I am leaving the family behind and heading out of town this weekend to a place I have not been since the spring of 2001, that being New Orleans. I am preparing myself for it to be quite different than the last time I was there. I'm not much of an experimenter when it comes to food, but on my last visit I fell in love with anything blackened, so this time I'll be looking for more of the native food. My trip is work, not pleasure, and I'm hoping to be able to reveal some of the details here next week. If you are going to be in New Orleans this weekend, give me a Tweet and we'll see if we can connect.

Enjoy this week's news:

  • It is powerful feedback when you hear your ideas taken and then independently put in a local context, as was the case with this strong editorial by Mike Gainor in the Pine City Pioneer. We held a Curbside Chat in Pine City back in September that was well attended, apparently including Gainor in the audience. We are so happy there is continued discussion there in Pine City and look forward to getting back there soon. Great article!

What the folks at Strong Towns believe is simple: the way cities and towns have been creating developments and infrastructure creates a short-term cash flow for the city, but in the end it costs more to maintain than it generates in return. Once maintenance costs start kicking in, the true price of the new growth becomes apparent. Cities and towns have been banking on endless growth, paying for today’s bills 20 or 30 years from now, but the cycle can’t be sustained forever. Once the economy slows, or the maintenance bills simply become too much, the city faces stark choices of slashing services, raising taxes, or both.

What it came down to for me was this: we have been building a lot of infrastructure as a city. The question is, how are we going to pay to keep it working?

  • Also, Professor David Levinson -- one of my favorite profs from graduate school at the University of Minnesota -- mentioned our series on cost/benefit analyses on his blog, The Transportationist. Professor Levinson, like me, is a civil engineer with a planning streak and so we always seemed to understand each other better than most of the others around us. I highly recommend his blog, which you can also subscribe to through Facebook.
  • Transportation for America, an organization we share a lot of common thought with, has been doing the "rah-rah" parade for TIGER II projects. A lot of community activists believe that more spending will solve our problems. Overlooking the fact that more spending is not likely to happen anytime soon and so some reality is in order, more spending on the current model is a losing proposition. We need rail, yes, and we need more transportation revenue but it has to be in a context that builds Strong Towns. It was sadly amusing to me that, in their cheerleader role, T4A seems to have forgotten that it was the railroad that made Staples in the first place, but the current development model that made it less than "whole".

“Finances for projects like this are almost overwhelming for us at the local level,” said Nelsen. “To give you some idea, the money from the federal grant was equivalent to ten years of our local tax levy. Without state and federal funds, we’d never be able to afford this project.”

And without those federal funds to support innovative projects like this one, Staples would still be a city divided by their transportation system, rather than a city becoming whole again.

  • In my Congressional District, Minnesota's 8th, we booted out the darling of the transportation lobby, James Oberstar (in fact, there was one story on how he had only one single campaign contribution from his district, the rest coming from fundraising outside). There are a lot of infrastructure advocates outside the 8th District that are perplexed by this -- many simply blame an angry, uninformed electorate that would seemingly harm itself by throwing out the guy who brought home the cash, others are even worse calling the district a "wasteland" that is "one continuous Federal highway project" -- but this is the same place that elected him by huge margins for decades and, even in the current election, went solidly for his party, the Democratic Farm Labor. Elections are complex, but I think that at least part of the reason why Oberstar was vulnerable was that, as we argued this week with the Staples overpass project, the grand bargain of pork spending is losing its allure.

[David] Schultz [of Hamline University] said this could have implications for Minnesota, especially the 8th Congressional District.

“It’s huge,” he said. “I like to jokingly tell people that every piece of asphalt in Duluth has Oberstar’s name on it.”

A sampling of some of the recent funding Oberstar secured includes $6.1 million for Duluth International Airport, $7 million to build a bridge over I-35, $5.5 million for the Great River Road Project in the state’s western region, and $2.3 million for the Paul Bunyan Trail, the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway and the Paul Bunyan Trail Bridge.

In short, earmarks were an imperfect and ad hoc form of industrial policy. Unlike many other nations, the U.S. federal government never pursued a coordinated industrial policy in the decades after World War II. Opponents of industrial policy ultimately won the argument, but important voices on the Iron Range argued in support of just such a coordinated federal plan to support the vital steel industry and the iron mines.

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell says banning pork-barrel projects known as "earmarks" from congressional legislation is more complicated than it appears but that he is willing to consider such a ban.

McConnell says that ending the common practice of slipping funding requests for home-state projects into legislation won't cut spending.

  • My hometown of Brainerd is what we call here in Minnesota a "charter city", which means it operates under its own home-rule parameters. This has provided for all kinds of odd ballot initiatives (most memorably, a law allowing Sunday liquor failed by one vote about a decade ago). Currently, Brainerd residents are responsible for the cost of sidewalks adjacent to their property. Following this election, that cost passes largely to the city government. I know residents have fought the installation of sidewalks, and lobbied to have them removed, because sidewalks increase their assessment amount. It is not clear to me, however, that the city will have the vision to be pro-sidewalk where they need to be if the money comes out of their general fund.

Previously, a property owner was required to pay 100 percent of the costs of sidewalk repair or construction. With the approval of the City Charter amendment, the percentage determination will be up to the city council, depending on the particular project. The proposed charter amendment doesn't include the construction of new sidewalks in new developments but if the council requires a new sidewalk to be constructed in an area that doesn't have sidewalks, the charter amendment would apply.

  • I love the Daily Yonder, but this article on farm subsidies and food quality makes no sense to me. I have just four words: High Fructose Corn Syrup.

If the feds eliminated ALL farm subsidies, we would actually eat MORE calories. How's that? Well, the federal government limits importation of sugar and that raises the price of some foods while decreasing consumption. Get rid of the restrictions and we'd eat more, cheaper food.

  • Regarding agriculture, an interview with a former oil executive indicating that we will be at $300 per barrel gasoline within years contained this interesting quote on how our food consumption habits will change. I'm a  consumer of High Fructose Corn Syrup in the Mountain Dew variety and I suspect my transition to a more native diet may be a painful one.

And what we have to keep in mind is that oil is particularly useful in the transportation sector—starting with airplanes and boats and going on to trucks and trains and cars. About 97 percent of transportation depends on oil. So when we talk about oil production slowing down and reversing, you’re talking about a huge cost to the transportation sector. For instance, right now we don’t worry about winter when we go to the supermarket—you get a head of cabbage or lettuce, but it will say: “Grown in California.”

So, we’ll have to grow an awful lot of food locally, and perhaps even change our diet a bit to use more root vegetables that can be stored, as opposed to eating so many things that are perishable. That’s just one example of how peak oil will change our way of life.

  • Years ago, long before I was a father of two little girls, I played drums in a band and got to share the stage with a really fun group from New Orleans called Rockin' Dopsie, Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters. There is absolutely no chance they would remember me, but I may have to burn my Zydeco CD into my iPod before I board that plane to Norlens, if only for the memories. Enjoy some fun music and, most of all, enjoy your weekend.

 

Join our conversation by leaving a comment or join us for more Strong Towns content on Facebook and Twitter. If you are interested in having the Strong Towns message brought to your community, sign up for a Curbside Chat and we'll make plans to get together in a town near you.