My Journey from Free Market Ideologue to Strong Towns Advocate


This is the first part of a multi-part series, My Journey from Free Market Ideologue to Strong Towns Advocate.


As an undergrad civil engineering student at the University of Minnesota, I wrote a very passionate opinion piece for the school newspaper, The Minnesota Daily, expressing outrage over a proposed congestion pricing plan for one of the state’s newest highways. The year was 1993. The proposal would allow people to pay for the privilege of using the carpool lane without being in a carpool. My populist sense of justice offended, I called the proposal “Lexus Lanes” and offered a better solution to congestion problems: add more capacity.

At this point in my life, I was a self-described free-market Republican with an outspoken passion for markets and my chosen profession of civil engineering, which to me was a technical way to say “city building.” If I had been pushed to reconcile my rejection of congestion pricing with my support for the free market, I would have had no problem. I would have said something like:

Markets are about the expression of personal preference. It was clear that, since most people drove automobiles, auto-based infrastructure was the clear market preference. Since most people lived in single-family homes, they were also the clear market preference. Given those clear and obvious preferences—combined with the fact that people paid taxes and expected the government to respond to their desires—charging people more for something they already paid for was a ploy to benefit the rich. Instead of congestion pricing, the state should have been building more capacity.

At that point, I had done two summer internships at the state Department of Transportation and knew one thing for certain: I was not going to spend my career working at the DOT. While there were a lot of hard-working people there, and a lot of very kind people as well, I was not impressed with the culture, especially the tolerance for slackers. I’m a workaholic—especially at that point in my life—and I complained my way out of the slacker units and into a construction inspection position where the hours were ridiculously long and the work equally challenging.

I had a lot of cynicism about government, feelings that were reinforced by my time at the DOT. For example, when working on the construction inspection crew, I was instructed to write down my meal expenses. I was working sometimes 18-hour days an hour or more from home and would often have two or three meals to expense. I was fine with the McDonald's drive-thru on the way home—and didn’t feel right running up my expense account—so my expenses were pretty minor.

After a couple weeks, I got pulled aside by one of the more senior employees and told I was making everyone else look bad. I was instructed to write down a set amount for breakfast, lunch and dinner—amounts that far exceeded what I had actually spent—because that was standard practice. I did what I was told, but it didn’t sit right with me.

When I had a chance after college to start my professional career in the private sector, I jumped at the chance. The fact that it meant less money and less job security was a source of pride, despite the fact that my grandfather, who lived through the Great Depression, was mad at me for turning down a government job. He argued that I’d have a “job for life” if I went to MnDOT, which is exactly why I didn’t.

Very little in my early years as an engineer challenged my worldview that, if I preferred something, and I could see others also seeming to prefer it, that it represented an expression of the free market, whether it came through government or not. I continued to write, including a defense of the Walmart the hippies in town were protesting (and my company had been paid to run the infrastructure for). The big box store paid for all the infrastructure so there was no cost to the public, I argued. And people apparently wanted to shop there more than the old downtown, so it was clear to me that the market had spoken. The area was growing—it was outwardly prosperous, at least in the “good places”—and it was exciting to be part of it. Growth is good; at that point in my life it seemed to me just another expression of market preference.

The small towns and rural areas I worked in exposed me to extreme cases of systemic problems. I think it took those extremes to get me to question my core beliefs, but even then the cognitive dissonance took a long time to manifest as intellectual pain. The last big project I did before returning to graduate school was one of those extremes that I kept coming back to over and over, seeing it with new eyes each time. My insights on that project—a wastewater system expansion in the city of Remer—were featured in Chapter 2 of Leigh Gallagher’s book The End of the Suburbs.

Remer is a small city of around 400 people in Northeastern Minnesota. They had called the engineering firm I was working for and asked if someone could come and help them. Since Remer didn’t seem like the kind of city that would produce much work, and since it was a long drive from our office, the list of engineers wanting to take them on as a client was reduced to the sole young, highly-motivated, young man in Air Jordans looking for his first independent client: me.

When I got there, I learned that they were being fined by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (in my eyes at the time: mindless government bureaucrats) for exceeding their wastewater discharge permit. That actually makes it sound quaint. What was really happening was that their wastewater treatment ponds were overflowing, threatening to collapse the earthen berm and dump thousands of gallons of concentrated sewage into the adjacent river. This was a mess.

