Thursday, December 8, 2011

Slate on the Death of High Speed Rail

Will Oremus writes in Slate on a Requiem for a Train: High Speed Rail is Dead in America; Should we Mourn it?  From the article:

Well, you can stop imagining it now. High-speed rail isn’t happening in America. Not anytime soon. Probably not ever. The questions now are (1) what killed it, and (2) should we mourn its passing? . . .

Though Republicans’ outright rejection of high-speed rail is short-sighted, so were many of the plans themselves. Rather than focus on the few corridors that need high-speed rail lines the most, the Obama administration doled out half a billion here and half a billion there, a strategy better-suited to currying political support than to addressing real infrastructure problems. Spread across 10 corridors, each between 100 and 600 miles long, Obama’s rail system would have been, at best, a disjointed patchwork. The nation’s most gridlocked corridor, along the East Coast between Washington, D.C. and Boston, was left out of the plans entirely. Worse, much of the money was allocated to projects that weren’t high-speed rail at all.

Lots of mistakes were made in the roll-out of the HSR plan, but one of the main problems was that it was fantasized in a lot of places where it isn't really necessary, and ignored in the places where it could be great. 

Matt Festa

December 8, 2011 in Budgeting, Federal Government, Politics, Transportation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Hills & Schleicher on Balancing the Zoning Budget

Roderick M. Hills, Jr. (NYU) and David Schleicher (George Mason) have posted Balancing the 'Zoning Budget', published in Regulation, vol. 34, no. 3 (2011).  The abstract:

Local government officials regularly adopt zoning changes that result in fewer potential housing units, despite making public commitments to improve housing supply. The reason these zoning changes are successful is because they are often desired by current voters who want to protect the “character” of their neighborhoods, while most of the beneficiaries of increased housing supply are not current voters in the affected district. This political economy dynamic can cause long-term economic harm to communities by harming housing affordability. This paper recommends that local policymakers adopt an annual “housing budget” to clearly identify the number of potential housing units that they want to exist. With this budget established, changes in zoning that reduce the number of potential housing units must be balanced with other changes that expand housing units.

This shorter piece is a very interesting and accessible read, and I especially recommend it if you haven't had the chance to read the longer version from the Case Western Law Review.  This innovative idea has been featured in several media outlets.  The always-fascinating Atlantic "Cities" Blog discusses it in The Case for Strengthening Urban Property Rights; Matt Yglesias posted on it at Think Progress; and the ideas are featured in the book The Gated City by The Economist's Ryan Avent.

Matt Festa

November 11, 2011 in Budgeting, Local Government, Politics, Property Rights, Scholarship, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Michael Lewis: California and Bust

Michael Lewis, the author of popular financial nonfiction books such as Liar's Poker, Moneyball, and The Big Short, has published an interesting Vanity Fair article on the looming municipal debt crisis called California and Bust. The intro:

The smart money says the U.S. economy will splinter, with some states thriving, some states not, and all eyes are on California as the nightmare scenario. After a hair-raising visit with former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who explains why the Golden State has cratered, Michael Lewis goes where the buck literally stops—the local level, where the likes of San Jose mayor Chuck Reed and Vallejo fire chief Paige Meyer are trying to avert even worse catastrophes and rethink what it means to be a society.

While the piece isn't directly about land use, most of us know that land use is fundamentally intertwined with local government finance. The muni debt crisis flows from the real estate bubble, and future land use and development will be driven by the fiscal health of local governments. Also, just about anything by Michael Lewis is worth a read . . . no one else can spin a yarn about the financial world quite like him.

