Guest blogger David Ludescher: Bike Paths, Parking Lots, and Skate Board Parks – Wise Uses of Public Money?

I have been a member of the Mayor’s Streetscape Task Force Streetscape Task force since it was formed by Mayor Lansing.  Why Mayor Rossing was foolish enough to invite me to re-join and why I was foolish enough to accept are separate questions from my questions to the readers today. By way of background, the City of Northfield currently has $1,2000.00 of property taxes that are set aside.  To assist the City Council in determining how to allocate these funds, a Streetscape Committee has been formed.  (continued)While the body has no legislative authority, the Mayor has indicated that the City Council will be use the committee’s recommendations, together with staff recommendations, to decide the most reasonable and prudent use of this money.

Having served on this committee before, it was my impression that the committee had no decision making rubric.  As an example, I had objected to the expenditure of approximately $500,000.00 to reconstruct and redesign the Water Street parking lot near the post office because the project lacked merit.  Obviously, my vote did not carry the day, and that project was completed.

We are now deciding how to spend the $1,200,000.00.  I proposed at the last Streetscape meeting that, at the very least, we had to develop a decision-making rubric.  The discussion left me frustrated and bewildered.  The only discernable methodology I could determine was to vote.

Having been raised as a farmer, trained as a computer scientist, and practicing as a lawyer, I have never been particularly enamored with voting  as a decision-making methodology.  It is my belief that a consultive body has to articulate and particularize its rationales to measure both value and results.

So, I am asking for your help.  For example, how do we measure whether or not a $600,000.00 skateboard park is a good value?  How do we move past the political rhetoric of being for or against kids?  How do we determine whether it is worth $240,000.00 to have 600 feet of bike trail?  How do we decide if we should build a new $10,000,000.00 police and fire facility, as opposed to remodeling the one we currently have, without the discussion devolving into what one commentator described as Umbrage Politics?

I posed these questions to my family at suppertime.  The results there were not encouraging.  My daughter, who is 17, suggested that I simply quit.  Her observation was similar to most Chamber members’ observation, which is:   People in and around Northfield (and people in general) are not interested in good policymaking; they are more interested in their pet projects.  In a community like Northfield, policy-making generally devolves into liberal causes, regardless of value or cost.  (My daughter also commented that perhaps I should vote against the bike trail expenditure so the money could go back to the school.  She reasoned that if that happened, she would not have to share textbooks.)

I would like to prove my daughter wrong about dropping out.  I am absolutely convinced that we can make a decision-making process for public officials in Northfield that avoids the extreme partisanship that dominates politics today.  I would like to echo President Obama in stating that the real question is not between liberal and conservative; the question is between those ideas that have value and those that do not.  I have some ideas; but I would like to hear yours.

Update 10/6, 6pm: Here’s a letter and decision making matrix that I have sent to the Streetscape Taskforce.

146 thoughts on “Guest blogger David Ludescher: Bike Paths, Parking Lots, and Skate Board Parks – Wise Uses of Public Money?”

  1. David,
    As we have your costs above for the Water Street parking lot, …what are/were then the benfits of redesigning and reconstructing the Water Street parking lot and adjacent area?

    1. David,

      Either you’re being stubbornly hyperbolic about not seeing (appreciating) the changes to the Water Street parking lot, or you truly don’t see a difference.

      If the former, then perhaps you can’t be the kind of open-minded citizen we need serving on a public advisory body, and you ought to consider resigning the post. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be divergent points of view on the taskforce, but someone who annnounces that he can’t see the other side of an issue is not likely to be able to help find satisfying compromises to difficult choices.

      If the latter, you certainly aren’t the person who should be serving on a taskforce whose charge explicitly includes the aesthetics of downtown, among other considerations. I wouldn’t ask a colorblind friend to help pick colors when we’re painting the house, and perhaps we shouldn’t ask you to imagine how much better something might look when all you can see is bare concrete.

    2. Randy: I don’t see much of a difference. In functionality, it is almost identical. It is still primarily a parking lot with a road through the middle. We used to have a sidewalk and rocks. Now, we have a wide sidewalk, a sculpture, a kiosk and some steps (and that ugly green fence that dominates the riverbank).

