Dog Day Vacation

It's August... August, when nothing happens... I'm going to be in remote Ontario for the next 10 days, so if you want Twin City urbanism I urge you to go to the fair.

There's nowhere in Minnesota that more resembles Taipei street life, or Weegee's Coney Island, than Dan Patch Avenue during late August.

Posting will resume after September 4th.



*** News Flash *** #3

I'm re-starting a previously recurring feature of Twin City Sidewalks, mostly due to laziness. It's called ***News Flash***, and involves me linking to things with varying degrees of pith.

  • First up is a link provided me by reader Caitlin, a radio program called Radiolab out of WNYC in New York that deals with emergence, or the way in which interactions of individuals create a higher order structure cognitively independent of any particular mind. The example most often used to talk about emergence is ant colonies, the way in which the colony forms a larger 'organism' based on interacting behavior of individual ants, independent of any ant 'mastermind'. Like the makers of this program, I'm of the mind that emergence is also a great way to understand cities. For example, this radio show talks about the way in which flowershops congregate together in cities. ("Traffic is everything.") Though its a bit depressing to think of ourselves as tiny ants running around willy nilly...
  • My favorite sociologist Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone guy) has a new article talking about 'the downside to diversity.' His argument, as far as I can tell, is that homogenous neighborhoods are more likely to foster social capital then ones with a great deal of diversity, which seems pretty common sense to me. I live in a very diverse neighborhood, and people around here tend to 'turtle' (as Putnam says), and not talk to each other as much as people in more lily white places like St. Anthony Park or wherever. But, what I'm not reading enough is how segregation can also be bad for society as a whole.
  • A nice link showing some maps of how the T.C. looked before they put the interstates in during the 60's and 70's.
  • The ISLR had a nice op-ed in the Strib on how locally owned energy (ethanol, windmills) is better for local economies.
  • On the other side of the river, the PiPress had some coverage of the St Paul Port Authority, and how it's been quietly redeveloping unused industrial land all throughout the city. Despite my reservations about Robert Moses, whose tool of choice was also the port authority, I've been a fan of most of the SPPA's work. For example, the recent Great Northern Railyard developmeny in my neighborhood.
  • Urban sprawl is nothing new, according to this article on Angkor Wat.
  • Two articles in the Strib on local urban bidness... First, the need for more benches for sitting... Second, are big box stores doing anything (anything substantial?) to fit in better to their neighborhoods? Judging by the Walmart on South Robert Street, I think not... I guess its better than an enema? (T.C. Bonus Question: Once you take away the fireworks and philanthropy, is Target really any better than Walmart? I keep saying 'no.')
  • What Google Maps looked like one hundred years ago...
  • Duluth rocks, and apparently someone finally noticed.
  • This incredibly awesome event is happening today. Get thee to Nicollet Mall. (Guerrilla marketing at work...)
  • And a friend of mine is launching a new wiki intended to produce a wiki-what-should-be, called Humane Earth. Feel free to edit it, vendettas and all.
  • And finally, this is one of my favorite things to listen to lately: Okeh's Laughing Record. Check it out.


Other City Sidewalks: Babylon NY

The only thing I knew about Babylon NY, located about a third out on the South shore of Long Island, was that it had been the home of Robert Moses, scourge of American cities. If you don't know who Robert Moses is, I urge you to put aside a month, sometime in the near future, and read The Power Broker, Robert Caro's 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Moses. It's a fantastic biography, combining drama and painstaking detail with the rarest of ease, and in it you learn the dangers of concentrated power as Caro tells the saga of Moses's insane forty-year grip on New York infrastructure, building highways through neighborhoods and displacing hundreds of thousands of people, spearheading 'the projects', and singlehandedly yoking U.S. cities to the automobile for what will probably be an eternity. (On the other hand, the bridges he built haven't fallen down yet.)

So, needless to say, when I got to Babylon NY, the town where Moses parked his subsidized yacht, I was most filled with biblical trepidation... trepidation and a desire to somehow unearth the visible scars of Moses's mad genius. Would I find a Moses bust? Would it be the land of gated communities? Or hanging gardens? What I found, though, was a pastoral fishing village surrounded by well-manicured, sidewalk-free, and quite expensive real estate.

[One of Babylon's old half timber'd shop buildings.]

The other day walking along Raymond Avenue, I'd been struck by the neat way that the parking lot for Noll's Hardware was tucked neatly down an alleyway, behind the streetside storefront.
If these alleys marked University Avenue's industrial/St. Anthony Park seam, they were far more common in Babylon. Every street in the little downtown had a back alley parking lot. There were even whole houses tucked behind stores. (Here's one, pictured at right, for which the only access is this long dumpster-filled alley.) The little downtown is just a five minute walk from the Long Island Railroad commuter train, and features a host of old-school thrift-, paperback book-, antique-, and drapery-stores. It boasted a few grocery stores, and a number of Irish bar/restaurants that must have dated back to the South Shore of Long Island's economic fishing foundations. What struck me most, though, was the drive-through grocery store called The Dairy Barn, which uses a sort of nostalgic aura to entice people to buy milk and bread without leaving their driver's seats.

