Sensible vs Indefensible

The Sensible Stillwater Bridge Partnership probably has the best name of any advocacy group anywhere.  This Pioneer Press graphic shows why:

Which bridge is sensible?

The article from which that image was stolen also contains what may be the most outrageous statement of the year, from someone whom MnDOT pays to lie for them:

MnDOT’s Adam Josephson said the main problem with the plan is its location. Placing the bridge among “so many natural and cultural resources would have a significant environmental impact,” he said.

“It’s got other problems, but its location is the main problem,” he said. “The problem is that it has more environmental impacts (than MnDOT’s proposed location). That’s the reason why we located the bridge where we did. We have to avoid, as much as possible, impacts to protected resources.”

The Sensible Partners for Sensibility have come up with this excellent graphic, showing exactly how massively gigantic MnDOT’s bridge is (it’s worth clicking through for the entire graphic):

Big, bigger, fucking outrageous

The notion that a half-mile long bridge that’s 40 to 110 feet above the waterline would have greater impact than a one-mile bridge that’s 110 to 220 feet above the waterline is so preposterous that it’s insulting.  Let me say it again:  MnDOT expects us to believe that the bridge that’s half as long and half as tall has the greater environment impact.

On top of that whopper, MnDOT is using its own system of overpriced and politicized consultancies to pretend the much smaller bridge won’t save as much money:

If the [Sensible Bridge] plan were adopted, MnDOT would have to go back and do further environmental review, Josephson said.

“That could take four to six years…to get back to the point we are at today,” he said. “That could delay the project to 2019 or later.”

[The Sensible Bridge] plan would cost about $394 million – $300 million less than the one being considered by Congress. The $111 million increase in their cost estimate reflected several changes near the Minnesota approach to the bridge, partnership officials said.

The St. Croix River Crossing proposed by MnDOT and supported by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., is expected to cost $574 million to $690 million.

But Josephson said the partnership proposal would cost about the same as MnDOT’s [Bloated Bridge] plan because of the extra costs due to additional environmental impacts and construction delay.

Three years ago, I gave a few bucks to a certain comedian who’s now a Senator officially if halfheartedly supporting the Bloated Bridge.   That money bought my freedom from six years of spotlight on a weasel who used to run St Paul, but it also made me subject to a barrage of emails from a corrupt gang of incompetent lushes whose only notable accomplishment has been to kill the one successful grassroots political movement that ever existed in this state.*

Anyway, one of their recent emails, besides begging for my cash to use on vague and dubious projects, rightfully decried the condition of local government finances.  Of course, the situation was blamed on their rival political gang, and no mention was made of the two gangs’ collusion on projects like the Bloated Bridge.

One of many things that Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum agree on is that we need to continue to throw money at our ridiculously overbuilt automotive infrastructure.  As Strong Towns has pointed out, Stillwater’s Bloated Bridge is an acceleration of the decades-long process of self-bankruptcy driven by our broken political system.  If only MnDOT could remember that its job is not to just build stuff, but to ensure the safety and functionality of our transportation system.  Maybe the latter will require building a bridge in Stillwater, but no sensible interpretation of MnDOT’s mission would require the bridge to be built big, fast and now.

Untrammeled beauty, or: Just another jam on the St Croix

*I exaggerate slightly here for the sake of cantankerousness

Down with the USA Today!

This infographic is sponsored by McDonald's and Immodium A-D

Ever since I was a child, I’ve hated the USA Today.  At first it was because they didn’t have comics, but as I’ve grown older I’ve gotten better at rationalizing my opinions in ways that make sense to adults, and now I just have to say that their stories tend to be extremely superficial.

Take their recent article about increased differentiation between suburban strata as portrayed by the 2010 census, using St Croix county as an example.  The paper gets some credit for at least distinguishing between suburbs, noting that nationwide inner suburbs grew at a greater rate than middle suburbs, though not nearly at the rate of outer suburbs.  This is an obvious statement.  Outer suburbs are starting at smaller populations, so even if a lower number of people move there, it can result in higher percentage growth than larger cities.

Families flock to downtown Hudson

USA Today doesn’t mention the absolute change number for these three types of suburbs, or even really describe how they differentiated between them.  This is problematic for suburbs like Mendota Heights or Maplewood, which are relatively central in the metro area, but had substantial greenfield development through the 1980s.  The paper credits Robert Lang – author of Boomburbs – for the data, but doesn’t link to any more detailed analysis.

But my real beef comes in when they start talking about St Croix county, which in the last decade grew by an astonishing 33.6% (or about 5 times less fast than the North Loop).  This section really betrays their lack of knowledge of the Twin Cities metro.  It claims the county is popular because of its “easy access to the Twin Cities (12 miles), more moderately priced housing, good schools and a quaint downtown in Hudson.”

St Croix county is only 12 miles from the St Paul city limits, but it is much further from the majority of jobs in the Twin Cities.  As Orfield and Luce put it in their study of employment and commute patterns in the book Region, employment clusters in the Twin Cities “are more likely to be in the western and southwestern parts of the region.”  And as the map shows, St Croix doesn’t have a particularly low average commute time, even for collar counties.

