Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Wanted: A Stimulus Package For New Thinking

The Obama Administration’s poorly conceived and vaguely defined economic stimulus package shows signs of a much-needed fine tuning.

It’s high time, because the announcement that a pot of gold containing up to $1 trillion for “infrastructure projects” has done little but produce the most unimaginative, city-adverse proposals in memory.

Most are heavy on public works projects and light on public sense. It should be little surprise, since when you use terms like “shovel-ready projects,” you’re really asking for the usual suspects to ask for money for the usual projects – more and more lanes of asphalts for roads.

The Real Stimulus

It’s too bad, because the economic stimulus package should have actually stimulated some imaginative thinking by governments across the U.S., but instead, it’s become an inventory of the favorite projects of traffic engineers and public works directors. As our friend Jeff Speck pointed out in his presentation in Memphis last year, the first step in taking back a well-designed, connected and sustainable city is not to leave the quality of life to engineers.

So far, the economic stimulus has been sad news for cities, because at a time when the federal funds should be incentives for investing in the new economy, it’s likely that much of it will be spent chasing the old oil-dependent economy and growth patterns that have hollowed out Memphis and driven Shelby County Government to the brink of bankruptcy.

In other words, it would be the perfect time to invest in a green infrastructure, bike lanes and a technological grid that speaks to the realities of the future. Hopefully, the frustration recently shown by the new federal administration at the lack of imagination by local governments is prompting it to redefine its earlier broad statements so that the stimulus encourages more sustainable and more energy-efficient infrastructure.

The Right Path

After all, it shouldn’t be enough that the federal is aimed at putting to work. More to the point, it needs to be about creating the platform for the essential infrastructure for cities competing in a knowledge-based economy.

The hasty effort by the U.S. Conference of Mayors to put together a compendium of ready-to-go projects resulted in such an emphasis on more sprawl-inducing public works projects that it became the poster child for the missed opportunities of the stimulus package. It was a paragon of pork barrel thinking.

One local television station suggested that Memphis missed the boat by not submitting a list of these kinds of projects to the Conference of Mayors, but to the contrary, we think city and county governments deserve commendation for refusing to fall into the prevailing herd mentality and instead took a more deliberate, more strategic path.

Asking The Right Question

In other words, most governments have treated the stimulus funding as a way to transfer the cost of projects already in the pipeline from their government to the federal government. As a result, the emphasis seems to be on spending money fast rather than spending money smart.

Rather than ask, “How do we spend money as quickly as possible,” cities should be asking, “How do we reinvent the American infrastructure because this one is too expensive, too unsustainable and too uncompetitive?”

Of course, we’ve compounded these problems here by our obsession with paying people to love us in the form of tax freezes, by our lack of vision about workforce improvement and by our missed opportunities to build an economy on quality rather than cheapness.

Park The Pork

We’ve shown no interest in creating the kind of 21st century public transit system that is more and more a backbone for attracting and retaining highly-skilled workers. We’ve failed to develop early childhood interventions and the quality education system that prepare our children to compete in the global economy.

And, as we’ve written before, we’ve placed the financial rewards in our economy on people who can build incomprehensible schemes rather than people who build new technology and real products. Is it asking too much that this economic crisis should be the catalyst for getting our priorities straight?

We begin here by shifting our emphasis from pork projects to projects that increase productivity, inspire research and build a competitive workforce. There was a time when Memphis was known as a cauldron of imagination – both musically and entrepreneurially. We refuse to admit that these bursts of innovation were merely aberration and not an essential part of our local culture and character.

Principled Thinking

Recently, we asked the Sustainable Shelby working team what principles and goals are suggested by the 51 recommendations and 150 strategies of the initiative. Here’s what they said:


* Focus on projects that will spur local job growth by awarding contracts to local and minority owned businesses (multiplier effect).

* Focus on projects within areas with under utilized infrastructure in order to promote infill and reduce sprawl.

* Focus and prioritize projects that incorporate sustainable design principles, such as green building retrofits for schools and public buildings or using natural infrastructure in roadway design.

The Standards

Sustainable Stimulus Criteria:

Does the project .....

* reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled.

* promote infill development/discourage sprawl.

* promote alternate modes of transportation (BRT, Light rail, Trolley, Carpool, Carsharing).

* provide infrastructure that encourages biking and walking.

* locate infrastructure improvements near approved substantial infill development projects in an effort to add value to community redevelopment initiatives.

* encourage school and public building retrofits to include energy efficient and green building standards.

Yes, We Can

In the words of the Sustainable Shelby team, “the basic idea is that the projects selected/prioritized for the stimulus money should be those that help to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, revitalize our cities and provide good jobs to local workers.”

