Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Life lessons from the Skywalk

I've gone on previously about my love for Cedar Rapids Downtown Skywalk System, in spite of its lack of urbanism bona fides. When the section connecting the Doubletree Hotel across 1st Avenue to its parking garage was completed and opened to the public last year, it looked like restoration was complete... except that there was no connection from the garage to the U.S. Bank building mere feet away. So you cannot walk all the way across downtown through the skywalks, as you could have done for years before the 2008 flood.

Efforts to remedy this oversight hit a snag last week. The City of Cedar Rapids thought it had secured money for the patch through a federal transportation grant, but federal and state officials have ruled (after a complaint from Marion and Hiawatha officials) that the Skywalk is not really transportation. They are correct, I'm afraid.

The complexity of this ongoing dispute has revealed a number of problems with the way our governments make planning and design decisions.

(1) Federalism needs boundary lines. There is a role for the federal government in transportation, as there is in other areas of policy as well. The U.S. Department of Transportation, for example, recently awarded a $2.8 million grant to study options for replacing a 100-year-old rail bridge over the Potomac River between Washington, D.C. and suburban Virginia, that could better accommodate multiple users--that's good. However, there needs to be some limitation on the federal role, so that federal tax money is spent on matters of truly national concern, and localities retain decision power and responsibility for local matters. If the national government is perceived as a cash cow, we're inviting wasteful spending and irrational decisions. The Cedar Rapids skywalks aren't Washington's responsibility, they're ours.

(2) Regional agencies need to be structured for constructive cooperation, not rivalry or logrolling. Economies are regional, not local or national, so it makes sense for local economic policy to be made at the metropolitan regional level [see Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City (Island Press, 2001)]. The Corridor MPO is where that could happen, but not as it's currently constructed. Right now they seem to be designed to fight over the distribution of federal money, a fight which the City of Cedar Rapids--with a majority of members on the MPO--routinely wins, to the immense frustration of other stakeholders. As long as the economic development interests of the county and the various municipalities diverge, the fights will continue, with suburban areas wanting more roads and the city wanting more urban development and everyone fighting over federal grants and business tax base. The no-poaching agreement just signed by Cedar Rapids and Hiawatha is a start, but just a start. With revenue sharing and an urban growth limit, members of the MPO can concentrate on what's good for the whole metropolitan area instead of fighting over which town gets which goodies.

(3) There is no free lunch. I don't know how much it would have cost to connect the Skywalk when the Doubletree parking deck was under construction, but the price tag is now $1.4 million. And that's no small potatoes, even for an irrational fan of the Skywalk System like me. Once localities take responsibility for their own infrastructure needs, they realize they can no longer afford sloppy thinking along the lines of  "$1.4 mil is no problem, 'cause we've got a federal grant to cover it." And once regional governments take a unified approach to regional economic development, they ought to make more rational decisions based on comparing costs and benefits. It's hard even for me to believe that the Skywalk patch can stand up to that level of scrutiny.

Rick Smith, "Skywalk Comes Back to Haunt C.R.," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 17 September 2014, 1A, 13A

Rick Smith, "Fair-Play Deals Guide C.R. Metro Incentives," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 23 September 2014, 1A, 8A
Luz Lazo, "Long Bridge Project Gets $2.8 Million from Federal Government," Dr. Gridlock, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dr-gridlock/wp/2014/09/18/long-bridge-project-gets-2-8-million-from-federal-government/

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