For some decades, local transportation policy in the United States has been a never ending game of whack-a-mole, with the "mole" being "congestion" and the "whacker" being "public money". Like whack-a-mole, our efforts are ultimately futile as congestion will always rear its ugly head no matter how thoroughly we pound it. This approach has to end if we are to have any sanity in our fiscal situation and any hope of becoming a prosperous nation again.

We've explained before how congestion is the bane of the suburban development pattern (Shiny, Happy Cars - June 2010). A system that separates everything into pods and then requires everyone to drive between pods ceases to function when overwhelmed with congestion. Like a highly-charged immune system, engineers and public officials are ready to pounce at the first signs of congestion. The only problem is, congestion is not a virus but a symptom of a greater disease: a development approach that is bankrupting us.

We've also written extensively about the delusion that exists in Rogers, MN -- a city that is "next in line" for its payday of government assistance. Their plan is to transfer huge sums of American wealth to their local economy (primarily through earmarks for transportation spending) so that they can support some fast food, gas stations and a huge Ponzi scheme of TIF-financed big box retail. This delusion is not unique to Rogers - it is one of the ways that similar communities across the country have achieved their decade-in-the-sun for nearly sixty years. Rogers is just next in line (and dammit, don't you dare take away the public trough they are entitled to).

Neighboring Rogers are the cities of Albertville and Otsego. Together, these communities form an axis-of-foreclosure -- they have been some of the places hit hardest in Minnesota by the downtown in housing values. This has only made them more desperate to kickstart growth in the only way they know how: a suburban pattern using someone else's money. They are essentially asking the American taxpayers to double down on investments that have been shown to not pay off, using Old Economy logic in doing so.

Albertville's biggest "investment" today -- the economic engine for the community -- is an Outlet Mall. No, excuse me, a Premium Outlet Mall. The concept is that people from the distant regional centers will use the interstate highway to travel to what is essentially a glorified strip mall. This is a very resilient model only if you have no concerns about the endless supply of cheap fuel that is necessary to make it viable.

In their words:

“Albertville has been an excellent location for the Albertville Premium Outlets. Albertville is positioned between two major markets, has strong pass-by traffic on I-94, and is located in the fastest growing area in Minnesota. We are extremely pleased that within our first two years of business, the Albertville Premium Outlets ranks in the top 20 outlet centers in the country.”
Sally Dunfer
Albertville Premium Outlets

Success like this comes at a cost, and that is where congestion comes to the fore. Today patrons of the outlet mall traveling west from the Twin Cities metro region must exit the interstate, turn left onto County Road 37, drive about a mile, then turn right at a signalized intersection before proceeding another quarter-mile or so to the premium outlets. Such a complex and low-speed end to the journey is not only bad form, it is quite un-American. Especially for those traveling by limousine.

The solution is simple: to reduce this congestion and provide a more direct route for Minneapolitans to get to their premium garb, a new priority access ramp needs to be constructed off of the highway. The cost: $8.74 million.

As reported in the local paper:

The estimated $8.74 million project along Interstate 94 involves constructing a collector and distributor lane starting at the County Road 37 interchange and leading westbound directly to County Road 19 near the outlet mall stores.

It is, in essence, a dedicated on/off ramp that maintains higher speed limits than a frontage road, and has a direct distribution point.

Why get there slow when you can go fast, especially when the cost is a measly $9 million? And if you have a hard time believing this project could be true, it gets worse. Guess who is being tapped to pay most of the cost? Everyone.

Cost Distribution

  • Albertville: $1.26 million
  • Otsego: $440,000
  • Wright County: $1.64 million
  • State of Minnesota: $5.44 million

The funny thing about this story is that it came to my attention from reporting on Otsego's agreement to pay the $440,000. They had originally been asked by Albertville to pay $1 million. Why the neighboring city would contribute a dime to such a project is beyond me - and apparently the reporter of the article as well - but not the Otsego City Administrator.

And though some may question why the city would even consider allocating $400,000 to the Albertville project, Robertson says it is a good faith gesture between the two cities that is meant to benefit both cities later.

The Otsego administrator points to projects that will need the mutual cooperation of both cities, such as spacing agreements for future intersections along County Road 19 and a future proposed project for a Kadler Avenue interchange.

But even as Otsego joins Albertville in a kind of mutually-assured-destruction pact designed to obtain as much state taxpayer money as possible while we are still pretending there is money there, they hedge their bets in case something goes wrong.

Robertson says if future Albertville city councils back off from the joint powers agreement between the two cities, Otsego will simply stop making its payments to Albertville.

Likewise, if Otsego fails to make its annual payment, Albertville will cease to offer financial and lobbying assistance to projects that benefit Otsego.

The kind of love that lasts forever.

Our nation is a collection of towns and neighborhoods all reacting to these bizarre incentives. For generations we have utilized large sums of other-peoples-money to live beyond our means at the local level, all under the guise of "growth". That growth costs far more to sustain than it returns in revenue to the community. If you wonder why we are broke at nearly every level of government, one only need to look at cities like Albertville, Otsego and and Rogers and understand that, in our current pattern of development, they are not the exception. They are the rule.

As a final note, what do you think the chances are that Albertville residents would tolerate this congestion if the cost sharing were reversed and they had to pay $5.44 million while the state paid only $1.26? I think the prevailing sentiment would be, "what congestion?". Local residents would never support such a project on their dime because, even with our warped way of looking at such things, nobody can pretend there would be a return out of that investment.

If we want Strong Towns, we need to demand that our public officials invest our money in projects that make our places stronger and more resilient. We must focus less on how quickly we can move people through town and focus more on understanding why they may want to stop. That is a Strong Towns approach.


I'll be heading to Denver for the Community Matters '10 conference starting tomorrow. Our blogging may be a touch erratic this week in terms of timing, but check back regularly as I'll be doing updates from the conference. As always, you can join us for an extended conversation on Facebook and Twitter. Please tell a friend about the Strong Towns movement and how our nation can grow stronger by first strengthening our towns and neighborhoods.