Wednesday, January 28th, 2015
The “storm of the century” hit New England hard but was a bust in New York. I went out and surveyed the realm yesterday morning and filed at story over at City Journal:
New York’s “storm of the century” turned out to be a bust. Rather than the predicted 30-inch “snowpocalypse,” only eight to 10 inches hit most of the city. That’s not to say that it had no effect. It happened to be the perfect amount of snow needed to turn Central Park gorgeous. By 10 o’clock, park streets and paths had already been plowed, and joggers, kids with sleds, and even skiers were out enjoying the winter wonderland. With the streets mostly empty, the morning was a welcome respite from traffic noise, bicycle rickshaws—and bikes, period, as cyclists appeared to be skipping the festivities. I missed the clop-clop of horse-drawn carriages, however—a sad preview of what awaits if Mayor de Blasio succeeds in his quest to ban carriage rides.
Tuesday, January 27th, 2015
[ With the New York portion of the widely touted blizzard turning out to be a bust, I thought I’d dust off this 2009 piece I did for New Geography on cities, blizzards, and what the response to them says about the urban culture – Aaron. ]
January 1979 saw one of the worst blizzards in city history hit Chicago, dumping 20 inches of snow, closing O’Hare airport for 46 hours, and paralyzing traffic in the city for days. Despite the record snowfall, the city’s ineffectual response was widely credited for the defeat of Mayor Michael Bilandic in his re-election bid, leading to Jane Bryne becoming the city’s first female mayor.
In January 1978, a similar blizzard had struck the city of Indianapolis, also burying the city in a record 20 inches of snow. Mayor Bill Hudnut stayed awake nearly two days straight, coordinating the response and frequently updating the city on the snow fighting efforts through numerous media appearances. Nevertheless, the airport closed and it was several days before even major streets were passable. But when it was all over, Hudnut emerged a folk hero and went on to become arguably the most popular mayor in city history, serving four terms before voluntarily stepping aside.
While major snow is much less frequent in Indianapolis than Chicago, and Hudnut’s response certainly bettered Bilandic’s, these twin blizzards illustrate a powerful difference in citizen expectations between these two cities, reflecting two of the broad approaches to urban service provision in America today.
People in Chicago expect and demand high quality public services. Chicago is the “City that Works”, and woe be to the mayor when it doesn’t. That’s why every mayor since Bilandic has treated snow clearance like a military operation, deploying a division of armored snow trucks to assault the elements at the merest hint of a flake, often leaving more salt than snow in their wake. If Chicagoans pay relatively higher taxes than the rest of the country, at least its citizens know that they are getting something for their money, whether it be snow clearance, garbage collection, street lighting, landscaped boulevards, or bike lanes.
In Indianapolis, by contrast, public services are not the main concern. People gripe if snow is not cleared, but are not outraged. No Indianapolis mayor ever lost his job for failing to deliver good services. Rather, taxes have always been the primary issue. Nothing illustrates this better than the most recent mayoral election. Buoyed by an emerging demographic super-majority, a large campaign war chest, and the support of almost every establishment figure of both parties, Mayor Bart Peterson confidently raised city income taxes by 0.65 percentage points shortly on the heels of a major property tax jump. In the fall, however, he lost his re-election bid to political neophyte Greg Ballard, who ran on a taxpayers first platform. Ballard won without significant backing from his own Republican party, supported only by a collection of grass roots activists, bloggers, and his own relentless door-knocking campaign.
The divergent citizen and policy preferences of both cities continue to the present, amply illustrated by this very winter. Mayor Daley, facing a recession-induced budget gap, decided to save money by ordering that residential streets not be cleared by workers clocking overtime. Citizen unhappiness over the state of the streets during December snows led even the widely popular Daley to backtrack on this experiment, reverting to the traditional all out assault for the balance of winter.
In Indianapolis, after 12.5 inches blanketed the city this January, crews took several days to clear its snow routes and, as per its standard operating procedure, did not plow residential streets at all. The local media carried tales of people’s laments, but ultimately the city government knows that the response to the snow will be forgotten soon after it melts. Higher tax bills, by contrast, are long remembered. In an inverse situation to Chicago, people in Indianapolis sleep at night knowing that, if services haven’t been all that great, they at least have more money in their pockets.
While both cities have long seemed happy pursuing their respective courses, storm clouds are gathering over both strategic models of operation.
Backing down from a high service stance in government is almost impossible. Government spending only ever seems to go one way. Faced with that logic, and the clear expectations of its citizens, Chicago in effect decided to double down. With the much celebrated resurgence of urbanism, Chicago put its chips on a soaring Loop economy driven by an emerging status as one of the top global cities, a real estate boom, and a series of tax and fee increases. It embarked on a civic transformation epitomized by community showplaces like Millennium Park, miles of top quality streetscape improvements, a new terminal at Midway Airport and the start of a multi-billion dollar O’Hare modernization, one of the nation’s best bicycling infrastructures, and perhaps most ambitiously, a bid for the 2016 Olympic Games.
This model is increasingly showing signs of strain, however. Many taxes and fees, including the nation’s highest sales tax at 10.25%, appear to be close to maxed out. The real estate crunch hit hard at Chicago’s transfer tax revenue, another key source of city funds. This, in combination with a weak economy, has hammered the city’s budget, leaving Daley with tough, often unpopular choices to make. The CTA recently raised fares. City parking meter rates will be quadrupling under a privatization plan recently signed, hopefully plugging operating budget holes – something Daley had previously resisted. As with New York City, Chicago may be faced with the cold reality of both service cuts and tax increases.
More importantly, as with the dot-com bubble before it, there are real questions as to whether the financial and real estate driven economy that fueled Chicago’s boom will come back in full force any time soon. In the meantime, the economy and cost of living in the city are squeezing the middle class harder by the day, and despite perhaps America’s biggest condo boom, the city’s population is slowly shrinking. All this leaves Mayor Daley, although still very popular, with perhaps the toughest leadership challenge of his tenure.
Meanwhile Indianapolis faces problems of its own. It too has budget challenges, just as years of deferred investment are finally catching up with the city. Indianapolis has a $900 million unfunded backlog of curb and sidewalk repairs alone. It is the 13th largest municipality in America, but has the 99th largest transit system. And, more troubling, the city now finds itself outflanked by its own suburbs.
