23.6.06

*** News Flash ***

I've got a lot of news bits that have piled up in the past few weeks . . . and I'm gonna round them up for you.

***

I just spent two weeks on the East Coast, mostly in New York and Boston. It was fun to be in places with a great deal of history and street life, and when I got back to the Twin Cities, I spent my first day trying to relive the city life in downtown Minneapolis. I took the LRT to the new library, walked down Nicollet Mall and across the Stone Arch Bridge, I went over to Dinkytown and walked through the U of MN campus.

My conclusion: The Twin Cities has a lot of trees!

Though, according to this story in the Minnesota Daily, that might be changing. It's another in the long line of the town v. gown conflicts in the Marcy-Holmes and Prospect Park neighborhoods.

***
While I was walking down Hennepin Avenue, I saw two cops on Segways. I just about wet myself! This story in the Strib has the scoop on what is a pilot project. Personally, I can't figure out the real reason I like Segways. Is it: A) They're incredibly pedestrian friendly? B) They're totally high-tech? or C) They make the MPD looks like geeks?

Do the cops really need to be wearing helmets?! Of course, my city-planner friend thinks Segways are a boondoggle . . .

***

There's some breaking news about the Central Corridor LRT project. Apparently, there's some sort of economic force called "inflation" that keeps making construction projects more expensive. What's going on?!

The PiPress has the complete rundown, along with possible fixes for this "inflation" thing. It's nice to see that Peter Bell is earning his salary by bashing Twin City transit projects.

According the the report, Metro Transit could cut the project's costs by eliminating streetscaping, the U of MN tunnel, or the last leg leading to the Union Depot in Downtown Saint Paul.

I guess I'd favor that last choice, though I wonder if they can't just do this thing in two-parts. Why not build most of it with Federal dollars, and the last part of it with state and local dollars? Or is that too un-ethical for the DeLay/Abramhoff US Congress?

***

There's yet another budding rival city competition between the Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune. What's it about this time? Who can provide more "street corner" coverage of Saint Paul neighborhoods.

FYI, the Pioneer Press for a few months has been running a series they call "Four Corners," where a reporter picks an intersection does some vox pop. I've actually enjoyed the pieces.

And, so, apparently, have the editors at the Star Tribune. They've started a very similar profile series of Saint Paul. You can read the latest one which features Newell Park, along the PBR. It talks about some of the difficulty of living right next to one of the busiest rail yards in the Cities.

***

Likewise, the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Comission has rethought their earlier verdict on the Pillsbury A Mill loft projects. Now that the architects have added more masonry, instead of glass, they've given them their overwhelming approval. (For those of you new to this story, the HPC rejected the projects earler, despite their support from two neighborhood NRP groups and a large part of the Mpls City Council, which over-rode their veto.)

***

And, finally, I read in the Financial Times that over half the world's population is going to be living in cities by the end of the year. Of course, many of these cities are mega-slums like Lagos, Bombay, and Lima. Good news if you're an urbanist, I suppose.

22.6.06

Pothole Pawlenty’s Brilliant Plans

Ever since Governor Pawlenty took office on the paradoxical promise of lower taxes and better government, he and the State Republicans have been trying to figure out ways of getting something for nothing. It often leads them not just into convoluted policy proposals (like paying for highways with unfunded loan money), but often towards linguistic and financial shenanigans of Enron-ian scope. The two most blatant examples might be Republicans counting interest in future economic predictions only when it benefits them, and the “health impact fee” on cigarettes that almost cost the state government $400 million dollars earlier this year.

So it didn’t surprise me when I heard this story on MPR today about Dan McElroy, Pawlenty’s right hand man, out panhandling for free labor from the hi-tech computer industry. Apparently, it’s part of Pawlenty’s “Drive to Excellence” program. The deal is that the state government asks companies, big and small, to “lend” some of their talented (and well paid) employees for a year. The state is also asking private companies to pick up the tab for salary and benefits. What do the companies get in exchange for this altruistic gesture?

The answer is probably, apart from a feeling of goodwill, the opportunity to manipulate the state’s buying and infrastructure decisions.

My favorite quote is this, from some industry analyst.

The senior professionals being sought often are billed to clients at rates ranging from $150 to $250 an hour, said one information technology vendor that has looked at the program.

"That'll separate the men from the boys, certainly," said another vendor, Richard Winkelmann of CA International, a New York-based IT firm.

Winkelmann attended a meeting with state officials last week about the loan program and called it "an exciting opportunity to put someone at the table with the chief information officer to help set strategy for the state of Minnesota." But he said it's been a tough sell to his corporate bosses.

"I've spent a week lobbying CA to come forward with resources," Winkelmann said. "Uncorking someone is a challenge. We're not there yet."

It’s hard to believe that no large companies have volunteered to donate employees to the state! Let’s hope these businessmen come to their senses soon.

But the true irony of the “Drive to Excellence” campaign, is how Pawlenty’s similar effort to fund transportation has also blown up in his face. Here’s a story from last week about the failed effort to fund constrution of the Crosstown/Interstate 35-W project. In case you missed it, the Pawlenty DOT was asking contractors to make a loan to the state to cover an unforeseen transportation funding shortfall, before they even started work for the construction job . . .
No construction companies bid for the job to ease the Interstate 35W/Minnesota 62 Crosstown bottleneck, the Minnesota Department of Transportation said Friday morning, making it very unlikely ground will be broken this year on the long-awaited project.

Expected to cost at least $250 million, the Crosstown project was short of money because the federal government has been slow in sending its share of the construction funds to Minnesota. To start construction this summer, the state for the first time called on construction firms to front the state up to $96 million until the full federal funding was available in 2008.

