyvbjerg has documented, major projects are consistently mis-estimated in a manner favorable to proceeding with them, which raises troubling questions. Flyvbjerg refers to the effect this produces as “survival of the unfittest.”
The Bridges Project Has a Far Greater Tax Contribution Than Advertised
The new bridges will be tolled to help pay for the project. It was always known that the tolls would not be sufficient to pay off the costs of the bridges – which right there tells you that from a market perspective, the project was dubious – but a recent document reveals that the taxpayer contribution will be far higher than previously advertised.
A copy of a revised agreement between Indiana and Kentucky shows that about $1.5 billion in taxpayer funds will go to this bridge, $723 million from Indiana, and $756 million from Kentucky. Given that we’ve been old the entire project is “only” $2.6 billion, this implies over half the funds will come from taxes, not tolls.
As always, it’s difficult to make full sense of the murky details of this project, but the Indiana contributions would make it appear that yet again the public has been mislead on the project. For example, just last year Indiana publicly said it was committing $432 million in traditional funds to the project. Indiana also has been publicly bragging that its agreement with the contractor (which included a revised and cheaper bridge design I’ll cover in a future post) saved $225 million.
You would think that if Indiana saved $225 million its tax contribution would go down. But if you thought that you thought wrong. The revised agreement with Kentucky says that at a minimum “INDOT has committed $570 million in federal and state conventional funds through 2018.” Also, while the source of these funds is unclear, “INDOT has committed an additional $108 million” for 2019 and 2020, and is creating a $45 million “Relief Events Allowance Account.” So here’s what the reality adds up to:
Source: Bridges Project Press Release, March 5, 2012 and Development Agreement Addendum #2, Section 6, September 11, 2013.
Incidentally, when you add the Indiana tax contributions plus the bonds issued on behalf of the developer, it’s clear the price of Indiana’s bridge has actually gone up, not down.
Tolling to Congest Sherman Minton Bridge
Part of the marketing on the project has been that only the new I-265 and I-65 bridges would be tolled. The existing Sherman Minton I-64 bridge and 2nd Street (US 31 aka George Rogers Clark Memorial) Bridge would remain free.
Unsurprisingly, the toll study predicts significant diversion of traffic to those bridges to avoid tolls that will range from $1-$12. The 2nd St. Bridge has four narrow lanes and deposits traffic onto 2nd and Main St. in downtown Louisville. It carries 24,100 cars today but is predicted to carry 32,000 in 2030. This is actually a surprisingly low diversion rate to me, given that traffic can easily jump off and on I-65 to use this bridge.
The Sherman Minton, however, is predicted to carry 121,000 vehicles. That’s up 55% (42,800) from today’s 78,200. The Sherman Minton has a design capacity of 90,000 cars, so in 2030 the bridge would be 34% over capacity. I think it can probably handle it, honestly, but these figures suggests a very large diversion of vehicles and explain why traffic on I-65 actually shrinks after its capacity is doubled.
Query: If the 122,000 cars on the I-65 bridge designed for 105,000 resulted in this boondoggle, what is likely to be the effect of 121,000 on a bridge designed for 90,000? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that once the current bridges project is complete, the next step will be a Sherman Minton replacement, driven by traffic and structural “problems.” This will result in another mega-bridge project that will undoubtedly be tolled. Then all it would take is the closure of the Second Street Bridge (which was opened in 1929 and is identical in age and similar in construction to a bridge in Madison that is currently undergoing an emergency replacement) to create a hermetically sealed toll barrier on the river at Louisville.
I should mention that I’m not opposed to tolls. I think they’re the best way to pay for infrastructure today. I also like building new roads and bridges – where they make sense, as in the East End Bridge. But implementing big tolls to pay for boondoggle welfare projects for road builders makes no sense at all.
Miscellaneous Additional Items
I realize this is a project of mostly local concern and the things I’m covering are somewhat esoteric. But this is how we in America keep pouring staggering sums of money into boondoggle highways while neglecting infrastructure (including other, more worthy road projects) that actually make sense.
In addition to the above figures which make it abundantly clear a downtown bridge isn’t needed, there are several other miscellaneous items that popped out of the toll study:
- 95% of the automobile traffic crossing the bridges is either local or has an origin or destination in Louisville. So it will be locals, not out of towners paying the tolls.
- About 25% of the trucks on I-65 are through traffic, so there’s a bigger opportunity there, unless those truckers choose an alternate route. But 75% of the trucks will be local, and so there will be a significant cost increase for those firms. One Southern Indiana business-owner suggested his bill would be over $200K per year. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this type of cost in a cost-sensitive business will affect business location decisions.
Louisville is hanging its hat economically on the logistics and distribution industry, were it already benefits from being UPS’s largest air hub. If that’s your economic strategy, why would you want to impose large costs on trucking when none of your regional competitor cities have tolls? Expect Indy, Columbus, Nashville, Cincinnati, and St. Louis to be salivating over this. Also, a quick look at a map shows that for large amounts of through traffic, it’s easy to avoid Louisville. For example, I-65 traffic can divert over I-74 from Indianapolis to Cincinnati, then take I-75 south.
- The job growth forecast for the region seems inflated. The toll study suggests regional job growth of 0.9% per year (CAGR). But the actual CAGR since 2000 has been -0.13%. Louisville actually has less jobs today than in 2000. Even if you assume the 2000s are an aberration and average with the go-go 90s, you still only get a CAGR of 0.8% over the last 22 years. That might not sound like much but since this is a compound interest formula, the rates matter a lot.
- Similarly they project population growth of 2.2% per year in Floyd County, IN versus 0.5% actual since 2000. In Clark County, IN they project 1.7% vs. 1.2% actual. No justification is given for this.
These figures suggest to me that traffic could end up being lower than even these already reduced figures. In any events, this remains one of the worst transportation ideas I’ve ever seen, particularly when a far cheaper and better – and for downtown Louisville, transformational – alternative was available and rejected.
