Nathaniel Hood

Nathaniel Hood is a transportation planner and blogger living in St. Paul. He writes for Strong Towns and Streets.MN.

Posts about Road and highway construction

Here's why money won't fix our transportation system

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: February 23, 2015 - 9:38 AM

As legislatures reconvened these past two months, there has been an active lobbying effort to boost transportation funding across the country. Countless newspapers, magazine, and television programs have dedicated time and space to covering the plea for more money, including a high-profile 60 Minutes segment that didn't include a single dissenting opinion.

The general consensus in the mainstream media has been that we need more funds in order to have a "21st Century" transportation system. If we don't, our bridges will collapse. That, and we won't be able to compete globally (what does this even mean?).

The opposition's opinion can't be summed up as easily. It goes something more like this: "It's complicated." The nuanced opinion challenges the underlying assumption as to what makes a good transportation investment. In other words, more money alone won't fix the system, and it might actually make it worse.

But, what does this look like? Well, it looks like this ...

Perham is a quintessential small town in central Minnesota with fewer than 3,000 people. It's a sleepy community with a traditional Main Street and surrounded by lakes. If it's not the basis for fictional Lake Wobegon, it might as well be.

It recently received a "Transportation and Economic Development" grant to build a new $6.7 million interchange. The State pitches in $3.5 million and the local government covers the rest ($3.2 million). This project might make sense if the town didn't already have three interchanges leading to the same highway. As if a fourth interchange is just what this town needs to catapult its economy into the 21st century.

What you're looking at is not unique.

In fact, I selected it because it is average. And, it's exactly the type of transportation infrastructure that our current system is looking to fund more of. But more importantly, it's not just this project - it's the countless hundreds like it.

You've heard the broken record that we can't afford to fix our crumbling roads? Well, projects like these are the reason why. It's an unneeded piece of infrastructure that diverts funds from maintaining what we have. A recent report by Smart Growth America outlined this systemic problem; States have dedicated 57% of their transportation revenues to new projects.

As Angie Schmidt of Streetsblog brilliantly opined in "More Money Won't Fix U.S. Infrastructure If We Don't Change How It's Spent";

But throwing more money at the problem overlooks the fatal flaw in American transportation infrastructure policy: The system is set up to funnel the vast majority of spending through state departments of transportation, and those agencies have an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to making smart long-term decisions. As long as state DOTs retain unfettered control of the money, potholed roads and decrepit bridges will remain the norm.

The reason our bridges are crumbling is because we've made the conscious decision not to repair them. Instead, we've chosen to build new things (more specifically, mostly roads). And now, we're tasking the same people who created the problem to help get us out of it?

The status quo will claim there isn't money to bring existing bridges up to today's standard, yet will simultaneously spend $25 million to save 7,000 vehicles a day 53 seconds on a commute (see here) and drop $680 million on an environmentally-compromising bridge to cornfields in Wisconsin (see here).

The Perham infrastructure expansion highlights another key issue: the expansion of a road that hasn't had significant increases in traffic volume in nearly 15 years. In 1998, it had approximately 5,000 vehicles a day. In 2012, that number was 5,300 [MnDOT]. For a comparison, the neighborhood street adjacent my house (with sidewalks, on-street parking and a tree-lined median) carries over 9,000 vehicles a day.

Vehicle traffic in Perham mirrors the population growth, which added around 400 residents between 2000 and 2010. This number is significant in the sense that it hasn't decreased - much like many other rural towns - but it isn't a booming community that would justify transportation infrastructure projects.

In fact, a report from the Center for American Progress found that 50% of roads likely aren't carrying enough traffic to cover their maintenance expenses (see also Streetsblog). I have a good feeling that Perham is one of these places. Of course, this isn't to say we should have disinvestment in communities (we shouldn't), but we need to acknowledge that if we're going to support these places, more highway infrastructure is not the way to do it.

More money for transportation won't fix the system, and it won't help places like Perham. Places like Perham need something else. So, why do we do it? Because it worked in the past? We don't know what else to do? I think it's the latter.

