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The 94 percent: A city crisis candidates aren’t talking about

The 94 percent: A city crisis candidates aren’t talking about
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
Unless you live in a gated enclave of Utopia and never have to leave, you've probably been affected by the diminished capacity of towns and cities to do their job.

The presidential candidates filled an hour and a half during the debates last week, but not once did they mention the words "city" or "cities." OK, they didn't say "pineapple" or "piglets" either. But a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau points out that 84 percent of Americans live in metropolitan statistical areas, and another 10 percent live in what are called "micropolitan" statistical areas ( towns of 10,000 to 50,000 people), you'd think that President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney would have something to say about the crisis affecting them.

And what is that crisis? The American Cities Project, an effort of the Pew Charitable Trusts, put it this way: "While states slowly recover in the wake of the Great Recession, local governments have been hit with a one-two punch: State aid and property taxes, which together account for more than half of local revenues, are dropping simultaneously for the first time since 1980. The blow comes as demand for government services rises, driven by stubborn unemployment rates, population growth, and other factors."

Metro- and micropolitan governments have responded in the only way they can: by cutting services, for school, police, trash pick-up, park maintenance and 911 services. Unless you live in a gated enclave of Utopia and never have to leave, you've probably been affected by the diminished capacity of towns and cities to do their job.

It would have been more helpful if Jim Lehrer -- instead of demanding "what are the differences between you and Governor Romney/President Obama on (fill in the blank)?" -- had asked the two candidates whether they have any ideas that would slow down or halt this downward spiral.

And about those architects

As I reported a couple of weeks ago, the architectural firm that will design the new Vikings stadium is HKS, a Dallas company whose claims to fame, in football at least, were stadia for the Dallas Cowboys and the Indianapolis Colts. The total they are to be paid is $34 million. 

Here were the initial bids from the five competing firms:

Vikings stadium bids

Obviously, the contract did not go to the lowest bidder. Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority Chair Michele Kelm-Helgen said that experience, particularly with retractable roofs, played a role in the selection. And, the company had to really, really want the job. Certainly, reducing its bid by nearly $8 million or 20 percent as HKS did shows pretty serious interest.

I have looked through the 109-page design services agreement and, considering everything that the architects are required to do and all the deadlines they'll have to meet, $34 million doesn't sound like much. Just the list of documents HKS has to produce ran 16 pages. And subcontracting activities it has to manage? They include what you'd expect, for example, plumbing and various kinds of engineering (electrical, civil, mechanical and structural), but also acoustic design, branding, designs to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, code compliance, experiential graphics (whatever they are), telecom design, concessions, merchandise and catering services, furniture and interior design, lighting, wind engineering, parking garages, traffic engineering and demographic studies.

That last is an effort to figure out whether Vikings fans will plump for licensed premium seating and suits, which, in New York sell for $1 million a year. I hope not. It doesn't seem as though that would be in the spirit of a "People's Stadium," which is what our politicians have dubbed the project, which will cost taxpayers about $500 million not counting interest.

So far, all we've seen is HKS's fantastical vision of the stadium, which seemed to eliminate a lot of buildings in the neighborhood (including the Star Tribune's). But the contract requires delivery of concept design documents by Dec. 10 and schematic designs by March 4, 2013. Then we will really have something to chew over.

We can't wait

Last week, I kind of pooh-poohed the president's announcement that under the White House's "We Can't Wait" initiative, the Southwest light rail line would be "expedited." I was disappointed that instead of showering us with money, this expediting amounted to nothing more than using "an enhanced coordination process" too allow multiple permit and review processes to work concurrently instead of sequentially.

James Oberstar, former DFL congressman from Minnesota's 8th District until 2011 (when he was defeated by the GOP's Chip Cravaack) and transportation expert in excelsis, took issue with that. Although he pointed out that only 1 percent of transportation projects over $50 million are "significantly delayed" by permits and reviews, "this is still a very good thing to do."

The replacement of the I-35W bridge took just 437 days instead of the customary seven years partly because, says Oberstar, "we gathered everybody in one room at the beginning: the fish and wildlife people, the EPA, Environmental Quality, the state DNR, the counties, the Chippewa nation, and so on." (Of course, the bridge replacement also took place with storied rapidity because of Oberstar's legislative legerdemain in securing $250 million from the federal government to pay for construction.) With all the parties working together, Oberstar adds, the project is ready to rumble when the money finally comes in.

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Comments (7)

...in the spirit of a "People's Stadium" ???

Marlys, I can’t believe you swallowed a single gram of that “People’s Stadium” crap. REALLY !!

And also, it is not going to cost the taxpayers $500 million, it is greatly in excess of that amount. But this has been pointed out by numerous parties on numerous occasions, when, I guess, you weren’t listening.

Agreed

If this were really the "People's Stadium" the people probably should have had the opportunity to make the decision through a ballot question this fall.

That stadium's gonna cost a cool billion

Some of us spent a lot of time righting that project so we're sticklers on the numbers.

Putting on my hat

Let me put on my parochial hat for a moment – I grew up in St. Louis, where municipal parochialism has been developed into an art form – and suggest that, not only should presidential candidates be making at least passing references to the places where most of their constituents live, much the same criticism could be leveled at gubernatorial and state and national legislative candidates.

When cities can’t afford to maintain what they have, building new infrastructure and facilities is, phrasing it as mildly as I can, an exercise in futility. I can’t speak for St. Paul, having been only a cursory visitor to the state’s capital city, but there are miles of streets in Minneapolis that need to be rebuilt, but that won’t be rebuilt because doing so would destroy the budget. There's a huge backlog of infrastructure maintenance that genuinely needs attention, from water treatment to mass transit.

Cities are the most cost-effective and environmentally-friendly mode of settlement by humans, they generate far more income and accompanying tax dollars for the state than do rural and suburban areas, and, as Marlys has pointed out, they’re where most of us live, so it behooves local, state and national candidates to pay MUCH closer attention to them than has been the case for at least the past generation.

Stadium

This would maybe be a Rich People's stadium, paid for be the people.

cities

"The city as a growth machine" is pretty well documented and accepted. Early on, people came together in cities to exchange goods and services and build educational institutions and businesses. Yet, our state legislators ignore their needs. Was it the last budget in which the repubs provided NO funding to Minneapolis, St. Paul, or . . . Bloomington or Duluth, not sure which. If the cities build light rail, or a major hospital, or a new highway, everyone in the state benefits because it helps all of us prosper.
I guess we don't need further documentation of the short-sightedness, parochial attitude of most of our republican legislators.

35W Bridge

I agree with former Rep. Oberstar that delivery times for big projects are not substantially delayed by environmental review and permitting. However, the experience of the 35W Bridge represented a very unique set of circumstances and does not extrapolate well to other projects.

Under existing rules, the new bridge was categorically exempt from environmental review at the state and federal levels even though it represented an 2-lane expansion of the previous bridge. The permitting was easier because MNDOT decided to use the old bridge piers for the new bridge supports. As a result, the likelihood that there was going to be a new or different environmental issue that might hang up the new bridge was so small as to be non-existent.

None of this translates easily to big, bad projects in new or different locations. As former Rep. Oberstar mentioned, the one thing that did help was getting all of the permitting agencies in a room and working from the same base of information. Under existing rules, however, coordination of that kind is not only allowed it is supposed to be business as usual. The fact that it doesn't happen as much as it should says way more about agencies like MNDOT wanting to push their projects forward come hell or high water than any so-called problems with the process of environmental review and the substance of environmental permitting.