More on the Louisville Bridges Project:
Hoosiers to Pay 70% of Local Tolls on Ohio River Bridge Project
Media Finally Wakes Up to Louisville Tunnel Boondoggle
Bridges Project a Financial Fiasco
Hoosiers to Pay Even More With Tolling
A Mini-”Big Dig”
A Better Bridges Plan
The Case for 8864
Thursday, August 2nd, 2012
A few recent news stories caught my eye that I wanted to highlight.
Transport Tax Crushed at the Polls in Atlanta
The proposed sales tax increase in Atlanta that would have funded a large capital program for transit and highways went down to a bigtime defeat. This was interesting since capital referendums generally seem to do well.
There’s still a lot to process on this. Richard Layman had some thoughts on his blog that are worth a read. A couple things stuck out at me.
First is the unlikely anti-tax coalition of the Tea Party, the Sierra Club, and the NAACP. When I noted how the Tea Party types and the NAACP had joined forces in Cincinnati to oppose a streetcar, I was assured by locals this was not the start of a trend but came from the personalities involved. But here we see it again. I’m not sure if this is the start of a trend or not, but it’s something to watch. I’ve noted for a while now that the populist wings of the left and the right are fed up with the establishments of their respective parties. At some point could there be a left-right populist alliance against the big money interests? I’m not saying that’s the case here, but there are interesting points to ponder.
The second is where this leaves at Atlanta. As I noted in my piece “Is It Game Over for Atlanta?.” this is a troubled region that lost huge amounts of jobs, saw the worst erosion of per capita income of pretty much any big city, and even saw per capita GDP declines. And it’s choked with traffic and other assorted infrastructure ills. Meanwhile, places like Charlotte, Raleigh, and Nashville offer a lot of the Atlanta experience without the same level of problems. Atlanta is no longer the only game in town in the Southeast. Maybe a big infrastructure program isn’t what Atlanta needs, but if not, what’s the plan?
Lastly, with the federal spigot drying up and states broke, urban regions are going to have to find ways to invest in their own highway and transit infrastructure the way they’ve largely invested in their own airports. We see many cities stepping up and voting in infrastructure spending (albeit excessively skewed to transit in my view) while others vote it down. If this keeps going, we’ll get a real life test of where the choice of investment vs. disinvestment gets you.
Google’s Motorola Mobility Unit Moving to Downtown Chicago
In the wake of Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility, it is moving the headquarters and 3,000 employees downtown from suburban Libertyville. This is being touted as a huge coup for Chicago’s tech hub ambitions.
From a regional perspective, this is a net nothing. However, it clearly goes to show the ongoing power of the Chicago Loop not just as a tourist and quasi-public sector downtown like so many, but as a bona fide commercial powerhouse. I can’t prove this with data, but it seems to me that Chicago may have the strongest trend of any city in America of corporate relocations from the suburbs to downtown.
This is also a tribute to Rahm Emanuel’s star power. Economic development via Rahm’s Rolodex appears to be working. He started courting Google’s then CEO-Eric Schmidt for major investment in the city some time ago. This goes to show the advantage a city like Chicago has. Very few cities have mayors that can get any CEO in the country on the phone whenever they want. Chicago does.
On the other hand, I can’t agree with the schadenfreude some are feeling over the prospect of wind swept parking lots at vacant suburban office complexes. This is really no different than suburbanites who left rejoicing over the city’s ills. Ultimately, Chicagoland is a single economic region. And I hate to break it to you, but while moves like this make huge headlines, the majority of the economic and population growth will continue to be in the suburbs. At some point the burbs may get fed up with Rahm’s poaching, and that would bode ill for the type of regional cooperation that’s critical needed to move the area forward. I think Rahm should think about bringing his era of active recruitment of suburban firms to a close in the reasonably near future.
Why Detroit Deserves to Lose
Yet another saga out of Detroit illustrates why this city and region have fallen so far. The city has been hemorrhaging people and jobs for decades, has likewise been mis-managed for decades, and is flat broke. Basically, the city would go bankrupt without state financial support. Unsurprisingly, when the state gives you money, they put strings on it. This has resulted in a big tussle back and forth over the degree of state control, some of which is legitimate and natural.
But a recent debate over the future of Belle Isle, a Frederick Law Olmsted designed park on an island in the Detroit River that’s owned by the city, has shown the type of attitude that’s held Detroit back so long.
The city is broke and can’t afford the park anymore. The park also needs major repairs. The state said they’d take it over under a long term lease as a state park and make the investment to fix it up. Sounds like a win-win to me.
Apparently not to Detroit’s leadership, which has gone apoplectic. Saying “hands off our island” they are protesting state control over the park. What do they want instead? It’s pretty simple. As someone put it, “state support without state control.” In other words, give us your money and go away.
This is the exact same attitude Detroit has taken on everything. It’s why, for example, the Cobo Center sat in a decrepit state for so long with no action, for example. Detroit wanted suburbanites to pay, but wanted the city to retain control of the asset. We’ve seen where this has gotten Detroit.
Regarding Belle Isle, Mayor Dave Bing said, “I have never in my 46 years in this city seen a governor of the state of Michigan involved in city politics like this one.” Given the state of Detroit today, one can’t help but ask, what took the state so long? It should have intervened long ago.
As always, Detroit’s leaders continue to try to point the blame at outside people and forces instead of taking a cold hard look in the mirror. These guys just aren’t serious.
Louisville Aging Cluster
The New York Times has a piece on Louisville’s efforts to build an economic cluster around care for the aging. I can’t say how successful this is likely to be, but I think it illustrates good thinking. Everybody and their brother is saying their economic future is some variant of life sciences (and high tech, advanced manufacturing and logistics, and green tech). They can’t all win in those general markets. And Louisville in my view really isn’t that well positioned.
So rather than try to make some big generalized push, the idea is to look for a specialized part of the industry where you do have more leading capabilities, and try to focus on that. That’s exactly what Louisville is doing here with aging care. There are supposedly something like 500 local companies doing work related to that. It’s also right down the rails of the demographic changes happening in America and the world. We’ll see how this plays out, but this sort of more specialized thinking is how cities ought to be looking at economic development strategies.
Monday, June 11th, 2012
The Indianapolis Star finally did a report this weekend covering the ridiculousness of Indiana taxpayers and motorists paying for a $255 million “tunnel under the trees” in Kentucky as part of the Ohio River bridges project.
