A trip this week out to Glenwood Springs, Colorado, brought both pleasant surprise and disappointment. Upon my arrival – a trip that sandwiched a turbulent plane ride between a total of eight hours of driving in blizzard conditions – I discovered that Glenwood Springs is home to a gorgeous, natural hot springs. On my way in I saw the large outdoor facility, the hot water steaming in the cool evening air. While it was closed by the time my Curbside Chat was over, I resolved to get up early the next day and pay a visit and have a little bit of relaxation (something I shared by phone with The Final Edit, who was very jealous). The next day, I was disappointed to discover that the facility closes six times a year for cleaning and, yes, while I had only a 1.6% chance of that being the day, it in fact was. I guess it provides me yet another reason to visit a city that I found very enjoyable.

Enjoy this week’s news.

  • Just a reminder that today at 12:00 noon, Central time, we’ll be having an informal Q&A chat over on the Strong Towns Network. You provide the Q and I’ll do my best to provide the A. Everyone is invited.
  • Before my trip to Colorado, I did an interview with a reporter from the Aspen Daily News. While I have a high regard for reporters (I’m married to one, so I think I am contractually obligated to say that), finding a local reporter who really gets what we are doing is a hit or miss proposition. Well, Nelson Harvey not only conducted a good interview, he did an excellent job of summarizing the Strong Towns message for his readers. Feel free to pass this article on to others that need to be introduced to our work.

Marohn is not the first person to critique American sprawl — the outspoken novelist James Howard Kunstler has practically made a career of the practice with his blog, Clusterf*#k Nation, and the book “The Geography of Nowhere.”

Yet Marohn’s analytical, number crunching approach sets him apart, and the reforms he’s calling for seem more practical and commonsensical than revolutionary. 

“We are not accounting for future costs when we build things today, and we are overly optimistic about the cost of things,” he said.

  • The Western Planner this week featured an article by Jim Bacon that, while not as easy a read as the last one, will give you a lot of background on efforts to change how municipal finance is done. Cities are in a lot of financial trouble and it is really helpful to now have more and more voices intelligently sharing this message.

Local governments seemingly face a grim long-term prognosis. Employee health care costs are rising with no let-up in sight. Maintenance costs are mounting as roads, buildings and pipes wear out. Pension obligations are surging as near-zero interest rates depress financial returns on retirement-fund investments.

There is no one to come to the rescue. The gridlocked federal government is challenged with its own national debt and annual deficits. The states, collectively speaking, are in little better shape. Other than instances in which the first name of the state happens to be “North” and the last “Dakota,” local governments cannot count on an economic resurgence to bail them out.

For the foreseeable future, local governments are on their own. But as surprising as it may sound, that’s actually a good thing. Necessity, as the old saw goes, is the mother of invention. Local government is ripe for reinvention – and planners have a key role to play.

  • In the rumor department, a high profile, and highly competent name, has been floated to fill a key position in NYC. I have no idea what the future will hold for Mitch Silver and, while we’re very good professional friends and allies, I have never spoken to him about his next moves. Still, for any city looking to recruit the best of the best, his name would need to be on the top of that list. Not a job I would ever want, but I wish Mitch luck if this is where he wants to go.
  • Nate Hood….wow. I thought this was a very powerful – and dead on – post calling for a change in approach on what should be a landmark project in the state of Minnesota, a new office building on the capitol grounds.

The Senate building is next to a transit station, but it does not have an active streetscape. Even worse, the accessory parking structure takes up prime, developable land near the station that could be used for hundreds of better uses. In other words, we have spent $1.1 billion on a light rail line that aims to promote transit ridership, walkability, density and urbanism; yet the same people who helped approved the line have also decided to build a parking garage that doesn’t acknowledge the transit station’s existence.

The City of St. Paul and Metropolitan Council have been good at standing up for urbanism along University Avenue. However, this being a State project, exempted from most zoning and building code, the designers of this building have opted to ignore the context of the code’s intention [UrbanMSP].

This is bad planning. No. Correction: this is embarrassing planning.

  • As of right now, next week’s podcast is going to feature Gracen Johnson. Many of you have remarked how she provides a fresh, and welcome, addition to what you typically find here at Strong Towns. I agree, and I’m very excited that she’s agreed to be a bigger part of what we are doing. Here’s her latest project from her site, Another Place for Me.

 

Boarnet argues that one branch of the Interstate Highway System should have been reserved entirely for intercity roads. These would be highways running through remote areas with cheap land and sparse populations, so it would make sense to prioritize traffic flow and vehicle capacity. Paying for this branch with a pooled fuel tax would also make sense, because the benefits of low-cost transport and trade redound on everyone.

The other branch of the system would be made up of intracity roads, those running within the city limits. Given the high cost of land and density of population in cities, creating sufficient road capacity and swift vehicle flow would become a pipe dream, so the wiser aim would be transport balance. The logical way to finance these roads, given the great demand for space on them, would be with direct user fees — ideally priced to reduce congestion.

  • Of course, the transition to a transportation system that makes sense is going to come with a cost (that’s kind of the point, after all – to actually acknowledge the cost). This week a Chicago suburb demonstrated what we’ve long predicted will be part of this transition: governments walking away from obligations, this time by essentially giving roads back to residents to maintain themselves. Don’t act shocked – this is only the start, and in an affluent area, no less. At least they are acknowledging that they can’t afford it, not simply borrowing to the hilt to pretend they can and then just watching it all decline (which is the strategy of most local governments).

Many Chicago suburbs are still struggling to bounce back from the Great Recession with as few disruptions to services as possible, leading to the imposition of various new fees and taxes. But in Long Grove, where officials say they no longer can afford that most basic of public services — maintaining roads — an unusual plan to address the shortfall has set off a storm of controversy.

Facing an annual funding gap of more than $1 million, Long Grove trustees have twice in recent months affirmed a plan that could privatize nearly half of the village's public roads — transferring the cost of upkeep and plowing to the residents in the process.

  • Finally, while this certainly has the feel of a commercial, I couldn’t help being drawn to it (and then sharing it here). Glow in the dark sidewalks – simply brilliant.

Enjoy your weekend, everyone. We’ll see you at the chat today at noon and then back here bright and early Monday morning for more. Yes, all is right with the world. I'm loving 2014 already.