Babylon, despite its nice sidewalks, transit access, and walkable aura... despite its lamppost flower planters (hanging gardens?), its inlaid red brick trim, and the delicate arch of its maple trees that lend it a precious authenticity... despite all that, I didn't' find an urban spirit in Babylon NY. For one thing, the 'downtown' (or village center) is really sparsely populated. There was one building on a main corner that seemed to be undergoing condo-i-fication, but you'd be hard pressed to find an apartment to rent in that town. Similarly, Babylon seemed almost entirely dependent on cars to get around. The streets date back, I'm sure, a long way, but couldn't they put in some bike lanes or something? (Of course, the same could be said of recent Sidewalk of the Week winner, Carter Avenue, which could serve as a dead ringer for Babylon's village aesthetic.)

I went on a long walk from the downtown to the Babylon harbor, passing along a suburban-seeming sidewalk winding through the lawns of suburban houses. It seemed almost exactly like any of the nicer Twin Cities suburbs (e.g. Edina, Roseville), complete with two-car garages and the proverbial picket fence. most of these houses must have been built after Moses completed his Long Island highways (ever politically astute, he called them 'parkways'). (Indeed, it was Moses's highways which spearheaded the development of suburban Long Island, cultivating Levittowns at an astronomical rate.) I walked on the sidewalks of Babylon, and when the sidewalk disappeared I walked on the edges of roads, through yards, and around poles. I walked but didn't find any sign of public space... The best I could do was the entirely benchless municipal pier, where I sat on the pavement with a book and stared out at the sea.
Would Moses were here, I'd kick him in the balls.

[The view out Babylon Harbor, presumably looking at the Robert Moses causeway connecting Robert Moses State Park with the mainland, and probably Robert Moses's own personal favorite view.]


Principles of Sidewalkery: Increasing Returns

Today its time for another POS -- or Principle of Sidewalkery (POS). This time we're going to look at increasing returns, or the idea that 'Sidewalks Aren't a Zero Sum Game'. What is increasing returns?

Well, the first thing to think about is why certain types of businesses cluster together in cities. For example, New York City is famous for having 'districts' in certain parts of the city, where, for example, fifty different industrial lighting shops cluster together along a certain stretch of a street (The Bowery). Why do businesses that compete with each other (ethnic restaurants, antique shops, nightclubs, &c.) often end up in the same kinds of neighborhoods when classical competitive economics dictates that they should create unique identities by locating themselves far from one another?

That's one of the puzzles of increasing returns. At the same time, increasing returns points to the notion that good businesses create good sidewalks, which in turn create good businesses, and so on and so on (and scooby dooby doo) in a catalytic cycle of positive feedback. Increasing returns means that street corners create their own street corner audience, that not only does neighborhood specialization decrease the effect of direct competition, but that vibrant pedestrian traffic can grow itself along contiguous stretches of sidewalk like a grapevine on a fencepost, or like mold on old bread.

Last week's Sidewalk of the Week, Raymond Avenue, is a good example of the idea of increasing returns. While the University Avenue area has many corners boasting one- or two-story mixed-use buildings, for some reason only this particular stretch along the Northwest corner of Raymond has shop after shop after shop with (relatively) thriving pedestrian flow. According to classical economic principles, restaurants might just as well move to some of the empty-ish buildings around the corner, or across University Avenue, capitalizing on their low rent and separate geographic identity. The last thing two restaurants would want to do is bunch together and directly compete with each other for business. But for some reason, the two most successful restaurants in this area are on the same block. Its because instead of competing over the same cafe-going pie, by locating next to each other Key's and Jay's Cafes increase their returns and grow the Saint Paul dining public. This part of town becomes known as the 'Cafe Corner,' and twice as many people show up to eat.

Similarly, on Saint Paul's Selby Avenue the success of Lula Vintage Wear (a vintage clothes store) catalyzed a two new vintage stores (Up Six on Snelling Avenue, and Go Vintage 54 across the street on Selby) opening up less than one block away, so that now there are three vintage stores forming a vintage clothes district on this little part of town. [image from lulasvintage.com]

Or to offer another example, one popular nightclub in Minneapolis's warehouse district spawns another across the street, until the entire area becomes known for its nightclubs. So instead of competing for the same pool of club-goers, the neighborhood's identity grows the total number of club-goers, and everyone comes out ahead.

At the same time, increasing returns creates a generalized, overall neighborhood prosperity. In other words, customers to one successful business create pedestrian traffic which can support other unlike businesses in the immediate vicinity. The more people you have walking around a certain area, the more easily a hardware store or a grocery can grab and extra customer or two, so that vibrant walkable sidewalks tend to grow and thrive in tightly contiguous clusters. Sidewalks aren't fighting over a set amount of retail business, but instead can increase their retail return by encouraging neighboring businesses.

