Slow process for possible new rail line around Chicago area

While the mayor of Aurora praised plans for a new railroad line around the Chicago area, the process of approval will take some time:

Not that everyone loves the idea. At a recent public hearing in Belvidere, near Rockford, some 400 people showed to say the train line would be dangerous in their areas, and would impact farms and groundwater. The U.S. Surface Transportation Board held a series of hearings on the proposed railroad, and took public comment through the middle of June. The board will issue an environmental impact statement, followed by more public hearings. A final impact statement is likely two to three years away, and then the Surface Transportation Board must approve the railroad before construction could begin.

Not only does new infrastructure require large sums of money, it often involves a lengthy process involving federal and local agencies as well as local residents and local officials. As has been noted by multiple commentators, this can make infrastructure projects very difficult to construct. By the time all the hoops have been jumped through, the money secured, and bids and plans approved, a significant amount of time has passed. At the same time, not all major infrastructure projects are worthwhile. I’m thinking particularly of highways in major cities, like along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, the elevated highway in Boston which was replaced in the Big Dig, or the Lower Manhattan Expressway that was never built. So, we have a system that slows down the process, which helps in some circumstances and is burdensome in others.

This is a reminder that perhaps the best way to deal with all of this is to have good foresight. Plan ahead and fewer residents might be affected, costs are lower, and society can benefit from the infrastructure for longer. When governments or private firms wait – for lack of funds, lack of need, political pressure – the construction only becomes more difficult.

Cut LA planning staff and expect more McMansions

Critics suggest that cutting several city employees will lead to more McMansions in Los Angeles:

Garcetti’s 2016-2017 budget calls for cutting two staff jobs in the seven-member Neighborhood Conservation division.

The division helps prepare historical designations — or Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs) — for neighborhoods with distinctive architectural or cultural features. An HPOZ designation can help a neighborhood from overdevelopment by setting strict building guidelines, such as requiring that homes have a similar exterior look.

HPOZ designations are in place in dozens of neighborhoods, including Hancock Park, Van Nuys and University Park.

The mayor’s proposed Planning Department budget — released last week as part of his overall $8.7 billion spending plan for next fiscal year — comes at a crucial time for the Neighborhood Conservation division, advocates say. The office is racing to finish HPOZ designations for six areas before a law outlining teardowns of homes in those neighborhoods expires.

Usually such jobs in local government draw little attention, particularly when the city employs over 45,000 people and Los Angeles County has more than 100,000 employees. Yet, a relatively small set of city employees can oversee relatively large or influential projects. And the battle over McMansions in Los Angeles is not over as this tidbit later in the article suggests:

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is leading a March 2017 ballot measure initiative that would temporarily halt construction of so-called mega-projects in the city.

In Los Angeles, the competing forces of an expensive housing market plus property rights will be fighting the forces of historic preservation for a while yet.

Should cities worry about “city-killer” asteroids?

Big cities around the world have plenty of problems to face without considering “city-killer” asteroids:

This Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, three former NASA astronauts will present new evidence that our planet has experienced many more large-scale asteroid impacts over the past decade than previously thought… three to ten times more, in fact. A new visualization of data from a nuclear weapons warning network, to be unveiled by B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu during the evening event at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, shows that “the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’ sized asteroid is blind luck.”

Since 2001, 26 atomic-bomb-scale explosions have occurred in remote locations around the world, far from populated areas, made evident by a nuclear weapons test warning network. In a recent press release B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu states:

“This network has detected 26 multi-kiloton explosions since 2001, all of which are due to asteroid impacts. It shows that asteroid impacts are NOT rare—but actually 3-10 times more common than we previously thought. The fact that none of these asteroid impacts shown in the video was detected in advance is proof that the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’ sized asteroid is blind luck. The goal of the B612 Sentinel mission is to find and track asteroids decades before they hit Earth, allowing us to easily deflect them.”

I assume the typical big city would claim this is a national or international problem rather than a problem single cities can tackle. American cities alone, while wealthy by global standards, would have a hard time finding resources and expertise to address this.

At the same time, shouldn’t major cities have plans in place for something like this? The planning might not be too different than planning for a possible nuclear bomb attack, the sort of attack in a place like New York City that keeps President Obama occupied. Given a few days or few hours of warning, what could be done? Or perhaps some of these strikes might simply be so large that cities can’t worry too much about one and just have to play the odds, particularly when compared to other possible issues like natural disasters or civil unrest which might happen more frequently.

Daily Herald encourages new planning regarding housing in northwest Chicago suburbs

Housing is a metropolitan issue that is often addressed community to community, if at all. The Daily Herald highlights recent efforts in the northwest Chicago suburbs:

In an era when housing development has slowed nearly to a halt, it can feel misguided to be talking about what kind of housing to build in a town and where to build it. But “Homes for a Changing Region” merits attention for a couple of reasons.

