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Scaffolding, closed roads, hidden store signs, you name it. Public works projects annoy customers and hurt businesses. But there’s a lot cities can do to soften the blow. 

[Originally printed in Governing Magazine]


With all the new public works construction underway in my hometown of Charlottesville, Va., it can be tough avoiding traffic jams these days. The main thruway, the U.S. Route 250 bypass, can be a particular nightmare because of construction on an interchange. For a nearby retail center, though, the construction has been a downright business killer. An article in the local newspaper quoted a coffeehouse owner as saying he had lost customers and was cutting staff; other businesses’ sales have dipped by 40 percent.

Certainly, this is a common problem everywhere as growth leads to numerous infrastructure improvement and repair projects. But can anything be done to help affected businesses? Read More »

[Originally published by Next City Magazine]


In a tale that mixes a city’s growing class divide and Dickensian conditions in a public facility, two Washington, D.C. news stories — the ongoing fiasco at General Hospital, where hundreds of homeless families are being warehoused, and the groundbreaking for The Wharf’s upscale housing and retail at the Southwest Waterfront — intersect to show how a city’s housing policy can exacerbate its homelessness problem by driving up building costs and limiting supply of new homes.

Since 2010, the same year that D.C. General Hospital was reopened as a family shelter, individual homelessness has increased by 18 percent in D.C., and by 50 percent for families. In the last three years, the shelter has become a public health crisis, rife with vermin, and oftentimes lacking heat or hot water. Conditions only worsened this winter, when a flood of new families pushed it to maximum occupancy, and reached a breaking point in March, when eight-year-old tenant Relisha Rudd was kidnapped and presumably murdered by a custodian.

D.C.’s increase in homelessness (and the need to open the shelter) has been driven largely by rising housing prices that won’t become any more affordable as long as D.C. keeps regulations that prevent housing development from keeping pace with growth and make building unnecessarily expensive. Read More »

San Francisco offers preview of Seattle’s $15/HR. ploy.

[Originally published by the American Spectator]


It is remarkable these days how quickly an idea, once resurrected by a spastic media, can move from the fringe into the mainstream. Formerly the utopian din exclusive to protesters swarming the nation’s Burger Kings and Pizza Huts, minimum wage reforms are now reality for some cities.

At the federal level, the debate has remained relatively moderate, with President Obama recently urging Congress to increase the wage to $10.10 an hour. But in cities, conversation has become action. Last November, Seatac, WA, became the first city to raise its minimum wage to $15, a seemingly radical move that was attributed to the region’s socialist rumblings. But the idea has spread in the half-year since. Two weeks ago, Seattle approved its own increase to $15. Days later the always struggling Bay Area city, Richmond, CA, approved a hike to $13. Similar raises are being weighed in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Thus, debates have resurfaced about the theoretical merits of raising the minimum wage, especially to those levels. But if officials want to see the actual consequences they should note one city where wage hikes have already occurred — San Francisco. Read More »

For decades, urban planners have preached mass transit as the key to economic mobility, but new studies show that improving access to cars may be the best way to help the poor. 

[Originally published by the Daily Beast]


Sometimes academic studies are good at officially validating what people already know intuitively. For Americans who wait through lengthy public transportation commutes, it’s common sense that owning a car would offer advantages. Now two recent studies show that cars offer more than just convenience: they can give lower income Americans an economic leg up.

A 2011 Brookings Institute study (PDF) found that in the 100 largest U.S. metro areas, only 22% of low- and middle-skill jobs were accessible by public transit in under 90 minutes, suggesting that today’s working-class riders cannot access needed opportunities. And a new study (PDF) released in March 2014 by the Urban Institute found that public transit access had little effect on economic outcomes. While tracking households that had participated in two federal housing voucher programs, it found that car owners were twice as likely as transit users to find jobs and four times likelier to retain them. Car-owning households were also able to locate near better neighborhoods and schools. This reaffirmed previous work by the Progressive Policy Institute arguing that car ownership plants the seeds for upward mobility.

Of course, these ideas can be challenging to urban planners, who cling to the default assumption that cities must improve mass transit to reduce poverty. If existing services remain inadequate, then planners use it as an argument for more funding. But what if some of the money went instead towards increasing automobile access? Would that not better help economic conditions for the poor? Read More »

[Originally published by Forbes]


In late April, President Obama took an executive action that had been ignored for a decade, and sent a surface transportation bill to Congress. The 4-year, $302 billion GROW AMERICA act would take numerous measures to shore up current transportation underfunding. There is much inside the bill that might be contentious for Republicans and Democrats, given their differing preferences on the proper federal role in transportation. But one provision should be broadly endorsed: lifting the interstate toll ban.

The act would allow states to toll their own stretches of interstate, something that has been forbidden for a century. This would let states finally explore an option that could ease congestion and increase revenue, while better enabling local autonomy. Read More »

New entertainment complex scheme comes to dying city. 

