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U's Myron Orfield: Met Council aids and abets suburban sprawl, prosperity at expense of core cities

Has the Metropolitan Council fulfilled its mission of advancing "orderly and efficient" growth for Minneapolis, St. Paul and their suburbs? Or has it acquiesced to a gradual and destructive decentralization of the metro region? Has it earned its national reputation for good planning? Or has it caved in to suburban sprawl at the expense of redirecting growth and vitality back toward the center? If the council has failed in these pursuits, how might it be improved?

Myron Orfield has thought a lot about these questions since the mid-1990s when he first took on "metro politics" with a startling series of books and maps that chronicled the growing concentrations of poverty and disorder in the core cities and blue-collar suburbs, and the simultaneous expansion of prosperity and stability on the metro edge.

For Orfield, director of the Institute of Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School, the Metropolitan Council has been complicit in these disparate trends, especially over the past 20 years. Those trends, with their overtones of race, class and economic disparity, are not easily confronted by Minnesotans. That the Met Council has aided and abetted those disparities is a notion that continues to cause tension between Orfield and the local planning and building community.

"I think the Met Council is not the cause of decentralization; it just didn't do its job to make things better," Orfield said last week.

Keeping in mind today's Urban Land Institute Minnesota discussion about the Met Council's past and future, I sat down with Orfield and his U colleague, Thomas Luce, to discuss their new book: "Region: Planning the Future of the Twin Cities." Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

Thomas Luce
Thomas Luce

MinnPost: Your work over the years has documented expanding concentrations of minorities and poverty in the inner metro and growing affluence at the edge. Why are you worried about that? Isn't that just the way cities are?

Myron Orfield:
We're worried because racial and socio-economic segregation is bad for poor kids and poor neighborhoods. Those places get disinvested and red-lined. The private sector doesn't operate there. The foreclosure crisis hit those areas hard. And the hollowing out of parts of the region isn't good for the health of the region as a whole. It's not just a problem in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Richfield, East Bloomington, Osseo, Hopkins, St. Louis Park [and] almost all of the inner suburbs are now experiencing what we first noticed in the '90s.

MP: But why should affluent suburbanites care?

Thomas Luce:
Because concentrating almost all of your problems in just a few places creates bigger problems for the public sector and higher taxes for everyone. More important, perhaps, the whole region doesn't compete as well.

MP: We're talking here about disinvestment and weakening at the core while the larger metro is decentralizing. This has happened despite the fact that we have a Met Council that was, as I read it, supposed to counteract those trends.

MO:
Yes, and we did a good job in the '60s, '70s and '80s. Ironically, in the '90s, we started moving away from that. One of the key indicators is job location. Because of the early work of the Met Council we were able to cluster jobs in a relatively few places, mostly toward the center. That allowed transit to operate. It made for greater efficiency in infrastructure. And it gave poor people better access to jobs. Beginning about 1994, we dropped the idea of enforcing these clusters and began allowing jobs to scatter. That, in turn, encouraged the residential market to relocate another 20 or 40 miles farther out. That made it harder for low-income people to get to work, and it created a lot of traffic problems on the edge.

MP: How did it happen? Was it part of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era notion that government regulation should be more of a cozy partnership?

MO:
Well, I don't know. It was sad. The council, first under Curt Johnson and then continuing under Ted Mondale and Peter Bell, decided for whatever reason not to consider job clusters when reviewing cities' comprehensive plans. Before, under the older councils, the plans were disapproved if new jobs weren't clustered in areas where jobs already existed. But starting in about 1994, they began to see the rules less as regulation than as a kind of public relations. They took regulatory structure and made it just happy talk. They wanted everyone to be happy together. The local comprehensive plans had always been negotiated between local governments and the Met Council. But starting in the '90s, they were just rubber-stamped.

Myron Orfield
Myron Orfield

Another important thing that happened came in about 2001 under Mondale when they decided to open up a huge area near the edge for two-acre residential lots. They basically got rid of the MUSA line [the Metropolitan Urban Services Area, a kind of growth boundary] and discontinued the principle that development had to be orderly and contiguous. That was a big mistake.

