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Friday
Jun202014

Friday News Digest

Next week we are having a membership drive AND, in conjunction with that, we have a bunch of things planned for our members. There will be a post later today on that but, if you are already a member, you should have received an email letting you know where to sign up. Don’t worry, we’re going to still have plenty of new content next week (more than this week – sorry, confluence of odd events) but will also be focusing on getting a few more of you to take the plunge. Only 1.5% of our regular monthly readers/listeners are members so we have a lot you yet to reach. Our goal is modest – 50 new members next week – so please help us pass the word and, if you aren’t already signed up, please consider joining us and supporting what we do.

I had a full three days in Washington this week meeting with people in Dayton, Ellensburg and Spokane. We had some great conversations and laid the groundwork for some future action. I was really impressed with the sophistication of the conversation and all the potential that this part of the country holds. It doesn’t hurt that they have one of the best Main Street programs in the country in Washington State either. Thank you to everyone who made that trip possible. I can’t wait to get back.

Enjoy this week’s news.

  • Last week I wrote a post responding to a snarky article about the CNU that appeared in the Buffalo News. That brought a lot of reaction – both positive and critical – and I’ve opted to let it go, focusing my energies on more important things. I wouldn’t be mentioning it now except that Jeff Speck, who unfairly took the brunt of the critique in the original article, wrote a quite intelligent response. Unfortunately, it ran on Streetsblog and not in the Buffalo News (no offense, Streetsblog), two audiences where I suspect there is little overlap (and that’s too bad).

In the Buffalo News’ only prominent review of the event, art critic Colin Dabkowski wrote an “open letter to the New Urbanist movement,” that centered upon a damning critique of my community lecture there and also of my book, Walkable City, which he seems to have read in part.

The thoughts that follow are my response to Dabkowski’s review. The Buffalo News worked with me to craft this article as an Op-Ed for Sunday’s paper. Then, three hours from press time, they demanded that I remove most of my references to  Mr. Dabkowski’s error-loaded text. Not excited by that prospect, I am sharing my comments here instead.

  • I love seeing the Jason Roberts story told in different spaces, this time in the NY Times. What he and Andrew Howard are doing with The Better Block is nothing short of revolutionary. If your city is not (a) trying to hire them or (b) trying to replicate their approach, you are missing out.

He thought about going to the city government. “But in our community we had rendering fatigue. I got fired up to go to City Hall and see if I could take part in reshaping my community. But there are so many processes, so many meetings.”

Roberts decided that the most important issue was getting people to get the tangible sense of what a better neighborhood would be like. “Everybody knows what great places look like and feel like,” he said. “You don’t necessarily need a consultant.”

  • For those of you that are pushing back at me when I cheer for Lyft, Uber, AirBnB and others, I understand that you sleep more soundly believing (trusting) that the government is going to “ensure” that your taxi rides and hotel stays all meet a minimum standard of safety and decorum and that the notion of customers actually providing reviews on their experience would be an inferior system for maintaining quality. So be it. My cheerleading on this has less to do with those that share rides and rent space than with the disruption to the protected classes that control far too much of our economy. To that end, my disgust with the lengths local governments will go to enforce their power and protect the rentier class hit a new low when a man was pulled over for “operating an illegal cab” when he was simply driving his wife to work.

The couple claims that TLC investigators pulled over Keys, a car salesman, because they mistook Palermo, who is biracial, for being white and assumed she was a customer.

“Upon information and belief, when attempting to identify illegally operated taxis, it is the official policy or custom of [the city and the TLC] to instruct its employees to target and single out vehicles operated by minorities with white passengers,” the lawsuit says.

  • The next two stories go together. The first is about traffic lights, one of the most overused devices in America. You can read the first 80% of the article if you want – I found it rather boring – or you can skip to the end and get three paragraphs that hint at a different approach. Next week I’m going to try and get the podcast with Ben Hamilton-Ballie out and, for those of you comfortable with the unnecessary delays and congestion (not to mention safety problems) caused by traffic lights, your minds will be blown.

In some towns where removing the traffic lights has been tried, the results seem to bear Monderman out. They are safer, and traffic still seems to flow. For example, at one intersection where traffic lights were removed, accidents dropped from nine a year to one. But it seems unlikely–at least until cities only allow self-driving cars into them–that most traffic lights will go away.

  • The second shows us that change is going to be really, really difficult if only because we are ridiculous people. In Rochester, MN – a city I’ve found to be generally thoughtful – their professional staff didn’t go all the way to recommend shared space but did find a middle ground by proposing a roundabout instead of a signal. They presented the council with all the data showing how it was a safer and substantially less expensive option. You’ll never guess what the council opted to do. Yes, we are ridiculous people.

