Will Obamacare Bail Out Cities?

When Rahm Emanuel was Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff, little did he know he’d be helping craft a law that would help him as the future Mayor of Chicago. Many American cities failed to put away enough money for current and former government workers.  Rahm Emanuel and powerful Democratic Party interest groups would like the federal government to bailout their pensioners. While the unions are less shy about looting federal taxpayers, Emanuel is working hard getting federal help.

Emanuel needs to cut costs immediately to prevent more downgrades from the bond rating agencies.  One of Emanuel’s creative financial techniques involves the use of Obamacare as way of pushing some financial costs from the city of Chicago budget onto the federal government.  Many retired workers don’t like or want Obamacare.  The Chicago Sun Times reports :

Chicago’s 30,000 retired city employees are trying to stop Mayor Rahm Emanuel from saving $108.7 million — by phasing out the city’s 55 percent subsidy for retiree health care and foisting Obamacare on them.

One week after an unprecedented, triple-drop in Chicago’s bond rating, retirees have filed a class-action lawsuit against the city and its four employee pension funds that threatens to make the financial crisis even worse.

The suit argues that the Illinois Constitution guarantees that municipal pension membership benefits are an “enforceable contractual relationship which may not be diminished or impaired.”

Chicago’s retired workers aren’t the only individuals unhappy with Obamacare.  IRS workers don't want Obamacare but likely will find they can’t keep their current health insurance.  All of this is providing massive strains on the Blue Model coalition of government workers and the Democratic Party.  In Chicago, at least retired government workers can know who to blame for their change in health insurance if they lose their lawsuit. Mayor Rahm Emanuel not only was instrumental in getting Obamacare passed but now he’s dumping Obamacare on thousands of workers as Chicago’s Chief Executive.

Portland’s Transit Halcyon Days?

For more than a quarter century, the leaders in the Oregon portion of the Portland metropolitan area have sought to transfer demand for urban travel from automobiles to transit. Six rail lines have been built, five of which are light rail and bus service has been expanded. If their vision were legitimate, transit’s market share should have risen substantially and automobile travel should have declined. Neither happened.

The results have been modest, to say the least. Since 1980, before the first rail line was opened, transit’s share of work trip travel in the metropolitan area has declined by one-quarter, from 8.4 percent to 6.3 percent. Overall, the share of travel by car remains about the same as before the first light rail line opened (based upon data from the Texas Transportation Institute and the Federal Transit Administration).

Transit access to destinations outside downtown Portland remains scant. Despite the huge expenditures on transit, only 8 percent of the jobs in the metropolitan area can be reached by the average employee in 45 minutes, despite the fact that nearly 85 percent of workers are within walking distance of the transit stops or stations. Portland’s transit access is better than the national major metropolitan average of six percent. But Portland trails a number of other metropolitan areas and is well behind the best, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which has a transit access figure of only 14 percent. This makes a mockery of the “transit access” measure used by many planning agencies. Being close to a transit stop or station is of little help if service to the desired destination is not available or takes too much time.

According to the latest American Community Survey data, the average work trip by people driving alone in Portland is 23.6 minutes, while the average transit commute trip is 43.8 minutes.

Further, Portland transit users could face draconian service reductions. Tri-Met, which operates light rail and most Oregon services, has warned that it may be required eventually to cut 70 percent of its service. This results from the failure to control labor costs, particularly pension costs, which is detailed in an Oregonian article. John Charles, president of the Cascade Policy Institute found that $1.63 all the benefits were being paid out for every dollar of wages, a claim confirmed by PolitiFact. The concern extends to the state capital, where the legislature has overwhelmingly approved a bill requiring an audit of Tri-Met by the Secretary of State.

Tri-Met continues to expand light rail, but with some “pushback.” An under-construction line to Milwaukie evoked such controversy in Clackamas County, that voters elected an anti-light rail majority to the county commission. Voters have banned light rail expenditures without a public vote in the suburban municipalities of Tigard and King City. Clark County (Washington), voters rejected funding for a light rail connection to the Portland system. This opposition was at the heart of defunding a replacement Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River. The project recently closed after spending $175 million (see Project Closing Notice).