At one time Indianapolis could comfortably decide to purchase bronze-level services while other cities paid more for gold. But now its own suburbs are offering silver, and at a lower price point in taxes than the city is selling bronze. Many of its suburbs today not only have better schools and safer streets than the central city, they feature fully professional fire departments, large park acreage, lavishly landscaped parkways exceeding city standards, and even better snow removal. In the recent storm, upscale north suburban Carmel finished plowing its cul-de-sacs before Indianapolis finished its main arteries. When people can pay less and get more just by moving to the collar counties, that’s what they do. Tens of thousands of people have left the merged central city-county in recent years. Only a large influx of the foreign born has kept Indianapolis from losing population.
The current economy is exposing the long term structural weaknesses of both civic strategies. Chicago and Indianapolis show that both higher service and lower service models face big challenges and that neither approach represents a safe harbor in the current economic storm.
This post originally ran on February 14, 2009 at New Geography.
Monday, January 19th, 2015
[ Portland resident Sean Benesh recently put out a book about a book called The Bohemian Guide to Urban Cycling. It’s targeted at an audience who may not (yet) get this cycling in the city thing and wants to know more. There are some parts that are even relevant to the expert, however, including a chapter on the intersection of bicycling and gentrification. You may recall that Portland had some debates about this in the recent past. Sean wrote a chapter about this for the book and I’m pleased to be able to publish a condensed version here. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll note that Sean and I have a publishing project we’re doing together, but I think you’ll agree this piece stands on its own merits – Aaron. ]
The flashpoint for the gentrification conversation along Portland’s North Williams revolves around the bicycle. The cultural appetite for what the creative class likes and enjoys is in stark contrast to that of the African-American community. “North Williams Avenue wasn’t hip back in the late 1970s. There was no Tasty n Sons. No Ristretto Roasters. No 5th Quadrant. Back then, it was the heart of the African American community. It was wonderfully colorful and gritty.” As the black community saw their own businesses close down through economic disinvestment, they weren’t replaced with new businesses that they regarded as desirable. In the several hours I spent today at Ristretto I have seen roughly a hundred patrons come in and go out, plus others sitting outside on the patios of one of several nearby restaurants. Only three were African-American. As I mentioned earlier, the buildings that surround this coffee shop are home to many African-American families. And yet these new businesses do not appeal to their cultural tastes.
This all came to a head over a road project to reconfigure North Williams and Vancouver Avenue. Both are one-way roads a block apart that carry a high volume of bicycle traffic. Vancouver’s southbound traffic flows carry cyclists towards the Lloyd Center and downtown Portland and so sees its heaviest usage in the mornings. Williams on the other hand carries northbound traffic away from the city center which means its highest use is in the afternoons and evenings when bicycle commuters are heading away from the city center. But the focal point of all of this controversy is specifically tied to North Williams Avenue because this is where most of the new businesses are coming in.
A New York Times article featured this stretch of road including one of the business owners who opened up the beloved Hopworks BikeBar. “North Williams Avenue [is] one of the most-used commuter cycling corridors in a city already mad for all things two-wheeled. Some 3,000 riders a day pass by Mr. Ettinger’s new brewpub, which he calls the Hopworks BikeBar. It has racks for 75 bicycles and free locks, to-go entrees that fit in bicycle water bottle cages, and dozens of handmade bicycle frames suspended over the bar areas. Portland is nationally recognized as a leader in the movement to create bicycle-friendly cities.” Other national newspapers and magazines have also picked up on all of the buzz happening along North Williams. In Via Magazine, Liz Crain writes, “With 3,000 commuters pedaling it every day, North Williams Avenue is Portland’s premier bike corridor. Visitors, too, find plenty worth braking for on two blocks of this arterial, including two James Beard Award–nominated chef-owned restaurants and a slew of hip shops and cafés.” Sunset Magazine has several features on North Williams including: “Go green on Portland’s North Williams Avenue: Enjoy a low-key urban vibe thanks to yoga studios, indie shops, and cafes.”
With images of happy (white) hipsters pedaling bicycles, doing yoga, and eating gourmet food, the nation is given a taste of inner N/NE Portland that is not reflective of the reality of the neighborhood nor the tension surrounding gentrification. These magazines showcase things to see, do, and eat along North Williams with helpful hints like, “Scene: A low-key urban vibe, courtesy of yoga studios and green indie shops and cafes … Dress code: waterproof jacket and jeans with right leg rolled up … Native chic: A waterproof Lemolo bike bag … The Waypost: Creative types come to this coffeehouse for locally produced wine and beer, as well as live music, lectures, and classic-movie screenings.”
However, not all of the residents are necessarily in favor of these changes taking place. And there are certainly other national media outlets who have picked up on the “other side” of the North Williams story. “Located in a historic African-American community, the North Williams businesses are almost exclusively white-owned, and many residents see bicycles as a symbol of the gentrification taking place in the neighborhood.”
The tensions of racism and gentrification have culminated in ongoing debates over North Williams’ status as a major bicycle thoroughfare. Sarah Goodyear of The Atlantic Cities (CityLab) writes, “Sharon Maxwell-Hendricks, a black business owner who grew up in the neighborhood, has been one of the most vocal opponents to the city’s plan for a wider, protected bike lane. She can’t help but feel that the city seems only to care about traffic safety now that white people are living in the area. ‘We as human beings deserved to have the same right to safer streets years ago,’ she says. ‘Why wasn’t there any concern about people living here then?’” This picks us on the tension surrounding the North Williams project in general, and in particular the controversy surrounding repainting the traffic lanes to incorporate new designs which cater to the growing number of bicyclists who use this corridor.
Goodyear goes on to lay out both sides of the controversy:
Jonathan Maus, who runs the Bike Portland blog and has reported extensively on the North Williams controversy, thinks the city should have stood its ground and gone forward with the project, but wasn’t willing to do so in part because of the political weakness of scandal-plagued Mayor Sam Adams, who has been a strong biking advocate and is closely identified with the biking community.
“There’s been too much emphasis on consensus,” said Maus. “I’m all for public process, but I also want the smartest transportation engineers in the country on bicycling to have their ideas prevail.”
Maus, who is white, says the history of North Williams shouldn’t be dictating current policy, and that safety issues for the many people who bike on the street are urgent. “At some point as a city, you have to start planning to serve the existing population,” he said. “The remaining black community is holding traffic justice hostage. It’s allowing injustice in the present because of injustice in the past.”