Their article is a good one, and reveals that Kentucky officials deliberately listed the property as historic to drive up the cost of the bridge project as a poison pill attempt. Though the headline should better have been phrased as a question: “Why Exactly Is Indiana Paying $255 to Tunnel Under Kentucky’s Trees?” The only answer seems to be because Mitch Daniels wants to.
The idea of Indiana paying for a useless $255 million tunnel in Kentucky is the most easy to grasp ludicrousness in this project, but far from the worst element. It’s too bad the Star did not examine other even more troubling problems, such as:
- As the Star’s own graphic shows, Indiana is actually spending $737.5 million on roadway in Kentucky. That’s over $100,000 per foot! You could probably literally gold plate the road for that. It’s more expensive than any project anywhere in Indiana. It is more than combined cost of the Indiana side of the river plus the new bridge.
- The two states managed to take $1.5 billion in cost out of the project – good. But as part of that Indiana’s cost actually went up by $200 million while Kentucky’s went down by $1.7 billion – hello?!?!
- The Star reports that Indiana and Kentucky will evenly split money from the bridge tolls – news to me – even though Hoosier motorists will pay $5 million more per year than Kentuckians. So not only is Indiana paying more than it’s fair share on a cost basis (including that $737 million in Kentucky) – it’s also shipping a huge chunk of Hoosier money across the river ever year to help Kentucky pay for its part of the project. Hoosiers will pay fully 74% of all local tolls collected on the bridges.
In short, it just doesn’t get much dumber than this.
It’s stunning to me that, to burnish his legacy by getting a bridge project done that had eluded both states for 40 years, Mitch Daniels is willing to throw Hoosier taxpayers and motorists under the bus like this. This is a deal that will live in infamy as Indiana’s worst transportation finance decision since the 1830s epic canal fiasco that bankrupted the state. I cannot think of another governor in modern times who so clearly acted contrary to his own constituents’ financial interests in a transportation project.
Again, I am 100% four square behind building the East End bridge as a key state priority – I just don’t think it’s worst giving away upwards of a billion dollars the state didn’t need to in order to do it.
I’ve written extensively on this project before, so won’t reprise it all here. But you can read much more at:
Thursday, April 5th, 2012
I’ve written before about how Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer saw cooperation with Lexington as a vehicle for making his smallish region more competitive. This has gone beyond talk. As Louisville and Kentucky fought it out on the basketball court, the New York Times was reporting on how the two cities are planning to become economic teammates. Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution also wrote about this initiative.
The first concrete step in this is something called the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement. It’s a partnership around advanced manufacturing between the two cities developed in conjunction with Brookings. Here’s a video about it. It’s a big goofy, and the production values clearly need improvement (such as the two minutes of basically dead air at the end of it), but it should illustrate what they are trying to get at. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).
I’ve historically been a bit skeptical of the mega-region concept. I could never figure out exactly what it is mega-regions were supposed to accomplish that would provide step change improvements in metro area performance. It’s not exactly clear here either what is going to ultimately happen. However, if you are going to make mega-region type development happen, Louisville and Lexington are pretty well placed to prove out the concept. They are in the same state, they are both too small to plausibly go it alone in the global marketplace, and they are close – only about 80 miles apart. They are just far apart to be separate media markets and spheres of influence, but close enough to make going back and forth a breeze. They also decided to pick just one area to start with, which I think was smart. I’ll be very interested to see what comes out of this. Anyone interested in cross-regional collaboration should keep an eye on what’s happening here.
Thursday, April 5th, 2012
Update 4/6: The organization behind the polls has put up a web site with raw data and more findings from their scientific survey.
Update 4/6: Later reports with more specific data from this poll show that the actual ratio is 74% of the local traffic is Hoosiers, not 80% – still a stunning ratio. The pollster estimates a slightly lower ratio of toll revenue to Indiana – 70%, though it’s not clear how they did this math. And finally it looks like Southern Indiana officials are waking up to the fact that they are going to get pimped on this deal. Remember folks, you heard it here first.
Indiana and Kentucky transportation officials have tried mightily to avoid talking about the breakdown of cross-river traffic in Louisville, a crucial piece of data to have in determining who will actually pay for $2.6 billion in two new bridges if it is done largely through tolling. But a new scientific, independent poll released today exposes that Hoosiers will pay four times as many tolls as Kentuckians because that’s how many more trips back and forth across the river they make compared to Kentuckians. In Clark and Floyd Counties, residents actually make five times as many trips as Kentuckians. This means that of all the local bridge tolls being collected, Hoosiers are going to pay 80% of them. This explodes the idea that Indiana and Kentucky are splitting the cost 50/50, which is already ridiculous as it stands.
Only about half of area residents supports tolling to pay for the bridges, which is surprising considering that most of the people are in Kentucky and they are paying next to nothing comparatively. Hoosiers seem wise to this game however, as only 36% of residents of Clark and Floyd Counties approve of tolls.
To recap: The two states were able to reduce the cost of the overall project by $1.5 billion, but Indiana gave away $1.7 billion to Kentucky, meaning its share of the costs actually went up by $200 million. Indiana also agreed to built a 1.4 mile approach road and tunnel in Kentucky for $795 million – a staggering $100,000 per foot – that is now the most expensive highway project on Indiana’s books.
I always knew tolling would be bad for Indiana, but now we know how bad. I wouldn’t mind if Hoosiers were paying for the East End bridge that makes sense (minus the gold plated, fraudulent tunnel on the Kentucky side of the river), but to pay for nearly the entire project is ludicrous.
I’m on record as being a Mitch Daniels fan, but he’s clearly screwed up badly on this one. He seems desperate to put another feather in the cap of his legacy by getting yet another highway project that had been stalled for years actually built on his watch. But the cost to Hoosiers here is just too high. He’s throwing his own southern Indiana constituents under the bus with this one by cramming a horrible business deal and tolls they don’t want down their throats. It’s time to change course big time before a terrible mistake gets made.
