Ready for reinvestment? State caught in paradigm shift

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s distaste for President-elect Obama’s economic recovery plan is hard to miss. He called Obama’s intention to launch the nation’s largest public-works program since the Interstate highways of the 1950s “an elaborate Ponzi scheme” that “doesn’t do anything” to soften Minnesota’s horrific budget problems.

Despite the rhetoric, state agencies are quietly lining up projects that could benefit from billions of federal dollars flowing into the state. And interest groups are sharpening their arguments on the best ways to take advantage.

“A crisis like this is a terrible thing to waste,” State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, told this month’s gathering of the Regional Council of Mayors. Dibble’s paraphrase (first uttered by Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel) describes perfectly the mood of a broad coalition bent on what might be called “metropolitan reinvestment.”

These are local officials, planners, economists, contractors, environmentalists, and transportation and real-estate experts who are lining up behind the prescription offered by  Bruce Katz, the Brookings Institution’s guru of metropolitan planning.

A blueprint with new urgency

Anticipating a political turnaround in Washington, Katz last spring outlined a “Blueprint for American Prosperity” as a way to refocus the infrastructure debate. Now with the economy in full nosedive, Katz’s blueprint has taken on new urgency. And it bears a striking resemblance to Obama’s priorities – both his stimulus plan and his longer-term vision for an infrastructure overhaul.

The salient point: If you’re going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure, you better make sure you’re anticipating the 21st century marketplace and not just building the same old stuff.

That means less emphasis on new roads that perpetuate excessive driving and more emphasis on fixing old roads and bridges. It means adding transport alternatives, like mass transit, local streets, bike lanes, pedestrian atmosphere and high-speed rail. It means finding ways to build projects faster, with less red tape.

Most important, it means offering a way for Americans to live on a smaller carbon footprint. That requires a marriage of transportation and land use so that cities can be retrofitted to allow people to choose lifestyles of proximity, convenience and efficiency.

Old model favors rural over metro projects
That’s harder than it sounds. The mechanics of government are set up to carry out transportation programs of the 1950s and ’60s. Federal money passes through state legislatures with formulas and restrictions that favor rural road projects over transit projects in metro areas. Even when transit lines are built, no incentives are offered for clustering homes and jobs in close proximity. In other words, the entire funding system is rigged against the kind of infrastructure spending most urgently needed to match the 21st century marketplace.

When Washington state recently announced its long list to be considered for the stimulus package, only one project, a tiny one at that, was in Seattle, the state’s main generator of economic growth. That story was related to the Twin Cities’ regional mayors’ gathering by Mary Sue Barrett, president of the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council. Metro areas must be prepared to assert themselves or the stimulus will be badly spent, she warned.

“We must change our mental map of the United States,” she said, arguing that metro areas, not states, are the engines of national prosperity. “We are at the point of re-invention,” she said, adding that the task for metro areas is not just compiling a list of project but assembling a broader rationale for how the projects work together to add value.

The next day, Dec. 9, columnist David Brooks made a similar point in the New York Times. “If, indeed, we are going to have a once-in-a-half-century infrastructure investment, it would be great if the program would build on today’s emerging patterns,” he wrote. “It would be great if Obama’s spending, instead of just dissolving into the maw of construction, would actually encourage the clustering and leave a legacy that would be visible and beloved 50 years from now.”

New way of targeting required

The trick will be to target spending, not on the basis of urban/rural equality, but toward projects that will have the greatest impact in reviving the economy. “A bridge to somewhere” is how Brookings has described the challenge, arguing that the focus should be on cities and suburbs. The largest 100 metro areas account for 75 percent of the nation’s economic output, according to Brookings data. In Minnesota, the Twin Cities metro drives 84 percent of the state’s GDP – but it gets only about half of the state’s transportation money.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak – thought to be in the running for a high-level metropolitan policy job in the White House – said it’s hard to prioritize “when you have a governor saying that we don’t want the money, send it back to Washington.”