In light of this, why is North Williams the flashpoint for controversy? The tension and angst is about more than simply repainting a roadway; it embodies the most visual representation of gentrification in inner N/NE Portland. For longtime African-American residents, as expressed above by Maxwell-Hendricks, she and others felt that they had simply been neglected for decades. This negligence took the form of economics, housing, and general concerns of safety. Their frustration is that it wasn’t until middle-class whites began moving into the neighborhood that these issues began to be addressed and rectified. This notion of systemic racism helped created this area and these same forces are at play in gentrifying this once predominantly black neighborhood.
The African-American community feels it has been slighted once again. The initial citizen advisory committee revealed the imbalance: “Despite North Williams running through a historically African American neighborhood, the citizen advisory committee formed for the project included 18 white members and only 4 non-white members.” This is why the push for safety along the North Williams corridor has caused such an uproar. “The current debate about North Williams Avenue––once the heart of Albina’s business district––is only the latest chapter in a long story of development and redevelopment.”
For many in the African-American community the current debate over bike lanes along North Williams is simply one more example in a long line of injustices that have been forced upon their neighborhood. Beginning in 1956, 450 African-American homes and business were torn down to make way for the Memorial Coliseum. “It was also the year federal officials approved highway construction funds that would pave Interstates 5 and 99 right through hundreds of homes and storefronts, destroying more than 1,100 housing units in South Albina.” Then came the clearance of even more houses to make way for Emanuel Hospital. For more than 60 years, racism has been imbedded in the storyline of what has taken place along North Williams.
For many, the North Williams project is more than repainting lines. As Maus reported, “A meeting last night that was meant to discuss a new outreach campaign on N. Williams Avenue turned into a raw and emotional exchange between community members and project staff about racism and gentrification.” In his article, Maus noted the painful history of Albina as the primary catalyst for the tension today.
Lower Albina—the area of Portland just north and across the river from downtown through—was a thriving African-American community in the 1950s. Williams Avenue was at the heart of booming jazz clubs and home to a thriving black middle class. But history has not been kind to this area and through decades of institutional racism (through unfair development and lending practices), combined with the forces of gentrification, have led to a dramatic shift in the demographics of the neighborhood. The history of the neighborhood surrounding Williams now looms large over this project.
It was at this meeting that a comment from one of those in attendance changed the entire trajectory of the evening as the conversation quickly moved away from the proposed agenda. One woman said, “We have an issue of racism and of the history of this neighborhood. I think if we’re trying to skirt around that we’re not going to get very far. We really need to address some of the underlying, systemic issues that have happened over last 60 years. I’ve seen it happen from a front row seat in this neighborhood. It’s going to be very difficult to move forward and do a plan that suits all of these stakeholders until we address the history that has happened. Until we address that history and … the cultural differences we have in terms of respect, we are not going to move very far.”
The crux of the conflict is not about bicycles nor bike lanes nor even new businesses and amenities. It is about racism. The push for creating a more bikeable and bike-friendly commuter corridor has raised the ire of longstanding residents who had felt neglected and voiceless for decades. “The North Williams case study is an example of the City inadequately identifying, engaging and communicating with stakeholders.”
Now that more whites are moving in are changes taking place. “Some question why the city now has $370,000 to pour into a project they say favors the bike community while residents for decades asked for resources to improve safety in those same neighborhoods. To the community, the conversation has polarized the issue: white bicyclists versus the black community.” But is this issue completely race-related? Portland has been and continues to expand its bicycle infrastructure throughout the city, not just in N/NE Portland. There are also several other main bicycle corridors that receive a high volume of bicycle commuters, but since they do not go through any ethnic neighborhoods they have not created this much controversy. This does not minimize the tension and angst over the North Williams project; nor does it downplay the role that racism has played throughout the history of that community.
Note: Footnotes in the original text have been removed. Some hyperlinks have been added.
This is a condensed chapter excerpt from The Bohemian Guide to Urban Cycling.
Sunday, January 11th, 2015
[ Contributor Robert Munson sent me the below as his take on how Chicago should reform its transportation governance structure. Comments will be enabled on this post and you can email Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org – Aaron.}
Photo by NASA
Night-time shows Chicagoland’s transportation corridors radiating from its center, but does not reveal their weakness: corridors don’t connect well to one another, adding to congestion and time wastage. Many connection improvements proposed in the region’s 2040 Plan are being failed by our politics. As an attempted remedy, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) is offering a proposal for a sales tax increase.
But before we try to fix the financials, we first must fix the region’s politics. Illinois’ insolvency and behind-the-scene manipulations make CMAP, a state agency, poorly suited to invest new funds. CMAP suffers under the political confusion created by having two Boards. This article looks at how each represents different levels of government and how both restrain regional progress.
CMAP’s proposal is an opportunity to shape a new, suitable regional funding authority that gives taxpayers better value and serves commuters far more effectively. If this new authority is elected directly, it then will have the legitimacy to achieve these three ingredients of sustainable transportation.
1) Balance taxes and usage fees so households have economical options.
2) Invest with greater return for public goals and private interests. And,
3) Minimize confusion caused by a deteriorated state and institute suitable regional governance.
How Two Heads Are Worse Than One
Chicagoland’s obstacles are captured in a helpful history of our region’s planning, “Beyond Burnham.” This book’s concluding chapter summarizes three strategic problems in Chicagoland’s 20th Century planning. Two problems are manageable today. First, the separation of land use and transportation planning has been merged into CMAP; so most players, at least, know the benefits of tightly integrating the two functions. Second, CMAP has helped stabilize the historic tensions between Chicago and its suburbs.
The third problem blocks progress: the region’s lack of an organized constituency. My analysis concludes there is no constituency because there is no elected regional body. This was intentional by two powers-that-be: chiefly, the state’s Department of Transportation; and suburban mayors. Each has its own Board to govern CMAP. (If this seems confusing, link to CMAP’s org chart and you will see why.)
CMAP formed after a compromise ten years ago to merge two agencies. Each intended to protect its turf. Today that compromise — and the power politics behind it — blocks us from the adequate regional governance required to build economically the next generation of infrastructure.