So increasing returns to sidewalk vitality works in two ways -- first (1) by allowing for neighborhood specialization to create a unique identity for an entire sidewalk corner, rather than a single business, and second (2) by increasing overall pedestrian flow so that other nearby businesses benefit from added traffic flow. And unlike cars, which are a pain in the tuchas to start, stop, and park, people on foot can amble, stroll, and meander their way along a stretch of sidewalk, whiling away their days gazing in shop windows. Increasing returns is one of the big reasons that sidewalk vitality so often comes in tightly compacted stretches. Good sidewalks make good neighbors, and streets take on lives of their own.


The increasing returns of sidewalk specialization is certainly nothing new. I'm reading The Continuing City, by urban morphologist and geographer James Vance Jr., and he describes ancient Greek cities thus:

We cannot establish a detailed picture of the commercial geography of Athens or other classical cities, but we can reasonably accept the idea that one did exist. The segregation was horizontal, into the [merchant] quarters already mentioned; it also seems to have been vertical to a small degree. Foundations remain that suggest the existence of upper-story storage of goods, as well as "living over the shop." ... The geographic anchor of all this internal structuring of commercial areas was an agora. Traders first congregated there; from there, they came to occupty more differentiated craft and traders' districts. [p. 55]


Sidewalk of the Week: Raymond Avenue

Politically bookended by the dogged, probably all-male Libertarian Party of Minnesota headquarters on one end, and the longstanding (hopefully female) quality newspaper, Minnesota Women's Press, on the other, the sidewalk along Raymond Avenue is this week's Twin Cities' Sidewalk of the Week. Where else can you find such a spectrum? Congratulations!

In a way, stepping down Raymond Avenue is like stepping back in time, wading through a yellow fog of modernity, and standing on tiptoes of timelessness to peer through the knothole of The Now into the hearts of Saint Paul's Hamden Park. (So to speak...) What I mean is, the two block stretch of businesses that runs along the West side of the street boasts of the kind of retail diversity you rarely find any more in the Twin Cities: two restaurants (Key's and Jay's), a host of really small offices including a print shop, a newspaper, a political office, and a karate studio, a hardware store, an antiques shop, and a medium sized grocery store called Herbst Maket which doesn't appear to have changed one iota since the mid 60s -- in other words, canned vegetables abound around the meat counter. This sidewalk's vibrancy really sets a high bar for the University Avenue area, and I think there are only certain parts of the Asian districts of the street can match its pedestrian attraction.

My sense is that this stretch of sidewalk, practically the only retail corner along this largely industrial section of University Avenue, serves as the Main Street for Saint Paul's Hamden Park neighborhood, located just North of this corner along Raymond Avenue. Somehow the folks that live around here have managed to support their grocer and the hardware store and keep them afloat for all these years.

One of the things that makes this sidewalk so interesting is the way in which the businesses extend out onto the street, forming a kind of arching tunnel of trees, shop signs, grass & tables through which one is invited to amble. For example, [photo at right] the vintage store, Succotash, puts some of their awesome 60's furniture out on the street, inviting anyone to place their tuchas into an antique chair. Jay's Cafe, too, has under-umbrella sidewalk dining, a rarity in this part of Saint Paul

Another of Raymond Avenue's nice sidewalk features is the rear-of-the-building parking lots, that presumably date back to the time before cars (a.k.a. B.C.). The sign for Noll Hardware [pictured at right] points to the parking in the rear of the building, and cars can drive down the little dirt alleyway to a parking lot that doesn't intrude at all on the sidewalk retail frontage. This alley is perhaps a little narrow for drivers today, but, really, new businesses thinking of ways to incorporate additional parking ought to really consider this kind of parking structure. All it takes is a little bit of fore knowledge on the customer's part, and you have parking lots and sidewalks harmoniously working together. The sidewalk keeps its finely woven fabric, its window'd warp and dog walk'd woof. If only every sidewalk could be so lucky.


MPR Decoder: Broken Bridge = Gas Tax?

As Laurie Blake reports, a gas tax is a near certainty in a special session likely to take place in September. After years of trying to pass a gas tax, having it vetoed, and coming within a vote or two of getting one enacted, it looks like the Minnesota political standoff has reached a tipping point (after I 35W tipped into the river).

MPR's midday (blissfully free of Gary Eichten) had a whole show with the leaders of the legislature talking about the gas tax, without really mentioning it too many times. Apparently the only question now is, how big will it be?

The way I read this: the DFL knows they have all the political cover they need to pass a gas tax and not take any heat for it. Pretty much the only political angle for the Republicans is to accuse the Democrats of 'politicizing the issue,' kind of like what happened at Wellstone's funeral. So the DFL is going to stay very, very far away from saying anything negative about Pawlenty or the House leadership, and instead repeat over and over again how important it is to 'fund long term investment' to keep our roads 'safe'. They can't really lose with that.