TL: One result was that the council undercut one of its main functions; to act as an offset against the built-in subsidies that suburban development enjoys. There's a 25 or 30 percent cost advantage on land and transportation that favors them that's built into the system. After about 2001, they could just keep that subsidy and build what they wanted while charging everyone else for the cost.

MO: The council said basically that the remedy for getting too fat is to loosen your belt.

MP: As I recall, one of the reasons they gave was that without accommodating the outer suburbs, development would simply leapfrog to the collar counties. But that brings up a basic issue. How can the Met Council be legitimate when it includes only seven of the 13 metro area counties? (The Census Bureau defines 11 Minnesota and 2 Wisconsin counties as constituting the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro.)

MO:
Well, rather than ignoring the regulatory structure, they should have brokered an arrangement with the collar counties or found a way to bring them in. Those counties would benefit from the tax-sharing that the metro counties have. I think there's a real question about whether the state should allow metro-scale highways and other developments (Northstar rail, I-94 expansions) in the collar counties unless they become part of the regional governance.

MP: So, you think the Met Council has been too timid in extending its influence.

MO:
I'm convinced that we have the strongest structure in the nation to shape growth. But we choose not to use it. It's ironic. Portland has a less muscular structure and does more with it. We have a stronger structure but do less and less. And Portland, by the way, is doing much better than we are. Its growth is surging in the central areas. Its jobs have been concentrating there. And its schools are becoming less segregated and less impoverished as the middle class stays or moves in. Why is that? Because Portland has used its planning authority.

MP: Peter Bell tells me that the reason the council's powers aren't used is because the suburbs would revolt and the whole enterprise would fall apart.

MO:
I think they would just rather not do anything. Just to say it's hopeless and the collar counties don't want to join is a lack of leadership.

MP: You mention Portland. Are we more like the cities we prefer to compare ourselves to — Portland, Seattle, Denver? Or do we now have more in common with the Rust Belt cities that have big concentrations of poverty, places like Milwaukee, Cleveland and St. Louis?

TL:
Our economic profile is more like Portland and Seattle; our social profile has begun to resemble those other cities.

MO: I think we're more like Chicago. It has a pretty strong central city with lots of vitality and gentrification. But it's also very polarized with deep pockets of poverty. We're not like Detroit; we're not hollowed out.

MP: It's increasingly apparent that cities — even states — are artifacts of a past era, and that metro areas are the socio-economic units in which we live and work. Yet there is no authentic metro government elected by voters and operating in a way that reflects reality.

MO:
That's true. Our region is especially fragmented. We have 187 cities. We have 76 school districts, most of which are not contiguous to their cities. We have countless watershed districts and other assorted districts — about 1,700 taxing districts in all. That's incredible complexity. I think we should have an elected Met Council that fairly represents central cities, developed suburbs and developing suburbs. And I think under that there's room for a lot of consolidation that would make government more efficient. I'd like to see 20 to 40 cities and 20 to 40 contiguous school districts.

NOTE: Monday's Urban Land Institute meeting includes a members-only discussion with former Met Council chairmen Curt Johnson and Ted Mondale, and current chair Peter Bell. Minnpost hopes to include their reactions to Orfield's comments in Wednesday's Cityscape column.

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Comments (33)

"I think under that there's room for a lot of consolidation that would make government more efficient. I'd like to see 20 to 40 cities and 20 to 40 contiguous school districts."

How does that work? I recall on the title to our house, we're in 'the pleasant park addition to Minneapolis' or some such thing. When's the last time a metro city annexed a neighbor? I suspect the residents of Mendota & Sunfish Lake would resent being combined with Mendota Heights, for instance. In short, it may be one of those good ideas that's impossible to implement.

Orfield is a social engineering far-left elitist who refuses to admit that the destruction of the minority family (fatherlessness)caused by generations of the results of the failure of Democratic welfare policies is the issue.

Not the "suburbs", or the Met Council.

Human nature is to strive and our Constitutionally guaranteed liberty assures that those who do strive and succeed have the free will to live where they choose.