Matt Festa

October 3, 2011 in Budgeting, California, Financial Crisis, Local Government, Politics, State Government | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

City Journal on Private Funding for New York's Parks

The renaissance of many of New York's parks--such as Central Park and Bryant Park--after decades of neglect has been one of the more visible urban sucess stories of the last decade or so. In a City Journal piece titled Parks and Re-creation: How private citizens saved New York's public spaces, Laura Vanderkam attributes this to the innovative public-private partnerships that were created to finance and manage them outside of the City's parks bureaucracy:

But perhaps the most amazing thing about Central Park is how little tax money goes into maintaining it. Though it is still ultimately the city’s responsibility, the park has been managed since the 1980s by the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy, and it relies on private donations for most of its budget. The marriage between the city and the Conservancy has been a fruitful one. Can this model, known as a public-private partnership, restore and invigorate all of New York’s green spaces, including neighborhood parks in less affluent areas? It’s an important question, not only as the city faces tough fiscal times but as urban planners increasingly view parks as tools of economic development and public health.

Matt Festa

August 17, 2011 in Budgeting, Crime, Downtown, Local Government, New York, Planning, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

America's Top 10 Walkable Cities, 2011

Or so says WalkScore, according to this article America's Ten Most Walkable Cities of 2011, by Jason Notte in The Street.  A lot of the usual suspects are on the list, which you can see by clicking over to the story.  Also interesting is the description of Walk Score:

The people behind Walk Score, a Seattle-based service that rates the convenience and transit access of 10,000 neighborhoods in 2,500 cities, have spent the past four years judging the distance between residents and amenities and ranking places based on the results. That "walkability" led to the first set of rankings in 2008 and the use of those rankings by more than 10,000 cities, civic organizations and real estate groups in the years that followed.

Once something becomes measurable, then you have numers that start to play a role in policy debates, budgets, and markets.  I suspect we'll see even more use of metrics and quantitative analysis in areas like livability, sustainability, and so on in the years to come. 

I'm not familiar with their methodology, but if you go to the Walk Score website you can check out the walkability score for your own address.  Mine: 68 ("somewhat walkable").

Thanks to Mubaraka Saifee for the pointer.

Matt Festa


August 7, 2011 in Budgeting, Chicago, Density, Local Government, New Urbanism, New York, Pedestrian, Planning, Sustainability, Transportation, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

House Appropriations Votes to Eliminate Office of Smart Growth

According to the folks at Smart Growth America, the House Appropriations Committee has passed legislation that would eliminate the EPA's Office of Smart Growth.  You can visit the Committee's website to learn more about the bill.  SGA has a website that allows you to e-mail your congressional representative, if you're so inclined. Presumably this is part of the campaign to defund the administration's Sustainable Communities Initiative.

I've blogged several announcements from the OSG, which co-hosts the annual New Partners for Smart Growth conference, and gives smart growth implementation assistance and grants and awards to local and state governments each year.

Jamie Baker Roskie

July 13, 2011 in Budgeting, Federal Government, Smart Growth | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Closed Pools a Sign of Deeper Local Problems

From The New York Times, an article about the struggles local governments face in keeping their public pools open:

There are few things in life more doleful than a child looking at a closed pool on a steamy summer day, and yet that sad scene has become as common as sunburns and mosquito bites as struggling local governments make the painful choice to shut their pools to save the budget. The list of locales where public pools have been in jeopardy in recent years includes some of the sweatiest spots in the nation, including Central Florida (90s and humid on the Fourth), Atlanta (90), and Houston (97)...

The question of where pools are closed often raises issues of class and race. In the case of Houston, one of the pools closed in June was in Independence Heights, a historically black neighborhood where the median household income in 2009 was about $27,000, according to city statistics.

The city councilman for the area, Ed Gonzalez, said the loss of a pool there would sting worse than in more well-to-do neighborhoods. “There are no other true community assets out there,” he said. “Your neighborhood park and your pools are the only real amenities that some of these communities have.”

Mr. Gonzalez, a former police officer, said it was not just a matter of letting people beat the heat. The lack of a local pool, he said, could have an impact on public safety. “If kids do not have a productive thing to do, like swimming or community centers to go to,” he said, “it’s more idle time they have on their hands.”

