city planning

The Big Mouth of The South, One

Speed kills sense of place. City and town centers are destinations, not raceways, and commerce needs traffic—foot traffic. You cannot buy a dress from a car. Even foot traffic speeds up in the presence of fast moving vehicles.  Access, not automobiles, should be the priority in city centers.  -Project for Public Spaces

July 5th, 2015.  Two vehicles, headed north on South Main street, are involved in a collision.  The rear vehicle rolled over and crashed into a pole at the northeast corner of South Main and Loomis street.  One motorist was pronounced dead at the scene.  

This display has been left at the crash site for the last nine months.  Flowers, crosses, LED lights, even an enclosed container for candles mark the place of the where the crash occurred.   In all sincerity, it’s an impressive tribute.  And, unfortunately, quite common. 


You’ve seen displays like this in your city as well.  From my experience, I tend to see them near the roadside, usually on high-speed roadways where the posted speed limit is 45mph or higher.  Where did this particular crash occur?

Image courtesy of Google

Image courtesy of Google

 Main Street and Loomis Street is just 1.2 miles away from State and Main, our City center.  It’s an old, historic part of our city, and bears the marks of traditional urban development, even in its “Old and Blighted” state: A solid row of mixed-use buildings, on-street parking, walkable, and adjacent to dense neighborhoods.  In other words:  This is not a suburban area that was designed around the automobile.  

And still: One motorist drove fast enough to roll a vehicle over on Main Street and lose his life.  There are a lot of unknown variables here: Vehicle speed, condition of the cars, relationship between both of the drivers, and more.  I’m not suggesting that a burden of responsibility should not fall on the drivers; the risk of injury increases as speed increases, and each driver chose to take that risk.   I am suggesting, however, that the design speed of the street in general, and the lack of traditional traffic-calming measures in particular, actually causes motorists to drive well beyond the posted speed limit of 30mph, a speed limit that should not be causing rollover accidents. 

No one–pedestrians, cyclists, motorists–should die on Main Street.  No loved ones should ever have to leave a tribute like this, especially in an urban area.   Again: The space between your foot and the gas pedal is up to the driver, and not the traffic engineer.  I get that.  But from a planning and design standpoint, shouldn’t local governments do everything in their power to minimize the risk of traffic-related crashes?

The problem is that our Main Street is not really a main ‘Street’.  Even more: It’s not really ours.  ‘Route 2’ is the other name for our Main Street, which is owned and operated by IDOT.  

 I’ll take the next couple of posts to show you how our DOT does roads; I’m sure it won’t surprise you.  In the meantime, take a look at South Main before IDOT begins construction on this stretch in Spring: 

IDOT is only aiming to succeed at what we’ve tried to do for decades: Make each driver the King of Main Street, and all pedestrians his subjects.  Success like this, however, comes at a cost.  

From Andres Duany:  "The Department of Transportation, and its single-minded pursuit of traffic flow, has destroyed more American towns than General Sherman.”

More to come. 

H2O Update and Comments for City Council

This week in committee session City Council voted to move forward with Plan C from the proposed water rate restructuring plan presented by the Water Division. The full council will likely vote in the next couple of weeks to approve and move forward with the rate increases as of January 1, 2016. The media is mostly portraying this as a 12% rate increase in 2016, which is true, but is only one piece of the story. The images above are the slides from the full presentation given on August 26, 2015, by the Water Division. Slide 14 shows the increases that will occur over the next 5 years, resulting in an increase of just under 30% from 2015 to 2020.

A quick reminder that the goal of this increase is to help return Water Division reserve funds to $3M, by providing an additional $1M in revenue each year over the 5 years. The reserve funds are intended to allow more pipe to be replaced each year and also to cover unexpected water main breaks. I'm not going to revisit all the reasons why this is not likely to actually occur, this already is my 3rd post about water mains, so feel free to check out earlier musings. But I do have a couple of new items for your perusal.