Orfield needs to work instead to change the deplorable Democratic policies that keep minority consituencies separated from success and cause the perpetual cultural social ills that result in the "concentrations" of poverty, crime, and sociopathology he so misleadingly advocates against.

But he won't because he is paid by the same "powers" that seek to keep the race and poverty pimping industry alive and well.

"Orfield is a social engineering far-left elitist who refuses to admit that the destruction of the minority family (fatherlessness)caused by generations of the results of the failure of Democratic welfare policies is the issue."

BINGO!

Although I'd add leftist cheerleading of the "if it feels good, do it", secular humanist mentality.

What's not to like? There are some ideas here that could be supported both by democrats and republicans.

It’s hard to know where to begin with Maginnis and Swift. For one thing, get your heads out of the right-left syndrome. Some of these things are neither – just policies that lead to destructiveness and more poverty. And they are far more complex than your simplistic ideas.
It was “social engineering” but of a far different kind that put African Americans in such a disadvantaged position. Go back a little—one could go way back but let’s start in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s and later. The suburbs were flourishing and the cities suffered because of segregation, bigotry, and housing and loan policies--federal government but also private insurers, banks, etc. The Veterans’ Administration and FHA and other agencies used categories of acceptability to approve loans. At the top—homogenous new communities, meaning White suburbs. At the bottom, often Jewish communities and always, black communities. Almost no money went to the cities and especially the inner cities. Not to buy houses or even (especially) to fix up homes and apartments. Restricted covenants were not only legal but encouraged. The cities were neglected and minorities almost never got money to help them buy.
The G.I. bill? Some of the same problems came up, especially in the South (and many of the people in the north were among the Great Migration from South to North that took place over decades but especially in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Especially in the South, African Americans did not get the houses, the education, or jobs they would have gotten if they had been white. They were steered into notoriously underfunded black schools, to technical schools, to laboring jobs. Southern legislators made sure the law was changed to allow local cities and states to administer and approve housing loans, educational grants, to make sure to keep the status quo, white superiority
Things were only somewhat better in the North where they lived in ghettos, were not allowed to move out of these places, and were shepherded into public housing for the poor and disadvantaged, in high rises isolated from the rest of the community. (The whites made sure public housing wasn't in their neighborhoods.) Where poor and black children went to the poor schools with each other and despair ruled—few role models, no reason to hope, not even enough knowledge to hope for better.
Add to this decades-long legacies: the bigotry that kept blacks out of decent jobs, even when well educated (and I could recount story after story about that) and out of housing in “good” communities even when they could afford it, even after the 1964 Civil Rights act when discrimination continued even though illegal. Blacks heard, “that place is already rented.“ “Wouldn’t you like to buy in this other (poorer, blacker) neighborhood?” “You can have this house" – but not stated – it will cost you $5,000 or $10,000 more in a “color tax.”
Add to that the daily rejections and humiliations. Black men being called “boys.” Driving and even walking while black. Disproportionate arrest rates for petty crimes and misdemeanors. Assumptions that black children couldn’t learn and that when a black child did good and even outstanding work, the teacher often did not believe him or her and insisted someone else must have written it (August Wilson, for example, but many others, some of whom pushed on and did succeed, but no all). Police violence against blacks. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
These are only some of the things that have deeply disadvantaged black people who started out with nothing--from slave labor, sharecropping, etc., so they could not build any wealth, on through cruelty and bigotry on the part of the larger society.

One more thing: Do you think you are not paying for this sort of dysfunction and poverty? And you and I SHOULD BE. We -- the generic we -- put them into these situations.

Does Myron Orfield ever consider the source of Minnesota poverty? Specifically, is the nature of our "welfare system" encouraging a net influx of poverty from places outside of Minnesota?

Oh, we're paying all right, Ginny. The problem is that as long as we have leftists in positions of power, we'll continue to pay for programs that inherently facilitate the destruction and misery BD and I are talking about.

I'm sorry, but any honest appraisal of the Democrat party’s “New Society” must conclude that it has succeeded in destroying black American families beyond the Klan's wildest dreams.

Sorry, swift but that's a load of crap. No other word for it.

