Next link in the TIGER trail project

TH3, Northfield's car sewer

TH3, Northfield’s car sewer

The tale continues…after the City Council authorized rebidding the TIGER trail project in September, 4 bids were received. All bids exceeded projected costs and the low bid is $828,465 over.  Although it took two tries to get the bids and much procedural grandstanding, let’s catch our collective breath.

TIGER supporters would probably agree that Trunk Highway 3 is a 4 lane “traffic sewer” through the middle of Northfield affecting land use, deterring bicycle and pedestrian crossing, and dividing the east and west sides of town.  Since this is also the picture drawn by the Council-adopted Comprehensive Plan (and other plans and policies I get tired of listing for those Council members who ignorantly or willfully avoid them), their understanding is well-grounded in the city’s public policy.

The City has been implementing the policies by adopting more detailed policies (like the Complete Streets policy and Safe Routes to School Plan) and following through on smaller improvements such as filling gaps in the sidewalk network (despite the failure on Maple Street) in annual street projects.  But, TH3 remains a big obstacle.  The 2009 Multimodal Integration Study (which involved collaboration among City staff, elected officials, various City boards and business owners) identified several grade-separated “concepts” which could provide better access across TH3/TH19 and subsequently form the basis of a grant application.  The TIGER grant application selected one of these and the Council approved the application…and so on.

Here are my questions about the project itself (in no particular order):

  1. Costs of retrofitting: This project builds capacity for non-motorized transportation which has not only been excluded from transportation planning until quite recently but made substantially more difficult by projects like the Highway 3 expansion.  What amount is reasonable to remedy a problem created by a mono-modal transportation project (and how can gradual improvement be added back into the transportation planning and budgeting in the future)?  When answering this question, try to identify the ways in which government subsidizes automobile travel.
  2. Cost and value of completion vs. cancellation: The state and federal government are spending money on this project; in addition to the financial contribution, what value is there in completing this project on time, honoring our commitment, and developing good working relationships with the agencies?  When answering this question, map how transportation dollars are allocated to local government from other levels of government.
  3. How does this project link to other bicycle/pedestrian facilities?  Does building this link help increase the usefulness of those facilities?  What other future improvements will further integrate this link into the network?
  4. Compared to other projects of similar scope/complexity, are the bids reasonable?  This is another way of asking whether the grant application underestimated the cost and/or complexity of the project (and that we can believe the bid numbers are the “right” ones). 
  5. Downstream effects: This project will provide jobs, help increase value in the neighborhoods most directly served, perhaps stimulate development at the stalled Crossings development as well as providing Northwest Northfield residents with additional access to jobs and services.  What are these worth?

Yes, the project costs a lot of money and more money than anticipated.  But determining whether it is “too much” should depend on a thoughtful discussion of how the trail serves the long-term transportation goals, what contribution this project makes to future projects, and how we want to build accessibility and equity into the system.

I would like to hear the Council discuss and reach a shared understanding (if not agreement) about the policy perspective adopted by the City which seeks to address transportation beyond cars and maintain and improve the transportation system in ways which serve the entire community.  It’s a big subject which could encompass everything from walking to air quality to storm water to freight to land use to economic development…but the conversation should start and providing for non-automobile connections is one place to do it.

If a majority of the Council believes the current adopted policy positions are misguided, then change the guiding policy with community participation.  Don’t get to the point of decision on projects and try to dismantle the policy one vote at a time.

 

 

Important discussion tonight at the Council

Capital planning should not follow the Field of Dreams model

Tonight at the Council worksession, they’ll be discussing the Capital Improvement Plan.  I believe the CIP is the single most important tool the City has…and Northfield’s, while greatly improved over the last few years, is still not what it could be.  The goal is to plan for and schedule projects to ensure the city is not spending money on things which cost more to maintain than they return on the investment and that the city can identify the revenue to cover the initial costs and the upkeep.

