Friday News Digest, Halloween Edition

I've been a father for just over five years now. During that time I have had the good fortune to be unable to afford a third day of daycare each week. Twice a week my wife stays home with our two girls and a third day - Friday - I get to be the exclusive parent charged with their care. It is a much different experience than co-parenting. Both parents and kids have had to be flexible in order to keep "Friday's rules" in their proper context. This week the survival skills we all established over more than 250 Fridays really paid off. My wife has been gone to a conference and I've managed not only to keep them both fed, clothed and well rested but we made it to all scheduled events and a Halloween party on time. Being a dad rocks, especially when your kids are Aerial the Mermaid and a cute little Ladybug.

I hope your Halloween has just the right amount of spooky. Here is this week's news:

  • The NY Times definitively reported this week that the recession is over and the American economy is once again growing. Unfortunately, it looks like the growth is primarily a result of unsustainable government subsidies. Is the stimulus money starting to kickstart the economy or just putting a little bit of air into a popped tire?

“That [federal spending] alters the dynamic of a recession and a recovery, and what you’re left with, to some degree, is an artificial recovery,” said Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak, an investment research firm. “Over the next several quarters, the support for the economy on the part of the government wanes and the economy has to find its own footing.” 

  • In terms of housing, it would be more of the air-in-the-popped-tire. As the first-time homebuyer subsidy goes away, housing sales have a "surprise" drop. The headline writer on that article is not a regular reader of this blog - we are convinced that housing has a ways to drop before the bottom, and then we don't see anything but stagnation for the most part well into the future. We simply have too many of the wrong type of homes in the wrong location, in an economy that is reducing the number of potential buyers and driving up the costs to homeowners of inefficient land use patterns. 
  • The inevitability of toll roads - or some type of additional revenue tied to transportation - is the topic of this interesting opinion article by Robert McCartney in the Washington Post. McCartney suggests that toll roads will be the answer since the concept is less radical than other alternatives. He blames the lack of political will for a gas tax increase as the key problem. As we've pointed out here, political will for a 5 cent or 10 cent per gallon increase is one thing, but with the huge sums of money needed, we're really talking political suicide. The problem is not the funding side of the equation but the expense side - we have inefficiently grown beyond our ability to maintain the system. McCartney paints the picture of the inevitable, however, when discussing the looming future of per-mile fees.

Tolls on new roads. Higher tolls on existing roads. Tolls on new lanes. Higher tolls in rush hour. Local governments even plan to study a radical proposal to charge a toll every time you drive your car, even on a quick trip to the grocery store using side streets. (A GPS or other device would be used to calculate your bill.)


The tolls are high, too. The rates proposed last month for the ICC would be among the costliest in the nation. They'd be up to 35 cents a mile at rush hour, or more than $11 round trip for the many drivers expected to use it to commute between the I-95 and I-270 corridors.

The high rates mean we're building a two-tier road system, in which more-prosperous people will enjoy quicker travel times and less frustration. Although hardly surprising in a class-based society, that's disturbing as a matter of public ethics.

  • Of course, we could all simply do what Minnesota Governor (and presidential hopeful) Tim Pawlenty is suggesting and have businesses pay for the road improvements. While this makes more sense than the inadvertent subsidies we now give out, it still overlooks the fact that this infrastructure needs to be maintained and that's all on us, Minnesota.
  • At least these financial shortfalls in the transportation system are forcing us to innovate. My favorite quote of the week comes from an engineer discussing a very successful roundabout installation.

"Chaos," said Portland traffic engineer Scott Batson, "seems to be coming back as a way to control traffic."

  • Along the same lines of Ben's incredible posting on Arizona's plan to sell and leaseback their state capital, Chicago is apparently looking to do the same thing with its water utility. The article presents arguments against the idea, citing the large costs charged by a private utility provider in nearby communities. While the article leaves the reader pondering whether or not these greedy utility companies are just soaking (sorry, couldn't help it) their customers, what should be pondered is whether the opposite is true: Chicago's rates are low because they are not charging what it takes to properly maintain the system. But the mayor from one of those private-utility towns feels his people are getting hosed (I'm sorry, this is just too easy).

Mayor Jim Daley says residents pay about three times more than those in neighboring communities. He said Illinois-American Water Co. offers the same explanation. 

"They simply say that they have infrastructure improvements they need to make, that they can show their costs," he said. "What we're saying: It's absolutely absurd."

  • Kudos to the Congress of the New Urbanism for its ongoing efforts with the International Code Council to get some sanity into recommended street section design. When we design our city streets to allow fire trucks to drive side by side at high speeds to local emergencies, we shouldn't be shocked when most of their calls involve extracting someone with the jaws-o-life from their crashed car. A more sensible approach would not only be safer for people, it would provide at least an adequate system (if not a better system) for providing fire protection.

CNU’s proposals acknowledge that solid common ground exists for ongoing efforts to reconcile narrower streets and good emergency access: Street connectivity — specifically well-connected networks of traditional street grids — is essential to good urbanism, shortens emergency response times, and improves overall community life safety. Taken together, these changes would have made the fire code less focused on mandating wide streets, and more flexible in allowing cities to take advantage of the safety and response benefits of connected networks of walkable narrower streets.

  • Jane Jacobs was brilliant, and now it seems like more than just a select group of planners is figuring that out. I was going to save this article for its own post next week - and I may still do that - but in case I don't, I highly recommend reading the entire thing. I could excerpt it all, but here is one short paragraph:

The economic downturn has prompted many to question assumptions about growth. "There is a new focus on what happens on the local level, on import-replacement businesses and what it takes to encourage them," says Schumacher's Witt. "Chambers of commerce are putting more into networking and training for small businesses. There's less talk of tax incentives. These are all Jane Jacobs concepts."

  • My Generation X gene prompted me to post a George Will article criticizing the president's plan to give social security recipients $250 each to make up for the tremendous burden of having their cost of living decline over the past twelve months. First from the right, now the same criticism from the left.
  • More Kuntsler. I enjoyed it, but read at your own risk. I will give you one teaser quote:

Like a lot of other observer-interlocutors, I'd like to know what folks imagine we are recovering to.  To a renewed orgy of credit-card spending?  To yet another round of suburban expansion, with the boys in the yellow hard-hats driving stakes out in the sagebrush for another new thousand-unit pop-up "community?" For a next generation of super-cars built to look like medieval war wagons?  That's the "hope" that our officials seem to pretend to offer. It's completely inconsistent with any reality-based trend-lines, by the way.

  • I'm an advocate for small towns and rural areas, but "Agriburbia"? Seriously? I know what this guy is growing (hint: the same thing he is smoking).

He envisions a future where the nation's 31 million acres of lawn are converted to food production. He sees golf-course greens redefined with herbs; sand traps as "kale traps." He sees retirement homes engulfed by farms and office buildings where workers escape cubicles on farming breaks.

  • Finally, it wouldn't be the Devil's Day without a zoning board dusting off their old code and spoiling all the fun. In one instance they apparently succeeded. Another council opted to simply scale back a little bit. I know which houses I would be tricking this year.