Here in Athens the Leisure Services department seems to be doing a good job keeping the pools open, but we went without a public fireworks show this year due to lack of sponsorship.  While these types of amenities are hard for local governments to support in tough economic times, they are also key to a community's quality of life.  It will be interesting to see how deep communities will dig to maintain the rituals of summer in these difficult days.

Jamie Baker Roskie

July 10, 2011 in Budgeting, Financial Crisis, Georgia, Houston, Local Government, New York, Race | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The suburbs are a Ponzi scheme

I enjoyed this post by Charles Marohn from Strong Towns on At our clinic (VLS) we discuss smart growth/smart decline principles and have focused on environmental and social impacts. I'd never heard the Ponzi scheme analogy and think it's a great way to bring cost into the discussion.

"Since the end of World War II, our cities and towns have experienced growth using three primary mechanisms:

  1. Transfer payments between governments: where the federal or state government makes a direct investment in growth at the local level, such as funding a water or sewer system expansion.
  2. Transportation spending: where transportation infrastructure is used to improve access to a site that can then be developed.
  3. Public and private-sector debt: where cities, developers, companies, and individuals take on debt as part of the development process, whether during construction or through the assumption of a mortgage.

In each of these mechanisms, the local unit of government benefits from the enhanced revenues associated with new growth. But it also typically assumes the long-term liability for maintaining the new infrastructure. This exchange -- a near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation -- is one element of a Ponzi scheme.

The other is the realization that the revenue collected does not come near to covering the costs of maintaining the infrastructure. In America, we have a ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates the cost at $5 trillion -- but that's just for just major infrastructure, not the minor streets, curbs, walks, and pipes that serve our homes.

The reason we have this gap is because the public yield from the suburban development pattern -- the amount of tax revenue obtained per increment of liability assumed -- is ridiculously low. Over a life cycle, a city frequently receives just a dime or two of revenue for each dollar of liability. The engineering profession will argue, as ASCE does, that we're simply not making the investments necessary to maintain this infrastructure. This is nonsense. We've simply built in a way that is not financially productive.

We've done this because, as with any Ponzi scheme, new growth provides the illusion of prosperity. In the near term, revenue grows, while the corresponding maintenance obligations -- which are not counted on the public balance sheet -- are a generation away."

Read more…

Kat Garvey

June 28, 2011 in Budgeting, Finance, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Suburbs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Demise of Historic Preservation?

As federal, state, and local governments face expanding budget crises, will historic preservation programs be one of the first items on the chopping block?  President Obama's February budget proposal would have eliminated Save America's Treasures and Preserve America, which support historic preservation.  Also in February, Governor Rick Perry of Texas proposed to eliminate funding for the Texas Historical Commission. The most important battles may be fought at the local level, however, where taxpayers are beginning to question the merits of tax breaks for property owners who preserve and maintain historic landmarks.  On April 12, three homeowners in Austin sued the city and its city council, arguing that the tax breaks that apply to more than 500 landmarks in the city violate state law.  In Detroit, historic buildings have crumbled as businesses have vacated structures, leaving them vulnerable to vandalism.  

The U.S. Supreme Court in Penn Central Transportation Company v. City of New York noted that "nationwide legislative efforts" toward historic preservation reflect a "widely shared belief that structures with special historic, cultural, or architectural significance enhance the quality of life for all."  But as governments struggle to provide funding for other essentials, pieces of our past may be lost. 

Hannah Wiseman

April 13, 2011 in Budgeting, Historic Preservation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 28, 2011

Federal Sustainability Program May Get the Axe

The new Sustainability Communities Initiative by HUD, DOT and EPA is barely a year old, and the House Appropriations Committee has proposed to cut its funding before it gets off the ground.  You can read an interesting piece on this issue on New Urban Network.