If only they had been advising the Obama Administration before it announced the stimulus package. In the end, the election of the president-elect was all about hope and a new era. That’s precisely why we can’t afford for his first major economic stimulus initiative to just be more of the same.


LaSalle City Engineer said...

While I agree with your comments about the need for our nation to embrace a new approach to our methods of transportation and energy, I do not believe that this should be hung on the back of the economic stimulus package.

From what I understand, this economic stimulus package has one primary purpose and that is to stimulate the economy by creating jobs, and the consensus is that this can best be done immediately by building public works projects. Those of us who work in the public works industry understand the impact this will have so it is no surprise to us that this approach has been chosen.

While all of your suggestions for a new way of thinking are admirable and something to which we should aspire, channeling these funds into building a new energy grid and building transit now will not create the much needed jobs immediately. If the plans were ready to go today, then I would say, yes, that is the best place to put the money.

But the fact is that most communities have much more pressing needs. Building the types of improvements you suggest will take years due to all the legal requirements for public hearings, studies, environmental testing, report preparation, and design to be finished. We simply do not have time to wait.

While I do not agree totally with the way the US Conference of Mayors has chosen to categorize the projects, if you look through them you will see that they are not pork barrel projects. The ones I looked at yesterday were for repairing broken and failed water and wastewater distribution systems. Many were for road repair. And while it is nice to hope someday we are not tied to a vehicle, the fact is our nation's economy is still based on the use of roads as a means of travel and movement of goods. Neglecting road repairs today simply because we someday want to have a better system is not a good decision.

I know with our community, the projects we submitted were for dealing with some of the unfunded federal mandates such as changing out all the street signs to comply with new reflectivity requirements and constructing a new wastewater plant to alleviate the load on our existing one and to address elimination of our combined sewer overflow system. We also submitted projects for road repairs because that is what our citizens have told us they want. We also have a water tower that has not been painted in over 30 years and is in dire need of repainting before it rusts out and fails.

That is just a sampling of the types of projects we submitted, and as I said, the others I checked were very similar. Agencies are simply trying to maintain the infrastructure needs they have to keep their community operating.

So yes, I do believe a new day is dawning where we need to embrace sustainability, new transportation and energy options, but this should be done under a separate program. The needs we have today need funding now, and the demand for jobs is now.

Thanks for the chance to give my opinion (which is solely my own and not necessarily that of my employer).

Anonymous said...

The problem with the "sustainability" agenda - mass transit, higher density, etc., is that there is no real evidence that people want to live that way. Whether you like it or not, people want a house with some land in the burbs. They don't want to live in walkups on top of each other; otherwise we'd all live in NYC. How many mass transit systems in this country are self-sustaining? And so if government is "by the people for the people" and the people don't want these things, what rational public servant is going to foist it on them? And on on what rational basis (other than the "I know what's good for so" basis) would that public servant justify using massive public funds to create a system that the people by and large do not want?

Anonymous said...

light rail to the airport from orange mound sounds like a fine exercise in 'green' to me.

so long as its a one way ticket.

Aaron said...

Places like SF or NYC have mass transit to outlying areas because there is no more living space in the city and it's costly for parking. We simply don't have the demand or need.

In SF, you take the BART because it's faster then driving and cheaper then paying $25.00. Try charging $25.00 for all parking in downtown Memphis. What would that look like?

packrat said...

What Memphis could use is a really robust and rider-friendly bus system that has logical and efficient routes. And it wouldn't cost nearly what some destined-to-be-a-white-elephant fixed rail "system" would.

Smart City Consulting said...

LaSalle City Engineer:

We'd say that it actually does little if it's creating jobs by spending money on the old economy and the same old infrastructure. There are ways for this money to be spent looking to the future instead of perpetuating past mistakes. If we must suffer through hard times, let it count for something substantive.

Smart City Consulting said...


By the way, thanks for sharing your opinion and weighing in on these questions. They are informative and helpful.

Anonymous 8:52:

There is much research that shows that there is movement away from the suburban lifestyle, especially the talent most coveted - 25-34 year-old, college-educated professionals - and especially because gas prices will start going up again. 25-34 year-olds have a definite propensity and a preference for living within 5 miles of the central city core, and that's why you are seeing cities like Atlanta doing what was thought to be unthinkable only a few years ago - the population inside the city limits is increasing.

The question is not whether mass transit is self-sustaining. After all, sprawl and greenfield suburban development isn't sustainable financially or ecologically. The half billion spent on TN 385 isn't financially or ecologically sustainable either. A successful city has a well-run transit system with broad appeal. It's part of the infrastructure for cities today that want to attract talent.