That’s not quite what Pawlenty said. Minnesota will take the money. But the governor’s reluctance adds to the feeling that Minnesota has not refocused its transportation and land-use policies to fit the emerging market.

“I’m afraid this is all going to be about throwing money at roads and bridges,” Rybak told his fellow mayors. “This is all happening right now. I’m obsessing because I’m afraid we’re not focused on action.” If Minnesota lacks a forward-looking strategy for investing the stimulus money, maybe the mayors will have to pay a more assertive role, he said.

The paradigm shift and the Met Council
Impatience with Pawlenty’s administration is common among the metro planning crowd. “Our Metropolitan Council is not positioned to be an advocate for the region,” Dibble said, alluding to the fact that the council is an appendage of the governor’s office. Metro planning and transportation have not been Pawlenty priorities. Obama’s election, Pawlenty’s reluctance, the deepening recession and the paradigm shift in transportation and planning have all placed Met Council Chairman Peter Bell in what Bell calls “the vortex.”

Asked about using stimulus to accelerate transit projects, Bell said, “People have got to understand that transit projects are on a long time line. You can’t just get the Central Corridor up and running by putting shovels in the ground.” He referred to the metro’s second light rail line that not scheduled to open until 2014.

Bell said the administration is looking at deferring parks and transit projects recently approved by voters to plug holes in the current operating budgets. On transit, for example, the choice might be to defer big projects in order to keep buses running – buses that help the less wealthy get to jobs.

Asked if he’s considering using federal stimulus money to plug Metro Transit’s current $75 million operating deficit, he said that that’s also under consideration if the federal guidelines allow it. “You have to decide between keeping bus drivers or adding construction workers,” he said.

Bell: Housing trends are shifting
On the question of whether the Met Council is prepared to focus more sharply on policies that promote compact, eco-friendly lifestyle choices, Bell said that the council doesn’t get the credit it deserves for arresting sprawl in recent years. Housing trends are shifting back toward developed areas, he said, although he acknowledged that locating jobs in accessible areas remains a problem.

Is the Met Council out of step with the impending changeover in Washington and with the shifting paradigm on infrastructure spending? “We’re still the MPO,” Bell said, referring to the council’s official designation as the Twin Cities’ metropolitan planning organization. “Were still in charge of operating transit. I don’t see that changing.”

Steve Berg reports on a variety of topics for MinnPost, including urban design, transportation, national politics and world affairs. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Gary Pagel on 12/16/2008 - 12:29 pm.

    If the Twin Cities is the engine that drives Minnesota’s economy we ought to take the govenor off its throttle and make the Metropolitan Council an elected body.

    The Metro Council plans the highways and operates the transit system along with most of the other metro services we have here. An elected council has been kicked around the legislature since it was created 60 years ago. Is there anyone who can name their current Metro Council member?

    If the Federal government is going to really fund infrastructure here in the Twin Cities lets have the Metro Council that is going to plan and implement the program elected by the people who live in the region. How ’bout it Senator Dibble?

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/16/2008 - 01:04 pm.

    Only at a gathering of leftist politicians would someone tout a “Blueprint for American Prosperity” starring public transit and follow that with plans to use federal stimulus money “to plug Metro Transit’s current $75 million operating deficit” and still maintain a straight face.

    Only at such a gathering would you hear plans to spend billions of dollars on light rail to transport imaginary passengers to city centers that in reality are empty.

    There is not a light rail system in the country that comes within a country mile of pulling its own weight economically, or of being truthfully counted as an aid to the economic progress of the areas it has been foisted upon.

    Even in the San Francisco Bay area, where a natural feature (the bay) exists to provide a helpful traffic bottleneck to aid new urbanist dreams, the light rail system posts new record deficits every year.

    You see Steve, what these leftist dreamers fail to recognize is that when they say “clustering” Americans hear “corralling”. They do not realize that the majority of American citizens reflexively resist being herded by government intervention into “proximities”; with good reason.

