Tagged sprawl

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.

The cost of suburban development in Edmonton

The City of Edmonton has completed a study of the long-term fiscal impact of new suburban development.  The results are not good.

Suburban sprawl will cost the City of Edmonton and its taxpayers much more than it provides in revenues.

New neighbourhoods do not pay for themselves, and the financial gap is staggering. Over the next 30 years, just 17 of more than 40 developing and future neighbourhoods will cost the city more than $500 million more than they provide in taxes, user fees and other revenues.

This includes one neighbourhood with a relatively high concentration of commercialindustrial lands, which will provide net revenues over $400 million. If we ignore this one and only look at the planned residential neighbourhoods, the red ink is close to $1 billion.

It gets worse. After the first 30 years, the annual net cost goes up as aging infrastructure needs to be replaced. The net cost rises to over $100 million per year, every year. So the following 30 years will cost us over $3 billion. If you ignored the commercial neighbourhood, over those 30 years the bill would hit almost $4 billion.

I’ve looked, but I can’t seem to find the actually report.  The closest I can come up with is this presentation about the report.  I also can’t seem to view the city’s zoning map because they require some weird SVG viewer.  If anyone else has better luck, let me know.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 6)

The New York Times is highlighting the proposed freeway-style Stillwater bridge in their Room for Debate series.  They are calling it “Bachmann’s Bridge”, even though Senator Al Franken and Governor Dayton both support it.  I suppose since she is now a Republican front-runner she gets the cheers/jeers.

Former Senator Mondale sums things up:

At $700 million, this bridge, the largest and most expensive in Minnesota history, would carry about 18,000 vehicles a day. By comparison, the Interstate-35 bridge in Minneapolis carries more than 10 times the number of vehicles and was a fraction of the cost to build. This bridge would consume nearly all of the available financing in Minnesota to build or repair bridges, leaving almost 1,200 structurally deficient bridges wanting for funds. Both states have endorsed this bridge during Minnesota’s well-publicized state budget shutdown, and without investigating less harmful, less expensive and more sensible alternatives that respect the river, address commuters’ needs, and cost hundreds of millions less to the taxpayer.

Congress should employ its common sense.

I realize my Stillwater bridge series is missing a post on the “Sensible Stillwater Bridge” organization that has started up.  Basically, they are advocating for a lower, slower bridge with three lanes instead of four.  It would supposedly save 60% of the cost of the “boondoggle” bridge.  They don’t have a proper website, but you can see renderings of their proposal on their facebook page.  They also have a twitter account.

I asked the Sensible Bridge Partnership about tolling, and for now, they don’t seem to have an opinion.  I think tolling should be part of any “sensible” plan for a new bridge, and could even be a selling point to skeptical Minnesotans.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 5)

Minnpost interviewed Representative Betty McCollum (whose district does not include the Stillwater bridge).  She has strong feelings about the proposed bridge.

MinnPost: You’ve long been against the plans for a big freeway-style bridge plans south of Stillwater. Is cost your major concern?

Rep. Betty McCollum: Cost should be every Minnesota taxpayer’s concern. Did you know the proposed St. Croix mega-bridge would be the most expensive bridge ever built in Minnesota? This project will cost $700 million and serve 18,000 vehicles the day it opens. Compare that to the $390 million price tag for building BOTH the new Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis and the Lafayette Bridge under construction in downtown St. Paul. The I-35W and Lafayette bridges are used by nearly 300,000 Minnesotans every day.

Based on the facts, the mega-bridge fails every common-sense test of taxpayer value. The mega-bridge wastes taxpayer money, especially when smaller, less-expensive options are available. Stillwater needs and deserves a new bridge, but a $700 million mega-bridge only six miles from the I-94 crossing is both excessive and irresponsible.

MinnPost: How about the environmental concerns?

McCollum: The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is the law of the land. It should be respected, not tampered with, as is being proposed in both the House and Senate legislation. I believe the Stillwater Lift Bridge can be replaced in a way that’s compatible with the letter and spirit of the law. The St. Croix is the only river in Minnesota protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The current design has been litigated and delayed for years and years because it violates the law.

Beyond Minnesota, the mega-bridge sets a new, dangerously low standard that would threaten every mile of every protected river in the national Wild and Scenic River system.

MinnPost: You’ve said that a new bridge would benefit Wisconsin more than Minnesota. How does that work?

McCollum: The estimates I’ve seen show 75 percent of the bridge traffic would be from Wisconsin, while Minnesota taxpayers pay the majority of the costs.

MinnPost: Would a new bridge feed urban sprawl, too?

McCollum: The proposed four-lane, freeway-style mega-bridge is designed to accelerate urban sprawl. But growth at the edges of the metro has come to a screeching halt because of the housing slump and high gas prices. So the bridge is not only poor urban planning, but it’s also out of sync with today’s economic realities. A smaller, appropriately scaled bridge can meet the transportation needs of both Minnesota and Wisconsin residents, regardless of population growth in St. Croix County.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 4)

Yet another view on the proposed Stillwater bridge to Wisconsin.  This time from Micky Cook, a Stillwater city council member in the Pioneer Press.