First: Sunday, October 11, there was a water main break on North Church. These breaks happen fairly often, but this break was special in that it was well documented and photos and video were shared by a resident who lives on the street where the break occurred, a resident who happens to also be the Mayor of Rockford. You can see his video of a river flowing down North Church and pictures of public works staff working through the night to dig up and replace the 75+ year old pipes on his Instagram feed. (You can also see my hopefully not too snarky comments on his video...)

Second: A few weeks ago I did a little more research and put together a spreadsheet comparing the population of Rockford to the miles of water main, from 1860 to the present. Please note -- the population data fell right on the decade, while the water main data fell in between the decades (2005, 1995, 1985, etc.), so the timing of the data isn't as precisely aligned as the spreadsheet portrays. But the trends are obvious enough, even with that discrepancy.

Since 1970, Rockford's population has increased about 1.2%. The size of our water system has increased 112%. We've gone from 14.5 feet of water main per person to 30.45 feet of water main per person. And of course pipes aren't the only component of the infrastructure system, pipes go along with roads, sidewalks, power lines, sewer, curbs, etc. So each person's share of the bill to maintain all this stuff has increased exponentially over time. Let me remind you that the current proposed water rate increase is only intended to help address pipes that were laid before 1950; it's almost too painful to even think about what type of rate increase would be needed to address those pipes post-1960.

If I'm able to get my name on the public comment docket, I'll be making remarks at City Council this coming Monday. I will voice my support of the rate increase but also my opinion that it's a wholly incomplete solution, another band aid on a system that has been irreparably broken for decades. The capital structure must change, the development pattern must change, the hard decisions must start to be made today, not put off until whole neighborhoods need to be evacuated to other areas of the city where services are still intact. (I'm not being dramatic. See EPA study of Saginaw, Michigan's "Green Zone", with 72% property vacancy, where the city is proposing decommissioning infrastructure.) There's a lot more I want to say, but three minutes is pretty short. Do you have any suggestions about what I should or shouldn't say? Feel free to comment below. I in no way think my comments will have any impact, but heck, I'd love for someone to know that citizens are actually reading the CIP and studying the reports, and that we're watching and listening to see if our leaders are willing to truly take on the big issues or just keep kicking that can.

I'll post my comments here next week.

Lessons from Bee Branch Creek

Last week Michael reported on a tour we took of the Millwork District in Dubuque, IA, while we were in town for the Growing Sustainable Communities conference. Today it's my turn to share a few details about the second half of that tour, which provided a look at the city's innovative work to solve a common problem -- flood mitigation through storm water management.

Bee Branch Creek runs through neighborhoods on the north/north-east portion of Dubuque. The above image shows the area of the city that makes up the Bee Branch watershed, approximately a quarter of the total land area of the city and a section of town "where over 50% of Dubuque residents either live or work." In the past, as the city developed and industry encroached on the banks of the lower Bee Branch, the city chose to manage the creek by directing its current underground.

My apologizes for the poor quality of this photo, but you can imagine what it portrays - a "sea of asphalt" which was once parking lots for large factories. When the factories closed the parking lots remained and the Bee Branch continued to flow under all that pavement, constrained by pipes on its way to the Mississippi. But in spite of being hidden, Bee Branch has caused a lot of problems for the city.

Urban streams such as this are the natural conduit for storm water runoff, and development doesn't just mean that houses are built right up to (and in the case of the buried Bee Branch, sometimes right on top of) the path of the stream, it also means lots of places that were once grass are now paved. Driveways, streets, parking lots, are not porous, and heavy rains turn streets and alleys into rivers and parking lots into lakes. Dubuque has the added complication of topography that slopes dramatically down from bluffs to the river. Additionally, in recent years Dubuque has experienced more than its fair share of short term, heavy rainfalls. All of these factors combined for a predictable result: "Between 1999 and 2011, six Presidential Disaster Declarations were issued with total damage estimates of almost $70 million." Faced with the perpetual threat of flooding coupled with a desire for further redevelopment of the north side neighborhoods, the city sought a solution that would serve both purposes.