One, even the gravest cynic expects the economy will one day turn around and people again will be looking for comfortable homes in inviting communities. So, it’s best to begin preparing now for the types of homes they’ll be looking for.

Plus, the report — produced by the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the regional Metropolitan Planning Council, all with the support of the five communities involved — introduces some new concepts that can help towns be smarter in their development. For one, it encourages cooperation among towns whose development futures seem intrinsically linked. For another, it focuses on reality rather than whim — the needs of residents a town is likely to have in the future rather than of residents it has today or even that it might hope to attract. It envisions an environment in which developers respond to the identifiable marketing needs of particular towns, rather than towns responding to the marketing goals of particular developers.

It’s a worthwhile approach, emphasizing data and efficiency. And it’s about to be applied in another collection of local communities — Carpentersville, East Dundee, Elgin and West Dundee. There, as in the Northwest collaborative, people may find the language more cumbersome and less thrilling than, to make a timely comparison, counting off the stats of a superstar quarterback or comparing defenses of teams from distant towns in the NFL. But. the end result can certainly have a more direct and beneficial impact on their quality of life at home.

Housing is a pressing issue in the Chicago region, particularly since affordable housing is lacking in the city of Chicago. Add to that the trend of decades-long job growth in and movement to the suburbs and there is also a lack of affordable housing in many Chicago suburbs, particularly in wealthier communities. While the Illinois legislature tried to address this in the 2000s, not much has changed.

Even with these new planning efforts, it remains to be seen how much this changes local communities. It sounds like there is a certain number of suburbs in one particular area who are interested but they need more support, not just across suburbs and regional groups, but within their own communities as they go forward with new housing plans. What happens if the suburb of Buffalo Grove, village of just over 41,000 and a median household income of over $91,000 and a poverty rate of 2.9%, and this planning group decides a development of affordable housing needs to be located near an upper-end subdivision? I imagine suburbanites would like the idea of developers responding to needs but what happens if these goals don’t line up?

A conservative fighting sprawl argues it is a Ponzi scheme

Here is a summary of the arguments against sprawl made by conservative Chuck Marohn:

But, while my concern with sprawling growth patterns was rooted in their effect on the landscape, on the environment, and on severely compromised populations left behind, Chuck is all about the money. As Thoughts on Building Strong Towns makes quite clear, Chuck believes that sprawl is a Ponzi scheme and we the taxpayers are the ones left holding the empty bags.

In fact, the lead chapters of the book are devoted to the Ponzi thesis, whereby municipalities chase outward growth to find new tax revenue that proves insufficient when the infrastructure needs repair; so they chase even more new growth to pay for the previous round, over and over, until the pattern chokes the economic life out of the place. In Chuck’s words:

“The local unit of government benefits from the enhanced revenues associated with new growth. But it also typically assumes the long-term liability for maintaining the new infrastructure. This exchange – a near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation – is one element of a Ponzi scheme.

The other is the realization that the revenue collected does not come near to covering the costs of maintaining the infrastructure.  In America, we have a ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance . . .

We’ve done this because, as with any Ponzi scheme, new growth provides the illusion of prosperity. In the near term, revenue grows, while the corresponding maintenance obligations – which are not counted on the public balance sheet — are a generation away.”

A few thoughts about this:

1. I’ve seen this in action in suburbs and the problem becomes particularly acute when growth slows or stops or the economy runs into trouble. At these points, the revenue flow based on developer fees plus the new tax revenues from property and sales taxes slows and budgets have to be looked at more closely.

2. Infrastructure is a long-term investment, not a short-term building issue. Lots of communities face this issue: how to generate enough money to substantially fix or replace aging infrastructure? Money needs to be consistently budgeted for these issues because issuing bonds is not always a good answer.

3. I’ve wondered this before: how much of growth is driven by money versus the status that comes with being a growing community? The money from new development is clearly important but there is also prestige associated with moving forward, adding to the population, and continually adding to the tax base. Imagine this line: “a good community is a stagnant/plateaued community.” I don’t think so.

4. More broadly, this is a call for more comprehensive long-term planning in communities. This doesn’t just mean 5, 10, and 20 year projections – communities need to think how the world might change, whether they will have the resources to change course, and how open they will be to pursuing differences courses given the changing world.

Are the suburbs a Ponzi scheme?

While Republican presidential contender Rick Perry drew a lot of attention by saying Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, how about viewing suburbs as a Ponzi scheme?

Indeed, my friend Charles Marohn and his colleagues at the Minnesota-based nonprofit Strong Towns have made a very compelling case that suburban sprawl is basically a Ponzi scheme, in which municipalities expand infrastructure hoping to attract new taxpayers that can pay off the mounting costs associated with the last infrastructure expansion, over and over. Especially as maintenance costs increase, there is never enough to pay the bill, because we are building in such expensive, inefficient ways.