Usually in these special sessions, the Governor and the two leaders of the House and Senate meet in advance of the session and agree to agree on the one or two needed bills, so that the legislative session itself is kind of a perfunctory formality. I'm not sure if this session will be like that, though, because it sounds like the DFL is going to try and have a larger agenda, not only to pass as large of a (political heat-free) gas tax as they can, but also to include some of the LGA restoration (aid money to cities) that the governor vetoed this spring.

Here's a terribly rough transcription, with most of the fluff edited out, and some editorial commentary.

Speaker of the MN House, Margaret Anderson Kelliher (MAK): We need to come up with a 10% match on federal money, and it might even be higher... The debate about congestion has changed to a life and safety debate -- and I don't think its a debate any more. [Meaning: I don't even think Marty's bestest, most conservative friend Rep. Tom Emmer is stupid enough to stand there and say we don't need more money for roads when the freeway is laying in the river.]

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert (MS): We certainly need to do a bill for overtime, a match of federal funds ... and then there's going to have to be an assessment done... [Meaning: We need more time for all this emotional political heat to cool down, before we try and minimize the tax increase.] We need to assess what the need is... We're not going to come rushing in... [Meaning: We're not going to be happy about passing a permanent gas tax in September]... It would be helpful to have hearings... [Meaning: Please give us more time] ... we do have a bonding capacity, many of those types of things so we have an analysis done and that it wouldn't drag on for a long time, come in and have swift action... [Meaning: Please no gas tax! You know how we hate taxes... We just want to pass a really quick appropriation of borrowed bonded money to look at a few bridges, and get out of there without having a long unwinnable debate about this.]

MAK: We'll be forming a joint House Senate committee to review information from the past, and examine further aspects from the I35 bridge... In 1997 the legislative auditor did a study of bridge and trunk highway system and looked at deficiencies and funding issues... We're going to ask them to begin work to update report... They wrote that 1997 it was $100 million, and now its over a billion... [Meaning: You want time to study the issue? I'm going to 'head you off at the pass' here and start studying the issue right now, so that when we have our session we'll already have a fresh report in our hands and can talk about the gas tax!]

MS: We can get money out to those folks that need it, but we don't have a firm idea of the amount of money... I want to help in what way I can on a transportation package that we can move a bill through quickly and get the governors signature on it and also some long term needs that we have... [Meaning: Pawlenty might veto something! We're not afraid to do it. (OK we are afraid, but we'll talk about it at least...)] We have to place life safety first... We're gonna have to look at some other mechanisms, the surplus or um other places to meet the immediate needs... [Meaning: Oh. I almost said the words Gas Tax. Don't make me say those words... it hurts... it hurts...]

State Senator Steve Murphy, Chair of the Transportation Committee (SM): We do know full well what the full impact is on our transportation system. Speaker Kelliher said that we're deficient over a billion dollars, and that's only on the trunk highway system... If you add everything up that number is 1.7 billion dollars of unmet need every year.... Clearly a third of our budget is in what I would consider a deficit situation, and we need to do something about filling up that hole... We need to make major strides, and it will take a tax increase. [Meaning: There's no way in hell, Marty, that you're going to get away with not passing a gas tax.]

MS: We all agree that the need is there. [Meaning: Even I, Marty Seifert, cannot say the words 'high tax state' when the freeway is laying in the river.] We had different bills before the leg, I had one, Rep. Bernie Lieder (Chair of the House Tranposrtation Commmitte) had one. I think we're all open minded in this situation to getting the critical needs taken care of first and foremost, and that would be the bridges, life, and safety as the speaker mentioned, and then moving forwards. I think there are preferences from different members that would like to see bonding and general fund dollars. [Meaning: Now that most of the moderates are gone from our caucus, I'm going to have a hell of a time trying to get them to stomach a gas tax increase.] The gas tax is obviously gonna be something that's there for us to use in this particular situation. And I'm open minded I'm not gonna close the door on anything. [Meaning: I can see the writing on the wall. This sucks.] ... The details are certainly gonna be hashed out ... A lot of people would say I don't know all the differences between bonding, general fund, and gas tax, but my guess would be end of the day when all this is done ... this is probably gonna be some type of a combination, with some focus on life and safety, dangerous intersections, and bridges... We really need to focus on those critical needs first and then moving out long term. [Meaning: OK OK OK, a gas tax. I get it. But it's going to be a small one, or Mary Liz Holberg will sic her dogs on me. Please, please don't make it a big gas tax? I beg you!]

CALLER: How are we going to pay for this? ... We've wasted government moeny on things like stadiums and the mall of america, and we needed that money for other things [Meaning: Hey did you notice that the interstate fell into the Mississippi for no reason? ... Wait, nevermind. The Twins are on TV. Go Twins!]

