Infrastructure


The first volume of the United Nations’ Global Compact Cities Programme has been published.  You can read the whole document by clicking here.  The program, which currently has forty cities participating, is a broad-reaching effort that acknowledges the increasing urbanization of our planet and explores ways of managing that fact.  It explores the four areas of human rights, labor rights, environment and anti-corruption and arrives at ten principles as a guiding framework.

In the wake of our historic flood here in Nashville, one item caught my eye in the report and that was the city of Milwaukee’s efforts to manage freshwater.  Upon embarking on this effort, they discovered that there were  some 120 agencies, businesses, non-profits and the like exploring the management, treatment and delivery of freshwater in a city of 680,000 souls.  This type of wasted effort abounds everywhere, including right here in our fair city.

Metro Nashville waste water treatment facility

Looking at water alone, we have the Cumberland River Compact, the Urban Land Institute, the Cumberland Region Tomorrow,  the Civic Design Center and numerous other outside agencies looking at growth patterns and the necessary infrastructure that will be required to sustain our population.   Not to mention the noble work being done by our Metropolitan Planning Organization and the numerous government agencies all working on the same topics.  Perhaps in the wake of the flood, we need to take a more regional look at our systems and look to create more interconnectivity across city/county/regional lines.  We have the added layer of heavy Federal involvement through such entities as the Army Corps of Engineers.

Certainly there is an opportunity for public/private partnership structures to address current and future needs.  There also needs to be a more centralized operational and communications structure for the government entities.  While no one can anticipate an act of God (like a stationary weather front that drops 18″ of water on you!), we can start to put in place the framework to minimize the toll of future events. Government working together with non-profits and bringing in the best and brightest minds from business in a cooperative framework is a good place to start.  Perhaps it’s time for Nashville to become a participatory city in the Sustainable Cities Programme?

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Our good friends over at Transit Now, are doing yeoman’s work on highlighting the benefit of transit in our urban core and beyond.  Coming in April is a week long series of events to raise awareness – click on the link below to view the flyer:

Transit Week 2010 Flyer

This really is a worthwhile effort.  Not only does it show wise stewardship for our resources, it is actually good for you!

Reason.com is running a series on fixing problems in a city…Cleveland, Ohio specifically.  On this second episode, they focus on what works for fixing education.  Well worth the 10 or so minutes to watch:

Could this be the future of urban transport?

Here’s a link to the company’s website with a video showing a little more detail.  My only thought is they need to show the rider with a brainbucket on!  As someone that’s been run over riding a regular bike and walked away from it thanks to the helmet, I wouldn’t want to go akimbo on my Yike without some paddin’ on the noggin.

Urban Land Institute’s Nashville District Council hosted a symposium last week titled “Creative Solutions to Infrastructure Finance.”  The speakers were Michael Skipper, the Executive Director of the Nashville Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and John Miller, head of the Barchan Foundation, an MIT based group that is cataloguing infrastructure programs world wide in an effort to arrive at “best practices” solutions. Your humble scribbler served as moderator and gave a brief presentation to “set  the table for the discussion.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE, releases an annual report on the state of America’s infrastructure. Our grade for 2009?  A “D.”  We got a “C+” in solid waste and “D-‘s” in waste water, roads, inland waterways and drinking water.  There is no curve to these grades.  They also estimate the cost over a five-year period to maintain the status quo – i.e. so we can keep from totally flunking – this year’s number was $2.2 TRILLION.  The report also focuses on state needs – those little eye openers like “21% of Tennessee’s bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete;” and the costs to get back to some form of normal.

The problem is, there is no money.  A quick look at the national debt clock shows a debt to GDP ratio north of 86% and total debt per citizen of over $177,000.  Simply put, it is unsustainable -as we have argued vociferously on these pages.  Not that anyone in Washington has received that memo!

Michael Skipper set the stage for our local needs, exploring our growth patterns over the last thirty years and projecting where we will be over the next thirty.  In aggregate, we are growing at roughly 2% per year.  Not the explosive boom-bust pattern of Vegas, (thank goodness!),  but steady.  That population growth means more schools, drinking water, and roads.  A lot of Michael’s information is available at the MPO site, in their “Publications and Resources.”  He is looking down at our patterns from 50,000 feet and with his team, trying to manage how best to accommodate the good fortune of our growth.

John Miller followed with a history of infrastructure financing in the United States and how we have evolved from a culture where private enterprise funded most of the infrastructure to one where we sheepishly turn to the government for everything.  Here in Tennessee the names of many of our streets bely their past: “Hillsboro Pike,” “Granny White Pike,” to name two.  The pike system was essentially a toll road that was carved out and maintained by private citizens and small companies – often, as in Granny White’s case, to ease transit to their businesses – the Granny White Inn.  According to Miller, beginning in the 1930’s with the FDR administration, the Federal government began to assume increasingly larger roles in infrastructure.  He argues persuasively, however, that this is unsustainable and that more creative means must be explored and experimented with.  Take Hong Kong, for example.  The subway there was built by the city government, inasmuch as they dug the hole, laid the tracks and bought the cars.  The stops, however, are all privately owned.  You want your mall to do well?  Better build a stop!

