Friday News Digest


I had an amazing night last night with some very cool New Urbanists from Dallas, Forth Worth and the nearby areas. Our Curbside Chat was in the Texas Theater, the location where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested hours after the assassination of JFK. (I even sat in the seat he was sitting in, just 'cause it was there.) Not only was the Chat well received but participants had some great local stories and interpretations to add to the mix. And to top it off, they are starting a local NextGen chapter. Thank you, CNU-NTX for making me feel so at home.

Next stop: Austin, where I am informed they have already maxed out their capacity with people who have RSVP'd. I'm really excited to head down there and see what I've been told is a gorgeous town.

Until then, enjoy the week's news: 

  • This past Wednesday I testified at the Minnesota State Capitol giving legislators from the House Property and Local Tax Division a modified Curbside Chat presentation. I had fairly low expectations going in, largely because I've been to the Capitol before and seen how legislators suffer through hours of testimony by frequently zoning it out ("multitasking" would be the positive spin you would put on reading the newspaper, replying to emails and playing solitaire, all while someone is providing testimony). It was really fantastic to not only hold their attention for nearly two hours but to see the bipartisan interest in the Strong Towns message. If you can suffer through some bad audio, this week on the podcast we've uploaded my testimony and then also the fascinating Q&A that followed. I left feeling optimistic.

Thank you to Sally Wakefield of Envision Minnesota for passing on this photo. 

  • Then on Thursday, I had five separate people forward me an article by the League of Minnesota Cities that called the Curbside Chat report "controversial". I must admit that made me really angry. Provocative? Sure. Thought-provoking? No doubt. Pushing boundaries? I can accept that. So explain to me what is "controversial" about a dozen legislators from both parties staying after a long hearing to talk and ask questions? I've delivered the Curbside Chat presentation to well over a thousand people, it has been downloaded by well over 10,000, I've had dozens of radio, television and print interviews and through it all the only ones I've ever seen use the label "controversial" is the League of MN Cities. What makes the report controversial? Is it because we reveal what is actually going on or is it simply because we don't call for an increase in Local Government Aid? This all makes me really upset because cities need to hear this message. If the largest group representing them is going to cavalierly tell their members the Curbside Chat is "controversial", they are dong a massive disservice to the entire state. This needs to be corrected.
  • Thank you to Colin Broderick with the DT106ers for passing on my TEDx talk to your neighbors in Ireland. I'm really honored that you would be reading our stuff from overseas. You analysis of the local example of the square in Dublin was right on. Thanks so much.
  • There have been quite a few people that passed along this article from an executive in Oakland County, MI, who extolled his love for "sprawl". My friends, we have no need to suffer fools. We understand how the Growth Ponzi Scheme creates the illusion of wealth as near term cash advantages are exchanged for long term financial obligations. Let's not waste our time with such ill-informed drivel; there's too much to do in our own communities to get bogged down. Reality will come to bear too soon for all of us, and then we'll actually need some pity for this guy instead of outrage. Stay focused.

"Sprawl" is the  unfortunate pejorative title government planners give to economic development that takes place in areas they can't control. In reality, "sprawl" is new houses, new school buildings, new plants, and new office and retail facilities.  "Sprawl" is new jobs, new hope and the fulfillment of lifelong dreams. It's the American Dream unfolding before your eyes.

  • Jefferson County, AL, is often thought of as an outlier -- an extreme example of corruption and malfeasance -- and that is used to dismiss their current financial problems. The more I learn about their situation, the less I'm comfortable with that explanation. The story here is really just how financially ridiculous our pattern of growth is and how fragile it makes our local governments in time. The only thing that makes Jefferson County an outlier is that the corruption and malfeasance allowed them to drive the car off the cliff that much quicker. I could quote multiple parts of this article in the NY Times, so read the entire thing with Strong Towns eyes and see for yourself how there really is not that much difference between them and other communities across the country.

Jefferson County began to borrow vast sums of money, but that money, it turned out, was a perfect medium for graft and contract-padding. Rather than replacing more than 2,000 miles of decrepit sewer pipes, the county dispensed contracts to build water treatment plants, pumping stations and administrative buildings, some on slag heaps left behind by closed steel mills.

All this debt was supposed to be paid off with revenue from the new sewer system — in other words, by fees the county would charge residents whose homes were hooked up to the system. As the debt grew, so did those fees — and the public outcry. By 2002, the average sewer bill in the county had doubled, to $18 a month.

One thing led to another. In an attempt to expand the system and add new ratepayers, the county tried to bore a giant tunnel beneath the Cahaba River, Birmingham’s main source of drinking water. But the tunnel was so unstable that the endeavor was abandoned. The county spent millions just to extract the boring machine, which had become entombed underground.

