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.