      Aesthetically, it is more pleasing. The kiosk is nice; the entrance on both ends has a better feel; the sculpture is great.

      I would submit that I am at least trying to see the other side of the issue. I am trying to find $500,000 of value. I think we agree that the value is not there in “function”. To me, aesthetics just don’t have that much value.

      Maybe you could tell me (and Peter) how you arrived at the conclusion that it is worth the money. The rest of the Committee seems to agree with you. But, they haven’t articulated their reasoning in a method that we can transfer to the next expenditure. (In my opinion, it is the Hug, Vote, Hug method of decision-making. If we feel better when we are done, then we must have made the right decision.)

      We should be able to articulate our methodology in such a way that that same reasoning can apply to the bike trail, or any other expenditure. Without a consistent methodology we aren’t being rational.

      Perhaps I just have a different perspective on government spending that is ill-suited to this Committee. Cost, functionality and value aren’t high priorities on this committee. So, perhaps I am both stubborn and blind to the other side. I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t cost be the single most important factor? Why shouldn’t value be measured by function? When are we just putting lipstick on a pig?

    3. David,

      I guess you aren’t just being rhetorically obstinate. You really don’t seem to get the very idea of using public infrastructure to enhance the experience of downtown.

      No, I don’t agree with your comments in 51.3 that the “value” is not there in function. The new riverfront is functionally superior to the old parking lot. The only similarities are the transportation functions of that area: xx parking spots and a public thoroughfare. The most substantive change is in the character of our use of the river. Previously there was no (zero, zip zilch) attention drawn to the river, and the previous sidewalk did nothing to encourage anyone to linger and enjoy downtown. In opening up a promenade, providing safe and attractive access to the river, building in benches and seating areas, we’ve actually created an invitation to downtown that did not previously exist.

      Peter’s question about how we are/are not using this area as our gateway is a good one. As I understood it from some of the presentations at taskforce meetings, one of the most limiting constraints on the design of the project was the parking parameter. At at least a couple of the meetings there was conversation about alternatives that would reduce the amount of pavement and parking. Those were non-starters. The downtown business folks, very understandably, wanted parking. They got it, plus everyone in the community — and visitors to it — got an inviting riverfront.

      Clearly you don’t think this was worth the investment. I’ve heard you. But as has been rebutted in comments above, your definitions of functionality and “value” are no less subjective than anyone else’s. Literally the only things we can agree on are the actual amount spent on the project and the fact that the money came from a restricted, tax-increment funding mechanism. That’s it. Everything else is your value system versus mine or anyone else’s. The point of having differing points of view on a taskforce is to forge compromises that best serve the community as a whole. No one person will get everything, or even anything, he or she wants.

      So, I ask my rhetorical question again: having agreed to be part of an open and transparent public process, why do you feel no obligation to respect the result of that process, if it doesn’t go your way? I really want to know how you feel about this, because if there isn’t some sort of social obligation to honor and support the result of a fair process or an honest vote, then I think governance in this community is in real trouble.

    4. Randy,
      Perhaps others may not see it the way I do, which is fine, and perhaps it is as you state; a compromise between wanting more spaces and enhancing the river walk experience. Both good goals that were achieved. But at what cost?

      So this is an after the fact statement, I think there are substantive differences between the before and after functioning of the parking area and street. Before, we had a separate street from the parking area making it safer and practical from a circulation perspective for both motorized and non-motorized traffic.

      I suppose the question for me is: was the parking space question ever objectively analyzed to demonstrate the need versus the cost? Or was it just said, we now have X more spaces I the new design so therefore there is a benefit?

      I saw no such analysis and the issue was far too subjective for me to justify the end result. I believe we have created a worse design; the street is now twice as wide to cross, the pavement is not marked clearly, dangerous right angle parking with increased driving speed.

    5. Peter,

      I started attending Streetscape Task Force meetings after the basic design was in place, so I can’t speak to how questions about traffic flow and parking were framed. It doesn’t strike me as all that difficult to re-stripe the parking areas to create angle parking, if, after a year or two or whatever cycle we would re-stripe anyway, it seems like angle would be better or safer. That wouldn’t address the large gulf of asphalt in the middle.

      Perhaps someone from the Taskforce could speak to the early thinking about the overall design.

