Category Archives: Fiscal policy

A few transportation policy updates

The theme of the day is state and local transportation policy, specifically focusing on roads, cars, and bikes.

STATE POLICY:

First, Todd Scott at M-Bike.org alerts cyclists to a couple of poorly conceived bills introduced in Michigan’s Republican-controlled state House:

First, House Bill 5300 would transfer funding from the current Michigan Transportation Fund (MTF) to the Commercial Corridor Fund (CCF) over an 8 year period. The MTF and CCF distribute funds to counties, cities, and villages. The MTF requires 1% of the funding to be spent on non-motorized facilities like bike lanes and sidewalks. The CCF has no such requirement.

So rather than remove the 1% requirement in law, legislators are simply creating a new fund without the requirement and shifting the money… (I)t has been a long standing goal of the County Road Association of Michigan to remove this requirement.

Todd writes of the second bill,

The current road funding is generally distributed based on the miles of roads. House Bill 5303 would change that to distribute funding based on motor vehicle miles traveled or VMT.

Counties and cities that require people to drive more and longer distances will be rewarded. There will be a financial disincentive for counties and cities to promote public transit, biking and walking as they’ll receive less money.

Forecasts from MDOT show the city of Detroit would see some devastating funding cuts as a result… The City has already testified against this change.

Ironically enough, the bill’s sponsor is former City Councilwoman Alberta Tinsley-Talabi.

I’m less than surprised than Todd about Rep. Tinsley-Talabi, who was one of Kwame Kilpatrick’s reliable supporters and, along with Martha Reeves & Barbara-Rose Collins, one of the dimmer bulbs when she served on the City Council.

Todd concludes,

We recommend you contact your state representative and state senator to let them know you oppose removing the 1% requirement and oppose distributing road funds according to vehicle miles traveled.

These bills have been out for more than a couple months now. We can’t afford to keep sitting on the sidelines.

ANN ARBOR:

Turning to local politics, Ann Arbor city councilman Mike Anglin notably dissented from his colleagues on two automotive-related votes at Monday’s city council meeting.

According to the Ann Arbor Chronicle, he was joined only by Councilwoman Jane Lumm on one, “a request to the Michigan Dept. of Transportation to convert the segment of Jackson Road between Maple Road and South Revena from four traffic lanes to three”:

Benefits of the lane conversion cited in a staff memo accompanying the resolution include: (1) safe deceleration in the middle lane for left turns; (2) elimination of lane weaving; (3) uniform speeds and the resultant traffic-calming effect; (4) reduction in number and severity of crashes in a number of categories; (5) potential extra width for bicycle lanes; and (6) potential creation of additional marked pedestrian crossings.

The memo mentions several successful 4-to-3 lane conversions in Ann Arbor: South Main (Ann-Arbor Saline to Eisenhower); Platt (Packard to Ellsworth); Packard (Stadium to Jewett); Huron Parkway (Nixon to Plymouth); West Stadium Boulevard (Seventh to Pauline); and Green (Plymouth to Glazier Way).

In the second, he was alone in voting no on a change to downtown parking regulation:

At its April 2, 2012 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council approved the policy by which the minimum required parking component of developments in the downtown D1 and D2 zoning districts can be satisfied off-site from the development. The city is using the acronym CIL for “contribution in lieu” to describe the option. The idea could be familiar to some readers as PILOP, or “payment in lieu of parking.” The sole vote against the resolution came from Mike Anglin (Ward 5).

If not provided on-site, the policy allows some of the minimum required parking spaces to be provided with one of two basic strategies: (1) commit to a 15-year contract with the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to purchase monthly permits in the public parking system at a rate 20% greater than the ordinary price; or (2) pay $55,000 up front before a certificate of occupancy is issued. [.pdf of parking payment in lieu policy]

From my perspective the ideal reform would be to eliminate the outdated and wasteful minimum parking requirements altogether.  While I’d like to think that was the motivation behind Mr. Anglin’s “nay” vote, his vote against the Jackson road diet suggests a rather old-fashioned protectiveness toward the perceived interests of motorists.  We’ll have to wait for the Chronicle’s full report to fully ascertain his calculus, however.  In the meantime, I’d like to recognize my own Ward 3 council reps, Stephen Kunselman & Christopher Taylor, for what seem like prudent votes on both these proposals.

