What happens next?

Recent news suggests we have about as much chance of keeping up with infrastructure repair and replacement as George Jetson had with walking Astro:

Star Tribune: Front page, above the fold on February 17.   MnDOT tells legislature roads are deteriorating; give us more more money.  Minneapolis city staff say cutbacks in local government aid mean cities don’t have the funds to keep up with road maintenance and repair.

Faribault Daily News: Rice County tries to save money by doing seal-coating in-house.

“This isn’t a cure-all,” said [County Engineer Dennis] Luebbe. “But we have to attempt to save what we’ve got.”

American Society of Civil Engineers: The ASCE has graded the nation’s infrastructure for quite a few years; roads are currently getting a D-. (The aging infrastructure for drinking water gets a D-, wastewater does too). In addition to the road surfaces failing:

Congestion continues to worsen to the point at which Americans spend 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic at a cost of $78.2 billion a year in wasted time and fuel costs—$710 per motorist

And it’s not just individual motorists – think of businesses which rely on highway transportation which face delivery delays, uncertain supply issues, etc.

I blame Henry Ford. We’ve spent almost a century building for cheap and convenient transportation by automobile which has helped push cities and towns out into suburbs and exurbs (Full disclosure: my Great-Uncle Allan was one of Henry Ford’s inventors, so I guess my family is somewhat culpable – how embarrassing).  We can’t keep up with what we’ve built, so thanks Henry Ford for giving us mass production and cheap cars, but now we have to take a hard look at how much this development pattern costs in dollars for roads and pipes, productivity lost to congestion or just commuting time, energy costs, environmental damage, and limits to economic growth.

This is where I see the opportunity for a policy shift. Much as I’d like to see real policy innovation at the federal and state level, I get a bit pessimistic about institutions that large and that partisan changing quickly.  But here in Northfield, we’re small enough (only 7 non-partisan councilmembers!) to be able to rethink our policy and start to implement it. (For one overview of the current situation and some policy options, see the ULI  Infrastructure 2010 report).

First, land use planning (or, why the Comp Plan is right) as I’ve been saying with the business park, we should not extend infrastructure without a good idea how we will fund its installation plus maintenance and eventual replacement.  We really shouldn’t subsidize the kind of development which requires large extensions of infrastructure.  Future residential development should also seek to limit new infrastructure.  Increased tax base is good, but consider how much better increased tax base is on existing infrastructure.

Second, capital planning.  When I took my seat on the Council, staff talked about developing a 20 or 30 year infrastructure CIP, but I haven’t heard anything about this lately.  It’s a good idea, though.  I’d certainly like to discuss the overall condition of Northfield’s infrastructure and then look out 10, 20 and 30 years (using both pessimistic and optimistic projections of growth) to try to better plan and budget for Northfield’s needs, set some benchmarks and be able to track our progress.

Third, reducing vehicle miles traveled.  Part of this is land use – denser development means destinations within Northfield are closer together and easier to reach by foot or bicycle.  Part is improving non-motorized facilities – sidewalks and bike lanes.  Part is transit; transit works better with higher density, too (the transit hub is on the worksession agenda for Tuesday, 2/22)

Fourth, integration. By this, I just mean that land use decisions have financial implications, housing decisions affect transit, school placement affects the transportation system, infrastructure supports economic development, Northfield’s decisons impact the surrounding townships, and so on.   A sustainable Northfield will pay attention to the interdependence of our actions and attempt to spend its money in ways which help the city as a whole thrive.

Fifth, more money. And we’ll still have to look for more or new revenue to be able to catch up on maintenance.


14 thoughts on “Infrastructure

  1. Infrastructure seems to be NF’s BIGGEST problem…

    Was it the fault of previous councils that they ignored the city departments that would have made them aware of need?
    Was it a lack of professional expertise in city departments that would have brought these issues to the councils?

    Probably some of both. But, what is to be done now?
    I don’t remember the $$ that the new IT infrastructure is going to cost over the next few years, but I know it was a BIG number.

    Griff Wigley complains on Locally Grown that the city’s Flood Preparedness Website is 90’s technology. Can the city afford better?

    What is the Best Management Practice in this case? To do a little of everything, or all of the most important need?

    The road system, everyone admits, is terribly behind; the engineering staff has said that councils have not been willing to approve adequate dollars to keep up.

    The Safety Center has not been maintained by the city, not even re-roofed, although we homeowners know that is essential. Now that lack of maintenance is a ubiquitous excuse to tear the current building down rather than reuse it for the Police.

