Thursday, May 29, 2014

When federalism works, or not

(Groundbreaking for the Highway 100 extension, from

For those who care about the future of Cedar Rapids, this has been either a pretty good week or a pretty bad week. The same day that city leaders and the Chamber of Commerce celebrated the beginning of the Highway 100 extension (above), word came that United Fire Group was exploring options for the American Building downtown.
This is a victory for historic preservation--it's a lovely building, over 100 years old--but its rebirth will likely come at the cost of demolishing the building next door (119 1st Av SE) that formerly housed the Convention and Visitors Bureau (Ford "United"). That building is neither old nor lovely, but the coming parking lot will hardly rank as an improvement.

"Urban areas need expressways," said Iowa Department of Transportation director Paul Trombino on Tuesday (Smith). Highways! Parking lots!! What century is this, anyway?

This has got me thinking about the role of the federal government in all this. In the 1980s I was profoundly affected by a book called When Federalism Works--partly because I happened to be at the Brookings Institution when they threw a party to celebrate its release, but also because of the strength and originality of its argument. The authors argued the U.S. federal government should act when states and local governments lack economic incentives to act. They specifically cite programs "that benefit low-income or otherwise especially needy groups in the community" (p. 15), because cities that act unilaterally risk attracting needy people--and their accompanying program costs--from surrounding, less-generous cities. I consider disaster assistance to be on the same plane, because disasters can easily overwhelm local resources.

On the other hand, argue the authors, cities ought to be in charge of their own economic development. "A high-quality infrastructure includes good roads, adequate utility and sanitation services, effective police and fire protection, quality schools, and pleasant parks and recreation activities" (pp. 12-13). The local incentives for creating "a potentially attractive home for productive employees and the firms that hire them" (p. 12), as well as deciding the appropriate mix of taxation and services, are obvious, and the national government can and should leave cities on their own to handle this.

Peterson et al. are nonetheless hesitant to apply this logic to transportation, arguing that the country as a whole has an interest in facilitating a nationwide network of trade and communication. Hence...
Central government support of developmental goals is warranted because, if left to itself, a community would spend for such purposes only an amount equivalent to what it expected to gain from the resultant increase in its economic activity. It would not spend funds for any portion of a project that only benefited people living outside the community. Without central government support, localities would thus underspend for development. (p. 13)
I'm OK applying this logic to interstate highways, airports and rail, but when the national government funds local highway construction, it creates a moral hazard. That's what's happening with Highway 100: Without passing judgment on the specific project, the vaster portion of the financing is coming from the Iowa Department of Transportation, and as has become apparent as this year's transportation bill has stalled in Congress, about half of IDOT's money comes from the national government (Petroski). Cities thus have an incentive to act inefficiently, because someone else is bearing the cost while any economic activity that results benefits the local area. (For an extended riff on this theme, see Chuck Marohn's Strong Towns Podcast of May 22, cited below).

What would Cedar Rapids do about Highway 100 if it were on its own to finance its construction and ongoing maintenance? It's hard to say. Removing the federal government from the equation won't necessarily make it balance. Localities certainly have, in the absence of metropolitan regional government, incentives to act in ways that are individually rational (sprawling subdivisions, strip malls, tax incentives to poach each other's businesses) but collectively irrational. Despite accumulating evidence that people are moving to urban centers (Frey, Gallagher, Warlick), and that suburban sprawl is unsustainable, localities are slow to adapt to these changes. Downtown Cedar Rapids hopes for job creation, but their way to accommodate that is more parking craters, as opposed to, say, overhauling our ridiculous transit system. None of the local candidates in next week's primary election is saying anything to upset the apple cart. And the federal government, through competitive grants, can encourage states and localities to think outside the (big) box.

But despite a harrowing economic recession and the extreme fiscal stress that lingers at all levels of government, I'm seeing a great deal of same-old, same-old. We seriously need some new approaches that reflect serious thinking about what governments can and can't do to contribute to prosperous, sustainable, diverse communities.