    6. Randy: I get the idea of the government taxing people to serve the greater public good. I also get the idea of having a “special” fund like we have here to specifically target money towards a special project – the downtown. But, that isn’t a license to waste money. The Committee has a fiduciary obligation to all taxpayers to make sure that the money is better spent on these special projects than it would be spent on textbooks or other government expenditures.

      What I don’t get is the reluctance to establish a rational process to get the most bang for the buck. If the new parking lot is a good expenditure of money, then let’s sit down and put numbers to all of the various aspects of its worth.

      Our analysis of these public projects reminds me of the MasterCard commercials – round of golf $100, golf balls – $30, shirt – $50, the experience – priceless. MasterCard wants us to believe that no matter what we spent, it was worth it. Hey, no matter what we spend on the parking lot, no matter what the alternatives are, no matter what the economics are, we should do it because we are getting something that is priceless. BS, BS, BS.

      There are multiple ways to establish value to every project. The easiest, and best way, is the way suggested by Ross Currier. Let’s not spend any of the money until all of the project requests are in. At least then we can compare projects to each other for relative value.

      Regarding your question about respecting the result of an open and transparent process, I would submit that I am doing my part on the Committee. The Committee is not speaking with one voice, it is speaking with 12 different voices. Until we develop a process that we can all agree upon, all we are doing is voting. We aren’t doing the analysis or fact-finding for which we were appointed.

      The Committee has yet to address my request for a decision rubric, any rubric. Until it does so, all of our decisions are questionable advice to the City Council.

  2. David,
    This may surprise you, but I see a negative result with the current design than before. I propose the current design acts more like a parking lot and less like a complete street that is friendly to non-motorized transportation. I am not sure how this current configuration was approved but I consider it very puzzling, unsafe and worse than before. With out bring up the cost benefit issue, I first start from, is this design actually practical and an improvement than before? I like the river front treatment, it has aesthetic appeal and adds to the experience of the river (except for the trees that were cut down), but looses it appeal due to parking lot appearance of the street.

    This does not directly answer your question, but I am trying to explain my opinion as to justified cost versus benefit. Perhaps someone from the taskforce could explain why we have a parking lot on Water Street, a major entry and visual clue to downtown, rather than a complete street that provides visual clues for both motorized and non-motorized transportation choices.

  3. David,

    Your proposed evaluation matrix begins with a flawed premise. You seem to believe that a direct economic return is the primary goal of public investment. I thought that was the goal of the “free” market. Isn’t the primary goal of public investment to accomplish things for citizens that the market cannot or will not do on its own? If some of these public investments ENABLE economic activity – say, the interstate highway system, or rural electrification, or basic scientific research – that’s a good secondary benefit. But the primary objective is to improve citizen’s lives.

    Deciding what is an “improvement” is necessarily subjective; all we can ask of our decision-makers and their advisors is transparency about biases, as you have provided in your tireless effort to secure benefits for business owners. That I think you are completely mistaken does not detract from my respect for your honesty about it.

    Although I oppose using direct economic return as an evaluative criteria, your second point about comparing potential public investments to decide the priority in which we might make them makes sense.

    Your third point is misdirected. You never fully responded to Kiffi when she suggested that you raise this issue in the right forum – with the City Council – (just as you never answered my direct question about whether you feel any obligation to respect and support the decisions of the Taskforce, if they go against you).

    The place to raise your concern about the distribution of public funding across the spectrum of taxing authorities is at the point of levy, not when taxes have already been collected. The people who have some control over that is the City Council, not an advisory taskforce. You’re behaving a little like those “activist judges” we used to hear so much about: trying to change the rules from the bench, instead of respecting the laws Congress (or, in our case, the City Council) enacted.

  4. Randy: One point before we start. You keep referring to “investment” as if it were different from “expenditure”. Government spending is just that -spending. Whether it is a good investment or bad investment depends upon the value received. (I agree that the parking lot is an investment – really bad investment. Alternatively, it is an unwise expenditure.)

    The matrix is designed so that we can weigh the economic benefit and non-economic benefit. The premise is that an economic justification contributes to the value received. The project may still be justified on non-economic grounds if the value of the non-economic returns are great enough. (I want to separate out those arguments that say that the new parking lot is bringing people downtown to shop. Assuming that is true, how many and how much helps frame the economic justification.)