"It came down to two issues for us … safety and cost," [Public Works Director Richard Freese] said. The roundabout option would cost $1.7 million, while the traffic signal comes in at $2.2 million. The county will be paying for three-fourths of the cost for the project because it's a county road, but the city then will take over control of the road.

Councilman Michael Wojcik was the only one to vote in favor of the roundabout option, agreeing with city staff on the safety and cost measures.

"We're going to take all this data, and we're going to ignore it," Wojcik said. "We're going to throw away $500,000 … because the signals are familiar."

  • If you are reading this blog, you probably know that I’m no fan of the Washington DC –centric approach to transportation funding. As an advocate for high returning investments such as bike lanes and sidewalks in core neighborhoods served by transit, I have found Washington’s infinite parade of ridiculous highway projects combined with some of the most feeble bike/walk and transit initiatives to be a constant source of blog fodder. While it might force me to work harder, I enthusiastically support a bill that would eventually eliminate federal funding of transportation projects. As soon as urban advocates realize how much they subsidize horrible transportation investments by laundering their taxes through Congress we can make “devolution,” as it is being called, a non-partisan proposition.

  • But Chuck….if the federal government wasn’t involved, how we would ever get transit? How would be get high speed rail? Let me introduce you to Richard Lawless and the Texas Central Railway, an operation that is working to build a PRIVATE high speed line between Dallas and Houston. And I’m guessing that these people are no fools; they are going to acquire all the land around each stop and develop it intensively in conjunction with the construction of the line. No park and rides here. And the value they create with that development will be captured to lower the capital costs of building the line. It’s so simple and brilliant I’m guessing the government transportation monopoly – who will not even consider value capture as a strategy – will need to find a way to make this illegal.

Richard Lawless, who as a C.I.A. officer posted in Tokyo in the 1980s was a frequent Shinkansen passenger, has long found America's failure to embrace high-speed rail "mind-boggling." But today the former Bush administration official is in a position to change things, as chairman and CEO of Texas Central Railway, a private company that plans to link Dallas and Houston with a 200-mile-per-hour bullet train as soon as 2021. The venture just might be high-speed rail's best hope in the United States.

"The project has been progressing below the radar, very quietly, very deliberately, over the last four years plus," says Lawless. It's now undergoing an environmental impact study that will take between two and three years, but Texas Central, whose backers include Japan's JR Central railway, has already conducted its own extensive research. The company, originally called U.S.-Japan High-Speed Rail, looked at 97 possible routes nationwide before concluding that Texas was the ideal place for a high-speed line — and that healthy profits could be made in long-distance passenger rail, a travel mode that for the past 40 years has existed only with the help of massive government subsidies.

  • Here in Minnesota there is another transit line being proposed, this one the old fashioned way. The Bottineau LRT is going to require the removal of dozens of homes and the taking of property from over a hundred property owners – not for value capture – but so that there is still enough room for an unimpeded county highway next to the new line. This is what happens when you let highway engineers design and plan your transit system. Value capture isn’t an option because value is actually being destroyed. From a state that makes a billion dollar investment in the Green Line and then makes it wait for green lights, it is not surprising that there is a lack of imagination in requiring 175-feet of right-of-way for Bottineau. It is all about some dogmatic understanding of commuters with no knowledge about how to truly build wealth in a community. Just look at the layout – yes, this is a serious proposal not unlike the other LRT lines we have built and/or are on the table. It’s park and ride heaven. We need to get the county engineers out of this business ASAP.

Every landowner along a 2-mile stretch would be affected under the Hennepin County proposal to widen W. Broadway and create space for the Bottineau LRT, which would run from Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park. More than two dozen Brooklyn Park homes could be purchased and razed and nearly 100 property ­owners would lose land if the $40 million road expansion happens.

The county’s road plan requires city approval and is critical to creating space for the proposed ­Bottineau LRT route. When the roadwork is complete, the Metropolitan Council would oversee construction of the LRT line in the center median, if federal funding can be secured. Officials hope the line would be operating by late 2019.

  • In Minneapolis – a city that should reject the Southwest LRT line for the same reasons, by the way – is making significant investments in one of the country’s most successful pedestrian malls. I wanted to share this story because (a) Strong Towns contributor Nate Hood is quoted in it and (b) the renderings are cool, then creepy. One of the easy critiques of renderings happens when they don’t show people, and there is no doubt that adding some humanity makes the first glance look a lot better, but when you sit and stare at it for a while it gets really, really creepy. Am I wrong?