This week, Strong Towns has released a substantial new report analyzing data and arguing that we must change our development approach if we wish to end the current economic crisis. In particular, we must emphasize obtaining a higher rate of financial return from existing infrastructure investments, focusing on traditional neighborhoods where large public investments in infrastructure are currently being underutilized…

In particular, in the report and an accompanying press release, Strong Towns calls on local officials to change course and shed the “dead ideas” of the suburban era, including these:

That local governments can grow without considering the public’s return on investment. Being blind to the financial productivity of our places has led to inefficient use of public infrastructure investments and allowed local governments to assume overwhelming, long-term financial obligations for maintaining infrastructure.
That local budget problems can be solved by creating more growth. More growth in the same unproductive pattern will only increase our economic problems. What is needed is an approach that improves our use of existing infrastructure investments.
That attracting a large employer is the key to local economic prosperity. In an age of globalization, this strategy may provide short-term gains for some local governments, but it is ultimately a race to the financial bottom.
That property owners can develop their property as they see fit while at the same time obligating the public to maintain the new infrastructure. This type of indirect subsidy creates enormous long-term financial obligations for taxpayers, increasing local taxes and reducing local competitiveness.

This is not an unusual argument made by those opposed to sprawl: sprawl is paid for by continuous growth. For example, a growing suburb can finance the services needed for new developments in part by the fees paid by developers constructing new developments. When that new development stops, either because of an economic crisis or because the community has run out of land (reaching build-out) or the community is not attracting development, the cash flow associated with new development stops. Then, local communities are confronted with static or shrinking budgets and the rising costs associated with aging infrastructure. In the end, someone is going to have to pay for this relatively cheap living.

By calling the suburbs a Ponzi scheme, the implication is that it will all implode at some point. I’m not sure about that; people have been arguing this for years (gas will become too expensive, there won’t be enough land, home prices will get out of reach, etc.) and it hasn’t happened yet. Since the suburbs have been partly subsidized by the federal government from the start, there are other sources of money beyond local municipalities (though an economic crisis shrinks everyone’s ability to pay). It would be interesting to see what happens if all state and federal money dries up for suburban interests – then what happens to the necessary infrastructure such as Federal interstates? We haven’t seen true contraction of cities or metropolitan regions just yet though it may be coming in harder hit areas like Detroit, Cleveland, and Youngstown.

However, the need for better longer-term planning is needed in many suburbs. If the era of growth is over or at least has slowed, then suburbs need to look at how this will affect development within their boundaries and their budgets. Assuming that there will always be positive growth is foolish even though there is not much room in the American cultural ideal of the suburbs to admit that they won’t simply keep growing and growing as more and more Americans express their innate desires for the suburban single-family home. Planning for a different, more limited suburban future is not exactly the same as planning for a doomed suburban future.

170 options for improving the Eisenhower

The Eisenhower expressway is a key artery for traffic entering and leaving Chicago. The public is now invited to look at plans, including 170 possible improvements, that have been developed and could be put into practice in the future:

In response, highway design engineers have come up with 170 different ideas to reduce gridlock and accidents on the Eisenhower. The plan also focuses on improving travel options for mass-transit riders and bicyclists and pedestrians using nearby arterial streets…

The possible solutions include widening the Eisenhower to four lanes in each direction for the entire length of the highway to make room for “managed lanes’’ that would handle car-poolers, express buses or drivers willing to pay tolls to commute more quickly during rush hours, according to IDOT planners.

An expansion of CTA Blue Line rail service, from its current terminus in Forest Park to DuPage County, and other new transit services are also on the table, officials said. They include a possible light-rail line and designating a bus-rapid transit corridor that would be open to express buses traveling between the suburbs and downtown at least part of the day…

Major improvements are needed because traffic volumes on the Eisenhower are up to 180,000 vehicles a day, making it one of the busiest and most congested expressways in the Chicago region, officials said.

It sounds like there are a lot of options on the table. As the article notes, this is now an issue because this road is handling much more traffic than was originally intended and the traffic is not just one-way (in to the city in the morning, out in the afternoon) but now goes both directions. I can also imagine that all of this will stir up some discussion: special toll lanes? Construction that will go on for years? More money spent on mass transit? It seems like multiple solutions are needed included getting more drivers off the road as well as improving the traffic flow along this stretch.

Of course, a lot of this is for down the road as the planning has to take place and the money has to be found:

So far funding is available only to continue preliminary engineering, which is expected to be wrapped up in the spring of 2013, officials said. Design would then take several more years.

“Part of our analysis is to examine the financing options,’’ Harmet said. “We are a ways away from construction.’’

While the discussion could just center on the Eisenhower, this could also lead to larger conversations about the role of highways and mass transit within metropolitan regions. If the Eisenhower, and other local highways, are continually issues, perhaps new things have to be tried and transportation has to be dealt with on a more comprehensive level within regions (see a study like this for a broader metropolitan approach).