    I agree that the primary goal of public expenditures is to improve citizens’ lives. I haven’t factored into my rubric whether spending on one group of citizens is to be preferred over another. I would prefer that government spend money on the poor and the disenfrachised, not, as we are in this case, on the well-to-do and the politically astute.

    The task force needs to be prudent and transparent. Transparency is desirable because it generally ensures that prudence is used. But, prudence is the primary goal.

    Of course the process involves some subjectivity. However, the more that objectivity can replace subjectivity, the more likely it is that the decision is going to be prudent. As an example, we can compare the economic value of having a bike trail versus riding in the street. We now have a trail without this $240,000 connection. With the connection, are we really going to see economic activity increase? How much?

    Regarding Kiffi’s objection – I don’t know why this Committee should be blind to other societal uses for the money. It may be impractical to get money from bike paths to textbooks, but those barriers are political, not real. There is nothing stopping this Committee from using, as an objective test, whether it is better to spend $240,000 on textbooks or $240,000 on a bike trail. If the answer is that we prefer textbooks, then we should, as a Committee, state that there are a lot better uses for the money, but that is not our decision. We can tell the City Council that, within our limited scope, the best use of the money is X, and at the same time encourage the City Council to explore whether it has better uses for the money than as set forth.

    Regarding your question about whether or not I feel an obligation to respect and support the decisions of the Taskforce, the short answer is no. I feel an obligation to acknowledge the decision. (I don’t feel an oligation to respect and support the decision to invade Iraq. However, I do feel an obligation to ackowledge that my President made that decision, and that I have an obligation to do what I can to make the situation better.)

  5. David,

    I give up. No one but you and I seem to be very interested in this conversation any longer.

    You clearly want to make a point about tax policy more than you want to embrace the charge to the streetscape task force to spend ALREADY APPROPRIATED funds on the purposes to which they are restricted. I hope the rest of the taskforce continues to resist this view, and moves ahead to invest these funds in projects that will enhance downtown and encourage people to spend more time and money there.

    To your point about spending: investment IS different than spending, no matter what entity writes the check. Changing a light bulb or resurfacing a parking lot is mostly just spending — maintenance of the status quo. Developing a new capability (enhancing the riverfront, downtown beautification, connection to a regional bike trail network) are investments in qualities you obviously don’t value. They make Northfield a better place. You can continue to present your skepticism about such investments as more “objective” than others’ views, but your definition of economic value is merely easier to count, not any less subjective.

    I do find it somewhat disturbing that you feel no sense of obligation to support decision-making processes *in which you played a part*, unless you get your way. That seems more anarchistic than democratic. Your analogy to the war in Iraq is not applicable, unless you were one of the Bush administration minions who fed misinformation to Congress to sway the vote.

  6. Randy: I also hope that the Committee will move ahead and make wise investments in the downtown. I value expenditures on beautification and art. But, I don’t embrace it at any cost, or more specifically, at the costs that we have been presented.

    We have alternatives. We can connect the bike trail at less cost without losing much in functional or aesthetic value.

    Frankly, I don’t care whose objective measure we use; I just want us to be more diligent in looking at and for value. We haven’t made any real effort to do so. We have been voting on whatever has been presented to us.

    Further, if the decisions are so subjective that there is no good method to establish value, then common sense tells us to hold off until we can establish value. Prudence dictates that the government always know that the expenditure is justified; otherwise, individuals can always rationalize their pet projects (which is trap into which Congress has fallen). And, there must always be a measurement tool to determine if we have achieved our objective.

    The next step for me may be to simply get out of the way. My continued participation would imply that I supported the decisions. Rather than do that, I would prefer to present a Minority Report, as Ray Cox did on the Safety Center. Ultimately, my responsibility is not to the advisory committee but to the City Council, and the citizens of Northfield.

  7. David: I n your post above you say: “we have been voting on whatever is presented to us”…
    Have you considered that you may look at WHO is presenting to you, and then decide how important it is to ‘challenge’ that entity?

    You have often said, on various threads, IMO, that you think there is too much citizen input; but now you are arguing for the importance of ONE citizens input, yours… and you may be right … but I just don’t get the ‘all-over-the-map’ positioning.