The ultimately powerful Board is the Policy Committee of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Mandated to spend Uncle Sam’s money, the MPO is controlled by the Governor through Illinois’ Department of Transportation, a singularly backwards bureaucracy restraining the nation’s key hub from updating itself. While allowing the region’s planning process to show trappings of democratic participation, the MPO can pull the levers of power… much like the man-behind-the-curtain.
The poster-child example is the Illiana Expressway. Unjustified by rational criteria, the Illiana’s approval was strong-armed by the MPO and symbolizes the current regime’s failings. The MPO recently reversed CMAP’s other Board that had clearly decided the Illiana should be a privately funded road in the “2040 Plan” that was produced by an open, public process and was published back in 2010. I call this reversal the “Illiana Incident.” The Incident shows signs that interest group machinations got to the Governor and turned this un-needed expense into a regional taxpayer priority.
I served on CMAP’s Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) from 2008 through 2010. I did not fully understand the MPO’s power. I could not penetrate its opacity. Its “Memo Of Understanding” is cryptic, not showing the ruling hand. I observed two MPO meetings… and got no further feeling. But during 2010, subtle signs indicated road-building constituencies were asserting themselves. When the Illiana was forced back on to taxpayers in 2014, my naiveté vanished. It became clear that the man-behind-the-curtain also had a hammer that shattered illusions of democratic planning.
That hammer must be laid to rest permanently before taxpayers agree to a new tax. The Illiana Incident is a lesson to taxpayers about how new taxes will be wasted. With the highway largely unpopular and hugely ineffective at resolving the region’s transportation needs, reaction to the MPO’s 2014 reversal spread like a media wildfire. Here is a synopsis of editorials. While that website has an anti-sprawl agenda, the media’s complaints echo a brazen affront to our emerging sense of regional sovereignty.
The Illiana Incident also offers a window into how MPO spending decisions perpetuate the monopolies of the 20th Century agencies that sit on the MPO’s Policy Committee. These agencies tend to give short shrift to the innovations proposed by CMAP staff. In the big picture, a narrow-minded MPO lost us the decades when infrastructure was cheaper and makes today’s investment much larger.
Wasting taxes is condemnation enough. But… the MPO’s authority also is not justifiable when you consider that Uncle Sam is retreating from transportation funding relative to when he mandated MPOs to protect his 80% of capital to Illinois’ historical 20% match. But with a broke state, few expect Illinois to make its match.
We see other signs of the MPO’s lack of accountability. Consider the top five priorities listed in the consensus “2040 Plan,” three were road projects and two were rails. As 2015 ends, the three road improvements (plus Chicago interchanges not even listed) will be nearly complete. The two rail projects are mere plans sitting on a shelf without funding. With the region’s passenger rail plan again sacrificed, a balanced plan can only be executed if there is autonomy from the state’s apparatus. Controlled by the man behind-the-curtain, CMAP cannot invest new regional funds to achieve benefits for the greatest number.
So, how legitimate is it for a state DOT-controlled MPO to exercise ‘de facto’ veto power on Chicagoland’s transportation spending? Not very.
To be direct, Illinois uses the MPO and federal power to thwart regional initiative. The MPO looks like a dinosaur perpetuating 20th Century sprawl and cannot direct the next generation of transportation investments. Any new tax money should be protected from the MPO, which would just build more business-as-usual boondoggles like the Illiana.
Without enough autonomy, CMAP will continue to be burdened by its poor parent. Illinois’ de facto insolvency emerged after decades of short-term decisions and recurring corruptions. To understand taxpayer’s likely resistance to CMAP’s proposed new sales tax, let’s see what debt has wrought. Bad state governance saddles each Illinois citizen with a cumulative debt of $21,130. This same opinion piece in “The Wall Street Journal” references also the Cook County Treasurer’s report in which this debt is much larger and close to unbearable for Chicago residents.
While these numbers are not widely known among the electorate, they are clearly felt. Rapidly being shaped is a citizens’ consensus that their state cannot solve problems merely with more money. The proverbial “throwing good money after bad” now eats food from too many families’ tables. Although still largely a public intuition that voices itself in gutter-low approval ratings for legislators and knee-jerk reactions to tax increases, the public’s distrust makes approval of CMAP’s tax unlikely.
Simply put: Illinois has abused the public’s trust and, quite reasonably, they won’t willingly give the state controlled MPO more money.
CMAP’s Second Head Lacks Authority… Intentionally
While the hidden and more powerful Board undermines legitimacy, CMAP’s other Board is visible but minimizes regional coordination. Controlled by suburban mayors, this visible Board does a good job synthesizing the needs of a diverse region. But to protect their turf back in 2005, suburban mayors insisted that CMAP plans were to be “advisory.” While politically necessary a decade ago to merge the region’s dueling agencies, that compromise holds us back from the path we need to travel as a region. The state’s insolvency forces taxpayers to demand results…not advisory plans that gather dust on the shelf. Mayoral restrictions on CMAP are fundamental to how it is not suited to produce the higher level of results required to invest new taxes.
Consider the commonly held planning principle: the closer transit investments are aligned to compact and mixed uses, the higher the ridership and higher return on investment. This alignment increases transit’s operating revenues. Suburban downtowns prosper and property tax revenues increase. Everyone scores.
But because CMAP has only the power of persuasion, its “advisory” plans do not require changes in comprehensive plans as a prerequisite to making a transit investment pay-off sooner. The 2005 scoring area was so large that a municipality still could spend regional money on, say, a new train station without first having a believable plan for compact redevelopment. The scheme with Illinois’ DOT/MPO allows a town merely to wait its turn and it would get its grant for a station or arterial. Protecting this distribution scheme gets played out in the collaborative appointments of County representatives to the MPO and CMAP’s Board.
Too subtle to describe fully in this article, I saw how CMAP’s Board enforced its 2005 deal. Senior staff suggesting tight alignment were forced out. Similarly in early 2011, the CAC that I served on (and also uttered such blasphemies) was replaced by new citizens, hand-picked by CMAP’s Board members.
Uncle Sam’s gradual withdrawal from transit and Illinois’ insolvency make aligned spending even more imperative today. Our multi-decade backlog of maintenance and very little money creates urgency. The policy nexus between transportation and land use must be precise if it is to serve households economically. Instead of merely waiting their turn for grants, towns today must compete for new capital.
