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Friday
May042012

Friday News Digest

This travel thing has gone a little too far now. After spending two days in Washington DC this week and then a day in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I'm now on a plane headed back to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. Just about three hours of sleep last night followed by a 90 minute drive to the airport meant that I did not have the time or the stamina to finish the FND this week before take off. I never thought I would be one of "those people", but here I am logged in at 30,000 feet putting this together while flying over flyover country. I'm going to take a few weeks off from traveling here after CNU before I wind up buying one of those pillows people wrap around their necks to sleep on the plane (and don't tell me they work -- I don't care, they look ridiculous).

Enjoy the week's news.

  • My favorite website link this week comes from the state of Washington and a site called the San Juan Islands Ferry Group. The author of the piece, Adrienne Adams, blogs about life on these remote (and seemingly beautiful) islands, connected to the mainland U.S. by ferry, pointing out how fragile this existence can be if infrastructure becomes more precarious in the future. I love the insights and appreciate you sharing our stuff with others.

As we are seeing all too clearly now, our projections about how much debt we could incur, and our ability to finance that debt, have been wildly exaggerated. Transportation bonds are completely tapped out, yet we will be paying debt service on them for decades. The mechanism designed to pay that debt service (primarily gas tax revenues) are far short of what had been projected when the bonds were issued — and falling. We not only do not have enough money to build planned new transportation projects, we do not have enough money to maintain what infrastructure we already have.

  • The website Memphis Que is one I've run into before as they have frequently referred to our site. When I've gone there, I've been confused because the site is seemingly about the famous Memphis BBQ scene. After the recent Curbside Chat in Memphis I met the author of this blog and found out the truth; in Memphis sharing a BBQ is a fantastic opportunity to explore many deeper conversations. This is a really quirky site, but this recounting of the Memphis Chat is the best I have heard of what went on.

It's frighteningly easy to get a giant pile of money from Washington to do something really expensive and stupid. No one pays any attention to really smart ideas that don't involve a lot of money changing hands. The only thing central planning seems to actually do well is spread and institutionalize ideas so bad that they can only survive when shielded from common sense.

  • In Harrisburg, PA, where I spoke last night, they are notorious for their massive incinerator project, a debt that may ultimately bankrupt one or more local governments. This type of swing-for-the-fences approach is what results from combining a development pattern that results in insolvency with a culture that expects silver bullet solutions and local governments that have the capacity to borrow incomprehensible amounts of money. As an alternative approach, I introduced them to the concept of economic gardening, something that they are also now talking about in Memphis as well.

Showing a slide of a new fast food restaurant alongside a slide of a row of businesses in a visibly older street front, Marohn produced tax revenue figures showing the row generates more revenue in its most decrepit state than the new restaurant specializing in tacos does in its new condition.

He then turned again to the Broad Avenue district where Marohn heard rents have gone up 50 percent with the recent activity.

“I guarantee you there is no taco joint on the edge of town that will have a 50 percent increase in value even if we pave the roads with gold,” he said.

  • The blog NA Confidential, which focuses on New Albany, quoted my TEDx talk in a piece they ran this past week. I'm continually impressed with the fantastic analysis of our ideas and their brilliant extension to other areas of the country (and, in some cases, the world). Here is just another example -- great job NA Confidential.

Anyone advocating on behalf of the Ohio River Bridges Project or just about any other massive, in-town road (rather than street) building project under the guise of economic development, social good, or the free market is simply ignorant - and perhaps purposefully so - of our history, both impetuses and outcomes. They are rallying in favor of debt, the unneeded and unwise prostration of locals to volatile international financial markets, and a model that extracts rather than enhances the value of place for a majority of regional citizens.

  • This week, Matt Johnson of Greater Greater Washington joined me in being critical of the engineering marvel that is the Diverging Diamond Interchange. For a city -- Washington DC -- that is perhaps the finest this country has to offer in terms of neighborhood design, it is really bizarre what they are doing along their periphery. Johnson does a great job breaking down the hidden assumptions of the DDI and how they are ultimately incompatible with building strong neighborhoods.

Building walkable communities and complete streets has to be more than an engineer running down an accommodation checklist. If we're trying to create a neighborhood where walkability is a primary goal, then pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users have to be a top priority, not just get the leftover road space and the bare minimum listed in the design guide.

  • None of this talk seems to have dampened Springfield, Missouri's obsession with the diverging diamond. They are pursuing an extension of a sales tax increase to fund, among other projects, another DDI. They are selling the spending to the public as a way to leverage yet more state and federal dollars, an obvious local win because we all know these improvements will last forever and, if they don't, the state and federal government will be there to assist in maintaining them in the future. What could go wrong?

“Rather than sitting in the bank drawing interest, we think we can put (the tax money) to use,” Broyles said.

The city plans to spend about $6 million in local funds overall, he said, but expects to get more than three times that much work done thanks to cost-sharing agreements with the county and state.

More after we land.... 

I'm just going to add one more thing because I'm going to buy this book ASAP.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

 

See everyone back on Monday. Next week is CNU 20 -- I'm so excited!

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Reader Comments (5)

Try Wrap-a-Nap instead - it's the next generation of neck pillow.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Chuck,
That DDI outside DC is in Prince George's County, MD, the county I live in. Though we found a beaut of a home, literally a block from the district, just off an old streetcar line that ran up and down Rhode Island Ave./Rt. 1 (in MD) for 10's of thousands less than we would pay on a similar home anywhere else (100's of thousands less than the district), we almost didn't buy it simply b/c the taxes in PG County are the highest (or 2nd highest) taxes anywhere around DC. It didn't occur to me then why (pre-Strongtowns), it's all too apparent now. This county has pursued the Growth-Ponzi Scheme with a vengeance for the past half-century, building farther and farther out on cheap land while neglecting the close-in "streetcar" suburbs. Fortunately, it seems, that some of that is, if not reversing, at least slowing down, and the new county executive (who took over from Jack Johnson-Google that name and "corruption" or "FBI" together) seems intent on reinvesting where infrastructure is already in place.
PG County is ripe for the strongtowns message...I guess maybe it's up to us to try and get you here to speak with as many decision makers as we can....assuming you're still up to flying at that point.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterR. Humphrey

R. Humphrey- If you're interested in getting Chuck back to the DC area, please email me at burslie@strongtowns.net. I know that he'd love to come back.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Burslie

Bittersweet day for me today, Chuck. I was happy to get the newest podcast, but sad to find out that you were in Memphis and I had no idea. Would have loved to hear you. Do you have a post about the meetup, the host(s) and the conversation?

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Sorry I missed you, David. I'm hoping to be back there soon.

A couple of things I wrote about Memphis:

http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2012/4/25/guerrilla-painting.html

http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2012/4/27/friday-news-digest-1.html

May 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn
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