"What is a 'Stroad?'," 3 April 2014
"Envision CR Open House," 26 March 2014


George C. Ford, "Highway 100 Extension Funding Approved in 5-Year Plan," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 11 June 2013,

George C. Ford, "United Fire Group Making Plans," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 28 May 2014, 5B

William H. Frey, "Will This Be the Decade of Big City Growth?," Brookings, 23 May 2014,
Chuck Marohn, "Podcast Show 175: Chuck on Transit," Strong Towns, 22 May 2014,

Leigh Gallagher, "The Suburbs are Dying, So Let's Create a New American Dream," TED Talks, 22 April 2014,

Paul E. Peterson, Barry G. Rabe and Kenneth K. Wong, When Federalism Works (Brookings Institution, 1986)

William Petroski, "Road Construction Projects Face 'Fiscal Cliff,'" Des Moines Register, 30 April 2014,

Rick Smith, "Local Leaders Celebrate Start of Highway 100 Project After Long Haul," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 28 May 2014, 1A, 12A,

Sam Warlick, "America's Cities are Still Booming, Says New Census Data," Smart Growth America, 23 May 2014,

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What's happening to the bike lanes

Barely a year old, the bike lane markers in Cedar Rapids are fading, in some places to illegibility. This is particularly worrisome on streets like H Avenue NE, which not only bears a lot of on-off traffic from I-380, but is the designated connector between the Cedar Lake Trail and the CeMar trail.

The street is the same width it always has been, but was re-striped last year to accommodate bike lanes in each direction. The lanes now look like this:

How has this happened? Cedar Rapids mayor Ron Corbett told Coe's Political Science Club in April that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently changed its regulation concerning road paint. The oil-based paint cities and states have always used is no longer permitted; water-based paint is safer for the environment. However, as the above pictures show, it's not notably durable.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Bike to Work Week diary

Monday, May 12. Under lowering skies, Cedar Rapids residents began their observation of National Bike to Work early this morning, meeting at Red's Public House (112 2nd St SE) to hear Mayor Ron Corbett's official proclamation.

We had a good crowd, considering the weather and the hour:

Red's had a special for those who got there in time. I'll have to remember this next year.

After Mayor Corbett read the proclamation...

...we went on a group ride up 3rd Avenue as far as 19th Street, then back on 4th Avenue. Here we are, occupying the rightmost of the three lanes on 3rd.

The ride was fine: the rain held off, and I trust we all got to work (or in the case of one girl who came with her parents, school).

We in Cedar Rapids obviously still have a lot to learn about mixing car, bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Riding down 19th Street, which is narrow but heavily-trafficked, was awkward. Even on 4th Avenue, which has two lanes heading downtown, one driver was clearly flummoxed when we all occupied one. She hovered anxiously as she moved slowly alongside and slightly behind us in the left lane, while cars lined up behind her. Eventually she passed, and all was well. (But if she'd wanted to turn right, that might have been tricky.)

Later, when I was downtown searching--in vain--for the "City's first bicycle pit stop" advertised to exist at 1st Avenue and 4th Street, I heard a squeal of brakes as a taxi stopped--just!--for a pedestrian in the crosswalk.

There also is the matter of road conditions. As the town builds ever outward, some of our older streets resemble the lunar surface, particularly on the side where you'll find bicycles. (It would take a much larger crush of bicycles to produce these craters in the bike lane on 4th Avenue.)

Tuesday, May 13. Today riders were to meet at Cedar Lake at 7:10 to hear from, and ride with, Nikki Northrop Davidson, President of Bike2Work Consultants. This was billed as teaching people how to commute to work, and was specifically aimed at those "nervous about biking to work." But, as if auto traffic and one's own cycling confidence weren't daunting enough, the weather was unseasonably cold and windy.

To make a long story short, I live some distance from Cedar Lake, and moreover was running late, so I went downtown first and then towards the lake. The largest group I met coming the other way was three in number, led by an exuberant woman who greeted me as I passed. I'm thinking that was Ms. Davidson. I took a quick picture of the lake, then tried to catch up with them, but they had melted into the madding downtown crowd. If you live in Chicago or Boston, this is easy to imagine... in Cedar Rapids, not so much. I hope they found their way indoors to a hot breakfast. I rode around downtown until my ears could stand the wind no longer. I did see some individual riders, most of them probably biking to work, in spite of the weather.

I would like to ask Ms. Davidson's advice about this crosswalk, where the trail crosses 1st Avenue:

When a rider or pedestrian passes between the posts, the censors cause lights in the pavement to flash, alerting drivers to stop. The lights aren't very attention-getting, though, even on a dark day, and even when drivers are paying attention as the cabdriver referenced yesterday probably wasn't. The setup terrifies me, and I avoid it either (a) by walking a block to cross at a regular intersection, or (b) waiting until all traffic on 1st Av. has cleared. If you live in Chicago or Boston, that is probably difficult to imagine.

Wednesday, May 14. No events today, but I biked to work, as I have most clement days for the last 25 years. I live less than a mile from my office, which is of course unusual even in a small city. It's a pretty uncomplicated ride through tree-lined streets.

