Adding a “highway cap” to make highway expansion more palatable

Several recent urban highway expansion projects include a new twist: putting some green space around and over the new highway.

Wheeler didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that adding lanes never helps congestion, thanks to the principle of induced demand. Instead, what he emphasized about the project is its progressive window-dressing: its cap. A few blocks of the highway would be lowered below grade and planted with a bit of Chia fuzz, with a new bike-ped crossing on one of the sides. This is the grid “restoration” of which the mayor speaks—essentially, a minor diminishment of a roaring, stinking concrete channel that will roar and stink all the more with this added capacity.

Highway caps are an ever-more common feature of 21st century urban highway projects, and this project sounds a lot like some others we’ve heard of recently—namely, the Colorado DOT project that promises to triple I-70’s footprint through two of Denver’s last working-class neighborhoods and cover a small section with a park. The project has been mired in controversy for years, with lawsuits and pleas to the governor to halt it on environmental and social justice grounds.

Ironically, the 800 square-foot “cap park” proposed for the Denver boondoggle stemmed from early community advocates who pushed back against CDOT’s original plans to simply widen the existing elevated structure. The introduction of the cap a few years ago was heralded as a victory by some residents of the neighborhoods, which have been passed over for local investments for years. But the I-70 project, with its attractive grassy mask, has since been corralled into a suite of plans to redevelop huge swaths of the affected neighborhoods.

Now, the fear of displacement, underscored by the property-value increases that highway cap parks can bring, has driven many longtime Denverites to bitterly oppose the construction. “I just hope my kids will get to play there,” said one local mom who regretted ever advocating for the project, which a Denver public policy expert compared to “old-fashioned 1950s slum-clearance.”

Parks can only do so much to cover up that highways take up a lot of space, bring noise and traffic, and can either help contribute to disinvestment or gentrification.

This sounds like greenwashing. It can take many forms in trying to beautify or distract from uglier elements of the built environment. Does a few bushes in planters in the parking lot really transform the setting and allow a visitor to escape into nature? This is the subject of part of James Kunstler’s TED talk “The Tragedy of the Suburbs” – with roughly 8:00 minutes remaining – where he dissects such parking lot plantings. Even expanding the size of the nature area, such as park in these examples, may not be enough if the surrounding land use is even more sizable.

Rhode Island signs give cost, time under construction data

For over a year, Rhode Island has posted interesting signs in roadway construction areas:

Along with the name of the project, the signs note its estimated cost, the expected completion time, and a stoplight-style red, yellow and green dot system to show whether the project is “on-time and on-budget.”

“RIDOT believes the signs provide accountability and transparency by keeping the public aware of the status of the projects and helps keep the Department’s [project management] staff responsible for delivering them on time and on budget,” wrote DOT spokesman Charles St. Martin in an email…

Projects scheduled to finish on or before their expected completion date get green dots on their RhodeWorks signs. Projects that are behind schedule by six months or less get yellow dots on their signs and projects more than six months late get red dots.

There are no yellow dots on the budget side. Projects are either on budget and green or over budget and red.

Given how easy it is for infrastructure projects to go over time and over budget, this is an interesting approach. At the least, it provides the driver – the taxpayer – some idea of whether the project is meeting several key goals. However, as the article notes, it is less clear how this public information than translates into change in completing projects. Perhaps future signs should include additional information:

-The cost to everyone for the extra time and money involved (if the project is indeed over budget and past its intended completion date). Think of the business lost and the time wasted in traffic.

-Changes to the infrastructure process as a result of what was learned in this particular project.

-The punishment meted out to contractors and/or government officials for not meeting the goals.

I wonder if one incentive of making this data public is to overinflate cost and completion estimates so as to avoid public scrutiny through the signs.

NAR economist: “major housing shortage” in the US

The chief economist for the National Association of Realtors suggests there is a major housing shortage:

“A major housing shortage exists in this country,” Yun said in a statement. “It is therefore disappointing to witness in March the continued lackluster performance in new-home building, which was the second lowest activity over the past six months. Home prices have risen by 41 percent and rents have climbed 17 percent over the past five years at a time when the typical worker wage has grown by only 11 percent. To relieve housing costs, there simply needs to be more homes built.”

My first thought on this reading this: builders and developers are still skittish from the 2000s housing bubble. Instead of risking overextending themselves, compared to the past they are now focusing on more expensive homes or rental properties. Oddly though, I have seen little media coverage regarding builders and developers. They may be a secretive bunch generally but why isn’t there more scrutiny of their actions and motivations?

My second thought: if there is indeed a housing shortage, what does this say about the state of the economy? A booming construction sector is often related to a good economy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way in the future, particularly if there is a shift away from sprawl and homeownership of detached single-family homes, even if it was true in the post-World War II era.

Finally, who might be held responsible if there is indeed a housing shortage? It is hard to rally potential homebuyers into a cohesive group. Is there a way to prod politicians and business leaders to act and if so, could their actions even effect much change?

“Politics of pavement” amidst the start of construction season

Commuters and taxpayers may be unhappy with annoying roadwork but as this summary of upcoming projects in the Chicago region reminds us, roadwork is political:

With no state budget in sight as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner feuds with Democrats, the idea of a capital plan to fix infrastructure seems as likely as unicorns in hard hats.

