Friday News Digest, Live Version

Welcome to summer. It is something like 45 degrees here, but it's all good. Since our movie theatre is shut down for upgrades, last night Justin and I drove north to see the Avengers. Well worth the drive and the cost of admission although, Ross if you are reading this, we could have used your knowledge of comics to fill us in on a couple of things. Got back late and didn't have the energy to do the FND last night, so planned to get up early this morning with the girls -- they never sleep late and usually wake me up when I'm the only parental unit in the house. Not today! They got up, made themselves breakfast and went to play on their first day of summer vacation, all without waking dad. This growing up thing might not be so bad after all.

I'll be publishing this as I go so check back if it's not done yet. Enjoy the week's news.

  • For fire chiefs that understand that wide streets kill more people than they save and are making the city broke in the process, we have this model of fire truck from Nobleton, Ontario. The men of this fire department must be secure in their manhood (If this is similar to my Army days, any women in the department do not need large machinery to compensate for anything). Note that this does look ridiculous but only because the buildings do not properly frame the street, making it all look wider than it is. Get the form right, and this all makes a lot of sense.

  • I have to pause and thank my good friend and fellow blogger, Aaron Brown, for promoting my speaking event this week. He also let out our secret plan to pursue higher office on a unity ticket, although I explain in the comments section how I would see it actually go down. Aaron is a smart guy. If you want to understand the crazy world that is the Iron Range of Minnesota, there is no better source than the Minnesota Brown blog.

I really respect what Chuck does and think that his work provides useful ideas challenging both DFL and GOP orthodoxy (and engineering orthodoxy, for that matter). Fact is, a lot of towns are trapped in impossible situations, thanks to a political system that has been slow or unwilling to commit to a stable long term plan. Waiting for the major parties to enact their supporter-targeted solutions will be an indefinite, likely disappointing wait for an outcome that won't benefit everyone. Communities will have to do at least a majority of the work themselves.

  • I realize that this is not "news" in the sense that it was published this week, but this article on the Calatrava Bridge in Dallas, and the entire thought process behind it, is comedic in a depressingly tragic sort of way. We're carried this "make no small plans" thing way too far.

And not too much later, the Dallas City Council was presented with a briefing saying the first bridge, the one that isn't opening this weekend, would be free. No, better than free! Armed with a report from some post-office-box outfit called Insight Research, city staff told the council a huge office building would be built next to the new bridge — only if it was a Calatrava! — and pay so much in taxes that the city would make a profit on the bridge.

Wow. How could you turn that down?

The Observer demanded to see the report under the Texas Public Information Act. The city refused. The Observer appealed the city's decision to the Texas attorney general. Eventually we went the old-fashioned route and had somebody slip it to us out the back door.

Guess who the developer was who was going to build the big office tower that would turn the Margaret Hunt Hill bridge into a profit center? The city!

  • We've been having a debate here this week on the blog as to whether or not the engineering profession should worry, care or attempt to ponder the long term replacement and repair costs of a project. In North Carolina, the need to incessantly build new is being questioned by citizens not happy with a privatization scheme. Those pesky citizens, they are so "spoiled" and "short sighted" now, aren't they.

The long-ignored issue of inadequate transportation funding has awakened as public sentiment amassed against a controversial plan for a private construction consortium to build a new Midtown Tunnel tube, rehabilitate the existing tunnel and the nearby Downtown Tunnel and expand a portion of the Martin Luther King Expressway. In return for financing the $2.1 billion project, the consortium will run the facilities and charge tolls.

But that isn't all. An ongoing project to expand U.S. 460 will also result in heavy tolling to pay for the work and competing proposals by three private construction groups to expand the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel propose tolls that could be $4 or more. Similar tolling is also expected when/if a third harbor crossing is built.

  • The legislature in Harrisburg, PA, where I recently spoke to a group of local leaders, is now contemplating a special session to "deal" with transportation issues. When touring the capitol grounds, I noticed this huge building. It was lower in elevation but, even so, was enormous. I asked what it was assuming it housed the entirety of all state government employees in Pennsylvania. It was just their DOT. Good luck, Pennsylvania.