“That cost $19 million,” Mr. Young told the bond analysts. “Now it’s called ‘the Tunnel to Nowhere.’ ”

  • Over at our Facebook page this week, we were asked by Max Seigel to report what kind of printer we have. I thought that was an odd question, until he followed up with his analogy, which was fantastic. I pass it along here:

When I bought my computer, it came with a printer costing me no more than $20. At the time I thought “Sweet, free printer!” But since using the printer, I’ve had to frequently purchase ink costing $60 a pop. Over the life-cycle of the printer, I’ve realized I’ve spent more in the printer and ink combined than had I purchased a laser printer costing $250. The upfront costs of a more expensive printer are significant, as is the toner, but I would end up paying less than the subsidized printer in the long run. In other words, I was seduced by the free machine that ended up costing me a lot of money.

Here is the connection to Strong Towns. Federal and State subsidized projects are like the $20 printer. Initially communities think “Sweet, free bridge.” But, once you figure the cost of keeping the bridge in working order, it turns out to be a major expense for communities. This is an expense that if a community couldn’t fund the bridge to begin with, likely wouldn’t have the wherewithal to maintain.

Solution: Purchase the bridge (printer) at full cost, without a subsidy. If you can do that, then you can likely afford the cost of maintenance (ink).

  • If you've felt that spring in your step lately it is likely because this week is National Engineers Week. I really would like one of these shirts so I can "tell the world" that "engineers can save the environment". Too bad I don't have the shirt here in Texas so I could tell that to the world as I drive over the High Five. I'll just have to wait until I get back to Minnesota, where someday I can drive over the federally-"protected" St. Croix river on a new, $700 million bridge. Engineers can save the environment, sure. You'll just have to pay them more (and they won't actually save it, but you'll feel better about yourself).

  • I read this article in my local newspaper and was alarmed when I got to the last paragraph where it suggested that the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities was calling for economic development spending in the form of $35 million for building highway interchanges in rural Minnesota. I knew that had to be wrong, so I went to the Coalition's website. Nope, they were quoted correctly. They want the legislature to borrow $35 million to spend building interchanges in rural areas. I wonder if the League of Minnesota Cities finds that proposal controversial? I think the bill should be called the "Walmart/Quik Stop/Mc Donalds Subsidy Act of 2012". It is this antiquated, 1950's mentality that is bankrupting small towns all over this country.
Approximately $35 million in trunk highway bonding for interchange projects in greater
Minnesota where the interchange will promote economic development, increase employment
and improve public safety.  No project specifically earmarked.  Repeal of Motor Vehicle Sales Tax exemption for collector cars will provide the revenue needed to pay for debt service on the
trunk highway bonds.
  • This week at the legislature, I did make the case for a land tax to replace the property tax, specifically in areas where we have made large public investments in sewer and water infrastructure. When I got back to the office, my colleague Justin Burslie asked for more explanation and we decided to shoot my response as some bonus video for the Strong Towns Network. I say "bonus" because right now the curriculum is focusing on infrastructure, not taxation. We'll be switching to zoning next month and transportation after that. If you want to get this type of stuff everyday, as well as interact with lots of people working to implement a Strong Towns approach, come over and join us.

  • The most amazing thing about elevated highway removal is how it costs far, far less money than replacement while simultaneously creating all kinds of value for adjacent neighborhoods. You spend less to get more -- it is an amazingly high-return investment. This article touches on a few examples, including one here in Dallas. In fact, if you are in the Dallas area next month (which I won't be -- too bad), Patrick Kennedy of Walkable DFW will be presenting facts and figures about a potential highway teardown in Fort Worth. The numbers will "blow your mind," he said, and I totally believe him.

For example: Since 1959, San Franciscans had to deal with the elevated Embarcadero Freeway cutting then off from the city’s eastern waterfront (and ruining their view of the Ferry Building). Nonetheless, voters kept rejecting plans to tear it down—until 1989, when an earthquake damaged it beyond repair and forced the city to consider alternatives.

Now instead of an elevated highway, the Embarcadero is a six-lane boulevard flanked by pedestrian walkways 25 feet wide. There are street lights, palm trees and waterfront plazas. Thousands of residential units have gone up, increasing the housing stock by over 50 percent, and jobs in the area have grown by nearly a quarter. The Ferry Building now contains a farmer’s market and retail shops. Neighborhoods in the immediate vicinity have seen a revival, whether they the freeway used to isolate them directly (Rincon Hill) or simply held back the entire area from flourishing (South Beach).

  • While I'm really excited to get Minnesota Twins baseball back into my life (although Twins fans need to be more than concerned about Justin Morneau), I'm enjoying watching the Timberwolves play some feisty basketball as of late. While I was packing for this trip to Texas, I was able to catch the big comeback and last second win against the Jazz this past Wednesday. If you haven't checked them out this year, you should. They are a lot of fun.

Take care, everyone. See you back here on Monday for (I think) the last chapter of our "from the mayor's office" post.

 

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