Recommened reading: One Lonely Stroad.

How To Justify Spending $8m On Something Few Want

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: September 10, 2014 - 8:26 AM

The Met Council is gambling $8.7 million on a project to alleviate pedestrian congestion that might exist in 5 to 10 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.

That's like buying flood insurance on the house you have yet to buy.

The below $8.7 million piece of public infrastructure is intended to create a more safe passageway for travelers at the Downtown East station during Vikings home games. It’ll serve west and northbound train passengers and other pedestrians looking to enter a new football stadium. It is deemed this will be an important pedestrian overpass once all four major light rail lines completed.

The Viking Stadiums Bridge to NowhereDownload the Downtown East Plan Met Council PowerPoint here [PDF].

Those reading this should have at least two questions:

  1. How did this come to be a thing?
  2. Why is it all of a sudden getting $8.7 million?

I pay particularly close attention to local projects. I read blogs, forums and newspapers daily. I know and follow local decision-makers on social media, track development proposals, and pay attention to those boring committees few care about. I also work in the industry and talk to other people who work and follow the industry across related professions. It’s fair to say that I have a very good idea of what’s going on in the Twin Cities and the transportation and development needs of the community.

Never once have I heard of this project until a few days ago. And now, out of the blue, we’re dropping $8.7 million on a bridge that’ll be needed 10 days a year starting in 2019.

I wrote a blog post last year titled The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure. It was well received, and is even being used as required reading in an undergrad planning course in California. In the article I theorize as to why we make bad decisions when it comes to receiving other people’s money on transit projects;

It’s the orderly, but dumb system that makes planners and politicians play to a bureaucratic equation that is supposed to guide officials towards the best alternative. Only it never actually works out that way and it usually forces smart people into making highly compromised and less-than-ideal decisions.

The pedestrian bridge is different. It may deal with Federal grants, but is also come from local and regional coffers. Regardless, this project is being pushed forward. According to the Star Tribune,

“The transit agency will likely devote $6 millon from its coffers for the project (this figure could be offset by federal grants), with the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (which oversees stadium construction) ponying up $2 million, and the rest coming from bonds issues by the Met Council.”

Before we go any further, I think we need to ask a complex question.

How did we get here?

The new $1 billion Green Line is done and the $1.1 billion Vikings Stadium is underway. They combine to represent over $2 billion of investment. Our local leaders are concerned, as they should be, that these pieces of infrastructure be as perfect as possible.

To quote a former Governor (one who wasn’t a professional wrestler),

“All too often, the human tendency is to compound one big mistake with a series of additional mistakes in the hope that somehow the results will improve. This appears to be the case with the Vikings stadium.”

Politicians are attracted to big, transformitive projects, so it seems only natural that our leaders, who have expelled a great amount of political capital, want to see every inch of it succeed. Even if that means throwing good money after bad.

How We Justify It All

An engineer at the Met Council, likely under much political pressure, noticed something: based on 2019 projections, during peak hours on Minnesota Vikings game days, there will be only a 120 second headway between trains. This will likely not be enough time to manage safe pedestrian crossings. The proposed solution is the bridge.

TopView

Please note the skyway attached to the State-mandated parking structure.

The pedestrian bridge makes some sense. Based on the projections, there will be long lines and delays during this period; and building a bridge for pedestrians certainly isn’t an unreasonable response. The Met Council’s Transportation Committee appears to be interested in the idea.

Let’s look at these assumptions: they assume that there will be two additional light rail lines in full operation, both of which have not yet even been either fully allocated money or constructed. Basically, the Met Council is gambling $8.7 million that there might be a problem in 5 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.

To reiterate: Four (4) LRT lines being in operation (Blue, Green, SW & Bottentieu) and that Vikings game attendees hitting a 40% transit mode share. All of things don't currently exist. It also assumes, more importantly, that if there is congestion people will not find an alternative route or change their travel behavior. This isn't to say we can't plan ahead. We should. But, we should be more realistic in our projections and our priorities.