Sunday, February 19th, 2012
[ This one from the archives is the final installment in my Louisville trilogy this week. It's a concept brand positioning idea for the city. Keep in mind, this is supposed to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, while being realistically rooted in the city and showing how places should be thinking about themselves in a crowded, competitive marketplace - Aaron. ]
I am a believer that in a modern era that has witnessed the fragmentation of the great American common culture, and the relatively small in number but broad in reach institutions that served it, it is important for cities that are not blessed with natural amenities or killer low costs to increase their strategic differentiation. They should try to find market segments they can target more effectively than others. And they should try to build a unique local environment rooted in their history and character, but which is also forward looking, that creates a distinct, unique flavor of urbanity.
I’ve also suggested that Louisville should focus on quality over quantity. It already has fantastic neighborhoods many cities would kill for. Strengthening those, making targeted investments in its downtown, riverfront, and other well-chosen areas, and focusing on strengthening its unique assets are the actions I would take.
I’d like to throw out today a further concept positioning strategy for Louisville that I call “Vice City”. It’s not exactly that, but I couldn’t think of a better name for it. It’s not necessarily a serious proposal, and I strongly doubt there would be any local interest in it, but I do think that by studying the idea, it can hopefully generate some interesting thoughts about the city and what it could be. Please view this as a speculative proposal or thought experiment.
In a nutshell, this idea positions Louisville as “New Orleans North”. I can’t help but noticing a few parallels between the two cities.
- New Orleans is a river city – Louisville is a river city
- New Orleans has a French heritage – Louisville is named after a French king at least, and has adopted a lot of French symbology
- New Orleans has great restaurants – Louisville has great restaurants
- New Orleans has Southern, historic, genteel neighborhoods and traditions – Louisville also has Southern influenced, historic, genteel neighborhoods and traditions.
- New Orleans has a huge reputation as a haven of vice and partying – Louisville used to have that reputation.
That last bit is interesting. River towns were always rough places. Louisville’s riverside docks were, like waterfronts the world over, rough and rowdy havens of drunkenness and debauchery. “Lively Shively” was historically home to distilleries and strip clubs. Until quite recently Louisville had any number of blue establishments downtown. Reputedly the reason Green St. was renamed Liberty St. long ago was to help eradicate the reputation Green St. had acquired far and wide as a home of the burlesque. Think about Louisville and Kentucky and what comes to mind? Horse racing (gambling), bourbon (drinking), tobacco (smoking), and coal. We’re talking about a place whose history and brand are already heavily associated with vice.
New Orleans had a similar heritage. The big difference is that New Orleans, probably for cultural reasons, was always proud of its seamy side. Like Las Vegas, it recognized that in a country which is dominated by a strong moral sensitivity, there was an opportunity to carve out a niche – and a highly successful one – catering to, shall we say, a more lax standard. And the party pit in the French Quarter and downtown casinos largely have no ill effect on New Orleans’ neighborhoods, many of which still look like they are fresh from the pages of an Anne Rice novel. Now New Orleans may not be a truly successful metro area for many reasons, but try to imagine it without the tourist industry.
Louisville, by contrast, has long tried to stamp out vice in that city. And today it has largely succeeded. Where long ago you could once have a good time in a burlesque joint on Green St., today your choices in downtown entertainment tend to the extremely generic, such as the heavily subsidized 4th St. Live complex. By stamping out vice, Louisville to a great extent stamped out fun and character from much of its downtown.
One way to envision a successful, unique strategy for Louisville is to do something similar to what New Orleans did, namely creating a great combination out of the best of Mobile and Las Vegas. From Mobile you take the laid back southern charm, aristocratic traditions, gentility, and high culture. From Vegas you take vice, fun, and a certain joie de vivre.
By the way, does this sound familiar? It should, because it is an almost perfect description of the Kentucky Derby. You’ve got the tradition at the pinnacle of horse racing as a sport combined with gambling. You’ve got the fancy dress, fancy hats, and mint juleps of Millionaire’s Row combined with the raucous debauchery of the infield and people sneaking in booze by stuffing vodka down their trousers double-bagged in ziplocks (not that I’ve ever done such a thing…..). A great and winning combination.
Extending this to the city as a whole, we start with the fundamental aristocratic character of the civic culture. I’m not going to say this is unique to Louisville. For some reason, it seems to permeate many of the river cities I’ve studied. Talking to someone about Louisville, he offered this insight, “Louisville is provincial, in all the best and worst ways. Louisville likes itself, is proud of itself, hangs on to its institutions, loves its (private, Catholic) high schools in ways I’ve never seen elsewhere”. This is clearly an example of aristocratic thinking, which is about self-regard, rooted in history and the land. This attitude also shows through in the particular contempt Louisville shows for newer cities, as well as the extreme prickliness of Louisvillians when it comes to outside criticism. In a democratic social state like America, aristocracy has a bit of a bad reputation, and it certainly has its downsides. But it also has its good points. Firstly, it generates a bit of unique local character all its own. Secondly, it gives people the cultural fortitude to say no to trends and hold onto local ways and to embrace an agenda that is different from what other people are doing. (I’m also describing Cincinnati here, you might notice).
From that, we take away the fierce pride in unique neighborhoods and historic traditions. We can also take the embrace of certain aspects of high culture, including fine dining (of which Louisville has a great tradition), mint juleps and the bourbon culture, the arts, etc. I definitely think this should be looked at as rooted in a very Southern approach. Again, this distinguishes Louisville. Most Southern cities seem to want to ape Atlanta as the next mega-growth story. This leaves the field clear to a major city that wants to adopt a Charleston/Savannah/Mobile type point of view.
One piece of this that must be rejected, however, is the racial baggage that comes with it. Also in common with New Orleans, Louiville has a marginalized African American community. Southern aristocratic culture is rooted in plantation culture, which has its Not Good points to say the least. As with other cities, it is a clear imperative for Louisville to improve race relations and to make sure that its minority communities share in its success.