There are roughly 18,000 commuters who use the Stillwater lift bridge during rush hours on weekdays. The cost of the new bridge is $668 million. Rebuilding the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis cost less than half that amount, $261 million. How can we justify such an outrageous expense in this economy to accommodate a Wisconsin commuter corridor? According to MnDOT, 75 percent of weekday trips are commuters coming from Wisconsin. There already is a major freeway bridge roughly five miles south of the proposed site on Interstate 94 that connects to a network of highways in Wisconsin.

We all know the litany of economic ills we face. Gas prices are approaching an all-time high, a record number of homes are in foreclosure, people have lost their jobs and there is no more local government aid to help municipalities maintain services. The price tag on this project warrants serious discussion. If we do have that kind of money, shouldn’t we use it to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure of existing bridges and roads?

Isn’t this really just another development story? The current contingent pushing hard for a new bridge argues it is for the greatest possible good. We need to ask for whom and at what cost?

Ms. Cook also proposes some alternative solutions to deal with traffic in the area caused by commuters.

What about metering traffic lights or negotiating with the Coast Guard for a change in the lift bridge schedule to reduce the number of times the bridge is lifted during peak times? We could post the lift schedule and ask MnDOT to set up a traffic notice at the I-694 and I-494 interchange off of Highway 36, alerting drivers of bridge delays and redirecting them to alternate routes. We could lobby to make the lift bridge one-way heading west in the morning and eastbound for the afternoon commute. Big employers in the area could provide shuttle services and offer incentives for Wisconsin employees to use it from a Park & Ride on the other side of the river. Stillwater could use reserve officers to direct traffic during critical commute times and on busy summer weekends.

I’m sure there are other traffic control measures that could be implemented. Not all solutions have to cost outrageous sums of money. But it’s not as exciting as building a big new shiny bridge. And it goes without saying, if the lift bridge poses a real safety risk, it should be shut down immediately.

A very cheap traffic control measure not mentioned would be closing the lift bridge to car traffic.  I don’t believe this would have much ill effect on Stillwater, and would quickly solve traffic problems caused by commuters (I think they’d still have a lot of traffic, which is a good thing for downtown).

P.S. I really don’t intend for this blog to be all Stillwater bridge, all the time, I promise.  Things have just been a little busy lately.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 2)

Alex, author of Getting Around Minneapolis, has posted an excellent letter he wrote to his representatives and Governor Dayton about the proposed Stillwater bridge.

Dear Senators Franken and Klobuchar and Governor Dayton,

I’m writing to urge you not to support a new bridge across the St. Croix River near Stillwater.  A new bridge would hugely encourage sprawl, which damages the environmentrequires costly infrastructure such as sewers and roads, and fosters unhealthy automobile-dependent lifestyles.  Furthermore, a new bridge is not necessary, since the I-94 bridge just 5 miles south of Stillwater has a great deal of excess capacity.

Read more

David Brooks: Planners are dreamless robots who STILL don’t understand Americans

Rocky Mountain High
Rocky Mountain High

While usually a sharp-minded critic of those wacky liberals, David Brooks has once again stepped into nonsense land (like when he backed McCain), to take up his occasional habitat of demonizing planners.  His latest editorial stretches to interpret a Pew Research study.  Brooks implies that the economic crisis has planners salivating at the thought of cramming people into high-rise apartments and generally making them enjoy life less, while the Pew study reveals (shockingly) that this is STILL not true!  Americans, in fact, still want it all, especially if it is on the other side of the fence.

Daniel Nairn from Discovering Urbanism says it best:

The trouble with building a case out of survey results of what people want is that, in real life, we cannot always get what we want. There are trade-offs, and the true test of a value system lies in what you are willing to give up to achieve your ideal. Do I want the 6000 sq. ft. palace or a 400 sq. ft. apartment? Uh … I’ll take the palace. I’d like there to be a wilderness preserve surrounding me, and I want to be within a 10 minute trip to healthy grocery stores. It would be nice if I could walk there. And I’m all for social equality and environmental sustainability too.

As Nairn goes on to explain, planners must deal with the world of reality AND the sometimes fantastical desires of its residents, including traffic, property rights disputes, environmental trade-offs and militant interest groups.  Individual desires rarely hold sway in planning decision-making, especially in dense urban areas.

I’ll leave it to others to tell Brooks the obvious, which is that places like Denver, Portland, and Seattle are not bastions of transit-hating, SOV-tripping rural Americans.  These are urban and rapidly urbanizing places.

Some other smart commentary can be had at Joe Urban and Streetsblog, who calls Brooks “the nation’s most famous sprawl apologist”.