Where Are Our Priorities?

Why did this project get fast-tracked while other smaller, more “everyday” projects never see the light of day? And, when smaller projects get the public’s attention, why do they struggle to find funding? These are merely a question of priorities.

As Nick Magrino (at streets.mn) has asked so often, “why are we embarrassed by the bus?” He writes,

“… I can’t shake the feeling that many of the expensive transit improvements we get in the Twin Cities are thought up by people who don’t actually use transit. Which is why we end up with Northstar, the Red Line, and so on.”

A bridge like this seems like such a low priority, especially when we have legitimate transportation needs. For example, THIS is a bus stop on a heavily used transit line near the center of Minneapolis.

It’s not that a pedestrian bridge is a terrible idea. Under the projections, at some point in the future, it seems maybe reasonable. But, why is the Met Council prioritizing and fast-tracking this, whereas things like bike lanes, bus shelters, and potholes get ignored? I say this because you could build 40 miles of protected bike lanes for the same price tag.

Projects can take on a life of their own. There is no traditional process to getting things done. In this pedestrian overpass, you have the right person with the right slideshow presenting it to the right people at the right time. From here, you have the Met Council employees and political-appointed representatives who have monies at their disposal. The proposal, while not perfect, seems reasonable enough. And, we’ve just spent $2 billion on infrastructure, so we need to make it right. The presentation looks good, so why not go for it?

What would your City do with $8.7 million?

Imagine if the City of Minneapolis was given $8.7 million that could only be used on downtown pedestrian and/or transit projects. What would they do? The answer is: not a pedestrian bridge to be used during 10 sports games a year.

So, why are we doing it?

The answer is that we can get money from elsewhere to do the things we don’t need to do. But, when it comes to doing the simple things that we need to do, well, that money isn’t available from elsewhere. The pedestrian bridge is a bad idea (right now) that’s made worse when you think of the countless thousands of more useful public investments we could be making.

The truth is that the people and the City of Minneapolis don't even care about it. It's not on their radar. It's the people who control infrastructure and transportaiton dollars who care about this. If given the opportunity to allocate these dollars elsewhere, it's fair to say thatliterally everyone locally would divert them elsewhere.

Our priorities get skewed and we misallocate resources most when our funding comes from elsewhere. In fact, it is precisely why Minneapolis has the below. All of which the City of Minneapolis will be tearing down in 30 years …

vikingsblahugh

Note: This is also next to a proposed park called "The Yard" that neither the City of Minneapolis nor it's Park Board want to maintain. Yet, somehow it's still a thing.

The Bypass of Commerce

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: November 26, 2013 - 9:39 PM

Let me start off with a question: Do Nicollet or Courtland need bypasses?

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We have a cultural misunderstanding about the economic benefits of mobility.

There is no better example than the State of Minnesota’s new $300 million “Corridors of Commerce” program designed to foster “economic growth with transportation investments.” This is a noble goal and it’s worked well in the past, so why not keep it up?

First, we built highways that connected places that were never before directly connected. This was an enormous benefit to rural populations and opened up to more marketplaces. Towns that were once a 5 hour journey apart turned into an easy 1 hour trip. There is no question that this created an economic benefit.

But, we’ve continued building and expanding this roadway system to much diminishing return. The Corridors of Commerce project is just another example of this misapplication of limited transportation dollars. The most glaring example is the Highway 14 Nicollet Bypass.

nic-bypass

The proposed $15 to $25 million Nicollet Bypass

Nicollet is a small town of approximately 1,000 people situated 15 miles outside of the region’s center, Mankato. The proposed $15 to $25 million four lane divided bypass and entrance ramp will replace the two lane highway (with center turn-lane) that runs along the town’s southern edge.

There are three justifications given for this project;

1) Improves safety
2) Enhances mobility for commercial traffic
3) One step closer to a regional goal of a 4-lane highway between New Ulm and Rochester

Let’s examine each justification to see if there can be another alternative.

Does it improve safety?

