I was lucky enough to spend Tuesday afternoon this week with a group of fellow bloggers here in Minnesota. This was made extra cool (and extra geeky) by the fact that a large percentage were also engineers. There is a cool project in the works here that I am not at liberty to reveal quite yet, but if you live in Minnesota and care about the land use / transportation connection, things may be more interesting real soon. Or they may just get even more geeky than they already are. Either way, I so want in.

Enjoy the week's news:

  • I'm continually astounded by the places our stuff shows up on the web. My favorite this week is the Town of Leland, NC, where they have linked to our stuff on a page they have about something they call the FlexCode, which appears to be a form-based code they are working on. Very nice. They spelled my name wrong, but who's keeping track. We'd love to visit North Carolina for a Curbside Chat someday soon.
  • I'm not sure who Timothy B. Lee blogging for Forbes is, but I thoroughly enjoyed his column this week on libertarian thinking as applied to the old debate between highways and transit. He captures the views of many who oppose big-government solutions yet want to see reforms in the way we approach transportation. Every word of the article is worth your time, but my favorite line is this one:

The results of these policies—convenient automobile access to the heart of the city, plentiful parking, inflated rents in the city compared to the suburbs, spread-out neighborhoods that are hard to traverse on foot—creates the illusion that people are freely choosing a suburban, auto-oriented lifestyle. But this is like saying the market has freely chosen to sweeten products using high fructose corn syrup while ignoring corn subsidies and sugar tariffs.

  • Resilient food production is an urgent issue that is unique in that it can be solved entirely at the local level. As David Cieslewicz points out in Citiwire.net, many cities are doing just that, and finding that it is not only easy, but productive for the local economy.

...the big national food distribution system just isn’t set up to get local produce to local markets in a way that’s big enough to make a dent in the market. So we need things like local food warehouses with their own distribution systems. We need more community gardens where local residents can grow their own food and more community kitchens where they can learn how to turn all that production into meals and maybe even businesses. And we need more community supported agriculture, where city residents can buy a membership share in a local farm and get a box of fresh produce or meat delivered to them weekly.

  • For all of those people that believe we are sitting on a quantity of oil reserves that make the United States the "king daddie dogs" of oil, a little reality struck this week when the amount of recoverable natural gas in Marcellus Shale was slashed by 80%. Seems there is a big difference between the bubblin' crude type of energy and the kind you have to rupture buried rock to extract the veins of energy it contains.

The shale formation has about 84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas, according to the report from the United States Geological Survey. This is drastically lower than the 410 trillion cubic feet that was published earlier this year by the federal Energy Information Administration.

As a result, the Energy Information Administration, which is responsible for quantifying oil and gas supplies, has said it will slash its official estimate for the Marcellus Shale by nearly 80 percent, a move that is likely to generate new questions about how the agency calculates its estimates and why it was so far off in its projections.

  • I've referred many times to the book "This time is different" as a must read for people trying to put the current financial crisis into an historical perspective. One of its authors, Ken Rogoff, was the subject of an interesting article about inflation (the I-word) and whether or not we should be seeking higher rates of inflation. Despite being known as an inflation-hawk, Rogoff is now advocating for a higher inflation rate as the least-painful way to reset the economy. Very similar to what we suggested would be the likely solution we would end up with, intentional or not.

One of these tools, Rogoff believes, is a temporary burst of inflation. And for the past several weeks, as the stock market has convulsed and debate raged over the Fed’s next move, he has been making his case publicly, through syndicated opinion columns, high-profile TV appearances, and numerous interviews. It’s an argument that Rogoff himself admits is “radical,” and one he says he’d rather not be making. But as he sees it, what’s holding the country back from recovery is not just a lack of consumer confidence or suppressed demand, as in a normal recession, but an immense overhang of debt: thanks to the collapse of the real-estate bubble, millions of American families owe so much to banks that they’re focusing all their energy on paying down their debts instead of spending their money on new investments. There will be no recovery until the painful process of working through that debt is behind us, Rogoff argues, and an increase in the annual inflation rate, which has floated around 2 percent since the early 1990s,would make it easier for debtors to pay down what they owe.

  • While the unemployment rate released today stayed even at 9.1%, this article explained how workforce participation rates impact these numbers. When people go so long without a job, or when they quit looking for a job, they are no longer counted as unemployed and thus do not show up in the official statistics. If those people were counted, it is estimated that the unemployment rate would be 12.5%, a number that -- while not changing what is actually going on -- would be psychologically devastating for people nervous about the economy.