The City, as part of the CIP review, should:

Inventory what we already have, then develop ways to present this to the Council and public which are clear, not misleading and continually updated (surely someone can come up with great data visualizations for municipal planning and spending).  Northfield’s Councilmembers should have flashcards so they could answer (in round, ballpark numbers):

  • How much do we have (e.g. square feet of street, lineal feet of sewer, number of buildings, etc.)?
  • What are the (annual, 10-year, etc.) maintenance costs?
  • When do those costs come due (how old are those buildings, streets, etc.)?
  • What is the revenue stream to cover those costs (general fund, utility fees, etc.)?

Prioritize projects because there will not be enough money to do everything.  Here’s where the Council should be reviewing the long-range plans (like the Comprehensive Plan and its progeny) to remind themselves of priorities which have already been established, updating those plans by gathering citizen input and making the tough choices about what to allocate money to do including both immediate needs and longer term goals for improvement. Policies and plans can help put individual spending choices in a larger context and (one hopes) avoid duplication and increase strategic spending.

The process needs to be part education (Council needs to answer the questions above then convey the picture to the public) and part strategic planning and spending.  Not easy.  Good luck tonight, Council.

The Moneyball approach would be much better

 

 

More TIGER news

“MnDOT recognizes the impact Hwy. 3 has on the divide between the two halves of the city. They want to see this project happen”

Public Works Director Joe Stapf was quoted as saying in the Northfield News.  MNDoT has demonstrated their recognition by agreeing to fund 80% of the cost of the TIGER trail over the original estimate currently estimated at about $600,000.

Wow.  The money is very helpful, of course, but I’m really more impressed with the rationale which is the clearest statement of a change of philosophy at MNDoT I could imagine.

But back to the money.  Grant funding has its problems, certainly, and is probably worth a blog post itself.  Biggest problem is the risk evaluation – my sense is that projects are chosen for grant applications not because they are considered essential and would be funded by the local government anyway, but because if we win the grant lottery we’ll get free money for a one-off special project.  But grants, like tax breaks and statutes, are also tools to carry out policy by awarding grants to particular projects, the Federal government picks what it wants to encourage (but that’s the ideal – see another TIGER criticism at Strong Towns of the Feds not applying their own policy rationally).

The TIGER grant project, according to the grant guidelines,

“is multi-modal, multi-jurisdictional or otherwise challenging to fund through existing programs. The TIGER program enables DOT to use a rigorous process to select projects with exceptional benefits, explore ways to deliver projects faster and save on construction costs, and make investments in our Nation’s infrastructure that make communities more livable and sustainable.”

Northfield’s trail is multi-modal (bike/pedestrian – and “multi-modal” really just means “not cars), multi-jurisdictional (city, state and railroad) and it is challenging to fund given MNDoT’s previous planning and construction of TH3 and by adding value to the core of the city and connecting the two sides of town, I believe it does make Northfield more liveable and sustainable with a very small bit of actual infrastructure construction.  The faster, cheaper requirement seems to have been negated by the multi-jurisdictional component, but it’s still moving pretty quickly for a complicated project.

I fully accept the Strong Towns criticism of the teeny tiny amount of funding for Safe Routes to School or Complete Streets or multi-modal TIGER projects – yes, the grants and special programs (can) miss the larger point that Federal funding of massive highway expansion and car-only planning (along with mortgage interest deductions and more policies) has massively contributed to the problem we are now trying to solve (or at least mitigate).

However, Federal transportation funding will not be revised or rescinded quickly nor will attitudes be changed overnight (and however much I like the Hatch/Baucus proposal to start tax reform with a blank slate, I cannot believe it will happen that way).  So, for the short term, I’m in favor of these programs to help raise consciousness, publicize noteworthy projects, and gradually change the state of transportation in the US.  I’m in favor of this project in particular because it is so well grounded in city policy and earlier projects (read the history in the grant application) and not just plucked out of the air.  MNDoT’s decision to help with funding underwrites this gradual shift in design and planning and gives Northfield a little boost in the right direction.  Not perfect, but a good step forward.

Now we wait for the bids and the Council must act to move forward, but in the meantime:

Thanks, MNDoT!