Apocalypse temporarily averted

It wouldn’t be Detroit if they didn’t all wait til the last possible minute to  do what had to be done.  A new era dawns?

Why Michigan’s roads suck

According to a Free Press/WXYZ-TV poll last week, 58% of Michiganders would rather continue whining about their roads than fixing them.  I don’t find this terribly surprising.

It is conventional wisdom in Michigan that the condition of our roads is among the country’s worst.   I’ve read a number of different theories for why this may be.  One is that we have unusually high weight limits for trucks.  Another is the freeze-thaw cycle that results from our harsh winters.  Another is American road construction standards, which generate cheaper bills but demand more frequent repairs.  Presumably each of these factors contributes to our bumpy rides, to some extent.

What I almost never hear cited as a factor is how incredibly overbuilt Michigan is.  (Credit due to Urbanophile, who has written at length about this phenomenon elsewhere in the country, and Charles Marohn, whose theory of the “growth Ponzi scheme” I’ve praised.)  And by Michigan I primarily mean metro Detroit,  with Genesee and Saginaw counties also shouldering significant amounts of blame.  Is it any coincidence that these areas also have some of the most segregated populations, auto-centric layouts, depressed home values, and dysfunctional inner cities in the entire country? The Detroit, Flint and Saginaw metropolitan areas are the poster children for autocentric sprawl, and have reaped their just desserts for it. Among the consequences of the sprawl is that, of course, we can’t afford to pay to maintain the countless miles of asphalt laid to service it.  And MDOT, unbelievably, responds to this situation by proposing expansion projects like adding lanes to I-94 in the city of Detroit.  You can’t blame respondents to the Free Press poll for thinking that the last thing we need to do is throw more money at the imbeciles running our state’s transportation policy.

In the spirit of problem-solving, here’s my proposal to help solve two problems at once:  our threadbare roads and our decimated industrial inner cities.   Restrict all state dollars allocated toward road construction and maintenance to the oldest paved segments.  Earmark the majority of road dollars toward the core streets that serviced central cities and inner suburbs before, say, World War II, giving an edge to fiscally struggling older communities across the state like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ypsilanti, Pontiac, and Saginaw, as well as dense and walkable older communities like Plymouth, Rochester or Brighton.

This will never happen, of course, because Michiganders continue to overwhelmingly choose exurban isolation over city life, and dependency on car travel to the exclusion of any other form of transit.  They will continue to do so, even as the roads they travel disintegrate to rubble and eventually, one by one, revert to gravel.  They will continue to lament the potholes and the flat tires because they’d rather complain than pay a nickel more in gas taxes.   Their leaders will continue to subsidize greenfield development over infill, convinced that for their particular community at least the bill will never come due.

It’s the Michigan way.

PS 2-8-12:  I also want to make it clear that I think the proposal, introduced by State Sen. Howard Walker, to scrap the state’s gas tax in favor of paying for roads with a sales tax increase is insane.  The gas tax should be increased, not scrapped, and we should not be shifting the burden of paying for roads from heavy users (people who drive a lot) to light users (people who bike, walk, carpool or ride the bus).   This bill idea deserves to die.

Governance in Detroit

The Dave Bing honeymoon is definitely over.  The Detroit area media have been beating up on the Mayor a lot lately, and for good reason.  Among his troubles:

