Wednesday, July 29th, 2015
My latest piece is online in the Los Angeles Times. It’s about how environmental activists are trying to stop fracking and Alberta oil developments by obstructing the ability to export fossil fuels using local control over ports as a lever.
I am generally a strong proponent of local control, but disruption of global commerce, particularly when clearly motivated by non-local concerns, is not something localities should be doing. Interstate commerce, like immigration policy, is a clearly federal policy domain. Policy and regulation for it needs to be set at the federal level. People who don’t want oil drilling in Alaska should take that up with President Obama, who approved it, not the Port of Seattle.
Here’s an excerpt:
The Shell battle highlights a new tactic among environmental activists: Unhappy with policies made in Washington, they’re trying to use local regulations to set national policy. Pressuring cities and other local entities that control many of the nation’s ports, the greens hope to prevent fossil-fuel industries from obtaining permits and thus keep such energy from coming to market. And they’re having some success.
Under tremendous pressure from environmentalists, Portland, Ore., shot down a proposed propane-export terminal. Activist Daphne Wysham boasted that “residents of the Pacific Northwest have begun to mobilize in bold and successful resistance to these fossil fuel exports.”
Oregon greens are elsewhere trying to prevent the export of liquefied natural gas. As Stacey McLaughlin noted approvingly in an Oregonian op-ed, “If they cannot export natural gas, then they will need to cut back on fracking.” Similar battles are raging north of the border, in British Columbia, and on the East Coast. South Portland, Maine, for instance, banned the export of crude oil arriving there via pipeline.
Click through to read the whole thing.
Monday, July 13th, 2015
My latest piece is online in City Journal and is called “Chicago’s Financial Fire.” It’s a look at the ongoing financial crisis in that city, which has all of a sudden gotten very real thanks to a downgrade of the city’s credit rating to junk by Moody’s. Here’s an excerpt:
While some sort of refinancing may be required, the proposed debt issue contains maneuvers similar to those that helped get Chicago into trouble in the first place—including more scoop and toss deferrals, $75 million for police back pay, $62 million to pay a judgment related to the city’s lakefront parking-garage lease, and $35 million to pay debt on the acquisition of the former Michael Reese Hospital site (an architecturally significant complex Daley acquired and razed for an ill-fated Olympic bid). The debt-issue proposal also includes $170 million in so-called “capitalized interest” for the first two years. That is, Chicago is actually borrowing the money to pay the first two years of interest payments on these bonds. In true Chicago style, the proposal passed the city council on a 45-3 vote. Hey, at least the city is getting out of the swaps business.
Even with no further gimmicks, Emanuel will be six years into his mayoralty before the city can stop borrowing just to pay the interest on its debt. And without accounting for pensions, it will take the full eight years of both his terms to get the city to a balanced budget, where it can pay for the regular debt it has already accumulated.
Click through to read the whole thing.
Rahm donned a sweater during his reelection campaign and told the public he recognized he needed to change his ways, saying that he knows he “can rub people the wrong way.” The title of that ad was “Chicago’s Future.”
I decided to take him up on his new approach. When I was working on this piece, I tried to get some information of the mayor’s press office. I asked them such extremely hard hitting questions as, “Is there a consolidated location where all of the mayor’s most recent financial proposals can be seen in their current form?” I emailed them and got no response. So I followed up with a phone call. I was put on hold for a while then told the person I needed to talk to was away from her desk, but I should email her at a XYZ address. So I did. No response. This is the same pattern all previous inquiries I’ve made have followed, though I believe on occasion I’ve been put through to a voice mail from which I got no callback. Now, it’s not like I try to get stuff from these guys every day, but the message is pretty clear. I gather that this experience is not at all unusual when dealing with Rahm.
Having his press office simply refuse to respond at all to even basic inquiries from (the apparently many) people on his blacklist is naught but pettiness. Rahm takes people who could be friends and does his best to turn them into enemies. No wonder the Sun-Times titled a recent about him, “Rahm’s troubles plentiful, allies scarce.”
