Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page

Mayor’s proposal stimulates thought (Jan 2009)

[This post originally ran in the January 16th 2009 issue of the Badger Herald. Due to an error at the BH, this version is slightly different than what appeared in print.]

As the economic stimulus package evolves in Washington, the U.S. Conference of Mayors is doing its part by putting together a “Ready To Go” list of jobs and infrastructure projects for cities across the country, including 64 in Madison. Obviously, not all of Madison’s $243 million worth of requests can or even should be implemented immediately. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and his staff had three priorities for choosing projects to submit: a “fix it first” mentality, a desire to create green jobs, and finally to “make ambitious projects a reality”, but these goals don’t provide enough guidance for selecting projects. Too many of the proposals are on the list only because they’re ideas that need money. Any project that we advance must additionally unlock significant long-term value.

When we evaluate the list of projects, it is important to think about where the money is coming from. Any of these projects would be funded with borrowed money. If we start on projects now, the federal government will borrow the money for us, along with all the money for projects around the rest of the country, and the entire country will pay it back over time. Alternatively, we can wait until we had originally planned to do the projects, and the city will borrow the money and Madisonians alone will pay the money back using local property taxes. The stimulus is not free money, and everything we take on early means a heavier burden to pay back as the economy improves. We must also be sure that we were already absolutely committed any project that we accelerate. There are enough “shovel-ready” projects in Madison that create new value and are fully planned that can provide a boost to stabilize the economy without feeling like we are only throwing money at them.

The perfect example of a worthy project is the proposed “Central Park” on the near east side. The city plans to transform the East Washington Avenue corridor from the current wasteland of used car lots and shuttered industrial buildings to a vibrant, grand new entrance befitting the capital city. The designs for the park are essentially done. The UW Research Park has opened a new “Innovation Center” right on the boundary of the future park to jumpstart the process. In a few years, when the economy has returned, having a new jewel of a park will catalyze the most important redevelopment effort the city has ever undertaken.

Building new train stations to enable passenger rail service and easily connect to Milwaukee and Chicago as well as the new BioAg Commercialization facility on the far southeast side will spur economic development and should be also accelerated. On the energy efficiency front, the mayor has called for investments in city buildings and a loan program to help improve local homes. The mayor is also right in working to expand the use of solar energy for water heating.

One idea missing from the list is property acquisition. Now is the perfect time for the city, state, and university to look ahead and buy parcels they may need in the future. Property values and rates on government bonds are low, so taxpayers get a good deal. Government acquisitions help prop up the market, and the liquidity the purchases create will be available for investment in other projects. Finally, if plans change, the government can sell the properties and get most of the taxpayers’ money back.

Some of the projects on this list are not worthy of acceleration. A new downtown public library or east side arts incubator are both appealing projects, but neither will significantly create new jobs after their construction. Both projects are also in areas that are already well-developed, so they’re not going to do much for the surrounding neighborhoods.  The city is also still debating how or even if we should build a new central library.

Rebuilding the Elizabeth Link Peace Park on State Street (the open space next to the Subway and Chocolate Shoppe near the Capitol, if you didn’t know it had a name) for $1,000,000 has little potential for increasing anything’s long-term value.  It is also unlikely that the residents of Forest Hill Cemetery are going to return to the workforce anytime soon, so now is not the time to invest in a 1.3 million dollar upgrade of the cemetery’s irrigation systems. Most of the rest of the projects fall somewhere in the middle, and you can read the full list on the web version of this article.

We don’t know how projects from the Mayors’ list might eventually be included in the stimulus. The economy is still likely to be slow when the 2010 city budget is developed. As a city, we will have to prioritize and select which projects we move forward with, either locally or through the stimulus, and that will require a full discussion. The mayor’s list is a good starting point, and he should now seize the opportunity to lead and champion the projects that are truly valuable for Madison in both the short and long term.