I see the conservatives spending a lot of time & effort casting aspersions and zero time adding insight or making a positive comment or suggestion.

Ginny - I just finished The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, you might enjoy it. Amazing storytelling/history of the great migration.

And providing zero evidence for sweeping falsehoods and generic insults for all "lefties," members of the "Democrat" Party (there is no such party), liberals, and a few others who are communist, socialist, maybe fascist.
This is not a discussion of policies and ideas. It's just grade-school insults.

Ginny, a sobering bit of investigative authorship to add to your reading list:

http://fumento.com/economy/greatsociety.html

Or, if you prefer the uncomfortable truth from a leftist, I suggest Mickey Kaus: The End Of Equality.

No insults; just cold, hard, irrefutable facts.

I am sympathetic to the idea of setting an ideal boundary for suburban growth around the TC area. Accommodating new residential areas into existing mass transit plans is an expensive and difficult task. To some extent, an eye towards recycling land and consolidation is a good thing.

However, nowhere in this interview is a discussion of the root causes of why people left inner cities, and why people are now similarly leaving first ring suburbs. The closest they come to an explanation is: "We're worried because racial and socio-economic segregation is bad for poor kids and poor neighborhoods. Those places get disinvested and red-lined. The private sector doesn't operate there. The foreclosure crisis hit those areas hard."

Those are just code words for calling middle and upper middle class suburbanites racists. In reality, it isn't suburbanites' faults that urban planners created impenetrable pockets of poverty through their public housing designs in the 50s-70s. It wasn't conservatives creating massive urban planning initiatives, it was well-intentioned liberal folks who thought they could improve distribution of government services if they consolidated lower income groups into high density housing (ie, high rise towers). As most American cities of the era feature some amount of segregation, the urban planners reinforced that segregation by designing large-scale public housing for each ethnic area. This is as true in Minneapolis as it is in Baltimore, DC, Brooklyn/The Bronx, Atlanta, and most other major metropolitan areas.

Whether the intent to segregate was real or not does not matter. The net effect of these utopian visionaries was that blight was concentrated, and then it grew out of the urban planning zones and into surrounding areas. As the Robert Moses-style urban planning became discredited in the 80s-90s no accountability was taken for the past mistakes, and new forms of inner city planning came into effect with only slightly better results.

In the end, cities began to take the existing corporate and manufacturing infrastructure for granted. Residents fled as crime encroached their neighborhoods, and core areas of downtowns were abandoned because businesses no longer had an economic incentive to remain in the location. You can't blame the people who left the city in the 70s and 80s. They didn't ask for crime to penetrate their neighborhoods, and they didn't ask city officials to antagonize the corporate tax base or ignore a deteriorating infrastructure to fund the wildest and most expensive social experiments (the Great Society). Unfortunately, blaming suburbanites is what Myron Orfield seems to be all about.

If suburbanites returned to the city en masse, they would be blamed for gentrification and making housing unaffordable for the lower income population. All the while, they would be looked down upon by the long-time residents. The Orfields of the world would cheer that sort of racial/class animus on while using the newly restored middle/upper middle class's money to further fund their social experimentation.

It's no wonder that people are pushing further out. They want to get away from having every aspect of their life planned and dictated by a University professor. Maybe they also don't want to be mocked and derided as their tax dollars are happily consumed on social services that provide them no benefit.

Let's throw some "free market theory" into the discussion for my conservative friends here..

Taxpayers shouldn't have to pick up the tab for other people's preferences for suburban living, yet that has been the effect of the federal interstate highway program since the mid-1950s. The construction of free beltways and expressways has subsidized suburban development. And the financing of urban beltways and expressways from the Federal Highway Trust Fund represents a subsidy to suburban sprawl.

To argue that highway funding played no role in setting suburban development patterns is, I think, very difficult indeed. It is, for one thing, to suggest that Americans are immune to considerations of costs and benefits. Highway construction made living farther away from center cities and other households very cheap, and since the highway boom of the 1950s, American households have responded to this incentive.

The "correct" or efficient amount of suburban development is the amount that consumers are willing to pay for so long as they bear the incremental costs of land acquisition and expressway construction.