On the other side, how can Louisville recapture the fun outside of Derby? There are some ways we might imagine. Again, instead of creating a “climate action plan” just like every other city, or banning smoking just like every other city, why not roll with the fact that Kentucky is a major tobacco producer and has the highest percentage of people who smoke to be the most smoking friendly city in America? You’ve got gambling at Churchill Downs, and already across the river at Caesars/Horseshoe, so why not put a couple of casinos downtown? I normally think this is a disaster of a downtown development approach, but if you are organizing around forbidden fun, why not? Loosen up on liquor licenses to create party zones, and also do something to make sure that the best transportation options for people who have been drinking are available so people can get home safely. Figure out how to become the micro-distillery capital of the United States. There are already great local breweries like New Albanian and BBC, try to make sure there are many, many more. Do whatever you can to make Louisville party central, and create a fun, unique environment you can’t get elsewhere. By the way, much like Vegas and New Orleans, this is also good for conventions if that is a business you really want to be a player in.
Louisville is surrounded by hundreds of miles of mostly not very exciting places in the lower Midwest and upper South, places that are very conservative in many respects. Why should someone have to fly to New Orleans or Vegas or where ever to have a good time partying when they can just drive or take a short hop to Louisville?
Here’s a short promo video that sums it up beautifully:
Of course, there is a problem with this. No one in Louisville is likely to want to do it. And the negative consequences might outweigh the positives, I’ll admit. Fortunately, as a blogger, I can put crazy ideas on the table to make people think though. And I think Louisville needs to be thinking indeed about what niche it should carve out for itself. Downtown condos, generic bars, a smallish convention center, sports facilities, etc. are not going to distinguish Louisville from peer competitive cities. Particularly when it is facing the headwinds of being regionally smaller and having low educational attainment.
At a minimum, I do think Louisville ought to be thinking about this notion of Southern aristocratic culture and how it can leverage it to best effect locally. That seems to be a no brainer since there are already extensive elements of it present.
This post originally ran on March 15, 2009.
Tuesday, February 14th, 2012
[ One of the Louisville sites I do still read religiously is Broken Sidewalk. Last month I saw there the article below which originally appeared on the blog of Rollin Stanley, Planning Director of Montgomery County, MD. If you'd like to know more about him, check out his blog, or read this piece from Greater Greater Washington called, The Quotable Rollin Stanley. This Louisville piece is very insightful and I am grateful he gave permission to repost it here - Aaron. ]
Downtown Louisville. (Branden Klayko)
[Note from Branden Klayko, Editor of Broken Sidewalk: Rollin Stanley is the Planning Director at the Montgomery County, Maryland Planning Department. I first met him nearly a decade ago shortly after he was named Executive Director of the St. Louis Planning and Urban Design Agency while I was in college. He understands how cities work implicitly and is an outspoken advocate of good urban design and transit-oriented development. Stanley writes the Director's Blog at Montgomery Planning on which this post was originally published.]
For Thanksgiving in 2011, my wife and I drove 900 miles to visit friends and family in St. Louis, Missouri. We drove an extra 50 miles to go the southern route via I-64 past Charleston, West Virginia and Lexington, Kentucky, before stopping over in Louisville for the evening. Despite the rain, it was a great opportunity to visit the city for the first time.
The cities of the Midwest are poised for resurgence. Filled with creative, energetic people and with a low cost of living, a new generation of artists, entrepreneurs and immigrants are seeking to establish themselves. In fact, recent surveys show cities like St. Louis are experiencing a more than 80 percent increase in young residents.
First impressions are always important when you are pulling into a strange city after dark and in the rain. Louisville is no exception. The Google directions bringing us along the rain soaked I-64 along the Ohio River to our exit on South 9th Street didn’t show off the city’s best side. To a person unfamiliar with center core cities in the U.S., it could feel a bit like Chevy Chase traveling across America in the “Family Truckster” and reinforce the stereotypes held by many people about inner-city America.
This clip from the movie, Vacation, is funny, yet reflects the image of inner cities that many people have. The entry points to our cities are critical to bringing people to the inner core. If the video doesn’t display, click here.
The great scourge of industrial cities is the race to create as much parking as possible. Some civic leaders see demolition and paving as a sign of progress and Louisville along with Kansas City, is a prime example. William Whyte in his book City: Rediscovering the Center, says “If you tear down enough of your downtown for parking, pretty soon there won’t be any reason to go there and park.”
Fourth Street Live. (Rollin Stanley)
Sure enough, downtown Louisville has plenty of examples intended to prove this proverb. They have the waterfront development and “Fourth Street Live,” the Cordish downtown entertainment district similar to Kansas City. These developments are intended to draw people back downtown, the place they left kind of because, well, lots of stuff was torn down for parking lots.
And guess what? Nobody parks on those surface parking lots because they are too far away from Fourth Street Live for anyone to park there. And if someone did, they would not feel safe walking across all the vacant lots to get to the entertainment center.
Fourth Street Live mirrors similar downtown developments by the Baltimore-based developer Cordish. While it has many of the chains we are familiar with around the country, there are standouts like the Maker’s Mark Bourbon House and places with great names like “Howl at the Moon.” However, this two-block stretch of South 4th Street is disconnected from the river by several government buildings and the too often repeated downtown convention center.
This aerial of the Louisville Central Business District south of the river highlights the vast areas taken up by surface parking (red) and single-use garages (purple). And then there is the big chunk in the middle, taken up by the convention center, another streetscape paralyzer. (Montage by Erik Weber)
The Louisville parking landscaping really hampers the potential to create depth to the downtown. As you move south away from the river along 4th Avenue, going over one or two blocks to the east or west you arrive at a sea of surface parking. Those parking lots spawn the decline of adjacent properties, the very places the surface parking was intended to help. The lots are vacant at night, so the places next to them begin to decline.
This is a great video from Rochester in 1964 touting the virtues of the city based upon the ease of parking. Wow, just makes you want to jump in and drive to Rochester. If the video doesn’t display, click here
Louisville is clearly a place of contrast, just like so many other cities in the Midwest. Pockets of success separated by surface parking lots and questionable decisions about frontages, highlight some of the toughest challenges with the core of the city. The challenge of creating “depth” to the success, linking the positive nodes, is so difficult when growth is first limited, then competing with the unlimited sprawl of the burbs.
The neon sign is a historic resource that captures the history of urban decline. While the sign should be in a museum, the use is a sad reminder of how far the resurgence of Louisville has to go. One block away from some great businesses on South 4th Street, the beginning of the “surface parking district” extends many blocks to the east.