  • Neal Peirce wrote this week about the ways that local governments are turning to gambling to try and address their budget shortfalls. When I did an semester internship at LCMR, the group here in Minnesota established to oversee spending our lotto funds, they had a saying taped up on the wall that is sadly too true. It went, "The lotto is a tax on people that are not good at math." Perhaps the hidden upside to being ranked so low worldwide in math competency is that we can tax our people this way and they don't even know it. Sad.

Today’s economies and politics are fueling the push to universalized gambling. State governments struggling with monster deficits are desperate for any new form of revenue. And the nation seems seized by weirdly irrational politics that equates any tax increase with original sin.

Already, government-countenanced (or directly run) gambling is at an historic high water mark. All but seven states have lotteries. Casino gambling, both state-countenanced and run by Indian tribes, is spreading like wildfire, especially in the Northeast. Each year at least half of America’s states consider new gambling outlets. “There is a legalized gambling avalanche in progress in America,” Skolnik concludes.

  • Our good friend Jake Krohn sent us this article from his local paper about a project that had been put on hold because the bids came back too high. I am seeing more and more of this happening and I suspect that at least part of what is going on is that the contractors have now scaled down, cut workforces and consolidated and are thus real busy, albeit at reduced levels. This means the desperately low bids of the past couple of years are going away and we're returning to market conditions, where the price of transport and asphalt is much higher. We can't say the same for the default engineering approach, which apparently refuses to downsize (or right-size, as we would more accurately see it). There is no city street through a residential area in a modern, suburban-style subdivision that needs to be 32, let alone 36, feet wide.

Freitag presented the revised plan at the Port Authority meeting on Wednesday, with streets four feet narrower than the original 36-foot width design. The new estimated cost is approximately $619,000. The city will assume 22 percent of the cost and residents are responsible for the remaining 78 percent.

  • Unfortunately, the one project that is not being put on hold is the Old Economy Project that Refuses to Die (also known as the St. Croix Bridge). Mn/DOT rejected calls for a smaller bridge in a report that they issued this week and it looks as if the Congress will exempt the project from wild and Scenic River protections sometime this fall. That works for the city of Stillwater, which, according to the state auditor, illegally appropriated $80,000 to a group established to advocate for the project. Come on now, what's $80k amongst friends?

[Attorney from the stat auditor's office Nancy] Bode said in her review that the bridge coalition of various government and community leaders had claimed "non-public, trade secret" protection for documents that describe the coalition's plans and costs. "As a result, there is no opportunity for the City or the public to review any document explaining what, if anything, the City might receive for this $80,000 expenditure of public funds," she wrote.

The auditor's letter advised Stillwater to "recover the money" donated to the coalition as well as $70 the city paid for the coalition's filing fee with the Minnesota secretary of state. The city lacked authority to pay the fee, Bode's letter said.

[Stillwater Mayor Ken] Harycki contended Thursday that the review was issued because of political pressure from opponents of the $690 million bridge project in Oak Park Heights.

  • I thought that Tom Friedman's column this week was particularly interesting. In it he discussed four macro-challenges of transition facing the world and pointed out that we needed to solve them all, and soon, if we are to escape some deep and lasting trauma. Friedman is one prominent voice who consistently calls for more infrastructure spending, although I am consoled that his emphasis would not be of the ASCE variety of spending but an actual targeted approach to high ROI efforts.

As for America, we’ve thrived in recent decades with a credit-consumption-led economy, whereby we maintained a middle class by using more steroids (easy credit, subprime mortgages and construction work) and less muscle-building (education, skill-building and innovation). It’s put us in a deep hole, and the only way to dig out now is a new, hybrid politics that mixes spending cuts, tax increases, tax reform and investments in infrastructure, education, research and production. But that mix is not the agenda of either party. Either our two parties find a way to collaborate in the center around this new hybrid politics, or a third party is going to emerge — or we’re stuck and the pain will just get worse.

  • I'm just going to pass along this piece from the Daily Yonder without additional comment as I've not read the report they refer to, except I will comment that none of this suprises me. Disappoints me? Yes. Suprises? No.
  • I came across this recent video clip of Nassim Taleb, which was deeply insightful through and through. For those that are impatient, skip to 4:50 and listen to Taleb describe our hallowed metric of growth. "Madoff had growth. That is not the type of growth we want." Brilliant.

  • And finally, someone tweeted me a copy of this video called Sprawling from Grace. I must admit that I have not had the time to watch more than the first few minutes, but that was interesting enough to justify going further. I guess this played on CNBC recently. Anyway, I've got three days this weekend and will try and fit it in, but wanted to share it with you now in the hopes that it doesn't suck. 

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This is a great weekend for us -- the last of the summer -- as we get to celebrate the anniversary of my wonderful wife's birth. Picnics, family and friends....I hope your weekend is likewise filled with such joy.


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