SM: We just have a terrible underfunding problem with transportation. We need to take a major stride at addressing that underfunding.... We need to have more money, and if that takes a tax increase to get it done, so be it.... Back in 1988 when we last increased the gas tax, that 20 cents was buying 17 cents worth of product. not its 12 or 13 cents because of inflation . And we can't continue to bond because that just takes away from our maintenance program. We need to have all those pots of money that go into transportation need to be increased so that none of them has to shoulder the burden 100 percent. What's paying for the majority of work right now is our property taxes, and we can't continue to do that. [Meaning: Big gas tax now. No ifs ands or buts. Don't say the world 'bonding' to me. I don't even want to hear the word 'bonding.']

MAK: In my time in the legislature we've had no less than 3 major transportation packages, two that have gone to the governor... [Meaning: It's pretty clear whose fault this is, and its not really mine.] We have an underinvestment issue. I believe that we need new revenue. It has been my position, the position of every member of the house DFL caucus, and many members of the house republican caucus, and I think the senate is on board completely for doing some raising of the user fee, which is the gas tax, that funds our roads. Folks are right to have some very strong feelings about this right now. My hope when we go into special session is that we don't only deal with the immediacy of this situation, but we get the job done on funding our transportation system overall. And i don't think that's that hard to do, when you look at the fact that there have been a number of packages that have already been publically vetted. [Meaning: This is as close as I'm going to get to blaming the governor. But its pretty much the governor's fault, and I'm not afraid to stoke the fires a bit and tell people about all the other transportation funding packages we tried to pass. Now though, we have the votes to pass this thing with or without the governor on board, so don't mess with me Marty Seifert.]

SM: I want to caution people about just dealing with the immediacy of this issue. this bridge didn't decide to fall on Wednesday out of the clear blue. We got here... We don't know yet, ... We need to wait for the NTSB to come back with a report so we know exactly what happened with that bridge. But that bridge didn't get into the position that we have where it needed continual maintanence... We didn't get there overnight. [Meaning: This is as close as I'm going to get to blaming the governor, too. It's pretty close though. I'm this far from blaming the governor. [holds fingers close together]] ... We need to look long term because this is going to e along fix for a lot o the other infrastructure that you hear about. Cancer doesn't happen overnight, and you don't cure it overnight. We're talking about a 10 year plan.... [Meaning: A cancer metaphor. Perfect!] We need long term plans to try to address this with large infusions of cash spread out over a period of time so we can address these issues so they don't become catastrophic at a later date. [Meaning: Yeah, I'm talking about a big gas tax.]

MPR reporter Mike Mulcahey (MM): Doens't this cause a criseis in confidence in our state government? [Meaning: Didn't you guys pretty seriously f' up here?]

MAK: It is difficult right now. I know minnesotans have their own anxieties about this. ... But its not enought for us to say we believe we have a good system. ... We're witholding the speculation part of this... But I do think its striking that this bridge is carrying a load of traffic that it wasn't designed for... It all poitns back to this very same question of an overall investment strategy.... We need to renew our committment to a long term strategy here. like SM said, nothing gets this way overnight. [Meaning: We seriously f'd up. Its pretty obvious that we f'd up.]

SM: We need to put the blame game behind us. now is the time to join hands and come up with a package that works for everybody. we can't continue to point the finger. ... When we heard this all of our hearts sank. There was a terrible feeling in the pit of our stomach that if we had started this 15 years ago possible this may have never happened. but overall we need a huge investment Mike. [Meaning: I f'd up too. If only I'd tried to blame the governor more often and more effectively in the past!]

CALLER: How are we gonna pay for all of this? What about overtime for police officers? The City of Minneapolis funding for police officers is already stretched thin. ... The LGA money is stretched tight...

MAK: There will be some significant costs here... I do think we saw an action this week what things like LGA goes to, sitting in that emergency command center the last two days, watching the coordinated command of the county and the state ... [Meaning: I'm still thinking about whether or not I can twist the governors arm even further here and try to get the LGA cuts restored. I'd like to, but I'll probably just use it as a bargaining chip instead, to get more gas tax money.]

MM: About that LGA issue... What about the governor's recent veto of the tax bill? A lot of cities are looking at a dismal budget situation, aren't they?

MAK: That's up in the air. I've never stopped talking to the gov about having a special session on the tax bill, on the vetoed small capital investment bill... I think we need to go back to those issues. as we ask local units of govt to go out with us to inspect bridges and safety. We need to understand that we're one Minnesota. You should be able to be anywhere in the state and have police, fire, safety, and have a good road to drive on. I think that's critical for the entire state. [Meaning: Damn straight. But there'll be plenty of time to use this bridge issue to restore LGA cuts later, and I don't think I'm going to try and do it now. That doesn't mean I won't talk about it, though. (See: chip, bargaining.)]


Pothole Pawlenty Packs a Punch

[Image from CityPages]

OK, so I'm no fan of freeways. In fact, there's probably nothing I hate more in this world than an inner city interstate, and I really don't like the idea of throwing money at the Department of Transportation so that they can fuel the TC's all-you-can-eat sprawl. But that doesn't mean I want to see interstates crash into the river.