Louisville has some tremendous assets. But it has lost tremendous assets as well.
1. Louisville torn down a lot of stuff.
Downtown Louisville is an old architect’s dream, what remains is shaped like a T square. There are lots of buildings that parallel the waterfront, some good and some bad, and then there is the South 4th Street corridor stretching at right angles back from the river, forming the spine of activity, the “straight edge” of the T square. I love South 4th Street, but only the area south of the convention center.
So many cities tried to revitalize their downtowns by bringing in convention centers. While convention centers bring people into hotels and to patronize local business, almost all create sterile street frontages that mimic big box stores.
From any angle the Kentucky International Convention Center is not a friend of the streetscape of the downtown. It forms a physical barrier between the successful nodes of Louisville Live and the riverfront. It is just like a big box store or a mall. People stay inside, the walls are large, blank spaces, and it produces little pedestrian traffic, the key to the success of any inner city.
Government buildings are also a challenge, creating long expanses of inactivity that work against creating a vibrant neighborhood. They are like parks after dark. Nobody wants to walk past them. I learned a great lesson from an urban pioneer by the name of Joe Edwards in St. Louis. He singlehandedly revitalized the “loop” neighborhood, including bringing trolley lines back to the commercial district.
As Joe rehabbed commercial buildings, he would work to lease space to a variety of retailers. Too many restaurants would mean little happening during the day. Too many shops would leave the street vacant past after 9 p.m. So he would mix the uses, creating variety along the street. Both the convention centers and government buildings work against this principle.
This shot taken on S. 4th Street moving farther away from the central core, shows how many cities tore down buildings like those on the left, and replaced them with long blank frontages of nothing, like on the right. While retail is struggling on the left, there are small pockets of success which will spread to fill the gaps between them. Who knows, maybe the building on the right will be torn down in a few decades and be replaced with buildings with active frontages like those on the right. That would be irony.
2. Historic assets
Much of downtown Louisville is gone forever. There are pockets of underutilized historic resources where only the ground floor is being used. This is a real shame. These small pockets offer the potential for affordable redevelopment through the use of historic tax credits and other financing tools. With all the creative forces in the city, one has to believe there is a solid constituency for these spaces with rents being offset through the tax credit restoration.
While downtown Louisville has lost much of its historic fabric and lacks a cohesive historic commercial core, it has small pockets of great buildings which largely go unused. While the ground floor the buildings are leased, the upper floors go largely unused, missing a real opportunity to attract young urban pioneers.
The Louisville Slugger Museum is a destination that brings lots of people into an area of the downtown. It could act as a catalyst through restoration and small-scale modern new construction on the parking lots to the south.
The Louisville slugger museum would not be the same if that big bat was leaning against some run-of-the-mill, recently constructed building? Could the small strip of historic buildings nearby has the bones for a terrific neighborhood, where people walk dogs, eat breakfast at the local eatery on Saturday morning, alongside tourists visiting the Slugger Museum or the Muhammad Ali Center just to the north along the river.
Louisville is not alone. In Atlanta, where I did some consulting work about eight years ago, I was shocked that city officials were not using historic tax credits to help revitalize. In St. Louis, we created over 4,000 new units of loft housing in the core of downtown historic tax credits and the like. Building the local capacity in the developer, legal and government sectors to make these things happen is critical.
While it probably would have been great to have the entire historic building left, this is a fun example of how a cool feature has been created on S. 4th Street. And it masks the parking garage located behind, although it is not a bad parking garage.
3. One-Way Streets
Other than saying they serve horse meat, nothing kills a restaurant faster than locating on a one-way street. One-way streets serve one purpose and one purpose only: getting people in and out of the core area as fast as possible. A driver needs to travel 25 mph or less to make eye contact with a pedestrian. So if you are trying to create vibrant pedestrian streets, how does a one way street that pushes cars through as fast as possible work toward that goal?
There are few places on the planet where retail succeeds on a one-way street. And these places have density, something Louisville does not have. Is there really a need for four lane roads running one way in front of the Louisville Slugger Museum?
Show me a city without congestion and I bet it is not a place where people go and members of Gen X and Y live. We want people to slow down, look out the window at the retail environment and have street parking to liven up the sidewalk.
A historic postcard of the downtown Seelbach Hotel on S. 4th Street. It does not look too different today. A wonderful adventure into the past and a real asset to the core. If you stay, get a corner room looking up 4th Street.
In Louisville, I saw pockets of amazing creativity and resiliency. Take the grand old hotels. Louisville has some great ones like the Seelbach (we stayed here) and the Brown. I understand the wedding sequence from the Great Gatsby is modeled after the former. It has a great long wood bar with some real tradition.
And to contrast these great old hotels, there is the fabulous Museum Hotel over by the Slugger Museum. The restaurant/hotel is themed as an art museum and is one of the coolest concepts in North America. A terrific example of the creative energy in this city and the Midwest. Fun, unusual and full of energy, these are the spots that are the nucleus for change. This hotel and museum is the focal point to transform this neighborhood.
The 21c Museum Hotel on West Main St. is one of the great finds in the city. Apart from the red penguins adorning the exterior, the building appears nondescript, yet step inside to find an amazing experience combining food, lodging, and art. These are the experiences that make a city interesting and attracts the potential to build new opportunities for revitalization.
The scale of the streets is another asset. Most are narrow, and where the buildings remain, framed right up to the sidewalk, giving a real urban feel. There are good examples of architecture from many eras and this is really noticeable when you stand along the waterfront and look back towards the downtown. And where the city has invested in those streets, they have created some great urban furniture and property owners created some great small urban spaces.
There are some cool bike racks in the city. Sculpture that really enhances the public spaces. And look behind the lamp pole in the right photo to see one of the entry markers into this part of S. 4th Street. And then there is just some cool sculpture, mixed with the bins on garbage day.
Walking through any city, it is fun to look to discover hidden spaces that really open the potential of a commercial district, creating the intimate spaces that attract people to an area. With sidewalks, these are really the “public spaces” in an urban area that are most frequented.