If people want a lifestyle that is unsustainable, it is not fair that Memphians - who have already paid once for their own infrastructure - have to pay for it again in areas that in essence contribute to their neighborhoods' own decline. For every development built in Shelby County, it is 15 years before the taxes on the residences offset the cost of the new infrastructure - which is why county government is almost bankrupt. That's why if people want to have that lifestyle, fine, but they need to accept more of the financial costs through impact fees or real estate transfer fees, at the very least.

antisocialist said...


Spending funds to repair a rusty old water tower is so last millennium. Instead, since we're spending other people's money, we should obviously use it to develop a fleet of shared "community cars" throughout the inner city.


With a deficit of $1.2 trillion, do you seriously believe that increased government spending on infrastructure, fair/sustainable or otherwise, will turn around this sunken economy?

If things were really fair, the Congress would reject this proposal because it is clearly unconstitutional and supremely unfair.

Anonymous said...

I pretty much agree with everything you said. But an emphasis on bike paths as a transportation mode in Memphis is unfeasible. If you've been in Memphis in August, you know it ain't Portland. August in Memphis runs from mid-May to mid-September, incidentally. And now it's too cold to commute by bike.

Commuting by bike will never be feasible in Memphis -- at best it would work a couple weeks in spring and a couple months in fall, and warm days in winter. Meaning it will never be a widespread transportation mode.

Bike lanes for pleasure riding? Yes, definitely. For commuting? Get back with me on that next August. Which starts in May.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


LaSalle City Engineer said...


I can't stand the thought of paying $750,000 to paint a water tower either, and I hate even more spending the money to build new ones.

But the people in our city want to have water come out of their faucets each day at a decent pressure, and our fire department demands they have water and proper pressure to put out fires. (Actually everyone's insurance rates would go up drastically if the water tower was not there to provide the water at a certain pressure.)

So until someone invents a better & cheaper alternative to providing water to our citizens, we, unfortunately, have to keep taking care of that old water tower.

antisocialist said...


Maybe you missed my sarcasm with respect to the water tower. If you're community becomes the beneficiary of public funds for infrastructure, you ought to be able to spend it on a water tower that is a health and safety concern and a high priority in the community. That seems more "fair" than spending it on some bike paths a couple of people will use for commuting, for example, just because some smarter-than-everyone-else socialist thinks a bike path is a good idea.

LaSalle City Engineer said...


Yes, you are right - sorry about missing that. :-)

Midtowner said...

I have a little bit of a dilemma here.

When you scoff at the term "shovel-ready projects", I'm not sure whether you truly grasp that Keynesian economics doesn't work and therefore you're wanting to use the money for long-term projects ...


You're ignoring the fact that the money is supposed to be used to shorten or end the recession and you're willing to prolong the recession in order to pay for your own pork projects.

After all, any project that isn't "shovel-ready" would take waaayy tooo long to go thru the bureaucratic process of planning and environmental studies before the money would actually hit the economy. The recession would, hopefully, be over by that time and thus the "stimulus" would not be needed.

Don't worry, you aren't the only one lined up at the feeding trough using the word of the day ... "stimulate". From High Speed Rail supporters in California to the Mars Society, everyone is claiming how their pet projects will "stimulate" the economy and provide much needed long-term structural support and benefits. The problem is that none of them are "shovel-ready" right now so they, including you, are crying, 'Foul!"

Whine, whine, sniffle, sniffle, "But our projects are much more important than some "shovel-ready" road or bridge!"

So back to my original dilemma. I'm not sure whether you know in your heart of hearts that a "stimulus" for the purpose of shortening or ending a recession is a waste of time and money so you want to use the money other projects OR if you do believe that gov't spending can lift the economy out of a recession but willing to prolong the economic downturn in order to spend the money on your pet projects. You can't have it both ways. You know that any project that isn't "shovel ready" will be too late to "stimulate" the economy during the recession.

Oh, and BTW, if Jeff Speck did say that about engineers, then he is an idiot and I'd be more than happy to say that to his face. I'm not usually so blunt and I usually avoid personal attacks, but think about it. Who is going to build your utopian society? Who is going to construct that "quality of life" for you? That's right, it will be an engineer. Don't blame the engineer for building what the politicians wants on a shoestring budget. In essence, you get what you pay for.

You elected a demopublican ... and you really expect things to be so different?

Smart City Consulting said...


Thanks for your comments.