Dubuque has an existing sustainability framework that guides the all of the decision making and projects undertaken within the city. Above you can see how the Bee Branch project meets the principles of sustainability and informed various aspects of the project. Of note is the "Community Design" principle. The project began with a 16-member citizen task force, a group that recommended a process called "daylighting" that was ultimately adopted. I don't have insight into how long that task force met, who the members were, or whether or not they were spoon-fed possible project methods. What I DO know is that the involvement of a citizen task force almost certainly increased the length of time necessary to begin this project (the city could easily have just said "This is what we're doing. Period." and moved forward).

The decision to day-light the creek and to attack the full nature of the problem in the Bee Branch watershed was no small undertaking. The project spans 35 years (!!) and has a total cost of just under $200M.

The city of Dubuque has leveraged an impressive list of funding sources, including some creative financing options provided by the State of Iowa. The largest funding source is a grant in the amount of $98.5M from the Flood Mitigation Program of the State of Iowa. The grant is funded by state sales tax increment financing, a process that is similar to TIF (a financing method often used, with varying levels of success, in Rockford), but as it is administered by the state the risk is spread much more thinly. Expect a really exciting future post about TIFs and STIFs...but for now, let's consider three reasons why this method will likely end up being a wise choice for Dubuque and for Iowa:

1. The purpose (perhaps a secondary purpose but nonetheless a purpose) of this grant was to prevent an immediate spike in residential stormwater utility fees, and to decrease the length of the project. Limiting the fiscal impact and inconvenience to residents and local business improves buy-in and sends a powerful message about the purpose of a project.

2. Iowa has created a variety of creative financing options to facilitate the ability of cities to fully address problems like flooding rather than choosing piece-meal, incomplete solutions. Increasing the size of the underground pipes was an option. Buying up and demolishing hundreds of properties was an option. Neither would have actually addressed the full extent of the problem NOR would they have met the sustainability principles held by the city.

3. Seeing state sales tax very tangibly reinvested into their local economy for a project that will significantly improve quality of life for local residents is a win-win for the city and state. We all pay sales tax every day -- how often are we reminded of a local, tangible project that is funded by said sales tax? One local example: this year Rockford has posted some signs stating "This roadway project funded by CIP sales tax". Seeing a road resurfaced and knowing that the extra 1% you've been paying on purchases financed that project is a powerful message.

This last picture shows a newly-rebuilt alleyway, one of dozens that will ultimately be resurfaced with permeable pavers as part of the overall Bee Branch plan. I love this alley so much that there will be a later post devoted entirely to it, so I won't say anything about it other than gosh, isn't it beautiful?

The Bee Branch project is well underway and, so far as we were able to ascertain from the tour, the project materials, and the statements of the city staff, it has been enormously successful. What lessons can we learn from this success?

1. Guiding principles such as the sustainability principles held by the city of Dubuque make every project, every decision, much simpler. By this I do not mean it makes them EASIER. The decision to daylight a creek that had been buried for years, that runs through neighborhoods and business districts, that requires $200M and decades of work, was certainly not easy. However, having goals and standards in place helps eliminate options that don't meet those standards and keeps competing interests from subverting or distracting from the ultimate goals.

2. Allowing community members to be involved from the very beginning and maintaining constant, thorough, and professional communication between the community and the city sends a great message: we trust you, we need you, we're in this together. That sounds wholly Pollyanna-ish, I realize. But the time, energy, and resources it takes to successfully engage the community in a project that will disrupt their lives (in larger and smaller ways) for several decades? That's an admirable achievement. (And we haven't even talked about the fact that those beautiful alleys were in part paid for by a special assessment on property taxes of the folks that live off those alleys.)

3. Creative and flexible financing and cooperation from local, regional, and state agencies is, well, just a gorgeous thing to behold, especially in contrast with the utter chaos that exemplifies governance in Illinois. Iowa recognized that flood mitigation was a major priority, and set up methods for local municipalities to address this problem head on. This carries a similar message as #2, that there is a level of trust and "we're in this together" that will allow Dubuque and other cities facing the problems the Bee Branch has cause to fully, completely, address the problem, and to fully, completely, address it in their OWN WAY.