This is my street, Blake Boulevard SE. Along the side are mounds of wet sand leftover from last winter. Today I could ride blithely around them, but when there's car traffic it gets awkward.

Wherever you're going in Cedar Rapids, getting across 1st Avenue is a challenge. The intersection at 13th Street offers these options:
The right side of the road is a right-turn-only lane, but I don't want to turn right. I used to go straight in the center lane (after waiting for the right-turning traffic), but the entry point onto campus has been closed off during a remodeling. That leaves turning left, which has become more difficult here since traffic was diverted this direction when 2nd Avenue was closed by the PCI building.

My current favored solution is to ride through the parking lots and cross mid-block here...
 ...between EnCompass and Tallgrass Business Resources. It's not ideal, but neither firm has yet insisted that the price of using their parking lot as a trail is a contribution to their office NCAA tournament pool. Once I get to 1st Ave this way, there's almost always a complete break in traffic every light cycle, making it easier to cross than at the actual intersection (and certainly less nerve-wracking than the lighted crosswalk downtown, described yesterday).

So here I am at work!

Thursday, May 15. Still chilly. About two dozen undaunted souls arrived in Greene Square Park to bike with the mayor. There was a booth, and I finally caught up with some swag, a neon green t-shirt commemorating Bike to Work Week and a slate gray water bottle. There were also bananas, granola bars and water.

Mayor Corbett in his brief greeting highlighted two reasons why the ride was important: to remind seasonal riders of the rules of bike safety, and to remind drivers to be aware of cyclists. [Most of us are "seasonal riders," and this is about the temperature floor of my season. But we did hear as the ride progressed that one of our number rides year-round.]

We rode across the river on 2nd Avenue as far as 11th Street West, then back downtown, then down 3rd Street to the new Geonetric building on 12th Avenue in New Bohemia...

where apples and water awaited us. (The developments in New Bohemia are quite a story, and should fill a future post.) CEO Eric Engelmann had ridden with us, not quite as well-wrapped as the weather might have warranted. He complimented my gloves.

Nikki Northrop Davidson of Bike2Work praised Geonetric's green design, which includes indoor bike racks and showers for bicycle commuters.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A preservation protest

The Hach Building, built in 1901 for a beer bottling operation, is almost certain to come down Monday, a sad event for the local historic preservation group, Save CR Heritage, which had fought to save it. Members of the group gathered in front of the building late this afternoon to protest (and will be back tomorrow afternoon at 5).
Maura wields signs while Beth and Chris manage the Save CR Heritage heart
The guy on the door is paper but has withstood the elements
Janet managed three signs in high winds, an athletic feat
Beth becomes a caped crusader for preservation
The Hach Building is located, for the moment anyway, at 1326 2nd St SE, in Cedar Rapids's New Bohemia neighborhood. It has been a number of things in its 100-year history, and is currently a vacant eyesore. This area got about 11 feet of water in the June 2008 flood, and has never been repaired. With each year of weather and no maintenance, the building has become more and more of a mess. The owner has resisted pleas to restore it, and according to group members turned down an above-market price offer to buy it. Speculation as to his motives ranged from vindictiveness to fear that a new owner would open a bar to compete with Little Bo's down the street, which rents a building he also owns. (Side note: Little Bo's was referenced in an earlier post, "Third Places in the City of Five Seasons," posted July 14.)
The building from the rear
Steps lead down to the basement
Preservation is valuable in and of itself (see my post "Why Historic Preservation," posted July 22). But sometimes it doesn't happen, often because people see old buildings as standing in the way of economic progress. (Examples in Cedar Rapids range from the Union Station in the 1960s to First Christian Church a couple years ago.) Sometimes buildings get to the point where restoration is prohibitive, such as the old People's Church.

In this case the only argument against preservation is that the owner doesn't want to preserve it, and it's his damn building. We talk about rights a lot these days, often as a means of shutting off further discussion. If we're going to live together, we need to get out of our rights bubbles and find some ways to discuss how to balance individual autonomy with participation in the community.

Sidewalk commemoration of the brewery on 3rd St SE

The buildings across 2nd Street from the Hach Building were all cleared after the flood. You can pretty well see the river, next to which is a small memorial to the founder of Czechoslovakia. Damn it, Tomas Masaryk would have wanted this building saved.

Save CR Heritage's May 5 post on attempts to save the building at

P.S.--The Hach Building came down early, early Monday morning, May 12. This photo is from the SaveCRHeritage Facebook page:


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Minimum wage: what if they're right?