 

Thinking about cycling differently

Beware bicyclesDorothy Rabinowitz’s video rant about New York City’s bike sharing program may be the most blogged about bit of cycling commentary in recent memory.  Let’s just say her statements mark the extreme view of US cycling where bikes simply do not belong on streets or in cities (and here’s a link to learn about the real bike lobby, not the mythical one Rabinowitz described).  There’s been some more local hoo-ha about cyclists vs. drivers,

In Northfield, we’ve put pretty good policy in place for encouraging cycling and walking, as well as for building sidewalks, bike trails and on-street bike facilities as we take on street projects.  Each new project, however, which tries to build non-automobile facilities continues to meet with resistance from some Council and community members while being  championed by others.

Part of the problem seems to be that in Northfield and New York has nothing to do with the infrastructure, though, but the perception cyclists are some special class of people and, consequently, “they” are sucking up resources that “we” need for other things, like cars.  Perhaps we can stop thinking of cyclists and start thinking of people on bikes, you know, as people like everybody else.  And here’s a little video from a Dutch cyclist who, while visiting the US, observes “the average cyclist in San Francisco seems to be a young fit adult, mostly male and appears to be in a constant hurry” and, unlike Amsterdam, cycling here is recreational, not transportational (and Americans don’t wear “normal clothes”).

For the record, I’m trying to sell my road bikes (the kind one rides in spandex shorts) and keeping my beater bike for riding around town from point A to B in my regular clothes (even skirts), but I’d kind of like one of these.

And here’s a little round-up of other cycling-related stuff which has clustered lately around good infrastructure (and planning infrastructure) and “peak car” – new studies show driving is declining.  Somehow I also fell upon a few older posts about the cost of car ownership (cars from AAAcomparison from NYTimes and a DIY calculator from Bikes at Work and a great new phrase “infrastructurally coerced car ownership” from A New Dallas).

 

 

 

On the TIGER trail story

Former Council member Noah Cashman made headlines at the June 4th City Council meeting by asserting Northfield’s TIGER trail project is part of a Growth Ponzi Scheme saying he got the term from Strong Towns (KYMNLeague of Women Voters). [You can listen to my conversation with Jeff Johnson on KYMN here]

There are two problems – (1)”ponzi scheme” (followed up with a reference to a state fraud hotline) grabs attention while preventing rational discussion; (2) Mr Cashman has misunderstood the Strong Towns mission and, consequently, how it might apply to the TIGER trail project.

joined the board of Strong Towns because I wanted to help broadcast its’ mission “to support a model for growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient.”

What is the Growth Ponzi Scheme?  It is not identified simply by the funding source of a project.  Mr Cashman cited the $1.1 million federal grant funding as definitive, but grants (or other intergovernmental transfer of funds) do not make a project part of a ponzi scheme.  Rather, it’s the these “mechanisms of growth” taken as a larger-scale pattern of post World War II approach to growth:

  1. Transfer payments between governments: where the federal or state government makes a direct investment in growth at the local level, such as funding a water or sewer system expansion.
  2. Transportation spending: where transportation infrastructure is used to improve access to a site that can then be developed.
  3. Public and private-sector debt: where cities, developers, companies, and individuals take on debt as part of the development process, whether during construction or through the assumption of a mortgage.

Strong Towns stresses seeking a higher return on the infrastructure we have already built, capturing value from growth which has occurred and adding value to existing neighborhoods before massive spending in search of potential growth. “Intergovernmental transfers” like federal money for the St. Croix Bridge, tax abatement programs, local government aid help create the illusion of getting a really great deal in the short term, but disguise the long term obligations or undermine the potential tax revenue.

Now let’s ratchet down the rhetoric and think about the TIGER Trail.  What would a Strong Towns analysis of this project look like and how could we rationally discuss the project, including the increase in project cost?

The best option for ensuring safe, convenient travel across Highway 3 for bikes, pedestrians, or people with limited mobility was lost (despite much citizen work) back in 2004 when the highway was reconstructed before MNDOT’s context-sensitive phase and before Northfield had any policy in place (like Complete Streets, or Safe Routes to School) which would have helped design the roadway and intersections to enhance the safe access across the highway.

