Doing More of the Same, Update

Last month we wrote about the City of Rogers, MN - an exurban community northwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul - and their push to have taxpayers pay for a $34 million interchange at Brockton Lane. Our take was that this project was another example of trying to induce so-called "growth" through massive government spending and that the result - essentially subsidizing the continuation of a failed, inefficient development pattern - would not only have an extremely low rate of return, but would be digging our collective financial hole yet deeper.

Now Minnesota Public Radio has looked at this project and provided some important insights that support our Strong Towns interpretation.

In a macro sense, Friend of, Professor David Levinson of the University of Minnesota, explains reality.

David Levinson, a University of Minnesota transportation engineering professor, questions the wisdom of building new interchanges when we can't take care of what we have.

"We clearly haven't been spending enough to maintain our existing facilities," he said. "That suggests we shouldn't be spending very much on new infrastructure when we have a lot of infrastructure that will deteriorate and be very costly to replace when it fails."

We would actually add to that comment that perhaps one of the reasons why we have not been spending enough on maintenance is that we have built too much infrastructure to actually be able to keep up with the maintenance. It is a little like saying the Titanic sank because the pumps weren't big enough to pump out all the water. While true, it misses the underlying cause.

The most revealing part of this report is how the lobbyist for the project, former Mn/DOT Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg, essentially argues that we need to save Rogers from itself. 

Tinklenberg argues creating the new Brockton Lane interchange in combination with local zoning restrictions will actually avert the kind of haphazard development that plagues some suburbs.

"Without the'll just develop in large lots," he said. "Kind of sprawled development without the kinds of concentrations and densities that connect jobs and housing, that provide the alternative and variety of housing...and that creates opportunities to support transit."

Basically, by this argument, the people of Rogers are so irresponsible and short-sighted that, unless we provide them with $34 million worth of public investment, they are going to develop their land in a self-destructive way. But, if we do give them this huge amount of money, they will not repeat the development pattern they have but will instead do something at "densities that connect jobs and housing."

Maybe Rogers should read the land use section of their own April 2009 Comprehensive Plan. Here is what that document says Rogers has planned for density.

Single Family Homes

  • Existing (2008): 1,030 acres (23%)
  • Projected (2030): 1,500 acres (33%) 

High Density Residential

  • Existing (2008):45 acres (1%)
  • Projected (2030): 57 acres (1%)

So, 470 new acres of low-density "sprawl" (to use Tinklenberg's description) and only 12 acres of high-density development. In the context of their argument, that is a joke.

The project financially makes no sense, is a bad investment for Minnesota and will actually make our collective financial problem worse by having a negative rate of return. It should not be done, and we are not the only ones saying this.

Arlene McCarthy, Metropolitan Council's director of transportation services, said most of the projected federal and state money over the next 20 years - 80 percent - will be needed for maintenance - repaving, patching and fixing roads and bridges.

"We estimated there would be only $900 million between now and 2030 for expansion and that's not very much," McCarthy said. "So we want to use that money in a wiser way."

That's about $45 million a year.

Despite the ridiculousness of the project, the Brockton Lane interchange will be built. Here is how: The federal government, through an earmark championed by Representative Erik Paulsen (R) and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D), will pay between $15 and $25 million of the cost. This will force the State of Minnesota to reallocate transportation money that would otherwise go to a more worthy project to the Brockton Lane interchange so that we "don't lose out" on the federal money. Press release. Ribbon cutting. Fake statistics on jobs to be created and/or saved.

In their Comprehensive Plan, Rogers is projecting 4,700 new households over the next 20 years (page 4-13). That means the interchange costs $7,200 per new new household. How about we make Rogers this offer:

You bond for and build the interchange. The state and federal government will then reimburse you $7,200 (plus interest) per new household established in Rogers over the next 20 years. You get more households - a higher return than you project - than you will do real well. Fall short, and.....well, that is the risk you take.

Even though this would still be a bad investment for the taxpayer, I would support this approach over just giving them the interchange. Something tells me the people of Rogers, like their plan indicates, are not serious about making this project work and are only willing to play the game with someone else's money.