Thus it is that Chicago, a city of grand and expansive history and ambition, a city so big it overflows the page, comes to have a mayor with a certain smallness of spirit.
Tuesday, July 7th, 2015
[ Many of you may be familiar with Charles Marohn and the crew over at Strong Towns. They do a great job at tracking some of the fiscal insanity around they way we build transportation. Here’s a 2014 piece by site contributor Nathaniel Hood talking about a questionable pedestrian bridge in Minneapolis. Similar projects exist all over – Aaron. ]
The Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Council is gambling $8.7 million on a project to alleviate pedestrian congestion that might exist in 5 to 10 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.
That’s like buying flood insurance on the house you have yet to buy.
The below $8.7 million piece of public infrastructure is intended to create a more safe passageway for travelers at the Downtown East station during Vikings home games. It’ll serve west and northbound train passengers and other pedestrians looking to enter a new football stadium. It is deemed this will be an important pedestrian overpass once all four major light rail lines completed.
Those reading this should have at least two questions:
- How did this come to be a thing?
- Why is it all of a sudden getting $8.7 million?
I pay particularly close attention to local projects. I read blogs, forums and newspapers daily. I know and follow local decision-makers on social media, track development proposals, and pay attention to those boring committees few care about. I also work in the industry and talk to other people who work and follow the industry across related professions. It’s fair to say that I have a very good idea of what’s going on in the Twin Cities and the transportation and development needs of the community.
Never once have I heard of this project until a few days ago. And now, out of the blue, we’re dropping $8.7 million on a bridge that’ll be needed 10 days a year starting in 2019.
I wrote a blog post last year titled The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure. It was well received, and is even being used as required reading in an undergrad planning course in California. In the article I theorize as to why we make bad decisions when it comes to receiving other people’s money on transit projects;
It’s the orderly, but dumb system that makes planners and politicians play to a bureaucratic equation that is supposed to guide officials towards the best alternative. Only it never actually works out that way and it usually forces smart people into making highly compromised and less-than-ideal decisions.
The pedestrian bridge is different. It may deal with Federal grants, but is also come from local and regional coffers. Regardless, this project is being pushed forward. According to the Star Tribune,
“The transit agency will likely devote $6 millon from its coffers for the project (this figure could be offset by federal grants), with the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (which oversees stadium construction) ponying up $2 million, and the rest coming from bonds issues by the Met Council.”
Before we go any further, I think we need to ask a complex question.
How Did We Get Here?
The new $1 billion Green Line is done and the $1.1 billion Vikings Stadium is underway. They combine to represent over $2 billion of investment. Our local leaders are concerned, as they should be, that these pieces of infrastructure be as perfect as possible.
To quote a former Governor (one who wasn’t a professional wrestler),
“All too often, the human tendency is to compound one big mistake with a series of additional mistakes in the hope that somehow the results will improve. This appears to be the case with the Vikings stadium.”
Politicians are attracted to big, transformitive projects, so it seems only natural that our leaders, who have expelled a great amount of political capital, want to see every inch of it succeed. Even if that means throwing good money after bad.
How We Justify It All
An engineer at the Met Council, likely under much political pressure, noticed something: based on 2019 projections, during peak hours on Minnesota Vikings game days, there will be only a 120 second headway between trains. This will likely not be enough time to manage safe pedestrian crossings. The proposed solution is the bridge.
The pedestrian bridge makes some sense. Based on the projections, there will be long lines and delays during this period; and building a bridge for pedestrians certainly isn’t an unreasonable response. The Met Council’s Transportation Committee appears to be interested in the idea.
Let’s look at these assumptions: they assume that there will be two additional light rail lines in full operation, both of which have not yet even been either fully allocated money or constructed. Basically, the Met Council is gambling $8.7 million that there might be a problem in 5 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.
