Friday, February 12, 2010

Incenting Employment to Centers

Peter Bell has a big job at one of two regional governments in this country (Portland the other). It's understandable that he threads a fine line between suburban and urban constituencies when discussing mobility and other issues a regional government deals with. However I do feel like he has an important duty to steer growth with transportation policy and employment incentives.

The current problem as I see it with the Twin Cities is that its expanding at a rapid clip. While the article mentions this growth has slowed, I don't really buy it. Much of this expansion is a continuation of the post 1950s suburban housing and job growth that continues to suck up resources at the expense of the region's two central cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul. Much of it headed to the favored quarter to the Southwestern part of the region in the areas of Edina and Bloomington.

But with the expansion of employment in those areas, it allows people to move further and further away from the core. The more we move away from the core, the less likely people are to live in urban neighborhoods designed for walking, biking and transit. Something Peter Bell seems to mention in passing but not completely understand is that those exurban sewer and road expansions cost a lot of money. A lot more money over the long term that creating capacity and value through density and transit. But once he expands sewer service to the outlying areas with septic tanks, then the community beyond wants the service, the community after that will ask for it, and then the employment follows workers and then the workers follow that employment. It's a growth strategy that is inherently unsustainable.

And really what I wish they would do is stop and think about how to make existing centers of commerce in the region less suburban and more like downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. This way these areas can serve a diverse housing stock that people want while also allowing them to not be so dependent on the automobile. This requires that the Met Council work even harder to incent job growth in centers that will also contain the spread of residential development. Ultimately the first line of defense is containing job sprawl and the Met Council can get a better hold on that than they can on residential areas.

Since most people in the United States have around a 30 minute commute, there needs to be a way to keep that 30 minutes static to existing centers in the coming century. Ultimately that means that the Met Council would have to expand jobs in centers, connect the centers via high quality transit, make the centers walkable, and finally stop extending services to the exurbs unless they are going to pay full price for it. Tipping the balance sheets towards more favorable long term sustainable product doesn't just make environmental sense, it makes fiscal sense. If we think all of these cities and towns that have budget issues today during this recession, imagine the recessions in the future where all this extra infrastructure we build today will have to be maintained tomorrow. Only places of significant intrinsic value will be saved from the scourges that continue to occur on a bi/tri-century basis.

This is why I believe that Peter Bell can't just throw up his hands and say he can't do anything about it because too many people are giving him a hard time. I think he needs to lead, and in this sense he needs to take fiscal responsibility for the future of the region. I'm not a huge environmentalist. I can appreciate where they come from. My biggest concern is living outside of our means. Specifically with regards to suburbanism where we're basically just taking away from the economic generators that are cities and spreading our money outward instead of closer to the belt. My Geography professor in college that got me into all this planning stuff always said, if you want someone to pay attention, "hit them in the pocket book". This is ultimately what needs to be done. It might not be the easy way or the most popular way, but someone needs to start thinking about the fiscal ramifications of growth in the region, and the person that should be starting that discussion is Peter Bell.


Faith said...

Can you add a link to the article you referenced?

I think your argument will play well to the conservative side as well. Have any other cities done a study of the cost of new exburban infrastructure vs. infill urban infrastructure?

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Oops sorry Faith. I linked it in the article. You can also copy and paste it here.