On the TIGER trail story

Former Council member Noah Cashman made headlines at the June 4th City Council meeting by asserting Northfield’s TIGER trail project is part of a Growth Ponzi Scheme saying he got the term from Strong Towns (KYMNLeague of Women Voters). [You can listen to my conversation with Jeff Johnson on KYMN here]

There are two problems – (1)”ponzi scheme” (followed up with a reference to a state fraud hotline) grabs attention while preventing rational discussion; (2) Mr Cashman has misunderstood the Strong Towns mission and, consequently, how it might apply to the TIGER trail project.

joined the board of Strong Towns because I wanted to help broadcast its’ mission “to support a model for growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient.”

What is the Growth Ponzi Scheme?  It is not identified simply by the funding source of a project.  Mr Cashman cited the $1.1 million federal grant funding as definitive, but grants (or other intergovernmental transfer of funds) do not make a project part of a ponzi scheme.  Rather, it’s the these “mechanisms of growth” taken as a larger-scale pattern of post World War II approach to growth:

  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.

Strong Towns stresses seeking a higher return on the infrastructure we have already built, capturing value from growth which has occurred and adding value to existing neighborhoods before massive spending in search of potential growth. “Intergovernmental transfers” like federal money for the St. Croix Bridge, tax abatement programs, local government aid help create the illusion of getting a really great deal in the short term, but disguise the long term obligations or undermine the potential tax revenue.

Now let’s ratchet down the rhetoric and think about the TIGER Trail.  What would a Strong Towns analysis of this project look like and how could we rationally discuss the project, including the increase in project cost?

The best option for ensuring safe, convenient travel across Highway 3 for bikes, pedestrians, or people with limited mobility was lost (despite much citizen work) back in 2004 when the highway was reconstructed before MNDOT’s context-sensitive phase and before Northfield had any policy in place (like Complete Streets, or Safe Routes to School) which would have helped design the roadway and intersections to enhance the safe access across the highway.

Next best option: retrofit.  To increase the safety, perception of “cross-ability” and non-motorized access from the West Side to downtown, schools, the pool, and any other destination on the east side of the road, Northfield could retrofit the highway itself, but this would be considerably more expensive than the TIGER trail.  For comparison, MNDoT reconstructed Highway 169 through downtown St Peter in 2010 at a cost of $16.6 million to add bumpouts to reduce crossing distance, street trees for traffic calming and stormwater, etc., as well as improving traffic flow.

The TIGER trail bypasses Highway 3 by using the existing underpass and routing the trail along a city street.  By using the existing infrastructure to add transportation options to further connect established areas of the city, this project helps build resiliency for a Strong Towns.

Looking at the bigger picture, increased bike and pedestrian access to downtown reduces the demand for parking which helps leverage existing parking – a direct tie in to the current Downtown Parking Conversation.  The trail will provide a safe, non-motorized link for a part of town with a concentration of lower income housing.  The City had already agreed to add a trail along the Cannon River by The Crossing site; this project includes that segment.  The trail helps carry out the goals to capitalize on the riverfront by linking to the River Walk.  With an aging population, adding mobility options helps Northfield “age in place.”  

In short, the TIGER trail furthers Northfield’s policy goals for more transportation options, enhances existing neighborhoods, and reuses existing infrastructure to do it.  The trail was supported by many community groups as part of the grant application.  It’s a good project.

But what about the increase in project cost?  Nobody likes this sort of surprise and Mayor Graham is right: “when do we say ‘ouch’ and when do we say ‘uncle'” when deciding how much is too much?  This, really, is the question we should be asking and answering with reference to Northfield’s guiding policies, expected value-added by the project, and short term budget limits.

We should be weighing at least these issues:

The TIGER trail project contributes to building a Strong Town which helps fulfill Northfield’s policy goals and adds value to the core of the City.

The project is funded by a competitive, significant federal grant.  Northfield gets positive recognition for demonstrating we can do the project, success helps Northfield with future grants and not completing the project is likely to adversely affect future grant possibilities.

What allowance should be made for unforseen difficulty? It’s a difficult project with multiple jurisdictions (railroad, MNDoT, private property owners, FHWA), difficult topography and a speedy federal timeline as well as the usual unknowns like soil quality, construction bids, etc.  There have been completely unforeseeable difficulties such as needing to change a retaining wall design (with increased cost) because of Duluth’s experience with flooding.

The Council needs to ignore the headline grabbing rhetoric, learn more about what helps build a Strong Town, examine its policies and then determine how much is too much.