Richard: Not all expressways from suburban to urban areas are free. Tolls are a major part of highway maintenance and construction in most major cities on the coasts. So, in a sense, the people who use them do pay for them. Also, suburbanites who commute pay a higher share of federal and state gas taxes, which also fund those roads. They are making conscious free market choices about where to live and paying more for it.

Why hasn't MN instituted tolls? It could be a major piece of funding for mass transit projects that may eventually eliminate the need for those toll roads.

Richard, here's something you should consider.

If freeway construction was halted; no more roads to or from urban areas...do you think that suburbanites would move to the cities, or would the jobs move to the suburbanites?

The freeways to and from Detroit are just about as uncongested as you'll find anywhere...how's that working out for them?

The law of unintended consequences seems, somehow, especially suited to liberal socio-economic experimentation.

See also; Cabrini Green, the Robert Taylor Homes & etc.

Okay bring in LGA ! All right I will. This policy was instituted to help balance out the losses of vast, look at them closely when you drive through folks, of city centers that were torn asunder for highways to city center from the suburbs and outward. As to no tolls here but another more creative policy to adjust imbalance. Oh tolls would be a form of social engineering would they not ? The entire city of Minneapolis will have one yes one high school hockey team people. Anyone curious about how that happened ? The cities are being gutted for someone's benefit. I love Orfield because he brings data, information, study to a crucial issue. These have substance unlike namecalling or slippery slope argument.

John, I agree on toll roads, which capture revenue from the folks that use the system.

Although my larger point was that the current dominance of automobiles is due to massive subsidization by government which through most of the twentieth century competed with privately owned, privately operated railways including streetcar systems that had to pay taxes. Every conservative understands very quickly what happens when you tax one mode and subsidize the other. The taxed mode disappears and the subsidized mode becomes dominant. Nothing about our current imbalance in transportation is a free market outcome. Not in the slightest.

The notion that the gas tax covers all highway expenses is a notion that should make anyone in state government laugh. The highways require enormous support, local state and federal, that goes well beyond what gas taxes bring in. So it’s not a question of a subsidized mode versus an unsubsidized mode.

What should be done and what should have been done in the seventies is that the gas tax should be designed so that the price of gas goes up a predictable amount every year.

Except for World War II the Twin Cities streecar system lost money after the start of the Great Depression. To a high degree the streetcar owners made their money off of land speculation and electricity sales.

Basically the streetcar system owners would buy land and then run the streetcar to it. This ended with the start of the Great Depression.

In the middle 1930's President Roosevelt ordered that the streetcar line divest themselves of their electric generation operations. Streetcars used a lot of electricity, especially during the "rush hours". They sold a lot of electricity to industrial users during the workday.

There was one new streetcar line going through my Longfellow neighborhood which was built right after the first world war. It had relatively light use until WWII rationing.

Myron doesn't make his final point with much elegance, but the point behind consolidating cities is clear in terms of financing an efficiencies when you look at how many city services are being contracted out to their county, neighboring city, or other authority because the city simply can't afford to maintain their own police department, or fire department, etc. If we're already moving towards capturing those efficiencies, it's probably advisable to actually merge the cities. But it's something people instinctively resist.

Charter reform is probably overdue for the Met Council, but it should happen simultaneously with similar efforts for its constituent counties and most especially the City of Minneapolis.

Richard: Manipulating the gas price by raising it a predictable amount every year would likely put providers out of business. The price of oil, which is already manipulated, fluctuates too wildly to support an annual tax hike. Also, it's regressive, which I know liberals don't like. While a mild tax increase as a nudge toward mass transit or centralized development may be a good idea in an idea world, the reality dictates that many people, middle class and poor alike, rely on their automobiles for work and wouldn't be able to make ends meet if the price of a gallon spikes and there's a five cent tax increase.

