Saturday, May 6, 2006
Historically, what’s the one kind of public works project that the taxpayer is always happy to support? New schools? No. Public housing? Don’t make me laugh. It’s highway construction, of course. Road bond referenda are so often put on the ballot because lawmakers expect taxpayers to vote overwhelmingly in favor of spending money to get them to and fro more quickly, while the lawmakers can avoid voting for higher taxes.
Across the nation, however, governments are finding that road-building costs are skyrocketing and that projects must be put on hold. One of the causes is the tremendous world demand for supplies, generated by the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes, the war in Iraq, and contracts from construction-happy China. And as all consumers know, any good or service that requires a lot of American labor (as opposed to overseas sweatshop labor) is bound to be expensive.
State and local governments’ postponing highway construction –- How un-American!
Friday, May 5, 2006
A report from New York is that the World Trade Center memorial is now expected to cost nearly a billion dollars. No one knows where the money would come from; donations have not reached anywhere near this total.
I have been skeptical of nearly everything about the procedures and plans for rebuilding at “ground zero.” In a sense, the extraordinary competitions, public hearings, and input from victims families and other interested parties was meant to be cathartic. Instead, we ended up with litigation and a billion-dollar price tag for the memorial alone.
In my view, the procedures have exposed a somewhat unpleasant side of the American psyche. We feel that we need to respond to what we saw as an unparalleled disaster with a rebuilding response of unparalleled size, complexity, and expense. What ever happened to the idea of quiet, dignified mourning? In small towns across the United States, there are simple monuments marked with 1861-65 and 1917-18 –- epochs more deadly than September 11, 2001 –- that today continue to evoke respect and reflection. But in lower Manhattan, we demand more -– waterfalls, pools, and acres of construction -– to prove how much we mourn. If it’s not huge and complex, we seem to think that we aren’t being respectful enough.
I also have been skeptical of the plans for the banal 1776-feet-tall “Freedom Tower” planned for the site. It seemed a “given” that a new tower would have to be higher -– if only through a huge pinnacle -– than the enormous Trade Center towers and would return the title of world’s tallest building to New York. But Freedom Tower is unlikely to be the world’s tallest building in 2016, with giant skyscrapers now planned for Asia and the Middle East. There are economic reasons why only one New York project since 1931 was taller than the Empire State Building. Yet in a nation in which emotions are constantly on public display, we feel the need to express our grief over September 11, 2001, through colossal and costly land use gestures.
Thursday, May 4, 2006
Many environmentalists and libertarians would prefer that the typical American remain ignorant about the extradordinary success of the federal Clean Air Act, which over the past 36 years has dramatically improved air quality in the United States. Environmentalists would rather that citizens not become complacent about dirty air, while libertarians prefer to focus on the supposedly excessive cost of complying with the complex statute.
A debate that hasn’t gotten much attention this year is a controversy over proposed air pollution controls for lawnmowers. California, whose politics favors tougher air pollution controls than does national politics, has proposed a new rule to require a catalytic converter for new mowers. Advocates point out that, for a gallon of gas, current lawnmowers add 93 times (curiously, 1 millionth of the distance in miles to the sun …) more smog-creating pollution than do typical cars. Manufacturers point out, also correctly, that there are a lot fewer mowers than cars and that they are run a lot less often. Lawnmower pollution is a mere ladle in the bucket of vehicle pollution. But does that justify avoiding pollution reduction?
The arguments against controls echo those made back in the ‘70s and ‘80s against auto regulations. Air bags? The public doesn’t want to pay an extra 500 bucks, the manufacturers said. Require unleaded gas? Cars won’t run as well, they said. But these protections were imposed and the public has adapted quite well. Taking the lead out of gasoline has removed more than 90 percent of the lead from the nation’s air. Today, lawnmower manufacturers warn that converters might cause fires (a risk that an EPA study says is minimal) and would increase the price of new mowers. So far, it looks as if Congress is in no rush to impose the pollution reduction technology for the entire nation. Once again, law balks when environmental protection asks for small sacrifices in the land use of the average citizen ...
Wednesday, May 3, 2006
New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin announced yesterday the city’s new evacuation plan for the upcoming hurricane season. A key feature is a plan to use public transportation to help out of the city those who cannot motor themselves out –- a feature in effect lacking in last year’s Katrina evacuation. Another feature is the city’s statement that there will be no shelters “of last resort” –- people will not be told that they can retreat to the Superdome or Convention Center as a last resort. This change is no doubt spurred by the horrible stories resulting from the days of flooding –- even if many of the tales of crime and chaos were not true.
Let’s hope that the statement about no shelters in the city is a little white land use lie –- that the statement is designed to get almost everyone out, while the city has quiet plans to provide shelter on high ground for those who don’t obey or can’t get out. Sometimes a little dissembling is good policy.
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
The days of frenzied "waterfront development" being limited to places like Florida, California, and Cape Cod are over. Exurbanization, online workers, and an army of wealthy retirees are now rushing to build in locations such as the rural Great Lakes waterfront. A new report predicts that nearly all private property on Wisconsin's lakeshores will be built up by 2015. The best time for government's buying land was when prices were relatively low; lawmakers in Wisconsin and elsewhere probably wish they had snatched up a lot of land for parks and preserves 10 years ago; now it's too late.
The new residents will bring pollution with them, especially in the form of phosphorus and other nutrients to make their American-standard lawns grow green. Wisconsin thus joins other states in struggling to regulate shoreline development. A typical proposal is to limit the proximity of construction to the beach -- Mr. Lucas, where are you? Other proposals include giving incentives to encourage the maintenance of natural -- meaning thick and diverse -- vegetation near the shoreline, instead of fertilized lawns. Now is the time for governments to impose strict and unbending regulations on waterfront pollution -- it will too late 10 years from now. Yes, developers and homeowners will complain that regulations decrease the value of property. Too bad. There is no right to pollute the public waters; laws should be tight and demanding in keeping nutrients off lawns and out of the waters. Don't like it? Don't live next to the water, or don't use pollutants on your lawns.