I'm as surprised as you that I have such strong feelings about storm water management! Thank you, Dubuque, thank you, Bee Branch, for some great lessons.

**In case you're interested in following the Bee Branch project further, it has its own Facebook page to keep residents up to date with progress and next steps. Pretty cool.

We've Done Ponzi Proud.

We've probably all heard of a Ponzi Scheme, and have at least a vague understanding that it's a type of investment we want to avoid. Named for Boston businessman Charles Ponzi (who promised investors a 50% return in just 90 days based on arbitrage in International Mail Coupons) these deals snag investors with promises of high, consistent returns, and little to no risk. 

Charles Ponzi, 1920. Via  Wikipedia .

Charles Ponzi, 1920. Via Wikipedia.

And for a while, these schemes can actually deliver on their promises -- as long as the pool of investors continues to grow exponentially. There is no legitimate "business" here, no real sales or creation of wealth; the scheme depends on paying returns out of new investments, rather than profits. Without a constant influx of new investor dollars, a Ponzi scheme will fall apart and the promotor will be caught or disappear.

Photo via WREX, story and news coverage  here . There were many more empty chairs than pictured here, only 6 residents attended the meeting.

Photo via WREX, story and news coverage here. There were many more empty chairs than pictured here, only 6 residents attended the meeting.

Last Wednesday I attended a Community Input session held by the Water Division of the City of Rockford. The purpose of the meeting was to solicit feedback on proposed rate hikes which are intended to provide an additional $1M for the "Water Pipe Replacement Program" which currently accounts for about $1.5M of the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) funds allocated to the Water Division. (view full 2015-2019 CIP; Water Division begins pg. 76). 

Tim Holdeman, Water Superintendent, explained the expanse of the water system and the various threats that impact the City's ability to reliably provide the highest quality water to all residents. These threats include the size of the system (850+ miles of water mains, 26 wells) and decrease in water usage (due to increased industry efficiency, decreased number of residential users, better water conservation by business and residents, recent cooler, wet summers, etc.) resulting in decreased revenue. But the major threat is the age of the mains. Here come a lot of statistics, stick with me, I'll try to be as brief and as clear as possible.

Slide from Water Division presentation, graph showing miles of pipe at each age range.

Slide from Water Division presentation, graph showing miles of pipe at each age range.

The average life expectancy of a water main is 70 years. About 20% of the City's water mains are older than this, some as old as 120 years. According to the current CIP, "Replacing all the water mains older than 70 years would cost approximately $200 million...replacing the highest risk water main would cost approximately $21 million." But wait, there's more! According to the flyer distributed to residents along with our water bills, "The City should be replacing 3-4 miles of water pipe per year. Currently we are replacing about 1 mile per year. It costs between $1.5 to $2.5 million per mile to replace water pipe." Feeling nervous yet? We're just getting started. Back to the CIP: "Because the capital improvement needs are so much greater than available funding...the highest priority projects are considered for further analysis and funding. If the funding is available, the project becomes is taken before City Council where if approved it becomes committed....A project may also be driven to become programmed or committed based on roadway projects that are committed by other Divisions or State entities....The cost of committed and programmed projects for 2015-2017 are about twice the Water Replacement and Improvement Account (WRIA) budget." 

Let's take a step back and consider this information, taken word for word directly from the City's own documents. Pipe that is 70+ years should be replaced, and we've got 120 miles of that. We'd need $200M to do it, but currently we're spending only $1.5M a year. At this rate it will take 133 years to replace the pipe that right now, today, is already 70+ years old.  And you're only asking for $1M more each year for the next 5 years? Holy Sh*t we've got a problem on our hands.