Jamie Baker Roskie

February 28, 2011 in Budgeting, Federal Government, Sustainability | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Billions for High Speed Rail

Vice President Biden made an announcement Tuesday that's grabbing headlines - $53 billion in the Administration's proposed budget for high speed rail.  From an article on

The proposed new investment -- including $8 billion in the upcoming fiscal year -- would accompany a streamlined application process for cities, states, and private companies seeking federal grants and loans to develop railway capacity.

"There are key places where we cannot afford to sacrifice as a nation -- one of which is infrastructure," Biden said in a written statement. There is a pressing need "to invest in a modern rail system that will help connect communities, reduce congestion and create quality, skilled manufacturing jobs that cannot be outsourced."

It might be, though, that none of that money ends up in Georgia. Georgia has a history of being hostile or apathetic to proposals for high speed rail, something that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made a point of when he visited the state last year.

I think it's a shame Georgia's leadership isn't more progressive about rail.  I loved the ease and convenience of riding the train to Philly when I lived in DC (much better than being grounded on a plane by thunderstorms in the summer, or driving the insanity that is I-95 in the Northeast corridor). Rail between Athens and Atlanta, and Atlanta and Chattanooga, make a ton of sense. But then, nobody's really asking me...

Jamie Baker Roskie

February 10, 2011 in Budgeting, Federal Government, Georgia, Politics, State Government, Transportation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Fannie & Freddie Bailout?

I really enjoyed reading the article linked in Chad's post yesterday, and the good points in the comments so far.  I've linked or mentioned a few times about the need to rethink housing policy with respect to the primacy of homeownership.  But with all the talk in the article and elsewhere of reforming or replacing Fannie and Freddie, there is talk in the wind of a different plan: a Fannie-Freddie Bailout.

James Pethokoukis, the Reuters money & politcs blogger, wrote recently about such a bailout as an August Surprise:

Main Street may be about to get its own gigantic bailout. Rumors are running wild from Washington to Wall Street that the Obama administration is about to order government-controlled lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to forgive a portion of the mortgage debt of millions of Americans who owe more than what their homes are worth. An estimated 15 million U.S. mortgages – one in five – are underwater with negative equity of some $800 billion. Recall that on Christmas Eve 2009, the Treasury Department waived a $400 billion limit on financial assistance to Fannie and Freddie, pledging unlimited help. The actual vehicle for the bailout could be the Bush-era Home Affordable Refinance Program, or HARP, a sister program to Obama’s loan modification effort. HARP was just extended through June 30, 2011.

The move, if it happens, would be a stunning political and economic bombshell less than 100 days before a midterm election in which Democrats are currently expected to suffer massive, if not historic losses. The key date to watch is August 17 when the Treasury Department holds a much-hyped meeting on the future of Fannie and Freddie. A few key points:

Then a couple of days ago the Boston Globe published an op-ed by Paul McMorrow titled One More Bailout.   

WHEN PRESIDENT Barack Obama signed legislation overhauling the nation’s financial regulations last month, he declared an end to Wall Street bailouts. Going forward, he said, failing finance houses won’t skirt by on the taxpayers’ dime. Bay State Representative Barney Frank characterized the new law as a death penalty for reckless institutions.

Both men are only half right. Congress has one more bailout to complete. That job — bringing Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s toxic balance sheets onto the government’s ledger — was left out of last month’s financial overhaul because the job is so massive and so politically unpalatable that it dwarfs every record-breaking handout that came before it.

That approach is also the only realistic option on the table.

Next Tuesday, policymakers will convene a summit to help determine what to do with Fannie and Freddie, the two government-owned mortgage giants. It’s bound to conclude that there’s little to do but nationalize them, stuff them with $300 billion in taxpayer funds, and hope that when they’re eventually able to stand on their own as semi-private corporations, the nation’s economy doesn’t implode again.