For some time now on this blog, I've been trying unsuccessfully to get the nickname Tim 'Pothole' Pawlenty into the local vernacular. I thought that the pothole was the perfect symbol for the Tim's tenure in state government. It symbolizes the gradual degradation of our government, the way that little cuts here and there start to add up and multiply until eventually you're driving on a cheese grater, the schools suck, and the city you love starts to resemble Detroit. Plus, potholes are kind of funny, and they're something everyone can relate to. They're the Fred Basset of transportation. I never thought, though, that a pothole could cause an interstate to fall into the river. But in a way, that's very literally what might (might) have happened. Of course, we won't know what actually happened for a very long time, if ever.

And I don't want to literally blame Pawlenty for the bridge falling down. That would be kind of like blaming Bush for 9/11. (How could he have known?) Instead, I want to blame the libertarian ideology that Governor Pothole espouses, and that's dominated US politics for the last twenty-five years. In a Ronald Reagan world where "government is the problem," it should come as no great surprise when levies break and bridges tumble. No, the problem is much bigger than our local Tim, but it still annoys me when I see him on TV uttering the word catastrophe.

And so, in the interest of not blaming Pothole Pawlenty for the I-35 bridge disaster, I've put together a 'best of' complation of the Star Tribune's Lexis-Nexis results about our governor and the state's transportation budget. There's quite a history to enjoy.

(Remember, I'm not blaming. "I'm just saying...")

"Clearly, traffic and traffic congestion and road and bridges are increasing in importance as a political issue [and] as a policy issue, and politicians respond to that," said House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, R-Eagan.

"You go out in the suburbs and people are increasingly torqued."

Ventura has proposed adding $95 million to the $1 billion-plus budget for road and bridge maintenance and construction in the next two-year period.

Pawlenty and other key legislators say additional spending for roads, bridges and transit is likely this session.

The argument for new spending received additional fuel Wednesday with the findings of a study that asserts that Minnesota's highways, bridges and local roads could face nearly $8 billion in unfunded repair and replacement needs over the next decade. (Mpls Star Tribune 2/15/01)

Gov.-elect Tim Pawlenty said Friday that the state's projected $4.56 billion budget deficit means that his plans for billions of dollars of new investment in roads and bridges will have to be scaled back.

"It's not going to be as bold or dramatic as we'd like," he said during a visit to the State Capitol complex offices of the Department of Transportation (MnDOT). "But it is possible to move the ball forward somewhat."

Road building and repair are not directly affected by the general fund deficit because they are mostly financed by dedicated taxes on gasoline, vehicle sales and registrations.

During the election campaign, Pawlenty opposed other candidates' calls for increasing the state gasoline tax, which has stood at 20 cents a gallon since 1988, to spur highway construction. Instead, he urged new state borrowing of $1 billion to $2 billion, which he suggested could be repaid with future payments on the state's $6.1 billion settlement with the tobacco industry. (Mpls Star Tribune 12/7/02)

Gov. Pawlenty had originally proposed to use $130 million in cash from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to help solve the budget deficit. His plan was to issue bonds to replace that money, which was earmarked for road projects.

But when the Legislature was unable to agree on a budget-balancing package and Pawlenty was forced to act alone, he did not have legislative authority to issue bonds, said Bruce Briese, MnDOT director of financial planning and analysis.

Instead, the governor lifted $20 million from MnDOT that had not yet been committed to construction projects.

That means some projects may not go forward or the cuts will be made elsewhere, unless the money is replenished through bonds, Briese said. (Mpls Star Tribune 2/8/03)

More than 1,300 of the 35,000 state jobs in Minnesota could be eliminated by the end of June as part of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to deal with a $4.2 billion projected budget deficit, with major reductions coming in the Transportation and Corrections departments.

Workers began receiving layoff notices last week, but because of a complicated system in which senior employees are able to "bump" others to retain their paychecks, it may take several weeks before it is clear who will be given a pink slip.

Although agency heads will be given some leeway in determining how to cut costs, an analysis of Pawlenty's budget by the largest union for state workers shows where the possible cuts may come. Observers on all sides caution that the numbers are preliminary.

In the Transportation Department, 295 positions in the 5,100-worker department are targeted, but some would include early retirements and unfilled vacancies. Peter Benner, executive director of District 6 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest union representing state workers, said such things as 24-hour snow and ice removal could be affected by those layoffs. (Mpls Star Tribune 2/25/03)

If, however, the object is to make meaningful progress against mounting Twin Cities traffic congestion, then the governor has accomplished very little. No one should be misled by newspaper headlines boasting of a "billion-dollar road trip." Even Pawlenty acknowledges that his is a modest proposal, not a "be-all, end-all plan." In saying that, he has come close to conceding that additional taxes will be needed to make actual headway. For that bit of intellectual honesty Minnesotans should be grateful.