As one example, new tax funds should be allocated to communities whose viable TOD plans will increase transit revenue and, thereby turnover that capital for the next town’s station down the line. This accelerates the three decade process that transformed Arlington Heights’ mid-Century downtown into a 21st Century model for its neighbors. Today, quicker returns on investments are how Chicagoland will do more with less capital.
If this basic principle isn’t on the table while discussing new taxes for infrastructure, then taxpayers should end the discussion because they will not get maximum results.
To summarize, we should view CMAP’s two Boards as blocking us from overcoming Chicagoland’s two strategic obstacles: Illinois is losing legitimacy to tax for and approve new initiatives; and, CMAP’s plans lack authority to maximize regional return on investment.
Making The Most Of CMAP’s Proposed Sales Tax Increase
Aside from the MPO’s fatal flaw of not acting in the region’s best future interests, I like CMAP. It certainly is an improvement over two non-communicating agencies. CMAP’s staff is competent. It produced a great long-term plan that won top national awards. Everyone I know who worked on it was gratified to help the undertaking. CMAP transformed a historically fractious region by sketching a potential consensus for progress.
Today, CMAP is on trajectory to win the trust of most jurisdictions. In the four years since the “2040 Plan” was approved, CMAP built productive relations with over 100 jurisdictions to help them plan. Maximizing its power to persuade, CMAP has a convincing Executive Director and a beefed-up communications staff. Most municipalities now understand the regional consequences of their land use. Progress.
But despite its good work in a tough spot, CMAP is not suited to the daily job of reinventing the public’s transportation business. With a narrow skill-set and subjected to vetoes by the state’s road-building agency, CMAP should stick to its knitting as the region’s long-term planning agency. Because it is controlled by a drunkard parent, the state of Illinois, CMAP is unfit to invest public capital well, especially in a time of fiscal constraint.
Here’s how to convert our transportation lemons into some semblance of lemonade.
We start by shifting new funds to a new Board. Consider the Twin Cities; driven by similar political parallels. Their MPO also is controlled by the Governor. Taxpayers of this famously “good government” region viewed their MPO as unworthy of making transit deals that used a new sales tax. So in 2008 they created a Counties Transit Improvement Board. It has revitalized the Twin Cities transit by investing to complete three light rail lines, two central stations and a suburban line. Best yet, Minneapolis and St. Paul seem to have learned faster than pre-2008 practices about how transit investments should be leveraged with land uses to promote economic redevelopment.
Chicagoland’s Board must do the same and also innovate big-time. Because we are broke, we need to develop flexible and entrepreneurial organizations that invest public funds so they employ private sector efficiencies that serve everyone. For this, a Board must isolate itself from the state. Otherwise it will have trouble attracting private capital, since no competent company wants an insolvent partner.
So, an independent Taxpayers Regional Investment Board should be created. TRIB will be substantially more effective by including these three innovations.
- TRIB’s directors will be elected. This shapes a broad regional constituency and helps affirm that taxpayers’ money will be well spent. To protect voters from the cynical distortions of state and federal campaigns, candidates should be non-partisan and only small campaign donations from individuals accepted.
- TRIB’s authorities should include usage fees, not just taxes. The sales tax predominance has proven ineffective at reducing bad transportation habits. TRIB will find the right economic mix of transportation investments (carrots) and usage fees (sticks).
- TRIB will be the taxpayers’ and riders’ advocate. Our monopolistic transportation systems block better returns for new investments. TRIB’s job is to advocate policies that level the playing field for all transportation subsidies so multi-modal, market-based options will emerge faster. TRIB also will respond to rider and commuter complaints and synthesize them to develop solutions. TRIB takes responsibility.
However the new Board emerges, Illinois’ irresponsibility toward transit must be solved. To get perspective on transit’s governance problems, read this study comparing six of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Its conclusions for Chicagoland start on page 20. The study serves as a good reference to sharpen our solutions.
For the next six months, CMAP’s sales tax proposal is unlikely to get a fair hearing within the frenzy of every special interest protecting its slice of the Illinois budget. CMAP will alter its strategy for the 2016 session. Supporters should consider tactics that give CMAP more autonomy from an increasingly illegitimate and counter-productive MPO. Good luck!
In the meantime, local progress is possible. We first should take very seriously the Cook County proposal to leverage federal loans, much as Los Angeles has for its transit renaissance. Part of the new County President’s ambition to revitalize transit, this carefully-crafted proposal deserves action. If the Cook County Board shirks this duty during the next few months, then this proposal also should go back to the drawing board so it can win taxpayer support. Since Cook County represents over two-thirds of Chicagoland’s transit trips and most the chronic car congestion, a Cook County adaptation of the TRIB concept can serve as a prototype for the seven-county region’s evolution.
But whatever new tax is proposed, it must offer the public this simple deal: any new tax or usage fee will buy discernible improvements in transportation and increase accountability. If we believably make every initiative work towards a new deal that puts taxpayers and transport users as the head of their systems, then Chicagoland’s connections will be made.
Thursday, January 8th, 2015
My latest post is in the January issue of Governing Magazine and is called “The Myths of Municipal Mergers.” Consolidation and regional governance are often touted as a solutions to urban ills. There was a lot of focus on the fragmented geo-political landscape of the St. Louis region in the wake of Ferguson, for example. But while consolidation can have benefits and curb abuse in some cases, it’s far from a panacea and can create as many problems as it solves. An excerpt:
As for cost savings, evidence suggests that these are vastly exaggerated and that the cost of government can actually go up. This was the case in Indianapolis, where in 2007 the city finally consolidated police departments. The move was projected to save $8.8 million per year. A post-merger audit by the firm KSM Consulting found that actual savings were “negligible.”
Corporations frequently manage to save money when merging. That’s because they can pare costs by eliminating redundancy and harmonizing salaries. But in the public sector, nobody is likely to lose his job, and salaries tend to be harmonized to the high water mark.
Yet there’s an argument to be made for consolidation of especially small cities. Unlike big-city governments, these often fly under the media and state radar unless a major problem erupts. This renders them vulnerable to abuses. It’s no surprise that it was Bell — not small on an absolute basis, but only the 215th largest municipality in California — where the city manager was making nearly $800,000 per year. Combine small size with poverty, as in Bell, and these places are often doubly overlooked.
Click through for the whole thing.