Surprisingly, USA Today is also off-base about the housing cost – although ACS 5 year data shows St Croix county’s median housing value of $224k to be a bit lower than the metro area’s median of $240k, it is actually higher than Ramsey County’s median and about the same as Anoka’s.

I’m not even going to look into the schools, because I don’t think there is a quantitative method of ranking schools, so I’ll give USA Today that point.  And they can have one for crediting Hudson’s quaint downtown as a driver of growth, because I agree with them, and because it muddles their point (according to USA Today, Americans prefer to live in fringe suburbs, but only if they’re near a downtown).

Why are people moving to St Croix county?  Because houses are being built there.  But St Croix county isn’t even adding an exceptional number of houses.  In the 13-county metro area, Hennepin County by far added the most housing units, 40,776, four times the 9,709 added in St Croix county.  The foreclosure crisis reduces the increase in occupied housing units to only 2.5 times that of St Croix county.

So why is the USA today writing about St Croix county?  It could be because the county was the only one in the 13 county metro to have a higher rate of growth in 2000-2010 than 1990-2000, and it thereby fits the story’s “stay calm, everything is fine, all growth is still on the fringe” attitude.

On this point, I’m humbled to have to agree with them.  Although locally the suburban fringe grew at a slower rate in the last decade than in the 90s, inner and middle suburbs’ rate of growth decreased even more, meaning the fringe accounted for a greater share of the Twin Cities’ growth in the 00s than it did in the 90s (about 66% in 00s and about 45% in the 90s).  That means that the region needs to work harder to focus growth inward, for example by encouraging more compact development in situations like the Brookdale site.  It also means that this national paper may be more on target than the locals, which both recently posed the possibility of an end to sprawl.  And that means I need to get more creative in rationalizing my hatred of the USA Today.

More posts about bridges and food

Not pictured: thousands of McMansions

In response to an article in the Star Tribune about Al Franken considering whether or not to support a new bridge to sprawl over the St. Croix, I wrote the letter below.  Of course, politicians no longer let you email them directly, so I had to copy this onto 3 different contact form pages, each time filling out my personal info again.  Not a big deal, as I would just have used that time to write more bilious blog posts, but it kind of messed with the form of the letter, and forces me to individually email my state reps.  Ah consumer democracy.

 

Dear Senators Franken and Klobuchar and Governor Dayton,

I’m writing to urge you not to support a new bridge across the St. Croix River near Stillwater.  A new bridge would hugely encourage sprawl, which damages the environment, requires costly infrastructure such as sewers and roads, and fosters unhealthy automobile-dependent lifestyles.  Furthermore, a new bridge is not necessary, since the I-94 bridge just 5 miles south of Stillwater has a great deal of excess capacity.

I’m sure you all know your American history, and therefore understand that the unprecedented spatial growth of American cities in the post-war era was significantly aided by the construction of automotive infrastructure.

  • Senator Franken, your hometown of St. Louis Park was platted around railways in the late 1900s, but only boomed after the construction in the 30s and 40s of the Lilac Way, which we now know as Highway 100.
  • Senator Klobuchar, you can still see developers such as Lennar Corporation brag about the excellent highway access of your hometown of Plymouth when trying to sell their speculative homes.
  • Governor Dayton, I’m sure you remember the population drain in your hometown of Minneapolis when in the 60s tens of thousands of homes were destroyed to build the interstates, and many of those whose homes were taken resettled along the beltways.

There is no question that the construction of a new bridge across the St Croix will kickstart this process in western Wisconsin; the government will provide developers with a selling point for their sprawling subdivisions, luring residents who would otherwise settle in Minnesota.

Sprawl could be accepted as an unfortunate byproduct if this bridge were otherwise necessary.  There is no reason to construct this bridge, however, except to encourage sprawl.  The 20,000 vehicles a day that use the Lift Bridge could easily be accommodated by the I-94 bridge just 5 miles south, which uses only a tiny fraction of its 6 lanes of capacity.  The simplest way to relieve traffic problems in downtown Stillwater is to close the Lift Bridge.  Washington County politicians know this, but they want the sprawl-inducing effect of the bridge to boost the tax base of the Far East Metro at the expense of older cities like Maplewood, White Bear Lake and St Paul.

Senator Franken, in today’s Star Tribune you are quoted asking, “Are the alternatives that are suggested by [environmental] groups less environmentally damaging?”  As I’ve mentioned, the numbers show that adding 20,000 vehicles a day to the I-94 bridge is entirely feasible.  To answer your question, a mass transit approach to improving mobility in the East Metro would be significantly less environmentally damaging.  The $690m cost of a new bridge across the St Croix would pay for a bus rapid transit system on the Gateway Corridor as well as a light rail transit line between St Paul and White Bear Lake.  Transit-oriented development built around those lines would be denser and more energy-efficient, use primarily existing sewer and local road infrastructure, and encourage healthier transportation than the sprawl built around a new bridge.

Minnesota has historically subsidized automobile use over all other modes, and has received as a result one of the most sprawling cities in the world, one of the least equal cities in the nation, and a rampant obesity problem.  If you’re going to legislate an exception to a long-standing federal law, amend the gas tax to allow  fungibility between transportation modes.

Thanks,

Alex