    Is it only important for one citizen to object , vociferously, if that ‘one’ is you?

  8. Kiffi: It doesnt’ matter to me who is presenting; what matters is what they are presenting.

    Apparently, I haven’t made it clear that I am not advocating for or against a particular project. I am advocating for a clear policy on expenditures.

    This may all be moot. I resigned from the Committee this morning. I felt as if my prescence was just too disruptive for the rest of the Committee. While the Committee as a whole said that they didn’t want me to resign, I think they will function better without me. I offered my assistance in setting up a decision making process if they wanted help.

  9. David: One thing you forgot to mention was that we did want you to stay on board and help Joel in developing that process a little bit more. We think it is very important to have a solid decision making process in place.

    As you said, the committee did not want you to resign, because even though we did not agree on somethings your opinion was greatly appreciated and it will be missed.

  10. Now that the Ames Park location has been withdrawn from consideration, isn’t it just a bit disingenuous to continue to bandy about a $600,000 price tag for the Skate Park?

  11. David: I think it is a real shame that you resigned. I truly mean that.

    Obviously I disagree with many of your details, but I think if you feel you are trying to bring a more responsible process, and there is no way for that to become part of the discussion, then I think it only points up the “don’t make waves” factor that can be so prevalent. Your position should have been discussed, evaluated and then implemented or not; but it should have been considered.

    This is exactly why so many people won’t even try to participate; There’s a reason why most committees are made up of the ‘usual suspects’ .

  12. Kiffi: The Committee was more than patient with me. Presently, my philosophy is so far apart from what they are doing, that my presence is merely disruptive, not constructive.

    I have pled my case at the Committee, and on this post. There doesn’t seem to be much support for my position that the parking lot, skateboard park, and bike trail are a waste of money. Other than the short time that I was at the Committee yesterday, there doesn’t seem to be much support for a rubric.

    1. David,

      It may be true that there doesn’t seem to be much support for *your* rubric, but you’ve done a valuable service in forcing the issue of how the taskforce analyzes the projects before it. If Hayes’ comment is indicative of the thinking of the taskforce, there seems to be genuine interest in developing a more rigorous decision-making process.

      I will be very surprised if the gap between your priorities (for analytical process, not necessarily specific projects) and the decisions of the taskforce isn’t somewhat narrower than it has been in the past. Even if that movement isn’t enough to fully satisfy you, I hope you can see such compromise as a good thing for the community.

    2. David,

      I really don’t know a lot about the Taskforce and it’s duties, but in reading through this thread it seems to me the duties being excercised by the Taskforce are the “where” and “when” to spend this money. I appreciate you at least tried to bring the “why” to the table with some rationale and perspective (comparing it to the lack of text books for example).

      I feel things like skateparks and bike trails are good things for the city, but I also feel like these are “luxury items” that should be developed in good times for the city…thriving and expanding business times. We aren’t in such a time as businesses are trying to maintain revenue and keep employment steady and so it seems wasteful to build “luxury items” and instead the city should be focused on how to expand the tax base and not where to build a skatepark…but, that’s just my opinion.

      In any case, I appreciate the role you played on the Taskforce and understand your stance on resigning.

    3. Randy: I’m not sure why there was/is an apparent turnaround on the Task Force for a more analytical process. After I sent out the rubric to task force members and posted it here, I did not get one positive comment before our meeting.

      Because of the lack of support, I didn’t want to clog up the process. If there is a genuine interest in changing the “when” and “where” to the “why” (see Matt’s comments below), then I might consider joining back in.

    4. David,

      Maybe others on the taskforce, and others in the general public, understand the value of having greater clarity in the analysis of projects — especially the opportunity to weigh all of the potentially eligible projects — without necessarily agreeing with the values embedded in your rubric. That may be one reason you received no positive comments before the meeting.

      I’m afraid that the answer to the “why” question is one you still won’t like: it is built into both the restrictions placed on the tax funds, and the explicit charge from the City Council to the taskforce. The purpose of the TIF district is, as enumerated in one of the posts above, to improve downtown and make it a more desireable place to be. That requires investments (yes!) in things you’ve argued against. So, even though you’ve helped clarify the need for and utility of more rigor in decision-making (good on you for that), you haven’t changed the duty of the taskforce to follow the rules governing the use of these restricted TIF funds.