  • For those of you still offended by suggestion that we would be better off without federal funding for transportation, understand that I’m not suggesting all states would then miraculously do things wonderfully. They certainly wouldn’t, but I have more of a chance of changing the stupidity out of St. Paul than the stupidity out of D.C. As an example, here is a road in Mankato, MN, that Mn/DOT is looking to turn over the county. It is a low volume road and the county is willing to accept it, but there is one catch. Think we could solve this problem AND save Minnesota taxpayers some money?

Under a proposed deal between the county and the Minnesota Department of Transportation, MnDOT would pay the cost of improving the aged road that stretches from west Mankato to Good Thunder and then transfer ownership to the county, which would be responsible for future maintenance and snowplowing.

MnDOT, however, requires “turn-back” roads to be upgraded to state standards as part of the process. That would mean improving Highway 66 so that it’s designed for speeds of up to 40 mph near Mankato and 60 mph on the straighter, more open segments closer to Good Thunder (even if posted speed limits are lower).

The standards call for the scenic road to  become straighter, wider and faster, even on the north side where it winds along a wooded hillside with steep drops on the east side of the road.

“That’s not what I think most people there want, and I don’t think it fits in,” said Commissioner Mark Piepho of Skyline, whose district includes that stretch of road.

  • Hillsborough County, Florida, is the latest getting taken by Bass Pro. Someone show me a Bass Pro shop built in the last two decades that wasn’t subsidized. These guys are so good at squeezing the most out of places, it is simply amazing. Although we all know how this story ends. I only hope Bass Pro goes public so I can short their stock when the implosion happens. In fact, you’ll know that is near when they actually do go public. I’d say 24-48 months later buying some put options would be a potentially lucrative bet. (Of course, if you could short Hillsborough County that might be an even better bet.)

At one point in 2012, developers and some county politicians backed a deal awarding $15 million in incentives toward the project, arguing that the sheer scale merited support partly because Bass Pro would employ several hundred people and attract millions of shoppers from across the region, thus creating an economic net plus.

That question of incentives triggered a sharp debate about whether local governments should subsidize the development with taxpayer money, particularly as existing retail shops nearby have not only operated for years, but will also find themselves soon competing directly with Bass Pro. Souring the atmosphere a bit, lawyers for Bass Pro at one point threatened to sue an existing fishing gear store in the area, claiming the local store’s logo was too similar to the one that Bass Pro would use in its yet-to-be-built store. When that move went public, Bass Pro executives quickly apologized and withdrew their threat.

Meanwhile, rival outdoor retailer Gander Mountain opened a store just west of Tampa, and while the store is a much smaller scale, officials with that company were quick to point our that they requested no incentives to open, and they received none either.

  • Of course, Hillsborough County officials are probably counting on all those sales tax dollars they will now be able to pull in from the surrounding area. It’s not like there are a lot of other tourist options in Central Florida. In fact, they could probably pull people from as far away as Sarasota. Wait….DOH!!!

SARASOTA - Bass Pro Shops plans to begin construction on a 140,000-square-foot store here sooner rather than later, local building contractors say.

The megastore outdoor chain, which sells fishing, camping, hunting, boating and other gear, is inviting construction companies nationwide to bid on the project at a Benderson Development-owned plot in Sarasota County, near the under-construction Mall at University Town Center.

The Springfield, Missouri-based chain, with a store in Fort Myers and another being built in Brandon, is aggressively expanding into Florida.

  • This article on Russia gets a little crazy….no, a lot crazy, and so I don’t recommend reading it more than passively. That being said, there is one paragraph in there that is not completely crazy. There are many ways to skin a cat and we’re not as invulnerable as we act. In fact, if we were more aware of how fragile our economy is, we wouldn’t be taking a fraction of the reckless risks we are. Take it for what it’s worth.

[Putin advisor Sergey] Glazyev's set of countermeasures specifically targets the core strength of the US war machine, i.e. the Fed's printing press. Putin's advisor proposes the creation of a "broad anti-dollar alliance" of countries willing and able to drop the dollar from their international trade. Members of the alliance would also refrain from keeping the currency reserves in dollar-denominated instruments. Glazyev advocates treating positions in dollar-denominated instruments like holdings of junk securities and believes that regulators should require full collateralization of such holdings. An anti-dollar coalition would be the first step for the creation of an anti-war coalition that can help stop the US' aggression.

  • Finally, I’m a fan of the band OK Go, which released a new video this week. Hope you enjoy.

Catch you all back here on Monday for what I think will be a continuing conversation about complexity. It depends on how my weekend reading goes. Looks like rain in the forecast so I might have a lot of reading time. Hope your weekend is equally full of great options.

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