Next best option: retrofit.  To increase the safety, perception of “cross-ability” and non-motorized access from the West Side to downtown, schools, the pool, and any other destination on the east side of the road, Northfield could retrofit the highway itself, but this would be considerably more expensive than the TIGER trail.  For comparison, MNDoT reconstructed Highway 169 through downtown St Peter in 2010 at a cost of $16.6 million to add bumpouts to reduce crossing distance, street trees for traffic calming and stormwater, etc., as well as improving traffic flow.

The TIGER trail bypasses Highway 3 by using the existing underpass and routing the trail along a city street.  By using the existing infrastructure to add transportation options to further connect established areas of the city, this project helps build resiliency for a Strong Towns.

Looking at the bigger picture, increased bike and pedestrian access to downtown reduces the demand for parking which helps leverage existing parking – a direct tie in to the current Downtown Parking Conversation.  The trail will provide a safe, non-motorized link for a part of town with a concentration of lower income housing.  The City had already agreed to add a trail along the Cannon River by The Crossing site; this project includes that segment.  The trail helps carry out the goals to capitalize on the riverfront by linking to the River Walk.  With an aging population, adding mobility options helps Northfield “age in place.”  

In short, the TIGER trail furthers Northfield’s policy goals for more transportation options, enhances existing neighborhoods, and reuses existing infrastructure to do it.  The trail was supported by many community groups as part of the grant application.  It’s a good project.

But what about the increase in project cost?  Nobody likes this sort of surprise and Mayor Graham is right: “when do we say ‘ouch’ and when do we say ‘uncle’” when deciding how much is too much?  This, really, is the question we should be asking and answering with reference to Northfield’s guiding policies, expected value-added by the project, and short term budget limits.

We should be weighing at least these issues:

The TIGER trail project contributes to building a Strong Town which helps fulfill Northfield’s policy goals and adds value to the core of the City.

The project is funded by a competitive, significant federal grant.  Northfield gets positive recognition for demonstrating we can do the project, success helps Northfield with future grants and not completing the project is likely to adversely affect future grant possibilities.

What allowance should be made for unforseen difficulty? It’s a difficult project with multiple jurisdictions (railroad, MNDoT, private property owners, FHWA), difficult topography and a speedy federal timeline as well as the usual unknowns like soil quality, construction bids, etc.  There have been completely unforeseeable difficulties such as needing to change a retaining wall design (with increased cost) because of Duluth’s experience with flooding.

The Council needs to ignore the headline grabbing rhetoric, learn more about what helps build a Strong Town, examine its policies and then determine how much is too much.

 

 

Northfield’s Complete Streets policy one of the nation’s best!

Northfield’s Complete Streets policy has been recognized as one of the top 10 policies in the country for 2012 (we ranked #5 out of the 125 Complete Streets policies adopted in the US in 2012).

What’s so great about having a Complete Streets policy?  My big policy goal is to link transportation and land use planning to increase the productivity and sustainability of Northfield.  To reach that goal requires some consciousness-raising, disseminating information about the costs of development for cities, and many incremental steps.  A Complete Streets policy is part of making transportation planning more intentional, better linked with surrounding land uses, and increasing awareness of the critical role streets play in cities’ budgets, safety, economic development, stormwater management, quality of life and, of course, getting around town.  By itself, the policy won’t accomplish much, but it is a piece of the bigger picture.

Here’s a bit more news coverage of the announcement: Envision MN highlights Northfield’s  accomplishment; Streetsblog provides some criticism about Complete Streets policies; Better Cities calls Complete Streets a “key strategy” for revitalization of cities.  Here’s some old coverage about some of the people who helped organize the Complete Streets effort in Northfield and even a mention in Rice County’s public health information.

 

Libraries as “landmarks, booksmarks, and people-marks”

 

Northfield Public Library

The New Republic has a rather lyrical review of library form and function: The Revolution at your Community Library.  Focusing on the architecture of community libraries, Sarah  Williams Goldhagen presents examples of “a new building type with a deceptively familiar name.”  In so doing, she also elegantly captures the evolution in libraries from a civic repository to places which “offer what no other contemporary building type provides: vibrant, informal, attractive, non-commercial community places where people of any age, class, gender, race, religion, or ethnicity can gather, and can obtain access to resources vital to full participation in contemporary life, including but not only the Internet.”