As for the subsidization of the auto over trains, is that surprising when the AUW was one of the most powerful lobbies in the country for fifty years? So powerful that the federal government threw out the normal rules of bankruptcy and cont racts to save them when the industry was going under? The idea of cars also fits neatly with the ideal of an "ownership society," which is another source of flight to the suburbs. It is also a source of much pain that the ownership ideal was pushed by the government and led to banks being mandated to make unnecessary loans to satisfy the CRA and HUD requirements. Both parties are guilty of perpetrating this scheme on the public-the Dems for creating the legislation and regulation and Bush for emphasizing the idea of an ownership society early in his presidency (and by keeping interest rates so low for so long).

The ownership society ideal is a distortion of the free market, which would not bear the type of risk involved in so many unqualified people owning or upgrading homes. Nevertheless people have the right to live where they please so long as they can afford it. Suburban sprawl may appear inefficient but it has probably wasted far less money and ruined far fewer lives than the Robert Moseses of the world.

Suburbanites should feel no responsibility for what liberal social engineers did to the inner cities. If city governments hadnt taken commercial tax bases for granted between 1950 and 2000, they wouldn't have lost so many middle class residents to the jobs and commerce of the suburbs.

The market determines the price of fuel. The tax is what it is, a tax on petrol.

I'm not sure I agree with privatizing roads completely, but I hold a similar view of the problem. We have too many roads to nowhere that incentivize people to move to nowhere. Too many roads that aren't paid for by the people that live there. Goods should be moved by freight, not on roads. The highway system has gotten out of control.

America would also be less car-dependent if the school integration efforts of the 70s hadn't made the suburbs a vastly more attractive place for people raising kids. Attempts by government to stamp out people's natural tribalism will never succeed, but will almost always result in a less-efficient accomplishment of the same self-segregation.

I'm afraid that the crux of the problem is the refusal of the average American to accept this deal:
Mr. Obama will raise our gas prices by about $100 per month, and he will cut our income taxes by $100 per month.

We know this is good for America and Americans, but against that there is pure irrational psychology. Joe the plumber doesn't like Mr. Obama, Joe the plumber "feels" poorer when he has to cough up an extra $20 bill at each fill-up, and Joe the plumber doesn't really notice the extra $100 in his monthly paycheck. It is like an airline charging $10 for a carry on bag while lowering the ticket price by the same amount. People just hate it.

Of course, gas is also perhaps the most price-variable "staple" in the average household budget, and demand is relatively inelastic. So dramatic price increases make people feel scared and helpless. Maybe we have to put a reminder on every gas pump that their paychecks are bigger too.

Finally, this really does increase the burden on rural and suburban/exurban communities. But only to the extent that they have been unwisely subsidized in the past. This is the only "real" and rational reason anyone should oppose a gas tax. We can partially ameliorate this pain with better mass transit, but ultimately America will be a better, stronger, wealthier, happier, healthier nation if we get back into denser walkable traditional communities formerly known as "cities" and "towns".

Sadly, our errors are now cemented in cloverleafs and cul-de-sacs. But of all nations, America should be one which is unafraid to see a mistake, identify a solution, and march resolutely towards it obstacles notwithstanding.

Even if you believe saving gasoline is a holy cause, subsidizing electric cars simply is not a substitute for politicians finding the courage to jack up gas prices. Think about it this way: You can double the fuel efficiency of any car by putting a second person in it. You can increase its fuel efficiency to infinity by refraining from frivolous trips.

These are the incentives that flow from a higher gas price. Exactly the opposite incentives flow from mandatory investment in higher-mileage vehicles. You paid a lot for a car that costs very little to operate—so why not operate it? Why bother to car pool? Why not drive across town for a jar of mayonnaise?

While the market determines the price of fuel, it is not in the long-term interests of anyone to levy an annual tax increase on it when the price is unpredictable from year to year. For instance, if the tipping point for consumers' demand for gasoline is a total of $3.10/g, and demand sharply decreases at that point, stations will have difficulty staying in business when they are paying $2.00 of each gallon to their suppliers and another $0.85 to the government. If they raise it above the tipping point, demand will continue to decrease and they will be screwed either way.

Similarly, if their is a constant tax increase on gasoline, and the price reaches the breaking point for consumers, a tax will only increase the financial hardship on lower and middle class families by causing the price to either remain high or go higher.