“The public’s safety on our roads and bridges is paramount,” said Sen. John Yudichak (D- Luzerne) who supports the idea of a special session. “We cannot wait another year, we cannot wait for another commission or another session of the general assembly.”

  • North Carolina has a program to pave every state maintained road in their inventory, and they are nearly done. It is a great case study for how top down government decision making is efficient but dumb. One of the last stretches is a 2.5 mile dirt road that is a driveway for about thirty seasonal cabins. I'm sure these people will benefit greatly (NOT) from have a wide, high speed, high capacity road outside their summer getaway. My prediction: North Carolina will soon embark on a new program to privatize or turn back to gravel most of their roadway inventory.

The state road looks more like a driveway for Elizabeth Hopp, whose family lives in one of three houses off the lane. When crews showed up recently to widen the road bed, build erosion control for a pond and get ready to pave the road with asphalt, she wondered why the state was upgrading a road that goes nowhere. The cost to taxpayers: $225,000.

“I don’t really see the need for this,” Hopp said. “Maybe this is some kind of progress, but it seems sort of strange to me.”

The state’s deputy chief roads engineer, Jon Nance, said the Department of Transportation is just following orders from the General Assembly.

  • The city of Chicago has announced a worthy goal of zero traffic fatalities within ten years. i totally agree with this and it is long, long overdue, but I want to add one other facet to the conversation to give it some context: zero fatalities without increasing the transportation budget beyond the rate of inflation. Engineers normally respond to such challenges by over designing our systems, but if you take that option away from them with budget constraints, then you can start talking about really viable solutions that will actually dramatically reduce deaths. Sounds like Chicago may be going in that direction -- I hope so.

How are they going to do that? There’s no single answer to that question. Instead, the city will be taking a multifaceted approach to traffic safety that includes engineering local streets to reduce car speeds; improving pedestrian and bike facilities; education; better data collection and evaluation; and increasing enforcement.

  • I'm cheering for Detroit (except in baseball, where I have to admit hating their team - sorry). There are so many lessons to be learned there in a city that is a preview of coming attractions for others across the country. Has Detroit turned a corner? I think it may have because it has now committed itself to pruning the infrastructure shrub, a tough decision we all need to come to grips with. Here's a great article about why young Americans are moving to Detroit.

A few decades ago, it would have been unthinkable that such people would want to live in Detroit, where white flight, postindustrial decline, and the sub-prime mortgage crisis have resulted in nearly one-third of property sitting empty and boarded shut. But where there’s blight, there’s also cheap rent and vacant lots: ideal habitats for young creatives and their funky art collectives or urban farms.

But Salon’s writer, Will Doig, paints the new Detroiters as pursuing a “romantic fantasy” of “Rust Belt chic,” pointing to a hipsterish lust for “ruin porn.” He echoes many critics of Detroit’s recent “brain gain”: that job-creation, not an influx of creatives, is the real answer to urban decline.

There may be some “creative class” boosterism going on in Detroit, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t also authentic, sophisticated projects in motion. I recently visited Detroit for two weeks and met with some of its newcomers. Many are starting up social enterprises while others are working in creative sectors like advertising. And while they do appreciate the low rent and cost of living in the Motor City, these new, young Detroiters are far from self-absorbed hipsters. In fact, their work is having a meaningful impact on the city’s economy and culture.

  • And finally, as I was looking for some audio to include in this week's podcast, I came across this bizarre video by the American Society of Civil Engineers. I say bizarre because, with the over the top music and drama, I kept waiting for the car crash and explosions. Everyone should also note that, whenever engineers talk about "sustainability" they show pictures of windmills and solar panels. (This is because to them "sustainability" means doing everything we do today, continuing to add to those systems and then getting more money to build windmills too - bonus.)

Thanks everyone. Hope you have a great weekend. See you Monday when I've decided I'm going to stir some generational conflict, in a friendly sort of way.


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