Any who doubt that more taxes will be needed should consider this number: $750 million. That's the additional sum it will take every year for 20 years for traffic not to get worse in the metro area. Pawlenty's plan borrows and leverages only a quarter of that _ $200 million extra per year for the next five years for the whole state. That's enough to fix a handful of two dozen metro bottlenecks. It's not enough to add lanes to the beltway or to build the new transit lines and connective bus routes the region needs so badly. For that to happen, a whole array of fees and taxes must be raised. That's an unpleasant prospect, but so is a future in which traffic diminishes Minnesota's quality of life and becomes a disincentive to growth and prosperity.

What makes Pawlenty's modest plan risky is that it squeezes money out of road maintenance and administration to finance new construction. It may well be proper to cut administrative costs, but safety is a serious question, and Minnesota's severe climate demands that the state care for the roads it already has before adding more. (Mpls Star Tribune 3/23/03)

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and rival legislators took their deadlocked negotiations over transportation funding public on Friday, accusing each other of impeding progress on much-needed improvements in roads, bridges and transit.

"We have stalled out, we have run into congestion, we have a roadblock in the form of the Senate DFL," Pawlenty said at a news conference.

An hour later, DFLers responded at their own gathering with reporters. Pawlenty "says it's our way or the highway; then he refuses to pay for the highway," said Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon.

At stake is the governor's five-year, $1.1 billion plan to speed up road building, with half of the funds borrowed over 20 years. DFLers originally proposed a $2.1 billion package financed by a higher gasoline tax and vehicle registration renewal fees, but they dropped it in the face of Pawlenty's opposition to such revenue-raisers.

Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger, DFL-St. Peter, characterized it as "a balanced solution . . . paid for in a fiscally responsible way." DFLers complained that the Pawlenty plan would cost taxpayers $300 million in interest over 20 years while cutting more than $10 million from transit funding.

Pawlenty, meanwhile, suggested that DFLers and business groups were resisting his plan as too small a step toward catching up with long-term transportation infrastructure needs of up to $20 billion.

"The standard shouldn't be do it all or do none," he said. "We should do what we can." (Mpls Star Tribune 5/24/03)

In his written statement, Pawlenty strongly defended Molnau's performance, crediting her for the largest road, bridge and transit package in state history.

"The lieutenant governor has brought a new brand of common sense to MnDOT, with a major restructuring that has dramatically improved efficiency and effectiveness," he said. "Today's vote [to reject her appointment as Transportation Commissioner] was a sad display of partisanship and a huge disservice to Minnesotans. The vote was not about qualifications, but was legislative payback for a reform-minded leader who is an agent of change." (Mpls Star Tribune 3/31/04)

To avoid increasing the gas tax, Pawlenty 's administration will sell $400 million in state bonds and use that money to attract $425 million in advance construction financing from the federal government. Budget juggling at MnDOT freed $100 million for safety improvement projects.

Altogether this provides about $900 million that will speed up the start of 12 projects around the state. About $30 million in bonds have been sold to date, according to MnDOT.

The decision to borrow rather than raise the gas tax to bring in extra money for roads and transit remains a political issue for DFLers who would have preferred a pay-as-you-go approach to extra construction, said DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson. (Mpls Star Tribune 4/7/04)

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of the transportation bill almost guarantees another year will pass without meaningful progress on one of Minnesota's biggest problems. The condition and safety of outstate roads and bridges will continue to deteriorate. Metro freeways won't be expanded to meet population growth, and the transit system will continue to shrink just as it should be growing. (Mpls Star Tribune 5/21/05)

In an interview Friday, Pawlenty said he doesn't regret his veto of the 10-cent-per-gallon tax increase. Critics of his transportation policy should look at the 18 projects that his plan has delivered, he said.

"Yes, there have been some hiccups, but we have done more for transportation than any administration in modern history, a 20- to 40-percent-a-year increase in construction on my watch," he [Pawlenty] said. (Mpls Star Tribune 7/4/06)

Business interests are back in St. Paul this year arguing in support of a Pawlenty administration proposal to allow heavier trucks on Minnesota highways. The Legislature's answer should be simple and direct: Put your proposal away until Minnesota's highways and bridges are fully, adequately funded to handle existing commercial traffic. (Mpls Star Tribune 4/17/07)

"Coming forward with a big gas tax increase on a day when the gas price in Minnesota is $3.02 a gallon shows these DFLers have lost touch with the real world," [Pawlenty’s spokesman Brian McClung] said. (Mpls Star Tribune 5/10/07)

[Pawlenty] said the transportation bill, with its $5 billion in assorted tax and fee increases, would impose an "unnecessary and onerous burden on Minnesotans that could weaken the state's economy." (Mpls Star Tribune 5/16/07)

"I suggested to legislative leaders early on that if they put Senator Pogemiller in the driver's seat he's going to take them over the cliff, and I think that's where they're headed," Pawlenty said at an impromptu news conference moments after the signing. (Mpls Star Tribune 5/17/07)

I not saying there's a pattern here, or anything.