To reiterate: Four (4) LRT lines being in operation (Blue, Green, SW & Bottentieu) and that Vikings game attendees hitting a 40% transit mode share. All of things don’t currently exist. It also assumes, more importantly, that if there is congestion people will not find an alternative route or change their travel behavior. This isn’t to say we can’t plan ahead. We should. But, we should be more realistic in our projections and our priorities.
Where Are Our Priorities?
Why did this project get fast-tracked while other smaller, more “everyday” projects never see the light of day? And, when smaller projects get the public’s attention, why do they struggle to find funding? These are merely a question of priorities.
As Nick Magrino (at streets.mn) has asked so often, “why are we embarrassed by the bus?” He writes,
“… I can’t shake the feeling that many of the expensive transit improvements we get in the Twin Cities are thought up by people who don’t actually use transit. Which is why we end up with Northstar, the Red Line, and so on.”
A bridge like this seems like such a low priority, especially when we have legitimate transportation needs. For example, THIS is a bus stop on a heavily used transit line near the center of Minneapolis.
It’s not that a pedestrian bridge is a terrible idea. Under the projections, at some point in the future, it seems maybe reasonable. But, why is the Met Council prioritizing and fast-tracking this, whereas things like bike lanes, bus shelters, and potholes get ignored? I say this because you could build 40 miles of protected bike lanes for the same price tag.
Projects can take on a life of their own. There is no traditional process to getting things done. In this pedestrian overpass, you have the right person with the right slideshow presenting it to the right people at the right time. From here, you have the Met Council employees and political-appointed representatives who have monies at their disposal. The proposal, while not perfect, seems reasonable enough. And, we’ve just spent $2 billion on infrastructure, so we need to make it right. The presentation looks good, so why not go for it?
What Would Your City Do With $8.7 Million?
Imagine if the City of Minneapolis was given $8.7 million that could only be used on downtown pedestrian and/or transit projects. What would they do? The answer is: not a pedestrian bridge to be used during 10 sports games a year.
So, why are we doing it?
The answer is that we can get money from elsewhere to do the things we don’t need to do. But, when it comes to doing the simple things that we need to do, well, that money isn’t available from elsewhere. The pedestrian bridge is a bad idea (right now) that’s made worse when you think of the countless thousands of more useful public investments we could be making.
The truth is that the people and the City of Minneapolis don’t even care about it. It’s not on their radar. It’s the people who control infrastructure and transportation dollars who care about this. If given the opportunity to allocate these dollars elsewhere, it’s fair to say that literally everyone locally would divert them elsewhere.
Our priorities get skewed and we misallocate resources most when our funding comes from elsewhere. In fact, it is precisely why Minneapolis has the below. All of which the City of Minneapolis will be tearing down in 30 years …
Note: This is also next to a proposed park called “The Yard” that neither the City of Minneapolis nor it’s Park Board want to maintain. Yet, somehow it’s still a thing.
This post originally appeared in Strong Towns on September 9, 2014. Content licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Monday, June 29th, 2015
Photo by Scott Beyer
With pending changes in US-Cuban relations, there’s been a flurry of attention turned towards Cuba and Havana. I want to highlight a few articles on the topic. Firstly, Scott Beyer posted a two-part series over at Market Urbanism. It’s part policy analysis, part travelogue, and his large numbers of photos are a must-see.
His first piece is “City of Scarcity.” Here’s an excerpt:
I found myself unable to buy basic things. For example, during my first night in Havana, I didn’t realize–until it was too late–that the B&B landlord had not provided toilet paper. In America, this would be a glaring oversight, but in Havana, I would discover, is normal. This forced me to navigate my neighborhood at 3am, offering pesos to the many teenage boys still standing outside, to bring out “papel higienico” from their houses. Every time I tried this, they would each explain, in rather comical fashion, that none was available. Finally I found a teenager who spoke passable English, and asked him how this could be. After sending his little brother in to find something, he explained that “in Havana, toilet paper is a delicacy–like chocolate,” and that most residents don’t just have any sitting around. So how did people cope?