Protesters in Illinois, from
The minimum wage bill failed to achieve the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster in the U.S. Senate last week. This was not a surprising result, and the discussion will continue in the political arena this election year with resolution unlikely.

There are arguments for and against an increase, either to the $10.10 an hour proposed by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, or to a lower level as suggested by Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine). Advocates say the increase will help low-wage workers without having a negative impact on the economy, and this certainly is plausible. Those whose wages increase would surely spend most of the increase, which is exactly what the Larry Ellisons of the world are not doing with their mega-millions. That spending would stimulate those parts of the economy, possibly enough to create more job opportunities. Advocates can also note accurately that previous minimum wage increases have not had cataclysmic economic outcomes.
Benefits of a minimum wage increase illustrated, from
Opponents of the increase argue it will negatively affect businesses by raising their costs. The increased payroll is undeniable; the only question is whether the economic stimulus referenced above will benefit your specific business, and do so quickly enough that you don't spend too much time in the red. Too much time in the red means layoffs, or going out of business.
Minimum wage opponents play the 'small business card'... from
I grasp both sides of the argument, and note that both sides claim economists and business people among their supporters. I can at least do the math: in a work week of about 40 hours, in a year about 50 weeks long, just multiply the minimum hourly wage by 2000 and you've got the approximate annual salary. The current minimum wage of $7.50 equates to an annual salary of $15,000. One of my students waitresses for $4.25 an hour, which would come to an annual rate of $8500, with tips assumed to make up the rest. Illinois' minimum wage of $8.75 comes to $17,500. The Democrats' bill would take it to $20,200. I made more than that in 1988.

However you feel about the economic or ethical ramifications of a minimum wage increase, we should take seriously the claims of both sides. Which means stopping to consider what it means if, as congressional Republicans claim, the proposal would strike a death blow to businesses. Almost every Republican who spoke in the Senate floor debate on the minimum wage April 30 had a tale to tell of a business that would be put under. For Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), it was a hardware store. For John Cornyn (R-Texas), it was a fast-food franchise:

Just ask Robert Mayfield from Austin, TX, where I live. Mr. Mayfield has been in business for 35 years now, and he is pretty successful. He also knows a thing or two about the consequences of rising labor costs. This is what we are talking about. For a business, this is the overhead. This is the labor costs they have to pay out of their income.

Mr. Mayfield wants Members of Congress to know that he strongly opposes this proposal because it will cost people jobs. Here is how he describes it:

What's most devastating about an increase in the minimum wage is that costs go up, and as a business owner, I have to raise prices--
So if we think we can pay somebody $10.10 an hour to work in a McDonalds and it won't have an impact on the cost of a Big Mac, well, we are living in a fantasy world. And that is what Mr. Mayfield says.

I have to raise prices, and sometimes the market [won't bear it]. In the end, jobs will be lost and service will suffer . . . The people in Congress wanting to pass a minimum wage bill don't know any more about how a business works than a hog knows about Sunday School. What makes it worse is Obamacare hanging over our heads. It's a job killer.

Minimum wage increase drives unemployment illustrated, from
Let's assume for a moment that Cornyn, Roberts, et al. are right. They may well be, after all. Consider what that means: Across this nation, department stores, hardware stores, restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores can only stay in business by (hiring mostly part-time) employees at very low wages. If these companies offered jobs that were secure, paid enough to raise a family, and offered health care and other benefits, they would go out of business. The economy would grind to a halt. And the rest of us would be paying much higher prices for groceries, clothes, health and beauty aids, toys, housewares and meals out.

Which means we'd only be able to afford some of what we get now. We in the middle class need to look each other in the eye and admit that it's very possible that our lifestyle depends on other people being badly paid.

There are a lot of people in this economy getting the short end of the stick. And if Cornyn is right, that must continue to be the case.The cockeyed optimist in me hopes that the Republicans are wrong, and that jonesing wages at the low end will not only help those workers but restore some much needed opportunity to the American economy. The handwringer in me says that if middle-class lifestyles are reliant on low-wage labor (and automation), we're all going to hell in a handbasket, except some of us faster than others. We cannot live together as a people if the system in which we operate requires that a substantial portion of the population gets the shaft so the rest of us can get by.
My earlier post on minimum wage rates:

Binyamin Applebaum, "In Tepid Wage Growth, Signs of a Still Fragile Economy," New York Times, 5 May 2014, B3 and


Jacob Smith, "Econ 101: The Minimum Wage," The Inked Economist, 19 May 2014,

University of Chicago Booth School of Business, "Minimum Wage," ICM Forum, 26 March 2013,

Allen Vander Meulen III, "Minimum?," The Here and the Hereafter, 22 May 2014,

Friday, May 2, 2014

Post #100: What's a blog for?

