Category Archives: Infrastructure

The Dwindling Highway Rest Stop

This July 4th weekend marks the end of operation for 19 of Virginia’s 42 public highway rest stops, a move that will save the state $9 million.

The Wall Street Journal reports this isn’t limited to the Old Dominion; Louisiana, Vermont, Maine, and Colorado have shut down some public rest areas in recent months not only to save money, but because they’ve become obsolete – replaced by clusters of privately operated gas stations, fast food restaurants and motels right off the interstate. RV users even have the option of overnighting at many of Wal-Mart’s 4000 parking lots nationwide.

Public rest stop advocates, such as the American’s Truckers Association and AAA, argue closures are a threat to safety.  Fatigued drivers have more accidents.

Other incentives are also at work. The Association of Blind Merchants opposes the move because federal law grants them priority – about 600 of their members stock rest-area vending machines.

Federal law is also in the way of a less draconian solution. Virginia tried to privatize the soon-to-be-shuttered rest areas, but federal law prevents franchising directly on the Interstate Highway System.

Read more about the history of the public rest stop here.

Top Ten Funded Stimulus Road Projects

The Business Insider has an interesting slideshow of the ten most expensive stimulus road projects to have received funding thus far, based on data assembled by ProPublica.

Of the ten, five are in California, two are in Florida, one is in New Jersey, one is in Alabama, and one is in Connecticut.

The most expensive project is the expansion of the Caldecott Tunnel on California’s State Route 24 between Alameda and Contra Costa counties. According to Caltrans, this improvement has been in the works for some time now, having received environmental approval in 2007, that is, long before the stimulus.

What makes this historically interesting is that construction on the orignal tunnel commenced in 1929 — but was taken over by the Public Works Administration and completed in 1937. So for the second time, the Caldecott Tunnel seems to have had fortunate timing when it comes to getting federal funding for an already-decided state project.

Roberta Brandes Gratz on Planning by Bulldozer

Roberta Brandes Gratz, one of the most interesting and innovative thinkers on urban space and planning, weighs in on current discussions about bulldozing cities (this blog discussed it here) at Citiwire. She likens plans to bulldoze large swaths of cities to the urban renewal projects of the last century.

One is hard pressed to find a city or even a neighborhood that was ever regenerated through demolition of vacant buildings. Didn’t we learn of the hollow results from the discredited post-World War II urban renewal policies that destroyed — and for decades left bereft — vast tracks of troubled residential structures?

Granted some appealing urban gardens are now sprouting in these cities, where piles of debris might have accumulated. Clearly this is better than rubble-strewn lots.

But vast clearance? The fact is the presence of vacant buildings is nothing new in any of these cities; the condition in today’s recession and industrial collapse is just worse. No citywide benefits ever materialized from mass demolition. And the big-bang projects that have sometimes risen where neighborhoods once stood– stadiums, arenas, convention centers, malls and the like — have not only failed in their promise and cost dearly but provided no fundamental basis for citywide resilience in good times or bad.

Her book The Living City: How America’s Cities Are Being Revitalized by Thinking Small in a Big Way is a classic and a must-read for anyone interested in how cities can be transformed by small, locally-based solutions. I was fortunate enough to meet her last year and discuss her work in the context of post-Katrina rebuilding in New Orleans with some of the founders of the New Orleans Institute for Resillience and Innovation.

Saving Flint

According to a recent article in the British Telegraph, Flint, Michigan once had 79,000 workers for General Motors and now has 8,000. The population of the city has fallen from 200,000 to 100,000. The unemployment rate is 20%. Young people are leaving in droves in search of jobs and better prospects elsewhere. Large parts of the city are emptying out, leaving at least 4,000 abandoned homes. Although the city has demolished 1,000 of them, 3,000 remain standing. Whole neighborhoods are crumbling rapidly.

So what to do? The normal political response is to take public actions to “save” places like Flint.  The urban renewal programs 50 years ago were designed to arrest the decay of older American cities such as St. Louis and Detroit – typically built in the nineteenth century and with decaying housing stock and outmoded land use patterns based originally on streetcar systems of transportation. Many federal billions were spent in futile efforts to reverse the market verdict, reflecting a refusal to accept that these old city neighborhoods were outmoded and their highest value economic use was as cheap housing for poor people. A “slum” was a pejorative term in those days for old housing – in many cases not all that bad structurally – that people with lower incomes could afford. But for American politicians, every part of every city should be thriving. If not, the government had to do something.

Reflecting the failures of past programs to “revitalize” the inner cities, the Brookings Institution now identifies 50 cities, most of them in the industrial “rust belt,” that need to shrink significantly to survive. After decades of failed efforts to halt downward economic forces, there has been a new acceptance that some American cities simply must get smaller. Facing its dire problems, city planners in Flint have finally come to accept this. The current economic crisis and the large number of foreclosures emphasize the need to rethink urban strategies that automatically assumed upward growth for every city.