I did an extensive study of their system, which involved going from manhole to manhole during the middle of the night, testing the flow at each location to see if I could find a groundwater leak. I was able to isolate the problem to one, 300-foot section of pipe running under the highway. That section had settled, cracked and was leaking fresh groundwater into the system. If that section was repaired, the problem would be solved.

This is exactly what I was supposed to do as an engineer: find problems and solve them. My personal morality and ethics combined with my limited government, free-market sensibilities, in a way that allowed me to see myself as doing a public service by fixing this pipe. The cost was $300,000, an estimate I proudly shared with the council in a written report.

That’s when I found out they had spent their entire savings paying me to do the study. Their entire annual budget was less than $100,000—and that was for everything: plowing snow, paying the clerk, fixing streets, public safety, running their sewer and water systems. Everything.

I was told that, if this was going to get fixed, I would need to find them some type of financial assistance. I went back to the office and consulted with the more experienced engineers, who pointed me in the direction of some grant and loan programs. Over and over I was told the same thing: Fixing a leaky pipe…. This seems a lot like maintenance. Remer was not going to get any funding.

So, I started to inquire: What does get funded? Each funding agency has a checklist they use to prioritize requests. I looked at these checklists and concluded the obvious: I needed a bigger project.

I went back to the city and told them we needed to do a $2.6 million expansion project. We needed to provide wastewater service to the poorest people in town not already served. We needed to run the pipe past a field where someday the city could attract a manufacturer. We needed to test some wells and show that people without city sewage treatment were drinking water contaminated by sewage (they were). All this, combined with a pending environmental disaster and the added room for growth, would make our project highly fundable.

And it was. The city of Remer was awarded $2.47 million in grants and a $130,000 loan, the latter of which was financed over 40 years at below-market interest rates by the USDA. To the city, I was a hero. At the engineering firm, I was a rainmaker. Life was good, and I was solving all kinds of problems.

About five or six years later, I had a planning degree, had started my own planning/engineering firm, and I found myself back in the city of Remer working for them on a new comprehensive plan. What started off as a love fest of a reunion quickly turned sour. When I worked with Remer the second time, I had a lot more uncomfortable questions than the first. I’m going to write about the intervening years in the next post in this series, but the key uncomfortable question is obvious:

Remer did not have enough money to sustain 300 feet of pipe. To solve that problem, I had helped them build another 2.5 miles of pipe, doubled the size of their wastewater treatment ponds, and built them a huge, new lift station. Where were they going to get the money to fix any of this—let alone the water system, the drainage systems, and the streets—the next time it fell apart?

I looked at this extreme example with critical eyes and concluded the only thing a reasonable person could: Remer is a ward of the state. It lacks the capacity to sustain its most basic infrastructure systems. Just replacing the main sewage pump would cost half the city’s budget in any given year, and the pump would not last more than a couple of decades. Without the continued, ongoing benevolence of the state and federal governments, Remer would cease to exist, at least in any modern, civilized sense of the word.

I had taken a financially fragile city and, to solve a short-term problem, made its long-term crisis even more unsolvable.

MN-most-vulnerable.png

One of the things we did shortly after founding Strong Towns was to undertake a data analysis where we looked at Minnesota cities’ dependence on state aid for day-to-day cash flow. We issued a report called Minnesota’s Vulnerable Cities, which received some good press and played a part in getting me invited to testify at the state legislature. The report was lost in a website update (but one of our members had a copy - thank you, Jake Krohn), but I still have one relevant statistic that I used to include in early versions of the Curbside Chat.

Of the 855 cities in Minnesota, our analysis indicated that Remer was the 494th most financially vulnerable. Ignoring infrastructure obligations—which I knew to be devastating—and just looking at a local government’s capacity to pay their current bills, there were 493 cities worse off than a city I intimately knew was a financial disaster. That’s more than a third of all the cities in Minnesota, with thousands of people and businesses within them: an incredible number for a comparably prudent and well-run state.

Without the continued, ongoing benevolence of the state and federal governments, Remer would cease to exist, at least in any modern, civilized sense of the word. I had taken a financially fragile city and, to solve a short-term problem, made its long-term crisis even more unsolvable.

As the series continues, I’m going to fill in the gaps between the time I worked for Remer as an engineer and the time I returned—with a new set of questions—as a planner. Click here to read Part 2.

Top photo by Nick Youngson