With the investment and expansions, these should have been the halcyon days of transit in Portland. The future could be even more challenging.

Detroit Bankruptcy: Missing the Point

Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman tells us that “sprawl killed Detroit” in his The New York Times column.

The evidence is characterized as “job sprawl” – that a smaller share of metropolitan area jobs are located within 10 miles of downtown Detroit than in the same radius from downtown Pittsburgh (see Note on Decentralization and “Job Sprawl”). It is suggested that this kept the city of Pittsburgh out of bankruptcy.

Not so. The subject is not urban form; it is rather financial management that was not up to par. State intervention may have been the only thing that saved the city of Pittsburgh from sharing Detroit’s fate.

Detroit and Pittsburgh: Birds of a Financial Feather

The city of Pittsburgh had been teetering on bankruptcy for some time. In 2004, the city’s financial affairs were placed under Act 47 administration (the Financially Distressed Municipalities Act“) by the state of Pennsylvania. One of Act 47's purposes is to assist municipalities in avoiding bankruptcy. A 2004 state ordered recovery plan summarized the situation:

The City of Pittsburgh, already in fiscal distress, now stands on the precipice of full-blown crisis. In August 2003, the City laid off 446 employees, including nearly 100 police officers. City recreation centers and public swimming pools were closed, and services from police mounted patrol to salt boxes were eliminated. In October and November 2003, the City’s credit ratings were downgraded repeatedly, leaving Pittsburgh as the nation’s only major city to hold below-investment-grade “junk bond” ratings. With the City’s most recent independent audit questioning the City’s ability to continue as a going concern, a looming cash shortfall now threatens pension payments and payroll later this year. (emphasis added)

The good news is that Act 47 has worked so well that the city could soon be released from state control. It may have helped that all of this was overseen by former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, whose tough administration saved another abysmally-managed municipality when he was mayor of Philadelphia more than a decade before.

Not everyone, however, is willing to grant that Pittsburgh has solved all its problems. Democratic candidate for mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, recently urged Harrisburg to not release the city from Act 47 control. According to Peduto, “the city is not out of the financial woods,” and “we're still in the middle of it, and in fact we have an opportunity in the next five years to build a sustainable budget for at least a decade.” Given the strong Democratic majority in the city, Peduto will probably be the next mayor.

The Key: Strong Management

In Detroit’s case, the state dithered for years, jumping in only when it was too late. Maybe the “tough love” of a Michigan-style Act 47 could have saved Detroit.

Meanwhile, best of luck to the Detroit bankruptcy court and Pittsburgh’s next mayor. Both were dealt a bad hand by predecessors who said yes to spending interests too often, to the detriment of residents and taxpayers.


Note on Decentralization and “Job Sprawl”

The dispersed American metropolitan area has performed better than its mono-centric (downtown oriented) urban form of the past. American metropolitan areas are the most affluent in the world, and they are also the most decentralized. Decentralization of employment facilitates mobility, as economists Peter Gordon and Harry W. Richardson found 15 years ago. Work trip travel times are shorter and traffic congestion is less intense in US metropolitan areas than in similar sized metropolitan areas in Western Europe, Japan, Canada and Australia. At the same time, metropolitan areas around the world are themselves becoming more decentralized. The bottom line is that better mobility facilitates greater economic growth, which also reduces poverty.

Comparing the “job sprawl” of Detroit and Pittsburgh not only misses the point; it also glosses over differences that render any comparison virtually meaningless.

Detroit is Larger: The Detroit metropolitan area has nearly 60 percent more jobs than the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. Other things being equal, this would mean that Detroit would cover more area than Pittsburgh. As a result, even if the employment densities were equal, a smaller percentage of the jobs would be within 10 miles of downtown Detroit and within 10 miles of downtown Pittsburgh.

