What City Observatory did this week

Oregon’s transportation finance in crisis:  Testimony to the Joint Ways and Means Committee.  On March 16, City Observatory’s Joe Cortright testified to the Oregon Legislature’s budget-writing committee about the financial crisis confronting the state’s transportation agency.  The Oregon Department of Transportation’’s traditional sources of revenue are collapsing, and will certainly decline further in coming years.  The agency is failing to maintain existing roads, and has a huge backlog of maintenance, safety, seismic and other needs that continue to grow.  In the face of declining revenues and deferred maintenance, the agency is embarking on an unprecedented spending spree for expensive megaprojects.

ODOT has shown no ability to manage project costs, with every major project incurring massive cost overruns.  The agency is moving to start construction on these projects and commit the state to paying for them without a financial plan in place.  It claims it will use toll revenues to pay for megaprojects, but has no experience collecting or accurately estimating tolls.  It is planning to take on billions of dollars in debt backed by the promise of tolls. It has used short-term borrowing—the government version of a payday loan—to get projects started while avoiding the independent, investment grade analysis that will be required to get long-term financing.  Repaying the debt incurred for these projects will take legal precedence over all other state transportation priorities, leading to further cuts in maintenance and repair, and jeopardizing every other capital construction project in the state.

The Legislature needs to inject some prudence into transportation finance by requiring a “fix it first” policy, telling ODOT to live within its means, right-sizing bloated megaprojects, and securing independent expert financial advice.

Why localism is the cause, not the solution, of our affordability problems.  Bruce Katz, author of “The New Localism” has offered a call for a national commission to make recommendations on how to solve our housing affordability problems.  While it makes sense to have such a national conversation, and Katz puts his finger on many of the key symptoms of the housing crisis, all the evidence points to an excess of localism, in terms of our obsequious deference to “local control” in permitting new housing, as the principal cause of the problem.

Must Read

Climate and the land use imperative:  An interview with Jenny Schuetz.  The latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is out, and it continues to be grim.  We’re well on our way to a hotter, more turbulent world.  The Triangle Blog from North Carolina interview Brookings scholar Jenny Schuetz about the report’s recommendations and some key insights.  She made a couple of trenchant observations.  She noted that the IPCC report specifically calls out a series of related land use and housing policies as key strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including more density, greater infill development, more robust transit service and a greater emphasis on building bikeable, walkable neighborhoods.

In addition, Schuetz makes a critical point about how climate change has been framed largely as an individual and moral issue, rather than a collective social issue.  She says:

Americans have been misled into thinking that fighting climate change is an individual choice, about our own personal behavior (guilting people over recycling is a great example). . . . For too long, we’ve bought into the idea that each person individually can choose to live a climate virtuous life, without having policies and market structures in place to guide everyone’s actions. That’s not going to get the job done, and it’s a distraction from the collective action we desperately need.

Environmental Groups finally start talking about reducing VMT.  Writing at Slate, David Zipper notes an encouraging trend among environmental advocates.  For a long time, most environmental organizations have chiefly endorsed the “technical fix” notion of simply electrifying cars as a way to reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions.  The limits of that strategy are becoming more and more apparent; heavy electric vehicles still require massive amounts of energy to move, and the continued (and perhaps expanded) dominance of auto-dependent development patterns would lead to increased driving, crash related injuries and deaths, as well as not addressing fine particle emissions from brakes and tires.  But for years, supporting vehicle electrification was the politically low-hanging fruit, as it didn’t challenge auto-dependent orthodoxy, and created powerful allies among automakers and their workers.  But with substantial incentives for EV purchases baked in to the Inflation Reduction Act, environmental groups are now looking harder at land use and transportation alternatives.  Zipper notes that both the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sierra Club have made moves in this direction.  He writes:

 . . . it’s encouraging that those who have waged often-lonely fights for transit, biking, and walking are poised to gain powerful new allies. “We legitimately need to do mode shift to achieve our climate goals,” said [Sierra Club’s  Katherine] Garcia. ”That’s the message we are sharing regarding the Sierra Club’s national priorities.” You weren’t likely to hear something like that from her organization’s leaders twenty years ago.

For too long, environmental groups have been the dogs that barely bark, if at all, during debates about the calamitous damage inflicted by American autocentricism. For the planet’s sake, let’s hope everyone hears them now

One rallying point:  a $1,500 rebate for e-bike purchases, which passed the House, but was left out of the final Inflation Reduction Act, seems like a way to fight climate change, assist households of modest means, and reduce VMT.  It’s a first step in the right direction.

New Knowledge

The economic benefits of freeway removal.  Around the nation, community and neighborhood groups are looking for opportunities to remove urban freeways as a way of revitalizing damaged cities.  Their work has gotten impetus from the $1 billion allocated to the Reconnecting Communities program included in the bipartisan infrastructure law.  A new study from Duluth summarizes the economic case for freeway removals.

Duluth is studying converting its existing waterfront I-35 freeway to restore better access to the waterfront.  A study from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, looks at what the city can learn from freeway removals in other similar cities.  They present a series of case studies of mid-sized US cities that have removed or substantially reduced their urban freeway footprint in the past decade or more.  Getting rid of freeways and urban traffic has led to new investment in the nearby area, as cataloged here.

In addition, removing freeways creates construction jobs just as building them did.  In the case of the proposed Duluth project, the authors estimate that the conversion project will create 450 construction jobs and nearly $30 million in labor income.

Haynes, Monica; Bennett, John; Chiodi Grensing, Gina; Hopkins, Erin; Nadeau, Kenny; Perry, D’Lanie, Economic Effects of the Potential I-35 Conversion in Downtown Duluth,  (University of Minnesota Duluth, 2023)