“Here in Havana, we have a saying,” he quipped. “We say, ‘Cubans have a good ass. Our asses work for all kinds of paper. Toilet paper, newspaper, book paper–any kind of paper’.”
Photo by Scott Beyer
His second piece is called “Stagnation Doesn’t Preserve Cities, Nor Does Wealth Destroy Them.” He uses the example of Havana as a counter-point to the anti-gentrification narrative in which investment in a city destroys is character.
Instead, she claims that these groups are “destroying” the city. She is thus spouting the same myth that is advanced about historic preservation by urban progressives, who seem to think that wealth and gentrification works against preservation. But a fair-minded look at U.S. cities demonstrates the opposite. If one looks at America’s most notable historic neighborhoods–the Back Bay in Boston; Capitol Hill in DC; the French Quarter in New Orleans; much of northern San Francisco; much of Manhattan and northern Brooklyn; downtown Savannah; and downtown Charleston–a unifying feature is that they have great residential wealth. Meanwhile, there are numerous cities—Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland—that have a similar number of historic structures. But many of them sit hollowed-out because of decline.
Image via the Guardian
Meanwhile, the Guardian also ran a take on the city, calling Havana “one of the world’s great cities on the brink of a fraught transition.” It’s very different to say the least.
Nowhere have these changes been more apparent than in Cuba’s capital, and Havana today can be a jarring collision of the antique and the nouveau. While I was there, the Havana Biennial was bringing in cutting-edge artists and art dealers from all over the world – yet turn the television to one of the state-sponsored channels and one is immediately transported back to the time of Soviet-era propaganda, of shrill declarations and low production values. In contrast, Venezuela’s TeleSUR (now accessible to Cubans), which generally maintains a line favourable to Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and his allies (of whom the Castros are two), is positively electric and full of flashy visuals and news from the outside world.
Photo by Scott Beyer
Last Spring, City Journal ran a piece on the city by Michael Totten called “The Last Communist City.”
Even employees inside the quasi-capitalist bubble don’t get paid more. The government contracts with Spanish companies such as Meliá International to manage Havana’s hotels. Before accepting its contract, Meliá said that it wanted to pay workers a decent wage. The Cuban government said fine, so the company pays $8–$10 an hour. But Meliá doesn’t pay its employees directly. Instead, the firm gives the compensation to the government, which then pays the workers—but only after pocketing most of the money. I asked several Cubans in my hotel if that arrangement is really true. All confirmed that it is. The workers don’t get $8–$10 an hour; they get 67 cents a day—a child’s allowance.
The maximum wage is just the beginning. Not only are most Cubans not allowed to have money; they’re hardly allowed to have things. The police expend extraordinary manpower ensuring that everyone required to live miserably at the bottom actually does live miserably at the bottom. Dissident blogger and author Yoani Sánchez describes the harassment sarcastically in her book Havana Real: “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.” Perhaps the saddest symptom of Cuba’s state-enforced poverty is the prostitution epidemic—a problem the government officially denies and even forbids foreign journalists based in Havana to mention. Some Cuban prostitutes are professionals, but many are average women—wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers—who solicit johns once or twice a year for a little extra money to make ends meet.
Wednesday, June 24th, 2015
My latest article is online in City Journal and is a look at the restoration and reopening of the High Bridge in New York City. Part of the original Croton Aqueduct system that first brought plentiful clean water to New York, portions of the High Bridge are the oldest standing bridge in the city. Here’s an excerpt:
It’s worth asking whether, with its $61 million price tag, the High Bridge project was really needed. Strictly speaking, the answer is: No. The structure was in no danger of falling down. And, just a half mile to the north, the Washington Bridge provides a functional, if unpleasant, pedestrian crossing over the Harlem River. Yet, the High Bridge is an important part of New York history and deserves its loving restoration. Spending serious money on outlying neighborhoods that are mostly minority and heavily poor to give their residents a humane environment instead of a minimalistic one shows that New York does care about all its citizens. Great cities don’t just do great things in a sanitized downtown Green Zone for visitors. They create greatness in their workaday neighborhoods, too, with projects that speak not merely to the pragmatic, but to the human spirit. The High Bridge restoration again shows what great commercial success allows a city to do for its citizens.