Friday, December 19th, 2014
It’s no secret housing costs are high and going higher in major US cities like NYC, San Francisco, etc. I was just tweeting with someone this week who moved back from Park Slope, Brooklyn to Indianapolis because her rent was being raised by over 50% (possibly that’s a cumulative increase over time – not sure).
Most of the urbanist discussion tends to focus around zoning as the reason prices are high. That’s certainly an important factor. But there are also other things driving up costs and rents. The NYT highlighted one of them last Sunday, namely the permit expediter tax:
When Mark Brotter dies, the inscription on his tombstone will read simply: “Thank God — no more plumbing Schedule B.”
Mr. Brotter, 55, is an expediter, an imprecise term that is used to describe the men and women whose workdays are spent queuing up at the Manhattan branch of the New York City Department of Buildings to file the documents and pull the permits that allow construction projects — your kitchen renovation and the high-rise next door — to go forward. “I’m basically a middleman,” he said. For its part, the Buildings Department insists on the title “filing representative.”
Others are employed by large firms that do nothing but expediting, or are on the staffs of architectural or engineering firms. In the early 1990s, expediters numbered 300 to 400; today there are more than 8,300. (Filing representatives must register with the Buildings Department and pay a $50 annual fee for the right to stand on lines at department offices.)
The expediter’s fee varies depending on the outlay of time and the complexity of a job. The charge for securing a permit for a contractor ranges from $200 to $400; for filing a project, $1,500 to $3,500. Plans that must go before the Landmarks Commission are a more costly proposition, as are projects that involve the conversion of a commercial space to a residence.
Now these prices aren’t ridiculous in the grand scheme of things for New York City real estate. But the idea that there are 8,300 people making a living standing in line to file permits for people points to the entire structure of how development gets done in big cities (NYC is hardly alone in this particular industry) in ways that continually raise costs. This is beyond the cost of delays that a baroque permitting process introduces.
Particularly when you are trying to build lower rent buildings, all of the fixed costs you have to incur to built anything (land, permits, expediters, etc.) have to be recovered and amortized across the units. When you have a hyper-complex development environment, these fixed costs raise the minimum viable rent threshold and thus push the cost of construction towards the higher end of the market that is already being served.
To bring the cost of housing down, cities should be working on all fronts, not just zoning to make it happen.
This particular case is instructive regarding barriers to reform, however. If the city made it easy enough to file plans and get permits in ways that didn’t require an expediter industry, 8,300 people would be out of work. Presumably they would squawk about it. I’m sure I would if I were in their shoes As with many regulatory reforms, the benefits are diffuse and hard to see, whereas the costs are concentrated and obvious.
Also, just one reform in and of itself is unlikely to produce immediate substantive change. Broad based reform in many areas is needed, then there will be a lag as investors adjust to and take advantage of the new environment. This may involve shorter term pain for longer term gain, much like disruptive technical innovation.
That’s not a formula politicians like. It’s one reason Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s “third arrow” of structural reform remains mostly in its quiver. Too many interest groups face immediate pain from reform, but the payoff is raising the economic potential of Japan and creating conditions in which future growth can occur, the exact nature of which can’t be predicted. That’s a hard sell to make, which is one reason politicians tend to focus on things that have immediate benefits to at least some people, such as tax cuts or spending programs.
Regardless, beyond just changes in zoning or this or that process or regulation, there needs to be a mindset shift in how these cities approach development to bring about a broad based change in housing affordability.
Thursday, December 18th, 2014
The well-known fault line between urban and rural portions of our states got a lengthy treatment (and one that not surprisingly tilts pro-urban) in the Kansas City Star:
It’s a formula played out in one state after the next. Rural areas hold political clout well beyond their numbers, winning regularly on the issues and in the division of tax dollars.
They triumph primarily by better holding their coalitions together — driven partly by the stubborn myth that they get the short stick from their big-city cousins — and because the drawing of legislative districts works in their favor.
The result leaves people in urban areas regularly outplayed at lawmaking. “We simply cannot count on the state government to help us,” said Kansas City Mayor Sly James, voicing a frustration felt by urban mayors across the country.
The piece is worth a read.
I’ve written on this topic before myself. As a guy who is the Urbanophile today, but who came from a rural area in Southern Indiana, I feel like I’ve got a foot on both camps.
I completely understand and share many of the frustrations of urban areas. State policies towards urban regions are often awful, and too many states seem determined to destroy their biggest economic success stories.
But in my view urban folks have as many blind spots and prejudices towards rural areas as the other way around. Clearly urban dwellers have no intentions of leaving rural residents alone to live in the country with their guns, farms, etc., so it shouldn’t be surprising to see that rural residents are painting a target on cities too. Part of the detente we need to have here is to adopt something of a live and let live philosophy, so that, if urban and rural people don’t agree on a lot of things, they’ll at least leave each other to pursue their own definition of the good life.
I’d also remind urbanites that they tend to advocate for increasing redistribution, not reducing it. The redistribution of revenue from metro to rural areas is in my view very consistent with urban values as urban areas are more prosperous as a whole than rural ones.
But beyond redistribution there needs to be a great effort made to build bridges and understanding between these areas, something that hasn’t been on the urban agenda. Here below is a column I wrote for the January 2014 issue of Governing talking about this issue and the new bargain I think we need to find a way to strike:
Who could argue against making things better? It seems absurd. So why is it so hard to make progress? One reason is that there are often structural forces that act to suppress improvement. One force in particular is the increasing divergence in attractiveness and performance between communities.
Ball State University economist Michael Hicks, writing in Howey Politics Indiana, elaborated on the problem: “Almost all our local economic policies target business investment and masquerade as job creation efforts. We abate taxes, apply TIFs [tax increment financing] and woo businesses all over the state, but then the employees who receive middle-class wages (say $18 an hour or more) choose the nicest place to live within a 40-mile radius. So, we bring a nice factory to Muncie, and the employees all commute from Noblesville.”
This tells you everything you need to know about why Indiana’s state government has traditionally been hostile to efforts by localities to improve quality of place, whether through mass transit or through public services such as new libraries and better performing schools.
To the extent that a place like the Indianapolis suburb of Noblesville continues to improve itself, this only increases the advantages it has in luring residents and jobs away from struggling post-industrial communities like Muncie that have fewer resources to rebuild with and are further out from the urban center. This dynamic is hardly unique to Indiana.