We'd like to respond, but we so fundamentally disagree with everything you've said, we'll just leave it that differences of opinions are what democracy is all about.

The only response we'll make is that if Jeff Speck is an idiot - despite his books, his influence on New Urbanism and his time as director of design at National Endowment of the Arts - we need more idiots. The sprawl draining the life from our cities and our budgets and raising our taxes and the cost of doing business are not merely lifestyle differences. They are the fundamental kind of places that engineers have set out to make, and that alone is testament to the foolishness of leaving city design to just that profession as we have done here for decades. We now pay the price.

Anonymous said...

The last comment and bullet point in your lists should come first, everything else can be fueled by that.
The rest are ideals that are epensive as things are now, but, if you do get Government utility bills off our backs, it's a LOT more affordable.
Seems like that Zippy poster used to say it a lot.
Iran is taking over the middle east with free energy and if we go to war with them, it's going to be their free energy that will sustain them.
We need even "free-er" energy. Wind powered. Not those big clunky windfarm things that are a cover for the next round of government sponsored natural gas cartel's extortion, but vertical axis wind and roof mounted units that will really power city hall+.

Antisocialist said...


SCC's fundamental disagreement "with everything you've said" suggests they do not grasp that Keynesian economics doesn't work. They claim they'd like to respond, but choose to "leave it that differences of opinions are what democracy is all about." Since they cannot refute that Keynesian economics doesn't work, they can't muster a substantive response.

SCC is wrong. Adam smith says so.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, don't you just "hope" there is "change".
You'll be hoping for change in your pocket if waiting on change is the new game in urban renewal.
Better off waiting on a bus to go to McDonalds.

LaSalle City Engineer said...


I came across this blog today and thought you might be interested in seeing it, if you haven't already. It's a fairly comprehensive discussion of the economics of this situation.

Anonymous said...

Midtowner and antisocialist are trapped in a time warp quoting theories and economists when the day to day work shows that other ways do indeed work. Would you guys read Thomas Friedman's column in the new york times yesterday? It's not about shovel ready projects. It's about projects that do really act as a stimulus for a new economy and new jobs that move us from our same old unsustainable lifestyles and growth.

To simply quote your favorite economists as a kneejerk way to justify why things can't work and to justify your already preconceived opinions is a cop-out. You guys can always think of a million reasons why everybody else is wrong and only you are right. How about an open mind for a change?

Smart City Consulting said...


Glad to have you aboard and thanks for your first comment.


Rather than both of us quoting our favorite economists and social scientists, we'd rather concentrate on the new momentum for change and new thinking that can get this country back in the right direction. Surely, we do not disagree that the policies of the past eight years have been disastrous and we need something fundamentally different to turn things around.

As you know, this blog is a corporate one, so we apologize if not taking the time to debate economic theory was interpreted as a lack of confidence in your opinion or lack of interest in yours. We appreciate your comments, and thank you for them.

We just see the world differently, and as a result, we see solutions differently and we see them working in other cities. But we welcome your differing points of view.

Smart City Consulting said...


Here's the link to the Friedman column that was referred to by anonymous:

Midtowner said...

SCC, actually I wasn't trying to draw you into an economic debate. I'm sure you're a Keynesian. And we can agree to disagree.

But I was agreeing with the essence of LaSalle's post in that a "stimulus" needs to be for shovel-ready projects if it is to do any good for the recession.

Your idea of the word "stimulus" appears to be in an entirely different sense. You want to "stimulate" the economy to move in a different direction which is a long-term project not a short term one to reduce or reverse the recession.

You and Obama just aren't on the same page as to the meaning of the word "stimulus".

As for my meaning of "stimulus" by the gov't, you could substitute more honest words like "borrow" or "print" or "debt" for stimulate or stimulus.

Try "The government plans to borrow another $700 billion for the economy."

"The administration will print another $700 billion to jumpstart the economy."

As for Jeff Speck, I don't care how many books or articles he's written. A statement like he made shows a real lack of understanding (and that's the kind way to say it). It will be the engineers who build your quality of life so you should be nice to them rather than giving them such a back-handed insult.

Antisocialist said...

For a moment, I thought y'all were talking about Milton Friedman.

I knew deep down that was unpossible.

Smart City Consulting said...


Thanks for the follow-up. We just disagree on the role of engineers. They should be given their chores after there is a clear vision of what a city's quality of life should be and what the vision for the future is. Instead, we have turned them loose to build roads and fuel sprawl that works to the detriment of the community and to public budgets.