    The water/wastewater treatment plants are scheduled in the longterm CIP for replacement (I think by 2020 at the latest) and that was a humongous number; I’ll not bother to look it up now.

    So aside from cutting costs to compensate for LGA cuts, how is all this ‘catching up’ to be accomplished?

    How can the ‘City’ consider taking on new debt when there is such a maintenance backlog that should be dealt with first?

  2. We now have the ability to do a lot of video conferencing or telephone conferencing. We should not need as much travel costs or city cars because we should be using alternative means.
    Some of this money should be transferred to infrastructure. Wastewater has long been a high cost item. Why are we not doing better? Maybe we need to look at how we do what we do. Are we doing it efficiently? And yes, long term planning has a lot do do with that.

    • Land use has a lot to do with it, from my research. We have not grown efficiently and have not thought out the long term infrastructure costs of low density development. Certainly, too, tax structure has favored spreading out, rather than “densifying.” We need to look at our rate structures for water and wastewater – Northfield did and is now trying to have rates “catch up” to the cost of the service. Streets don’t have a monthly fee for service, of course, so we should be thinking about how we can better fund repair and maintenance (as well as carefully thinking about whether we extend infrastructure further).

  3. Betsey,
    Your post is a thoughtful example of where theory and reality part company. In theory, you paint a lovely picture of Northfield as an oasis of dense, urban development. In reality, we don’t have the population or the local economy to support that. The asset we do have is land, which you would prefer not to use.

    Set aside the colleges, which are large employers unlikely to grow, and unlikely to pay much more of the cost of operating the city than they currently do, which is substantially less than the value of the property taxes they’d pay as for-profit businesses. If you look at employment and non-residential property tax payments in Northfield, we are predominantly a manufacturing and distribution economy. What evidence do you have that that will change in any foreseeable future?

    Your fifth point says it all: more money. In the current climate, we aren’t going to see public support of tax increases, even though we are clearly not now paying the full cost of the services we receive. This gap will only get worse.

    This is not a research problem; it’s a real-world problem. The kind of development you want will not generate the revenue we need. In fact, the reverse is true: the amentities we want in our downtown (including your dense urban development) require the subsidy of a strong commercial and industrial base on the periphery.

    • Randy, you are the paid publicist for the business park, so your comments are self-interested at best.

      My request – show me the numbers. If the case is as clear as you say it is, you should be able to help the EDA present a reasonable case for how the city will profit (and when). So far, this question has been brushed aside with “Growth is good” when increasingly the evidence shows that we (and every other city) cannot simply grow our way our of the current situation. You certainly have not helped the EDA present the evidence to the contrary about about how denser development will not generate the needed revenue. Nor have you helped the EDA articulate a clear policy basis for what they are proposing. You write very nice promotional material, but have yet to do your homework.

      My position is not either anti-growth or anti-business or, necessarily, anti-business park. It is about how we spend scarce public dollars. The business park plan does ask the city to subsidize a certain kind of development and I am not convinced this is what local government should be asking its taxpayers, including its current businesses, to pay for upfront in the hopes of being reimbursed later. Adding new business does increase the tax base, but also increases the amount of tax revenue needed. The EDA has yet to show that the costs and benefits are favorable enough to justify taxpayer investment. The EDA and Council have yet to discuss what are appropriate divisions of expense for the public and private sector and what incentives we believe are desirable.

      Also, other communities including those the size of Northfield, have changed their approach to economic development from trying to attract new business directly to growing current businesses and supporting entrepreneurs. The conversation about whether this would be in Northfield’s best interest has not been undertaken and your position is simply to assert that it cannot be done.

      I will return to my fundamental request. If the business park is as good and as necessary as you state, then you should be doing everything you can to help the EDA help me understand how the numbers will add up and how the benefits will accrue to the city. So far, my questions have been avoided but not answered.

  4. Betsey,
    I am not under contract to the city, so I speak as one of your constituents.

    The numbers are already there. The phasing plan includes projections for both the estimated cost of infrastructure and the estimated benefits in property tax revenue and employment. You may not like the numbers, you may not believe they are accurate, but they are clearly available and they speak directly to your question. Since you’ve cited the cost of infrastructure in the past, I’m sure you’ve seen them. Why, then, will you argue we can’t afford the cost, without accounting for the projected financial benefits?

    If you choose to ignore the data that is already clearly available, there is probably no argument that will satisfy you. This is the nature of Northfield. Your question has been answered, but it’s not the answer you want. Let’s blame it on a failed process.