The problem with remedying all of Orfield's concerns is: the Democrats don't have the nerve to actually implement what they believe. If they wanted to make gas cripplingly expensive and force people to rely on mass transit, they could have done this through federal initiatives over the past two years. Instead of God knows what, the trillion dollars of the American Recovery and Reinvestment act could have been used to fund light and high speed rail projects in and between mid-size cities that currently lack them. I wouldn't support artificially making gas prohibitively expensive, but if that trillion dollars was going to be spent somehow it should have been spent on real infrastructure projects. Not on building sidewalks along rural highways.

As for consolidating municipal services, people don't want the problems - perceived or real - of their neighbors. They either find their city/town convenient or hospitable or both. People who are fond of their cities as is will not be the only ones to resist this; the unions that represent public service workers will fight it to the death. The last thing that they want is consolidation of services that will result in lost union jobs.

Light rail to connect more of the first ring suburbs to the cities is a good start for the discussion, but Orfield's blaming of suburbanites while not acknowledging the decades-long faults of liberal urban planners takes the discussion backwards. Admit that high-rise public housing towers were a terrible idea that fostered and facilitated crime, learn from the mistakes that isolating people in "concrete jungles" set the urban poor back for decades, and then we can go forward. Until people like Orfield realize the social and economic damage that centralized planning has done to cities, they have no right to speak out about how suburbanites locate and organize their neighborhoods and towns.

Amazing the number of people who apparently did not even read what Orfield and Luce had to say before jumping all over them as "elitist far left social engineers" or the like. Here's what Orfield said in the article:

"I think the Met Council is not the cause of decentralization; it just didn't do its job to make things better," Orfield said last week."

That was to these questions:

"Has the Metropolitan Council fulfilled its mission of advancing "orderly and efficient" growth for Minneapolis, St. Paul and their suburbs? Or has it acquiesced to a gradual and destructive decentralization of the metro region? Has it earned its national reputation for good planning? Or has it caved in to suburban sprawl at the expense of redirecting growth and vitality back toward the center? If the council has failed in these pursuits, how might it be improved?"

Mr. Orfield is being honest about the Met. Council experiment and regional planning and I think he and Mr. Luce have identified correctly, if perhaps too politely, some of the main causes. The answers to these questions are in order:

1. No.
2. Yes.
3. No.
4. Yes.
5. If the council has failed in these pursuits, how might it be improved? Mr. Orfield and Mr. Luce suggest that maybe the Met. Council actually use its planning authority rather than abdicate it to local governments.

What they say is "The council said basically that the remedy for getting too fat is to loosen your belt." That's a polite way of saying that the Met. Council was taken over by the Builders Association and other pro-development groups in the 1980's and 1990's. These groups used the power of the Met. Council to subsidize and promote suburban growth through sewer and highway development beyond where jobs and public transit were.

A lot of the comments above talk about "planning" as if it were the same as "central planning" of the Soviet Union, with 5 years plans or as if you could allow investments decisions to the "free market." Highways, water and sewer and for that matter, storm sewer, electric and gas utilities, cable TV are public infrastructure that don't get built without public control and often direct subsidies. Most of the road networks of suburban towns are paid for in the development costs and are subsidized indirectly by the mortgage interest deduction.

Poor Ginny.

Trots out every shibbolleth and hand wringing sob-story, epitomizing the very anquished utopian "white guilt" that propelled a done-nothing like Barry Obama to the the Presidency.

I anxiously await her estimation of the struggle for acclimation of the Hmong, Korean, and Somali immigrants who have been here a fraction of the duration of the descendants of African slaves.

Not to mention the Norwegians, Swedes, and of course, my Irish brethren.

Mr. Orfield, like Ginny, are not the solution.

They are the very source of the "problem".

Let’s ignore the hysteria from the right today, shall we?

Any government, of any political party, in any jurisdiction up to and including the national, Mr. Maginnis, practices “social engineering.” Some of them do it more skillfully than others, some of them with more subtlety, but every government does it, and of course, doing away with government completely is “social engineering,” as well. “Elitist” is a meaningless term.