Struggling places that surround prosperous communities may not be interested in seeing those successful towns improve any further. That’s not necessarily out of malice, nor may it even be explicitly considered. It’s simply an implicit incentive, and has a certain amount of logic. If those struggling places constitute an influential block in the state legislature, they can certainly put roadblocks in the way of community improvement efforts that would only fuel the divergence that puts their city increasingly at a disadvantage. This creates a structural barrier to change.
Removing this barrier requires a type of thinking and bridge-building that has fallen by the wayside in the contemporary economy, namely restoring connectivity between thriving cities and their broader but less-well-off hinterlands.
In the age of globalization, cities and states would rather build bridges to the world than to the town next door. Some of this is simply the way the economy works. As Richard Longworth, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, wrote in his book Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, “Chicago probably deals more, daily, with Frankfurt or Tokyo than it does with Indianapolis.”
He went on to identify the problem at hand, noting that “Globalization is beginning to isolate cities from their hinterlands: The hinterlands see this trend and are disinclined to do anything to speed it up. They perceive that most of these people—globalization’s winners—have never spent 30 seconds worrying about globalization’s losers.”
This is the two-tier society we see developing nationally playing out at the local level. It creates a tug of war at the state policy level, and it tears apart the whole notion that we are a commonwealth. It creates states that are, as Longworth put it, “hives of warring interests.”
There are no easy answers for many of the struggling post-industrial cities in America. Many places realistically may not recover, particularly if they are too far from a metro center or too far into decline. But we can have more successful places than we do. One obvious challenge for smaller areas is that they are cut off from global flows and economic opportunities. Building stronger links to their neighbors that are connected is critical. That’s their potential on-ramp to globalization.
What’s needed is a new bargain in our states and regions. Larger metros and thriving regions will be given the authority, tools and financing they need to improve themselves and meet the demands of today’s globalized, talent-based economy. In return, they will be expected not just to send back tax “remittances” to the rest of their state, but also to deploy some of their intellectual and policy resources toward the problems facing the left behind areas. The losers need to let the winners get on with their winning, while the winners need to remember where they came from and who brought them to the dance.
Creating those connections won’t be easy. But it starts with a conversation, with getting to know each other, building trust and creating commitment. That’s not as sexy as an overseas trade trip. But if the winners want to get the losers on board with state policies that promote civic improvement instead of fighting every step of the way or trying to steer the course toward a race to the bottom, this is something they very much need to do.
Sunday, December 14th, 2014
People advance two main sorts of arguments in favor of things for which they advocate: the moral argument (it’s the right thing to do) and the utilitarian one (it will make us better off). As it happens, in practice most people tend to implicitly suggest there’s a 100% overlap between the two categories. That is, if we do what’s right, it will always make us better off too with no down sides at all.
But is that true?
For most of us, our life experience suggests that there are always tradeoffs and there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Urbanists tend to argue in way that suggests this isn’t the case. The types of policies advocated by urbanists tend to be presented not only as right in a certain moral sense, but also ones that make society better off in every way. When things go awry in some respect, as they always seem to do, this is always seen as an avoidable defect in policy implementation, not as a problem inherent to the policy itself. Urbanists aren’t alone in this of course. It affects most of the world. But since I cover the urban beat, I’ll focus on us for a minute.
Today the New York Times opens a window into the type of trade-offs that are studiously avoided in most writings on the subject of climate change. Called “Even Before Long Winter Begins, Energy Bills Send Shivers in New England,” it talks about how a lack of natural gas pipeline capacity is sending electricity and gas costs through the roof as the temperature turns cold.
John York, who owns a small printing business here, nearly fell out of his chair the other day when he opened his electric bill. For October, he had paid $376. For November, with virtually no change in his volume of work and without having turned up the thermostat in his two-room shop, his bill came to $788, a staggering increase of 110 percent. “This is insane,” he said, shaking his head. “We can’t go on like this.”
For months, utility companies across New England have been warning customers to expect sharp price increases, for which the companies blame the continuing shortage of pipeline capacity to bring natural gas to the region. Now that the higher bills are starting to arrive, many stunned customers are finding the sticker shock much worse than they imagined.
I’ve written about this before re:Rhode Island, which is among the most expensive states in America for electricity (most of which is generated by gas). But all of New England is high, with Connecticut ranked as having the country’s most expensive electricity. Gas prices spike every winter to levels far above the rest of the country, as the graph below that I found via City Lab shows:
This would appear to be a simple problem to solve: just build more pipelines. I included on my list of starter ideas for improving economic competitiveness in the state.
Unfortunately, planned pipelines haven’t been built due to environmental opposition:
The region has five pipeline systems now. Seven new projects have been proposed. But several of them — including a major gas pipeline through western Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, and a transmission line in New Hampshire carrying hydropower from Quebec — have stalled because of ferocious opposition.
The concerns go beyond fears about blighting the countryside and losing property to eminent domain. Environmentalists say it makes no sense to perpetuate the region’s dependence on fossil fuels while it is trying to mitigate the effects of climate change, and many do not want to support the gas-extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that has made the cheap gas from Pennsylvania available.
A year ago, the governors of the six New England states agreed to pursue a coordinated regional strategy, including more pipelines and at least one major transmission line for hydropower. The plan called for electricity customers in all six states to subsidize the projects, on the theory that they would make up that money in lower utility bills.
But in August, the Massachusetts Legislature rejected the plan, saying in part that cheap energy would flood the market and thwart attempts to advance wind and solar projects. That halted the whole effort.
Here we see the clear tradeoff in action. Reducing carbon emissions has a clear human and economic cost. High electricity costs wallop household budgets in a region with many communities that are struggling or even outright impoverished (as recently as last year, for example, a third of the residents of Woonsocket, RI were on food stamps). This particularly harms poor and minority residents. What’s more, it helps contribute to the region’s low ranking as a place to do business and its anemic job creation.
Given that gas itself is dirt cheap and will be for the foreseeable future thanks to fracking, hurting residents through high electricity prices designed to drive energy transition is clearly a deliberate policy choice.
Fair enough if you believe reducing carbon requires subordinating other public goals like more money in poor people’s pockets. But how often is this forthrightly stated by advocates? Almost never.
Instead we’re treated to article after article in various urbanist publications talking about some awesome green project that’s being implemented somewhere, and how other places ought to do the same thing. There’s lots of doom and gloom about the increased potential for future disasters if the policies aren’t followed. But there’s seldom much about the immediate negative consequences that almost certainly will follow if they are.