    It’s a plan. It requires a little imagination. No one expects the project to be developed over 40 years exactly as drawn. It won’t cost exactly what’s projected, nor will it generate exactly the tax revenue or employment projected. But it provides a physical resource Northfield currently lacks: land for commercial and industrial development.

    Think about last night’s (and prior) discussion about locations for a Safety Center. If you can’t find 5 acres for a public building, where do you think a new business will fit?

  5. Betsy, you are so correct that land use is key. Let’s not extend infrastructure until we have something there. Let’s increase density within our cities with bike paths to connect business to neighborhoods. Land use that was planned even ten years ago, now sits with empty housing many places. Families are getting smaller but for a long time houses were getting bigger. many businesses are getting quieter and can be tucked in near major streets. We need mixed use, connectivity and higher density. Who knows, even the old concept of a business park may be on the way out.

  6. One more thought: I don’t suggest it isn’t possible to attract entrepreneurs and other start-up businesses. They would be great additions. I simply look at the vacant land areas in pre-annexation northfield, and I don’t see all that much potential for significant new tax base.

    The real worry about growing current businesses is on the commercial/industrial scale, not whether a law firm goes from three employees to five, or if we get another four-person software business to take office space downtown. You and the rest of the council ought to be asking where our largest employers will go if they need to expand. College City Beverage was forced (literally, by the lack of land) to go to Dundas. M-O-M most recently went to Faribault and Lakeville, mostly for compelling financial reasons with which Nlfd probably could never compete. Next time, where would you have them expand in Nlfd? When Upper Lakes Foods or Perkins Transportation outgrow their facilities, where will they go? Those are real questions, not rhetorical ones.

  7. It is really disturbing , Randy, although it is understood that you are paid by the City to do PR…and by the way , that’s fine… to hear the same old ubiquitous phrases constantly repeated.

    ***There has been NO assessment of the costs versus the benefits***

    Cost benefit analyses is a tool that every business uses, and even households do it in a simplistic way, as they assess their needs.

    To constantly say that the numbers will never satisfy someone, is to say that the appropriate evaluations HAVE BEEN MADE and the outcome is not acceptable. That is not the case re: the Biz/Pk… and as a matter of fact not for the Safety Center project either.
    In that case there has never been cost study re: reuse of the current facility , expanded for the Police, that has been presented to the public.

    Northfield owns none of the annexed land; the land is there with willing sellers, to anyone who wants to enquire about establishing a light industrial use there. It is no more available because of Northfield’s annexation; there is not even an agreement with the landowners.

    It is true that if there is a Master Plan that is attractive, it is a selling tool. But that requires a lot of ‘cold’ marketing that NF has never engaged in, and has not expressed a plan for doing now. The only economic way to begin that, would be to use the city staff which is not busy with projects now. Mr Gunderson reports to the council that he receives many calls; I have never heard a report of a conversation regarding our newly annexed land, or our professionally developed Master Plan… if these numerous calls are reported, shouldn’t the resulting conversations also be brought to Council?

    Lastly, If either ULF or Perkins has found Northfield to be a good location for them, and if they want to grow past their current sites, they will seek land available adjacent to NF, and that land is there… whether annexed or not…

  8. ‘Infrastructure’ could also be expressed as ALL the components which need to exist to provide a complete working unit.

    If that ‘unit’ is a small historic downtown one necessary piece of the infrastructure is that hub of activity, the Post Office.

    The Post Offices that have a chance to remain open will be those that the citizens of that town fight long, hard and loudly for, and make an extraordinarily well reasoned case for their continued existence.

    Besides being a necessary traditional component of a lively small town core, we might make a case for a large minority population that lives within walking distance of the downtown PO, does a lot of business there in sending money to relatives back home, getting money orders, etc.
    We also have a large senior population living within walking distance of the downtown PO, and they are in and out of there continually.
    A third population segment that uses the downtown facility heavily are all our downtown retailers and office entrepreneurs; they have regular stops at the bank and the PO each day.

    SOP… it seems to me that our City Council needs to get into the lobbying business… don’t we have a councilor that worked in Washington and knows the ways of that inscrutable Capitol?

    Citizens can mount a campaign to save the PO, but we need our Council to look outside that Chamber, and be loud clear and persuasively insistent.

    Win or lose… they’ll at least have the pleasure of knowing they tried… tried hard.

    Please put this on the agenda for the next meeting… Thanks in advance!

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