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.
Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015
Second Avenue Sagas pointed me at this new video about the signal replacement project on the New York subway system. The first couple minutes show the fossilized remains the original signaling system that is, amazingly, still for the most part used to control the subways. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
The MTA has a program underway to replace these, but it’s proceeding at snail’s pace. Only the Canarsie Line/L-train is complete, and the Flushing Line/7-train will be finished in 2017, supposedly. It will take five and a half years just to upgrade the western segment of the Queens Blvd Line. At this rate I’ll be long dead before they finish upgrading the whole system. And by that time, the new “state of the art” CBTC signalling system will itself long be past end of life.
It’s very difficult to upgrade NYC’s subways because they are a 24 x 7 x 365 system. The MTA employees do a fantastic job of keeping it going in difficult circumstances. But given the MTAs dubious record on major capital projects in terms of cost and timeline, it’s hard to believe this is the best that can be done.
This also shows why fully funding the MTA capital plan is so important. It’s about dealing with critical upgrades to the existing system to keep things going. If anything, the amount of capital funds devoted to the CBTC signal program should be significantly increased to start upgrading multiple lines in parallel.
Monday, July 20th, 2015
My latest post is online at New Geography and is called “LA’s Tale of Two Cities.” I was prompted to write it when I saw two articles within a month of each other, one declaring LA a paradise for creatives priced out of New York, the other about how creatives can’t afford to live in LA anymore. Here’s an excerpt:
It’s the best of times and the worst of times in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is now attracting notice as a so-called “global city,” one of the world’s elite metropolises. It is ranked #6 in the world by AT Kearney and tied for 10th in a report by the Singapore Civil Service College that I contributed to. Yet it also has among the highest big city poverty rates in the nation, and was found to be one of the worst places in America for upward mobility among the poor. Newspaper columns are starting to refer to LA as a “third world city.”
Yet LA’s glitz factor remains potent. The fashion industry has gained considerable recognition. Tom Ford set up shop and brought his runway show to the city. Locally grown brands like Rodarte have a major following. LA also is increasingly a global center of gravity in the art world.
Yet behind the glitz, in the city of Los Angeles, aging water mains regularly erupt and the streets and sidewalks decay, with the city’s own report estimating it has an $8.1 billion infrastructure repair backlog.
One report chronicles the flight of cash-strapped New York creatives fleeing to sunny, liberating, and less expensive LA. Another how high prices and the Southern California grind are sending those same creatives packing.
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.
Wednesday, July 1st, 2015
My latest column is available in this month’s issue of Governing magazine. It’s called “Big Aspirations Aren’t Just for Big Cities Anymore.” In it I talk about how smaller cities – which in my view are metro regions between roughly one and three million given my focus on major American cities – have dramatically upgraded their game in the last decade. That’s not to say that they are on the same level as places in San Francisco or New York. Or that they have even closed the gap with those places. Rather that objectively speaking they have raised their game and as a result now have a much greater “addressable market” in terms of upscale residents and business – at the same time those larger places are becoming progressively unaffordable.
Here’s an excerpt:
Back in 1992, as a fresh graduate of Indiana University looking for a job, I met with recruiters for a position in Chicago. They pitched me on the city by telling me that it had this hip, new, uber-cool coffee shop. They were talking about Starbucks. If you were around in the ’90s, you may remember that those magazine “coolest-cities” lists often used the number of Starbucks as a metric. A city that finally got Starbucks thought it had hit the big time.
Today, of course, you can get Starbucks between the gas station and Motel 6 on the interstate. But back then it was a different story. The difference between Chicago and a city like Indianapolis, where I also interviewed, was night and day. Compared to Chicago, moving to Indianapolis would have been like getting sent to Siberia. It was all but impossible to get good coffee or a decent meal in Indy back then. While the city had already made many improvements, it was still pretty bleak.
Click through to read the whole thing.
I can’t find it online, but a few years back Chicago Magazine did a retrospective on their top ten restaurants list from circa 1995. It was pretty hilarious. I don’t remember them all, but Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba was one of them. How things change.
I think it’s pretty clear that for a whole slew of items, places like Nashville or Columbus now are at a higher level than even Chicago was a couple decades ago. That’s not true of everything, but it’s true for a lot of things.
I believe this change in the competitive landscape is one of the reasons Atlanta took a big hit in the 2000s. Atlanta used to be the only game in town for major corporations in the South. Now places like Nashville, Charlotte, and Raleigh are viable alternatives.
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).