Here is where our misunderstanding of mobility comes in. We are aiming to improve safety by building a new. expensive highway at the edge of town without examining why the original highway was dangerous in the first place.

accesspoints

There are nine highway access points. Six are privately-owned driveways (red) and three are intersections (blue)

There are nine access points where collisions are likely to occur along the 1.1 mile corridor. Three intersections connect to local roadways and six are driveways to private entities, include a taxidermy and self storage business, trailer park and a gas station (low ROI land uses). This roadway combines fast moving through-traffic with slow, turning local vehicles.

If safety was truly the priority it is claimed to be, the rational response would be to reduce speeds from 35 mph to 20 mph, close (or seriously limit) access to the six driveways, and realign the most dangerous intersection (TH99 in northwest) to allow a less abrupt merge. This would cost virtually nothing in comparison to the proposed $15 to $25 million project.

Does it enhance mobility?

When determining the cost-benefit of a project, we place emphasis on improved mobility, or in other words: time savings. Time is important, but how important? The existing speed limit is 35 mph and the expansion will be 65 mph (conforming to speed limits of other divided highways). According to my calculations, the project will have a travel time savings of nearly 1 minute.

Speed Limit (MPH) Distance (miles) Travel Time Time Difference (+/- 35 mph)
20 1.1 3m 18s  + 85 seconds
25 1.1 2m 38s + 45 seconds
30 1.1 2m 12s + 19 seconds
35* 1.1 1m 53s 0
45 1.1 1m 28s - 25 seconds
55 1.1 1m 19s - 34 seconds
65 1.1 1m 0s - 53 seconds

 

Fostering commerce is important, but it is difficult to make a convincing argument that one minute in travel time savings justifies such an expenditure for less than 7,000 vehicles traveling through on any given day weekday [MnDOT Traffic Data].

Does it move towards a goal of a regional 4-lane highway?

No. We have it all backwards.

As for right now, why would you create a two-lane highway that turns into a four-lane highway for a 1.1 mile stretch as it passes through a town just so it can turn back into to a two-lane highway? If having a regional 4-lane highway is your goal, then the money could be better spent doing the opposite. The goal should be to first create a four-lane highway outside of towns and then reduce size and speed while traversing through towns.

This 1.1 mile new bypass has the same cost as expanding 15 miles of existing highway in four lanes between Mankato and Nicollet.

The need for Highway 14 enhancements has been a regional concern since the early 1990s. It’s been long known as a dangerous corridor where speeding is prevalent, where there are limited opportunities for passing and where there are countless access points and intersections that can be dominated by slow-moving farm equipment.  Hence, I do not question the need for Highway 14 safety improvements, including the adding of passing lanes along with improved forgiving design elements along rural stretches.

We have a cultural misunderstanding about the economic benefits of mobility. Constructing new roadways to bypass small towns at tremendous costs won’t improve safety as the old highway stretches are often left in the same unsafe state. Meaning, local vehicles will continue to use the unsafe roadway. Not to mention, there will be a stretch of auto-oriented businesses on the old highway which will be abandoned and rebuilt closer to the bypass. I do not mourn the loss of a Super America gas station, but I do question the value of it closing down one location just to re-open a half mile down the road.

These one-time State transfer payments like Corridors of Commerce seem to go to the most wasteful projects. The DOTs are unwilling to fund these out of their dedicated revenue streams, primairly because they are no top-priority projects, so these are reliant upon political justifications and quick transfer payments.

One-time 2011-2 Transpoortation and Economic Development (TED) Grants from the State went to similar projects, like the fourth interchange ramp in Perham, Minnesota.

perham1

Perham is a small town in central Minnesota that is getting a new interchange that will support an estimated 240 jobs. TED will be providing $3.5 million of the $6.7 million project. This project might make sense if the town didn’t already have 3 interchanges leading to the same highway.

perham2

These are the types of investments that do little or nothing to boost economic vitality in local small towns or distant communities. And, the kicker, it’s not going to speed up traffic or make us any safer.