Northfield Public Library is all these things even if its physical form is still firmly rooted in its Carnegie repository history.  When it comes time to renovate and expand the library – the physical enclosure is getting pretty tight – it will be an interesting opportunity to hold on to the historical roots, status as civic icon, and create spaces which continue to foster “full participation in contemporary life.”

Have we outgrown zoning?

 Zoning is no longer appropriate, writes architect Roger Lewis in the Washington Post recently.  It is easy enough to agree – zoning is essentially segregation.  We put big houses here, little houses over there, multi-family housing way over there (check out some of the history of land use regulation and discrimination), industrial out there, and commercial on the highway.  The inappropriateness comes from both the inequities, but also the community costs in terms of excess infrastructure and unproductive development.

So, have we outgrown zoning?  Yes, but now what?  Here in Northfield, we have a pretty smart comprehensive plan which could use some updating and focusing.  Then we have some really lousy land use regulations which are slated for revision (and with some luck and leadership, for reform or replacement).  What a golden opportunity to move beyond putting things in their zones to plan and regulate for the long term health of the community.

Some inspiration (a very small selection):

Long term thinking, not easy short term answers: some thoughts from San Diego based Placemaker Howard Blackson.  Placemaking is rapidly becoming a planning buzzword which could become just as meaningless as “mixed use” (an oxymoron when you think about it), but I’d like to think of it simply as: identify and work with the specific characteristics of the place – Northfield – rather than overly generic solutions.  Here’s another good one from the Placemakers.

Don’t just ask the community “What do you want/like?” but also educate residents about the features, costs and benefits of various development choices.

Downtown is not a cute museum: work to reinvigorate downtown’s image as the vital and distinctive economic core of Northfield which generates significantly more tax revenue per acre than other areas.

Think local: Consider how supporting local businesses helps keep money in Northfield (some info about co-ops, infill and redevelopment) and how land use and related regulation can help rather than hinder local enterprises.

Streets are really, really important.  The street network helps define the density of a community, connects places within the city and the city to elsewhere, plays a huge role in safety, stormwater, municipal costs, economic development, and quality of life.  Street decisions are also long term and very hard to change. Indeed, how we manage car traffic is critical to thinking about other features of urban development.  Streets matter.

 

 

 

 

 

Rarely economical disappointing development

First, the NY Times series on subsidies and now the Strib has Art Rolnick (former head of research at the Minneapolis Fed) and business writer Mike Meyers bringing the Times’ information back to Minnesota in the context of Governor Dayton’s tax plan in The Subsidy Bonanza.

A few highlights:

  • Stadium subsidies are “part of a national pattern of taxpayers subsidizing some of the richest people in America.”
  • Minnesota outpaces the nation in job growth, but is not a big subsidizer.  So adding more taxpayer money to lure companies hasn’t proven effective, although it is expensive even for the small players (about 1 cent of every dollar in the Minnesota state budget).  Yet, “Study after study has shown the education of Minnesota’s workforce has been the key to the growth of high-quality jobs for the last half-century.”
  • A catalog of the Twin Cities projects which have been subsidized and not delivered on the promises: Best Buy, stadiums, City Center, Lawson Software…

Rolnick also commented on the Mayo deal over in Minneapolis/St Paul Business Journal comparing Mayo to the Vikings stadium deal.

 

 

Getting the message out

Slowly, the problem of funding all the infrastructure we have already built has been spreading.  The latest from Governing called Fixing the Transportation Infrastructure We Have.  Still, there’s some cognitive dissonance in this column; Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett is quoted as saying “Transportation must be confronted as its own distinct and separate topic” because it’s too big to manage within the state budget.  I’d argue that transportation issues really need to be considered in concert with land use, environmental issues, housing and the other issues which affect how streets and highways are designed, where they go, how much infrastructure we really need, etc.