Nearly Half of Detroit’s 10 Mile Radius is in Canada and a Lake:But other things are not equal. Approximately 40 percent of the area within 10 miles of downtown Detroit is in Canada or in Lake St. Clair. Canadian jobs are appropriately excluded from the Detroit “job sprawl” numbers developed by the Brookings Institution (Figure), and no 10 mile radius comparison can thus be made to Pittsburgh.  None of the 10 mile radius from downtown Pittsburgh is in Canada and none of it is in a large lake.

See Also: Peter Gordon’s Blog: Detroit

The Diminishing Returns of Large Cities: Population Growth Myths

One of the big myths of the twentieth century is that large American cities are necessary and inevitable. Yet in reality growth has been dispersing to suburbs and smaller cities for the last two decades. As the decline of Detroit, once the country’s fourth largest city, reveals in all too harsh terms, being bigger is not always better.

Yet the big city myth remains virtually unchallenged. A biased print media and a subsidized academic cartel are constantly singing the praises of big city life (as opposed to suburban or rural life). While American cities exhibited strong population growth in the early part of the twentieth century, recent Census numbers show America’s mega cities are growing below the national growth rate. According to the 2010 Census, San Antonio was the only city with a population of over 1 million people that grew above the national growth rate of 9.7%.   

Years ago, scholar Milton Kotler wrote an important but much forgotten book on local government. Kotler showed what was behind the amazing growth numbers of the some big cities:

Statistics show New York's population increase from 1890-1900 to have been 2,096,370. This seems amazing, except that most of the increase came about with the annexation of Brooklyn, population 1,166,582. In short, its population grew at a rate far less than the increase by annexation.

Municipalities are creations of the state legislature. In many cities, the boundaries changed to expand the power of cities along with their political class and related business rent-seekers. While some would argue about New York city’s population numbers, which has recovered from their lows, few would question Detroit’s long-term decline. As Detroit takes center stage line, the entire municipal bond market is about to take notice. Much is at stake here.

Not only the economic foundation of a large American city but the concept that a creditor will get back its principal back.  The Detroit Free Press explains:

Borrowing for Michigan cities could get more expensive in the future, if Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr’s restructuring plan is accepted by creditors and Chapter 9 bankruptcy is avoided, some bond experts caution.

That’s because Orr’s plan would set a major precedent by treating all unsecured debt the same way — instead of giving a better payout or greater deference to general obligation bonds, sold for generations as safer investments backed by a city’s taxing authority.

In Detroit, both the lack of checks and balances, and the maintenance of an engaged, informed public undermined the city’s fiscal health. Many Detroit citizens voted with their feet by exiting the corrupt system. With the middle class of all races deserting, the city of Detroit was ripe for looting of the taxpayers.

In conclusion, it’s time for the informed public to realize many of our big cities are expensive, corrupt, and not redeemable. The Michigan Legislature should cut Detroit down to size. Perhaps they should consider de-annexation. It’s better to have Detroit become ten smaller municipalities. Of course there would be major political resistance for those who have made big money from Detroit’s decline. But without de-annexation, Detroit seems likely to remain on the brink of insolvency for a long-term since its political boundaries are too large for responsive governance and the crafting of unique solutions to its problems.

Suicide: Sprawl Not Guilty

Atlantic Cities reports on research indicating an association between suicide and lower density, in an article entitled “The Unsettling Link Between Sprawl and Suicide.” Actually, there’s no reason to be unsettled, at least with respect to urban areas and their densities. The conclusions apply to rural areas, not urban areas.

Above the 300 persons per square kilometer, or 780 persons per square mile, the authors found no association. The authors of the study note, “above this threshold … the suicide rate remains fairly constant."

The US Census Bureau standard for urbanization is 1000 people per square mile or more, which is similar to the international standard of 400 persons per square kilometer. Even the suburbs of extremely low-density Atlanta and Charlotte have to reach the 1,000 persons per square mile threshold to be in the urban areas.

This research, while interesting, has nothing whatever to do with the urban form.

Moving from Travis County (Austin) to Williamson County

In an article entitled, “The People Moving to Austin and ‘Ruining It’ are from Texas,” the Austinist notes that more people are moving to Austin from neighboring Williamson County than from Los Angeles County.

The article has the potential to mislead in two ways.