For example, Shelby County Government this year is paying $180 million in debt payments for this kind of thinking. It's engineers' jobs to build what we see as essential to our infrastructure, not to decide that the paramount priority for our city is a road network that means that Memphians pay for their own infrastucture and then pay again for infrastructure in sprawling areas that they never visit.

It's just a question of roles for us, and engineers should not be the arbiters of our quality of life. When they are, we get things like the bridge over Walnut Grove Road into Shelby Farms Park that doesn't even have bike lanes and pedestrian lanes.

We don't have any problem calling borrowing what it is and debt what it is. It just seems that the option is to retool our economy or sink deeper into a recession that lingers for years. We just don't think there's a choice (although we'd be more skeptical about bailing our car manufacturers and bankers).

LaSalle City Engineer said...

I have to echo Midtowners comments about engineers. Engineers are only designing and building the projects they are told to build and design by either the politicians or by their private clients.

In either case, engineers also must create a design that meets the policies and regulations and funding levels established by the local politicians or the budgets of their client.

Usually large public projects cannot be built without a public hearing so if there are projects in your area with which the public disagrees, the public needs to either contact their elected officials or attend public hearings so their opinions are heard during the planning process.

We were fortunate in our city that our local biking community was active and helped prepare a bicycle plan for the city that the council ended up adopting. That plan now helps to make sure bike paths are addressed in each project located along the identified bike routes.

Thanks again for the chance to express my thoughts. And again, the opinions expressed by me are my own, and not those of my employer.

Smart City Consulting said...


We need to recruit you to Memphis, because that's definitely not how it works here. The combination of developer influence, the compulsion to build more lanes of highways, and public incentives to sprawl are deadly.

Smart City Consulting said...


By the way, if you have something about a process to bring the voices of the biking community into the discussions, it would be welcome here. That community has been routinely frozen out for years, as have the environmental groups.

LaSalle City Engineer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LaSalle City Engineer said...

There are usually several routes you can go to make sure you have input into projects. Usually the first item of business is to identify the "stakeholders" who are interested in the issue. In this case it could be a local bicycle group, walking or trails group, recreational and environmental groups. Sometimes schools can also be stakeholders.

Then it helps to collect the information already in place. I went to the engineering website for the city and found a comprehensive and impressive manual on bicycle design and standards for your city. (

When your group identifies its goals and priorities and compiles its comments on the existing policies, you could contact the engineering department to set up a meeting between them and the stakeholders. The engineering department can be a great resource for finding out how to best proceed in your particular city. Also ask them if there are committees set up to oversee bikes/peds. You might at some point want to petition to address your city council and ask them to consider your input.

The other key piece of information that might help is that all state-funded transportation projects must follow CSS or context sensitive solutions. Here are some links to get more info about that process:
That process definitely allows for public input. Also the "PLAN GO" link takes you to a site with another link to the state's bike plan which also looks like a great resource.

Thanks again!

Smart City Consulting said...


Anytime you want to guest blog here, consider yourself invited.

We've just put our toe into the context sensitive design pond, and we have one road project here through a 4,500 acre park that was the first in this part of the state. We're still not clear how committed the state is to this principle, and we fear that it will get very weak after the departure of our present commissioner of transportation.

But your points are excellent, and we thank you for taking the time to make them.

(We're serious about guest blogging.)

Midtowner said...

Again I'm agreeing with LaSalle. I went to numerous meetings about the new bridge and construction leading into Shelby Farms. The engineers themselves didn't have a problem with putting in bike paths it was the directives from higher up that was the problem.

And I don't oppose a "green economy"; sometimes I oppose the reasoning or methods of getting us there.

For instance, I think that the calls for a "Manhatten Project" for solar power will turn into nothing but a boondoggle ... Great progress is being made on solar power without the expense of a "Manhatten Project".

I think some are about to be the victims of their own success, the rapid recent improvements in batteries will lead to an affordable plug-in hybrid which, in turn, will allow suburbia to continue to grow.

I think it's not too bright for Memphis to support building roads to suburbia and then act surprised when people use them to move out.

I read Friedman's column. I was underimpressed. I did find his proposal for eliminating the income tax for teachers (of course his wife is a teacher) interesting. Not because I believe teachers to be underpaid (see "Ten Myths in America: ). But I'd be all for eliminating incomes taxes even if I'm not a teacher.

LaSalle, I read the Becker and Posner columns. Interesting reads. Thanks for pointing me there.

LaSalle City Engineer said...

You honor me too much with your invitation, and it is much appreciated. Just let me know anytime. Also, thanks to everyone for tolerating comments from an "outsider."

Anonymous said...

Its will be really green city ..after they bulldoze it to the ground.
thanks for sharing
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