Click through to read the whole thing.
Here are some additional pictures I took. First, the High Bridge peeking through the trees from the Manhattan heights. You can see both the original stone arch spans and the longer steel arch span.
Embedded seal in the bridge pavement with historical info. There are quite a few of these discussing various aspects of the project.
The neighbors are fans:
Monday, June 22nd, 2015
It’s no secret to readers here that US rail transit construction costs are far out of line vs. other countries. David Schleicher, a law professor at Yale, recently co-authored an article examining some potential reasons why. I crossed paths with David last week and recorded this short podcast with him delving into the matter.
If the audio embed doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.
Monday, June 15th, 2015
In the last 25 years there has been a huge change in the level of competitiveness of smaller urban areas – by which I mean the small end of the major urban scale, or metro areas of about one to three million people – that has put them in the game for people in residents in way they never were before.
I recently gave the morning keynote at the Mayor’s Development Roundtable in Oklahoma City and talked a bit about this phenomenon, as well as how these generally younger and sprawling areas ought to be thinking about their future.
If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to watch on You Tube (my segment starts at 4:36).
Monday, May 11th, 2015
My latest piece is online at City Journal and is called “Libertarians of Convenience.” It’s a pretty tough take on too many progressive urbanists’ highly selective approach to deregulation. Many take a pretty radical libertarian view when it comes to things like blowing away zoning codes to permit more building. But in too many other areas urban progressives are calling for ever more regulation. Here’s an excerpt:
Left urbanists also decry zoning that requires city developers or businesses to include a minimum number of parking spaces before moving forward on a building or an opening, rather than leaving that decision to the market. Streetsblog decried parking-space mandates as “absurd.” The Walking Bostonian commented on high minimum parking requirements at, of all places, bars: “It’s almost as if there’s a kind of sickness which seems to get into city planners’ heads whenever the topic of parking comes up, and it causes all common sense to fly out the window.” Greater Greater Washington sarcastically observes that Steve Jobs, by founding Apple in a garage, “broke the law by building computers in required parking spaces.” As liberal urbanist Payton Chung sums up, “A parking minimum demands that the rest of us subsidize one economically infeasible land use above all others.”
Other aspects of housing regulation have also come under scrutiny, including minimum unit size: “The fanaticism of neighborhood groups opposed to microhousing is hard to fathom,” says the Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly. On height limits, “It seems like a no-brainer for D.C. to at least ease the Height Act to promote some growth,” says the Next City website. Even historic districts seem to have gone too far for some liberals, becoming a kind of “neutron bomb zoning—preserving the buildings but driving out the working class communities,” according to MoreNYC.
The immediate critique I’ve already gotten of course, is that there’s no inconsistency. The call is to regulate things that cause harm and deregulate things that don’t. But virtually every activity harms someone somewhere, or has some risk. The question is always what risk is acceptable to take on, and what externalities to attempt to control. In these cases it’s clear the posture is really not about the appropriate response to harms or risks or externalities, but rather the principle is whether the underlying activity in question is one urbanists like or don’t like.
I should note that SF bookstore Borderlands apparently got a one year reprieve on closing thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign they completed after we went to press. This is hardly a viable model generally, however.
Tuesday, May 5th, 2015
Privatization done right can be a great boon. Done poorly, it can harm the public for decades. We see another example of the latter ongoing in North Carolina (h/t @mihirpshah). The Charlotte Observer reports:
The N.C. Department of Transportation’s contract with a private developer to build toll lanes on Interstate 77 includes a controversial noncompete clause that could hinder plans to build new free lanes on the highway for 50 years.
The clause has long been part of the proposed contract. But it was changed in late 2013 or early 2014 to also include two new free lanes around Lake Norman – an important $431 million project supported by local transportation planners.