I like energy efficiency. I’m glad we have more fuel efficient cars. I’m very glad I don’t own a car anymore. I’m not so excited about light bulb mandates and other “feel bad” policies that don’t materially affect emissions. But there’s definitely a lot we can do on the energy front.
But I also care about things like poor people’s electricity bills and economic growth. And I’m not willing to make unlimited sacrifices (including imposing sacrifices on other people) in the name of conservation. I can appreciate that others might make different tradeoffs and want more conservation than I do. But at least they ought to be honest about the costs and harm they are imposing on people in the name of their preferred policy matrix.
Instead there’s disingenuous talk about the “green economy” powering local economies when there’s no such thing as green industry. Or claiming, as many did in response to my article earlier this year, that Rhode Island’s government is actually conservative, so its problems can’t be laid at the foot of excessively progressive policies imported from places with vastly more economic leverage than most of New England. I guess I did not know that killing gas pipelines in the name of promoting renewable energy via high prices was a Tea Party idea.
Actually, not even the places that do have huge economic leverage are behaving like this. New York City has more economic leverage than just about anybody. But it also, as the chart above shows, has cheaper gas. One reason is that, as City Lab reported, NYC recently just opened a new gas pipeline into the city:
A really important thing happened last month to New York City and the rest of the mid-Atlantic. This event will change the daily lives of millions of people, especially during the coldest months of winter. And, despite some protesters, it all went down with less fanfare than Jay Z and Beyonce going vegan for a month.
An $856-million pipeline expansion began ramping up service, allowing more natural gas to get to New York City consumers. The New York-New Jersey expansion project moves more gas the last few miles from Jersey, which is the terminus for much of the Marcellus Shale gas flowing out of Pennsylvania, into Manhattan. The Energy Information Administration called it “one of the biggest… expansions in the Northeast during the past two decades.” It will bring an additional 800 billion British thermal units (BTU) of gas to the area per day.
Maybe New England wants to out do New York City when it comes to driving a green energy transition. (NYC seems to be focusing more on climate change adaptation, aka “resiliency,” these days). That’s a valid policy choice to make. But it’s one with consequences.
Unfortunately, the consequences of these policy choices are seldom presented by their advocates. People only discover them when the costs show up in a way that can be tangible traced back to those policies. Maybe in the case of New England and energy costs, people are starting to wake up to the matter, possibly in a way similar to how sky high housing costs in so many cities woke people up to the actual trade-offs being made in housing policy.
Advocates are there to advocate of course. So perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect advocates of any stripe to give you the full story. But that’s why we should always pay attention to what the critics of particularly policies have to say. That will give us a more complete picture of the tradeoffs any particular policy set will require.
Friday, December 12th, 2014
This summer I sat down with Purdue University President Mitch Daniels to talk about his tuition freeze initative there for my City Journal article on the subject. Here’s the podcast of that conversation:
Here are some excerpted highlights. Daniels on what’s driving costs up:
Government has imposed a whole lot of this administrative cost on the colleges. Not all of it, but a lot of it. You know, administrative costs have soared in banks, too. And so there’s some validity in the response that many of the tasks being done on campuses now are simply trying to keep up with the avalanche of regulations and compliance that goes with it.
But when you shear all that away, it was just too easy for universities and colleges generally to decide what they wanted to do and what they wanted to spend – all the additional enthusiasms they might have had at a given time – and there was no elasticity in tuition payments, especially not when so much of it was being borrowed from third parties. And so they raised it. Purdue was hardly the worst offender. It’s more or less in the pack of what happened here, in fact, better than most. But when you roll it all together, it finally reached the place where I think the machine is going “Tilt,” and it should.
On whether the tuition freeze will be permanent:
We’re not promising to do it indefinitely, but I have said it wasn’t a one-time or even a three-time gesture. We do want to make a statement that Purdue cares about this subject. We’re a land grant school, remember. We were placed here in large part to open the doors of higher education beyond the elites, who were almost the only ones with access back when. And that’s still important. But this is not just a gesture. This will be a permanent policy, that is to say, affordability will be a permanent policy, and we’ll see how far we can press it.
On the potential impact of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs):
My sense is that there will be some sort of shake-out, you’re already seeing it. I think you’ll see some institutions that just can’t justify what they’re doing and what they’re charging. I think there will be others who adapt to it. And we are certainly using online education blended often with classroom instruction more and more aggressively here. We think we are ahead of every other university in the number of Purdue courses that have already been changed, such that, typically, the lecture is not in a hall with 300 other people. It’s on your handheld or it’s on your laptop. You watch it on your time, in your space. You watch it as many times as you need to to absorb it. When you go to class, you’re going to be either working on a project to see if you did learn it. In the best of cases, there will have been some interactivity, and the professor will know what Aaron got that Mitch didn’t, and vice versa. This is probably the right direction. So long answer, I’m sorry, but it is such a central question. But thank goodness for disruptive technologies. And whether they utterly rewrite the terms of trade in this sector, or simply force big changes, either way is positive. I’m betting it’s the latter.
Thursday, December 11th, 2014
My latest piece is online at City Journal. It’s called “Belt Tightening 101” and is about Purdue’s recent tuition freeze. Here’s an excerpt:
Erica Smith, a recent communications graduate from Michigan City, says that the tuition freeze was long overdue. She financed her education with loans she’ll be repaying for at least 25 years. “I feel hopeless almost,” she says. “But most of my friends have as much debt as I do. We joke about paying it till we die.” Smith says that cost hikes while she was a student added between $4,000 and $6,000 to her overall debt. “If tuition continues to rise, Purdue will be out of reach for middle-class people, like my niece,” whom she hopes will one day follow her to West Lafayette.
Daniels wants to reassure those who worry that controlling tuition will drive high-quality faculty away from Purdue. “Nobody ever cut their way to success,” he concedes. “The top line matters a lot.” And he agrees that fund-raising remains as vital to his job as cost-cutting. “I want to grow this university, at least at the margins. We’re teaching things the nation really needs.” But Daniels understands what many of his fellow university presidents seem more reluctant to grasp: the status quo is not sustainable. That may not fit on a billboard, but it’s the truth.
Click through to read the whole thing.