Will the Nicollet Bypass project generate wealth? Will Perham ever add the economic juice that town needs? Will these projects ever pay for themselves or create a genuine societal or economic benefit? If the State of Minnesota, for whatever reason, were to ever ‘turnback’ the highway, would the County or Town of Nicollet be able to maintain?

Hopefully these considerations are conducted prior to the authorization of spending millions of dollars to bypass Courtland (pop. 611) [MnDOT], which has yet to receive funding, and the countless other projects that divert limited resources to low returning projects.

“What will speed up that change is an understanding of the fact that our transportation investments are not creating wealth, they are destroying it. Now I’m not talking about just the investments where the old Target store at the old interchange is induced to move into the new Target store at the new interchange four miles up the road. I mean almost all of our highway spending. It costs more to build and maintain than it generates in returns and, therefore, will only continue so long as we have the capacity and the desire to delude ourselves.” - Chuck Marohn, Paved with Good Intentions

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If you're feeling generous! Please help a blogger!

Minnesota Vikings Stadium FAIL

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: May 13, 2013 - 11:25 PM

fly-thru5

The architecture of the Minnesota Vikings Stadium: take it or leave it?

Personally, I think it looks like a cross between a laser jet printer, a drunk Frank Gehry and something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is not a compliment. However, be this as it may, preference on architectural styling, no one should be surprised as this is the usual forgettable stuff that post-modernist firms like HKS Architects have been creating for quite some time.

I’ve been a critic of professional sports financing for a long time and will continue to be; but now that it’s a reality that the Vikings will get a new home, I’d like to see it be as good as possible. That means we need a combination of respectful architecture and urban design. This proposal fails on both fronts.

For all it’s faults, the City of Indianapolis built Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s a large, expensive taxpayer subsidizes stadium, but it does pay homage to classical architecture. It doesn’t always have the best street frontage, but it still pretends the pedestrian exists. Going into tonight, I had my fingers crossed that we’d get something similar to Indianapolis.

The architecture and urban design of the new Vikings stadium are bad, at best. I’ll ignore architecture here. The urban design isn’t shaping out to be an improvement over the current footprint of the Metrodome. Urban design is very important, and for this reason, I ask the City of Minneapolis Council to consider that upon their approval of the site plan.

fly-thru1

Along the plaza, facing the current Metrodome light rail station, a large plaza opens up to large glass walls. This will likely be an impressive sight from inside the new stadium, but it won’t do much for pedestrian activity or promoting a lively streetscape during non-game days. The plaza needs more activity.

fly-thru2

It’s a large building that adds a small park to the Metrodome’s existing footprint. We need more. But, what’s a green space with an active surrounding? The park like space will likely be empty without adjacent buildings nearby to add activity.

fly-thru3

There are no new improved transportation connections between the Downtown East neighborhood and the rest of downtown or the River. It’s basically a new, modern rendition of the Metrodome: an over-sized, unquestionably ugly spaceship that adds nothing to the built environment.

fly-thru4

The large plaza will be lively during the football season, but will likely be a wind-swept space during regular 9 to 5 Monday-Saturday. It’s a large, nondescript plaza that pays homage to the stadiums large set of windows, and not to the surrounding environment.

fly-thru5

This will arguably be the worst part of the stadium. It’s a large, multistory blank wall. No activity here except a parking lot and some emergency exit doors. It’s blank, dark and ignores the urban environment. This is unacceptable – a 5 to 6 story blank wall? No windows. A few doors. Lots of emptiness.

fly-thru6

There really isn’t much here that will act as an improvement in the urban design department, and it is hard to see how a building like this will promote additional development. Who would want to live by a monolithic, mega church of a building that only occasionally pays homage to the cultural Gods of Football. It’ll be empty 95% of the time and chaotic the other 5%.

Now, with e-pulltabs being as they are, all we need to do now is find a way to pay for itself (and, if you don’t care for it, well – if history repeats itself, it’ll likely be torn down in about 20 years).