Columns in the media that get it right...

Nick Coleman's Column

Miles Spicer's Opinion Piece

Popular Mechanics Column



Interstate Bridge of the Week: 35W Mississippi River Bridge

This week's Interstate Bridge of the Week is the 35W Mississippi River Bridge near the West Bank/U of M/Metrodome area of downtown Minneapolis. It collapsed today into the river, and obviously it's a terrible tragedy in which many people lost lives or were horribly injured. My friend called me from the area five minutes after it happened, and I biked down to the U of MN campus to see what was happening.

I was living in Brooklyn during 9/11, and what happened in the Twin Cities today was a lot like New York six years ago: so many people stopped what they were doing, people called their friends and family on the phone, and crowds gathered around television sets to watch, comment on, and share the experience.

But at the same time it strikes me that there are a host of differences between the two events. The most important is that, unlike 9/11 or the San Francisco earthquake, there was nothing in particular that caused this collapse. It just happened, like entropy, or spontaneous combustion. The bridge reached a tipping point where it could no longer support the collective weight of steel, concrete, and cars, and its commuters suffered the consequences.

We should all be truly shocked that this was just a case of bad engineering. From what I've heard on MPR tonight (in a great bit of internet research by someone named Aarsanden Totten (?)), this bridge was a unique bit of engineering lacking the structural 'redundancy' that serves as a crucial backup in case the primary support fails. It might have been rust, or even one too many potholes on the bridge's surface, but in all likelihood this is a case of cutting one too many corners, either in the bridge's construction or its later maintenance. (Let me point out that the WTC collapse was in no small part due to the unique structural supports of the building. The outside of the building held it up, allowing more office space to occupy the interior, just as this bridge was uniquely built to allow an uninterrupted span to cross the Mississippi. Is this technological progress? Ingenuity?)

It makes you think about all the common infrastructure that we share, all the freeways, power lines, satellites, buildings, and sewers... all the the police, firefighters, and hospitals that we all count on whether we know it or not. This is not to mention the flows from farms and factories that provide everything we eat and use. We even rely on the media -- those bastardized televisions, radios, and cell phones that we use every day -- to let us know what's happening in our cities and countries, and throughout the world. So much relies on so much steel, sand, and stone.

But of course we forget. People think when they slam shut their car door, flip on the A/C, and crank up KS95 that they're invulnerable. We think that our walls are solid, and that homes are ours and ours alone. We believe that bootstraps are the only things holding us up, but we forget that cars are just as reliant on public infrastructure as everything else, as trains or buses or electric sockets. In fact, this country has pumped trillions of dollars during the last 50 years into building a vast, vast network of highways, bridges, and concrete overpasses. We've spent more money on highways in this country than on any other public works project (unless you call the military budget a public work), but it's the kind of thing that's easy to forget about until something reminds us that somewhere, at some point, some guy under a fluorescent light designed everything we take for granted.

No, the real story today is that we've been reminded that we're all in this together. The reporter on MPR right now is explaining that she's most surprised by all the people, and their collective response to the crisis. "The people the just keep coming and coming and coming", she says, "trying to see if for themselves" and "standing in groups, talking to each other." Yes, its a shock in the U.S.A. to share a collective experience, to join a group of your neighbors and witness the world around you. We demand a spectacle, like fireworks, football, or a good war parade.

When I went past the old bicycle bridge at the University of Minnesota (just South of the scene) I found it covered with people, and most of them were there because they knew they were part of a community. It could have been them in those cars, and if there had been any way to help out, somehow, they would have. For a moment, we were all in this together, and it reminded me of Manhattan in 2001 where, just like today, I was able to stop and talk to complete strangers about the world around me. (Hell, Channel 4 just interviewed a Hispanic family who was involved in the accident. It's probably the first time they've interviewed a Hispanic family all year. "They drive cars too?")

It's a cliche to say so, but it is times like this we pull together as Minnesotans, as Americans, and as people. Only it's sad that it takes a fucking tragedy to realize that we're not all atomized individuals, and that we all depend on each other all of the time. For some reason when something like this happens, I only wish that we could muster one tenth of this kind of engagement during our everyday lives. I wish that the radios, televisions, and newspapers would carry more stories about cuts to the transportation budget or layoffs at the Hennepin County Medical Center, and more importantly, I wish people would read and care about these stories. I wish that people all over the state, no matter where they live, would realize that the schools in Minneapolis or Baghdad matter just as much as the price of gas or property taxes, and that democracy might be more important than Kevin Garnett. Today we've seen the news doing what it does best, and really making a difference. But maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but someday, soon, and for the rest of our lives we'll go back to reading about Paris Hilton above the fold and caring about our checkbook more than our neighbor. And that, as much as the obvious destruction, is why I find times like today so sad... so sad, and at the same time, strangely hopeful.

[Meanwhile, nations of the world race to plant flags claiming the oil beneath the North Pole.]


Great photos of the scene, up close.