Compound this problem with the fact that, as the CIP states, projects are often added on to the WRIA budget based on other projects, typically road work (when it makes sense to replace mains if the road is already torn up). But these are projects that the Water Division cannot necessarily anticipate, projects which may not replace the mains that are at the top of the priority list because they are at the highest risk of failure. The 2015 CIP WRIA budget is $5M, and the project breakdown lists 10 committed and 9 programmed projects, for a total of just over $9M, or a deficit of over $4M. Currently the 2019 CIP breakdown lists only 3 committed and 2 programmed projects with a projected surplus of $3.3M; I asked Mr. Holdeman how likely it is that the 2019 project list will expand to meet or even exceed the number of projects in the 2015 and he responded "Very likely." 

Slide from Water Division presentation, graph shows number of repairs to water system. 

Slide from Water Division presentation, graph shows number of repairs to water system. 

Compound this problem yet again with a series of very cold winters, and overall repairs increasing by 30% (not surprising considering all the other factors). The Water Division attempts to hold reserves of $3M to address unexpected breaks, but Mr. Holdeman stated that in the winter of 2013 alone unexpected main breaks used up $2.2M of the reserves; add right on top of that the fact that reserves are being used to pay for those pesky unpredictable committed and programmed projects. 

So, where does that leave us? And why did I begin this tirade by defining a Ponzi scheme? Consider carefully the language used on the City's website: "The City of Rockford Public Works Department is pleased to present the 2015-2019 Improvement Program, which proposes $139M of infrastructure investment throughout the City." Here, investment and improvement are very loaded words. "Improvement" implies that the work to be done will leave the system better than it was before, more ready to provide the service for which it was intended. In the case of WRIA, the improvement is so negligible in light of the size of the system and the scope of the problem, it barely registers. 

Screen Shot 2015-08-29 at 9.24.19 PM.png

And "Investment"? For over a century the people of Rockford have been investing in a system that was flawed, faulty, doomed from the start. A system that promised little to no risk and depended totally on the expansion of users to fund not reinvestment in the original system but growth, growth, growth. Sound familiar?

Take another look at the graph of the age of pipes in our system. The pipes that are 70+ years old are certainly a problem. But I see another problem that is just a few short years down the road, certainly fewer than 133 years down the road. There are nearly 500 miles of pipes that are 20-70 years old, and where did the return on the "investment" of building those pipes go? Was it paid back to investors with interest? Well, if you count being able to turn on a faucet or flush a toilet a "return on investment", perhaps, but that's not really a return on investment, it's a service in exchange for payment. Did the return on investment at least go back into the water system, to maintain and replace older pipes? Ok, one more recap (and I promise it's the last): 120 miles of pipes 70+ years old, an out of balance CIP, and proposed rate increases that won't even make a dent...honey, we're in over our heads and the lifeguard is very busy fixing a parking garage (which, by the way, has little chance for a return on investment, either). 

We've done Ponzi proud, folks. And I'm not blaming the current administration, the trouble started long before them. For decades we've been buying into a flawed development scheme that "entices cities to exchange near-term cash advantages of new growth for the long-term maintenance obligation..." and the failure of our cities to remain solvent, to provide the most basic of services to their residents, is a serious problem. But it's only part of the problem, because our cities, including Rockford, continue to buy into this scheme, the promise that just building one more road, widening a few more lanes, allowing new development to add 8-9 miles of pipe to the City's maintenance obligations a year, will somehow right the ship.

I have a call in to Mr. Holdeman with a few more questions, mostly because I want him to tell me I'm wrong, that the system isn't as doomed as it appears (I'll amend this post with any answers that add light to the situation). He, like most city employees I have encountered, is a pleasant, capable, intelligent person who is committed to doing their best for the City of Rockford. But the system? It's broken, y'all. If I thought doubling our bills was the answer, I'd gladly pay twice as much for water service. But the choices are going to get much, much harder than that before this Ponzi scheme crashes and burns (and by then, our water system may not be reliable enough to put the fire out).

*The infrastructure/Ponzi scheme analogy isn't mine, thanks to Strong Towns for that*

**As of 8/31/15 the Water Division is still accepting comments on the proposed rate hike. I encourage Rockford residents to take their brief survey and if this post helped inform your responses in any way, let me know in the comments below.**