  • High turnover among key personnel, including Deputy Mayor Saul Green, much of it blamed on Karen Dumas.
  • Bad messaging which, again, has been laid in part at Dumas’ feet.  The Mayor hasn’t helped himself with his recent whining about the business community, either.
  • Mismanagement of the police department, namely the scandal surrounding DPD’s crime lab.  Since the mayor fired former police chief Warren Evans last year, it’s hard for him to dismiss Evans’ replacement Ralph Godbee, even though Godbee deserves the same fate.  If you ask me, Godbee was more egregious in his failing than Evans, whose main sin was to piss off Bing by catching him blindsided with his media whoring.
  • There’s also been high-level scandals about spending in departments including Public Health, Human Services, & the library system.  The latter, of course, isn’t under the mayor’s purview.  Let’s set aside the fact that Detroit should not even have its own department of public health.  And I’m skeptical that the city should have any staff or budget for human services beyond the minimum required to facilitate the dispersal of state and federal grant dollars to nonprofits where needed (and even that provides ample opportunities for corruption).
  • Battles over the budget with City Council.  This is where Bing is at his most mystifying.  The corruption scandals in the health and human services departments provide the perfect excuse to slash them, if not shut them down outright.  And yet the mayor is keeping them intact, as well as subsidies to various museums including the DIA and the Wright Museum, while threatening cuts to police staffing.  This is nuts.  Public safety is the absolute last thing the mayor should be cutting if he wants to keep residents and businesses in the city.

But in another way, it’s a good sign these issues are dominating the headlines.  It means that they are finally getting around to more of the corruption that has been happening under the radar during the Kilpatrick administration.  When Kilpatrick and Christine Beatty were in the Mayor’s office, and Monica Conyers was president of City Council, with Barbara-Rose Collins, Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, and Martha Reeves as her merry band of fools, the Detroit papers were too busy covering their blatant idiocy, incompetence, and criminality to allocate much in the way of investigative resources to anything else.  Now that both the mayor’s office and city council are occupied by officials who are without question both more intelligent and more responsible, the papers have to dig a little deeper to find juicy leads.

And it is another sign that the seemingly inexorable decline in Detroit’s standards and expectations of its ruling class has finally reversed itself.  Those standards and expectations bottomed out around 2005, when Detroit voters re-elected Kilpatrick as well as the infamous slate of council members that presided over his second term.  I decided to leave Detroit to go back to school in Ann Arbor at the very lowest point, in early 2008, when both MonCon & Kilpatrick had been charged with numerous felonies, but had yet to be compelled to resign their positions.  Not only did it disturb me that my elected officials might be crooks, as was becoming increasingly apparent.  What was more demoralizing was to realize that a majority of my fellow residents, or at least those who bothered to turn out for elections, were being played for fools, and were either too stupid to see it, or in too much denial to admit it.  Choosing to live in Detroit requires all kinds of sacrifices.  It’s hard enough to make those sacrifices when you at least have competent and honest leaders setting the example; but when you don’t even have that, why bother?

It’s fair to assume that most of the city’s population loss in the 2000s happened during the Kilpatrick administration.  Crime, economic opportunities, and bad schools all played a role in these individual decisions either to leave or — just as importantly — not to move in.  Those were the factors that got a lot of attention in the aftermath of the Census release this spring.  In the rush to identify the causes of the city’s 27% population loss, everybody seemed to have forgotten that that for most of the decade, it was run by people who were generally acknowledged, by everyone except Detroit voters, to be crooks and nitwits.  In spring 2008 Detroit was seen by the rest of the country as a laughingstock; in spring 2011 it is given respect as a tragic parable, having recovered much of its dignity through its steps toward reform.

(Note that Detroit’s population decline is not simply a result of people leaving, but of others choosing not to come.  We forget this a lot.  Indeed, it’s likely that disproportionately more people left the city at the end of the decade, having lost their homes in the foreclosure crisis, freeing homeowners to make a move to the suburbs they might have been considering for years before.  On the flip side, we could have a greater influx than before as well, of people who might have considered Detroit previously, but who were discouraged by the corruption and toxic politics in the years prior to the 2009 elections.  While I don’t have numbers to back these hypotheses, I offer them as a reminder of how migration is lumpier, multivariate, and more complex than media analysis often allows.)

I applaud that the Free Press, the Detroit News, the Metro Times, and other news organizations continue to hold the mayor’s feet to the fire, no matter who is in office.  They shouldn’t give him a free pass.  But it’s near-miraculous to see how far Detroit has come in terms of governance in only three short years.  Let’s take solace where we can and give credit where it’s due.  Let’s remember population numbers and budget shortfalls are lagging indicators.  The soul-searching of spring 2011 follows as a consequence of voters’ poor decisions at the ballot box in 2001 and 2005.   I am cautiously optimistic that the common sense voters showed in 2009, and the better performance of Detroit’s officials since then, will reap benefits in Detroit’s American Community Survey results in the 2010s.