    Governor Pawlenty sees “mass transit, bike lanes, pedestrian atmosphere and high-speed rail” for what they are: Big government boondoggles that saddle citizens with unfunded upkeep charges that in turn provide fodder for arguments of the need for yearly tax hikes. He also realizes the utter folly of spending yet more untold billions that do not exist to fund them.

    Indeed, although the nomenclature has necessarily changed with the technology, it is the same “forward thinking” being posited by the left of the 21st that was posited by the left of the 19th.

    Some things, indeed, never “change”.

  3. Submitted by Tom Ibsen on 12/17/2008 - 05:51 pm.

    Some things, indeed, never “change.” We keep hearing the same tired, fearful response to anything that approaches positive change for all. Pessimism doesn’t make the world a better place for any of us.

    The comments of Thomas Swift above suggest that he is just willing to throw in the towel. What Swift doesn’t provide are any compelling suggestions about how to deal with issues such as environmental degradation, poor air quality, how to move our working poor from home to work, etc.

    Our transit systems aren’t profitable because we have encouraged, for far too long, the sprawl of metro areas across the United States. We have made it too easy to drive our way to ‘freedom’ five counties away from where we work.

    Cheap gas just hasn’t relected the actual costs of driving. Think environmental degradation, addiction to oil, extending infrastructure, etc.

    Light rail systems and other public transit options do not provide the ONLY solution to these problems but are providing a CHOICE. Every person in the Twin Cities should have a CHOICE to take a bus or train to work. We can make that choice easier for them if the transportation options are safe, clean, effective and timely.

    The status quo certainly hasn’t worked. We’ve tried adding new lanes to our highway systems every 5-10 years. That hasn’t seemed to work as our commutes get longer and longer. It is called induced traffic. If you add lanes, they will fill up.

    The 35W/62 rebuild is costing nearly 300 million dollars! For what? To ensure that thousands of tons of effluent can be more easily spewed from our vehicles as we idle in traffic both during and even after the project is over? Did Swift rally against that government ‘boondoggle?’ Probably not, because it is clear that Swift is not a transit rider and sees value in this government project for him.

    I want creative solutions to our problems. Spare me the ‘stick your head in the sand’ approach. There are vast economies of scale and major benefits when we are ‘clustered.’

  4. Submitted by Dan Schueller on 12/18/2008 - 11:30 am.

    The main benefit of clustering is ignored and not mentioned in this article: that it provides an environment where there is very little need for driving or transit because a bicycle can provide most transportation needs. It is a shame that so few people understand the benefits of bike commuting nor know how enjoyable it is to experience the euphoric adrenalin rush of being the motor. While the efficiency, speed, fun, cost savings and convenience of cycling is not in the general public’s conscious thoughts, this form of transportation epitomizes the definition of a “silver bullet” solution to traffic congestion in urban centers.

    My experience is an example of this. I live 18 miles from work, have a car and have the option of biking, busing or driving. Driving and walking from parking takes me an average of 45 minutes but is highly variable depending on traffic, while the bus takes about 55 minutes and biking takes 60 minutes. But driving is by far the most inferior choice, partly because of its cost, but mostly because of how much time it wastes; because this time could be spent reading or getting a workout in. And while it costs about 50 cents to drive a mile, biking costs 4 cents (1 for the bike’s cost, 1 for chain & cassette wear, 1 for tires and 1 for other accessories). I bike almost every day (I’ll bus when it gets below ten degrees) and in the past six years I have driven to work only three times. Each of the past three years I have put over 12,000 miles on my bike and fewer than 3,000 on my car. Imagine if most people did even a fraction of this, rush hour traffic would not exist.

  5. Submitted by Tom Poe on 12/18/2008 - 02:22 pm.

    Interesting that the best argument for not using federal monies for infrastructure always seems to be some variation of time to completion, as if the construction phase is not supposed to be counted as job creation. I’ve seen some ridiculous logic spewed by members of the Party of Corporate Welfare over the years, but recently, these folks are giving new meaning to the term, idiot.

  6. Submitted by Duke Powell on 12/21/2008 - 11:36 am.

    President-Elect Obama to Rural America, “Drop Dead.”

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