Two examples of “public space” in the core of the city. The wide open plaza may cater to office workers on a nice warm lunch break, but remains vacant otherwise. The small intimate restaurant courtyard offers a different experience and probably gets more use. Neither space is public in the true sense of the word, but both function as such.
Downtown Louisville is a case study on urban America. It can become one of the cooler places in the Midwest. It has a lot of assets: the obvious creative spirit of so many residents, the great bourbon selections in so many establishments. But it will require baby steps, moving forward one small area at a time. Ignore the quick fix ideas that require more buildings to come down, closing a street, or sterilizing the street activity through long blank walls. If a bank or pharmacy wants in, make them open up the facades, no walls that don’t have doors every 50 or 60 feet.
Explore the myriad of incentives that make downtown projects economically viable and attractive to everyone. Work with property owners and find new ones who have the energy and vision to make these projects work.
And, please, get rid of the one-way streets.
This post originally appeared in the Montgomery County Planning Director Blog on December 9, 2011.
Sunday, February 12th, 2012
Some of you know that I’m originally from Louisville, Kentucky. I grew up in rural Southern Indiana just across the river (inside the Louisville MSA), but also had family in the South End and spent a lot of time as a kid stomping around the neighborhoods near Iroquois Park. I love Louisville and it will always have a special place in my heart. I don’t write about it much these days because as the blog has progressed, I’ve been forced to trim back my reading of local news sites and Louisville web pages were on the cut list. So I’m not as plugged in to what is going on there these days such that I can competently opine upon them.
But researching my four part series on the bridge deal fiasco (see part one, part two, part three, and part four) turned my attention back to the city. So I wanted to do a three part mini-series on Louisville this week.
Today I want to talk about the unpleasant strategic situation Louisville finds itself in in many areas. These are the basic facts on the ground that need to be addressed. Any credible civic development strategy needs to take these into consideration. It’s never easy for local leaders to admit, even privately, when their community is in a tough spot. But in this case we need to highlight three key areas where the data clearly indicates a challenge for Louisville, namely: it is too small, it is in a poor geo-political location, and it has low educational attainment.
Louisville Is Too Small
The first thing we need to address is that the Louisville region is frankly too small to match its aspirations. I normally focus on metro areas in the greater Midwest with more than a million people. With only 1.3 million people, Louisville is by far the smallest. And it lacks the effective population booster enjoyed by some other cities.
Consider some other metro areas on the smaller end of the scale. Say Milwaukee at 1.56 million, Nashville at 1.59 million, and Indianapolis at 1.76 million. These don’t sound that much bigger than Louisville, but consider: Milwaukee is 21% bigger, Nashville is 24% bigger, and Indianapolis is 37% bigger. This makes a lot of difference in terms of supporting region-wide amenities, infrastructure, and initiatives. For example, it explains why Louisville doesn’t have a major league professional sports team while the other cities do.
What’s more, the effective population of those similar cities is sometimes even higher. For example, Indianapolis is ringed by small industrial cities like Muncie, Lafayette, Kokomo, Columbus, etc. that are independent metro areas, but still contribute to Indy in the form of things like Colts fans, airport customers, TV market size, etc. Milwaukee’s metro area population is artificially low because Racine County, with 200,000 people and which actually borders Milwaukee County, is considered its own metro area. Just upriver from Louisville, Cincinnati benefits from being so close to Dayton that in some cases they function as one large metro. Businesses and such that locate in Warren or Butler County can draw from both markets easily.
Louisville, by contrast, is surrounded by mostly very rural, sparsely populated counties. Thus it gets less boost from an extended trade area in terms of population heft. Though in fairness I suppose there is some labor market benefit from this as well. I have read that Louisville has among the highest percentages of exurban commuting. One reason may be that there are so few job opportunities in outlying areas.
Also, while Louisville has healthy population growth and is growing a bit faster than the US average, other similar regional cities are growing too, sometimes faster on a percentage basis and quantity basis. Louisville added 121,000 people in the last decade, But Indianapolis, Columbus, and Nashville all added more than 210,000 people. This means that not only are those cities bigger, but the gap in population grew by more than 100,000 for all of them. That’s the equivalent of a Clark County, Indiana.
Recognizing that you are smaller doesn’t mean you have to mentally classify yourself as some lower tier city. (Debates over tiers of cities seems to be a perennial favorite on message boards). But it does mean you should be careful about trying to play keeping up with the Joneses, especially when it comes to major regional capital investments. Because Louisville simply has fewer bodies to spread the cost across, it needs to be very careful where it chooses to invest. (More on that later). I might also suggest that while growth is good, strategies that are predicated on changing Louisville primarily through quantitative growth are unlikely to ever close the gap versus regional peers, so I would not even have that as a goal.
Louisville Is in a Poor Geo-Political Location
A maximally geo-politically advantaged city might be one that’s centrally located and a clear primate city for the state it is in. Think Minneapolis-St. Paul. It’s as centrally located as you’d want to be in a state like Minnesota. It is the state capital and home to the state’s flagship university. It contains over 50% of the state’s population and is dominant economically. You might say as downsides that it has a twin-city structure, is near a state border, and doesn’t have the Mayo Clinic, but these are minor in comparison to what it has.
But you don’t have to be this dominant to have advantages. Indianapolis, Columbus, and Nashville are centrally located and are state capitals. Columbus has the state’s flagship university and is in an urban-dominated state. Indianapolis is the only large city in the state and thus in a sense has no “domestic” competition.
Louisville by contrast has many geographic disadvantages. It is on the edge of the state of Kentucky, not in the center. It is on a state boundary that is also a major river crossing barrier in an era where water transport is no longer king. It isn’t the state capital. It doesn’t have the state’s flagship university. Kentucky is a rural dominated state that also has a number of severely depressed areas that require significant state investment. Lexington is clearly much smaller and is in a different size class, yet conceives of itself as an equal in some ways (if not superior, especially with the UK presence) and the state often treats it as such. In fact, Lexington can sometimes been seen as a more authentically Kentucky city with its horse farms and whatnot, while Louisville is seen with suspicion.