[Originally published by the American Spectator]


If one trend draws near-universal contempt from America’s urban commentariat, it is that declining cities still subsidize fancy developments to spur “revitalization.” For decades, publicly financed malls, stadiums, and convention centers have been built in cities from Stockton to Baltimore. These projects’ general failure to profit, much less boost their surroundings, raises the question of when they will finally be dismissed as growth strategies. Apparently, it won’t be in St. Louis.

After years of delay, the $100 million Ballpark Village has opened downtown. The large indoor entertainment complex, developed by Cordish Co., is a stereotypical booze haven featuring a retractable-roof concert space, and numerous upscale bars and restaurants. Future phases will include residential and office space, as part of a $650 million master-planned project.

The “village” is located across from the recently built Busch Stadium, and like the Cardinals’ baseball venue, has received substantial government favoritism. In 2012, a combined $17 million in state and local subsidies were approved for the project, under a tax increment financing deal that is to partly pay for itself through added tax revenue. This is a mere fraction of the $183.5 million in subsidies that the project could eventually receive, and complements the $143 million in anticipated tax breaks for Busch Stadium. Together, both projects are expected to transform St. Louis’ moribund downtown into a live work and play zone.

If Ballpark Village seems familiar, it is not just because it mirrors projects elsewhere, but is basically identical to one built recently on the other side of Missouri. Read More »

Urban America’s government-reform movement is now a conservative cause.

[Originally published by National Review]


To those well versed in modern urban American government, the resistance of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio to Success Academy must have felt familiar. Here was a charter-school network that had improved the outcomes of poor minority students, in some cases by 75 percent over similarly situated public schools, and the mayor nearly stopped its expansion before New York governor Andrew Cuomo intervened.

De Blasio’s move would have affected only several hundred children in one city, but it symbolized why government fails in big cities generally. In New York City, government unions protect inefficiencies in practically every service, not just education, and the problem is mirrored in cities nationwide.

Of course, this is nothing new. The greed and incompetence of big-city governments today are in fact reminiscent of New York City’s Tammany Hall and other industrial-era political machines.

What has changed is the face of reform. At the turn of the 20th century, urban machines were challenged by Progressives, elites who aimed to professionalize government. Ever since, like-minded “progressives” have achieved their goal only to create new machines themselves, transforming government into a white-collar enterprise polluted by complex legal protections and career bureaucrats like de Blasio.

The true urban reformers who combat them today are, ironically, a constituency that is still largely suburban: small-government conservatives. Read More »

[Originally published by the Atlantic Magazine]


This past February, while declaring that infrastructure shouldn’t be politicized, President Obama underscored its increasingly ideological nature in the United States. “Infrastructure shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” he said in front of a recently renovated St. Paul, Minnesota, train station. “Unfortunately, there have been some Republicans in Congress who refuse to act on common sense proposals.”

In theory, infrastructure is not partisan, since both parties agree that it is highly necessary, and severely under-maintained. The divide is over which level of government should operate it. Since 1956, when the federal highway fund was formed, building transportation infrastructure, in particular, has been mostly a federal task, funded at 80 percent levels by the federal gas tax. But recent estimates suggest that the fund could soon run out, prompting the President that day to propose a new $300 billion plan.

Republicans, however, have long wanted to reduce Washington’s role in transportation, most recently through a bill that would nearly repeal the gas tax. They argue that by collecting this revenue and redistributing it to the states, the federal government now functions as a wasteful bureaucratic top layer, and that if states could just keep the revenue, more would go towards actual construction. A closer look at existing federal policy strengthens their point. Read More »

A Congressional bill would kill the gas tax and remove Washington from transportation policy. 

[Originally published by Reason Magazine]


The notion that U.S. infrastructure is crumbling and underfunded has been common lately, and more such news came in February, when the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that the Federal Highway Trust Fund could soon run out. This spurred debate about what to do with the trust’s main funding source, the federal gas tax. Some legislators have long wanted to raise this tax, and President Obama recently proposed his own $302 billion funding plan. But one Congressman, Georgia Republican Tom Graves, has a better idea: nearly abolish the gas tax altogether.

Last November, Graves introduced the Transportation Empowerment Act, which was cosponsored through Senate legislation by Republican Mike Lee. By drastically reducing the tax, it would enable states to manage their own transportation policies, improving a process that has become massively inefficient under federal oversight. Read More »

Instead of protesting better private transportation for others, San Franciscans should demand improved public services.

[Originally published by the American Magazine]


Recent opposition to two new private transportation services in San Francisco illustrates the city’s growing class conflict. But rather than discouraging these alternatives, the city should bridge the gap by improving its public transportation.

Both Uber, a San Francisco-based start-up that offers paid ridesharing services, and the so-called “tech buses” — a fleet of double-deckers that Silicon Valley companies now use to transport their San Francisco employees — have faced roadblocks.

Uber, along with similar companies like Lyft and Sidecar, has been targeted by regulations that for years made its services illegal in San Francisco. Companies were recently required by the city to pay for their tech buses, a response to several anti-bus protests downtown and in the Mission District.

Some criticism of these private services has been valid, such as concerns about road safety and infrastructure use. But much of it seems simply to be because these services are superior to the city’s public transportation. Read More »