The lesser of the problems is that it confuses Austin with Travis County. The cited data is for Travis County, not the city of Austin. The source of the data, the American Community Survey does not report on municipal migration. (Austin is most of Travis County’s population, but itself has sections in Williamson and Hayes counties).

The bigger problem is that the article tells only half the story. Yes, 10,500 people moved from Williamson to Travis over the 2006-2010 period, but 14,200 moved from Travis to Williamson. Thus, there was a net outflow of 3,700 people from Travis to Williamson. Meanwhile, there was a net gain of residents in Travis County from Los Angeles County of approximately 800.

Thus, while there is net migration from Los Angeles County to Travis County, the net migration from Travis County to Williamson County is 4.5 times as large.

London Mayor: High Speed Rail Cost £70 Billion Plus?

In a Daily Telegraph commentary, London Mayor Boris Johnson expects the proposed high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham (HS2) to cost £70 billion (approximately $105 billion). This is two thirds more than the most recent estimate of £42 billion (approximately $63 billion), which includes a recent increase in costs from £32 billion (approximately $48 billion) for the 140 mile long first segment. Johnson wrote:

“This thing isn’t going to cost £42 billion, my friends. The real cost is going to be way north of that (keep going till you reach £70 billion, and then keep going). 

He concludes:

“So there is one really critical question, and that is why on earth do these schemes cost so much?”

A possible answer comes from Oxford University, 60 miles from London. Oxford professor Bent Flyvbjerg, along with Nils Bruzelius (a Swedish transport consultant) and Werner Rottenberg (University of Karlsruhe and former president of the World Conference on Transport Research) reviewed 80 years of infrastructure projects found and low-balling of cost estimates routine (Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition). They characterize the process as "strategic misrepresentation," which they shorten to "lying," in unusually frank language.

It is not just the apparent dishonesty of the process --- it is that unreasonably low cost estimates entice governments into approving projects that have been marketed on false pretences. Once committed to such a project, public officials, find it nearly impossible to “jump off the train,” as it were. The loss of face could well be followed by a loss at the next election. Flyvbjerg, et al characterize “strategic misrepresentation” as “lying.”

There could be other difficulties. The government claims that trains will peak at 225 miles per hour (360 kilometers per hour), considerably higher than the 199 mile per hour (320 kilometer per hour) maximum speed. High speed rail in China, Spain, France and Korea also promised faster operation, but not delivered. Safety may be a reason, as suggested in a Wall Street Journal article:

“An executive at a non-Chinese high-speed train manufacturer said running trains above speeds of 330 kilometers an hour poses safety concerns and higher costs. At that speed threshold, wheels slip so much that you need bigger motors and significantly more electricity to operate. There is also so much wear on the tracks that costs for daily inspections, maintenance and repairs go up sharply. That's why in Europe, Japan and Korea no operators run trains above 320 kilometers an hour, the executive said…”

HS2 seems to be on track to follow California in its unprecedented high speed rail cost escalation. The last cost estimate for the 400 mile plus high-speed line from Los Angeles to San Francisco was three times the cost (inflation adjusted) projected in 1999 (midpoint, see the Reason Foundation’s California High Speed Rail: An Updated Due Diligence Report, by Joseph Vranich and Wendell Cox). Public outcry over the escalating costs forced approval of an alternative “blended” system that would use conventional tracks and non-high speed rail speeds at the northern and southern ends. Even so, the scaled back version is estimated to cost $60 billion, inflation adjusted (£40 billion), 150 percent more than the 1999 projection for a genuine high speed rail line.

Mayor Johnson may be optimistic in his £70 billion prediction. Procurement expert Stephen Ashcroft, of Brian Farringdon, Ltd. says: “We confidently predict that the final project outturn actual cost will exceed £80 billion” (emphasis in original). There is, of course risk in such projections. Joseph Vranich and I found that out when our maximum cost escalation prediction in The California High Speed Rail Project: A Due Diligence Report, (2008) turned out to be way low. It was exceeded by more than one-half and in just four years.