L. Brooks Patterson and the love of sprawl

Good morning y’all, I have a new post over at TheDetroiter.com that you should check out.  Leave a comment either here or at the Detroiter and let me know if I got it right or if I’m missing something.

In which I balance the budget

Don’t like the Governor’s budget proposal?  Try your hand at balancing the state budget.

The Free Press’ Stephen Henderson did.

And so did I.  (Click the image below to see the details in full size.)

My budget

My budget

The Snyder Budget IV: Tax credits

Lessenbury discusses the reaction to another one of the Snyder budget’s unpopular cuts — the elimination of the film tax credits:

The howling began immediately, some of it less dignified than the rest. Starting at the bottom, Mitch Albom, who wants more of his cloying books made into movies, emitted a protracted whine about the film credits in the Sunday Gannett paper. “As a person who helped create the film credits program, I asked for months to meet with Snyder,” he huffed.

The governor, evidently not knowing that Mitch was a Very Important Person, kept him waiting until two weeks ago, the churl. When the governor didn’t do what Mitch wanted, Albom wrote that he felt like he’d “been punched in the stomach.” No five friends in heaven waiting for Rick Snyder, no siree!

As Nolan Finley asked last week:

How can he justify spending $160 million on a Hollywood giveaway while asking senior citizens, middle class families and public workers to sacrifice?

Moreover, he argued,

If we really believed that the subsidies would serve to build a movie-making infrastructure that would ultimately be self-sustaining, that would cast them in a different light. But the experience of other states suggests that when the subsidies are reduced or ended, the film makers jump to another state.

Perhaps realizing that the administration is still at risk of losing the messaging battle, the Governor’s budget director John Nixon reiterated the case against the cuts in an editorial in today’s Free Press:

Our current mechanism is nothing more than a subsidy by which the state writes a check for 42% of the cost of the film project with almost no return on investment to the state coffers.

Furthermore, there are no limits to the number of films or the number of checks we write. If a producer spends $100 million on a film in Michigan, we would be forced to write them a check for $42 million. Michigan simply can’t afford this…

(W)hat state services are taxpayers willing to cut in order to fund the movie business?

…(W)hile economic activity is generated, the film industry doesn’t give the state coffers a return on investment, the industry does not create sustainable jobs for the long term, and the cost for the long-term jobs that it does create is quite high.

In case you still think we need to preserve these subsidies, the Governor brings up another point in his his interview with the Detroit News.  It’s one which, based on their reactions to ‘Detroit 187′, might register with Detroit City Council:

(N)ot all of the productions made in Michigan necessarily cast the Great Lakes State in the best light.

Snyder pointed to Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” as an example: “Watching someone being shot down in a front yard is not necessarily the image I would like for our state.”

While the film lobby has received the most attention, there’s been plenty of pushback regarding the proposal to cut the rest of the state’s business tax incentives as well.  Writing for AnnArbor.com, Rick Haglund cites, as evidence in favour of keeping tax incentives, former Governor Engler’s reversal of his earlier position on tax credits, due to loss of the GM Willow Run plant in 1992. A shrewd commenter points out that, if anything, this example undermines his argument:

All one needs to do is look at GM, Ford, and Chrysler to see if tax incentives work.  All three receive huge incentives and tax abatements from the State of Michigan. None of these companies are adding jobs and any rate that is significant even after chalking up huge profits.

Ultimately, I think advocates for the film subsidies and other business tax credits are going to lose the fight, simply because there are competing with so many other constituencies that are either more influential (the business lobby that wants its overall tax rate lowered, the army of politically powerful retirees who will fight to the very death to keep from having to pay their share of income tax) or can demonstrate more compelling need (the advocates for the working poor trying to preserve the EITC; the education advocates trying to maintain school funding; the municipalities that will be driven into financial distress if statutory revenue sharing is cut).

And that is how it should be.  As Finley argues: ‘Buying jobs is not a healthy economic model.’