Some area officials were surprised that under the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, the developer would likely collect damages if the state added two new general-purpose lanes from Exit 28 to Exit 36 at the lake.
Many of these long term privatization contracts are loaded with “submarine” clauses like non-competes that lurk underwater ready to rise up torpedo the public without warning. Did the people of North Carolina know that they were signing away their right to make public policy for the next 50 years when they did this deal?
What raises serious a red flag is that the clause that incorporated the I-77 added lanes project was added late in the game, which suggests that the current impact were not an accident:
Bill Coxe, a transportation planner with Huntersville, said he doesn’t know who lobbied for the revision. The new language wasn’t part of the draft contract from 2013, but it was added before the final deal was signed in June. “We saw that late in the game,” he said. “We aren’t sure who modified that.”
Mooresville’s representative on an advisory committee that helps make transportation recommendations said she didn’t know about the change to the contract with the developer. Neither did Andrew Grant, a Cornelius assistant town manager who helps shape regional transportation policy.
So many of these deals have less to do with bringing in private capital to finance infrastructure improvements than they do contractually creating a decades long stream of monopoly rents for the contractor.
Chicago got burned when an arbitrator ruled it owed $58 million to the group that leased the city’s lakefront parking garages. The city had promised it would not allow anyone else to build a garage open to the public to compete with the lessee. But it did anyway and they had to pay damages.
Contra the claim in the article that these clauses are necessary to attract investment, simply look around and see that businesses take huge investment risks every single day in markets with no barriers to entry for competitors. You don’t see Walgreens going to city governments and telling them they won’t open a store unless the city promises not to approve a CVS within a two mile radius, for example. We often see retail competitors right across the street from each other
But why invest in the actual marketplace when you can sign a sweetheart deal that grants you a five decade monopoly?
In this case, it appears to be free lanes and toll lanes side by side on the same facility. So there’s some justification for some sort of agreement on the state’s plans for the free lanes. But given that the free lane expansion was already on the books and supported by transportation planners, to have the project de facto killed through a clause slipped into a private contract in a way that does not appear to have been vetted by the public is dubious. If the residents of the area had known the free lane project they were banking on would be basically taken off the table for 50 years, it might have created protests that could potentially derail the contract. So by simply adding a non-compete clause, the state and contractor could do the same thing without stirring up the public until it was too late. It’s all the more reason why there needs to be much, much more scrutiny on the terms of these deals.
Thursday, April 30th, 2015
My latest piece is online over at the Guardian. It’s called “Have we actually reached peak car?”
My piece is quite different from the typical US consumer preference change story. Rather, it draws on research from the UK that’s not widely publicized here in which traffic experts going back as far as the 50s and 60s predicted a saturation in demand for driving. In short, while total driving levels may grow with increasing population, individual (per capita) demand for driving may be at or close to its peak.
Here’s an excerpt:
What’s frequently lost in the debate is that traffic experts themselves predicted a driving peak long ago. Models developed as far back as the 1950s and 60s anticipated that at some point the demand for driving would reach saturation point. A 1974 report in the UK predicted that point would be reached in 2010, a remarkably prescient view. As Goodwin points out: “In fact, the 1970s predictions were official government forecasts by its own research laboratory … The institutional memory collapsed and the generation who remembered or were involved in those forecasts is now only a few elderly specialists, like me. I was as surprised as anybody when I re-examined the old reports: I had no idea that the forecasts were turning out so accurate 30 to 40 years later. Mind you, that does not prove the method is right, of course, but it is food for thought and certainly demonstrates that the idea of eventual saturation is not alien.”
UCL’s David Metz, formerly chief scientist of the UK Department for Transport and author of Peak Car: The Future of Travel, has taken up the saturation theme. “Saturation of daily travel demand is to be expected and is a likely explanation for the observed cessation of per capita growth of personal travel.”
There’s a lot in this piece, so click through to read the whole thing.