Tagged governance

All the ways we subsidize growth

Over at streets.mn, I reflect on a recent event I attended, ““Kicking the Habit: Unsustainable Economic Growth” that featured streets.mn contributor Chuck Marohn delivering his Strong Towns message.  I focus on one issue that is featured prominently in the Strong Towns narrative: intergovernmental transfer payments which subsidize growth and potentially hide the true cost of development.

In Minnesota, we build roads really well. If you look at the metro area, we’ve created a system where despite wide differences in job and housing density, commute times are virtually the same whether you live in Dahlgren Township or Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis. We also have a semi-famous regional government that makes connection to the same wastewater system easy, no matter where you are in a 7-county region that includes both farms and skyscrapers. All these things (and more) are made possible by shared resources, often collected from one area or community type, and sent to another with a different character. Somehow we’ve determined that this is a good thing (for ease of access, equity, environmental protection, political will, etc) As I listened to Chuck I thought, “you’d really have to remake how local governments interact if you wanted to promote (or even test) the idea that our “most productive places” should be differentiated from our least productive.

I won’t attempt to figure out how this can be done. But I think it’s valuable to think about all these “transfer payments”. There are more than most people ever think about. So, here goes:

Read the rest.

A challenge to the market-oriented urbanists

Arlington_Aerial

Josh Barro, over at City Journal, makes some good points about the real contribution of subsidies to the auto/transit war.  However, I’m disappointed that this is yet another example of “market-oriented urbanists” (MOUs) admiring the problem without proposing a solution.  Barro, like others before, posits that local political decisions about planning and zoning laws are standing in the way of market operations which would achieve beneficial results for us all.  If only we would just change the dang zoning, dense housing would rise, rents would fall and transit would become a more attractive travel mode (in this world there are few, if any, externalities of dense development, a position we’ll take as given for the rest of this post).

Understanding the impacts of restrictive zoning on rents is important. But every time I read one of these change-the-zoning posts, I can’t help feeling that I’m watching the discovery of a concept (densifying urban areas) that smart growth advocates and planning students have known and been advocating for a very long time.  Clarence Perry dreamed up the “Neighborhood Unit” in 1929 in an attempt to address the nation’s rising automobility and associated externalities (the Neighborhood Unit called for at least ten units per acre). There may be more market demand now for dense, transit- (or stuff)-oriented development, but the issues are the same.

More calls for density based on market forces, fine.  But what almost every single one of these articles seems to lack is any robust exploration of how zoning rules are adopted, enforced, and changed and what exactly the author proposes as an alternative.  Barro, after spending eight paragraphs detailing auto vs. transit subsidies, says “Cities should allow dense development…but locals tend to oppose greater housing density.”  Solution? None given.  Barro states, “A much smarter approach…allow looser urban zoning”.  Got your fairy wand ready for waving?  Me neither.  I haven’t yet read Matt Yglesias’s “The Rent is Too Damn High”, probably the pinnacle of pundit-driven, change-the-zoning rallying cries, but every reference to it I read talks about “regulatory framework” not public process or neighborhood preferences.  Do away with parking minimums, unrestrict maximum heights, reduce setbacks.  All fine. What’s the roadmap? How will Yglesias, Barro or Lee move these changes through the court of local landowner public opinion?  The public process piece is mostly overlooked.

Zoning laws are made by men and women and enforced by same, often times by existing landowners who are risk- and change-averse.  How often has this scene played out across America: 1) Developer buys property 2) Developer decides that in order to make profit, he/she must build something that is larger than zoning allows 3) He/she goes to neighborhood board/zoning board to ask for rezoning or variance 4) Neighbors howl that the building is too tall/will generate too much traffic 5) Zoning board caves or developer backs out 6) Project doesn’t get built or is downsized.  The other process to change local zoning happens like this: 1) City decides to update their comprehensive plan (and zoning to implement) 2) A public process occurs and 3) density is usually restricted in some or many places to less than the market might bear (especially in existing single-family neighborhoods). This is how zoning law gets made in America.  There is no single authority, no dusty bureaucrat simply refusing to pull the magic zoning lever that will unleash the benevolent market forces.  Its individual homeowners and developers showing up at public meetings, testifying, and sitting on advisory boards.  Its elected city councils voting based on the feelings of their (loudest) constituents.  Future residents don’t typically have much of a voice.  This is local democracy in action.