Also see: The High Speed Rail Battle of Britain

Little Housing Boom on the Prairie

The great North Dakota boom, driven by oil development and strong agricultural markets, has continued to put the state at the top of economic growth rankings. The state can now add "housing growth" to the list.

As the region's oil industry expands and matures, the market for more permanent housing solutions has heated up. According to recently released Census data, North Dakota led the nation in housing growth in 2012, increasing its supply of housing by 2.3% in just one year. Overall national growth was 0.3%.

While much of this growth has been focused on the oil patch, the entire state has seen strong economic growth, job creation, and accompanying strength in the housing market. Cities located hours outside the oilfield are reporting shortages of housing and tight markets for existing housing. Shortages of housing have also been reported in small towns throughout the state, as job-seekers move to the region looking to find work in the state's growing oil and ag industries. A review of the new Census data bears out such reports. North Dakota is home to 8 of the top 100 counties nationwide for housing growth, including 4 of the top 10. Williams and McKenzie County, in the heart of the Bakken development, placed number one and two nationally, respectively, but counties far outside the oil patch also showed strong rates of growth.

The new shift towards more permanent housing construction will probably come as a relief to communities and officials throughout the state, who have been scrambling to find solutions to shortages. While temporary housing for oil workers has boomed throughout the oilfield, local officials have begun to explore limits on such "man camps", citing their negative effects on local communities, impact on permanent development, strain on infrastructure, and safety concerns. The state has also seen rising rates of homelessness, and faced challenges finding enough workers to fill job openings- often due to lack of places for those interested in moving to the region to work. As estimates of the amount of recoverable oil in the Bakken continue to climb, larger, out of state developers have begun to enter the region, looking to take advantage of what may be a longer, more sustained expansion. With 21,000 job openings currently unfilled statewide and the potential for tens of thousands of wells remaining to be drilled over the next three decades, the pressure for more housing growth to meet the needs of expanding businesses is likely to continue.

New York and California: The Need for a “Great Reset”

Despite panning Texas Governor Rick Perry’s initiative to draw businesses from New York, Slate’s business and economics correspondent, Matt Yglesias offers sobering thoughts to growth starved states along on the West Coast and in the Northeast.

“…the Texas gestalt is growth-friendly because, quite literally, it welcomes growth while coastal cities have become exceptionally small-c conservative and change averse. But if New York and New Jersey and California and Maryland and Massachusetts don't want to allow the construction of lots of housing units, then it won't matter that Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Palo Alto, Calif.; and Somerville, Mass.; are great places to live—people are going to live in Texas, where there are also great places to live, great places that actually welcome new residents and new building.”

The entire country would benefit if states like California, New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey were to enact policies to compete with Texas, as Yglesias suggests.

Reforming Higher Education

For years, some justified high pay for college educated professionals because they served as a data base for certain types of knowledge – medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, law, accounting or any number of other disciplines taught at the college level. But with the advances in information technology and robotics, those salaries might not be justified in the near future. Information technology is currently forcing downsizing in the law sector, as fewer lawyers are needed to research cases or produce wills, trusts and divorce decrees. And robots will eventually do the jobs of dentists and surgeons and pharmacists.

But technology encroaching on the jobs of college educated professionals doesn’t mean an end to the relevance of institutions of higher learning. Our country’s technology hubs are based around universities, as they provide the necessary research and development for the formation of such companies. However, it must be added that military research and procurement also play a role in our technology sector. In addition, academics in the humanities produce knowledge that enhances our communities, cities and country.

We must also look at the burden that student loan debt on our economy, as the more young people owe on student loans the less they spend on the consumer economy. Cities and suburban municipalities could and should charter universities for city residents, and a university education should be free to all residents. This would help combat the problem.

Reform could help our country build on its past. Doctors, lawyers and college professors didn’t always spend years in school to learn their trade. A Midwestern lawyer named Abraham Lincoln studied for the bar on his own before becoming a successful railroad lawyer and President of the United States. And in the late 1800s, the country was dotted with medical schools that would train doctors. In fact, there were more medical students back then than today, and this put the downward pressure on prices for the consumer.