I've been at this blog for over a year now, and this post means I've reached the milestone of 100 posts. It has been a great experience, and now I wish I'd thought of it sooner. It's given me an opportunity to reflect on things I've read, to respond to developments during an exciting time in the history of Cedar Rapids, and to sort out my own ideas while storing them for possible future use. In my first post I said my motivation was to keep track of and reflect on the reading I was doing on place during my sabbatical leave. Since then I've expanded to include issues of public policy relating not only to place, but to how people live in places. I'm pretty determined to keep the blog away from personalities, partisan advocacy and scandals. I relish the freedom to keep the focus on the issues that I think matter to people, and to respond to day-to-day events only when I find it useful.

The rewards of the blog have been great, full of unexpected (mostly good) surprises. Writing and thinking about these issues has gotten me into a stimulating public conversation with Ben Kaplan on the Cedar Rapids Gazette's "We Create Here" site. My University of Illinois friend Katie Kennedy used one of my posts in her American Government class at Northeast Iowa Community College. My high school classmate Bill Peregrine, who is now an organic landscaper in Washington state, has re-connected and offered several thoughtful comments on environmental issues. Locally it's stimulated conversations with Niles and Sophie Ross, Chris and Eryn Cronbaugh, Anne and Paul Salamon, Matthew Burrier and others about the present and future of our town. And writing a blog makes me feel connected with others I know who blog, even people like the yarn artist Kathy Guttosch (Twist and Shoutand poet Margo Grills (Weshjook's Words), whose subject matter is far afield from politics and place.

I liked e-meeting Theora Kvitka, an artist from Chicago, when I asked permission to use one of her cartoons on the blog. Weirdest exchange was with someone from an organization whose columns pooh-poohing climate change appear regularly in our local newspaper; when I criticized this practice, he responded with a comment the next day. His organization's radar is impressive, even if their argumentation is not. The experience reminded me to be ever-mindful that what I post has a potential audience. I was thrilled each day to see the page views go up and up for a post I did on Blue Zones, until I realized that the views were probably by robots. I have no idea why robots were hitting on my blog, or on that particular post, but I trust they're better robots for it.

As I enter the second year, and the second set of 100 posts, I've been pondering a few issues. Maybe these questions will answer themselves in time, but if anyone has any insights now I'd very much appreciate hearing them.
  1. Are there opportunities for new directions for "Holy Mountain"? One idea I've had for this summer is maybe once a week profiling towns around here.The economy, poverty, inclusion and the environment will remain major foci, and I'll still cover developments in Cedar Rapids, but are there places that have successfully addressed these from which other places could learn? Are there issues, or other aspects of these issues on which I could say something original and helpful? 
  2. Should I be doing something with this? Beyond the blog, I mean. I must have written 25,000 words during the past year... maybe 30,000. I have no idea whether any of them are fit for other eyes than yours, or how to find out, or whether it would be worth the effort to get them there.
  3. Are there things I need to learn about blogging itself? Are there advantages or disadvantages to Blogger versus other blogging sites? For getting the word out, I've been announcing my posts on Facebook about once every week or so. Could I do better, or more? I really don't have much entrepreneurial instinct: I found during a brief public career as a folk singer that writing songs, singing and getting up in front of people were easy compared to promoting myself. 

For the record, these are the most viewed posts I've written, as of when I'm writing this:

  1. "Am I Blue," 14 June 2013
  2. "No CR Casino... Now, What?" 17 April 2014
  3. "Third Places in the City of Five Seasons?," 14 July 2013
  4. "Cedar Rapids Development News," 21 April 2013
  5. "Please Rise, Remove Your Hats, and Pay Attention to This Commercial," 1 May 2013

This Blue Zones event at Coe College was attended mostly by humans. My blog report was read mostly by robots.
And the least (i.e. if you've read these it should be easy to prove you're not a robot):

  1. "A Holiday Tradition," 24 November 2013
  2. "The Parking Dilemma," 31 July 2013
  3. "Nothing Says Community Like...," 13 January 2014
  4. "Who Is My Neighbor?" 10 July 2013
  5. "Halloween 2013," 1 November 2013
Coverage of Christmas at Brucemore did not exactly light up the blogosphere
That's it for this self-indulgent celebration of a blogging milestone. No more naval-gazing until #150, I promise!

Opportunity Zones in CR

Construction on 12th Ave in New Bohemia; does this look under-invested? Three census tracts in the center of Cedar Rapids have been des...