And Mr. Swift adds nothing to the discourse by an equally meaningless jab at “leftist cheerleading of the ‘if it feels good, do’ secular humanist mentality,” whatever that means.

My admittedly amateur observation of the process in 6 years as a citizen planning commissioner – “just enough knowledge to be dangerous” is the way I usually phrase it – suggests to me that quite a bit of the commentary is off-target.

Planners, and planning departments, whether “centralized” or fragmented into the kind of counterproductive territorialism that produces dozens of overlapping, often redundant, and confusing jurisdictions, are merely – and I want to emphasize this – employees. Yes, there have been trends in planning over the past century, and some of those trends have been more, or less, beneficial than others, but the enthusiasms of planners do not translate directly into the sorts of public policy decisions that entities like the Met Council typically make.

Planners and planning departments work at the instruction of a City Manager, a Mayor, a City Council, a regional organization such as the Met Council, or some combination of those kinds of organizations, whether I’ve named them here specifically or not. Planners don’t get to make policy. Planners follow instructions from political leaders and or administrative heads. Those are the people who make policy.

Cities and suburbs are not just racially and/or ethnically segregated, they are economically segregated. There’s quite a bit of overlap between the two, but neither one is something to be proud of. If you really believe that someone whose income is only half of yours is thus considerably less valuable as a person than you are, and you can’t stand the idea of living anywhere within sight of them, then democracy as both a concept and a reality is dead as a doornail. When you insist that new residential development must take place on lots of 2 acres or more, you’ve instituted economic segregation – economic bigotry, to be more accurate – of the most egregious kind.

I’d argue that one of the great flaws in public policy at the regional and community level in the past half-century has been social engineering of the most obvious sort in the form of the adoption by cities, counties and other political subdivisions, of “Euclidian Zoning.” That is, zoning an area, a city, a region, for a single use. Whether that use is large-lot residential, small-scale commercial, “big-box” commercial, industrial, entertainment, or whatever, limiting development to a single use has had numerous negative effects, some of which have been evident for many years, but that political leaders – always sensitive to the prejudices of their constituents – have avoided like the proverbial electrified rail. It’s endemic to the suburbs, but I’m living in a Minneapolis neighborhood that exemplifies its application in an urban environment. This isn’t something done by planners or planning departments of their own volition, it’s something done by City Councils, County Councils, and even state legislatures. Planners have to follow the rules established by the powers-that-be, and those powers are always held by political leaders at every level.

If the Met Council has failed in its assigned task – and a perusal of the article suggests a strong possibility that that’s the case – it’s likely because local political leaders, regardless of their political party affiliation, have too often fallen victim to the siren song of the real estate developer. In doing so, it seems they’ve frequently lost sight of the public good, not to mention the consequences a decade or two down the road of decisions made today.

Does anyone know how many land developers are currently on the Met Council? Seems to me there were a few on the Council back in the 90s.

I'm not going to get in the whole mess of the comments section, but one point was made about the gas tax and users paying for roads through this tax. As it stands right now, with a set per-gallon tax, the gas tax has decreased significantly over time in real terms. Even with the slight nominal increase forced through by DFL-ers a few years ago, the tax is still MUCH lower in real terms than it was back in the 70s and 80s. Like big time. It is even more dramatic when compared to the rise in cost of gasoline instead of the rise in CPI.

By the CPI, the $0.20 tax of 1988 would have to be $0.37 today, which would result in additional $544 million per year (this is only to make the tax EQUAL to what it was before). Also, let's say gas was $1 in 1988 and $3 today. If we had a % (ad valorem) tax on gas back then instead of a fixed tax, it would be generating $0.60 per gallon today (taxed at the SAME rate, so not a real increase). This would result in an additional $1.28 billion to MnDOT every year.

Again, these figures are keeping taxation the same in real terms. Instead, we've had a steadily decreasing gas tax due to inflation.

In terms of annexation I grew up in Maplewood, where 3M moved their corporate headquarters. St. Paul made a rather ham handed effort to annex just the 3M campus. By this time the suburbs were gaining political power. Laws were made making forced annexation very difficult in Minnesota.

Matt, thanks for taking the time to crunch the numbers for the gas tax.