Someone should tell Pawlenty that it’s hard to “drive to excellence” when you’re stuck in traffic. Accounting gimmicks and panhandling is no way to hire a company to repair one of the most congested, twisted highway intersections in the state.

Funding transportation should be Mike Hatch's #1 campaign promise.

19.6.06

Global Warming Conventional Wisdom

I went to see An Inconvenient Truth (a. k. a. the Al Gore movie) at the Uptown last week, and I found it engaging and blunt. If you don’t know about the film, you might be surprised by it’s relatively un-ambitious, straight-ahead style. It’s a big change from other message-movie documentaries like Supersize Me or Fahrenheit 9/11. In fact, I’d say it most resembles an old-fashioned educational video that might be used for something like corporate training, albeit one with very high production values. It’s a filmed version of Al Gore’s global warming stump speech – he’s apparently been giving this same speech for years now, all around the country – with a little bit of biographical detail interspersed into the speech. The film relies heavily on voice over, and probably lionizes Gore a bit too much. That said, the movie is a very effective argument that we need a national plan to prevent global warming.

What I took away from the film, aside from how I should never ride in a car again, is how difficult it is to explain the global warming issue. The complexity of both its causes and effects makes it a tough issue to talk about without going through a whole lot of explaining. And that’s exactly what Gore’s movie so elegantly does. Still, questions remain. How pessimistic should we be about the future? Who deserves blame for carbon dioxide emissions – hundreds of millions of consumers, or a hundred corporations? Are developed and developing nations equally responsible for fixing the problem?

I thought Gore struck a good balance, putting just enough scare into the movie without resorting to doomsday scenarios. And, even though corporations and governments have the most potential to effect positive change, Gore ended the film with a call to individual consumers to change their habits. It’s a necessary move, because there’s very little chance that our governments or corporations will make top-down change without a great amount of political and economic pressure from people like you and me. To that end, Gore’s film ended with a series of suggestions as to how each of us can reduce our carbon emissions (check out the website at climatecrisis.net).

After the movie, though, I went up to the rooftop of Stella’s Fish CafĂ©, just down the street from the Uptown Theater. It’s an over-hyped, yuppie restaurant, but none of that matters because they have the nicest rooftop patio in the Twin Cities, and from there you can see for miles in all directions. (I don’t understand why more places in the T. C. don’t have rooftop patios, given the flatness of our landscape.) I gazed down at the uptown landscape and saw nothing but cars. They were parked, stuck in traffic, advertised on billboards. As I was walking to my car, a guy in a blue Hummer H2 with post-market chrome trim cruised past, and I couldn’t help but give him the finger. (Question: Is this the kind of “action” we need to be taking?) The U. S. has such a long way to go to build a low-carbon society, and given that any real change needs start with individual consumers, the presence of so many fat, happy people driving their cars all around me was not a bit discouraging.

Maybe I’m a pessimist, but in order to really advance the debate on global warming, I think it’s necessary to broaden the argument past strictly moral grounds. We need to start talking about why our low-carbon future will be good for the economy, and good for jobs. That’s why I thought that one of the more innovative parts of Gore’s speech was when he talked about American automakers.

About three-fourths of the way through the film, Al Gore uses one of his ubiquitous powerpoint graphs to show how fuel efficiency standards are rising quickly in every country except the United States (even California, which has separate standards). It’s pretty well documented that the U. S. reluctance to raise fuel efficiency is because the U. S. auto makers in Michigan make most of their money off of large, heavy trucks and SUVs.

Gore’s point was that GM’s and Ford’s attitudes are counterproductive in the long run because, by focusing on cars that can only be sold in the United States, they’re abandoning the rapidly growing global auto market. Not only that, but as oil becomes scarce and foreign automakers develop better low-carbon technology, American automakers will quickly be edged out of an increasing portion of the domestic market.

This is only one example of how embracing clean energy and transportation options is good for the U. S. economy in the long run. If we took even half the money we are currently spending on the Iraq War and spent it on developing clean energy technology (for example, switchgrass ethanol or plug-in hybrids) we’d be the world leader in low-carbon power by the end of the decade. It’s hard to see how our current conservative approach will pay off financially in the long term, but there seem to be many ways that the U. S. could use its current wealth advantage to benefit both our economy and our environment. That might be a message that can form a broader coalition of interests in support of Al Gore’s principles.

14.6.06

*** News Flash ***

Sorry about the extended delay. I spend the last two weeks in New York and Boston, looking at all the pretty buildings, and enjoying the street life in a more car-free environments. It was quite nice to walk and ride transit everywhere, and I tried to spend yesterday doing the same thing in Minneapolis. It was much harder, of course, and walking around downtown on a beautiful day, I realized how difficult maintaining a vibrant streetlife becomes when you've got such an extensive skyway system.

I promise to have more on that soon, as well as some pictures and analysis of the new Twins stadium site, and a detailed multi-part bit on the present and future of University Avenue. But in the meantime, here's a story on New York City -- environmental capitol of the U.S.

"It doesn't look to most people like an oil geyser, but every day New York City residents consume just one-third of the gasoline used by other Americans and one-half of the residential energy use of a typical American. They drive fewer cars because of a well-developed mass transit system and their multi-unit buildings use less energy per household."

"That adds up to the equivalent of between 221,000,000 to 296,000,000 barrels of oil saved per year by New York residents -- just a bit less than the 320,000,000 barrels per year that would be produced by the ANWR field in Alaska at its peak production. Just by its urban design, New York City is one of the most important energy sources in the country."

[http://www.tpmcafe.com/node/30248]


That's kind of interesting, given how horribly tree-less and suffocating the city is to spend any time in.