We'll we're certainly seeing mixed signals in the air about the future of housing, real estate, and land use in public policy and finance.  Keep your eyes on Tuesday's Treasury meeting

Matt Festa

August 14, 2010 in Affordable Housing, Budgeting, Federal Government, Finance, Financial Crisis, Housing, Mortgage Crisis, Mortgages, Politics, Real Estate Transactions | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Furloughs, Budget Cuts, and Rural Georgia

Tomorrow is a furlough day for the University System in Georgia, which means I'm forbidden to work. Only faculty and staff who provide "essential services" are allowed to report on furlough days and, ironically enough, instruction is not considered an essential service.

These are lean budgetary times and we're all expected to share the burden.  I have no problem with that.  However, it's hard not to be concerned about what lies ahead. The legislature is in its final day and hopefully at the end of it we'll have a state budget for FY 2011.

"What does that have to do with land use," you might ask?  That depends on how much of a cut the University system takes in the final budget.  Last month the legislature asked the Chancellor to submit a budget that included $300 million in additional cuts, over the budget cuts they have already made and were making for 2011.  The Chancellor's proposal would eliminate the 4-H program and cut the number of county extension agents in half.  In a state where agriculture is a dominant economic force, those cuts are extremely significant.  (UGA's Public Service and Outreach branch would also suffer layoffs of up to 47% of faculty and staff.)

It doesn't look as if such extreme cuts will come, but the cut will probably be about $150 million, which is still pretty significant.  In state like Georgia, rural communities depend on UGA to fulfill its land grant mission of service.  Extension agents are vital sources of knowledge on land use practices, soil and water conservation, and a host of other subjects. As federal stimulus dollars dry up, it becomes increasingly difficult for the University to fulfill those functions.  We'll see what lies ahead.

Jamie Baker Roskie

April 29, 2010 in Agriculture, Budgeting, Georgia, Politics, State Government, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 15, 2010

"Urban, Rural Areas Battle For Census Prison Populace"

From this evening's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered, one of those stories that makes you say, "Huh?" and them "hmmnn."  Seems there's a controversy brewing over how this year's census will count prisoners - as part of the population of the place where they are imprisoned, or their community of origin.  You might ask yourself, "How is this a story for the Land Use Prof Blog?"  Well, as it turns out, the controversy creates an urban/rural (and a racial) split.  The prisoners come from African-American and Latino urban areas, and the places where they are imprisoned are rural and predominantly white.  Both areas tend to be poor, and with census numbers come federal dollars to address their most pressing issues - including schools and jobs.

It's always troubling when the neediest folks are pitted against each other for limited resources.  We'll see if some happy medium can be found on this issue.

Jamie Baker Roskie

UPDATE: Turns out the funding issue is a bit of a red herring, according to Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative.  The real issue is redistricting, and the increase of political influence for districts that have prisons.  See his comment to this post, below, which explains the issues more clearly.

February 15, 2010 in Budgeting, Community Economic Development, Crime, Federal Government, New York, Race | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Snowmageddon in DC

Everyone's talking about "Snowmageddon," the massive back-to-back snowstorms that have shut down DC.  Now, we did warn you here on the Land Use Prof Blog about what Punxsutawney Phil said earlier this month.  I understand that what counts as "six more weeks of winter" is relative, and where I grew up in upstate NY that didn't sound bad at all, whereas in DC, Virginia, and other middle-latitude states it might mean something different. 

But for those middle-latitude states it is always a tough call, and a potentially significant issue for local budgets and politics, just how much to prepare for snow removal.  I posted about this in December during a rare Texas snowstorm, and compared Texas cities' imperatives to Chicago and Albany.  In a nutshell, it makes sense to pay for snow removal in Albany but not in Houston.  It's the places in the middle--Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and points west--that have to make more difficult decisions about how many plows to purchase as capital expenditures; how much road salt and sand to stock in the operating budget; and how many plow drivers and other personnel to employ in the HR lines.  It seems to me that, anecdotally, DC tends to get socked with a major blizzard every couple years, but that may or may not be worth the investment it would take to have a government snow-removal function on the scale of a more northerly metropolis.  Tougher call in the middle states. 

Matt Festa

February 11, 2010 in Budgeting, Local Government, Planning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)