One Brookings study proposes that the government adopt a program of “land banks” – government would acquire the land in old declining neighborhoods and then turn it over for redevelopment. It sounds unfortunately like of the thinking that was on exhibit in New Haven, Connecticut, leading to the Kelo Supreme Court case.

A much better approach would be to leave redevelopment to be determined in the market by the collective actions of property owners in a neighborhood area and land developers. Property owners could be facilitated in organizing a collective land bargaining association that would then solicit developer bids for the whole neighborhood. If a high enough bid was forthcoming, and if a large supermajority of property owners – say, 80 percent – voted to accept the offer, the neighborhood would be turned over to the private developer. A whole new neighborhood land uses compatible with present day market economics would result. It is possible that in places like Flint, a few neighborhoods might even be turned back to urban farming of high value local products. Whatever the result, market forces rather than urban planners would decide.

Neighborhood Influence in City Planning

Proposed changes to Washington DC’s Metrorail system offer an opportunity to look at the power that neighborhood residents can have when they are able to organize themselves into blocks of constituents.

In Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb just north of the city limits, neighbors are uniting in order to voice their opinions of where stops should on the proposed Purple Line should be placed in order to avoid disrupting the current land uses. As one resident explains in a recent Washington Post article:

I think standing up for our community when we were threatened with being divided by the Purple Line really made us realize how lucky we were to have what we have.

This example stands out in contrast to many communities that are not able to overcome the collective action problem they encounter when local governments suggest changes to infrastructure and city design.  Planning projects are most likely to succeed when residents have an active voice in shaping the landscape of their towns and cities because those who use the infrastructure and transportation networks everyday posses the local knowledge necessary to know how these amenities could best be improved. When city planners ignore the local knowledge of their residents, they are likely to enact changes that physically tear apart communities, as poor placement of the Purple Line would.

One important factor in allowing neighbors to work together in order to achieve the critical mass necessary to influence policy is mixed land uses, where commercial and residential uses are intermingled, and the physical landscape encourages people to interact in business and social relationships.  Silver Spring residents portray how this feature of the neighborhood is currently flourishing:

Daniel Goodwin, owner of Silver Spring Books, said he enjoys the “good exchange of information” with local customers. That conversation often carries over to the area’s local restaurants and coffee shops. A co-owner of Kefa Cafe, Lene Tsegaye, noted that her shop does not feature Internet access because she wants to encourage chatting.

A new Metro line may benefit the people of Silver Spring by offering easier access to the rest of the Washington metropolitan area and by making it easier for people from other parts of the city to fequent Silver Spring businesses. By improving the strength of neighborhood organizations to challenge top-down efforts as seen in this example, city planners may make their own jobs more difficult in the narrow sense, but they will also facilitate the transmission of the necessary information from the bottom up, which will be able to guide planners’ policy appropriately.

The Transit-Development Nexus

Sam Staley argues in The Business Journal that the conventional wisdom about the relationship between transit and economic development is incorrect:

Transit ridership is not driving property development decisions around light rail stations. Other factors are, although most studies have done little to tease out the real causes and relationships.


The point is not that transit can’t spur economic development. Rather, the concern is that planners and elected officials should not presume that simply improving access to mass transit will goose development in a significant way. The relationship between investment near rail stations and transit ridership is not direct.


Understanding the proper role of transit in promoting urban development is important for public policy. Whether we build great urban places or emphasize higher transit use is not a “chicken and egg” choice. Great urban places come first because their benefits offset the individual and social costs of greater dependence on a less flexible, restricted mode of transportation.

In the end, higher transit use is an outcome, not an input, in economic development and urban redevelopment.

The Rubber Meets the Road

Detroit can learn from Indianapolis, claims a new article in the Next American City:

Although you might not guess it today, Detroit and Indianapolis once had much in common. Thirty years ago, both cities suffered from decreased economic activity, severe unemployment, violence, white flight and racial tensions. But Indianapolis, the nation’s 13th most populous city, has since recovered from those challenges, which were spawned by deindustrialization and suburban job growth…

What accounts for the drastic disparity in these two cities’ fortunes? Many politicians and members of the business community suggest that public-private partnerships — deals in which the government partners with the private sector to deliver a necessary service that it cannot afford, or which it wishes to provide more efficiently — have allowed Indianapolis to prosper. City governments can form PPPs to support small-scale projects, and may also lease the operation of their own assets, but if they want to forge a PPP to back a larger initiative, like a massive infrastructure project, they need legislative support from the state. Indiana law permits the formation of PPPs for infrastructure projects; Michigan law does not…

The timing is critical: in addition to money from Obama’s stimulus package, Michigan stands to receive a meaningful cash injection from the transportation reauthorization act, which is up for renewal this year and which provides funding to states for transportation and infrastructure-related projects. Yet, even with public funds, the state won’t have the money necessary to develop the many modes of transport it needs, says Carnrike, who points out that Michigan has the capacity to develop air, roads, and water-related infrastructure. By collaborating with private companies, Michigan stands a chance at creating the infrastructure crucial to its economic recovery.