This puts Louisville in a very tough spot. All major cities are likely net tax exporters to their state, but Louisville sends a truly staggering amount to Frankfort that it never gets back. I think it’s something like $700 million per year out of Jefferson County. The state’s priorities are generally in the rural areas. While I wouldn’t call the state legislature hostile to Louisville exactly, it isn’t really focused on pro-urban policy. As is often the case in bi-state metros, Indiana and Kentucky love to engage in “economic development” by encouraging companies to move back and forth across the Ohio River. Discussion about building bridges across the river takes up lots of leadership time and attention that could be focused on other things.
To me this makes me think that Louisville ought to plan on having to go it alone with its own resources in a lot of areas and not count on too much help from others (though obviously it should look for it where it can). We are already seeing this in the bridges project, which it appears will be mostly toll financed by local motorists. But Louisville should work hard to try to close some of the gaps that are clearly addressable. For example, better cooperation between Louisville and Southern Indiana is critical. Also,Louisville should be working to build connections and goodwill throughout the rest of Kentucky where ever possible.
Louisville Is Poorly Educated
As I’ve noted many times, college degree attainment is overwhelmingly dominant in explaining urban success. Harvard economist Ed Glaeser crunched the numbers and found that their historic college degree attainment explained nearly everything about why some Frost Belt cities succeeded and others failed. CEOs for Cities has also quantified a lot this in their Talent Dividend research.
Louisville fares very poorly here. Louisville’s college degree attainment is only 25.8%. This puts it 5th lowest among all 51 metro areas in the United States with over one million people. College town Lexington sits at 31.2% Louisville trails the overall US average of 28.2%. To be blunt, that’s not good.
I’ve always said that Louisville is a quality over quantity town. The core of Louisville has great neighborhoods. Louisville clearly punches above its weight in areas like quality restaurants. And it has had a number of notable cultural successes: the important early recordings of the Louisville Orchestra, many important indie rock performers (e.g., Will Oldham, Slint, Rodan), and items like Actor’s Theater’s Festival of New American Plays. This immediately suggests to me going for a more Madison, Wisconsin type of feel than rather than trying to ape Indy or Nashville. Unfortunately, Madison is the state capital and home to a major Big Ten School, and is smaller such that those make a huge impact there. Louisville lacks those drivers and has such low education attainment that a high end strategy would be tough to pull off except in just a small portion of the old city.
This is really going to inhibit Louisville on the economic development and there isn’t a lot you can do other than focus on blue collar industries in the short term (their huge UPS hub being a prime example of this), with a more selective and focused strategy around high end sectors, while working to boost educational attainment over the longer term. There’s some good news here in that Louisville grew its educational attainment rate by nearly five percentage points in the last decade, 16th among large cities.
Good and Bad Applications
I’d like to highlight a couple examples quickly of how Louisville has excellently and poorly handled its strategic situation.
Let’s start with the good. Mayor Greg Fischer decided to make as one of his initiatives seeking to find better ways to collaborate with Lexington, which is only about 75 miles away. As the Courier-Journal noted, “he envisions Kentucky’s two biggest cities adding jobs as a ‘super region,’ rather than competing over companies, private investment and state money.” I had a previous post on this very topic that includes a video interview with Fisher called “Super-Regionalism in Kentucky.” This is an example of Louisville recognizing that it is too small to go it alone in the marketplace and it would be better to have a partner, plus trying to build bridges to a historic rival. We’ll see how this turn out.
A not so good example is the Ohio River Bridges Project I mentioned earlier and linked to my series about. Here we have a region taking on a huge $2.5 billion capital project that is going to be paid for mostly with local money through tolls. A smallish region like Louisville that isn’t even growing particularly fast does not need to be building this type of gargantuan and expensive infrastructure. That’s why in my series I suggested significantly scaling back the project even further.
On another but related note, I’d also like to highlight how Louisville benchmarks and measures itself against the wrong cities. In the popular press, Louisville is generally compared against Indianapolis and Nashville, and those other cities are often trotted out as a rationale for pursuing some policy. For example, local leaders said that Indy and Nashville had city-county mergers. Indy and Nashville were growing much faster than Louisville. Ergo, Louisville needed to merge city and county government if it wanted to catch up.
I’m not saying merger was necessarily wrong. The problem is that Indianapolis and Nashville are nothing like Louisville. They are in the same rough size category (though bigger as I noted) and nearby, but that’s about it. I’m not sure there’s a whole lot Louisville can learn from looking to those places.
On the other hand, a city like Cincinnati is much more similar to Louisville. It’s also a historic major river city in a multi-state metro, on the edge of the state, not the state capital, with rival cities inside Ohio, etc. It also shares the same type of insular culture (maybe even moreso). Yes, it’s bigger, more educated, and home to many corporations in a way Louisville isn’t. But it seems like there’s a lot that could be learned from comparisons there. If I were Louisville, I’d be looking to benchmark against other river cities, not places that are so different. When you look at how many of the historic river cities have fared, you see that most of them have struggled demographically and economically. Comparatively, Louisville actually looks quite good.
However, you rarely see Louisville comparing itself or looking to Cincinnati. Perhaps it’s because Cincy was always the “big city” for people in Louisville. It was perhaps always seen as in a different league than Louisville in a way say Indianapolis was not. Whatever the case, I’d suggest starting with Cincy and expanding to other older river cities.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, just check out this article that talks about Indy being the city Louisville should have been through the lens of the Super Bowl. I love this piece because the article itself and the reactions perfectly illustrate Louisville’s bi-polar nature, vacillating between self-flagellation and smug superiority. In any case, while I appreciate that Louisville being on the border between Indiana and Kentucky spawns some understandable rivalries between states, the comparison to Indy is flawed. I don’t believe Louisville could ever have done with sports what Indy did, even if it tried. That’s not a path for Louisville to regret going down. Nor is the type of downtown-centric development approach of Indianapolis a particularly good fit for Louisville IMO. (I’d tell Indy similarly that they aren’t likely to ever be able to replicate Louisville’s best qualities). I see articles like that one periodically, but rarely any similar articles featuring Cincinnati or another similarly situated city. Louisville needs to take stock of its situation and look for comparison places that more match its own situation.
Next up, a guest poster will take a visit to downtown Louisville. And I’ll revisit an old idea I had for the city.