One of Miller’s persuasive points is that we have to overcome our shortsightedness in planning large scale infrastructure projects.  He argues that we should take more of the real estate developer’s approach and examine the total life cycle cost of a project before embarking on it’s construction.  Too often we only look at the initial costs and forget that down the road, there are going to be serious maintenance costs.  Unless those are budgeted for and some form of capital reserve fund set aside allocated, we are only kicking the cost can down the street with the end result of failure.

In all, it was a fascinating evening and a great service that ULI performs to engage the community in calm, thoughtful discussion of this massive problem.

My presentation and Dr. Miller’s presentation are here:

ULI Infrastructure Setup

2010_02_18 JBMiller Nashville ULI Presentation

Recognizing that all developers are not a sordid, greedy lot, some cities are jumping in with private/public partnerships to rescue deals that make sense.  From Reuters:

Las Vegas’ city council voted last month to move its city hall, a decision Mayor Oscar Goodman called a “mini-stimulus.” It is a complicated deal that frees up the building’s attractive current location for the development of a district anchored by a sports arena, since Vegas hopes to attract a Major League franchise.

“The city needs something like this right now,” said Eric Louttit, Vice President of Finance at Forest City Enterprises Inc, a national developer of retail, office and apartment properties.

Louttit, the project developer of Forest City’s Las Vegas land, said that, without the move, downtown development could remain stalled for years.

The Las Vegas experience is a good model of a public-private partnership, said Thomas Powell, CEO of ELP Capital Inc, an investment advisory firm that buys real estate debt and equity, mostly in the western United States.

Such partnerships are more important because of the dearth of private capital and because city-controlled land is key at a time when many mid-sized cities are looking to revive their downtowns. The crisis, meanwhile, has made city and state government officials more willing to work with business, since they are keen for any incremental tax revenue.

Conceptually I am on board with this idea.  Win win – the city gets the new city hall that they need, the developer gets to stay alive and build projects that provide the “incremental tax revenue.”  The article in Reuters sited a couple of other examples…Cleveland for one.

The problem I have with this is three-fold.  One, this opens the door for corruption on a scale not seen before…campaign contributions lead to approved projects?  Second, the influence going the other way could be just as detrimental – Madam City Councilwoman decides she doesn’t like the color of the stucco the architect has chosen…”repaint it all or suffer the consequences” she shrieks!  Third, I am just about done with government involvement in real estate.  Government does not create jobs that are self-sustaining.  One need look no further than the shattered hulks of Freddie and Fannie that we are continuing to pour money into to realize that this is not a good idea.  Projects need to be able to stand on their own merit without disequilibriums created by fiat.

I would much rather see rational development policy emerge that uses instruments like property tax holidays and TIFF to help create projects in lieu of direct financing.  Whole neighborhoods have been created that are self-sustaining and generate millions in property taxes to their cities with this type of approach.  Harbortown in Memphis, Tennessee is a superlative example of this.  Some of the projects inside that community on Mud Island in downtown Memphis received incentives like five years of no property tax followed with five years of 50% property tax.  That can get private capital interested very quickly.

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We are having some beautiful grilling weather here in middle Tennessee; you can smell the wood chips smoking in the early evening as folks enjoy their last shots at barbecuing without fleece on.  Earlier today we attended an excellent meeting of the Urban Land Institute’s Infrastructure Committee and I thought I would share some sites and articles on that topic for this week’s collection of links.  Bon Apetit!

1. Rain Gardens – Folks, I really believe that fresh water is the coming oil shortage problem within the next 20 years. I like small, local solutions to those types of issues and planting rain gardens is a very nice baby step we can all take to improve rain water filtration.

2. Conservatives for Public Transportation – short video interview with William Lind who co-authored with Paul Weyrich the book, “Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation.”  A compelling case for the benefits of public transit.

3. Bicycle Parking – one of the impediments to more bicycle commuting is where to stash the bike that you rode to work.  Take a look at the largest bicycle parking facility in the Western Hemisphere – downtown in my old hometown, Sao Paulo, Brazil.  Love hearing that Portuguese!

4. U.S. High Speed Rail Association – I am a HUGE fan of high speed rail.  Take a browse through this site to learn more about the efforts here in the U.S. Be sure to click on the interactive map and see where your city fits in.

5. Complete Streets – coming soon to a town near you!  Complete streets are a smart way to retrofit our urban grid and develop new streets more intelligently.

Have a great weekend, ya’ll!

 

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