Do the MOUs suggest making land use authority more regional and less local as Yglesias hints at in his NYT interview?  They will encounter some strong resistance from some other “libertarians”.  Do they suggest some changes to the local public process used to adopt/change zoning rules?  If so, I haven’t read any detailed proposals yet.  Andres Duany, famous architect and urban planner (and not someone I would classify as a MOU), has proposed citizen juries, but I’m not aware of many other proposals.  Do they propose abolishing some or all local land use authority and process?  They will likely meet strong resistance from all sides, conservative and liberal alike.

So my challenge to the MOUs is this: stop writing about rent-spiraling zoning.  We get it, in some places developers can’t build as tall as they want/rents are too high.  This is the easy part.  Start writing about public process.  What changes do you propose to local government decision-making processes that would speed development and/or make the costs and benefits of planning and zoning decisions (especially the long-term ones) more plain?  This is the hard part.  Public sector planners have been working on it for quite some time, and haven’t really come up with a great solution yet.  We could use your help.

Update: Josh Barro has in fact proposed some solutions, to which he pointed me.  I don’t find any of these particularly realistic, except perhaps moving towards more rental (which is still a long shot).  None of these are process solutions either, more like total structural shifts.  He actually mentions abolishing local land use authority which I mention above, but ultimately talks himself out of it.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge

David Levinson (The Transportationist) on the proposed Stillwater bridge to Wisconsin:

I think building a four lane bridge to replace a two lane bridge does not fully count as “preservation”, but rather as “expansion”. Given the state of the network, and the need to give priority to preservation, a four lane bridge violates that principal. As to whether a four lane bridge passes a B/C test, or better yet, a market test of whether a private firm would build it, the answer is clearly no. This four-lane bridge would not have enough demand to pay the tolls required to fund it. That should tell you something about its true necessity. The Franken article cited above suggested Wisconsin wasn’t interested in funding it. Since the majority of benefits for the bridge accrue to Wisconsin land owners, it makes no sense for Minnesota to lead on this.

Indeed.

Legislative Auditor: To Improve Transit Governance, Met Council Should Have Elected And Appointed Members

The Legislative Auditor has released a report, Governance of Transit in the Twin Cities Region, that recommends the Metropolitan Council be restructured to include both appointed members and local elected officials serving staggered terms. According to the report, local electeds would provide accountability, while staggered terms would provide institutional knowledge and “stability in strategic vision”.

Having a combination of local elected and appointed officials would provide the Council with an effective mix of regional and local perspectives. Additionally, having local elected officials on the Council would increase its credibility and accountability with transit stakeholders in the region. Option 2 would also enable the Council to implement regional priorities and provide continuity among its membership for ongoing initiatives.

I find the report to be a little too negative about directly electing Met Council representatives, claiming that it would not “promote consideration of regional perspectives”. Of course, this only applies if all members are elected from small districts, rather than at-large. I also fail to see how local elected officials can be seen to be less parochial than at-large elected members. The report notes that the Portland Metro is composed entirely of directly elected members, and we all know how poorly they do transit governance out there.

The good news from the report:

When compared with 11 peer regions around the country, transit in the Twin Cities region performed favorably. For example, in 2008, the Twin Cities region’s transit system performed better than most of its peers on efficiency measures, including subsidy per passenger and operating costs per passenger. The Twin Cities region also compared favorably when evaluating service-use measures, such as passengers per hour and passenger miles per mile of service.

An Elected Met Council? A Met Council Of Electeds?

The new chair of the Metropolitan Council was sworn in last week, and her first week on the job was accompanied by a flurry of suggestions about how to improve the Met Council and it’s policies.  Commentary by Dave Van Hattum and Jim Erkel is particularly persuasive to me, calling for focusing more growth along transit corridors and maintaining a focus on building and enhancing transitways.

Many critiques of the Council include some variation on the idea that the current composition, only individuals appointed by the Governor, is not adequate.  Many think the Council would be more transparent or responsive if it’s members were elected.  This seems to be a perennial issue, and was argued about even during the formation of the Council in 1967A Minneapolis proposal suggests the a majority of the Council members should be local elected officials, like mayors, council members, and county commissioners. Read more