More about PPPs from the Reason Foundation here and here.

HT to Planetizen.

Detroit Isn't Dying

Having gone to grad school in southeast Michigan, I’ve been surprised by the continued prognostications that the state and, specifically, Detroit are dying or dead. There are too many things going for the area, from the international airport, to the transport links with Canada, to the University of Michigan, to declare the area a wasteland and just walk away. And I’ll even be so bold as to predict that in thirty years’ time we’ll be reading stories about the “Michigan Miracle” and the rebirth of Detroit and the state’s economy, testaments to the power of entrepreneurship and creativity.

The Financial Times’ motor industry correspondent John Reed has a great take on the present and future Motor City:

Detroit may be the archetypal down-and-out rust-belt city, but to call it “dying” masks a more complex reality. Greater Detroit still has three to four million residents, a world-class university next door in Ann Arbor and the bone structure of a great city, as a car-industry consultant with the ear of a poet put it over lunch one day. Why, then, the relentless focus on its failings? Nearly everyone you meet is either weary or angry at seeing their home town made the butt of jokes on late-night television and the subject of anguished political commentary. But no one denies that the region’s property market is abysmal, its finances a mess and its industrial base shrinking at an alarming rate.

Instead, Michiganders, despite being self-deprecating to a fault, make a point their countrymen won’t want to hear: Detroit is no longer the nation’s worst-case scenario, but on its leading edge, the proverbial canary in the coal mine. “It’s like the rest of the country is getting to where Detroit has been,” said Peter De Lorenzo, who writes the acerbic and very funny blog. That means that smug mock-horror is no longer the appropriate reaction to the frozen corpse. Instead, get ready for a shock of recognition.

The whole thing is worth a read. HT to Katherine Mangu-Ward.

State budgets and the stimulus

As the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the Stimulus Bill) moved out of the House of Representatives yesterday, Eileen Norcross and Frederic Sautet released a new paper questioning the long-term ramifications of this package on states’ budgets.

While federal grants may provide temporary relief for state budgets, the size and scope of the proposed spending will worsen already-distorted state and local fiscal practices while creating perverse incentives inducing greater public spending with scarce state funds. By fracturing the link between those who benefit (local constituencies) and those who pay (federal taxpayers), ARRA reduces government accountability on all levels and ultimately erodes local control over policy by imposing federal solutions on local problems.

Instead of attempting a short-term fix of amplifying the grant system through an emergency stimulus package, the federal government should work to make state and local governments accountable for their own spending decisions. This means reducing states’ and localities’ reliance on federal funding for local priorities and allowing local activities to be addressed by the appropriate mechanisms: state and local governments and the private and philanthropic sectors.

Also of interest, the Wall Street Journal has a breakdown by state on each of four proposed spending categories: aid to states, school and college modernization, job training, and transportation and infrastructure.

Finally, Nicole Gelinas has some analysis of last-minute changes to the House-approved package as they relate to state and local infrastructure investment.

New Paper on Infrastructure and Flood Protection

Today the Mercatus Center released a new paper by Peter Gordon and Richard Little, both of the University of Southern California. The paper, “Building Walls Against Bad Infrastructure
Policy in New Orleans,” is the latest policy primer in the Mercatus Policy Series.

Written as part of the Mercatus Center’s Gulf Coast Recovery Project, Gordon and Little focus on how Louisiana can think more holistically about risk management and disaster mitigation. But the research is germane far beyond the Pelican State and should be a useful tool for any state or local government that relies on levees, floodworks, and other protections against natural disasters. Structural controls are never foolproof, they argue, and along with insurance, risk transfer mechanisms, and redundant defenses, are only part of a larger system to mitigate against natural disasters.

In the paper, Gordon and Little suggest how the private sector can be better involved in mitigation against disaster and how this should inform state and local governments:

As New Orleans rebuilds from the damage of Hurricane Katrina, local and national policy makers are attempting to ensure the levees are rebuilt better and stronger. While such efforts to ensure more reliable flood protection are certainly understandable given the region’s history, they should not preclude serious consideration of the implications of excessive reliance on structural controls. More comprehensive approaches will provide decision makers at all levels—from elected officials to individual homeowners—with incentives to manage flood risk effectively.

Read the whole thing here.