That disconnect is not only strangling transportation funding in Illinois, it’s also thwarting a pet project of Rauner’s — adding tolled express lanes to I-55 in Cook and DuPage counties…

For the Illinois tollway, money’s not a problem. But the agency is locked in a dispute with the Canadian Pacific Railroad over land it wants for I-490, a ring road around the west side of O’Hare International Airport.

If Canadian Pacific wins support from federal regulators in a pending case, it’s a potential catastrophe for the tollway.

Roads are power? Any major infrastructure project involves lots of money, voters, and jobs. Additionally, in a country where driving is so important, construction on major roads is a big deal.

So, is anyone winning the political battle through roads in the Chicago region? Big city mayors like to claim that they are different than national politicians because the mayors have to get things done. The same may be true for governors on infrastructure issues. Presumably, limiting the political battles over roads helps everyone win as costs are reduced (prices for big projects only go up over time) and residents can start experiencing the benefits sooner.

Haunted McMansions vs. creepy unfinished construction sites

I posted Wednesday about a claim that McMansions appear haunted because of their poor architecture but I think unfinished construction present their own horrors. See this suburban example:

img_20160520_183358037

This is an early evening image of a new residential construction project not too far from our house. All that is standing at this point are elevator shafts. Imagine being trapped in such a project late at night with shadows and wind. There are piles of debris and materials all around. The only escape may be to climb up…shafts that go nowhere. It could be an outdoors, David Bowie from Labyrinth sort of scene. All within sight of a wealthy suburban community with nice homes and lively commercial areas. Yet, it is difficult to imagine how someone might end up in such a situation where they are wandering around such a site.

In contrast, McMansions and other homes may be easier to consider haunted because we associate warm, fuzzy feelings with single-family homes and creepy or evil beings and happenings seem to be such opposites. From the beginnings of the American suburban single-family home, this space was to be a domestic refuge from the outside world or any other intrusions.

But, an empty construction site or unfinished project presents different problems. Is there anyone around? Was the project abandoned for a good reason or some unknown or unspoken reason? Are these ruins or a work in progress? In the end, does the unknown – the construction site – or the familiar – the single-family home, however weirdly designed or old it is – present a more problematic situation?

Recession decimated construction workforce

Here is another sign the construction industry has not fully recovered from the economic crisis: the number of construction workers is still low.

The new-construction housing market is slowly recovering from the turmoil of the recessionary years, but builders haven’t been able to pick up where they left off. More than 2 million skilled labor jobs were lost to the economy, and many of those workers are gone forever…

Nearly 30 percent of the construction workforce disappeared during the Great Recession, reports FMI Corp., a Raleigh, N.C., provider of management consulting, research and investment banking to the construction industry. Among its ranks are plumbers, electricians, roofers, bricklayers and carpenters.

The shortage seems to be worsening. According to FMI’s 2015 “Talent Development in the Construction Industry” survey, 86 percent of respondents reported shortages of skilled labor. That’s up from the 2013 survey, in which 53 percent of respondents reported such shortages.

It may take a long time before the housing industry approaches where it was in the early to mid-2000s. In the meantime, those workers have to do something and/or go elsewhere. Even with all the political talk about helping workers, I don’t remember anyone suggesting plans for helping construction workers in the same way that politicians have discussed manufacturing workers.

Additionally, I wonder what it takes to ramp up with a lot of new workers if the housing industry starts booming again. Businesses today tend to shed workers when times are bad, add when the economy picks up, and disregard training and upstart costs. However, it is not always simple to just hire large numbers of laborers.

Rising development costs in American cities

It is getting more and more expensive to build new developments in American cities:

Land costs in the urban cores have dramatically escalated, making it difficult for developers to find developable parcels that pencil. Adding to the issue of expensive land prices, in December 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that construction costs are rising faster than the inflation rate: the U.S. Labor Department’s consumer price index had risen only 1.3 percent above the previous year, while the construction index was higher by 5.2 percent.

Land is scarce and expensive

In most major U.S. urban markets, the cost of land has risen aggressively, in line with the greater demand for urban living by millennials and empty nesters. In Los Angeles, for example, land for industrial developments—many of which are changing from industrial use to residential mixed-use—have averaged approximately $23 per sq. ft. at the beginning of 2014 and  by year‘s end, asking prices were as high as $32 per sq. ft. There has been and continues to be keen competition for every developable site, with the urban core expanding into previously blighted areas.

Current shortage of construction professionals and skilled labor

Construction employment was disproportionately affected by the recession. As a result, many construction professionals—both labor and management—left the industry. Across the country, there are 1.4 million fewer people employed in construction than there were at the peak in 2007, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many in the construction industry who lost their jobs during the recession have found new careers, and many skilled tradesmen left the industry all together. Compounding the shortage is the lack of high-quality training available to young people entering the construction workforce today…

Materials costs have little impact

Countering some of the rise in construction costs is the fact that most materials costs, apart from glass, have not greatly increased. Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. reported in April 2015 that, although concrete products prices are up 4.1 percent on a yearly basis, total input prices have fallen by 3.6 percent since the same time last year. For example, iron and steel prices are down 11.5 percent and softwood lumber prices are 7.4 percent lower than one year ago. Current crude petroleum prices are down 55 percent and crude energy materials prices are down by 43.7 percent from the same time last year.

If this is the case, this could have negative consequences in a number of areas including: it might take more to get the construction industry going to overcome these costs; this limits the incentives for developers to construct cheaper or affordable housing (such as starter homes); and only the really wealthy can purchase and utilize urban land.