Reconsidering the Nicollet Mall Redesign

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: April 16, 2013 - 1:03 AM

There is a $20 million sum of state money that may be dedicated to redesign Nicollet Mall. While $20 million could bring some impressive changes to the pedestrian mall, these funds would represent an unfortunate misapplication of limited resources.

We need to reconnect Nicollet Avenue- not re-design Nicollet Mall. It's being discussed over at Streets.MN, too.

ericroper_1365803137_NicolletMall

Nicollet Mall, the nation’s first pedestrian transit way, is one of Minneapolis’ great success stories.  It’s the heart of downtown Minneapolis and has history of being the Minneapolis’ Main Street.

The Mall came about in a time of urban turmoil across most of the United States. Cities were desperate to attract people downtown while residents were fleeing to the suburbs. Minneapolis got stakeholders together and created what was really one of the few urban success stories of the 1960s. Many cities followed suit. Most of them failed.

Fast forward to 2013. Nicollet Mall is still a great artery running through the heart of downtown. It’s bike, walk and transit friendly. It has retail, food and good amount of street life. One could even argue that Nicollet Mall is downtown Minneapolis.

Minneapolis is still waiting on $20 million in state funding to redesign for the State government. However, the city is still moving forward on a design competition. This is a bad idea for two reasons:

  1. There is nothing particuarlly wrong with how Nicollet Mall looks or functions that can’t be fixed by land use tweaks, and
  2. To achieve a much higher return on investment, the money would be better spent onother needed projects

First of all - there is nothing wrong with Nicollet Mall that can’t be fixed by a little land use tweaks (and adding some more amenities on the north side of the mall besides parking). If you traverse Nicollet Mall, you’ll quickly notice that building don’t always address the street frontage in a responsible way. That is the main culprit. As a pedestrian space, it’s already really, really good.

Now, there might need to be a brick that needs to be fixed here and there. Add a few climate-appropriate tree. The sidewalk heating system might need some updates and some fountains re-tooled. The Mall was reconstructed in 1991. At the time, a sidewalk heating system was installed – and it’s not worked since. And guess what? It doesn’t matter – the Mall still works because snow shovels still work (and they are much cheaper).

The main problem is that the buildings need to do a better job of addressing this pedestrian elements of the Mall. It needs more cafes, more food trucks, and more informal activity that integrates with building programming. But, by and large, the street does well. If anything, Nicollet Mall needs more small storefronts. It’s as simple as that. It adds to the diversity of the environment and gives people something to enjoy. Large monolithic towers may look good from afar, but often do little for the street.

There is also something to be said about Nicollet Mall as a historic place. While other cities were giving up, Minneapolis fought back. There is something beautiful in that. It not only fought back in 1965, but also in 1991 (which was another decade of big city mistakes). Minneapolis’ endevour worked, and it should be celebrated because it tells the great urban story of resiliency.

Re-design or not – the Mall will still be a central part of Minneapolis life. In the process of acquiring this $20 million in State money, there might be some great re-design submissions. And, I certainly do not mean to criticize city officials for trying to make downtown as great as it can possibly be, it’s just that money can be spent more strategically elsewhere.

If the City of Minneapolis is looking to really create a noticeable difference in a world of limited resources, they need to look at the corner of Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street. One would be hard pressed to find a single decision that would have a greater impact on the lives of Minneapolis residents than opening up south Nicollet to Eat Street and connecting them to the Mall in downtown.

A redesign might make Nicollet Mall more modern, “green” and more landscape urban-y. But, I think we need to concentrate on places where we can get the highest return on investment. When I say, “return on investment” – I’m not just referring to the city’s financial bottom line, I’m talking social and culturally. We can take a hub that has been depressed for 30 years, connect it north and south to downtown – not just for automobile – but for pedestrians and cyclists.

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It’s been talked about for years; and people are going to keep talking about it until it’s fixed:let’s re-connect Nicollet Ave! Let’s get people together and let’s get politicians on board! Today is DFL Caucus Day in Minneapolis – bring it up in your ward! Let’s do something about Nicollet and Lake!

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