  13. Matt:
    I completely agree with you that the city should be focusing on expanding the tax base in these hard times.

    However, the money that is being used for the Streetscape improvements are being paid through a special TIFF district set up by the city back in the early 1990’s and the money can only be spent on Streetscape improvements in the TIFF district. And just a point of clarification, the task force to the best of knowledge cannot spend money on a skate park.

  14. David:
    I don’t know why you are saying there was not much support for the rubric. Everyone that was at the meeting yesterday, said that what you have laid out makes sense and we are going to continue to work on refining the process.

  15. Gee David –

    I was hoping to stay out of this one after discussing your philosophy on our show. Now you’ve gone and resigned?

    I agree with others that it’s too bad that you resigned. I also think the process of pursuing the elusive “rubric” should be handled by the Task Force. It seemed like progress was being made, but I wasn’t there.

    I’ll throw my suggestion on the table: three categories of evaluation, Economic Impact, Environmental Impact, and Aesthetic Impact, with each Task Force Member ranking the projects by categories with one to four stars.

    Personally, I don’t think getting too complicated makes much sense. Ultimately, it’s going to be an admittedly subjective ranking by the Task Force members. Agreeing on what categories are of most significance is important and producing a transparent record of how the projects were scored is important, at least in my opinion.

    I think that you are ethically, fiscally and politically correct in saying that if we don’t have deserving projects, we should turn the money back. However, $1.3 million doesn’t go very far with these types of projects and I bet we’ve got $5.2 million worth of projects worth considering.

    On this next point, I think you and I most strongly agree. All of the potential projects should be listed and their costs estimated. Once this information is on the table, THEN the Task Force should rate the individual projects.

    It seems that these projects often cost between $250,000 and $500,000. The $1.3 isn’t going to go very far. On another point that you and I seem to agree, if we have “Chevy, Buick, and Cadillac” options for each project, the Task Force might choose to do 8 projects instead of 4 projects, in an effort to take a more comprehensive approach to downtown vitality.

    David, you and I were at another meeting at City Hall a week or two ago. We all agreed that it wasn’t enough to make recommendations, that it wasn’t even enough to see implementations, that it was necessary to continue monitoring the situation to assure that the commitment to change was on-going.

    I hope you’ll return to the Task Force and give it another try. One piece of advice, Hayes is way easier to deal with after you’ve fed him a doughnut.

    Thanks much,


  16. Here’s another real-world example:

    Highland Bank requested $100,000 from the City to help create the park/river walk adjacent to The Crossing. The Council denied the request on Monday.

    Assuming the beautification benefits are the same, one could argue that the near-term economic benefits to the city/taxpayers from doing that would far surpass the near-term economic benefits to the city/taxpayers from the $250,000 for the MTT/riverwalk extension through Riverside Park.

    How did the Council make their decision? Might David’s rubric been put to use in this instance?

    See today’s Nfld News: Cash for Crossing isn’t the best way to help

    Last week’s Nfld News: City could extend Riverwalk to the north

  17. Griff,
    I don’t see much equivalency here. The MTT trail extension will connect downtown to the several-mile-long Mill Town Trail.

    An extension of the riverfront path behind The Crossing will go nowhere except The Crossing. I’ve walked (scrambled really) along the west bank of the river, and I can assure you that it was not the kind of graceful or pleasant stroll that many people will avail themselves of.

  18. Griff: Patrick is correct, and if you listen to the Council meeting, Don Mc Gee first commented at the Open Mic that neither end of the extension of the Riverwalk/ trail at the Crossing site would have good connections at either end… i.e. the difficulty of crossing St. Olaf at the northern end, and the grade level difference at the 2nd street, southern end.
    A waste of 100K at this time, for the evaluated result. (take notice, David L. )

  19. So, David … After all your concerns about expenditures of public dollars for amenities, you left the council meeting without speaking on the first regular agenda item last night, which was to approve the contracts for the extension of the MTT behind River Park mall and connecting to Fifth Street at the Bridge.

    There was not a single word of discussion on the approval of 530 feet of trail, for the cost of $271,600, which comes to about $512.50 a foot.

    I would have thought you would have commented on this…

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